TOKYO (AFP) - Japan's Winter Olympic delegation was urged on Monday to demonstrate the country's "energy" and aim for its best ever medal haul as they readied to leave for the Games in Sochi.
About 100 Japanese athletes so far selected for Sochi gathered at a plush hotel in Tokyo for a ceremony to launch the delegation, expected to swell into Japan's biggest ever Winter Olympic expedition with additional entries.
"I wish you all to show the people of the world through the Olympics how Japan is filled with energy and how Japan is filled with pride in the world," Japanese Olympic Committee president Tsunekazu Takeda told the ceremony.
He said his organisation had invited 15 junior high school students from the region hit by the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, to help prepare and encourage them for future challenges.
Mr Takeda also recalled that Japan captured a record haul of 38 medals at the 2012 London Olympics, a tally that helped Tokyo win the bid for the 2020 Summer Games against Madrid and Istanbul last September.
"We have realised through the Olympics the power of sport and the energy gained from sport," he said.
Mr Takeda added that he hoped the Sochi delegation would perform its best and give "strong encouragement" to the whole country as it looks forward to the 2020 Olympics.
Japan's chef de mission in Sochi, former Olympic speedskater and cyclist Seiko Hashimoto, is aiming for a record medal haul in Sochi.
HOPES FOR A RECORD HAUL
She hopes to better the medal haul won at the 1998 home Winter Games in Nagano of 10 medals, including five gold.
"It is my duty to believe in the abilities of the athletes and build up a support system to help them go for their goals," she told a news conference after the ceremony and a send-off event attended by 1,800 guests including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who plans to attend the Sochi opening ceremony on Feb 7.
"If I can do that it is undoubtedly possible for us to exceed the number of medals we won in Nagano," Hashimoto said.
Japan delegation captain and ski jumper Noriaki Kasai said, "I want every one of us to win a medal and add to the momentum toward the 2020 Olympics."
He said people on the World Cup tour were beginning to call him "Legend Kasai" instead of his old nickname "Kamikaze Kasai" after he at 41 became the oldest winner of a World Cup at Tauplitz, Austria, on Jan 11.
"I have never won a gold medal and want to become a real legend by winning one," said the veteran of six previous Winter Olympics, who won the large-hill silver at Lillehammer 1994.
Hashimoto earlier predicted the Sochi team will exceed the record 112 athletes Japan sent to Turin 2006 where they won just one medal - a gold through Shizuka Arakawa in the women's figure skating.
Japan fielded 94 athletes at Vancouver 2010 where they picked up three silvers and two bronze medals.
The country's best gold medal hopes rest on ski-jumper Sara Takanashi, the women's World Cup champion last season, who has won eight titles from nine World Cup events so far this season.
Mao Asada is set for another gold-medal showdown with South Korean star Kim Yu-Na, who beat her for gold in the women's figure skating in Vancouver.
Other Japanese figure skaters, men and women, are considered medal contenders, including Yuzuru Hanyu who beat Canada's three-time world champion Patrick Chan at the Grand Prix Final last month.
Japan also hope to grab a few more medals in speed skating, combined cross country skiing and snowboarding.