Meiji Cup

Irie, Icho Aim to Clear Big Hurdles, Move Closer to Tokyo 2020 with Victories at Meiji Cup

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO---After winning the women's 50kg gold medal at the Asian Championships in Xi'an, China, in April, Yuki IRIE's first reaction was that she wanted to get back to Japan and into the wrestling room as soon as possible.

The continental championship could be considered just a snack on the way to a main banquet---in this case, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics---and the next stage in the process for getting a seat at that event was fast approaching.  And when it means possible rematches with two-time world champion Yui SUSAKI or Rio 2016 Olympic gold medalist Eri TOSAKA, there's not a moment to spare.

A number of world and Olympic champions and medalists could potentially collide again as Japan's top wrestlers---funneled into the Olympic weight classes---clash at the four-day All-Japan Invitational Championships, referred to as the Meiji Cup, starting Thursday at Tokyo's Komazawa Gym.

The tournament, combined with the All-Japan Championships (Emperor's Cup) held in December, serves as a qualifier for the World Championships in Kazakhstan in September. A victory in both gives the wrestler an automatic berth on the team to Nur-Sultan; if the victors are different, they will meet it a playoff on July 6.

Making the team to the World Championships has even larger ramifications this year, as the Japan Wrestling Federation has decreed that any wrestler winning a medal there will automatically fill a spot on the Tokyo 2020 team. While that will be a tall task for the men, there is certainly a strong possibility of Japan medaling in all six women's Olympic divisions in the Kazakh capital, so getting there is of the utmost urgency.

Thus, Irie's comments after defeating SUN Yanan (CHN) in the Asian final were echoed by many others: "I uncovered many issues, so I want to get home right away and start practicing. If I don't win at the Meiji Cup, it doesn't mean anything...To aim for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, winning this tournament was essential. I was glad to clear that. To me, June is the real deal."

Two-time world champion Yui SUSAKI will be making her return to action after skipping the Emperor's Cup due to a dislocated elbow. (Photo: Max Rose-Fyne)

Irie will renew her rivalry at 50kg with Susaki, who was forced to skip the Emperor's Cup due to a dislocated elbow. Irie is the only wrestler in the world who has defeated Susaki multiple times, with her most recent win coming at last year's Emperor's Cup.

Not to be counted out are Tosaka, who lost in the semifinals to Irie at the Emperor's Cup, and 2017 world cadet champion Remina YOSHIMOTO, who gave Susaki a tough fight in losing 2-1 in the final of the Junior Queen's Cup in April.

Four-time Olympic champion Kaori ICHO (JPN) and Rio Olympic champion Risako KAWAI (JPN) are both entered at 57kg. The pair split their two matches at the Emperor's Cup. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Icho, Kawai to likely go at it again
At the Emperor's Cup, fans were treated to not just one clash between Rio 2016 champions Kaori ICHO and Risako KAWAI, but two.

Icho defeated her younger rival in a thriller for the 57kg title, scoring a takedown in the last 10 seconds for a 3-2 victory. That came after Kawai stunned the four-time Olympic gold medalist 2-1 in a preliminary group match, handing Icho her first loss to a Japanese opponent since 2001.

Kawai, the 2018 world champion at 59kg, moved down to 57kg, rather than up to 62kg, where she would have to displace her younger sister Yukako. But it meant risking her shot at the Olympics by putting her on a collision course with Icho, who returned to competition in late 2018 for the first time since winning the gold in Rio.

Icho, who will turn 35 on Thursday, got a dose of reality in Xi'an, where she lost in the semifinals to JONG Myung-Suk (PRK) and had to settle for a bronze medal. But that defeat might have been the wakeup call that she needed, as it showed that she could not take any opponent for granted.

According to a Japanese press report, Icho has been below par physically since returning from Xi'an and only participated one day in a recent national team training camp. Kawai, determined to exact revenge, attended the entire camp. Still, one Japan federation official said, "I think [Icho] will definitely be ready."

