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After bronze-medal performance in London, Japan women's volleyball team has higher aspirations for Rio

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The Japan women’s national volleyball team earned the bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. But it looks to win a better-colored medal at the Rio de Janeiro Games next month.

The feat won’t be achieved easily and the players and team staff know that.

But Team Japan will not alter its goal that it set for the Summer Olympics in Brazil.

“We finished seventh at the world championship in 2014 (in Italy), we were fifth in last year’s World Cup (in Japan),” Japan coach Masayoshi Manabe said during Monday’s media availability at the National Training Center in Tokyo. “We haven’t finished in the top four (at the global tournaments after the team’s silver-medal showing at the 2014 FIVB World Grand Prix) and that’s one of the things that are different from the last time (the London Olympics).”

Japan earned the bronze medal at the 2010 world championship and was fourth in the 2011 World Cup before it captured the bronze medal at the 2012 London Games, which was its first Olympic medal since the 1984 Los Angeles Games (bronze).

“So the volleyball officials around the world are probably thinking that Japan won’t reach a medal (in Rio),” Manabe said. “And I understand they think that way.”

But Manabe, who’s been at the helm since 2009, looks to stun the world in Rio by outmaneuvering the opponents.

The 52-year-old hinted that his Japan team might try to apply some new tactics for the Summer Games.

Japan’s men’s and women’s national teams have captured a combined three Olympic gold medals. Manabe, a former setter for the men’s national team, said that those teams courageously introduced unprecedented playing styles that helped them finish on top.

“Japanese are shorter in height,” said Manabe, who’s brought some new strategies to his team, such as “Hybrid 6,” in which each player flexibly plays without a set position, while utilizing one or zero middle blockers, with the purpose of scoring more points.

“So you’ve got to do something to play on par against the rest of the world. You’ve got to turn your disadvantages into advantages. Otherwise, you can’t win in Rio.”

Veterans Saori Kimura, Erika Araki, Mai Yamaguchi and Saori Sakoda will make their second consecutive Olympic appearances in Rio. Manabe expects them to provide leadership on the court, and he seems to rely on Kimura, the team’s captain, in particular. He said that ever since the 29-year-old wing spiker took the role, she’s led the team surprisingly well with her team-first attitude.

“Before London, she had been focusing on herself,” Manabe said. “But now the first thing that comes out of her mouth is the team, the second thing is also the team, and the third thing is about our younger players.”

Kimura said that she’s tried to create an atmosphere in which every player can fully maximize her ability.

“Hopefully, we will have that both in practices and games,” said Kimura, who hurt her right pinkie during May’s Olympic qualifier and hasn’t fully recovered from the injury.

Araki, who served as Japan’s team captain during the London Olympics, said that she and Kimura have talked about the team, like where the team is at the moment and how it should play in games, on a daily basis.

“We’ve gone through so many situations, but I’d like to help her as much as I can,” said Araki, who’ll be making her third straight Olympics along with Kimura. “We’ve been on this team for a long time, trying to deliver victories. Hopefully, we’ll develop this team further.”

Winning a medal — a better-colored one — in Rio will be a daunting task, and Kimura knows “it’s easier to say than actually do it.”

But she said she wants to “achieve it with these members.”

Japan is in Pool A in the 12-team Olympic competition. The top four teams in the preliminary round will advance to the knockout stage. But Manabe and his squad consider their first match against Asian foe South Korea in the tournament’s opener on Aug. 6 could significant weight in determining how far it will go.

“With the knockout stage in sight, this is a game we must win,” Araki said of the South Korea contest. “We are going to have to concentrate every single set and get the win.”

Japan fell to South Korea 3-1 in May’s Olympic qualifier in Tokyo.

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