Former Japan high school star aims to put Samoa on wrestling map

By Ikuo Higuchi

(Editor's Note: The following appeared on the Japan Wrestling Federation website on Nov. 2. It has been translated and published by permission.)

TOKYO -- On the Japan wrestling schedule, the National Non-Student Open falls far below the level of major tournaments like the Emperor's Cup and Meiji Cup, which serve as the qualifiers for the world and Olympic teams.

As such, it is rare to see a prospective Olympic team member entering the tournament. Yet at this year's event, which was held for the first time in three years due to the pandemic, there was one, although it is not Japan's team that Gaku AKAZAWA is hoping to make for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

A former high school star, Akazawa won the freestyle 70kg title as a member of a team from the Pacific Island nation of Samoa, which he hopes to represent in Paris. 

The 32-year-old Akazawa, whose quest for Olympic glory included a four-year sabbatical in Russia, was wrestling in his native country for the first time in three years at the Non-Student Open, which was held Oct. 29-30 in Fujimi, Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo.

Akazawa, who was unable to obtain Samoan citizenship in time for the Tokyo Olympics, is hoping the paperwork comes through in time for Paris. "I have never stopped dreaming of appearing in the Olympics," he said. "I will make every effort as I try to become an Olympian from Samoa."

JPNGaku Akazawa celebrates his victory at freestyle 70kg for Team Samoa. (Photo by Japan Wrestling Federation)

Akazawa last competed in Japan at the 2016 Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships. The victory in Fujimi was his first anywhere since winning the National Inter-High School title at 66kg in 2008, which made him the first-ever national champion from Hanasaki Tokuharu High School in Saitama Prefecture.

His coach at Hanasaki Tokuharu, Takuya TAKASAKA, was on hand to watch the former prodigy show his fighting spirit with tough wins over several opponents with pedigrees. In the semifinals, Akazawa defeated 2018 national collegiate champion Hayato OGATA 8-2, then took the title with a 6-2 win over Kantaro YAMAZAKI, who won both the spring and fall titles of the East Japan collegiate league in 2018.

"It was a long time since I've wrestled in Japan, so I had no idea what level I am presently at," Akazawa said. "I was nervous. By winning the title, it gave me some idea of where I stand, and I'm honestly really happy."

Asked what was the source of his tenacity and stamina that allowed him to rally to victories, he replied, "Every morning and night, and sometimes three times a day, I train intensely. I think that came out today."

In Samoa, wrestling is still far from popular, and with the pandemic limiting activities, there are only about 10 wrestlers over the age of 14 in the entire country. The majority of competitors are still beginners, and he cannot train in a way that sharpens his skills. "Instead, I think I was able to win on physical strength," he said.

JPN1Akazawa, right, poses with competitors at the Samoan national championships in the capital Apia in August 2021, where he served as a referee. (Photo courtesy of Gaku Akazawa)

From Russia, with determination

The Non-Student Open, as the name implies, is for anyone out of school, and draws a wide mix of wrestlers with various backgrounds, from former high school champions to more than a few who started the sport after leaving college to keep in shape and maybe practice on weekends at a local club.

But for Akazawa, it presented a challenge directly related to getting to Paris. "I hadn't wrestled in Japan for a long time, so I think there were people who thought I had retired," he said with a smile.

Akazawa, who had won national junior high school and JOC Junior Olympic titles, went to Nihon University following his Inter-High School success, but was unable to repeat it on the collegiate level. Plagued by injuries, Akazawa's file in the database of the Japan Wrestling Federation website, which lists all results, has no entries for his years at Nihon.

He would not make his first appearance at the Emperor's Cup (held in December) until 2013, the year he graduated from Nihon. He placed fifth at 60kg.

Never abandoning his Olympic dream, he chose a path that took him to one of the premier powerhouses in the sport, Russia. He headed to Krasnoyarsk, the Siberian city well known in Japan as the host of the prestigious Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix, to continue his career.

He had no sponsor. When his visa expired, he would return to Japan, work some odd jobs to save up money, then return to Krasnoyarsk. He endured this unstable life for four years from 2013 to 2017, all because of his love for the sport and his desire to become an Olympic champion.

But no matter how much he trained in a top wrestling country, such instability in his daily life certainly made it difficult to focus on the sport. He would return to Japan to compete in the Emperor's Cup and Meiji Cup (the All-Japan Invitational Championships, held in the spring), but was unable to finish on the podium.

