Tokyo Olympic champions Yui SUSAKI, coming off completing an unprecedented feat earlier this year, and Risako KINJO, coming back from giving birth to her first child, both regained national titles at the Emperor’s Cup All-Japan Championships.
Their two fellow female Olympic gold medalists, not to mention two reigning world champions, did not fare as well in arguably the most competitive women’s tournament on the planet.
Meanwhile, teen phenom Akari FUJINAMI bounced back from a spate of injuries this autumn that kept her from defending her world title to win her third straight 53kg gold and extend her current winning streak to 106.
Susaki continued her dominance of Remina YOSHIMOTO by notching an 8-0 victory in the 50kg final of the four-day tournament held Dec. 22-25 at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gym, which represented the initial step in the qualifying process for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“I didn’t feel tension,” Susaki said. “Like before the Tokyo Olympics, I was more excited that the qualifying for the Olympics has started.”
Kinjo delayed the start of the process toward a third consecutive Olympic gold when she entered and won the title at the non-Olympic weight of 59kg, forging a 4-1 victory over Yui SAKANO in the final in just her second competition since giving birth to a girl in May.
Kinjo’s quest will begin in earnest when she drops down to 57kg in June at Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships, which is combined with the Emperor’s Cup as the domestic qualifiers for next year’s World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia.
The urgency in qualifying for Belgrade is clear — not only can a wrestler secure a spot for Japan at the Paris Olympics there, but can automatically fill the spot themself by winning a medal in an Olympic weight. Four of Japan’s six places at the Tokyo Olympics were decided at the 2019 World Championships.
Susaki makes no secret of the fact that she intends to be on the flight to Belgrade, where she will be defending the world title she won in September, adding to her previous two from 2017 and 2018.
Yoshimoto had seemed to be the only one capable of stopping her, having won the last two Emperor’s Cup titles and the 2021 world gold when Susaki took a hiatus after her Olympic triumph. But as she showed in the final, Susaki remains on a different plane of existance, as she handed Yoshimoto her fifth loss in five career meetings between the two.
They last met in June, where Susaki won 4-2 in the final of the Meiji Cup — the only time Susaki has been scored upon in her last 24 matches dating back to early 2021. Susaki followed that with a 8-0 victory in a playoff for the team to the World Championships.
“At the Meiji Cup, I watched for the opponent to make a move and didn’t stay on the attack to the end, which I regretted,” Susaki said. “This time, I kept attacking, so I feel I’ve cleared that issue.”
After scoring with a single-leg takedown, Susaki added a counter-lift off a Yoshimoto takedown attempt, immediately going to a gut wrench for a 6-0 lead. In the second period, she forced a stalemate on a deep shot by Yoshimoto, and scored a late spin-behind takedown to secure her third career title and first since 2019.
At this year’s World Championships, also in Belgrade, Susaki stormed to the gold with four wins by either fall or technical fall, without surrendering a point and with no match going into the second period.
“To not give up points shows the difference with the opponent,” Susaki said. “So I place importance on not being scored upon.”
A month later in Spain, Susaki added the only world title missing from her collection, the U23, with an even more dominating performance. That made her the first wrestler in history to complete the Grand Slam of Olympic gold and all four age-group titles.
The Emperor’s Cup saw the return of the only wrestler who has beaten Susaki since she she was a fourth-grader, and who had done it three times. Yuki TANAKA, nee IRIE, had stepped away from competition in 2019 after losing out to Susaki on the place to the Tokyo Olympics.
But the 30-year-old Tanaka never got close to a shot at Susaki, falling 7-0 in the quarterfinals to Ikuei University’s Hanano SAKURAI, who twice took the veteran down with a slick barrel roll. Sakurai would then lose in the semifinals to Yoshimoto by technical fall.
The 28-year-old Kinjo, who won her second straight Olympic gold in Tokyo under her maiden name of KAWAI, is still adjusting not only to the effects of childbirth on her body, but the change in routine.
While her mother and others help with the childcare, Kinjo finds she must budget her time, which means quality over quantity when it comes to practice. But it makes her more appreciative of being able to still compete in the sport she loves.
“On days that I practice, putting on the shoes and taking the mat for a hard workout is tough, but that alone is pleasureable and I can still feel that wrestling is fun,” she said.
Kinjo did not have that easy a time on the mat, as she cut it close in defeating collegian Natsuki YAMAGUCHI 3-2 in her opening match, scoring an activity point just before Yamaguchi gained a takedown in the second period.
