By Ken Marantz
TOKYO — Three months after stunning the wrestling world by winning a world title in her international senior debut, and one month after turning 18, rising star Akari FUJINAMI is now already a two-time national champion with yet another dominant performance.
Fujinami cruised to the women’s 53kg title at the Emperor’s Cup All-Japan Championships, defeating former world silver medalist Nanami IRIE 8-2 in the final for the second straight year at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gym.
Only a takedown by Irie in the second period of the final, and perhaps a missed takedown herself when she allowed Irie to slip out a hold, marred an otherwise flawless outing. Still, Fujinami was not totally satisfied with the performance
“To win the title, I’m happy as usual, but looking at how I did it, there were some rough parts that I’ll need to work on if I want to improve and get to where I want to be,” said Fujinami, who won the gold medal at October’s World Championships in Oslo with four straight technical fall victories and without surrendering a point.
The tournament, held Dec. 16-19, serves as one of the domestic qualifiers for next year’s World Championships in Belgrade, as well as the lone qualifier for the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. The winners will also likely be selected for the Asian Championships in April.
Fujinami, a senior at Inabe Sogo Gakuin High School in Mie Prefecture, also had a pair of 10-0 technical falls in her last tournament as a high schooler as she stretched her current winning streak to 86, which dates back to her junior high school days in 2017.
Not that it matters to her. “The winning streak is in the past. I put more importance on now and what lies ahead,” Fujinami said.
Fujinami’s next chance to extend the streak will likely come at the Asian Championships, followed by this year’s Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships, the second qualifier for Japan’s world team to Belgrade. She will be the defending champion at the latter after whipping Irie by 10-0 technical fall in last year’s final. The two also met in the 2020 Emperor’s Cup final, which Fujinami won 6-0.
On Sunday, Irie, the 2019 world silver medalist at 55kg, seemed more prepared this time for Fujinami’s lightning-quick single-leg attack. After giving up a pair of takedowns, Irie finally stopped an attempt with a fierce cross-face, then spun behind for a takedown and her first points against the teen. It was only the second time in 19 matches this year that someone scored on Fujinami.
But Fujinami continued the onslaught and added two more takedowns, although her inability to score on the ground was also cause for concern.
“In the final, there was a time where I had a hold [of a leg] and lost it,” Fujinami said. “It was just sloppy. Part of it was that I rushed my tackles, so now I feel like I really have to work on the fine points in practice.”
Later, Fujinami’s father, who is also her coach at Inabe Sogo Gakuin, revealed that Akari did not practice in the two days before the tournament because of back pain. He said that that might have affected her movement in the final.
Irie advanced to the final by riding a 4-point pancake to a close 5-4 decision over former two-time world champion Haruna OKUNO.
The three other recently crowned world women’s champions were also in action at the tournament held Dec. 16-19, with two making moves into Olympic weight classes with mixed results.
While Shigakkan University’s Remina YOSHIMOTO repeated as champion at 50kg, Ikuei University’s world 55kg titlist Tsugumi SAKURAI made a successful shift to 57kg — at the expense of world bronze medalist Sae NANJO — but 72kg champion Masako FURUCHI was upended after moving down to 68kg.
Yoshimoto defeated Waseda University’s Umi ITO 2-1 in a dour final in which all of the points were scored on the activity clock. It was a rematch of the final at last spring’s Meiji Cup, but far different from the 9-0 technical fall that Yoshimoto chalked up then.
“Without feeling pressure as the world champion, I was confident coming into here,” Yoshimoto said. “I was able to win out against tough competition, and that will be important for the future. That is part of making progress.
“But there was plenty of issues in my execution, and by bringing these to light, I can work on them for the next tournament.”
At 57kg, Sakurai added to her 2020 title at 55kg with a thrilling 5-2 victory in the final over two-time defending champion Nanjo that she secured with a 4-point takedown in the final seconds.