The Olympics seemed farther away than ever. But his dream never faded. What caught his attention was that one of his Russian wrestling buddies, instead of competing for the stacked Russian team, had changed nationalities and made it to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

While such a move is exceedingly rare in Japan, it is not without precedent. A minor comedian named Neko HIROSHI (neko means cat; his real name is Kuniaki TAKIZAKI) became a Cambodian citizen so he could run the men's marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

While his move gained attention as a celebrity, he also faced criticism as his best time would not have even made the Japanese women's team. He finished 138th in Rio, 37 minutes behind the winner with a time that would have placed 85th in the women's race.

Akazawa, whose case is different in that he is already on a global level, began to think about how he could go about changing nationality. Thinking of countries with the easiest route for qualifying he was attracted to Oceania. An English teacher from his junior high school days just happened to be dispatched to Samoa under a Japan International Cooperation Agency program as a judo instructor, and Akazawa got the wheels in motion by contacting him.

With that as the turning point, he relocated to Samoa in June 2017.

JPN3Maulo Willie ALOFIPO, a former rugby player, accompanied Akazawa to Japan and finished second in both styles. (Photo by Japan Wrestling Federation)

Spreading the word in Samoa

Jerry WALLWORK, president of the Samoan Wrestling Federation, bought into Akazawa's enthusiasm and dedication and pledged his support. The following year, Akazawa married a local nurse named Sinevalley. He applied for a change of nationality with eyes on the Tokyo Olympics, but it did not come in time. "It's hard to get Samoan nationality," Akazawa said.

Akazawa currently earns a living as the owner of a massage parlor, and is able to continue his wrestling career through support from the federation. For the Non-Student Open, Samoa had come out of lockdown and Akazawa had needed to return to Japan for a family matter, so he decided to use the opportunity to enter the tournament and see where he stood.

He was to be accompanied by two Samoan wrestlers, who entered the individual tournaments in both styles. The trio would also enter the team event. However, the father of one wrestler took ill and was unable to make the trip, and Team Samoa had to withdraw.

The remaining wrestler, Maulo Willie ALOFIPO, made the most of his trip, winning silver medals in both styles at 97kg and gaining valuable international experience. The 25-year-old  was originally a rugby player and has only been wrestling for two years.

"There are common points between rugby and wrestling," Akazawa told Alofipo in recruiting him to the latter. "You can do it just once a week if you want, but why don't you give it a try?"

Alofipo gradually started spending more time in wrestling. He practices in the morning before going to his day job on a cacao plantation, then returns to the mat for an evening session.  He made his international debut in August this year, finishing fifth at freestyle 97kg at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England.

As for his runner-up finishes in the Japan tournament, he commented, "I'm really happy. Japan is a very high level. It's a thrill to be able to fight here."

Asked about his goal from here, he replied, "The Olympics."

Both Akazawa and Alofipo remained in Japan after the tournament with plans to stay until late December. Akazawa said they will work out at his alma maters of Hanasaki Tokuharu High School and Nihon University.

Although his victory earned him a spot in the Emperor's Cup in December, Akazawa did not enter. His latest foray was to test his current level, and, regarding himself now as "Samoan," he said he draws the line at competing for the title of No. 1 in Japan.

 JPN3Akazawa records a fall in the second round at the National Non-Student Championships. (Photo by Japan Wrestling Federation)

Building a new powerhouse

When deciding what high school he would go to, Akazawa bypassed the powers of the day for Hanasaki Tokuharu, which was virtually unknown in wrestling circles. "Rather than get stronger on a strong team, I wanted to go to a no-name school and beat the powerhouses one after another," he said at the time.

And that was pretty much what he did. In his third year in 2008, he helped Hanasaki Tokuharu end the 14-year reign of Ibaraki Prefecture's Kasumigaura High School at the Kanto High School Championships (Kanto is the region of Japan that includes Tokyo and its environs).

Kasumigaura would get revenge later in the team final at the Inter-High School Championships, but in that match, Akazawa defeated the reigning national champion (shown in the top photo). He made a name for himself and helped launch a new powerhouse on the scene just four years after its founding.

The energy and enthusiasm that Akazawa feels in Samoa now are incredibly similar to "those days." Samoa enjoys warm weather year round, with average lows of 23 C and highs of 31 C. The wrestling room is an open-air facility with a roof, much like in the Japan of another era when each town had an outdoor sumo ring located next to the local shrine.

Whereas gyms in Japan are now air-conditioned, it is a world of difference in Samoa. "Every day, I practice drenched in sweat," Akazawa said.

Rugby is still king in Samoa, and trying to increase participation in other sports is no easy task. But there have been inroads made, as Samoa has been represented at the Olympics in judo. In wrestling, the lone Olympic entry in its history was at the 2000 Sydney Games, when Faafatai IUTANA qualified at Greco-Roman 76kg. Samoa had a fair number of gold medalists at the Oceania Championships, although none since 2011. So the potential is there.

