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Japan’s rising sports stars look to raise the bar at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Fourth of six parts

Setting new records, Japan’s Olympians managed to haul in a very respectable 38 medals at the 2012 London Games and 41 last year in Rio de Janeiro.

Their efforts are certainly something for the nation’s up-and-coming young athletes to duplicate or even surpass, as there are many potential stars out there who could become household names by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics about 3½ years from now.

Let’s have a look at some of those who might make a name for themselves at the Tokyo Games:

Kiyou Shimizu

Female top-level karateka Shimizu is psyched up as she has a chance to compete at a level she never thought she’d be able to attain.

In August, the International Olympic Committee officially announced that five new sports, including karate, will be added for the Tokyo Olympics.

“I had a longing for it, but I thought it was a place that I’d never had a chance to be part of,” Shimizu, 23, said. “But now it’s within my reach, and it’ll be up to myself whether I can get there. So I’d like to make every effort to be there.”

Shimizu actually won’t be content with just competing at the games. She has a genuine chance at winning gold.

She is the queen of kata, which literally means “form,” with competitors judged on their speed and the power of their techniques in a mock fight (the other karate discipline is kumite, in which a competitor actually fights with an opponent).

She defended her title at the world championships in Linz, Austria, last October and claimed a fourth straight national championship in December’s Japan Cup Karate do meet at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan, which will be the site for the sport at the Tokyo Games as well.

In the kata competition, a competitor chooses from numerous prearranged sequences and executes specified moves. Although one can’t make up one’s own moves, Shimizu takes advantage of other sports to better her performance.

“I watch different sports, such as figure skating and gymnastics, because there are things in common,” the Osaka native said. “I don’t actually fight with an opponent but I perform as if I’m fighting with one, and it’s important to display beauty. So I think there are things that are in common with those other sports that you showcase in your performance,” she added.

Kenki Fukuoka

Referring to rugby winger Fukuoka as a “top athlete” may not be the most accurate title.

Describing him as a “top scholar-athlete” might be more precise.

Actually, the 24-year-old, who competed both at the 2015 World Cup in England and last summer’s Rio Olympics, where he played for the Japanese rugby seven squad, has already made up his mind to hang up his boots after the Tokyo Games to pursue another dream, which is to become a medical doctor in sports orthopedics.

“My grandfather was a medical doctor as well, and it may make me sound a little arrogant, but he told me that if you are born with ability, you’ve got to return it to society,” said Fukuoka, who graduated from the School of Informatics at the University of Tsukuba last spring before he joined the Panasonic Wild Knights in the domestic rugby union circuit Top League.

He aims to pass the entrance exam for medical school, possibly even before the Olympics, and start attending school after 2020.

Fukuoka knows of many cases overseas where athletes have turned to professions like doctors and lawyers after their athletic careers ended, and said he feels Japan should create an environment to nurture more people like them.

“I’d be happy if I could be (a good example) that changes perceptions,” said the speedster, who can run 50 meters in 5.8 seconds. “I believe that there have been several who wanted to do both but gave it up. But if there’s someone who can do it and it gets them in the spotlight, it makes (others) realize that they can do it, too.”

Miho Nonaka

Built like a wrestler with thick biceps and strong back muscles, female boulder climber Nonaka has a legitimate chance to be “top of the mountain” at the Tokyo Olympics, for which sports climbing has been added as a new discipline.

While she still feels it’s a little surreal that her competition will be an Olympic sport, she said she will definitely aim for a gold medal at the games.

At 19, Nonaka is one of the up-and-coming boulder climbers in the world. She posted a pair of wins on the 2016 World Cup circuit and finished runner-up at the Climbing World Championships in Paris in September.

How well she will actually do at the games is uncertain, because athletes will compete based on the combined results of three different disciplines — bouldering, lead and speed — whereas climbers usually compete in their respective disciplines.

Nonaka used to be a lead climber, yet she said she has hardly touched on the speed discipline.

But she isn’t backing away from the challenge, however.

“There’s, of course, going to be high-level competition and the pressure will be bigger at the Tokyo Olympics,” Nonaka said. “But I want to win, overcoming the massive pressure.”

Japan is full of other youngsters who could join the ranks of global elites if they perform well at the Tokyo Olympics.

Here are some promising names:

Takefusa Kubo

The potential future soccer superstar was signed by Spanish club Barcelona in 2011 when he was 10 years old, and he trained at the club’s La Masia academy.

The forward/midfielder, who’s now 15, currently plays for the under-18 team of J. League club FC Tokyo, and was recently selected for Japan’s U-19 team as its youngest-ever player.

Kubo, dubbed “the Japanese Messi” and expected to rejoin Barca when he turns 18, will only be 19 years old when the Tokyo Olympics are held, but don’t be surprised if he dons the Japanese national team jersey and advertises his talent to the world.

Abdul Hakim Sani Brown

Born to a Japanese mother and a Ghanaian father, the 17-year-old is considered a track and field treasure for Japan.

He captured double gold in the men’s 100 and 200 meters at the 2015 World Youth Championships in Cali, Colombia. With a personal-best 20.34-second mark in the 200, Sani Brown broke Usain Bolt’s championship record.

A Josai High School student in Tokyo, Sani Brown, who missed out on the Rio Games due to a hamstring injury, will move to the United States to attend track powerhouse University of Florida from next fall, looking to polish his sprinting skills there.

The 188-cm-tall sprinter, whose personal best in the 100 is 10.22, was named as one of the nine “Diamond Athletes” that have the potential to win a medal in 2020 and received support from the Japan Association of Athletics Federations last month.

Tomokazu Harimoto

Harimoto is 13 years old and will only be a high schooler when the Tokyo Games are held. Despite this, he aspires to win gold in both the men’s singles and team events in table tennis.

Harimoto, who’s been domestically invincible in his age group, is perhaps one of the fastest-rising Japanese athletes.

Last January, his world ranking stood at 215. But 11 months later, he was in 77th place and is now also ranked No. 1 in the world under-15 and under-18 rankings.

Harimoto, whose parents are from China and who is a naturalized Japanese, promoted his name in Japan and table tennis circles around the world by winning two golds in the boy’s singles and team competition at the World Junior Championships in Cape Town in December.

This New Year’s series examines how Japan is preparing for the Olympics and Paralympics.