“I’m usually tight in the first match,” Kinjo said. “Even if it’s only one point, I have more experience than the others, so it may seem like a little, but I think it’s big. After the first match, I make changes that I need to make.”
She followed that with a 5-0 victory over 2021 world silver medalist Akie HANAI, who had returned from a brief retirement. That match was close, too, until Kinjo scored a takedown and gut wrench in the second period.
In the final against 2017 world U23 champion Sakano, Kinjo gave up an activity point in the first period. In the second, Kinjo shot for a single leg and when Sakano countered with a headlock, Kinjo slipped out and got behind for 2. She later added a counter-lift for a 4-1 win and her first title since 2017 and fourth overall.
For Kinjo to get to Paris, she will have to defeat 57kg champion Sae NANJO at the Meiji Cup and/or in a playoff, after the world U23 gold medalist pulled off one of the surprises of the tournament by topping world champion Tsugumi SAKURAI 5-4 in the semifinals.
“I had my chance and I’m glad I was able to take advantage,” said Nanjo, who had been dealt last-second losses by Sakurai in their previous two meetings, at last year’s Emperor’s Cup and again last June for the Meiji Cup title.
This time Nanjo was able to hang on after jumping out to a 5-0 lead in the first period. In the second period, Sakurai scored a takedown to cut the gap. She gained a second takedown in the waning moments of the match, but did not have enough time to turn Nanjo for the win.
In the final, Nanjo defeated Asian 59kg champion Sara NATAMI of her alma mater Shigakkan University with a second-period fall for her fourth career title and first since 2019.
After receiving an activity point in the first period, Nanjo put Natami onto her back with a cradle off a counter and secured the fall in 4:01.
For Fujinami, a highly anticipated showdown with Tokyo Olympic champion Mayu SHIDOCHI (formerly MUKAIDA) never came to pass after Shidochi was dealt a shocking 3-1 defeat in the semifinals by Haruna OKUNO, who finally got the best of her after losing all nine of their previous encounters.
In the final, Fujinami scored a takedown in each period en route to a 5-0 victory over Okuno. It was her fourth win in four career meetings with the former two-time world champion, who won a third career world U23 title in October.
The Nippon Sports Science University freshman was wrestling for the first time since the national collegiate championships in August, where she won the 55kg title, as a foot injury kept her from defending her senior world title in Belgrade and a knee injury forced her out of the world U20.
“Even though I was confident, I had had a series of injuries and there was a time I couldn’t compete, so there was also uncertainty as well as pressure,” Fujinami said. “I’m glad I could still come out with the win.”
To her credit, Shidochi, who won her third world title at 55kg this year, rebounded from the loss to take the bronze medal with victory by fall over Yumi SHIMONO.
“The new generation of wrestlers are getting stronger,” the 25-year-old Shidochi said. “They are providing the motivation for me to train hard to beat them. The Tokyo Olympics are in the past.”
Shidochi knows that to have any chance of defending her Olympic gold, she will first have to go through Fujinami.
“She’s a really strong athlete, with a long reach and good speed,” Shidochi said. “She’s at the top of the world. To get to Paris, I have to beat her. Even for Fujinami, the 53kg class is deep.”
The biggest shock of the tournament came in the final match on the final day, when Sakura MOTOKI moved up to the Olympic weight class of 62kg and stunned world champion Nonoka OZAKI — a day after knocking off Olympic champion Yukako KAWAI in the semifinals.
Ikuei University’s Motoki, a world bronze medalist at 59kg, scored the decisive takedown with :24 left, then kept Keio’s Ozaki from getting behind in the final seconds to win 4-2 for her first national title.
“Since losing at the World Championships, I’ve thought for the last three months of winning here and I’m happy I was able to pull it off,” said Motoki, who also won a world U20 gold this year.
Ozaki led 2-0 after receiving a second activity point in the second period. Motoki went on the attack and got in on a single-leg, but Ozaki fought it off and limited the damage to a stepout that kept her in the lead.
But with time running down, Motoki executed a slick duck-under to score the go-ahead takedown. At the end, Ozaki tried desperately to spin behind, but Motoki held her ground. An unsuccessful challenge accounted for the final point.
Motoki, who missed last year’s tournament after undergoing knee surgery the previous summer, has added incentive for getting to the Olympics. She wants to follow in the footsteps of her father, Yasutoshi, who competed at Greco 63kg at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“My father had a tough road leading up to the Olympics, with injuries and losses along the way,” the 20-year-old Motoki said. “I expected to have the same hard road. So like my father, I will never give up until the end so I can get to the Olympics.”
