By Ken Marantz
TOKYO–Olympic champions Yui SUSAKI and Mayu SHIDOCHI (formerly MUKAIDA) both made successful returns to the mat in their first competition since the Tokyo Games, winning titles at Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships.
Susaki won at 50kg while Shidochi, the Olympic champion at 53kg, struck gold at 55kg on the final day of the tournament held June 16-19 at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gym. Both then prevailed in subsequent playoffs for spots on the team to this year’s World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, where each will aim for a third world title and first since 2018.
Fellow Tokyo gold medalist Yukako KAWAI, however, will not be making the trip to Belgrade in September after falling 3-1 in a highly anticipated final at 62kg to world bronze medalist Nonoka OZAKI, who clinched the world team place by adding to her victory at last December’s Emperor’s Cup All-Japan Championships.
Winners at both the Emperor’s Cup and Meiji Cup earned automatic places on the team to Belgrade; in cases where the champions were different, a playoff was held. If the Emperor’s Cup champion was not entered due to injury or other reason, the Meiji Cup winner earned the world team place outright.
Susaki’s victories came at the expense of reigning world and Emperor’s Cup champion Remina Yoshimoto, one of Japan’s four women’s titlists at the 2021 World Championships in Oslo but the only one who won’t get a chance to defend her crown.
Susaki hardly looked like she had been away from competition for 10 months, defeating Yoshimoto 4-2 in the Meiji Cup final before posting a one-sided 8-0 victory in the playoff.
“It’s really been a long time to get on the mat since the Tokyo Olympics and at this tournament, I was able to find many points that I need to work on, which to me is a good start in making progress as I head toward the Paris Olympics,” Susaki said.
“I want to make use of that and definitely become the world champion and get the ball rolling for qualifying for Paris that starts in December.”
With the Olympic cycle moved up a year by the delay of the Tokyo Olympics, the qualifying process for the 2024 Paris Olympics begins for Japan’s wrestlers with this year’s Emperor’s Cup in December. That is the first domestic qualifier for the 2023 World Championships, which in turn is the first qualifier for Paris 2024.
Susaki, who had a pair of technical falls in her first two matches Sunday, was named winner of the Meiji Cup as the outstanding wrestler at the conclusion of the tournament. Susaki was appearing in the Meiji Cup for the first time since 2019, when she won the last of four consecutive titles.
From April, Susaki, who has never lost to a non-Japanese opponent in her career, started a new phase of her life. Upon graduating from Waseda University, she became employed by major valve maker Kitz Corporation in her native Chiba Prefecture, allowing her to focus on wrestling full time.
The former Miss Mukaida also had a life-changing event following the Tokyo Olympics, as she married her coach Shota SHIDOCHI and now competes using her married name. But like with Susaki, there was no change in her dominant style of wrestling, even after the long layoff as she also added to four previous Meiji Cup titles won from 2016 to 2019.
Shidochi posted her third 10-0 technical fall of the day in the 55kg final against teenager Moe KIYOOKA, although the Nippon Sports Science University freshman appeared to suffer a leg injury as Shidochi was executing a series of lace-lock rolls.
Shidochi then clinched the place on the world team by cranking out a 4-0 victory in the playoff over Emperor’s Cup champion Umi IMAI, one of seven Japanese women who won gold medals at the Asian Championships in Mongolia in April. Shidochi twice got Imai’s leg in the air, but settled for 1-point stepouts.
“It was my first tournament since the Tokyo Olympics, and while I was nervous, I was moving my legs from the first match like I wanted to and was able to make the final,” Shidochi said. “In the playoff, I tightened up a bit, but I was able to pull off the victory.”
In her post-match press conference, Shidochi addressed her decision to enter the tournament at 55kg, rather than have a possible showdown at 53kg with recently crowned world champion and emerging teen star Akari FUJINAMI.
“Before the Tokyo Olympics, I also competed at a non-Olympic weight,” said Shidochi, whose two world titles both came at 55kg, in 2016 and 2018. “Then I changed to 53kg for the main event. Heading to the Paris Olympics, I’m following the same process and wrestling now at 55kg. Next time in December, my plan is to enter at 53kg.”
