Japan Wrestling

Rin-se, Repeat: Unheralded Miyaji Downs Matsuyuki Twice for 68kg Title, Ticket to Worlds

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (May 29) --- After coming up short at 62kg, Rin MIYAJI decided she needed to go back to the drawing board and restructure her training to up her game. She also moved all the way up to 68kg, and it paid off.

The unheralded Miyaji pulled off one of the surprises of the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships on Saturday, defeating world junior champion Naruha MATSUYUKI for the women's 68kg title, then beating her again for a place on Japan's team to this year's World Championships.

"First of all, I'm relieved," the 20-year-old Miyaji said.  "It's the first time to make a final and win at an All-Japan, so I'm really happy."

In the gold-medal match, Miyaji trailed early in the second period before storming to an 8-2 victory over Matsuyuki. The two then returned to the mat about an hour later for a playoff for the world team spot, and Miyaji was never in danger as she handily won 7-2.

"In the final, no matter how matter points I gave up, I kept imagining my hand being raised in the end," Miyaji said. "And in the end I won, so it was alright."

Miyaji had finished third at 62kg in December at the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships, where Matsuyuki won the 68kg gold. That tournament and the Meiji Cup serve as domestic qualifiers for the World Championships to be held in October in Oslo, with a playoff to decide the entry in weight classes in which the titlists are different.

None of the 12 wrestlers who have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, including Risako KAWAI and Kenichiro FUMITA, entered the tournament at Tokyo's Komazawa Gym, opening the door for others to fill the places in Oslo.

That was the case for Miyaji, who knew that changing weight classes for the Meiji Cup doubled the difficultly of the task facing her. But she had a plan and it entailed being as well prepared as possible by changing her training regimen.

"I'm not the dextrous type and my movement is not very accomplished, so for this tournament, I changed everything in the basics of my training, and today this was the result," Miyaji said.

Asked to be more specific, she replied, "My defense against tackles has always been a problem. To overcome that, I practiced defensive wrestling every day. Also, I am underweight, so I've been working on filling out my body. I believe that I have gotten stronger physically."

Chikara TANABE, the head coach at Nippon Sports Science University and a former Olympic medalist, said the loss at the Emperor's Cup spurred the change in direction. It also helped that one of the coaches at the university is four-time Olympic gold medalist Kaori ICHO.

"She's the type who always goes all out in practice," Tanabe said. "This time, she cut back on running and worked on building strength.

"She worked all the time with Icho, and under her she sharpened her style. Her best point is that she never stops moving. I think her style will be effective in facing the world, no matter who the opponent is."

Miyaji said working with Icho has really made a difference.

"On days off, Kaori or one of my friends will practice with me" Miyaji said. "That extra practice paid off, and it gave me confidence. I really appreciate it."

Miyaji had come into the tournament with a relatively thin international resume among Japanese women, who are the dominant force globally. An Asian cadet champion in 2017, she finished second at both the 2019 Asian juniors and the 2020 Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix, both at 68kg.

But the prospect of a first-ever appearance at a senior World Championships hardly intimidates her.

"I will be appearing in my first World Championships, but it's not enough just to take part," she said. "I will give again everything in practice starting today to be able to come home with the gold medal."

For a Japanese woman to move to a different weight class, particularly an Olympic one, also means encountering new but equally strong rivals. In Miyaji's case, that could mean eventually battling NSSU teammate Miwa MORIKAWA, who won the 65kg title here and will accompany her on the plane to Oslo.

"Having such a strong rival so close by really motivates me," Miyaji said. "For example, whether it's running or lifting weights, I don't want to lose. I will do what it takes to get to the Paris Olympics."

Ayana GEMPEI defeated Rin TERAMOTO in their opening-round meeting. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation)

Gempei returns from injury with 3rd-place finish
Miyaji's title run overshadowed the return from a lengthy injury absence of Ayana GEMPEI, a 2018 world bronze medalist at 65kg and a two-time world U-23 champion.