“My objective is to win the title at the Paris Olympics, and as 55kg is not an Olympic weight, I moved up to 57kg so I could go to the Olympics,” said the soft-spoken Sakurai.
“This tournament for me — of course I aimed to win the championship –but because I went up a weight, I went into it regarding myself as the challenger. The fact that I could still win the title makes me feel like I have grown.”
The final evolved into a defensive struggle, with neither finding an opening to take shots. Sakurai received an activity clock point in the first period, but Nanjo got two in the second to lead 2-1 with a minute to go.
As the clock ticked down to single digits, Sakurai used a 2-on-1 to set up a sweeping single-leg tackle. She managed to lift Nanjo’s leg in the air, then charged forward to send her crashing onto her back out of the ring for 4 points with less than two seconds left.
“My wrestling doesn’t produce a lot of points, which has been an issue for me,” Sakurai said. “But my strong point is that I fight to the end and with the feeling that I will definitely win. So even though many of my matches have close scores, I don’t get impatient.”
Furuichi’s drop from 72kg to 68kg looked to set up a clash between her and fellow world medalist Rin MIYAJI, who took the silver at that weight in Oslo. In the end, neither was around for the final, as Furuichi was dealt a stunning 4-1 loss in the semifinals by Ikuei’s Ami ISHII, while Miyaji withdrew due to injury.
Ishii suffered a shocking defeat of her own in the final against defending champion and 2019 world junior champion Naruha MATSUYUKI, who overcame a four-point deficit in the final 30 seconds by scoring two takedowns for a 4-4 victory on criteria.
Against Furuichi, Ishii led 2-1, all from activity points, when she clinched the win with a last-second takedown.
“I couldn’t do anything,” said Furuichi, one of only two wrestlers to have completed the “grand slam” of world senior, U23, junior and cadet titles. “It’s the same thing that I always regret, not having the courage to shoot for takedowns, and I want to fix that with practice.”
World silver medalist Miwa MORIKAWA captured a third straight national title with a 10-0 technical fall victory over former world bronze medalist Ayana GEMPEI in the women’s 65kg final.
“I wanted to solidify my hold on 65kg by winning here and having that lead into next year, so I’m content with this win,” said NSSU senior Morikawa.
Gempei is only getting back to form after missing nearly two years due to a knee injury. A world bronze medalist and world U23 champion in 2018, the 25-year-old returned to action at last spring’s Meiji Cup, where she placed third.
In a clash between Abe Gakuin High School alumni, Morikawa scored a pair of stepouts, then followed a double-leg takedown by tossing Gempei over for 4 points and an 8-0 lead. Another stepout and a snapdown takedown secured her third technical fall of the day without giving up a point.
“My opponent is an older alumnus of the same high school and I had never beaten her up to now,” Morikawa said. “She is really strong. But I was definitely determined to win. I planned to keep on attacking, and that resulted in my controlling the pace of the match.”
Morikawa managed to successfully attack despite a somewhat unique strategy Gempei employed while in the standing position. Instead of tying up as usual, Gempei stayed at arm’s length and bobbed and weaved, much like a prize fighter in the boxing ring.
“I changed my stance and my movement, without regard for how it looks,” Gempei said. “To simply explain it, it’s moving so that I can shoot without grabbing my opponent.”
At 62kg, world bronze medalist Nonoka OZAKI scored a double-leg takedown with :36 left to edge two-time former champion Naomi RUIKE 4-3 in the final, making her the first student or alumnus from Keio University to win a national title in 62 years.
The 18-year-old Ozaki started her day by defeating 2019 world U23 and junior champion Yuzuka INAGAKI 5-1 in the quarterfinals with a pair of second-period takedowns.
“In this tournament, I had tough matches from the beginning,” the 18-year-old said. “But I didn’t let that discourage me. At the World Championships, I also came up against a strong opponent in the first round [eventual champion Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA of Kyrgyzstan] and I lost, which made me prepared.
