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Yuzuru Hanyu returns to the Japan Championships this week for the first time in four years. After winning the title four straight times (2012-15), Hanyu has missed the last three installments due to illness and injury.

Coming off a disappointing second-place finish at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, earlier this month, Hanyu will be looking to win his fifth senior crown in the competition that begins at a refurbished Yoyogi Gymnasium on Thursday.

Spots on the team for the world championships in March in Montreal and the Four Continents Championships in Seoul in February will be on the line at the nationals, while the subplots will be many.

In addition to Hanyu’s return, fans will be treated to Daisuke Takahashi’s farewell competition as a singles skater before transitioning to ice dance next year, Shoma Uno’s aiming for his fourth straight victory, and the participation of super juniors Yuma Kagiyama and Shun Sato.

Takahashi made a dramatic return to nationals last year in Osaka, where he came in second behind Uno after ending a four-year retirement. This will be a sentimental outing for the 2010 world champion and Vancouver Olympic bronze medalist.

Though he has not competed in another event since last year’s nationals due to injury and other obligations, there is no doubt that the legend will be greeted with a raucous ovation each time he takes the ice this week.

Takahashi deserves a special sendoff to his singles career, as he has helped catapult Japanese skating to the level it is at today. He continues to enthrall the masses to this day at shows and has been an inspiration to a generation of both foreign and Japanese skaters.

Uno will try to extend his streak of triumphs as he seeks to bounce back from a poor Grand Prix season that saw him place eighth (Internationaux de France) and fourth (Cup of Russia) in his two assignments.

The Olympic silver medalist, who turned 22 on Tuesday, has had a tough go of it this season as he has competed without a coach after leaving longtime mentors Machiko Yamada and Mihoko Higuchi.

The Nagoya native’s fanbase is large and loyal, and knows that a win over Hanyu would do wonders for Uno’s confidence.

The 16-year-old Kagiyama, who took first and second in his two Junior Grand Prix assignments (France, Poland) this season and won the Japan Junior Championship, is coming off a fourth-place showing at the JGP Final, but will be a strong contender for a medal this week.

Kagiyama, who will represent Japan at the Youth Olympic Games next month in Lausanne, Switzerland, is age-eligible to participate in the senior worlds this season provided he achieves the required minimum score in a senior international event beforehand.

A worlds team of Hanyu, Uno and Kagiyama would be a strong one indeed for the Hinomaru.

The 15-year-old Sato will also be in the running for a medal. He won the JGP Final this month with a spectacular performance that included three quadruple jumps.

Sato, who like Hanyu hails from Sendai, is not age-eligible for the senior worlds this season, but will surely be on the team for the world juniors in Estonia in March.

Kihira favored for title

Though the women’s competition this time around won’t have the same sizzle that the men will, it promises to be compelling nonetheless.

Defending champion Kaori Sakamoto, who had an uneven GP season (fourth in both assignments), will be looking to get back on track, while Rika Kihira is aiming to capture her first senior national crown after finishing off the podium at the GP Final, and four-time champion Satoko Miyahara will try to rebound from last year’s third-place showing at nationals.

Also in the medal mix will be Wakaba Higuchi, Mako Yamashita and Yuhana Yokoi.

Higuchi, who was sixth in her two GPs while dealing with a foot injury that has plagued her since last season, will try to climb back on the podium at nationals for the first time in three years.

Yamashita, who is in her second campaign as a junior, also had a tough GP season, but with her jumping ability and grit is always a threat to get a medal.

Yokoi, last year’s junior champion, had a respectable debut on the GP circuit (finishing sixth and fourth) this season and has shined before at nationals.

Mana Kawabe, this season’s junior champion, will also be in the medal race with her triple axel. The 15-year-old from Nagoya has shown great potential in each of her outings in 2019.

Interesting development

ISU announcer Ted Barton, who calls the JGP each season on the YouTube channel, has been hired by Russia’s TV 1 to commentate on a global stream of the Russian nationals next week in Krasnoyarsk.

This is a brilliant move by the Russian skating federation, as Barton is one of the most knowledgeable and respected voices in the sport. Barton will provide English commentary for the worldwide audience. Unfortunately, the stream will be geographically blocked in Japan.

Barton, who proposed the streaming of JGP events to the ISU five years ago and has watched it grow exponentially, is revered for his insightful analysis and constructive criticism of skaters.

Ice Time asked Barton how the arrangement came about.

“Well, I was in my way to Chelyabinsk (for the Junior Grand Prix in September) and stayed overnight in Moscow,” Barton wrote in an email on Tuesday. “Went to the Russian national team sold-out test event. As I was leaving I was introduced to Olga, who is the person in charge of RT1 figure skating coverage. She introduced herself and commented on our Junior Grand Prix coverage and admired what we had done.

“The next day while I was at the Moscow airport on the way to Chelyabinsk I received an email from Olga asking if I would be interested in commentating for their worldwide English stream of both their senior and junior national championships,” Barton continued. “It was such an honor that I could not turn it down and said yes.”

With international interest in Japanese skating at an all-time high, the Japan Skating Federation should consider doing what the Russians have, and bring in Barton to call next year’s nationals. It would be a very positive move.

Cause for concern

Japanese-American ice dancer Maia Shibutani, who along with brother Alex captured the bronze medal at the Pyeongchang Olympics last year, revealed on Instagram on Sunday that she had undergone surgery the previous day to remove a growth on one of her kidneys.

The 25-year-old Shibutani, who posted a photo of herself in a hospital bed, wrote that results on a biopsy were not in yet, but “my doctor said there is a 60/40 chance that the tumor was malignant versus benign . . . but I am young, healthy and feel fortunate that this was detected so early.”

Shibutani, who was born in New York, and her brother are three-time world medalists. They have not competed the past two seasons, but have yet to officially announce their retirements.

Ice Time wishes Shibutani all the best for a speedy recovery and a return to the ice.

Eteri’s philosophy explained

Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze’s sister Marina Hoffman provided some observations on Instagram after the recent GP Final that were translated into English from the sports.ru website and posted on fs-gossips.com.

“I answer to everyone: Eteri gives everyone an equal chance, if you want to compete, compete, it’s also not in her rules to dissuade, this is a sport, everyone should have a chance, but how a person uses it depends on personal attitude.

“Girls who have already achieved something, if they want to continue, to be competitive they should train and keep the regime on equals, or maybe even more.

“Sport does not stand still, and no one will wait, everyone wants victories, including Japanese and American, you will see this, I hope!

“Everything is very simple, no need to go deep into psychology, blame it on puberty or problems with coach staff, there are no problems except laziness, reluctance and relaxation. To win, you must follow the regime and train!”

Hoffman subsequently deleted her comments.

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