Japan participated in the World U20 Championships for the first time in three years, and came away with an impressive collection of medals from the tournament held Aug. 15-21 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
The women’s squad won eight of the 10 gold medals on offer, repeating its performance from its last appearance at the World U20 in 2019. The 2020 tournament had been cancelled and Japan did not send a team last year.
In freestyle, Japan had one champion, a silver medalist and a bronze medalist, while the Greco-Roman squad captured two bronze medals.
With bronze medals in the two remaining women’s weight classes, Japan easily won the team title with 230 points, finishing well ahead of second-place India with 160 points. It marked the 10th straight women’s team title in tournaments in which Japan was entered.
Three of the gold medalists–Sakura MOTOKI at 59kg, Nonoka OZAKI at 62kg and Ami ISHII at 68kg–will be looking to ride their successes to further glory at the senior World Championships in September in Belgrade, Serbia.
The next generation of women wrestlers had gotten off to a slow start this year at the Asian U17 Championships in June in Kyrgyzstan, where India dominated and for the first time ever, Japan failed to win a single title. But Japan re-established its dominance in Sofia, with hopes that the momentum will carry over to Belgrade.
“To be honest, before we left [for Sofia], a number of wrestlers had injuries, and there was a feeling of uneasiness,” revealed women’s team coach Ayako SHODA, a four-time world champion between 1999 and 2008.
But she said that each member was obsessed with winning, and their mental strength was the key to success. “They were filled with the determination that no matter what happens, they will win in the end. That’s what led to these results.”
Shoda said there are times when the compulsion to win can be too strong and works against the wrestler, and it was tough at times to suppress a feeling of spinning one’s wheels. That was how strong was their will to win, she said. In each match, “They eliminated nerves and zeal, and went with the flow,” she said.
The other gold medals were won by Umi ITO (50kg), Moe KIYOOKA (55kg), Ruka NATAMI (57kg), Mahiro YOSHITAKE (65kg) and high schooler Ayano MORO (76kg). Taking home bronze medals were Ayaka KIMURA (53kg) and Sumire NIIKURA (72kg).
For 59kg champion Motoki, the victory also exposed flaws that she needs to work on. “I won the title, but I wrestled poorly in every match on the first day,” she said, which included a close 2-2 win in the semifinals.
“The foreign wrestlers were stronger than I expected. I got anxious and my wrestling went nowhere. That I was made aware of this is something that I could take away [from the tournament.] I will be going to the senior World Championships next month, but it will be to no avail if I have matches like this. That’s the sense of urgency I feel.”
Ozaki, who will be looking to improve on her third-place finish at 62kg from last year’s senior worlds, said she was satisfied with her performance as preparation.
“I think I was a bit nervous and tight in my opening match. I had four matches on the first day, but with each fight, I felt my condition was getting better, which was good. The level at the senior worlds will be different than this, so I don’t think my matches will go like they did this time. No matter how bad they may look, I am going for victories. I will do what I need to be prepared, whether it’s fixing my techniques, getting mentally ready or whatever.”
Ishii, a teammate of Motoki’s at Ikuei University, had set the bar high for herself and managed to clear it.
“I want to win at the [senior] World Championships, so I didn’t want to look at it that winning the U20 title was ‘ a sure thing.’ I’m happy to win it, but I feel the job’s only half done,” Ishii said. As for the key to victory, she said. “Much of it was due to technique, but also I just did what I usually do. I wrestled as usual, stayed calm and did what I have to do.”
In freestyle, Kochi Prefecture high schooler Yuto NISHIGUCHI won the gold at 61kg, giving Japan a champion for the third straight tournament in which it participated. Since the ages for U20 (previously known as Juniors) were set at the current 18 to 20 starting in 1997, he became Japan’s first high schooler to win a title.
Ryunosuke KAMIYA won the silver medal at 74kg, while Yoshinosuke AOYAGI took the bronze at 65kg.
The freestyle team went to Sofia short-handed after two wrestlers had to pull out due to the coronavirus. That was one factor for the team finishing in 7th place in the standings. “If that didn’t happen, we had the ability to aim for 3rd place,” said coach Shinichi YUMOTO, a bronze medalist at the 2012 London Olympics.