For the 19-year-old Ozaki, the loss was devastating and left her in tears. She had come into the tournament on an amazing roll that included a win over Kawai at the Meiji Cup last May and, in a three-month span this fall, the world U20, senior and U23 golds in succession.
“I always try to be aggressive in my wrestling, and when I try to think about what was lacking today, I don’t know,” said Ozaki, who last lost to a Japanese opponent in August 2018 in the semifinals of the inter-high school championships to Yuzuka INAGAKI.
Ozaki’s most recent loss to anyone was in the second round of the 2021 World Championships to Olympic silver medalist Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ) –a defeat she avenged twice over, first in the final of this year’s Asian Championships and again for the gold at the Belgrade worlds.
She vowed to learn from the loss and come back stronger at the Meiji Cup.
In the semifinals, Motoki simply overpowered Kawai in rolling to a 9-2 victory, although Kawai was not at full strength, having withdrawn from the Japan Women’s Open in November due to a back injury. She had to be helped off the mat after the loss to Motoki.
For her effort, which gave Ikuei three of the 10 titles at stake, Motoki was named the most outstanding wrestler in women’s wrestling for the tournament.
Another clash of titans took place at 68kg, where world silver medalist Ami ISHII came from behind to notch a 5-2 victory in the final over Miwa MORIKAWA, the world champion at 65kg who had moved up to the Olympic weight.
Trailing 2-0 in the second period, Ishii went ahead on criteria with a single-leg takedown, then, in a frantic last minute, stood firm against Morikawa’s attempt for a stepout and instead added one herself with nine seconds left. The final takedown came when she stopped a desperation lunge.
“When the buzzer sounded, I was really happy,” said Ishii, who also picked up a world U20 gold this year. “But when I look at it calmly, this match was the first in the qualifying process, it didn’t decide the Olympics. It’s just one point along the way.”
En route to the final in a stacked field that included four current or past world medalists and two former U20 world champions, Ishii rallied from four points down for a 6-4 quarterfinal victory over 2021 world silver medalist Rin MIYAJI, gaining the decisive takedown with :25 left.
Morikawa won the 68kg title in 2019, but lost a playoff with Sara DOSHO for the spot at the Tokyo Olympics, then dropped down to 65kg and won consecutive crowns in 2020 and 2021. Finding a way to match the power of the heavier opponents will be her next order of business.
“At 65kg, I often press ahead to get stepout points,” Morikawa said. “But she held me off and I couldn’t get her out. I have to get [my strength] to the level of this weight class.”
In other action, high school star and world U20 champion Ayano MORO put her unbeaten streak dating back to November 2017 on the line in her debut on the senior level, and walked away with the national title at 76kg.
Moro, a senior at powerful Abe Gakuen High School in Tokyo, scored a takedown with 20 seconds left and held on for a 4-3 win in the final over Shigakkan’s Nodoka YAMAMOTO, who was coming off a pair of victories at the women’s World Cup in her first senior competition.
The 17-year-old Moro led 2-1, with all points coming on the activity clock, when she took Yamamoto down with a double-leg tackle. In the final seconds, Yamamoto cut the gap with a stepout and a penalty point for fleeing, but it was too little too late.
“This was my first All-Japan, so I was nervous and I didn’t execute my tackles well,” Moro said. “Outside of my team practice, I did weight training with my father and sometimes practiced at Yamanashi Gakuin [University]. I feel that the practice partners were stronger [than my opponents here],” she said.
Moro did not have to contend with two-time defending champion and world bronze medalist Yuka KAGAMI, who withdrew from the competition after winning her opening match of her round-robin group due to a torn chest muscle suffered prior to the tournament.
“I was surprised she pulled out,” Moro said. “I wanted to face her, so it was a shock.”
At 55kg, Ikuei’s Moe KIYOOKA, who won both the world U20 and U23 titles this year, earned her first national title with a 2-0 victory in the final over Waseda’s Rino KATAOKA in a battle of teammates at the recent World Cup.
Kiyooka scored the lone points with a first-period takedown off a single-leg tackle.
Kanagawa University’s Sumire NIIKURA, who last year made history as the first-ever national champion with ties of any kind to her school, successfully defended her 72kg title with a 7-5 victory over Senshu University’s Kanon KOBAYASHI.
