On the announcement of her retirement, four-time table tennis Olympian Ai Fukuhara said that by paving the way for Japan’s new generation of stars, she is leaving the sport in good hands.
Despite never tasting the ultimate success at the Olympics or worlds, Fukuhara has remained firmly in the public eye throughout her career, her rise from child prodigy to elder stateswoman of the national team tracked by hordes of fans in Japan and around the world.
Fukuhara wowed national television audiences with her skills as a toddler, winning her the nickname “Crybaby Ai-chan,” for the tears that would run down her cheeks during training or during a match she was about to lose. From then on, she remained one of Japan’s most recognizable stars.
“The next generation of talent has come through in the past two years and the world of Japanese table tennis has been thriving. I no longer feel the need to display leadership as a player,” Fukuhara wrote in an Oct. 21 blog post announcing her retirement.
“Rather than helping the younger players as a fellow player by paving the way, I feel like I can contribute to table tennis in other ways.”
Fukuhara won minor medals at both the London and Rio Olympics, the latter when she was the oldest member of the women’s team, while providing guidance to up-and-coming talents Mima Ito and Miu Hirano, players who at that time had already become the youngest to win a doubles title on the world tour.
Ito and Hirano have gone on to join their established countrywoman Kasumi Ishikawa in the top 10 of the singles world rankings, pushing Japan into the same stratosphere as China with less than two years to go until the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
But for the 29-year-old Fukuhara, the lure of an Olympics on home soil was not enough to take her away from her family, and she has moved her renowned focus and single-mindedness from the table to a new challenge — namely her Taiwanese husband and fellow pro table tennis player, Chiang Hung-chieh, and their child who was born in October 2017.
Fukuhara herself had a strong maternal figure, with the Sendai native crediting her mother and coach Chiyo for instilling the work ethic that took her to the top of her sport.
“I would not be here today if it weren’t for my mother,” she said of the woman who would not allow her to end training without completing 1,000-shot rallies without any errors. “Those rallies are what made me.”
Fukuhara was only 5 when she became the youngest player to win the so-called Bambi division for eight-year-olds and below at the national championships.
She started playing for the national team at 11 when she had already become a media darling, but her early career was not all smooth sailing.
While she was key to the increased popularity of table tennis in Japan, the early bloomer had to deal with extreme pressure to perform, calling the sport “a job” when many would expect the young player to consider it no more than a game.
In her decorated career, Fukuhara reached the last eight of the singles on her world championships debut in 2003 and made her first Olympic appearance a year later in Athens as a 15-year-old. She also was given the chance to carry the Olympic flame during the torch relay.
Later, she won two medals in team events at the Olympics — a silver at London in 2012 and bronze at Rio in 2016 — and reached a career-high singles ranking of world No. 4 despite not having sustained success on the world tour.
But this relative lack of success did not stop her from carving out a profile in China, a country where table tennis is nearly unrivaled in popularity.
Known as the “Japanese doll,” Fukuhara participated in the China Table Tennis Super League and trained in northeast China’s Liaoning Province, her ability to speak fluent Chinese endearing her further to her Chinese fans.
Even as her career wound down, her popularity in China did not wane, with a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman saying this week that like the “lovely” Fukuhara, her country hopes “that more people from China and Japan can devote themselves to China-Japan friendship and contribute to the friendly exchanges and cooperation between our two countries.”
In 2015, Fukuhara, who was born in Sendai, spoke out about wanting to help her home prefecture move on from the earthquake and tsunami disaster that struck some four years earlier.
Playing in front of her home fans at the World Cup that year in the capital of Miyagi Prefecture, Fukuhara, who at the time had reached her highest-ever world ranking, said she wanted to draw attention to the fact that her hometown has recovered and is on the up-and-up.
“I am really motivated to play in Sendai. I am very pleased to go back home,” she said at the time.
“I hope I can encourage the local people to be positive and to look to the future. I hope that despite everything that has happened, everyone can realize that Sendai is a good place, a really good place.”
Now, the question remains what Japan’s table tennis darling will do in the future, but she did not give up much at her retirement press conference, only hinting in her blog post that she would not stray too far from what she knows when she wrote that “table tennis will always be the center of my life.”