All Japan Championships

Rio Silver Medalists Ota, Higuchi Take Drastic Measures in Quest to Make Tokyo 2020

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (Dec. 2) --- A pair of Japanese silver medalists from the Rio 2016 Olympics, denied during their preferred routes to Tokyo 2020, will be trying desperate measures in last-ditch efforts to make Games in their host country---which presents a weighty problem for both.

Shinobu OTA, the Rio 2016 silver medalist at Greco-Roman 60kg, has moved up to two divisions to 67kg for the upcoming All Japan Championships, which will serve as the final qualifier for either filling an Olympic berth that Japan has already secured, or earning the chance to win a spot at the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in March.

Conversely, Rei HIGUCHI, who failed to gain an Olympic ticket at freestyle 65kg, has gone the other way, dropping two weight classes down to 57kg, the division in which he won the silver in Rio, according to the list of entries recently released by the Japan federation for the tournament to be held Dec. 19-22 in Tokyo.

At the World Championships in Nur-Sultan in September, Japan clinched eight Olympic berths in the 18 weight classes --- two in freestyle, one in Greco-Roman and five in women's wrestling. As incentive, the Japan federation decreed that any wrestler who won a medal in the Kazakh capital would automatically fill the Olympic spot themselves.

That resulted in five wrestlers clinching Olympic spots: Mayu MUKAIDA (53kg), Risako KAWAI (57kg), Yukako KAWAI (62kg) and Hiroe MINAGAWA (76kg) among the women, and Kenichiro FUMITA (60kg) in Greco-Roman. None of the five are entered in the All Japan tournament.

When Fumita won the gold to regain the world title he had won in 2017, it also closed the door on Ota in that weight class. Having been beaten by Fumita for the 60kg place on the team to Nur-Sultan, Ota moved up to 63kg --- and won his first world title. But that being a non-Olympic weight class, he knew he had to take drastic measures to get to Tokyo 2020.

Shinobu OTA, the reigning 63kg world champion, will be moving up to 67kg with hopes of improving his silver medal from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. (Photo: Tony Rotundo)

So he has moved up further to 67kg, where he will challenge defending national champion Shogo TAKAHASHI. Takahashi was eliminated in the third round in Nur-Sultan, leaving Japan without an Olympic spot at this point.  Others who Ota might have to deal with are Katsuaki ENDO, the 2018 world U-23 champion at 63kg, and Tsuchika SHIMOYAMADA, a former world team member who was second to Takahashi last year.

Ota, who won two international tournaments in Hungary and Belarus this year at 63kg, had planned to get a test run at 67kg at the World Cup in Iran, but the tournament was postponed due to unrest in that country.

After winning a silver in Rio, Higuchi moved up to 61kg, where he won the 2016 All Japan title and a bronze medal at the Asian Championships. But with eyes on Tokyo 2020, in late 2017 he made the jump up to 65kg, but, at just 1.62 meters, found the size difference difficult to overcome.

Still, he won the world U-23 gold in 2018, then pulled off a surprising victory over world champion Takuto OTOGURO at the All Japan Invitational Championships, the second of the two qualifiers for the world team. That set up a playoff between the two, but Otoguro, having recovered from a recent knee injury, totally dominated the encounter.

Assuming he can successfully get down to 57kg, Higuchi will challenge former world champion Yuki TAKAHASHI, who has had a domestic stranglehold on the lightest division for the past three years. Takahashi kept the door open to the Olympics when he fell in the fourth round in Nur-Sultan. Also in the mix will be a pair of world junior champions, Toshiya ABE and Kaiki YAMAGUCHI, the latter dropping from 61kg.

Otoguro still has some unfinished business himself. He secured the 65kg berth for Japan in Nur-Sultan, but by losing in the bronze-medal match, left himself needing a win at the All Japan (also referred to as the Emperor's Cup) to seal the deal. His biggest concern looks to make sure he is healthy for the competition.

Rio Olympic champion Sara DOSHO will be challenged by U23 world champions Masako FURUICHI and Yuka KAGAMI at 68kg. (Photo: Gabor Martin)

Rio Olympic champion Sara DOSHO is in the same boat at Otoguro. Her fifth-place finish at 68kg left her short of the Olympics and raised doubts about whether she had fully recovered from the shoulder surgery she underwent earlier in the year. She will have some tough company in her bid to secure the Tokyo ticket.

World U-23 champion Masako FURUICHI gave Dosho a run for her money in the final at the All Japan Invitational last June, losing 4-3 on a last-second takedown. After that loss, Furuichi moved up to 72kg for the senior World Championships, where she took home a bronze medal.

Another notable entry at 68kg is high schooler Yuka KAGAMI, who this year added world junior and U-23 titles to the two cadet golds she had previously won. While she mostly competed at 72kg, the weight in which she won the junior title, she also moved up to 76kg to challenge Minagawa for the world team spot, but was unsuccessful (her U-23 title came in that division). Dropping to 68kg will mark her first competition under 72kg since she won the Klippan Lady cadet at 65kg in February 2018.

