Big stage for new-look Japan squad


With a new coach, a new captain and a new pin-up, Japan’s women’ volleyball team has the perfect stage on which to test its newfound confidence and ambition in Tokyo this week.

From Wednesday to Sunday, Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium will host the final round of the FIVB World Grand Prix, the annual international spike fest for the leading women’s teams in the world.

The top five from the 12-nation qualifying round will join Japan and play three matches per day, the host team always contesting the evening’s game to guarantee high viewing figures for host broadcaster Fuji TV.

Brazil, the Netherlands, China, Germany and Russia occupied the five qualifying places going into the final weekend of preliminaries in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Mokpo, South Korea, but whoever comes to Tokyo will provide world-class opposition for Japan at the start of a new Olympic cycle.

Japan’s new head coach is Masayoshi Manabe, whose goal is not just to steer Japan to the London Olympics in 2012 but to challenge for a medal.

“The team’s motto this season is ‘Knowing the World,’ ” says Manabe, who took his players on a monthlong tour of Europe to prepare for the Grand Prix.

“By getting to know how volleyball is played around the world we will learn what kind of volleyball we must play.

“Throughout the season I want to pursue speedy combinations and reinforce our defense, especially our blocking, which is not Japan’s strong point.”

His players seem to be responding quickly, as in the Osaka leg of the Grand Prix from Aug. 7-9 Japan beat Puerto Rico, South Korea and world champions Russia to put them in high spirits for the business end of the tournament at home in Tokyo.

Manabe’s captain is the powerful middle blocker Erika Araki, who played for Foppapedretti Volley Bergamo in the Italian League during the 2008-09 season.

Araki is assisted by vice captain Megumi Kurihara — a world-class all-arounder who sent eight service aces sizzling past South Korea in their Osaka encounter.

Manabe has a strong team backbone in Kurihara, veteran setter Yoshie Takeshita, Araki and the versatile Saori Kimura, but the player who stole the show in the 3-1 defeat of Russia was Maiko Kano. The 184-cm, 21-year-old wing spiker from Kobe produced a series of flowing attacks from the back court, soaring elegantly and piercing the Russian defense with some clean, fluid hits.

In her player profile, Kano lists listening to Mr. Children and studying maps as her hobbies. On this form, an A to Z of London will be required reading in 2012.

World Grand Prix Final Round

Where: Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, Sendagaya.

When: Aug. 19 to Aug. 23

Format: Six-team round-robin, with three games per day starting at 1.30 p.m. 3.30 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. (evening game from 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday).

Total prize money: $1.4 million, with $200,000 to the first-place team.

Last year’s ranking:

1. Brazil; 2. Cuba; 3. Italy.