World champion Mayu MUKAIDA (JPN) and Haruna OKUNO (JPN) could meet at 53kg. If they do, Mukaida holds the upper hand in head-to-head meetings, having won all eight previous bouts between the two. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

The other big showdown on tap could come at 53kg between Shigakkan University teammates Haruna OKUNO, the world champion at that weight, and Mayu MUKAIDA, the gold medalist at 55kg who has dropped to the Olympic weight.

An anticipated meeting at the Emperor's Cup never came about after Okuno withdrew due to a stomach virus. Mukaida holds the upper hand in head-to-head meetings, having won all eight previous bouts between the two, most recently in 2017.

Like Icho, Mukaida fell short of a gold medal at the Asian Championships, where she gave up a last-second takedown and fell 4-3 in the final to PAK Yongmi (PRK). While that may have exposed a weakness, it also will serve to make her more determined to avoid making the same mistakes.

Olympic champion Sara DOSHO (JPN) has won gold medals at both the Emperor's Cup and Asian Championships since returning from shoulder surgery. (Photo Sachiko Hotaka) 

Japan's other reigning Olympic champion, Sara DOSHO, will look to fight off a challenge from fellow Rio Olympian Rio WATARI at 68kg. Dosho was unable to defend her world title last year after undergoing shoulder surgery, but showed she was on the right track in her return by winning titles at both the Emperor's Cup and Asian Championships.

World bronze medalist Hiroe MINAGAWA's stranglehold on the 76kg division will be put to the test by high school phenom Yuka KAGAMI, a two-time world cadet champion. Having captured the Emperor's Cup and Asian titles at 72kg, the 17-year-old Kagami decided to take a shot at making the Tokyo Olympics by challenging the veteran Minagawa.

Takuto OTOGURO (JPN) will make his return to competition since becoming Japan's youngest-ever male world champion when he won the gold in Budapest 2018. Otoguro has been sidelined with a bursitis in his right knee.   (Photo: Max Rose-Fyne) 

Injury concerns shadow Otoguro

In freestyle, world champion Takuto OTOGURO will need to show he has recovered from recent knee problems to win his second straight Meiji Cup title at 65kg and earn his ticket to Nur-Sultan.

Otoguro, who became Japan's youngest-ever male world champion when he won the gold in Budapest 2018 at 19 years 10 months, came down with bursitis in his right knee earlier this year, which caused him to withdraw from both the World Cup and Asian Championships.

He returned to the mat to wrestle one match for Yamanashi Gakuin University at the East Japan collegiate team tournament in May, which he won. But he will have to be sharp to beat Asian Games silver medalist Daichi TAKATANI, world U-23 champion and Rio 2016 57kg silver medalist Rei HIGUCHI, and a number of others who help make this one of Japan's deepest weight classes.

Sosuke TAKATANI, Daichi's older brother, seems to have settled in at the Olympic weight of 86kg after a two-year progression from 74kg, in which he won a world silver in 2014.

The 30-year-old Takatani won his eighth straight national title and first at 86kg at the Emperor's Cup, then showed he could be a factor on the international stage in the heavier division when he defeated world silver medalist Fatih ERDIN (TUR) at the World Cup.

Shota SHIRAI, who lost in the Emperor's Cup final to Takatani, spent January training in Russia and will be looking for revenge, along with the two bronze medalists, Masao MATSUSAKA, who fell to Takatani 2-1 in the semifinals, and teenager Hayato ISHIGURO, the world junior champion at 79kg.

World bronze medalist Atsushi MATSUMOTO (JPN), who normally competes at 92kg, will be bumping up to the Olympic weight of 97kg. (Photo: Unknown)

One high-profile man who has switched to an Olympic weight class for this tournament is Atsushi MATSUMOTO, the world bronze medalist and Emperor's Cup winner at 92kg who has moved up to 97kg.