The Olympic spot at freestyle 74kg that was secured by Mao OKUI's fifth-place in Nur-Sultan will also be up for grabs, and there is no shortage of scavengers looking to come away with the spoils.  Yuhi FUJINAMI, a 2017 world bronze medalist at 70kg who was not at 100 percent when he lost a world team playoff to Okui, will be looking for revenge, and will be joined in the hunt by world junior silver medalist Jintaro MOTOYAMA and Asian silver medalist Kojiro SHIGA, who placed seventh at 70kg in Nur-Sultan.

Kaori ICHO did not enter the All Japan Championships, which ends her quest for a fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal. (Photo: Tony Rotundo)

End of the road for Icho
Meanwhile, living legend Kaori ICHO officially ended her quest for an unprecedented fifth straight Olympic gold when she decided not to enter the tournament.

Icho had lost out for the women's 57kg spot to fellow Rio Olympic champion Risako Kawai, who punched her ticket to Tokyo 2020 with a gold in Nur-Sultan. When Mukaida and Yukako Kawai also secured their spots at the weight classes immediately above and below, the only avenues left were at 50kg and 68kg --- and Icho didn't see much hope in either choice.

It was at women's 50kg that Japan suffered one of its bigger shocks in Nur-Sultan, as Yuki IRIE suffered a heartbreaking 13-12 quarterfinal loss to SUN Yanan (CHN) and failed to clinch an Olympic berth.

That opened the door for two-time world champion Yui SUSAKI, who had lost a world team playoff to Irie. Those two will be joined at the Emperor's Cup by Rio 2016 champion Eri TOSAKA in the latest round of the trio's battle royale.

There was speculation that former world champion Haruna OKUNO, who lost out to Mukaida for the 53kg spot, might drop down to 50kg in a bid to keep her Olympic dream alive. But that ended when she was entered at 53kg.

That could result in an intriguing rematch with Nanami IRIE, Yuki's younger sister. When Okuno failed to knock off Mukaida, she entered the world team playoff at 55kg, only to lose to Irie, who went on to win the silver medal in Nur-Sultan.

All Japan Championships

Susaki Outlasts Rival Irie for Ticket to Olympic Qualifier; Otoguro Clinches Tokyo 2020 Spot

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (Dec. 22)—Given the stakes, it hardly produced the fireworks—and points—that were seen in their previous encounters. But a win is a win, and that was all that concerned Yui SUSAKI, who took a major step closer to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Susaki kept her once-faded Olympic dream alive by beating nemesis Yuki IRIE in an intense but ultimately dull 2-1 victory in the women’s 50kg final on the fourth and final day of the All Japan Championships on Sunday at Tokyo’s Komazawa Olympic Park Gym. 

All of the points came on the activity clock, and after Irie received her lone point with a minute to go, Susaki went into solid defense mode to preserve the victory and secure a ticket to the Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in Xi’an, China, in February. 

“When she got a point, I kept believing I would win and didn’t panic,” said Susaki, who added to the lone national title she won in 2016. “I was able to wrestle to the end keeping a strong mind.”

Rio 2016 Olympic silver medalist Rei HIGUCHI will also be on the flight to China, after he successfully dropped two weight classes and knocked off former world champion Yuki TAKAHASHI in an enthralling freestyle 57kg final with a razor-thin 7-6 win. 

Takuto OTOGURO, the 2018 world champion who secured Japan’s Olympic berth at freestyle 65kg with a fifth-place finish at this year’s World Championships in Nur-Sultan, filled that place himself by cruising to the title in that division. 

Susaki’s victory avenged a devastating loss in a playoff to Irie in July for a place on the team to Nur-Sultan. That not only ended her two-year reign as world champion, but, given the history of success by Japanese women in the lightest weight class, seemed to end her Olympic prospects. 

At Nur-Sultan, any Japanese winning a medal in an Olympic weight automatically filled the berth at Tokyo 2020. Five wrestlers fulfilled that criteria—Mayu MUKAIDA (53kg), Risako KAWAI (57kg), Yukako KAWAI (62kg) and Hiroe MINAGAWA (76kg) among the women, and Greco-Roman champion Kenichiro FUMITA (60kg).

Wrestlers who claimed berths for Japan but did not medal could fill the spot themselves with a victory at the All Japan, also known as the Emperor’s Cup, while a loss would put them in a playoff on Feb. 1 with the gold medalist. Of the three in that category, only Otoguro came out as a winner. 

In Nur-Sultan, Asian champion Irie’s tournament ended with a quarterfinal loss to SUN Yanan (CHN), leaving 50kg as the only women’s weight class in which Japan did not qualify for Tokyo 2020. 