Gempei, wrestling pain-free for the first time in 2 1/2 years, saw her bid for a first Meiji Cup crown and possible return to the World Championships end with a dramatic loss to Matsuyuki in the semifinals.

Gempei took a 2-2 lead on criteria with a stepout late in the match, only to have Matsuyuki, a junior teammate during her days at Shigakkan University, hit a 4-point move in the closing seconds for a 6-2 win.

"I'm still far from my ideal wrestling," Gempei said. "I still need to make my movement sharper so I can take the gold the next time."

The sky seemed to be the limit when Gempei won her first Emperor's Cup title in 2017, then defeated longtime rival Ayaka ITO in a playoff for the 2018 World Championships in Budapest, where she took home a bronze medal after suffering a nail-biting 6-6 loss to Petra OLLI (FIN) in the semifinals.

A month later, she picked up her second world U-23 title in Bucharest. But two weeks before that year's Emperor's Cup in December, tragedy struck when she snapped three ligaments in her right knee during practice.

She opted to forego surgery, having been advised that with three ligaments the chances of recurrence were high, and made a long, slow recovery. She attempted a comeback at the 2019 Meiji Cup, as it was serving as an Olympic qualifier, but she was nowhere near her old self and lost in the first round. That would be her last match before Saturday.

"I entered the tournament even though the injury had not healed, and I lost bad," Gempei said. "I didn't qualify for the All-Japan, then with coronavirus, there were no tournaments. I finally got to appear here. Right now I'm back to normal."

Having finished graduate school at Shigakkan, Gempei, who will turn 25 on Tuesday, started a sponsorship deal in April with technology and energy company Aisin that allows her to train full-time.

"A big company took me in and I feel a great sense of responsibility," Gempei said. "And then I lost. They give me a lot of support and I feel I have to win for them."

In the other women's title decided Saturday, Tsugumi SAKURAI repeated her victory from the Emperor's Cup, this time beating 2018 world junior champion Umi IMAI 4-2 in the final by scoring a takedown in each period.

Sakurai, the 2020 Klippan Lady Open champion where she beat veteran Sofia MATTSON (SWE) in the final, has set her sites firmly on winning the gold in Oslo and bringing more glory to her young university.

Her victory at last December's Emperor's Cup made Sakurai the first-ever national champion from Ikuei University, which was founded in 2018 and is aiming to challenge the women's collegiate powerhouses of Shigakkan and NSSU.

Kaiki YAMAGUCHI took down Kei YONEZAWA, 6-2, to earn his spot in Oslo at 65kg. (Photo: Japan Wrestling Federation)

Junior champs Yamaguchi, Abe nab tickets to Oslo
In freestyle action, Kaiki YAMAGUCHI and Toshiya ABE, who won world junior gold medals together in 2019, both earned chances to repeat their success on the senior level.

Yamaguchi, the Emperor's Cup champion at 65kg, scored all of his points in the second period to defeat Kei YONEZAWA 6-2 in the final and clinch his ticket to Oslo.

"It got a little dicey in the beginning, but I managed to turn it around," Yamaguchi said. "At this point, I don't think I am competitive on a global level, so I need to improve both physically and technically."

Yamaguchi, who won the world junior title at 61kg in Tallin, will be making his second trip to the senior worlds. In 2019, he lost 3-2 in the qualification round to Tuvshintulga TUMENBILEG (MGL).

Moving up to the Olympic weight of 65kg, he knows he will have to contend with former world champion Takuto OTOGURO, one of the Olympic-bound wrestlers who skipped this tournament.

"For now, I plan to stay at 65kg," Yamaguchi said. "If I can't beat Takuto Otoguro, I can't win a world medal, so I will aim to beat him."

