Japan’s team to this year’s World Championships will be decided at the final domestic qualifying tournament, the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships, to be held June 16-19 at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gym.
With coronavirus protocols still in effect, entries have been limited to a maximum of 12 per weight class. All told, there are 96 entries in freestyle, 106 in Greco-Roman and 82 in women’s wrestling. That includes five of Japan’s seven medalists from the Tokyo Olympics, including three gold medalists.
Winners at last December’s Emperor’s Cup All-Japan Championships who also capture the Meiji Cup title will automatically earn a ticket to the World Championships, scheduled for September in Belgrade, Serbia.
If a different wrestler wins the title, the champions of the two tournaments will face each other in a playoff held after the day’s action in their weight class is completed.
Here are the ones to watch in each weight class:
50kg (10 entries): Tokyo Olympic champion and two-time former world champion Yui SUSAKI returns to action for the first time since the Tokyo Games 10 months ago. Ready to take her on will be two-time All-Japan champion Remina YOSHIMOTO, the current world champion who added the Asian title in April. The two last met at the Junior Queens Cup in April 2019, with Susaki coming out with a 2-1 win.
53kg (10 entries): A potential clash between Olympic and world champions was avoided when Tokyo 2020 gold medalist Mayu SHIDOCHI (nee MUKAIDA) moved up to 55kg for the tournament. That opens the door for a repeat at 53kg by super-teen Akari FUJINAMI, the current world champion. Looking to knock her off will be two-time former world champion Haruna OKUNO and 2019 world 55kg silver medalist Nanami IRIE, both of whom Fujinami has beaten twice already.
55kg (12 entries): Mayu SHIDOCHI (nee MUKAIDA) moved up to this weight class for her first tournament since winning the 53kg gold at the Tokyo Olympics and getting married. Her toughest competition could come from Umi IMAI, who is coming off a gold-medal performance at the Asian Championships in Mongolia in April.
57kg (9 entries): Look for a repeat of the Emperor’s Cup final in which world 55kg champion Tsugumi SAKURAI moved up to this Olympic weight and defeated Sae NANJO, a 2021 world bronze medalist. Olympic champion Risako KAWAI is not entered after recently giving birth to her first child.
59kg (10 entries): Emperor’s Cup and recently crowned Asian champion Sara NATAMI is the class of the field in this weight class.
62kg (7 entries): This is another weight class that could feature a world-class match-up as Tokyo Olympic champion Yukako KAWAI returns to the mat for a possible clash with rising star and world bronze medalist Nonoka OZAKI. Ozaki won the Asian title in April by beating the reigning world champion in the final.
65kg (7 entries): World silver medalist Miwa MORIKAWA will be looking to earn a trip back to the World Championships after winning a second straight Emperor’s Cup and a first Asian title over a four-month span. Look for competition from 2018 world bronze medalist Ayana GEMPEI.
68kg (4 entries): After missing the Emperor’s Cup due to injury, world silver medalist Rin MIYAJI is back and needing a victory to keep alive her hopes of making the team to Belgrade. Two-time Emperor’s Cup champion Naruha MATSUYUKI aims to keep that from happening.
72kg (8 entries): Sumire NIIKURA, the surprising Emperor’s Cup champion who won a silver medal at the Asian Championships in her first-ever international competition, has a big hurdle to get over in 2021 world champion Masako FURUICHI, who has returned to this weight class after an unsuccessful outing at 68kg at the Emperor’s Cup.
76kg (5 entries): Emperor’s Cup champion and Asian silver medalist Yuka KAGAMI will be aiming to earn her first trip to a senior World Championships. Last year, she missed out after losing to Yasuha MATSUYUKI in the Meiji Cup, then again in a playoff. Who will come out on top this time?
57kg (12 entries): Toshihiro HASEGAWA, a 2021 world bronze medalist at 61kg, dropped down to the Olympic weight class at the Emperor’s Cup and came away with the title. Can he repeat that performance? Looking to stop him will be several wrestlers with international experience, notably Toshiya ABE, who finished seventh at the 2021 World Championships, and Yuto TAKESHITA and Rikuto ARAI, both Asian bronze medalists over the past two years.
