Japan’s judoka had an uncharacteristically dismal showing at the London Olympics four years ago, with Kaori Matsumoto winning the sole gold medal for the originator of the sport, in the women’s 57-kg weight class.
Japan’s supremacy came to an end, the country finishing with one gold, three silver and three bronze medals, while Russia and France grabbed the top-two spots on the medal table. For Japan’s men it was all the more humiliating as they walked away without a gold medal for the first time since the judo competition started at the Olympics in 1964.
But the team heading to the Rio Olympics is more confident than ever about the competition getting under way at the Carioca Arena in Rio’s Barra da Tijuca from Aug. 6-12, emboldened by strong performances at recent international competitions and the judo world championships in Astana last August.
After the dust had settled from the London Games, it came to light that Japanese female judoka were being physically abused by some of their coaches, and the coaching methods for the male judoka were also criticized for lacking structure.
An entirely new framework — including a new coaching staff — was introduced to not only deal with the problems concerning physical violence but to address Japan’s decidedly poor performance in London.
Now there is reason to be upbeat, particularly with the addition of men’s coach Kosei Inoue, who emphasizes individual discussion with his athletes and improving communication to build morale.
Satoshi Ishii was the last Japanese man to claim an Olympic gold medal, winning the men’s judo over-100-kg weight division at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
That road, including at the world championships, has been closed ever since. But debutant Hisayoshi Harasawa will be hoping to make amends as the country’s poster boy in the heaviest weight division.
“From the beginning I have been prepared to carry this responsibility,” the 24-year-old Harasawa recently said. “I don’t feel this as pressure, but rather something I can turn into a motivating force.”
Just one year ago, Harasawa was facing an uphill battle as he vied for an Olympic berth.
But he came from behind to grab a spot over two-time world silver medalist Ryu Shichinohe, capturing seven consecutive international crowns concluding with a title at this year’s Paris Grand Slam.
The 2015 all-Japan national champion, Harasawa defeated Shichinohe on points in the final of the national invitational weight class championships in the meet in April to take a big step toward securing a spot for the Summer Games.
Using his 191-cm, 125-kg frame and his trademark uchimata technique in a relentless onslaught, Harasawa also possesses the flexibility and core strength to neutralize his opponents’ throws. The poise he learned in the 66-kg class as a diminutive first-year high school student is still alive today.
But an imposing figure, known all too well in judo circles, stands in between Harasawa and glory: London Olympic gold medalist and seven-time world champion Teddy Riner from France.
Riner will be bidding to follow in the footsteps of compatriot David Douillet, who won two Olympic golds in the heaviest class in 1996 and 2000.
Harasawa is hoping to make use of the strangle maneuvers he has been perfecting for his ground attacks, supposing he can book a matchup against Riner and get the Frenchman to the mat.
Inoue passed the torch to Harasawa on the eve of April 29, when he selected him to compete in Rio despite a loss in the semifinals at the open-weight national championship.
The coach also has high expectations for Ryunosuke Haga, who won the men’s 100-kg title at last year’s worlds, and reigning world champions Shohei Ono (73 kg) and Takanori Nagase (81 kg), who have yet to compete in the Olympics but symbolize the future of Japanese judo.
Naohisa Takato, the 2013 world champion, will be bidding for a podium finish in the men’s 60 kg, while London Olympic bronze medalist Masashi Ebinuma hopes to redeem himself from his disappointment four years ago with gold this time.
Nagase, who is the first Japanese judoka to win gold at a worlds in the 81-kg class, poses a definite threat with his powerful uchimata throw, dexterous foot techniques and impregnable defense, but will face stiff competition from the likes of world No. 1 Avtandili Tchrikishvili of Georgia.
Ono, 24, who won world titles in 2013 and 2015, is arguably Japan’s front-runner to take home gold due to his powerful osotogari (outer reap) leg throws and uchimata technique. His main rival is world No. 1 ranked An Chang-rim of South Korea, who was raised in Japan.
The 21-year-old Mashu Baker, currently Japan’s only world No. 1, will be bidding for a top podium spot in his Olympic debut in the 90-kg category.
After the abuse scandal, Japan’s female judo team was rebuilt under coach Mitsutoshi Nanjo, who took the helm in 2013.
Learning from the mistakes of the past and through a process of trial-and-error, athletes and coaches alike have seen their roles more clearly defined, signifying a steady ascension for women’s judo.
Misato Nakamura, the 2009 and 2011 world champion at 52 kg, will once again be thrust into the spotlight.
Nakamura, who won a bronze at the age of 19 in her debut at the 2008 Beijing Games but crashed out with a shock defeat in her first match in the second round of the competition in London, will be seeking that elusive gold medal.
After successfully returning from surgery on her left knee, the 27-year-old reclaimed her world title in 2015 and is now keener than ever to show she has what it takes to reach the summit.
London Olympic champion Matsumoto once again proved her dominance, overpowering opponents to win the world title at the Kazakhstan meet last year, and the 28-year-old appears eager to make a successful defense of the Olympic title.
Ami Kondo, winner of the 2014 world title, has gold well within reach at her first Olympics.
One of the main reasons for Japan’s failure in London was the inability of its judoka to perform in the heat of the moment. Whether the team can pull together in Rio will depend on the training it has endured and a fierce conviction to regain its hegemony.