Abe captured the 57kg gold with a 3-1 victory in the final over Yudai FUJITA, a 2019 Asian bronze medalist at 61kg, to earn his first trip to the senior worlds in the absence of Emperor's Cup champion Yuki TAKAHASHI.

"This is the first time to make the podium at an All-Japan tournament, so everything is the first for me," said Abe, a student at Kokushikan University. "I had thought about the World Championships, but first I had to focus on winning each and every match."

Abe overcame a scare in the semifinals, when he needed a decisive stepout with :03 left to defeat Yuto TAKESHITA, a bronze medalist at this year's Asian Championships. An unsuccessful challenge gave Abe a 3-2 win.

Takahashi, a former world champion, did not enter the Meiji Cup after he secured an Olympic place for Japan at the final world qualifying tournament in April. He will instead by preparing for a playoff for the Olympic spot with Rio Olympic silver medalist Rei HIGUCHI, to be held June 12.

There was one other world team playoff on Saturday, and it was won by Emperor's Cup champion Ryuki YOSHIDA, who denied Yudai TAKAHASHI a second straight trip to the senior worlds with a dramatic 3-2 victory.

Yoshida's bid to win the world place outright went off the rails at the first stage, as he was dealt a stunning loss by fall in the quarterfinals by Yuta ABE. Yoshida had led 6-0, only to see Abe storm back with 10 straight points before ending the match with :29 left.

Takahashi, who was still a high schooler when he competed at the 2019 World Championships in Nur-Sultan, crushed Abe in the final with a 10-0 technical fall to set up the playoff with Yoshida, a first-round loser at this year's Asian Championships.

Takahashi scored with a stepout and an activity clock point in the first period, and the gap was closed to one when Yoshida gained an activity point in the second. With the clock ticking down, Yoshida scored a stepout off a single leg with :04 left to take the lead on criteria. An unsuccessful challenge added the final point.

Asian bronze medalist Ayata SUZUKI captured the Greco-Roman 60kg title, giving him the ticket to Oslo because world champion Fumita, who won the Emperor's Cup title, was not entered.

Japan Wrestling

All-Japan Championships: World Champ Fujinami Aims for 2nd National Title as Olympic Medalists Sit Out

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO, Japan (December 13) -- It was a year ago that highly touted teenager Akari FUJINAMI (JPN) made her senior debut at the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships. She lived up to the hype by winning that tournament, which became the launching pad for her to rocket to stardom.

Fujinami, who turned 18 last month, is back to defend her women's 53kg title, this time as the reigning senior world champion.

"After the World Championships, I had to quarantine for two weeks," Fujinami said in a telephone interview. "During those two weeks, I took another look at my wrestling. I am prepared to perform at a higher level at the Emperor's Cup."

Unfortunately, a highly anticipated match-up between Fujinami and Olympic champion Mayu MUKAIDA has been put off indefinitely, as none of Japan's five gold medalists from the Tokyo Games are entered in the tournament to be held Dec. 16-19 at Tokyo's Komazawa Gym.

Still, all but one of Japan's 12 medalists from October's World Championships in Oslo are entered, and two women's weight classes have potential clashes between a world champion and a world medalist as wrestlers begin the shift in divisions to start the new Olympic cycle.

Among the men, record-setting world Greco-Roman champion Ken MATSUI faces a possible showdown with another history-maker at 55kg, while veteran Sohsuke TAKATANI will attempt to become the third wrestler in Japan history to win an 11th consecutive national title when he defends the freestyle 92kg crown.

The Emperor's Cup is the first of two domestic qualifiers, along with the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in the spring, for next year's World Championships in Belgrade. It is also a qualifier for the 2022 Asian Games in China, which may actually complicate matters as that event starts just three days after the World Championships.

Although Tokyo has gone more than a month with under 30 new daily cases of coronavirus, strict protocols are in place, including the banning of family, friends and general spectators.

Entries were limited to a maximum of 12 per weight class, each of which will begin and finish on the same day.

