EDMONTON — The legacy of the 1998 Nagano Olympics is starting to pay off for curling in Japan.
Not since those Games has the Japanese men's team curled in the Olympics. But nearly 20 years later, with a strong finish at the World Men's Curling Championship, Japan will qualify and be back curling in the Olympics.
And there are all sorts of connections to that team present this week in Edmonton.
Japan's skip at the '98 Olympics, Makoto Tsuruga, is working all of Japan's games for NHK. It's the first time the state broadcaster is showing the men's world curling championship.
"It's an honour to be here to commentate these games. This is important to me," Tsuruga said.
Tsuruga was just 20 years old when he skipped the Japanese team in front of a home crowd at the Olympics in 1998. He only started playing the game six years before that. And if all of that wasn't difficult enough, Tsuruga's first taste of international competition at the senior level (he played in the '97 world juniors) came against Canada.
"We lost but it was a good game and a dream to play them," he said. "We had no experience. Not easy."
Canada's team, skipped by Mike Harris, beat Japan 7-4 in the opening draw. Tsuruga finished the Olympics with a 3-4 record.
Watching it all from the front row of the arena in Karuizawa were two young brothers, Yusuke and Kosuke Morozumi. As fate would have it, that introduction to the game has propelled the two onto Japan's men's curling team.
Yusuke is the skip. Kosuke is the lead. And it was Tsuruga who inspired them to play.
"We have played together and played against each other over the years. It was such a moment," Tsuruga said. "We talk a lot about curling."
For the past eight years NHK has been covering women's curling, a much more successful and popular segment of the game in Japan. It has a lot to with how competitive the country's women's program has been, including making it to every Olympics since 1998.
But now a crew of 17 people — including production staff, reporters and commentators — are in Edmonton covering every Japanese men's curling shot.
"Ten years ago curling was very minor," Sawako Muramatsu said. "But now many people can curl because new arenas are being built in Japan for curling."
Muramatsu is one of the lead producers of curling for NHK. She's led the broadcast plan for eight years.
"Curling is very important for NHK. We broadcast all curling games live now," she said.
NHK broadcasted the men's national championship across Japan recently and averaged about one million viewers per game. Now, with the team closing in on an Olympic berth, Muramatsu says more and more people are watching the games back home.
"Men's curling is very powerful and speedy and we want to show that to our viewers."
About 20 reporters from Japan representing different publications have also traveled to Edmonton to cover the team at the world championship.
Junko Nagai is a sports writer for Japan's largest newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun, with a circulation of about 10 million people per day. Nagai first saw curling at the '98 Olympics in Nagano when she was covering speed skating and has now covered four previous women's curling events in the country.
This is the first time Nagai is covering a men's championship.
"If they qualify for the Olympics it will be the top story. It will be front page. It's very big news in Japan," Nagai said.
She has two deadlines a day because of the time change — one file in the morning and a day recap at night. People can't get enough of it right now in Japan. Neither can the journalists in Edmonton covering it all.
"We are talking about their games," said Nagai. "The possibility to win. How did they play? What are they thinking? We are discussing the game."
Nagai says the reporters and the team believe they can win enough games in Edmonton to qualify the country for the Olympics.
Either way, Japan is watching.