Achieving his own Olympic dream will be a link to the spread of wrestling in Samoa. For now, as he awaits word of being granted citizenship, Akazawa will continue to focus all of his efforts on making it to Paris. Most of his high school teammates have long left the mat and have followed a path into coaching. But at least one of the "Class of 2008" still has a burning passion for the Olympics.

-- Translation by Ken Marantz


Ozaki grabs Paris ticket at 68kg with thrilling win over Ishii

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (January 27) -- Ever since she started wrestling as a schoolgirl, the single-leg takedown has been Nonoka OZAKI's most reliable weapon. It didn't let her down when she needed it most -- with a ticket to the Paris Olympics on the line.

Ozaki launched a last-ditch single-leg in the final nine seconds and it paid off with a takedown, giving the two-time world champion a dramatic 5-4 victory over Ami ISHII in a playoff for Japan's spot in Paris at women's 68kg on Saturday at Tokyo's National Training Center.

"I'm really happy, but it still hasn't sunk in that I've taken a step closer to my dream," said a jubilant Ozaki, for whom the road to Paris has been a roller-coaster of emotions.

Ozaki was the 2022 world champion at 62kg, but missed out during the domestic qualifying process for Paris in that weight class. She then decided to take a shot at 68kg when that became her only remaining option.

Ozaki set up the playoff with Ishii by winning the 68kg title at the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships last December. Ishii, the world silver medalist in 2022, had finished fifth at last year World Championships in Belgrade -- good enough to secure a Paris berth for Japan but not enough to fill it herself.

The victory gave Ozaki her fifth win in five career meetings between the two, who are only three months apart in age. The older Ishii turned 22 in December. Ozaki threw down the gauntlet in their most recent clash, defeating Ishii 6-2 in the first round of the Emperor's Cup.

Nonoka OZAKI (JPN)Ami ISHII scores a go-ahead takedown late in the second period. (Photo by Ikuo Higuchi / Japan Wrestling Federation)

On Saturday, Ishii looked like she might have finally found an answer. Trailing 3-0 in the second period, she received a passivity point, then broke through Ozaki's defenses to score a takedown at the edge in the final seconds that was upheld in an unsuccessful challenge (the Ozaki side wanted it called a stepout) to take a 4-3 lead.

"She got the points in the last 10 seconds and I thought for a moment all was lost," Ozaki said. "During the challenge, I thought, 'I don't want the match to end this way.' Those on my side had a look on their faces of 'you can still do it.'...There was nothing left but to go for it."

During the challenge, the mat chairman also had the clock reset from four seconds and change to 9.89. Ozaki wasted none of it, lunging for the single-leg and quickly finishing it off with a few seconds to spare.

"I didn't practice that, shooting right off the whistle, but I believed in myself," Ozaki said. "It was good they put the clock back to 10 seconds, if it was four seconds, it would have been a problem. I can't say I was calm, but there was nothing else to do. The fact that I didn't have time to think, 'What should I do?' was a good thing."

Ozaki also cut it close with her first-period takedown, which she scored with six seconds left off a counter that she said she practiced in preparation for the match. Ishii likes to work an underhook, and as soon as she made a move for a leg, Ozaki dropped down and clamped on her head, then used her speed to spin behind.

Nonoka OZAKI (JPN)Nonoka OZAKI defeats Ami ISHII in the women's Olympic 68kg playoff. (Photo by Ikuo Higuchi / Japan Wrestling Federation)

For Ishii, the agony of defeat was excruciating. In disbelief, she dropped to the mat and sobbed uncontrollably, which continued even after she was escorted by teammates off the mat. Her wails of anguish reverberated throughout the room, in contrast to Ozaki's celebrations with her contingent.

The playoff was held on one of the six mats in the spacious wrestling room on the basement floor of the National Training Center. Aside from a smattering of media and federation officials, each wrestler was accompanied by a small contingent of fans or teammates.

Ishii just could not seem to process what had happened. Speaking in a barely audible voice through tears to the media, she said, "It's like someone you know has died, but you don't feel like they're gone. I don't feel like Paris is gone, but I have to accept that it is."

Nonoka OZAKI (JPN)Nonoka Ozaki finishes up a quick-fire takedown in the final seconds of the second period to clinch the victory. (Photo by Ikuo Higuchi / Japan Wrestling Federation)

Ozaki could commiserate with her vanquished opponent. She had been on the losing end in a battle for the 62kg place with Ishii's Ikuei University teammate Sakura MOTOKI, a 2022 bronze medalist at 59kg who moved up to the Olympic weight and made it hers. (Another Ikuei wrestler, world champion Tsugumi SAKURAI, will be going to Paris at 57kg.)