While Fujinami, currently a senior at Inabe Gakuin High School in Mie Prefecture, won't have to contend yet with Mukaida, there is no lack of top-notch competition for her. At last year's Emperor's Cup and this year's Meiji Cup, Fujinami defeated both two-time former world champion Haruna OKUNO and former world silver medalist Nanami IRIE, and both are entered and looking for revenge.

"I'm sure both of them, or everyone for that matter, have been studying me," Fujinami said. "Instead of regarding myself as the champion, I will approach this tournament the same as always, without forgetting the feeling of being the challenger."

But anyone looking to dethrone Fujinami will have to be at the very top of their game. With her four victories in Oslo -- all by technical fall, and without surrendering a point -- she is currently on an 83-match win streak that dates back to her junior high school days in 2017.

Asked what progress she feels she has made over the past year, Fujinami replied, "I feel like I've raised my level physically."

As for being deprived of the desired showdown with Mukaida, Fujinami took the news in stride. "It was a situation where I didn't know, is she going to enter or she not going to enter," she said. "In the end, she won't be there.

"I don't know the next time she will appear, but I know she is someone I will have to ultimately beat. Right now, the Emperor's Cup is right in front of me and winning is the only thing I am thinking of. I want to win this and go to the World Championships."

Is she disappointed? "I wouldn't say disappointed, I just really want to face her," she replied with confidence and maturity belying her years.

To the not-so-serious suggestion that Mukaida might be avoiding her, Fujinami replied, "I understand that after the Olympics, she is still on kind of a high. I think she will enter next year."

Fujinami said she is undecided, if she qualifies, on whether she would attempt to complete a world and Asian Games double in September next year.

"If I can enter both, I'd like to do that. When the time comes, we'll see how it works out. At any rate, my objective now is to win the Emperor's Cup."

The Japan federation has not released information on why all of Japan's Olympic medalists, who also include gold medalists Yui SUSAKI, Risako KAWAI, Yukako KAWAI and Takuto OTOGURO, are skipping the tournament. In fact, of the 12 wrestlers who took part in the Tokyo Olympics, only Takatani will be taking the mat at Komazawa Gym.

Possibly they have not had time to properly prepare. Like all of Japan's Olympic champions, the wrestlers were in high demand on Japanese TV variety shows, particularly the Kawai sisters (on one show, they were taken shopping to a major electrical appliance store, where the host, a famous Japanese comedian, footed the bill.) Also, Risako Kawai and Mukaida both got married soon after the Games, and have been busy setting up their new households.

YOSHIMOTORemina YOSHIMOTO (JPN) is the world champion at 50kg. (Photo: UWW / Kadir Caliskan)

But even without them, a Japanese national championship is never lacking for star power. Along with Fujinami and Matsui, newly minted world champions Remina YOSHIMOTO, Tsugumi SAKURAI and Masako FURUICHI all won their first national titles last year and will be in action this week.

Shigakkan University's Yoshimoto will be defending her title at women's 50kg, and will be the favorite in the absence of Susaki, while Sakurai and Furuichi have changed weight classes and might have to contend with a fellow world medalist.

Sakurai, the world champ at 55kg and the first-ever national champion for recently founded Ikuei University, has moved up to 57kg, which puts her on a possible collision course with two-time defending champion Sae NANJO, the bronze medalist at that weight in Oslo.

Furuichi, who completed a "grand slam" of world titles when she added the senior 72kg crown in Oslo to her previous world titles at the cadet, junior and U23 levels, has dropped down to the Olympic weight of 68kg. That could mean a clash with Rin MIYAJI, the world silver medalist who pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Oslo when she knocked off Olympic champion Tamyra MENSAH STOCK (USA) with a 21-second fall in the semifinals.

