Meiji Cup

Motoki emerges at next potential star by filling Japan's opening at women's 59kg

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (June 16)--After the 2021 world silver medalist retired, Sara NATAMI stepped up and appeared to fill Japan's hole at women's 59kg by winning the gold at the Asian Championships in April. Just two months later, she's out, and a potential new star has emerged for the preeminent powerhouse. 

Sakura MOTOKI, who had only recently returned after undergoing knee surgery just under a year ago, demolished Natami in the final of the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships on Thursday, then returned to the mat to beat her again for a spot on Japan's team to this year's World Championships.

"Coming up to this, I had an injury, I couldn't enter the All-Japan Championships, I had tournaments canceled by the coronavirus," Motoki said. "So many things happened, but because of the support of so many people, I was able to make it this point, so I'm really happy."

The 20-year-old Motoki, a 2017 world U17 champion whose father competed in Greco-Roman at  the 2000 Sydney Olympics, put on a takedown exhibition in storming to a 10-3 victory over Natami in the final on the opening day of the four-day tournament at Tokyo's Komasawa Gym.

Natami put up a stiff defense to thwart Motoki's attacks in the world team playoff, but that kept her from making any offensive overtures of her own and the aggressive Motoki won 2-1 with all of the points scored on the activity clock. 

The tournament is the second of the two domestic qualifiers for this year's World Championships, along with the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships that were held last December. Winners of both tournaments earn an automatic ticket to Belgrade; if the champions are different, the two meet in a playoff at the end of that day's action.

JPNSakura MOTOKI attempts a takedown in the women's 59kg world team playoff with Sara NATAMI. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki / Japan Wrestling Federation)

The wrestle-off at 59kg between Motoki and Emperor's Cup champion Natami was one of three in the eight weight classes in action on Thursday. 

Motoki's Ikuei University teammate Ami ISHII will be joining her on the flight to Belgrade after winning the title and playoff at 68kg--and after first beating world silver medalist Rin MIYAJI in the semifinals. Miyaji was competing for the first time since the 2021 World Championships, where she suffered a severe knee injury in the final. 

Natami had won six consecutive tournaments dating back to the Japan Women's Open in October 2019 and was fresh off her triumph at the Asian Championships in Ulaanbaatar. She won her first two matches by technical falls, but was no match for the aggressive Motoki, who prepped for the tournament by winning the U20 title at the Junior Queens Cup in April--her first tournament in 10 months.

Motoki said she felt rusty in her first two matches--a fall and a 4-0 victory--but made the necessary adjustments for the final. 

"My movement in the quarterfinal and semifinal was as bad as it gets, so before the final, I talked with coach [Yoshimaro] YANAGAWA and we looked at what to fix," she said.  "In the final, I was able to do what I have always worked on in practice, so that was good."

Motoki used the time away from the mat to watch videos of some of the sport's top stars. She said that among those whose techniques she studied were compatriots Akari FUJINAMI and Rei HIGUCHI, as well as former world champion and constant blur of action Haji ALIEV (AZE). 

"When I couldn't wrestle, I used that time to watch many videos of wrestlers with excellent technique," said Motoki, who executed a textbook-perfect duck under against Natami. "It made me think of what was the ideal type of wrestling I want to do. When I came back, I felt I was physically better than before I was injured, and I had had better techique and was a better wrestler."

While all conversations in Japan eventually shift to which Olympic weight class a wrestler will move into, Motoki is content for now to stay in the non-Olympic weight, albeit with eyes on the 2024 Paris Olympics.

"At this point, I don't have the confidence to compete in an Olympic weight class," Motoki said. "To win the title here, then win the title at the World Championships, will give me confidence, and then I'll decide if I want to go up or down."

Motoki, who started wrestling at age 3 in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, and attended powerful Saitama Sakae High School, said her parents encouraged her during the depressing times of her injury, and that her father Yasutoshi, who placed ninth at Greco 63kg at Sydney 2000, is always offering wise advice.

"He said to not make excuses for not doing things," Motoki said. "Like 'Today, I'm wrestling poorly, so I'll stop practicing.' He would always tell me, don't look for a reason to avoid doing something."