Matsumoto, who finished third at 92kg in Xi'an, had previously demonstrated just how strong his desire is to make an Olympics---in 2017-18, he switched to Greco-Roman after failing to qualify for Rio 2016. (He later switched back to freestyle after a rule change worked against him.)

Looking to stop Matsumoto's bid at 97kg are Emperor's Cup champion Naoya AKAGUMA and runner-up Takeshi YAMAGUCHI, who reportedly paid his own way to the Mongolian Open in April, where he won the silver medal.

At 74kg, Yuhi FUJINAMI, a 2017 world bronze medalist at 70kg, suffered a knee injury during a first-round victory at the Asian Championships, then opted to pull out rather than jeopardize his chances of being ready for the Meiji Cup.    

Fujinami's readiness will be tested by Emperor's Cup runner-up Ken HOSAKA and third-place finisher Yuto MIWA, who had a key win in Japan's victory over Cuba at the World Cup. Adding depth to the field are Keisuke OTOGURO (Takuto's older brother), who has moved up from 70kg along with teenager Jintaro MOTOYAMA, last year's Meiji Cup champ at that weight.

World champion Kenichiro FUMITA (JPN) will likely meet his former teammate and Rio 2016 silver medalist Shinobu OTA in the 60kg division. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

In Greco-Roman, the 60kg division will likely see the latest battle between 2017 world champion Kenichiro FUMITA and Rio 2016 silver medalist Shinobu OTA, former teammates at Nippon Sports Science University.

Fumita returned from injury to defeat Ota 7-2 in the final at the Emperor's Cup. That gave Fumita, at 23 two years younger than Ota, a 5-4 advantage in their head-to-head meetings dating back to 2014.

While Fumita went on to win a bronze medal at Xi'an, Ota did not sit around idly waiting for the Meiji Cup. He traveled to Europe, where he won the gold at the Hungary Grand Prix and silver at the Dan Kolov-Nikola Petrov Tournament in Bulgaria, both at 63kg.

En route to the final, either of the two might have to get past world junior bronze medalist Kazuki YABE, who lost to Fumita by technical fall in December.

Meiji Cup

Emboldened Kawai knocks off Icho as Susaki shines again, Otoguro dealt stunning loss

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (June 17)---For the past six months, Risako KAWAI was haunted by the memory. Not so much of her well-publicized loss to fellow Rio Olympic champion Kaori ICHO, but of how she lacked the courage to be more aggressive. 

On Sunday, Kawai redeemed herself, and set up yet another showdown between the Japanese greats.

Kawai went on the attack throughout the women’s 57kg final and came away with a well-earned 6-4 victory over Icho at the All-Japan Invitational Championships, setting up a playoff between the two for a place on Japan’s team to the World Championships.

“Right after the match ended, I was really happy, but now I can look at it calmly,” Kawai said. “There’s another match I have to win, so I’ll be back at practice as soon as I get home.”

Among the other highlights in a thrilling final day of the four-day tournament known as the Meiji Cup, Yui SUSAKI kept alive her hopes of winning a third straight world gold by capturing the women’s 50kg title, while fellow world champion Takuto OTOGURO was dealt a stunning defeat in the freestyle 65kg final.

Their mixed fortunes mean that both Susaki and Otoguro will have to earn their tickets to the World Championships in Kazakhstan in September with victories in the playoffs for Olympic weight classes set for July 6. 

Susaki was overjoyed to make the playoff, while Otoguro was understandably devastated that an extra hurdle was added to his path to Nur-Sultan 2019. 

The Meiji Cup serves as the second of the two national tournaments for selection to the World Championships, along with the All-Japan Championships (Emperor’s Cup) in December. Winners of both tournaments automatically made the world team; different winners means a playoff to decide who gets the berth.

As the Japan federation also decreed that a medal at this year’s World Championships would earn an automatic place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the majority of top wrestlers funneled into the 18 Olympic divisions. With medals likely in most of the women’s weight classes, the urgency to make the world team this year was palpable. 