At 62kg, the 19-year-old Ozaki had been laying down the gauntlet over the past year with a series of impressive results. Most noticeable was her victory in the final at the Asian Championships over world champion Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ), avenging a first-round loss to her at the 2021 World Championships.
Sunday’s final became a war of attrition as neither Ozaki nor Kawai wanted to give each other an opening. Kawai received an activity point in the first period, but with Ozaki applying the pressure in the second period, she went ahead by receiving two activity points.
With the clock ticking down, Kawai applied a front headlock and tried to bull Ozaki over for exposure points. She got close in the final seconds, but a challenge for points was rejected, making Ozaki a 3-1 winner in the first meeting between the two.
“I wanted to score technical points,” Ozaki said. “I thought before the match, ‘What do I have to do to win?’ Even if I didn’t score with a tackle, I had to show I was making the effort to attack. When it became one caution each, I thought I would definitely win in the end.”
Kawai said that it took her some time to get back into a competitive mode following all the hoopla that comes with winning an Olympic gold medal — which was even more fervent because she won in tandam with older sister Risako, who won her second straight gold at 57kg. Risako skipped the Meiji Cup after giving birth to her first child in May.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to take,” Kawai said. “But I achieved my dream at the Tokyo Olympics and after that, I started training again, but I really couldn’t get into it.”
With Shidochi changing weight classes, the door was wide open for Fujinami to storm to the 53kg title, completing the All-Japan double and earning a chance to defend her world title in Belgrade, while also extending her current winning streak to 100 in a row.
Fujinami will be joined by the two other world champions from Oslo: Tsugumi SAKURAI, who moved up from 55kg to 57kg, and Masako FURUICHI, who moved back to 72kg after an unsuccessful stint at 68kg at the Emperor’s Cup.
Fujinami scored a takedown in each period in notching a 4-0 victory in the Meiji Cup final over former world champion Haruna OKUNO, who wrestled much more cautiously after suffering one-sided losses to the teenager in two previous meetings.
Combined with a fall and technical fall in her first two matches, the victory in the final was Fujinami’s 100th in a row, dating back to the final of the national junior high school championships in June 2017. She has only given up four points since 2020.
Fujinami, who started her freshman year at Nippon Sports Science University in April and is being mentored by four-time Olympic champion Kaori ICHO, said she puts little importance on the winning sreak.
“Many in the media talk about it, but for me, the winning streak is all in the past,” Fujinami said. “I’m only concerned with myself in the present. From here, there will be more wins, but when I get on the mat, it will have nothing to do with extending the winning streak.”
Okuno, who scored a takedown with 20 seconds left in the semifinals to clinch a 4-1 win over Namami IRIE, had obviously done her homework on Fujinami, but it wasn’t enough to completely stave off the attacks. Fujinami scored with an a slick ankle pick in the first period, then shrugged off a headlock counter for a second takedown in the second period.
“It’s only natural that [others] will be studying me,” Fujinami said. “That’s why in college I’ve been working on tying up and other aspects beyond actual tackling to brush up ways to lead to points. Being studied is par for the course.”
Furuichi needed the playoff route to get back to the World Championships. She made it through with two victories over Emperor’s Cup champion Sumire NIIKURA, rallying to a 9-6 last-second victory in the Meiji Cup final, then winning the playoff 2-0 on a pair of activity points.
In the final, Furuichi was trailing 6-6 on criteria when she launched a tackle attempt in the final seconds. Niikura clamped down, but Furuichi just managed to drive ahead and gain control right at the buzzer for 2. An unsuccessful challenged added the final point.
“If I didn’t win in the final, I wouldn’t get into the playoff,” said Furuichi, who won her second straight Meiji Cup title and third overall. “I was losing and whether I scored points or not, that was my last chance. I gave it all I had and I was happy to come out with the win and get into the playoff.”
Sakurai’s 5-3 victory in the 57kg final was no less dramatic, and was a virtual repeat of her Emperor’s Cup-winning match six months ago over the same opponent, world bronze medalist Sae NANJO.
Nanjo led 3-0 going into the second period when Sakurai closed the gap with a takedown. As Nanjo put up a fierce defense to protect the lead, Sakurai pressed ahead, getting in on the legs and barely managing to dump Nanjo onto her bottom as time expired. A long challenge review upheld that the takedown was completed with milliseconds to spare.
