Teenagers Akari FUJINAMI and Arash YOSHIDA turned in historic performances in winning gold medals at the Asian Championships held April 9-14 in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana.
Fujinami extended her current winning streak to 119 in defending her 53kg title, equaling the streak compiled by one of Japan’s greatest wrestling legends, three-time Olympic champion and fellow Mie Prefecture native Saori YOSHIDA.
Arash Yoshida became Japan’s youngest-ever male champion at an Asian Championships or Asian Games when he captured the freestyle 92kg gold, a feat made more noteworthy in that it came in his first-ever international tournament.
Fujinami, who has not lost either at home or abroad since her junior high school days dating back to September 2017, equaled Saori Yoshida‘s remarkable streak with three victories, all by technical fall without conceding a point. Yoshida compiled her streak from December 2001 to January 2008.
Fujinami was one of five Japanese women to take home gold medals as the senior Asian Championships returned to full strength after years of weakened fields due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Japanese women also earned two silvers and two bronzes to easily take home the team championship with 205 points. It was the fourth straight title, excluding 2021 when Japan missed the tournament. China, which returned to the competition after a three-year absence, finished well behind in second with 149.
The 19-year-old Fujinami, a world champion in 2021, easily defeated Meng Hsuan HSIEH (TPE) 11-0 in her opening match in the quarterfinals, then dispatched Tokyo Olympic bronze medalist Bolortuya BAT OCHIR (MGL) 10-0 to advance to the final.
In the gold-medal match, Fujinami was taken into the second period for the first time on the day, but quickly finished up a 10-0 victory over 2022 world and Asian U20 champion Antim ANTIM (IND) for the victory.
Facing the media upon her arrival at Haneda Airport, Fujinami reiterated that she places little importance on the winning streak that has generated so much attention, and remains solely focused on winning the gold at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“I’m happy that the media brings it up, but my feeling is that it is just a thing of the past,” Fujinami said of the streak. “If I don’t win from now, it doesn’t mean anything. My thinking is that [it’s value] stems from winning at the Olympics.”
In Astana, Fujinami used the tournament as a testing ground for expanding her repertoire, purposely keeping from using her most tried-and-true techniques. It went according to plan.
“My aim was to show the world that ‘she can do more than tackle,'” Fujinami said. “If I can make them think I might grab the arms before an attack, I think my tackles will become more effective.”
Fujinami, whose victory gave her three tournament titles in as many months after wins in Croatia and Bulgaria, is now focused on securing a ticket to this year’s World Championships in September, when the first spots at the Paris Olympics will be up for grabs.
She can do that by triumphing at the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in June, where the teen could clash with Tokyo Olympic gold medalist Mayu SHIDOCHI, who won the world title last year at 55kg.
“I want to put on my best performance in June,” Fujinami said.
Also striking women’s gold in Astana were Remina YOSHIMOTO, who defended her title at 50kg; Sae NANJO, who triumphed at 57kg to add to the 55kg title she won in 2017 at age 17; and first-time champions Yui SAKANO at 59kg and Ami ISHII at 68kg.
Mahiro YOSHITAKE (65kg) and Sumire NIIKURA (72kg) captured silver medals, while Rino KATAOKA (55kg) and Nonoka OZAKI (62kg) took home bronzes.
In the men’s competitions, Yoshida put on a masterful performance to win the 92kg freestyle gold at 19 years 3 months 3 days, surpassing the previous record set just two years ago by Yu SHIOTANI, who was 19 years 5 months 17 days when he won the Greco-Roman 55kg gold in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Yoshida, a Nihon University student and Chiba Prefecture native whose father is Iranian and mother is Japanese, defied the partisan crowd and defeated local favorite and 2022 Asian U23 champion Rizabek AITMUKHAN (KAZ) 11-4 in the final.
If Yoshida was nervous in his international debut, he didn’t show it when he opened his golden run with a 10-0 technical fall victory over Arashk MOHEBBI (IRI) from his father’s homeland. He survived a close match in the quarterfinals, beating Gankhuyag GANBAATAR (MGL) 9-7, but stormed into the final with a 13-2 technical fall over Ajiniyaz SAPARNIYAZOV (UZB).
Yoshida became Japan’s first Asian champion in a weight class 90kg or above since 1989, when Yasutoshi MORIYAMA and Tsutomu KONDO won the 90kg and 100kg titles, respectively. In freestyle, there hasn’t been an upper weight champion since 1983, when Tamon HONDA triumphed at 100kg. It also makes Yoshida the first such champion since the breakup of the Soviet Union added five wrestling nations to Asia in 1993.
Yoshida is the fourth son of father Javid ESFANJANI, and mother Naomi YOSHIDA. Esfanjani runs the kids wrestling club in Chiba Prefecture where he and his siblings started the sport. A translation of a JWF story on Esfanjani that appeared on the UWW website can be accessed here: https://uww.org/article/iranian-coach-japan-kids-club-builds-bridge-between-two-nations
Arash started wrestling at age 3, and is following in the footsteps of older brother Keivan, who last year was a double national collegiate champion at Nihon University and finished second at 97kg at the All-Japan Championships.
Arash was a five-time national champion as a kindergartner and elementary school student, and after competing sparingly in junior high school, made a name for himself by returning in high school to win the national titles in both freestyle and Greco-Roman. He followed Keivan to Nihon University, where he has made remarkable progress.
In Astana, Japan had five other medalists in freestyle, with Kirin KINOSHITA taking home the silver at 74kg and Rikuto ARAI (57kg), Ryoma ANRAKU (65kg), Yoshinosuke AOYAGI (70kg)and Hayato ISHIGURO (86kg) all winning bronze medals.
Powered by Yoshida’s gold, the freestyle team accumulated 129 points to place second in the team race for the first time since 2017, while finishing ahead of powerhouse Iran for the first time in 15 years. It also bettered the fourth-place finish from 2022, when Japan had two champions. Host Kazakhstan, with four gold medalists, won its first-ever team title with 179 points.
In Greco-Roman, Kyotaro SOGABE was Japan’s highest finisher with a silver medal at 67kg. Winning bronze medals were Maito KAWANA at 60kg, Kodai SAKURABA at 77kg, Yuya MAETA at 82kg and Yuta NARA at 97kg.
For Arai and Sakuraba, their bronze medals were their second straight, while Ishiguro added to the bronze he won in 2021.
Japan will dispatch three men to the opening event in the Beach Wrestling World Series, to be held May 7-8 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The three have all been successful in traditional wrestling on the national level.
Yoshiki YAMADA, the 2021 Meiji Cup champion in Greco-Roman at 63kg, is entered at 70kg, while Hirotaka ABE, the freestyle 70kg runner-up at the 2021 All-Japan Championships, will compete at 80kg. Masayuki AMANO, second at Greco 97kg at last year’s All-Japan Championships, is entered at 90+kg.
–Translation by Ken Marantz