Japan will dispatch a strong contingent of 31 wrestlers, mainly recently crowned senior national champions, to the Zagreb Open to be held Feb. 1-5 in the Croatian capital.
Among the top wrestlers making the trip to the first stop on the UWW Ranking Series calendar for 2023 are reigning women’s world 50kg champion Yui SUSAKI and Akari FUJINAMI, the 2021 world champion at women’s 53kg.
Fujinami, who missed last year’s World Championships due to injury, could face the wrestler who now sits on the throne she abdicated, as Dominique PARRISH (USA) is among the entries in a stacked 53kg field.
Former world champions Takuto OTOGURO at freestyle 65kg and Kenichiro FUMITA at Greco-Roman 60kg are not entered.
The ranking series tournaments offer points based on placing that apply to the UWW rankings, which serve to determine seedings at the World Championships and other major tournaments. There is also prize money at stake.
In some weight classes, Japan has more than one entry. Here is the Japan lineup:
57kg: Rikuto ARAI (SDF PTS)
Yuto NISHIUCHI (Kochi Minami H.S.)
65kg: Ryoma ANRAKU (Nobitel)
Kaiji OGINO (Yamanashi Gakuin Univ.)
74kg: Kirin KINOSHITA (Cleanup)
Kojiro SHIGA (MPD Fussa Police Station)
86kg: Hayato ISHIGURO (SDF PTS)
97kg: Takashi ISHIGURO (New Japan Pro Wrestling)
125kg: Daiki YAMAMOTO (SDF PTS)
50kg: Yui SUSAKI (Kitz)
53kg: Akari FUJINAMI (NSSU)
55kg: Moe KIYOOKA (Ikuei Univ.)
57kg: Sae NANJO (Toshin Housing)
59kg: Yui SAKANO (Tokyo MPD Security Bureau)
62kg: Sakura MOTOKI (Ikuei Univ.)
65kg: Mahiro YOSHITAKE (NSSU)
68kg: Ami ISHII (Ikuei Univ.)
72kg: Sumire NIIKURA (Kanagawa Univ.)
76kg: Ayano MORO (Abe Gakuin H.S.)
60kg: Maito KAWANA (SDF PTS)
Kaito INABA (NSSU Graduate School)
67kg: Katsuaki ENDO (Towa Engineering)
Haruto YABE (NSSU)
Eito NISHIDA (Senshu Univ.)
77kg: Kodai SAKURABA (SDF PTS)
Nao KUSAKA (NSSU)
Minto MAEDA (Restar Holdings)
87kg: Masato SUMI (SDF PTS)
So SAKABE (SDF PTS)
97kg: Yuta NARA (Tokyo MPD Security Bureau)
130kg: Sota OKUMURA (Takushoku Univ.)
The South Korean national freestyle team came to Japan on Jan. 13 and practiced at Nippon Sports Science University through Jan. 25.
At one time, South Korean wrestlers were superior to their Japanese counterparts in both men’s styles, having accumulated 11 Olympic gold medals (4 in freestyle, 7 in Greco-Roman) and 16 world titles (6 in freestyle, 10 in Greco-Roman).
But the Asian neighbor has fallen on tough times in recent years, and only qualified two wrestlers in Greco-Roman for the Tokyo Olympics and none in freestyle.
At last year’s World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, South Korea managed to have one fifth-place in finish in Greco-Roman, but its three wrestlers in freestyle combined for just one victory and a best placing of 11th.
The mini-camp at NSSU clearly showed the difference in level in the lightweight classes and how South Korea is now the side needing to catch up.
NSSU head coach Shingo MATSUMOTO accentuated the positive aspects of the experience.
“It’s stimulating to practice with wrestlers from other teams, and it’s even more of plus when they are foreigners,” Matsumoto said, “There are times they know techniques that the Japanese wrestlers don’t have, and there are things we should learn.”
NSSU has long had exchanges with Korean universities, and the friendly rivalry has benefited both countries. The pandemic cut off such exchanges in recent years, but to raise international competiveness, many are looking for opportunities to get them going again.
The Korean team was led by Eui-Jae MOON, the silver medalist at freestyle 85kg at the 2004 Athens Olympics — the country hasn’t had a freestyle Olympic medalist since. Accompanying him as a coach was Jeong Geung LEE, who had served as a coach at Chuo University for four years from 2017.
During his active career, Lee often came to Japan on training tours which helped make him among the best in Asia. In 1986, he won the freestyle 62kg gold at the Asian Games. Perhaps recalling those days, he said, “I want us to be stronger with the help of Japan” and has urged his wrestlers to take on the challenge positively.
Japan’s Masashi MASUDA was among the referees who have earned the most prestigious Category 1S license, the UWW announced in presenting its list of referees for 2023.
Masuda, a teacher at Kadotsu High School in Kagawa Prefecture, had previously held the second-highest Category 1 license. The Category 1S license makes him eligible to referee matches at the Olympic Games and Senior World Championships.
He is expected to make his 1S “debut” at the Asian Championships in New Delhi, India, in late March.
Masuda becomes Japan’s third Category 1S referee, after UWW Refereeing Commission executive member Kuninori KOIKE and Isao OKIYAMA.
“I was able to reach this point with the support of many people,” said Masuda, a former wrestler himself who placed second at freestyle 58kg at the 2001 All-Japan Championships. “I am very grateful. I will watch many videos and try to learn the standards for making world-level decisions.”
Currently, Japan has 19 referees licensed for international matches, including Koike. Among that total is two women, and there are calls to get more women involved.
After a long suspension due to the spread of coronavirus infections, friendship exchanges between Japan and American high schoolers were resumed for the first time since January 2020.
On Jan. 4, two high school all-star teams departed from Narita Airport, one heading to San Francisco, California, and the other for Seattle, Washington.
Prior to returning on Jan. 14, the teams visited local high schools in the respective states where they participated in joint practices and had matches against local teams. The wrestlers stayed with homestay families.
The exchanges marked the 60th in the long and proud history between the two countries. According to the wrestling division of the All Japan High School Athletic Federation, no other sport has had more than 50 exchanges, making it a traditional event that the high school wrestling world in Japan and the United States should be proud of.
An American team is scheduled to come to Japan in June.
–Translation by Ken Marantz