Japan will field a national record 582 athletes at the Tokyo Olympics and while many fans are looking to see established names like gymnast Kohei Uchimura, softball star Yukiko Ueno and judoka Shohei Ono shine, the Games also represent an opportunity for a handful of lesser known athletes to make their mark on the world stage.
With that in mind, here are a few Japanese athletes to keep an eye on over the next two weeks.
Daiki Hashimoto, 22, has received the baton from Kohei Uchimura to lead Japan’s efforts in the individual all-around competition, with the nation’s Olympic stalwart deciding to focus on the horizontal bar at these Games.
The Juntendo University student won titles at the Olympic trials — which was also the national championships — in April as well as the NHK Trophy in May. In the April competition, Hashimoto scored combined points of 36.6 in terms of difficulty, a higher tally than what defending world champion Nikita Nagornyy of Russia was able to register in April’s European Championships.
Shunsuke Izumiya stunned the crowd at the Olympic trials in Osaka in June by winning the men’s 110-meter hurdles with a national record time of 13.06.
Not only did the 21-year-old cut 0.10 seconds off the previous national record held by Taio Kanai, his time ranks third in the world this year behind the United States’ Grant Holloway (12.81) and Jamaica’s Omar McLeod (13.01).
The Juntendo University student, who has also competed in the long jump and triple jump in the past, would have won gold with his time in Osaka had it been posted at the 2019 World Championships, where Holloway triumphed in 13.10.
Still, Izumiya understands he needs to post these times on a more consistent basis if he wants to reach the final at the Tokyo Games.
“This will be my first Olympics and hopefully I will be able to perform near my best,” Izumiya said. “It will also be my first senior global tournament, so it will be a good opportunity for me to measure where I am right now. Hopefully, I will advance to the final and put in a performance that will inspire others.”
Yuki Ishikawa has played in the Italian Serie A since he was a student at Chuo University. The 192-cm outside hitter plays for Power Volley Milano and his experience in the world’s elite league has led him to become an indispensable scorer for the national squad, which has not won a medal since the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Ishikawa has repeatedly said that he wants to be one of the best players in the world and the Tokyo Games — his first Olympic appearance — represent a chance to work toward that goal.
The 25-year-old has been named captain of the team, leading by example in terms of his instructions on the court.
Mayu Ishikawa, his younger sister, will also compete at the Tokyo Olympics as part of the women’s national team.
Sato is the country’s best up-and-coming medal prospect in the men’s breaststroke after four-time gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima retired in 2016.
The 20-year-old captured gold in the 200 in a time of 2 minutes, 6.40 seconds in April’s national championships to book a spot in his first Olympics. At the time, it was the second fastest ever recorded but Australia’s Zac Stubblety-Cook has since overtaken Sato after posting a time of 2:06.28 in June. Russia’s Anton Chupkov currently holds the world record at 2:06.12.
Sato says he wants to break the world record at the Games and finish the competition with nothing less than a gold medal.
Veteran Yamato Fujita is a softball version of Shohei Ohtani, playing both as a pitcher and hitter. In fact, the 30-year-old led the Japanese league in wins, home runs and runs batted in 2016.
Since her national team debut in 2012, Fujita has helped Japan rack up four medals — two gold and two silver — at two world championships, while she has also been part of two gold medal-winning squads at the Asian Games in 2014 and 2018. Japan is ranked No. 2 in the world behind the United States.
The Bic Camera Takasaki player has gone 4-1 with a 2.36 ERA as a pitcher and posted a 0.192 batting average with a homer so far in the 2021 campaign.
Uta and Hifumi Abe
The pair of judoka will look to become the first Japanese siblings to win gold medals in judo at the Olympics. Hifumi and his younger sister, Uta, have already achieved that at the world championships in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2018, when Hifumi and Uta triumphed in the men’s 66 kg and women’s 52 kg categories, respectively.
The siblings will compete on the same day on July 25 at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. Both are proficient at a throwing technique called tsurikomi-goshi (a type of hip throw), something they hope to use to their advantage against opponents.
Hifumi expressed confidence in an online group interview in June that the pair will come out on top if they can perform near their best.
Yuito Moriwaki, a middleweight fighter at the Self-Defense Forces’ Physical Training School, is under pressure to repeat the success of compatriot Ryota Murata, who captured a gold medal in the same class at the 2012 London Games.
The 188-cm boxer has won the national championship title three years in a row from 2017 to 2019, and Murata, who turned professional after the Olympics and currently holds the WBA middleweight crown, believes the 24-year-old has a decent chance to take home gold at the Summer Games.
Moriwaki participated in a charity event in February that featured amateur and pro boxers, facing pro fighter Takeshi Inoue in a three-round bout without headgear.
“It would’ve been weird if the amateur fighter was the only one who wore protection,” he told reporters after the bout. “I also did that so people will remember my face.”
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