“I look at it as an ordeal to test me. If I can fight through it, I will be the better for it. From the first round, I looked at each match as a final and this was the result. I never lost hope in every three-minute period.”
The one thing that Fujinami, Yoshimoto, Sakurai and Ozaki have in common is that they are the current world champions in weight classes in which another Japanese won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. None of Japan’s medalists were entered in the Emperor’s Cup, which means a showdown at the Meiji Cup if they want to make the world team.
Fujinami openly welcomes a battle with Tokyo Olympic 53kg champion Mayu MUKAIDA (now SHIDOCHI after her recent marriage), whenever it comes.
“I haven’t faced her yet, but someday I think we’ll meet up, and I believe that I will definitely win,” said Fujinami, who has already committed to attending Nippon Sports Science University in the spring. “She’s a strong opponent, but I have a strong determination to beat her.”
For Yoshimoto, her victory at 50kg may have best revealed how far she has to go to catch up to Tokyo Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion Yui SUSAKI, who has beaten her in two career meetings.
“She’s strong mentally,” Yoshimoto said of Susaki. “She easily won at the Olympics, but she can find a way to win any match, even when she is losing. She’s really amazing.”
In other finals, Sumire NIIKURA became the first-ever women’s national champion from Kanagawa University when the freshman defeated 2019 champion Mei SHINDO 3-1 for the 72kg title.
Niikura, also a graduate of powerhouse Abe Gakuin High School, scored with a stepout in the second period just seconds after receiving a second activity point to clinch the victory in the weight class missing defending champion Furuichi.
At 55kg, Nihon University’s Umi IMAI captured her first national title, scoring a first-period takedown and holding on for a 2-1 win in the final over Ibuki TAMURA.
Imai has a long list of honors at 53kg to her name, including world and Asian junior titles in 2018 and victories at the Klippan Lady Open and Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix, but was always stuck deep in a depth chart filled with stars like world champions Mukaida and Okuno.
Former world cadet and junior champion Yuka KAGAMI reestablished herself as the nation’s premier women’s heavyweight by defending her 76kg crown, scoring a second-period takedown to notch a 2-2 win in the final over unheralded Nodoka YAMAMOTO.
“I was focused on staying aggressive, and I gave up points from my attack, but I never lost faith and kept up the attack in my style of wrestling to the end, and I think that’s what led to this result,” Kagami said.
Yamamoto had prevented a showdown between Kagami and rival Yasuha MATSUYUKI, who defeated Kagami at last spring’s Meiji Cup, in a world team playoff, and then a little over a month ago at the national collegiate championships.
The 18-year-old Yamamoto knocked off Matsuyuki, her senior teammate at Shigakkan, 2-1 in the semifinals.
At 59kg, Shigakkan’s 2018 Asian silver medalist Sara NATAMI took advantage of the absence of 2020 champion Akie HANAI, who retired after winning a silver medal at the World Championships, and won her second national title with a 10-0 technical fall over Himeka TOKUHARA.