Kawai, the Rio gold medalist at 63kg and world champion at 59kg, moved down to 57kg, which put her in direct confrontation with Icho, who returned after a post-Rio hiatus in an attempt to capture an unprecedented fifth straight Olympic gold. 

Icho got a leg up at the Emperor’s Cup when she scored a takedown with 10 seconds left to edge Kawai 3-2 in the final. That came a day after Kawai won 2-1 in a preliminary round-robin group match that featured little action, but handed Icho her first loss to a Japanese opponent since 2001. 

Risako KAWAI went on the attack throughout the women’s 57kg final and came away with a well-earned 6-4 victory over Kaori ICHO at the All-Japan Invitational Championships. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

With so much at stake this time, an emboldened Kawai was determined to muster the fortitude to be more aggressive. 

“Six months ago in December, I didn’t have the courage to go on the attack,” said Kawai, who earned the Meiji Cup as the tournament MVP. “Since that time, I anguished less over the fact that I lost and more about why I didn’t wrestle the way I wanted to.  The big issue was the mental aspect. I feel I’ve grown from that standpoint.”

Before a vocal crowd at Tokyo’s Komazawa Gym and a national TV audience, Kawai gained the lone point of the first period with Icho on the activity clock. 

In the second period, Kawai came out firing, and after being stopped on one single-leg attempt, connected with another, which she immediately transitioned into an ankle roll for a 5-0 lead with two minutes to go.

Icho countered another takedown attempt and slipped behind for 2, then launched a rare attack of her own, which resulted in a step-out to cut the lead to 5-3 with 27 seconds left.

Icho put the pressure on and received a fleeing point with 2.5 seconds left, meaning she could win with a step-out. And she came close, bulldozing Kawai out, but not before time expired. An unsuccessful challenge gave Kawai her final point.

“In the first period, Kawai was superior, and that was a factor in my defeat,” Icho said. “I need to set the pace so that the match can go the way I want, and not lose because she was more determined.”

Kawai’s desire is fueled by the prospect of competing at the Olympics with younger sister Yukako, the world silver medalist at 62kg who clinched her world team berth on Saturday. 

“My goal has never changed,” Kawai said. “I chose this path so that my sister and I can go to the Olympics together. This time, of course I wanted to win, but even stronger was my feeling that I didn’t want to have any regrets. I was determined to be aggressive and wrestle my style.”

Icho, who was dealt an eye-opening loss at the Asian Championships in April and had to settle for the bronze, remained stoic after the defeat, already putting it behind her and looking ahead. 

“Looking ahead to the playoff, I’ll reflect on what went wrong today and make the necessary changes,” Icho said. “I don’t have time to feel depressed.”

Yui SUSAKI kept alive her hopes of winning a third straight world gold by capturing the women’s 50kg title against Rio 2016 champion Eri TOSAKA. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Susaki completes changing of lightweight guard

Susaki needed a miraculous, last-second win over Emperor’s Cup champion Yuki IRIE in the quarterfinals on Saturday to stay alive in the race to Nur-Sultan. In the final, she needed no such drama in her first meeting with Rio 2016 champion Eri TOSAKA.

Susaki blitzed her predecessor as world champion with a 10-0 technical fall victory in just 1:36 to mark a symbolic changing of the guard for lightweight supremacy. 

“She was an athlete that I had always looked up to,” said Susaki, who will have a rematch with Irie in the world team playoff. “After the Rio Olympics, that changed to wanting to beat her.

“I was very happy that the timing was right that I could face her here. I wanted to firmly defeat her and complete the generational change. That strong feeling led to this victory.”

Susaki, who will turn 20 later this month, scored a quick takedown, then a second that she topped off with three consecutive ankle rolls for an 8-0 lead. The coup de grace came with a slick sweeping single leg and go-behind that ended the match.

“It was a total defeat, and a show of my current ability,” said a tearful Tosaka, who had foot surgery after the Rio Olympics. “This last month I felt good and I thought I was definitely ready. To lose like this is really disappointing.”

