National Teams Nickname Their Way to Fame


Smile Japan.” No, it’s not the latest slogan by the Japan National Tourism Organization or the successor to the “Cool Japan” campaign; nor is it the arrow of last resort in the Abenomics quiver (as in: “Get happy and buy stuff, folks!”).

“Smile Japan,” it turns out, is the nickname of the Japan’s women’s hockey team that competed at the Winter Olympics at Sochi. The name apparently fits, at least according to the team’s assistant coach, Carla MacLeod, who described the team as the “smiley-est group I’ve ever known.”

MacLeod, a former Canadian hockey player and two-time gold medalist, says that the nickname emerged from a fun-filled snowball fight between team members that she encouraged to ease tension before the qualifying match against Slovakia. “The smiles you have on your faces, that’s how I want you to play,” MacLeod recalled telling the members at the time.

Smile Japan ended up losing all three of its matches at Sochi. Ordinarily this would be fodder for headlines like “Not Much to Smile About,” but just qualifying for the Olympics was a huge step forward for the team.

The hockey women are far from being the only Japanese national team to sport a nickname. In fact, Japan seems almost as fond of coining team nicknames as New Zealand—the country that brought us not only the legendary “All Blacks” rugby team but also such punstrosities as the “Tall Blacks” (men’s basketball), the “Black Sticks” (men’s field hockey), and a short-lived nickname for the men’s badminton team you’ll have to click to find out more about.

In Japan’s case, perhaps the most successful moniker up to now has been “Nadeshiko Japan,” the nickname for the women’s soccer team that won the 2011 World Cup. The Japanese word nadeshiko is a variety of the Dianthus flower, but it also has the connotation of feminine beauty. The Japanese Football Association chose the nickname in 2004 based on a contest that drew roughly 2,700 entries.

Nicknaming Japan’s national teams is not a recent phenomenon. Back in 1972, at the Sapporo Winter Olympics, Japan’s ski-jumping team was given the rather forbidding name, Hinomaru hikōtai, or the “Rising Sun Squadron.”

The typical approach to nicknaming a national team has simply been to attach the name of the coach. So the men’s soccer team, for instance, has been known as “Troussier Japan,” “Zico Japan,” and now “Zacc Japan” (shortening the name of head coach Alberto Zaccheroni). On top of these homages to the man in charge, the men’s national soccer team is also commonly referred to as “Samurai Blue.”

The word “samurai” shows up in the nicknames of many of the men’s teams: the men’s field hockey team is “Samurai Japan,” the futsal team is “Samurai 5,” and the rugby league team is called the “Samurais.”

For the women’s teams, a similar fallback option is to use some variation of sakura (cherry blossom). And so the field hockey team is “Sakura Japan” and the rugby team is called the “Sakura 15.”

But there are also quite a few nicknames out there that are a bit more original or entertaining. The rough-and-tumble rugby union team has the rather cute nickname “Brave Blossoms” (and used to be called the “Cherry Blossoms”).

The Winners.
Sakura Japan members, complete with cherry blossoms on their uniforms, celebrate an August 2012 win over China. (Photo by Kim Holloway.)

The Japanese men’s soccer team competing at the Homeless World Cup, as a play on the samurai theme, has been called “Nobushi Japan,” the word meaning “wandering samurai.”

“Mermaid Japan” is the nickname of the synchronized swimming team, and the rhythmic gymnastics team is called “Fairy Japan Pola,” in a hat tip to the team’s sponsor.

The women’s softball team, similarly, was once nicknamed “Team Energen” after a major product of its sponsor. But more recently someone, perhaps (too) inspired by the popularity of Nadeshiko, has seen fit to christen the squad “Madonna Japan.”

Other noteworthy national team nicknames include “Tobiuo Japan” (“flying fish”; men's and women’s swimming), “Hinotori Nippon” (“phoenix”; women’s volleyball), “Ryūjin Nippon” (“god of dragons”; men’s volleyball), and “Poseidon Japan” (men’s and women’s water polo).

But my personal favorite, only because it is so delightfully awful, is the attempt to dub the women’s Olympic curling team “Curling Musume,” punning on the once super-famous girl group Morning Musume (the word musume meaning “daughter” or “girl”). In English, it might be translated as something like the “Curling Chicks.” 

The Kiwis may need to raise their game to avoid Japan from nicking their title as the sporting world’s punmasters. 

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