Niikura, also a product of Abe Gakuen High School, took a 7-0 lead with a pair of takedowns in the second period, then held on as Kobayashi fought back to cut the gap to two.
Niikura made her international debut this year, winning a silver medal at the Asian Championships, then bronzes at both the world U20 and world U23.
At 65kg, world U20 champion Mahiro YOSHITAKE of NSSU picked up her first senior national title with a 5-3 victory over Yamanashi Gakuin’s Rin TERAMOTO. Yoshitake went ahead midway through the second period with a backtrip to a double leg takdown, which she followed up with a lace-lock roll.
50kg (16 entries)
Gold – Yui SUSAKI (Kitz) df. Remina YOSHIMOTO (Shigakkan Univ.), 8-0
Bronze – Umi ITO (Waseda Univ.) df. Nanami IRIE (Miki House) by TF, 10-0, :48
Bronze – Hanano SAKURAI (Ikuei Univ.) df. Haruna MORIKAWA (Shigakukan H.S.) by TF, 10-0, 2:21
Semifinal – Yui SUSAKI df. Nanami IRIE by TF, 11-0, 2:47
Semifinal – Remina YOSHIMOTO df. Hanano SAKURAI by Fall, 3:57 (10-0)
(Susaki won 3rd title, 1st in 3 years)
53kg (9 entries)
Gold – Akari FUJINAMI (NSSU) df. Haruna OKUNO (SDF PTS), 5-0
Bronze – Mako ONO (NSSU) df. Nagisa HARADA (Ashiya Gakuen H.S.), 6-0
Bronze – Mayu SHIDOCHI (Jtekt) df. Yumi SHIMONO (Ikuei Univ.) by Fall, 4:59 (6-0)
Semifinal – Akari FUJINAMI df. Mako ONO by TF, 10-0, :28
Semifinal – Haruna OKUNO df. Mayu SHIDOCHI, 3-1
(Fujinami won 3rd title, 3rd in row)
55kg (14 entries)
Gold – Moe KIYOOKA (Ikuei Univ.) df. Rino KATAOKA (Waseda Univ.), 2-0
Bronze – Kanon YAMASHITA (Takamatsu Kita H.S.) df. Ruka NATAMI (Shigakkan Univ.), 9-4
Bronze – Neon GOMI (Ikuei Univ.) df. Misaki YOSHIBA (Daito Bunka Univ.), 2-1
Semifinal – Moe KIYOOKA df. Kanon YAMASHITA, 12-6
Semifinal – Rino KATAOKA df Neon GOMI, 4-2
(Kiyooka won 1st title)
57kg (10 entries)
Gold – Sae NANJO (Toshin Housing) df. Sara NATAMI (Shigakkan Univ.) by Fall, 4:01 (5-0)
Bronze – Tsugumi SAKURAI (Ikuei Univ.) df. Ibuki TAMURA (NSSU) by Def.
Bronze – Yumeka TANABE (Restar Holdings) df. Umi IMAI (Nihon Univ.), 6-4
Semifinal – Sae NANJO df. Tsugumi SAKURAI, 5-4
Semifinal – Sara NATAMI df. Umi IMAI by Fall, 5:31 (3-2)
(Nanjo won 4th title, incl. one at 55kg, 1st in 2 years)
59kg (15 entries)
Gold – Risako KINJO (Suntory Beverage Solution) df. Yui SAKANO (Tokyo MPD Security Bureau), 4-1
Bronze – Akie HANAI (Asake H.S. Staff) df. Natsuki YAMAGUCHI (Shigakkan Univ.), 6-5
Bronze – Miyu NAKANISHI (Shigakukan H.S.) df. Nana IKEHATA (Ashiya Gakuen H.S.) by Fall, 3:54 (2-1)
Semifinal – Risako KINJO df. Akie HANAI, 5-0
Semifinal – Yui SAKANO df. Miyu NAKANISHI by TF, 11-0, 5:51
(Kinjo won 4th title, incl. three at 60kg, 58kg, 62kg, and 1st in 5 years)
62kg (11 entries)
Gold – Sakura MOTOKI (Ikuei Univ.) df. Nonoka OZAKI (Keio Univ.), 4-2
Bronze – Naomi RUIKE (Shigakkan Univ.) df. Nayu UCHIDA (Shigakkan Univ.) by Fall, 5:58 (10-0)
Bronze – Kiwa IWASAWA (Akita Northern Happinets) df. Yukako KAWAI (Suntory Beverage Solution) by Def.
