The final battle for the two women's spots on Japan's 2018 Olympic skating team began in earnest at Musashino Forest Sports Centre on Thursday night and the story could have a surprise ending.
Kaori Sakamoto, in her first senior season, grabbed the lead after the short program at the national championships with a sublime performance that earned her a score of 73.59 points.
Three-time national champion Satoko Miyahara is second with 73.23, while Rika Hongo stands third on 70.48.
Sakamoto, often overshadowed by her more prominent competitors, skated to "Moonlight Sonata" and literally rose to the occasion. She began with a beautiful layback spin, followed by her step sequence and flying camel spin before executing her jumps.
The two factors that have always separated Sakamoto from other skaters — her big jumps and her fortitude — were on full display this night and the judges appropriately awarded her the top score.
The 17-year-old Kobe native, who was Japan's junior champion last season, landed a huge triple flip/triple toe loop combination, then went on to hit a triple loop and double axel, exuding confidence throughout.
"I was a bit nervous, but once the music started I relaxed," an ebullient Sakamoto stated. "My coach told me, 'Just go out and do it!' I was a bit surprised by the high score."
Sakamoto received level-fours on her spins and step sequence and said her practice has paid off.
"I have been practicing in the morning when I usually can't move my body," Sakamoto noted. "But that has enabled me to actually move more when I have to. The (Olympic) programs will be held in the morning in Pyeongchang."
Miyahara competed to "Memoirs of a Geisha" and was her usual steady self. She started with a triple lutz/triple toe loop combo, but under-rotated the back end of it. She was clean the rest of the way, however, landing a double axel and a triple flip. It was a solid performance, but not enough to give her the lead.
The 2015 world silver medalist admitted that she felt intense pressure.
"This was the most nervous I have ever been at the All-Japans," Miyahara stated. " I usually get nervous right before skating, but this has been going on for a while."
Miyahara said she grabbed ahold of herself and tried to execute her elements.
"I calmed down when I started skating and gave it my best," Miyahara said. "There weren't many mistakes tonight. I'm going all out in the free skate."
Hongo gave an electric effort to "O Fortuna" that really moved the audience. She received an edge call on her triple lutz, but was smooth otherwise.
Wakaba Higuchi, who skated to "Gypsy Dance," singled her planned opening double axel, but made it through the rest of the program unscathed. She is in fourth place with 68.93.
Rika Kihira, Japan's junior champion, is fifth on 66.74.
Mai Mihara is seventh with 64.27 and likely out of consideration for the team for Pyeongchang. She skated to "Libertango" and opened with a nice triple lutz/triple toe loop combo, but fell on her double axel. The fall could not have come at a worse time for Mihara, who was fifth at the worlds last season, but did not qualify for the GP Final this season,
Marin Honda competed to "The Giving" and nearly fell on her triple loop, putting her hand down to stay upright. She is a distant sixth with 66.65 and her chances for an Olympic berth look remote at best.
Yuna Shiraiwa (63.33) is in eighth place.
The women's free skate will be held on Saturday night.
The men's short program is set for Friday evening, with defending champion Shoma Uno the heavy favorite in the absence of the injured Yuzuru Hanyu.
The Olympic team members will be announced late Sunday night after the men's free skate.