Otoguro, who had to overcome a knee problem in preparing for the tournament, looked shell-shocked after being decisively beaten in the 65kg final by world U23 champion Rei HIGUCHI, who muscled his way to a 15-5 technical fall in 5:23.

Otoguro missed the Asian Championships and World Cup due to his knee ailment and returned to practice only about a month ago. Depleted stamina appeared to affect him as Higuchi, who trailed 3-2 going into the second period, scored big points by fighting off Otoguro’s lift attempts as he tried to counter Higuchi’s deep tackles. 

A 4-point move with 25 seconds left all but settled the matter as Higuchi, the Rio 2016 silver medalist at 57kg, avenged losses to Otoguro in the semifinals at the Emperor’s Cup and last year’s Meiji Cup final.

For Otoguro, who became at 19 years 10 months the youngest male world champion in Japanese wrestling history when he won the gold at Budapest 2018, it was his first loss to a Japanese opponent since his second year of junior high school. 

Kenichiro FUMITA forged a 4-1 victory against Shinobu OTA in the 60kg finals. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Fumita, Mukaida, Dosho earn world tickets

Kenichiro FUMITA, the 2017 world gold medalist, will get a chance to regain the world title after defeating long-time nemesis Shinobu OTA in the Greco-Roman 60kg final. 

Fumita fought off Ota’s attempt at his patented front headlock roll while in the ground position, then was able to execute a gut wrench when it was his turn on top to forge a 4-1 victory. 

That was a repeat of the Emperor’s Cup final, which Fumita won 7-2. Fumita now has a 6-4 lead in career meetings with Ota, the Rio 2016 silver medalist. 

“It went as I imagined, in which neither of us were able to score on our feet,” Fumita said. “It would come down to the ground position. I didn’t know which one of us would be on bottom first, but I knew he would use the front headlock, and I knew I had to roll him at least once. For both of those points to happen made the match go as I wanted.”

Ota had a final chance to win when he forced Fumita to the edge. But Fumita walked a tightrope, then shrugged Ota past him to gain the step-out point. 

Ota said that with Fumita having a good chance of medaling in Nur-Sultan, he would consider moving up to 67kg in a bid to make Tokyo 2020. 

“Kenichiro will likely decide the matter, so I’ll have to regroup and go for 67kg,” Ota said. “I’m not saying the 67kg wrestler (Shogo Takahashi) won’t clinch a berth, but I think the possibility is higher for 60kg. We’ll see what happens.

“I haven’t given up on my goal of winning a gold at the Tokyo Olympics. I know that some things will have to change.”

There is still a path open for Ota to the World Championships. The Japan federation, wanting to ensure that top-level wrestlers are sent in the non-Olympic weights, announced that it will allow the runner-ups in the Olympic weights to enter the playoffs for the non-Olympic weights. Those playoffs are to be held July 21. 

That means, for example, Ota could attempt to make the team at, say 63kg. And if Takahashi does not medal in Nur-Sultan, Ota could still challenge for the right to enter the Olympic qualifiers at 67kg by winning the Emperor’s Cup. 

Asked if he would take such a path, Ota said he did not even know about it, but would certainly consider it. Of course, if Fumita doesn’t win a medal, then all bets are off and the competition at 60kg begins anew. 

“This only earns me the right to go,” Fumita said. “This is not the final destination. There are many tough matches ahead. On the road to the Olympics, this is just a point along the way that I cleared, and that was my attitude in wanting to win the title.”

Mayu MUKAIDA defeated Haruna OKUNO, 2-1 in the 53kg finals. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

In a high-profile final between reigning world champions, Mayu MUKAIDA clinched her place on the world team in the Olympic weight of 53kg with a tame 2-1 victory over that weight’s world champion, Haruna OKUNO.

