Olympics

Judo standouts Funa Tonaki, Naohisa Takato set lofty goals for 2020 Games

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Funa Tonaki and Naohisa Takato aim to give the Japan national judo team a boost by winning gold medals on July 25, when the judo competition kicks off at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Tonaki and Takato were among the 12 additional judoka named to the team by the All Japan Judo Federation last week. Takato will be making his second appearance in the Olympics, while the 2020 Games will mark Tonaki’s debut.

While anything short of winning gold is an underachievement for Japanese judoka, the 2020 Games will give Takato the chance to move past the humiliation he suffered four years ago at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where he settled for bronze.

“I’ve been working hard over the last three years until I was chosen for the Tokyo Olympics,” Takato, who will compete in the men’s 60-kg category, said at a news conference at the Park 24, Co. Ltd. headquarters in Tokyo, where both Takato and Tonaki train with the company’s judo team. “At the Tokyo Olympics, I want to definitely win a gold medal. I want to be the first male (judoka) to do it.”

Takato is one of the five — men and women — who will be competing at their second straight Olympics. He clinched his berth with a gold medal at the Dusseldorf Grand Slam meet last month.

The 26-year-old said the Olympics are a different challenge and that he doesn’t remember much from Brazil because he’d been so nervous. He intends to turn that disappointing experience into a successful one this time.

“If I had more poise and was more calm, I don’t think I would’ve come up with a result like that,” the three-time world championships gold medalist said of his experience four years ago. “I’m going to train hard and hopefully I can compete with more poise at this Olympics.

There was some backlash after Takato was named to the Olympic squad since Ryuju Nagayama is currently No. 1 in the International Judo Federation rankings with 6,350 points. Takato is third with 5,270.

Some people argued Nagayama should represent Japan in the division. (Nagayama has never won gold at a global tournament.)

While he understands members of the selection committee cast their votes based on their expertise, Takato takes offense to outsiders complaining about the process.

“It gives me extra energy,” said Takato, whose signature finishing move is kata guruma (shoulder wheel).

Satoru Ebinuma, the head coach of Park 24’s men’s team, expressed confidence that Takato has become a more well-rounded athlete since the Rio Olympics.

“He can alter the way he fights each match, and it makes it harder for his opponents to analyze him,” Ebinuma said. “I believe he’ll be able to showcase the Naohisa Takato brand of judo at this Olympics.”

Tonaki could capture the first judo gold for Japan, but she wants to focus on just doing the best she can at Nippon Budokan, the judo venue for the 2020 Games.

When asked what kind of an image she has of the Olympics, Tonaki said that it is “not a stage where only the strongest can win.” The 48-kg judoka added that individuals who are able to peak at the quadrennial event will be considered the strongest.

“That’s how I think of the Olympics,” Tonaki said. “And I want to be the best there.”

Despite earning a ticket to the Olympics, Tonaki was critical of her own progress, giving herself only “about 50 (percent)” out of 100, because she feels she has not come through when things mattered most at tournaments.

In fact, the 24-year-old claimed gold at the 2017 world championships in Budapest but settled for silver in 2018 in Baku and last year in Tokyo. She was also a runner-up at last month’s Dusseldorf meet.

“I’ve advanced to gold-medal matches and fallen short,” Tonaki said, referring to the reason why she’s far from satisfied and needs to develop further until the Olympics.

Ryuji Sonoda, the Park 24 women’s team head coach, said Tonaki previously “lacked consistency” but that she has improved.

Hidehiko Yoshida, the general manager for the Park 24 judo team, echoed the same sentiment with Takato, saying that it is exceptionally difficult to win an Olympic title and that you need to have luck on your side in addition to skill.

“We had athletes who it was said were guaranteed to win gold medals in Barcelona,” said Yoshida, the 78-kg gold medalist at the 1992 Games.

“We had four world champions from the year before and it ended up with just me and (71-kg’s Toshihiko) Koga who won gold. So it’s not a tournament that you can win by just being competitive.”

Since the 2004 Athens Games, Japan has failed to capture gold in the men’s 60 kg and women’s 48 kg, which are the lightest classes, respectively. Tadahiro Nomura completed an Olympic three-peat from the 1996 Atlanta Games, while Ryoko Tani earned gold in back-to-back triumphs through 2004.

The 66-kg representative, which will be either Joshiro Maruyama or Hifumi Abe, is the only spot still up for grabs. That selection will be announced after April’s All-Japan Weight Class Championships.

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