The induction ceremony for the newest members of the United World Wrestling Hall of Fame was held on Sept. 9 at a hotel in Belgrade, Serbia, and inductee and 2012 London Olympic gold medalist Hitomi OBARA attended in person, wearing a kimono with a cherry blossom motif.
The two others inducted from Japan, three-time Olympic champion Saori YOSHIDA and four-time Olympic champion Kaori ICHO, were not in attendance. Japan Wrestling Federation Vice-President Kuniko TANIOKA accepted on behalf of Yoshida, while JWF President Hideaki TOMIYAMA accepted on behalf of Icho.
The three became the first Japanese inducted since 2018, when 1968 Mexico City Olympic and two-time world champion Shigeo NAKATA and four-time world champion Ayako SHODA were inducted. This brings the total of Japanese women in the Hall of Fame to six, and Japanese overall to 12.
“This is the first time for the whole family to go on an overseas trip,” said Obara, who was accompanied by husband Koji OBARA and their two children. “I am very happy to use this opportunity to travel.”
Originally, the ceremony was to be held in 2021 in conjunction with the Tokyo Olympics. But because of tight restrictions on the entry into Japan by foreigners, the ceremony was postponed. While Obara would have liked to have been honored on home soil, “It was good that I could come with my family,” she said in her acceptance speech.
Obara was honored for her eight world titles along with her Olympic triumph in London. During those years, she also endured the devastating setback of failing to make the 2008 Athens Olympics at a higher weight, and even retired at one point. But she returned to the sport, dropped down to 48kg and won the gold in London.
When it was pointed out that a full decade had passed since then, Obara replied, “It’s been 10 years. In that time, my son and daughter were born, and I have gone through the demands of raising children.”
While Yoshida and Icho were not there in person, Obara said it was memorable to be entering the Hall of Fame together with her friendly rivals from that era.
“I wanted to go through this together, but I feel it is an honor to have come to this point with those two,” Obara said. “I have had wonderful experiences through wrestling. I could not have done it on my own. I want to say thank you to everyone who helped me along the way.”
At the UWW Congress held on Sept. 9 in Belgrade, JWF Vice-President Kuniko TANIOKA was a candidate for bureau member but was not elected, ensuring the Japan will remain without a member of the bureau since 2018.
The election was to fill the places of six members whose 6-year term had expired, as well as that of the late Lucho KANEVA (ITA), who was elected last year but whose death left an opening for the final four years of his term through 2026. There were 16 candidates (5 incumbents, 11 newcomers) to fill the seven seats.
Tanioka attributed her loss to standing as a candidate for the bureau despite having no previous links with UWW. “It is necessary to join the various UWW committees from a young age, cultivate yourself as an international person over 10 to 20 years and emerge as a human resource who can contribute to UWW,” she said.
Japan’s first bureau member was Ichiro HATTA, the then-JWF President who was elected at the Congress at the time of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He served for 12 years through the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, including a stint as vice-president. Four years later, former JWF President Shozo SASAHARA was elected in 1972 and later became a vice-president. In 1996, Tomiaki FUKUDA (current honorary JWF president) ran in his place and was elected, and became a vice-president in 2002.
In 2014, Fukuda stepped down, and current JWF President Hideaki TOMIYAMA was elected to the bureau for a 4-year term. But he was not reelected in 2018, and Japan has not had a presence on the bureau since then.
Japanese wrestlers won seven gold medals and 13 medals overall across the three styles at the World Championships held Sept. 10-18 in Belgrade.
The five golds won by the women’s squad were the most since 2006, and it was the first time since 2008 that every team member came away with a medal (there was no entry at 53kg). In freestyle, Japan won two gold medals, marking the first time it had achieved that feat in 43 years, and finished in the top three in the team standings for the first time in 55 years.
“They did an amazing job, I’m really happy,” said Kosei AKAISHI, the JWF’s director of performance enhancement.
Regarding the women’s performance, Akaishi commented, “Their eagerness to bring home medals was incredible.” In many weight classes, even those who win world titles face stiff competition at home, so many went into the competition thinking, “There’s no way I’m losing here.” Akaishi pointed out that this is Japan’s strength: “This is what happens when you’re a country with many of the No. 1 wrestlers in the world.”
Asked about the freestyle wrestlers coming away with two golds for the first time since 1979, Akaishi replied, “Has it really been that long? It’s not easy to win…” Still, it should be noted that the two titles came in non-Olympic weight classes, 61kg and 70kg.
Next year, the goal will be for success in the Olympic weight classes, as the World Championships will serve as the initial qualifier for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Including the expected return to the mat of defending Olympic 65kg champion Takuto OTOGURO, Akaishi said he wants to look into how to firmly boost the level heading to the Paris.
In Greco-Roman, Japan was shut out of the golds and took home two bronzes, bringing to light a glaring need to improve both offensively and defensively in ground wrestling. Akaishi said that will be the main focus for the national team, including at the U20 and U17 levels.
In the team competition at the World Championships in Belgrade, Japan’s women won the title and the freestyle squad placed third, thus qualifying for the World Cup team events in both styles to be held concurrently Dec. 10-11 in Coralville, Iowa.
That conflicts with the dates of the All-Japan Championships, which carries heavier weight this year as it marks the starting point in the qualifying process for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
While the exact details of Olympic team qualifying have not yet been announced, victories at both the All-Japan Championships and the All-Japan Invitational Championships in June would earn an automatic place on the team to the World Championships, tentatively scheduled for September 2023 in Russia. That will be the first qualifying tournament for the Paris Olympics.
A wrestler who competes at the World Cup would have less than 10 days to prepare for the All-Japan Championships upon returning to Japan. Many competitors aiming for the World Championships will be looking to be in top condition for the all-important domestic tournament, and most are expected to pass on the World Cup.
“It’s a problem,” said JWF performance enhancement director Kosei AKAISHI. “We can’t force them [to go to the World Cup]. We will decide who will go to the World Cup in consultation with the federation.”