Semifinal – Nonoka OZAKI df. Nayu UCHIDA by TF, 10-0, 3:57
Semifinal – Sakura MOTOKI df. Yukako KAWAI, 9-2
(Motoki won 1st title)
65kg (10 entries)
Gold – Mahiro YOSHITAKE (NSSU) df. Rin TERAMOTO (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.), 5-3
Bronze – Misuzu ENOMOTO (SDF PTS) df. Nagisa ITO (Inabe Gakuen H.S.) by TF, 10-0, 2:09
Bronze – Momoko KITADE (Shigakukan H.S.) df. Kaede HIRAI (Ikuei Univ.), 5-1
Semifinal – Mahiro YOSHITAKE df. Misuzu ENOMOTO, 12-10
Semifinal – Rin TERAMOTO df. Momoko KITADE, 2-2
(Yoshitake won 1st title)
68kg (9 entries)
Gold – Ami ISHII (Ikuei Univ.) df. Miwa MORIKAWA (ALSOK), 5-2
Bronze – Rin MIYAJI (NSSU) df. Naruha MATSUYUKI (Jtekt) by TF, 10-0, 3:27
Bronze – Miyu IMAI (SDF PTS) df. Yui ISAKI (Nihon Bunri Univ.) by TF, 10-0, 1:10
Semifinal – Ami ISHII df. Naruha MATSUYUKI by TF, 12-2, 5:55
Semifinal – Miwa MORIKAWA df. Miyu IMAI, 3-0
(Ishii won 2nd title, incl. one at 65kg, 1st in 3 years)
72kg (8 entries)
Gold – Sumire NIIKURA (Kanagawa Univ.) df. Kanon KOBAYASHI (Senshu Univ.), 7-5
Bronze – Yawara SHIOSAWA (Ikuei Univ.) df. Mei SHINDO (Cleanup), 3-0
Bronze – Misaki WACHI (NSSU) df. Nana SAKAMOTO (Tomioka Wrestling Club) by TF, 10-0, 2:45
Semifinal – Sumire NIIKURA df. Mei SHINDO, 4-0
Semifinal – Kanon KOBAYASHI df. Misaki WACHI, 6-3
(Niikura won 2nd title, 2nd in row)
76kg (7 entries)
Gold – Ayano MORO (Abe Gakuin H.S.) df. Nodoka YAMAMOTO (Shigakkan Univ.), 4-3
Bronze – Mizuki NAGASHIMA (Daito Bunka Univ.) df. Nanaha TAKASU (Sakai Liberal H.S.), 4-0
Semifinal – Nodoka YAMAMOTO df. Mizuki NAGASHIMA, 4-0
Semifinal – Ayano MORO df. Nanaha TAKASU by TF, 10-0, 1:10
(Moro won 1st title)
Japan saw its streak of six consecutive titles at the women’s World Cup dating from 2014 end at this year’s tournament, held for the first time in three years on Dec. 10-11 in Coralville, Iowa, but not for a lack of trying by a spirited but young makeshift squad.
The mostly collegian Japanese team came oh-so-close in losing its two group matches, as both were decided on the second criteria of classification points after the 10 bouts were split. Japan lost the opener to Ukraine 5-5 (22-18), then fell to Mongolia 5-5 (24-17).
Japan was handicapped by having to forfeit at 72kg when Yuka FUJIKURA was injured just before the start of the tournament.
“Just looking at the results, it is disappointing that we were eliminated in the preliminary round,” national team coach Kiwa SAKAE said. “But the match with champion Ukraine was 5-5, and third-place Mongolia was 5-5, so we fought them evenly. I think that’s good for our confidence.”
Two of the Japanese team members won both of their matches, Waseda University’s Rina KATAOKA at 53kg and Shigakkan University’s Nodoka YAMAMOTO.
While Yamamoto’s victories tied the scores in terms of head-to-head matches, the outcomes had already been decided and it didn’t matter how she won. Even a fall would not have been enough. Still, “I thought 5-5 is different from 4-6,” as she won two close decisions.
Six of the seven other team members split their matches. They were Hanano SAKURAI (50kg), Moe KIYOOKA (55kg), Ruka NATAMI (57kg), Himeka TOKUHARA (59kg), Yui SAKANO (62kg) and Miyu IMAI (65kg). Kumi KOBAYASHI (68kg) lost twice.
In the final, Ukraine defeated China 6-4, while Mongolia took the bronze medal by beating the host United States 7-3, showing that the luck of the draw also worked against Japan.
–By Ken Marantz