“I went for the tackle with my last bit of energy,” said Sakurai, last year’s Meiji Cup champion at 55kg. “I didn’t see the clock so I didn’t know how much time was left, but I came out on top in the situation, so I thought I got the points.”
In the final of the Emperor’s Cup, where Sakurai made her debut at 57kg, she stunned Nanjo by scoring a 4-point takedown in the final seconds for a 5-2 win.
Sakurai’s victory at 57kg was made sweeter by the fact that it came the day after Ikuei University teammates Sakura MOTOKI and Ami ISHII both earned their first Meiji Cup titles and first trips to the World Championships with two victories over the Emperor’s Cup champion.
Motoki, who missed the Emperor’s Cup after undergoing knee surgery last summer, put on an impressive display in rolling to a 10-3 victory in the Meiji Cup final at 59kg over Sara NATAMI, who was coming off a gold-medal run at the Asian Championships.
Motoki then beat Emperor’s Cup champion Natami 2-1 in the playoff, with all points scored on the activity clock.
The 20-year-old Motoki, a 2017 world U17 champion whose father competed in Greco-Roman at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, said she used her post-surgery time away from the mat to study videos of some of the sport’s top technicians such as compatriot and Olympic champion Takuto OTOGURO and former world champion Haji ALIYEV (AZE).
“When I couldn’t wrestle, I used that time to watch many videos of wrestlers with excellent technique,” said Motoki, who executed a textbook-perfect duck under against Natami. “It made me think of what was the ideal type of wrestling I want to do. When I came back, I felt I was physically better than before I was injured, and I had better techique and was a better wrestler.”
Ishii, the 2020 Klippan Lady Open champion at 65kg, earned her ticket to Belgrade at 68kg by beating Emperor’s Cup champion Naruha MATSUYUKI 2-1 in both the final and the playoff, scoring a first-period takedown in both matches.
Her most impressive victory, however, came in the semifinals, when she knocked off world silver medalist Rin MIYAJI 9-6. Miyaji was appearing in her first tournament since the 2021 World Championships, where she stunned Olympic champion Tamyra STOCK MENSAH (USA) in the semifinals but suffered a serious knee injury during the final.
“I feel like there is a gap between the results I have achieved and my actual ability,” Miyaji said. “At the World Championships, I defeated the Olympic champion and finished second, but to lose here, it’s like I’ve lost everything I gained at the World Championships.”
The three world team members from Ikuei, which was only founded in 2018, are the most from any university, including alumni. Nippon Sports Science University has two representatives, while longtime powerhouse Shigakkan was limited to just one.
In other action, world silver medalist Miwa MORIKAWA remained the dominant force at 65kg, easily grabbing her second straight title and world ticket with an 8-1 victory in the final over 2018 world U20 champion Miyu IMAI.
“I missed some chances for points,” said Morikawa, who joined the elite ALSOK team upon graduating from NSSU this spring. “In order to win at the worlds, I have be able to firmly get those.”
Yuka KAGAMI, a former world U17 and U20 champion who won a silver medal at the Asian Championships, will get her first shot at a senior world title after defeating Yasuha MATSUYUKI 4-0 in the 76kg final to complete the All-Japan double.