Japan got a silver medal at 59kg at the 2021 World Championships from Akie HANAI, who has since retired. 

JPN 2 Ami ISHII celebrates her victory in the world team playoff at women's 68kg. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki / Japan Wrestling Federation)

At 68kg, Ishii, the 2020 Klippan Lady Open champion at 65kg, scored a first-period takedown in the final and held on for a 2-1 victory over Emperor's Cup champion Naruha MATSUYUKI. The playoff was a virtual repeat, with Ishii again winning 2-1 with a first-period takedown.  

Ikuei University, which was only founded in 2018, could place a third member on the team to Belgrade if Tsugumi SAKURAI, the world 55kg champion, can win the title at 57kg on Friday.

Earlier Thursday, Miyaji fell victim to her own sloppiness and lost 9-6 to Ishii in the semifinals. She came back to win the bronze-medal match by fall over Kumi KOBAYASHI.

"I won the third-place match, but I practiced with the goal of winning the championship, so it's disappointing to finish third," said Miyaji, a junior at Nippon Sports Science University where she is coached by Olympic legend Kaori ICHO. 

Miyaji had caught the world's attention at last year's World Championships in Nur-Sultan when she posted a stunning victory by fall over Tokyo Olympic champion Tamyra STOCK MENSAH (USA). But in the final against Meerim ZHUMANAZAROVA (KGZ), she had her knee violently twisted outward--some wonder why the match wasn't stopped with Miyaji's knee in an obviously dangerous position--and lost by fall. 

"I feel like there is a gap between the results I have achieved and my actual ability," Miyaji said. "At the World Championships, I defeated the Olympic champion and finished second, but to lose here, it's like I've lost everything I gained at the World Championships.

"The way it is now, with this result I can't say out loud that I'm going to the Olympics. I'm going to have to train like mad for the next five months," she said, referring to this December's Emperor's Cup, which will start the qualifying process for Paris 2024.  

Miyaji, who returned to the mat in April and started live sparring in practice the following month, said she still has some lingering pain, but did not want to use that as an excuse for her performance. 

"There is still some pain. But I don't think there are many wrestlers who are 100 percent at a tournament. Everyone has injuries here or there. I want to be able to win even with an injury." 

In the other women's weight class in action, Yuka KAGAMI, a former world U17 and U20 champion who won a silver medal in April at the Asian Championships, will get her first shot at a senior world title after defeating Yasuha MATSUYUKI 4-0 in the final. 

Kagami, who won her second Emperor's Cup title in December, avoided a playoff for the world team spot when she scored a takedown and gut wrench in the first period, then held off Matsuyuki--Naruha's twin sister--the rest of the way for the victory. 

JPN 3Yudai TAKAHASHI earned his second trip to the World Championships at freestyle 79kg. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki / Japan Wrestling Federation)

Takahashi gains final shot at 79kg

In freestyle, NSSU's Yudai TAKAHASHI will make the World Championships his final tournament at 79kg after defeating Yajuro YAMASAKI 3-1 in the final to complete the Emperor's Cup-Meiji Cup double. 

Takahashi scored the decisive takedown with 1:20 left in the second period to defeat Yamasaki, who had moved down from 86kg--the Olympic weight class that Takahashi said he will move up to upon returning from Belgrade.  

"I went into this deciding it would be my last [national] tournament at this weight class," said Takahashi, who won a bronze medal at the Asian Championships. "I'm glad I could end on a good note."

Takahashi has long been Japan's top hope for success in the middleweights after making his first World Championships team as a high schooler in 2019. He lost his opening match, but the Asian medal has boosted his confidence. 

"I finished third at the Asian Championships, but I lost a match that I could have won, so it's a tournament with some regrets," Takahashi said. "At the World Championships, I'll use what works best for me as much as possible to get a medal." 

With Olympic champion Takuto OTOGURO still on hiatus, defending champion and Asian bronze medalist Kaiki YAMAGUCHI filled the void at 65kg, earning a ticket to Belgrade with a 4-3 victory in the final over Ryoma ANRAKU.