"This is a world of competition, and I came here to get the ticket [to Paris] also," Ozaki said. "I know how much she wanted to win, but the competition is harsh and one of us has to lose. I won in the last few seconds, but that could have gone either way. I could have just as easily lost. I am grateful to her for giving me such a high-level match."

Ishii had won the world silver at 68kg in 2022 and could have locked up her place in Paris with a repeat performance last year in Belgrade. The Japan federation had decreed that any wrestler who won a medal in an Olympic weight class would automatically fill the Paris berth themselves.

As it turned out, 68kg was the only women's weight class out of the six in which the Japanese entry did not medal.

Sadly for Ishii, an 8-8 loss in the bronze-medal match to Irina RINGACI (MDA) had dire consequences. Ishii would win the fifth-place playoff to secure the Paris berth for Japan, but it left the door open for others to poach.

Ozaki was also in Belgrade, having decided that she needed to move forward and put her failure at 62kg behind her. She won a spot on Japan's team at the non-Olympic weight of 65kg and picked up her second world gold. But her heart was hardly into it. Of more concern was seeing Motoki clinched her place in Paris by winning the 62kg silver.

"When I look back, it's enough to make me cry, it was so tough," Ozaki said. "Right now I'm happy, but up to last year's World Championships, there was no joy at all in my life. It's like the person I was up to then was lost, it was someone I didn't know like I had run into a wall. I wanted to fight hard but I couldn't make the effort.

"I thought that I don't even want to watch a Paris Olympics that I'm not in. When I won the 65kg playoff here, I had convinced myself that I had to keep moving forward. It wasn't an Olympic weight, but I thought if I could be No. 1 in the world again, it would be an opportunity to start over.

"That's how I felt going to the World Championships. But before my final, the 62kg [berth] was secured. I didn't take a victory lap and I was crying -- it makes me cry now to recall this -- because I was thinking, 'The Olympics is over for me.' I felt resentment. But as I told the media, I was the one responsible and had to accept it. 'I'm not going to retire, and I'll keep fighting,' I said. I had never thought that in the end, I would be going to the Olympics at 68kg."

Nonoka OZAKI (JPN)Ikuei University teammates try to console a devastated Ami Ishii. (Photo by Ken Marantz / United World Wrestling)

Less than two years ago, Ozaki was on top of the world at 62kg, having won 2022 world golds on the senior, U23 and U20 levels over two months. Her eyes were firmly on Paris, and the Japanese press buzzed over her budding rivalry with Tokyo Olympic silver medalist Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ).

But her well-laid plans began to unravel just a few months later when Motoki decided to make a challenge for the Olympic spot at 62kg in a field that included Tokyo Olympic champion Yukako KAWAI.

After Motoki won their clash at the Emperor's Cup, they never got to meet in the second qualifier -- the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in June 2023 -- as Ozaki was handed a stunning 6-6 defeat in the quarterfinals by Yuzuku INAGAKI. Motoki won the title to clinch the ticket to Belgrade, and the rest is history.

In preparation for Paris, Ozaki plans to enter one tournament at 68kg, the Asian Championships in Bishkek in April. She is also carrying some injury concerns, having hurt her right knee at the Emperor's Cup and having problems with her left thumb for the past year which she says affects her grip.

But that is all secondary to having made it to the Olympics, even if it means facing opponents larger than she is accustomed to.

"A year ago, I would never have thought of taking the path of 68kg," Ozaki said. "I'm still only 66 kilograms, but I'll work to fill out to 68. Without being inferior in strength, I will use my speed to my advantage. I'll work on counters for underhooks and throws, and maybe even be able to hit some throws of my own. I'll continue to make progress and I'll be ready."

Ozaki, a product of the JOC Academy, took the academic route when it came to choosing a college and currently attends the prestigious Keio University. That means that outside of national team camps, she has to hit the road for training. Her preparation for the playoff took her to Kanagawa University, a club team in Kanagawa Prefecture and a high school in Yamanashi Prefecture. Several of the male wrestlers at the latter were on hand Saturday.

Whether she can win the gold will likely come down to how effective her old friend, the single-leg tackle, will be for her.

"That tackle has been a part of everything I've accomplished up to now," Ozaki said. "It's my weapon, one that I believe in completely. I've always relied on it and won with it. I owe a debt of gratitude to the technique."

Japan's Paris-bound women

50kg: Yui SUSAKI (world champion)
53kg: Akari FUJINAMI (world champion)
57kg: Tsugumi SAKURAI (world champion)
62kg: Sakura MOTOKI (world silver medalist)
68kg: Nonoka OZAKI (world champion 65kg)
76kg: Yuka KAGAMI (world champion)