61kg (12 entries): Ryuto SAKAKI will be looking to follow up on his Emperor’s Cup triumph, but the opponent he beat in that final, 2016 Rio Olympic silver medalist Rei HIGUCHI, will be gunning for revenge. Higuchi is coming off a gold-medal run at the Asian Championships, which he went to after Sakaki withdrew due to an injury.
65kg (9 entries): Kaiki YAMAGUCHI won his second straight Emperor’s Cup title in December (albeit in the absence of Olympic champion Takuto OTOGURO), and will be the favorite after bringing home a bronze medal from the Asian Championships in Mongolia.
70kg (11 entries): Emperor’s Cup champion Taishi NARIKUNI is the one to beat in this weight class, emboldened by a gold-medal performance at the Asian Championships that he capped with a victory over the world silver medalist in the final.
74kg (10 entries): This weight class looks to be a three-way race between Emperor’s Cup champion and Asian bronze medalist Daichi TAKATANI, defending Meiji Cup champion Masaki SATO, and Emperor’s Cup runner-up Kirin KINOSHITA, who beat Takatani in the 2020 Emperor’s Cup final.
79kg (12 entries): Emperor’s Cup champion Yudai TAKAHASHI, who went to his first senior World Championships as a high schooler three years ago, continues to improve. The Nippon Sports Science University student is coming off winning a bronze medal at the Asian Championships.
86kg (7 entries): Shota SHIRAI, winner of the Emperor’s Cup, will be aiming for his first Meiji Cup title since 2018. One to watch will be Mao OKUI, who finished fifth at 74kg at the 2019 World Championships and will be making his second appearance in this weight class after moving up two divisions.
92kg (9 entries): This is veteran Sohsuke TAKATANI‘s title to lose. Takatani, who made his third Olympic appearance in Tokyo at 86kg, has won consecutive Emperor’s Cup titles at 92kg. He last entered the Meiji Cup in 2019, when he won a third straight title and sixth in seven years. His main competition looks to be defending champion Takuma OTSU, who finished fifth at the Asian Championships.
97kg (7 entries): Defending champion Takashi ISHIGURO is the prohibitive favorite, and will be looking for a good showing after failing to medal at the Asian Championships after winning a bronze a year ago in Kazakhstan.
125kg (7 entries): Taiki YAMAMOTO has dominated this weight class of late, and the two-time Emperor’s Cup winner will be aiming for a fourth straight Meiji Cup crown and fifth overall.
55kg (10 entries): In one of the most anticipated matches at last December’s Emperor’s Cup, Asian champion Yu SHIOTANI faced world champion Ken MATSUI in the 55kg final, and Shiotani won with an impressive performance. He repeated as Asian champion in April for a further boost of confidence, but Matsui will looking for revenge.
60kg (11 entries): Tokyo Olympic silver medalist and former world champion Kenichiro FUMITA makes his return to action after 10 months off, and will be aiming for his fourth career Meiji Cup title and first since 2019. The best of the rest looks to be Emperor’s Cup champion Ayata SUZUKI, who won a second straight Asian bronze medal in Mongolia.
63kg (12 entries): With world bronze medalist Kensuke SHIMIZU moving up a weight class, Emperor’s Cup runner-up Ryuto IKEDA fills the role of favorite among a field of young competitors.
67kg (12 entries): Kensuke SHIMIZU, the world 63kg bronze medalist, has moved up to this Olympic weight after failing to medal at the Asian Championships. Emperor’s Cup champion Katsuaki ENDO, who returned from Mongolia with a bronze medal at 67kg, will make sure he doesn’t have it easy.
72kg (11 entries): This looks to come down to another clash between Tokyo Olympian Tomohiro INOUE and three-time former champion Shogo TAKAHASHI, who is still adjusting to the weight class after moving up from 67kg. Inoue got the best of Takahashi in the final of the Emperor’s Cup, but the latter is coming off winning a bronze medal at the Asian Championships.
