Do you people think hockey will ever get popular in Japan? I have friends in Japan who like hockey and I've watched a few hockey games (Nikko Ice Bucks), but it's very empty compared to even British league teams (Who I feel are already really bad in attendance).
It will take a superstar. And even then probably not.
If you didn't know, which it sounds like you don't, but Japan is in the top 15 for the most registered players for the IIHF (more than Slovakia FTR). They are producing some good projects like Yuri Terao, Yushiroh Hirano, Yusaku Ando, Yuya Okegawa, and Yuki Miura the last couple of years or so.
Miura in particular just got drafted in the USHL and will probably follow the footsteps of Terao and Hirano, who both posted like 0.80 PPG in a very defensive USHL league. Then you have the hype of Iguchi as well, who could be a serious contender as a 1st rounder in 2021. In the north regions, it is the most popular sport, even over baseball and football. The problem with Japanese hockey is two things, the most major is that it just doesn't get the funding from the Japanese Winter Sport Federation. Normally all their money is going in to develop speed skaters and long distance ski jumpers. And because of their lack of funding for the sport of hockey, majority of the junior development time is spent in "club teams" like high schools and universities. There is even legitimate talk that Japan Ice Hockey Association spent money to help Hirano transfer to Sweden, train in Sweden, and finally move him to the United States so he could play in the USHL this prior season.
Don't know what the future holds for Japanese hockey, but it did lose quite a bit of registered users during last IIHF's bi-yearly report of how much hockey has increased. Japan was one of the notable countries who lost some of the most players, while Hong Kong gained like a 250% increase in involvement (another Asian territory). So it is what it is, a regional sport which has a good cult following. Based on the players I listed above, it is has developed for the better, but without a steady income, their long-term sustainability seems questionable or clouded. Though, if Iguchi becomes as good as Kopitar is, then it might trigger a chain-reaction for the head officials in charge of winter sports to see hockey as a legitimate team sport deserving money for development. Trust me, from what I've seen, Japanese people are very patriotic, they CONSTANTLY talk about famous Japanese people across the world, especially when it comes to sports figures (that baseball pitcher for the Yankees and Keisuke Honda in football). Iguchi will definitely get noticed.
To add more info, they do have Saitama Sakae High School which is an "elite" sports high school in Japan leading the way in track, field, and hockey in their respected sports. Their hockey coach in particular is Pervukhin from the amazing Soviet Union era of the 80s.
Shuhei Kuji went from 61 points and 31 goals in 39 games in the Asia League, to 0 goals and 2 assists in 37 games with Eisbaren Berlin. Kind of puts things in perspective as far as level of play.
Not really, Kuji went from 1st line minutes to 4th, that could be more on the coach than his talent level IMO. Or a combination of both, Kuji has never been an amazing international player for Japan as other have been.