Trailing in the second period, Yamaguchi scored a shrug-by takedown just seconds after receiving a second activity point and held on to complete the Emperor's Cup-Meiji Cup double. 

It will be Yamaguchi's third trip to the World Championships, where he previously placed 17th in 2019 and 11th in 2021. 

In Greco, Asian bronze medalist Takahiro TSURUDA lost 3-3 in the 97kg final to Yuri NAKAZATO, but rebounded to beat him 3-1 in the world team playoff. Tsuruda, last year's Meiji Cup champion at 87kg, scored a 2-point throw from par terre for the decisive points.

Nakazato knocked off five-time defending champion Yuta NARA in the semifinals, building up an 8-1 lead before securing a late fall. 

Arata SONODA remained the nation's dominant heavyweight, winning his eighth straight title at 130kg with an 8-0 technical fall in 2:11 over Marin NISHIMURA. That earned Sonoda his seventh trip to the World Championships--where he is still looking for his first victory on the top global stage. 

At 63kg, Ryuto IKEDA defeated Chiezo MARUYAMA 5-1 in the final to secure a place on the world team, as Emperor's Cup champion Kensuke SHIMIZU has moved up a weight class. 

Day 1 Results


65kg (8 entries)
Final - Kaiki YAMAGUCHI df. Ryoma ANRAKU, 4-3

3rd Place - Kotaro KIYOOKA df. Shinnosuke SUWAMA by TF, 17-6, 3:50

79kg (12 entries)
Final - Yudai TAKAHASHI df. Yajuro YAMASAKI, 3-1
3rd Place - Takahiro MURAYAMA df. Takato UCHIDA, 8-7 


63kg (12 entries)

Final - Ryuto IKEDA df. Chiezo MARUYAMA, 5-1

3rd Place - Ryota KOSHIBA df. Yuki YOSHINAGA, 10-5

97kg (10 entries)
Final - Yuri NAKAZATO df. Takahiro TSURUDA, 3-3 
3rd Place - Yuta NARA df. Masayuki AMANO by TF, 8-0, 4:17 

World team playoff - Takahiro TSURUDA df. Yuri NAKAZATO, 3-1

130kg (7 entries)
Final - Arata SONODA df. Marin NISHIMURA by TF, 8-0, 2:11
3rd Place - Shion OBATA df. Yuma MIYAUCHI by TF, 8-0, :38

Women's Wrestling

59kg (10 entries)

Final - Sakura MOTOKI df. Sara NATAMI, 10-3 
3rd Place - Himeka TOKUHARA df. Yumeka TANABE, 3-1

World team playoff - Sakura MOTOKI df. Sara NATAMI, 2-1

68kg (4 entries)
Final - Ami ISHII df. Naruha MATSUYUKI, 2-1 
3rd Place - Rin MIYAJI df. Kumi KOBAYASHI by Fall, 2:21 (12-1)

World team playoff - Ami ISHII df. Naruha MATSUYUKI, 2-1 

76kg (4 entries)
Final - Yuka KAGAMI df. Yasuha MATSUYUKI, 4-0
3rd Place - Nodoka YAMAMOTO df. Mizuki NAGASHIMA, 2-0

Meiji Cup

Ozaki gets best of Kawai in 62kg showdown; Susaki, Shidochi prevail

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO, Japan (June 19) -- Five of Japan's seven Olympic medalists took the mat on Sunday for the first time since the Tokyo Games, with the goal of securing a place on the team to this year's World Championships. One will not be going to Belgrade.

World bronze medalist Nonoka OZAKI knocked off Tokyo Olympic champion Yukako KAWAI in the women's 62kg final at the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships, scraping out a tense 3-1 victory in the first-ever meeting between the two.

While Kawai went down to defeat, fellow Olympic gold medalists Yui SUSAKI and Mayu SHIDOCHI (formerly MUKAIDA) earned chances to add to their world gold collections by capturing the tournament titles and then winning subsequent playoffs for the world team spots at 50kg and 55kg, respectively.

Susaki's victories came at the expense of reigning world champion Remina YOSHIMOTO, whom she beat 4-2 in the final and then 8-0 in the playoff.