77kg (10 entries): Shohei YABIKU is back in action following his stunning run to a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, and his path to a fourth Meiji Cup title was made easier with the withdrawal due to injury of Emperor’s Cup champion and Asian bronze medalist Kodai SAKURABA. Emperor’s Cup runner-up and double collegiate champion Nao KUSAKA will look to give Yabiku a run for his money.
82kg (11 entries): Yuya OKAJIMA, who won the Emperor’s Cup and placed fifth at the Asian Championships, will be favored to add to the Meiji Cup title he won in 2019.
87kg (10kg): Look for this weight class to become a three-way tussle between Japan Self-Defense Forces teammates Masato SUMI, Satoki MUKAI and So SAKABE, all of whom have won Emperor’s Cup titles. At last year’s Emperor’s Cup, Sumi defeated Sakabe in the final while Mukai placed third.
97kg (11 entries): Takahiro TSURUDA, Japan’s entry at 87kg at last year’s World Championships, made a successful move up to this weight class by winning his first national title at the Emperor’s Cup, then followed that up with a bronze medal at the Asian Championships. Can Yuta NARA, who long dominated the weight class, regain the throne and win a sixth straight Meiji Cup gold?
130kg (8 entries): Arata SONODA has been in a league of his own in this weight class, winning seven straight titles from 2014. He made the semifinals at the Asian Championships, but finished fifth after defaulting the bronze-medal match due to an injury.
Yurie YONEOKA, the first-ever Japanese woman to coach on the collegiate level in the United States, has been hired as coach of the Norwegian national women’s team, starting in June.
Yoneoka becomes the second Japanese to be a coach of another country’s national team, following Seiko YAMAMOTO, who worked for the U.S. team in 2013-14.
Yoneoka, who began wrestling at the Kashiwa Club in Chiba Prefecture, was captain at powerhouse Saitama Sakae High School in Saitama Prefecture. She left the sport for several years to study English, then applied to and was accepted at an American university. It was there she restared her wrestling career.
Transferring to Providence University, she finished sixth at the 2019 Women’s Collegiate Wrestling Association Championships at 116 pounds (52.6kg). Her bid to win a national title in her final year ended when the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the pandemic. In January 2021, she accepted a post as assistant coach at Providence.
Her going to university in the U.S., becoming a coach and now heading to Norway came about through the efforts of U.S.-based Tadaaki HATTA, the son of former Japan Wrestling Federation President Ichiro HATTA, who once served as a coach of the American men’s and women’s teams.
Yoneoka’s contract with the Norwegian federation runs through the 2024 Paris Olympics. But she has stated that she would like to stay on through the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. “I want to develop wrestlers who can win medals,” she says.
As part of the hiring process, Yoneoka traveled to Norway to have an interview and to see the wrestling situation first-hand. “The style [in Norway] is a good mix of American and Japanese styles,” she says when asked her impression. To further integrate the Japanese style, she plans to try to arrange joint training camps in Japan, while also setting up exchanges with the U.S. national team through Hatta’s connections.
“While making the most of each individual’s own style, I believe it is vital to add to what they do well, rather than completely change their wrestling,” Yoneoka says. “Six years will go by before you know it. If there is even the slightest feeling of hesitation, the goal will get further away.”
The East Japan Collegiate League, Japan’s oldest collegiate wrestling competition that dates back to 1936, was held May 18-20 at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gym for the first time in three years after being canceled due to the pandemic, with Nippon Sports Science University retaining the title it won in 2019.
NSSU, which included Asian bronze medalist Yuto TAKESHITA at 57kg, won all six of its matches, including a decisive 4-3 victory over Yamanashi Gakuin University on the second day. Yamanashi Gakuin was led by Masaki SATO, Japan’s entry at 74kg at the 2021 World Championships.
–Translation by Ken Marantz