It was a picture-perfect moment for Japan’s Emi Yamada who umpired her 100th international game on 4 November at the XIX Pan American Games in Santiago at Estadio Nacional de Chile. Known as the “Golden Whistle” achievement, Yamada becomes just the fourth Japanese official to reach the milestone following women’s umpires Naomi Kato (1997), Kazuko Yasueda (2002) and Chieko Soma (2012).
Yamada resides in Nagano, where there is only one city that has a hockey team and has lived there since she was 10 years old. She was inspired by her older brother who played hockey in junior high school and then she started playing herself all the way into Yamanashi Gakuin University. In her third year of university, Yamada picked up a whistle and is grateful to have had the guidance of Chieko Soma, who officiated at four Olympic Games (the last in 2016), ever since.
“I learned the first steps of umpiring from (Soma),” described Yamada. “Even after I became an international umpire, we were always talking a lot about umpiring. We were able to share our experiences like sisters and I trust her and follow her guidance so much.”
Yamada’s first international event was the 2004 Asia Cup in India and, at the time, she was hesitant to really pursue a career path in international umpiring. The road to become an umpire seemed daunting and overwhelming for Yamada but that all changed when Tokyo was announced as the hosts for the 2020 Olympic Games. Yamada became dialled in to officiate at a home Olympic Games but it wasn’t necessarily everything she had hoped for.
“I was so excited to umpire in the 2020 Olympics because it was in my home country but I was so sad because all of the seats were empty at my first Olympics,” said Yamada, understanding of the then pandemic restrictions but still disappointed.
Yamada will get her second chance, though, as she has appointed to her second Olympic Games, this time in Paris 2024.
“Emi brings her personality on to the hockey pitch – firm and fair and really develops a great connections with the players on the field,” says umpire manager Louise Knipe, who has worked with Yamada since the 2012 Champions Challenge in Dublin. “Her commitment is just awesome and with her family’s support, after taking a career break, she was able to work towards getting her selection for the Tokyo Olympics. Emi is hard working humble but more over a fabulous team member. She is fun but also takes her role very seriously and is a great role model for up-and-coming Asian umpires.”
Currently in Santiago at the Pan American Games as a neutral official, Yamada can take time to look back on her 100 internationals umpired and think about everyone who has helped her get to that point. On top of that, it’s not every day that an umpire gets to mark their Golden Whistle milestone on the finals of a major continental championship.
“It’s not the most important thing to me,” said a humble Yamada about her 100th marker. “I have always just tried to bring my best because each match is important to the players. I feel so happy that I could grow in my umpiring career but I certainly could not do it without the support of my family and my hockey family.”
Highlights from Yamada’s umpiring career so far include the 2013 Junior World Cup, 2015 World League Finals, 2016 Champion’s Trophy, 2018 and 2022 World Cup, multiple FIH Pro League match ups and,, of course the Olympic Games.
“The role of an umpire is a fantastic part of hockey,” describes Yamada. “Any umpire who has the possibility to make it a career should do it and follow their dreams. My umpire career has made my life so fulfilling and I am also very honoured to be a part of the Pan American Games that is full of so much passion.”
Yamada becomes just the 56th women’s international umpire to reach 100 games, the first of which recorded being in 1984, and she is also the first to hit the milestone from Asia since China’s Liu Xiaoying in 2021. At the 2023 Pan American Games, Yamada will be able celebrate with fellow umpires and previous Golden Whistle umpires Maggie Giddens (USA), Ayanna McClean (TTO) and well as Santiago umpire managers and former umpires Wendy Stewart (CAN) and Soledad Iparraguirre (ARG).
Ali Baggott, for FIH