50kg (10 entries)
Final – Yui SUSAKI (Kitz) df. Remina YOSHIMOTO (Shigakkan Univ.), 4-2
3rd Place – Miyu NAKAMURA (Sports Design Lab) df. Hanano SAKURAI (Ikuei Univ.), 11-10
Semifinal – Susaki df. Sakurai by TF, 11-0, 4:08
Semifinal – Yoshimoto df. Umi ITO (Waseda) by Inj. Def., 5:02 (8-1)
World team playoff – Yui SUSAKI (Kitz) df. Remina YOSHIMOTO (Shigakkan Univ.), 8-0
53kg (9 entries)
Final – Akari FUJINAMI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Haruna OKUNO (SDF PTS), 4-0
3rd Place – Nanami IRIE (Miki House) df. Rino KATAOKA (Waseda Univ.), 3-0
Semifinal – Fujinami df. Kataoka by TF, 10-0, 1:45
Semifinal – Okuno df Irie, 4-1
55kg (11 entries)
Final – Mayu SHIDOCHI (Jtekt) df. Moe KIYOOKA (Ikuei Univ.) by TF, 10-0, 3:36
3rd Place – Mako ONO (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Ibuki TAMURA (Nippon Sports Science Univ.), 8-0
Semifinal – Shidochi df. Misaki YOSHISHIBA (Daito Bunka Univ.) by TF, 10-0, 2:25
Semifinal – Kiyooda df. Tamura by TF, 10-0, 1:41
World team playoff – Mayu SHIDOCHI (Jtekt) df. Umi IMAI (Nihon Univ.), 4-0
57kg (9 entries)
Final – Tsugumi SAKURAI (Ikuei Univ.) df. Sae NANJO (Toshin Juken), 5-3
3rd Place – Sena NAGAMOTO (Shigakkan Univ.) df. Ruka NATAMI (Shigakkan Univ.) by TF, 12-2, 4:55
Semifinal – Sakurai df. Narumi NAKAMURA (Hosei Univ.) by TF, 10-0, 3:15
Semifinal – Nanjo df. Natami by Fall, 2:44 (10-0)
59kg (10 entries)
Final – Sakura MOTOKI (Ikuei Univ.) df. Sara NATAMI (Shigakkan Univ.), 10-3
3rd Place – Himeka TOKUHARA (SDF PTS) df. Yumeka TANABE (Restar Holdings), 3-1
Semifinal – Natami df. Yumi KON (Reversal Gym) by TF, 10-0, 3:57
Semifinal – Motoki df. Tokuhara, 4-0
World team playoff – Sakura MOTOKI (Ikuei Univ.) df. Sara NATAMI (Shigakkan Univ.), 2-1
62kg (6 entries)
Final – Nonoka OZAKI (Keio Univ.) df. Yukako KAWAI (Suntory Beverage), 3-1
3rd Place – Yuzuka INAGAKI (Shigakkan Univ.) df. Yui SAKANO (Metropolitan Police Dept.), 4-2
Semifinal – Kawai df. Sakano, 8-2
Semifinal – Ozaki df. Inagaki, 2-1
65kg (6 entries)
Final – Miwa MORIKAWA (ALSOK) df. Miyu IMAI (SDF PTS), 8-1
3rd Place – Ayana GEMPEI (Aisin) df. Rin TERAMOTO (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.), 7-1
Semifinal – Morikawa df. Teramoto by TF, 11-0, 5:24
Semifinal – Imai df. Gempei, 3-1
68kg (4 entries)
Final – Ami ISHII (Ikuei Univ.) df. Naruha MATSUYUKI (Jtekt), 2-1
3rd Place – Rin MIYAJI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) df. Kumi KOBAYASHI (Fukuoka Univ.) by Fall, 2:21 (12-1)
Semifinal – Matsuyuki df. Kobayashi, 2-1
Semifinal – Ishii df. Miyaji, 9-6
World team playoff – Ami ISHII (Ikuei Univ.) df. Naruha MATSUYUKI (Jtekt), 2-1
72kg (9 entries)
Final – Masako FURUICHI (SDF PTS) df. Sumire IIKURA (Kanagawa Univ.), 9-6
3rd Place – Yuka FUJIKURA (Ikuei Univ.) df. Kyoka MIZUSHIMA (Nippon Sports Science Univ.), 3-2
Semifinal – Niikura df. Kokona TAKADA (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) by TF, 11-0, 4:08
Semifinal – Furuichi df. Misaki WACHI (Nippon Sports Science Univ.) by Inj. Def.
World team playoff – Masako FURUICHI (SDF PTS) df. Sumire IIKURA (Kanagawa Univ.), 2-0
76kg (4 entries)
Final – Yuka KAGAMI (Toyo Univ.) df. Yasuha MATSUYUKI (Jtekt), 4-0
3rd Place – Nodoka YAMAMOTO (Shigakkan Univ.) df. Mizuki NAGASHIMA (Daito Bunka Univ.), 2-0
Semifinal – Kagami df. Nagashima, 4-0
Semifinal – Matsuyuki df. Yamamoto, 2-1