As we’re approaching Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander Heritage Night at the stadium, what elements of your culture are you most proud to share with your Gotham FC teammates and fans?
I was born and raised in Japan, but if you ask me about “my culture,” it’s a bit difficult to answer. But after I went outside [to the U.S.], I realized how “Japanese” I am. I didn’t notice it when I was in Japan, but I felt that it’s a very Japanese thing to be uptight and extremely organized. I feel very Japanese for paying attention to every detail or the expression of “reading the room”. If you ask me if I’m proud of these things, it’s a bit of a different story. But after coming here, I found it wonderful how laid-back the people are. If I had to think of one thing that I’m proud of Japanese culture is that Japanese people cherish/respect food.
This is ”Osechi”, a traditional New Year's food in Japanese culture. Each item of food has its own meaning, representing prosperity, good fortune, health, etc.
What are some of your favorite traditions and why?
There are a ton of Japanese traditions. For example, some annual national events include hina matsuri [Girls’ Day], kodomo no hi [Children’s Day], and tanabata [Star Festival]. There are also a variety of festivals based in each local area, which is an awesome part about Japan. There isn’t a major or ancient festival where I’m from, but when I see things like this [various festivals in each area], I think, “wow, that’s very nice.” Also, Japan has very distinct [four] seasons, and I really love how we cherish seasonal events. Like, “let’s eat this [food] during this season,” and I keep talking about food, but I think it’s really beautiful how Japan has these traditional events and cultures.
How have you brought special parts of your culture and your experiences in professional women’s soccer around the world?
If you ask me whether I play soccer every day with awareness/consciousness that I’m Japanese, it’s not true, but I do feel that Japanese people have unique Japanese quality, and perhaps this shows within my plays. It’s a difficult question. But I think playing with respect to the opponent is a culture I hold close to myself.
How does a recognition like AANHPI go beyond sports to help impact positive change in society?
It’s been a few years since I’ve started playing soccer in the U.S., but when I’m here, I’m often in a position where I think about respecting the different cultures, religions, and communities. When I’m in Japan, most of the people are Japanese, their roots are Japanese, and there isn’t much difference in the skin color, eye color, and hair color. Being here makes me realize how normal is it for everyone to be so different. Within these differences, without division, it’s a great thing that there is a group and action for these [AANHPI] individuals. I think sports and soccer is society’s microcosm, so advocating and sharing these things, and in return spreading awareness and earning recognition by society is a wonderful thing. Sports has a big influence on society, which is an amazing part about sports, so I think that’s a very useful aspect of sports.
You won a World Cup with Japan in 2011, beating the United States in the final. What was your most memorable moment from that tournament?
Of course, winning the championship was one of the biggest memorable moments, but my most memorable moment was how the US was just way too strong. It was a match that wouldn’t have been strange for us to get blown out, and the storm of attacks during the first 15-20 minutes was outrageous. With some luck, we were able to win, but to be honest, before playing against them in the World Cup final, we’ve played the U.S. twice and both times we’ve lost 0-2. We’ve played the U.S. 20-something times in the past, but Japan has not beaten them once. For us to win against an opponent like that…it’s really thanks to everyone who has supported and cheered for us.
You’ve played with a few members of the 2011 USA team, including Gotham FC former player now owner, Carli Lloyd, have you ever talked about the tournament with her or anyone else?
We’ve never really had any deep conversations, like “remember that time when…” or “I felt like so and so,” but we both know we’ve stood on the same pitch. I happen to have this picture of me with the ball and Carli chasing me from behind, and I would be like, “look, look.” We’d look at the picture and say, “wow, good times,” but we’ve never spoken directly about it. I do my best to look through many articles to understand the different perspectives and points of view of the tournament, which I find very interesting. Even though we’ve stood on the same pitch, we can’t play together on the same international team, so I think it’s great how club teams allow us to play together. I couldn’t believe that I could become teammates with such an amazing player [Carli Lloyd]. Being able to play and have played soccer together with such amazing players, now Ali Krieger and Kelly O’Hara, on the same team is a huge fortune for me.
You’ve been such a strong advocate for the advancement of women’s soccer in Japan. What progress have you seen on the Japanese National Team in the last few years, and what do you see as the next steps towards progress?
I feel that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done for Japanese women’s soccer. But I’m able to feel this way because I have an outside perspective, playing in the U.S. Because I’m in the US, I’m able to see up-close how US clubs and the USWNT operate, how they deliver, and how they grow and develop. Of course, I look at these things for Japan and as a Japanese player myself, but I think there are more and more things we have to do. How have we progressed so far? If I’m being very honest and harsh, I wonder, “Are we actually progressing?” Looking at our win in 2011, results aside, there’s a question mark as to whether we’ve progressed as an organization. I feel that this is an area where, as a player, I have to do more, advocate more. But being in a position to feel all these feelings and experience everything [in the US], I want to make sure that I continue to advocate for and contribute to the development of Japanese women’s soccer.
How was the transition from the Japanese professional women’s soccer to the NWSL? What surprised you the most? How did you manage that change?
I first transferred to the NWSL in 2014, but at that time, the Japanese women’s soccer league was not a professional soccer league, but rather an amateur league. The Japanese professional women’s soccer league was established in 2021, and right now they’re in their 2nd year, in the middle of their 2nd season. I played in a team with a professional-like environment but transferring to this team and transferring to the US, I felt a lot of differences from Japan. The number of staff and the quality of player support/care is different, and I felt a huge difference in terms of the players, where teams are a gathering of players with [already] high-level experiences. I have to showcase myself and my plays within this environment, but what worked in Japan and what was evaluated in Japan is…how do I say it? The answers are different. I was able to expand my toolbox. Change was at first perplexing, but I enjoyed every moment of this change and I was able to adjust myself.
Are there any other special things that you would like people to know about you or your heritage?
Something special I would like people to know about myself? Well, whether you’re Japanese, or American, or a man, or a woman, anyone can enjoy soccer, and this is something very special to me. I think this is a right that anyone can have. Individual by individual, be yourself, do whatever you want to do. It might feel a bit heavy, but I want everyone to understand and live with the understanding that each and every individual is a very special existence. What someone has experienced is something only that person can experience. I cannot be someone else, nor can that someone else be me. I really believe this world is a gathering of every one of these [special] individuals, and I want everyone to be proud and know that “you are only yourself”. If everyone lives their daily lives knowing this, I feel that the world would be a better place.
What do you think people will take away from coming to the stadium on AANHPI night and the presence of the athletes in the sport, both now and in the future?
For me, I was made aware of AANHPI thanks to Gotham’s AANHPI night, so there probably would be individuals who didn’t know about it but come to Gotham’s game and realize, “Oh, this is a thing.” I hope it would create a chance like that. Within these games, I hope people can watch these hardworking athletes and be inspired that they can do it too. Of course, outside of this community, since there are so many, various communities out there, I hope we can respect each other’s existence to make the present and future an even better place.