Mukaida, the world gold medalist at 55kg, gave up a point on the activity clock before scoring what would prove the decisive takedown late in the first period. She then held on to defeat Shigakkan University teammate Okuno for the ninth time in nine career meetings. 

In the women’s 68kg final, Masako FURUICHI learned the perils of not staying in defensive mode to protect a late lead when Rio Olympic champion Sara DOSHO stopped her late tackle attempt, then spun behind for a takedown with 11 seconds left and a nail-biting 4-3 victory.

With her sixth career title at the Meiji Cup and first since 2017, Dosho secured a ticket back to the World Championships, where she will aim to regain the throne she abdicated last year after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Meanwhile, the tournament ended on a somewhat positive note for Irie, as she bounced back from her shocking loss to Susaki by winning a bronze medal at 50kg with an 8-3 win over Miho IGARASHI.

Not only that, but simultaneously on the other mat, younger sister Nanami IRIE also secured a bronze medal with a victory by fall over Momoka KADOYA in a third-place playoff at 53kg. 

“More than winning today, I wanted to work on fixing my mistakes,” Yuki said, adding that she did not sneak a peek over at Namami’s match.

The third and youngest Irie sister, Kumi, lost her bronze-medal match at 62kg on Saturday.

In the end, world team playoffs will be held in six Olympic weights barring injuries or other factors: freestyle 65kg, 74kg and 125kg; Greco-Roman 77kg; and women’s 50kg and 57kg. 

Day 4 Results


65kg (11 entries)
Final - Rei HIGUCHI df. Takuto OTOGURO by TF, 15-5, 5:47 
3rd Place - Yujiro UENO df. Koki SHIMIZU, 8-1
3rd Place - Takuma TANIYAMA df. Shoya SHIMAE, 4-2

70kg (8 entries)
Final - Haruki SENO df. Kojiro SHIGA, 5-3 
3rd Place - Jin HARAGUCHI df. Yuta NAKAMURA, 4-3 
3rd Place – Kengo MATSUDA df. Shinnosuke SUWAMA, 3-2 


60kg (12 entries)
Final - Kenichiro FUMITA df. Shinobu OTA, 4-1
3rd Place - Hayanobu SHIMIZU df. Kiyoshi KAWAGUCHI by TF, 10-0, 1:50
3rd Place - Ayata SUZUKI df. Ryotaro SUZUKI by TF, 10-2, 5:51

72kg (12 entries)
Final - Nao KUSAKA df. Tomohiro INOUE by TF, 10-1, 3:24 
3rd Place - Keisei SHIMABUKURO df. Naoki KAWABE by TF, 8-0, 0:47
3rd Place - Takuya TOMIZUKA df. Ryoma HOJO by TF, 9-0, 1:40

82kg (9 entries)
Final - Yuya OKAJIMA df. Satoki MUKAI by TF, 9-0, 3:27
3rd Place - Masao TANAKA df. Yudai SASAKI by TF, 11-3, 4:04
3rd Place – Yoji KAWAMURA df. Tatsuya FUJII, 7-5 

Women’s Wrestling 

50kg (12 entries)
Final - Yui SUSAKI df. Eri TOSAKA by TF, 10-0, 1:36
3rd Place - Yuki IRIE df. Miho IGARASHI, 8-3
3rd Place - Kika KAGATA df. Remina YOSHIMOTO, 5-2

53kg (11 entries)
Final - Mayu MUKAIDA df. Haruna OKUNO, 2-1
3rd Place - Ibuki TAMURA df. Yu MIYAHARA, 7-4
3rd Place - Nanami IRIE df. Momoka KADOYA by Fall, 2:31 (6-0)

57kg (7 entries)
Final - Risako KAWAI df. Kaori ICHO, 6-4
3rd Place - Sae NANJO df. Akie HANAI by TF, 10-0, 1:17 

68kg (6 entries)
Final - Sara DOSHO df. Masako FURUICHI, 4-3
3rd Place - Rio WATARI df. Chiaki SEKI by Def.