The bronze medals in Greco-Roman were won by Taiga ONISHI at 55kg and Chiezo MARUYAMA at 63kg. It marked the first time since the current format for the World Junior Championships was started in 1997 that Japan won multiple medals in Greco.
Nippon Sports Science University freshman Akari FUJINAMI, who will defend her senior world title at 53kg next month in Belgrade, moved up to 55kg and won her first national collegiate title at the All-Japan Collegiate Championships held Aug. 15-18 at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gym.
With three victories, all by fall or technical fall, Fujinami extended her winning streak to 103 matches.
Fujinami had earned a place on the team at 53kg to the World U20 Championships which were running concurrently, but opted not to go, taking into account such factors as the burden of cutting weight and the additional international travel so close to the senior worlds. The former was also a reason to compete at 55kg.
In the final, Fujinami clashed with Nihon University’s Umi IMAI, who had won the gold at 55kg at the Asian Championships in April in Mongolia—where Fujinami had won at 53kg.
Imai proved a formidable foe and kept Fujinami on the defensive. “This can happen [when I battle overseas],” said Fujinami, who kept her composure and scored all of her points on counters, eventually securing a victory by fall over Imai.
Pursuing a strategy of closing the distance, Fujinami created a situation in which “I give [the opponent] an opening for a tackle,” she said, and showed she could survive with counterattacks. “I have regrets that I wasn’t able to attack, but looking at it the other way, I was able to do wrestling that allowed the opponent to get in on me, and that has value,” she said.
With the presence of Fujinami, a large media contingent of about 40 descended on Komazawa Gym. Said one director of the Japan university federation: “I think it was the most media we’ve ever had for the college championships. It’s something we’ve never experienced, so we had no idea how to oversee their reporting on the event,” he said with wry smile.
In other action, NSSU’s Yudai TAKAHASHI, who will be making the trip to Belgrade to compete at freestyle 79kg, moved up to 86kg and had little trouble handling the extra weight. He won all five of his matches by technical fall, giving up just a single point, to secure his second straight title. He won last year at 79kg.
Two NSSU wrestlers who medaled at last year’s World Championships but didn’t make the team to Belgrade rebounded with victories. Rin MIYAJI, the 2021 world silver medalist at women’s 68kg, won the gold in that weight class, while reigning world Greco 55kg champion Ken MATSUI emerged triumphant in a move up to 60kg.
Shigakkan University’s Natsuki YAMAGUCHI, a national high school champion last year, won the women’s 57kg gold, making Fujinami and her the 32nd and 33rd freshmen in history to win women’s titles.
The Don Quixote Cup All-Japan Beach Wrestling Championships was held on Aug. 11 at Sun Beach in Oarai, Ibaraki Prefecture, for the first time in four years. The event was not scheduled in 2019 or 2020 due to the full schedule revolving around the Tokyo Olympics, and the 2021 edition was canceled due to the pandemic.
This year’s “midsummer festival” drew about 175 participants. That was a marked decrease from the 2018 tournament, the result of a sudden surge in coronavirus infections this summer and the fact that it clashed schedule-wise with the All-Japan Collegiate Championships and the National High School Greco-Roman Championships.
Still, Japan Wrestling Federation President Hideaki TOMIYAMA welcomed holding the event in the future, commenting, “Wrestling under a clear blue sky is nice. We ensured the safety of all of the competitors.”
Among those taking part and helping to fire up the crowd were Tomohiro INOUE, the 72kg Greco champion at the Meiji Cup in June and a member of the Japan team at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and former national Greco champion Taichi OKA.
During the time that beach wrestling was on hold in Japan, progress was made on the international front. United World Wrestling President Nenad LALOVIC came out in favor of including beach wrestling on the Olympic program, making it possible that it could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.
At the opening ceremony in Oarai, Tomiyama conveyed this to the participants, appealing to them to maintain their dreams as they take to the sand.
–Translation by Ken Marantz