50kg (12 entries)
Final – Remina YOSHIMOTO (Shigakkan Univ.) df. Umi ITO (Waseda Univ.), 2-1
3rd Place – Miho IGARASHI (Meiko Network Japan) df. Haruna MORIKAWA (Shigakukan H.S.) by TF, 15-2, 6:00
Semifinal – Yoshimoto df. Morikawa by TF, 10-0, 1:13
Semifinal – Ito df. Igarashi by TF, 10-0, 1:27
(Yoshimoto won 2nd straight title)
53kg (12 entries)
Final – Akari FUJINAMI (Inabe Sogo Gakuin H.S.) df. Nanami IRIE (Miki House), 8-2
3rd Place – Haruna OKUNO (JSDF PTS) df. Yumi SHIMONO (Ikuei Univ.), 5-3
Semifinal – Fujinami df. Shimono by TF, 10-0, 4:39
Semifinal – Irie df. Okuno, 5-4
(Fujinami won 2nd straight title)
55kg (6 entries)
Final – Umi IMAI (Nihon Univ.) df. Ibuki TAMURA (NSSU), 2-1
3rd Place – Misaki YOSHIBA (Daito Bunka Univ.) df. Eri SHIMADA (Ikuei Univ.), 6-5
Semifinal – Imai df. Yoshiba by TF, 10-0, 3:58
Semifinal – Tamura df. Shimada by Fall, 2:33 (4-2)
(Imai won 1st title)
57kg (8 entries)
Final – Tsugumi SAKURAI (Ikuei Univ.) df. Sae NANJO (Shigakkan Univ.), 5-2
3rd Place – Sena NAGAMOTO (Shigakkan Univ.) df. Ichika ARAI (Shigakukan H.S.) by Fall, 2:42 (8-0)
Semifinal – Nanjo df. Arai by TF, 12-1, 4:06
Semifinal – Sakurai df. Nagamoto, 3-0
(Sakurai won 2nd straight title, including one at 55kg)
59kg (10 entries)
Final – Sara NATAMI (Shigakkan Univ.) df. Himeka TOKUHARA (JSDF PTS) by TF, 11-0, 4:18
3rd Place – Yumeka TANABE (NSSU) df. Yumi KON (Reversal Gym Shinjuku) by TF, 10-0, 5:00
Semifinal – Natami df. Kon by TF, 10-0, 3:17
Semifinal – Tokuhara df. Tanabe, 3-3
(Natami won 2nd title, 1st in 2 years)
62kg (9 entries)
Final – Nonoka OZAKI (Keio Univ.) df. Naomi RUIKE (Shigakkan Univ.), 4-3
3rd Place – Yui SAKANO (Tokyo Met. Police) df. Atena KODAMA (Waseda Univ.), 4-1
Semifinal – Ozaki df. Kodama, 8-0
Semifinal – Ruike df. Sakano, 8-2
(Ozaki won 2nd straight title)
65kg (8 entries)
Final – Miwa MORIKAWA (NSSU) df. Ayana GEMPEI (Aisin Wrestling Club) by TF, 11-0, 2:51
3rd Place – Miyu IMAI (JSDF PTS) df. Kaede HIRAI (Ikuei Univ.) by TF, 11-0, 3:29
Semifinal – Morikawa df. Hirai by TF, 10-0, 1:48
Semifinal – Gempei df. Imai, 3-1
(Morikawa won 2nd straight title, 3rd in row including one at 68kg)
68kg (4 entries)
Final – Naruha MATSUYUKI (Shigakkan Univ.) df. Ami ISHII (Ikuei Univ.), 4-4
3rd Place – Masako FURUICHI (JSDF PTS) df. Rin TERAMOTO (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.) by Def.
Semifinal – Ishii df. Furuichi, 4-1
Semifinal – Matsuyuki df. Teramoto, 5-1
(Matsuyuki won 2nd straight title, 3rd overall including one at 72kg)
72kg (7 entries)
Final – Sumire NIIKURA (Kanagawa Univ.) df. Mei SHINDO (Cleanup), 3-1
3rd Place – Kyoka MIZUSHIMA (NSSU) df. Kanon KOBAYASHI (Senshu Univ.), 6-4.
Semifinal – Shindo df. Mizushima by TF, 10-0, 1:29
Semifinal – Niikura df. Kobayashi, 10-2
(Iikura won 1st title)
76kg (5 entries)
Final – Yuka KAGAMI (Toyo Univ.) df. Nodoka YAMAMOTO (Shigakkan Univ.), 2-2
3rd Place – Miku SAITO (Oda Development Industry) df. Yasuha MATSUYUKI (Shigakkan Univ.) by Def.
Semifinal – Yamamoto df. Matsuyuki, 2-1
Semifinal – Kagami df. Saito by TF, 11-0, 1:45
(Kagami won 2nd straight title, 3rd overall including one at 72kg)