The four-day tournament at Tokyo's Komazawa Gym was the second of Japan's two qualifiers for this year's World Championships in September in Belgrade, in conjunction with last December's Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships. Winners of both tournaments receive automatic tickets to Serbia; when the winners were different, a playoff was held for the spot.

As none of the Olympic medalists competed at the Emperor's Cup, their path to the World Championships had to pass through a playoff, except in cases in which the Emperor's Cup winner did not enter the Meiji Cup due to injury.

Nonoka OZAKINonoka OZAKI (blue) battles Yukako KAWAI in the women's 62kg final. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki / Japan Wrestling Federation)

The 19-year-old Ozaki had won the Emperor's Cup, and avoided a playoff by beating Kawai in a match that featured a lot of tension but few attacks, and came down to a challenged call in the final seconds.

Kawai received an activity point in the first period, but Ozaki went ahead when she received two in the second. Kawai, trying to budge Ozaki with a front arm-and-head lock combo, launched a sudden forward surge in the last five seconds that forced Ozaki backwards in a way that may have exposed her back. But the referee awarded no points, and a challenge by the Kawai side was lost to make the final score 3-1.

"I wanted to score technical points," Ozaki said. "I thought before the match, 'What do I have to do to win?' Even if I didn't score with a tackle, I had to show I was making the effort to attack. When it became one caution each, I thought I would definitely win in the end."

Ozaki was coming off a confidence-building gold-medal run at the Asian Championships in April in Mongolia, where she defeated world champion and longtime Kawai nemesis Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ) in the final. That avenged a first-round loss to Tynybekova at last year's World Championships in Oslo.

But for Ozaki and the rest of the Japanese contingent, this year's World Championships is just a way station en route to the next Emperor's Cup in December. That will serve as the starting point for qualifying for the 2023 World Championships, which in turn is the start of qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics -- the next ultimate goal.

"Looking ahead, the Emperor's Cup and Meiji Cup will be linked to Olympic qualifying, so I can't be content with this," said Ozaki, a rarity in Japan in that she is pursuing the sport while attending academically-oriented Keio University. "Other wrestlers will be coming up with strategies against me, and there will be some who change to the Olympic weight.

"I believe that I own the 62kg weight class. Aisuluu and other strong competitors will be at the World Championships, so I want to win the title. Then I want to defend my Emperor's Cup and Meiji Cup titles at 62kg and get to the Olympics."

Kawai, whose older sister Risako won the 57kg Olympic gold but will not be returning to action until December after giving birth in May, took her loss in stride as she looks at the big picture.

"The qualifying for the next Olympics in Paris starts in December," she said. "I hadn't been in a national tournament since June 2019, so regardless of whether I won or lost, I wanted to experience a domestic tournament. I entered for the purpose of preparing myself and was not obsessed with winning."

Kawai said she suffered from an emotional letdown following the hoopla that comes with winning an Olympic gold in an Olympic-obsessed country.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't hard to take," Kawai said. "But I achieved my dream at the Tokyo Olympics and after that, I started training again, but I really couldn't get into it."

She said she was encouraged by previous Olympic champions who are part of the Shigakkan University family of current students and alumni.

"Along with my sister, [Eri] TOSAKA, [Saori] YOSHIDA and others told me, 'You will get a lot of attention as an Olympic champion, and there are people who would want that and never get it.' That changed my mood and about February or March, I started coming around again."

Yui SUSAKIYui SUSUKI scores a takedown against Remina YOSHIMOTO in the world team playoff at women's 50kg. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki / Japan Wrestling Federation)

Susaki went through a life change when, upon graduating from Waseda University, a company in her native Chiba Prefecture put her on the payroll in April to allow her to train full time. But her wrestling looked hardly different despite a 10-month break since the Olympics.

"It's really been a long time to get on the mat since the Tokyo Olympics and at this tournament, I was able to find many points that I need to work on, which to me is a good start in making progress as I head toward the Paris Olympics," Susaki said. "I want to make use of that and definitely become the world champion and get the ball rolling for qualifying for Paris that starts in December."