At 62kg, world bronze medalist Nonoka OZAKI will be looking to make history as she aims for a second straight title. The 18-year-old won her first title last year as a high schooler and, after graduating last March, she opted to take the academic route and passed the difficult entrance exams for prestigious Keio University. A victory on Saturday would make her the first current student or alumni of Keio to become a national champion in 62 years.

World silver medalist Miwa MORIKAWA will look to win a third straight title as the defending champion at 65kg. In her path is 2018 world bronze medalist Ayana GEMPEI, who returned from a long layoff due to knee surgery at this year's Meiji Cup and finished third at 68kg.

In freestyle, the spotlight will be on Takatani. The 2014 world silver medalist at 74kg, he won his 10th straight national title last year at 92kg in his fourth different weight class. He later dropped down to 86kg and qualified for his third Olympics in Tokyo, but suffered a heartbreaking 2-2 loss in the first round.

If successful, he will become the fifth wrestler in Japan history to capture 11 national crowns and the third to do it in consecutive years. Two-time Olympic bronze medalist Kyoko HAMAGUCHI holds the record with 16 titles won between 1996 and 2013. His main competition is likely to come from the 2020 Asian silver medalist Takuma OTSU.

Japan's lone freestyle medalist in Oslo, Toshihiro HASEGAWA, who won a silver at 61kg, has dropped down to 57kg in his quest for a first national title. Also entered is Toshiya ABE, who finished seventh in that weight class in Oslo.

Moving the opposite direction is Rio 2016 Olympic silver medalist Rei HIGUCHI. After an unsuccessful bid to make Japan's Olympic team at 57kg -- he lost in a playoff to Yuki TAKAHASHI -- and struggling mightily to make that weight, he has moved back up to 61kg as he seeks a fourth career national title.

Also entered at 61kg is Kazuya KOYANAGI, the 2018 Asian silver medalist who finished seventh that year at the World Championships, and bronze medalists from the past two Asian Championships, Ryuto SAKAKI and Shoya SHIMAE.

In Greco-Roman, Matsui faces a possibly intriguing match-up at 55kg. When he won the gold in Oslo, Matsui was 20 years 8 months, making him Japan's youngest-ever world Greco champion. Five months earlier, Yu SHIOTANI made history by becoming, at age 19 years 5 months, the nation's youngest-ever Asian champion in that style. Both are aiming for a first national title.

Another weight to watch is 72kg, where four-time champion Shogo TAKAHASHI could end up facing his high school coach in defense of his title. Takahashi competed almost exclusively at 67kg in his career, but the 2019 Asian bronze medalist moved up to 72kg last year as beefed-up preparation for the Olympic qualifying tournament.

The 27-year-old Takahashi missed out on Tokyo, and this year decided to enter at 72kg again. That could set up a match with Tomohiro INOUE, his coach at Ikuei High School in Hyogo Prefecture. Inoue, 34, won the last of his four national titles in 2018. He was a 2016 Olympian and was a member of his third world team in Oslo.

The two met in the 66kg final in 2015, with Inoue winning by technical fall. After that, they went their separate ways and into different weight classes, and have not clashed since. On the final day Sunday, they may have to contend with Asian bronze medalist Taishi HORIE and newly crowned collegiate champion Eito NISHIDA, a freshman at Senshu University.

Day 1 (December 16)
FS - 70kg, 97kg, 125kg; GR - 77kg, 82kg, 87kg; WW - 59kg, 76kg

Day 2 (December 17)
FS - 65kg, 79kg; GR - 60kg, 67kg, 130kg,; WW - 55kg, 65kg, 72kg

Day 3 (December 18)
FS - 61kg, 74kg, 86kg; GR - 63kg, 97kg; WW - 57kg, 62kg, 68kg

Day 4 (December 19)
FS - 57kg, 92kg; GR - 55kg, 72kg; WW - 50kg, 53kg

The competition starts each day at 10 a.m. Each weight class starts and finishes on the same day. Entries are limited to 12 per weight class, with no repechage and only one bronze-medal match.