After looking like her old self and opening the tournament with a pair of technical falls, Susaki scored a pair of first-period takedowns against Yoshimoto in the final and, despite giving up a takedown herself in the second period, looked solid in winning a fifth career Meiji Cup title and first since 2019.

"I need to make sure not to allow such openings, and become a wrestler who doesn't show such space," she said of giving up the takedown. "I can't just stay with the status quo, I need to always work to improve looking ahead to the Paris Olympics."

She made the right adjustments in the playoff, as she kept Yoshimoto off the scoreboard while scoring one takedown in the first period and three in the second for her fourth win in four career meetings between the two.

Mayu SHIDOCHIMayu SHIDOCHI scores a stepout against Umi IMAI in the world team playoff at women's 55kg. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki / Japan Wrestling Federation)

Shidochi, who married her coach after her Olympic triumph at 53kg and now uses her married name, cruised to the 55kg title with three straight 10-0 technical falls, the last over teenager Moe KIYOOKA at 3:36 of the final.

That put her into the playoff with Emperor's Cup champion Umi IMAI, who was coming off a victory at the Asian Championships but lost to Kiyooka in the quarterfinals. Shidochi proved too much to handle and, despite settling twice for stepouts when she had Imai's leg in the air, she rolled to a 4-0 victory.

"It was my first tournament since the Tokyo Olympics, and while I was nervous, I was moving my legs from the first match like I wanted to and was able to make the final," Shidochi said. "In the playoff, I tightened up a bit, but I was able to pull off the victory."

The big question was why Shidochi moved up to 55kg, with speculation that she was ducking teenaged world champion Akari FUJINAMI, who has emerged as the dominant force in the weight class over the past year. But the reason was more simple.

"Before the Tokyo Olympics, I also competed at a non-Olympic weight," said Shidochi, who won the 2018 world title at 55kg. "Then I changed to 53kg for the main event. Heading to the Paris Olympics, I'm following the same process and wrestling now at 55kg. Next time in December, my plan is to enter at 53kg."

Asked about Fujinami, Shidochi replied, "She has long limbs and is a very strong wrestler. Looking at the Paris Olympics, I will have many rivals, but Fujinami is really good and one I will have to beat. First, my goal is to win the world championship, then prepare for the Paris Olympic qualifying that starts in December."

FumitaKenichiro FUMITA celebrates his win over Ayata SUZUKI in the world team playoff at Greco 60kg. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki / Japan Wrestling Federation)

Fumita, Yabiku make the cut

Not to be outdone, Japan's two Olympic medalists in Greco-Roman, Kenichi FUMITA and Shohei YABIKU, both made the cut for the team to Belgrade.

Fumita, the Olympic silver medalist at 60kg, will get a shot at a third world title after twice defeating Asian bronze medalist Ayata SUZUKI, who has emerged as his latest rival from the stable of current and past Nippon Sport Science University wrestlers that they both belong to.

The 26-year-old fired the first salvo by beating Emperor's Cup champion Suzuki 6-3 in the Meiji Cup final, then scored a decisive second-period takedown to take the playoff 4-2.

"Honestly speaking, I moved a lot better than I thought I would," Fumita said. "After the Olympics, I took a full three months off and had nothing to do with wrestling.

"At first my weight was up and my strength was down. I went back into training in November, and I wasn't sure I would be ready by June, but I did what I'm capable of and came out with the victory."

After both advanced with a pair of technical falls, Fumita fell behind in the final when he got a little complacent in executing a throw from par terre. As he bridged backward, Suzuki, sitting on Fumita's chest, reached forward and clamped down on his stomach, causing Fumita to fall onto his back.

Now down 2-1, Fumita quickly scrambled off his back and hit a reverse throw for 4 and a 5-2 lead. He added a stepout in the second period, after which he was put in the bottom of par terre but wouldn't budge as Suzuki desperately tried to lift him.

In the playoff, Suzuki scored a takedown when he fought off a headlock throw attempt to go ahead 2-1. A stepout by Fumita still left him trailing on criteria, but with about a minute to go, he got a body lock and twisted Suzuki down for the winning takedown.

"I was losing in the last minute, but I was confident I could turn it around," Fumita said.

Up until recently, Fumita had to battle fellow NSSU alum and Rio Olympic silver medalist Shinobu OTA for national team places. Ota has since retired, with Suzuki stepping up to keep Fumita on his toes. Fumita said the two practice at the same time, but "we don't wrestle together so much anymore, now that we're rivals."

Fumita said that he spent his post-Olympic hiatus taking a road trip with a friend to western Japan. He also said his weight rose to unmentionable heights.

"When it got to 74.5 kilos, I was too afraid to look at the scale anymore," he said with a smile.

YABIKUShohei YABIKU attempts to throw Minta MAEDA in the Greco 77kg final. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki / Japan Wrestling Federation)

Yabiku, whose bronze-medal performance at 77kg in Tokyo made him Japan's heaviest-ever Olympic medalist in Greco, only needed to win the Meiji Cup title, as Emperor's Cup champion Kodai SAKURABA skipped the tournament due to injury.

He got what he came for, but it didn't come easy.

"In the first match I got head-butted in the face, then I gave up four points in the second round, and in the final, I couldn't dictate the pace," Yabiku said.

In the final, Yabiku forged out a 6-3 victory over Minto MAEDA that had a bizarre exchange that took the referees an extraordinary amount of time to sort out.

In the second period with Maeda leading 1-1 on criteria, Yabiku secured a front arm-headlock, but as he bridged back, Maeda secured a body lock and Yabiku was sent momentarily to his back before bridging out and getting on top. He then back-suplessed Maeda out of the ring.

The judges gave Maeda 2 for the initial block, Yabiku 1 for a reversal and then 4 for the throw.

Yabiku had undergone surgery in December on a herniated disc, finally fixing a problem that had been bothering him from even before the Olympics. But it set back his preparations, and he's still trying to regain his sharpness.

"Coming back from surgery, I'm at about 80%," he said. "I still don't have the feeling for actual competition. There's a big difference between practice and being at 100% in matches, so I still have a way to go to work it out."

Somewhat overshadowed on the last day of the competition was the final freestyle weight class, in which world 61kg bronze medalist Toshihiro HASEGAWA earned a trip back to the World Championships, this time at 57kg by defeating Toshiya ABE 2-0 in the final.

Hasegawa, who moved down to 57kg after taking the bronze in Oslo and won the title at the Emperor's Cup, scored with a single-leg takedown in the first period and made that hold up to add to the Meiji Cup title he won last year at 61kg while denying Abe a second straight one at 57kg.

"This time, I didn't wrestle aggressively, but I will be able to attack more against foreign opponents," Hasegawa said. "I will work on raising my level so I can win both at home and abroad."

Day 4 Results


57kg (12 entries)
Final - Toshihiro HASEGAWA df. Toshiya ABE, 2-0
3rd Place - Yudai FUJITA df. Rikuto ARAI, 4-0


60kg (11 entries)
Final - Kenichiro FUMITA df Ayata SUZUKI, 6-3
3rd Place - Kaito INABA df. Maito KAWANA by Fall, 4:33 (6-2)

World team playoff - Kenichiro FUMITA df. Ayata SUZUKI, 4-2

77kg (10 entries)
Final - Shohei YABIKU df. Minto MAEDA, 6-3
3rd Place - Nao KUSAKA df. Shinsuke MIZUGUCHI, 11-8

Women's Wrestling

50kg (10 entries)
Final - Yui SUSAKI df. Remina YOSHIMOTO, 4-2
3rd Place - Miyu NAKAMURA df. Hanano SAKURAI, 11-10

World team playoff - Yui SUSAKI df. Remina YOSHIMOTO, 8-0

55kg (11 entries)
Final - Mayu SHIDOCHI df. Moe KIYOOKA by TF, 10-0, 3:36
3rd Place - Mako ONO df. Ibuki TAMURA, 8-0

World team playoff - Mayu SHIDOCHI df. Umi IMAI, 4-0

62kg (6 entries)
Final - Nonoka OZAKI df. Yukako KAWAI, 3-1
3rd Place - Yuzuka INAGAKI df. Yui SAKANO, 4-2