That reopened the door for Susaki, who was determined to take advantage of this second and last chance.

“I’ve had this dream since I was little,” the 20-year-old Susaki said. “All I thought was to get stronger and definitely take advantage of this chance so I can win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.”

Sasaki, who defeated Rio 2016 Olympic champion Eri TOSAKA in Saturday’s semifinals, scored on the activity clock in the first period, then again a minute into the second. Irie gained her point a minute later.

Neither wrestler was able to get in deep with anything resembling an effective attack, as both seemed to be exercising caution against making the kind of mistake that can proved fatal in such a high-level battle.  

“I wanted to score a technical point, but my thoughts got out ahead of me,” Susaki said. “From an emotional viewpoint, it went well. But looking at the wrestling, there is room for improvement and I will work to fix that before the Asian qualifier.”

A tearful Irie, who remains the only wrestler on the planet to have beaten Susaki—she has done it three times—was at a loss for words, so deep was her disappointment. 

“I was only thinking about not giving up points, and trying to get points,” said Irie, 27, who was the two-time defending champion.

Technically, Irie’s Olympic prospects are not zero. Should Susaki get injured, or fail to earn a Tokyo spot in China, Irie could be chosen to enter the final world qualifying tournament. Asked about her future, she said she had not thought about it. 

Rei HIGUCHI, the Rio silver medalist, defeated Yuki TAKAHASHI, 7-6, and punched his ticket to the Asian Olympic Qualifier. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Higuchi makes big weight loss pay off
Should Higuchi ultimately make it to Tokyo 2020, it will have been via a quite circuitous route. After winning a silver at Rio 2016, he moved up to 61kg, then up to 65kg in a bid for a second trip to the Olympics. 

He experienced some success, winning the world U-23 gold in 2018, but was ultimately unable to unseat Otoguro. Once Otoguro gained the Olympic berth for Japan in Nur-Sultan, Higuchi concluded it would be too difficult to beat him twice (at the All Japan and the playoff) and thus saw his only option as dropping down to 57kg to challenge Takahashi.

He started the process of cutting weight, having blown up to a lifetime heaviest of 68kg. “The temperance was really hard,” he said. “For three or four months, I had a diet of almost solely vegetables.”

In Sunday’s final against Takahashi, he showed no lack of energy, taking a 4-1 lead in the first period that he padded to 7-1 with a takedown and gut wrench early in the second.

But Takahashi has made a habit of putting on big comebacks, and in a 40-second span, put the pressure on and scored three step-outs. He then cut the gap to a single point with a takedown with :31 left.

At that point, Higuchi made a bold move and went for a single that, while ending in a stalemate, ate up precious time. That gave him some leeway to go into defensive mode and finish out the win for his first title since 2016 and third overall.

“I saw there was 30 seconds left on the clock, and I thought I had to go on the attack to keep him at bay and protect the lead, or he would get points,” Higuchi said. “In the end, it worked out.”

Takahashi had beaten Higuchi in two previous career meetings, but the last had been in 2014. 

Otoguro kept on track to the Olympics by routing 2017 world U-23 champion Rinya NAKAMURA, finishing up a 10-0 technical fall with one second left in the first period.

Otoguro could be joined at Tokyo 2020 by older brother Keisuke, who won the 74kg gold to set up a playoff with Mao OKUI, who clinched the Olympic spot in Nur-Sultan but fell Saturday in the first round.

Keisuke Otoguro used counter lifts and spin-behinds to perfection to outlast spunky Daichi TAKATANI 14-8 in the most entertaining match of the day. Having moved up from 70kg, he landed his third career title in a third different weight class. 

“If I don’t win the playoff [against Okui], this championship will not mean anything,” Otoguro said. 

Takatani had also made a drastic shift in weight classes. He had been among the beaten challengers of Takuto Otoguro at 65kg, then moved all the way up to 74kg for this tournament. His fearless determination spurred him into the final, along with the hope of joining older brother Sosuke, the 86kg champion, at the Asian qualifier.

Miwa MORIKAWA will meet Rio 2016 champion Sara DOSHO for Japan's Tokyo Olympic spot at 68kg. (Photo: Sachiko Hotaka)

Morikawa takes title, gets 2nd shot at Dosho
In a showdown of reigning world junior champions, Miwa MORIKAWA edged Naruha MATSUYUKI 2-1 in the women’s 68kg final, earning her a place in the playoff for the Olympic spot in that weight class against Rio 2016 champion Sara DOSHO.

The playoff will be a rematch after Morikawa, the world 65kg junior champion, soundly defeated Dosho 9-2 in the semifinals on Friday. 

In the final against world 68kg junior champion Matsuyuki, Morikawa scored the winning point with a step-out with 1:29 left to win her first title in a weight class (67-69kg) that Dosho had dominated for the past eight years.

Dosho secured the Olympic spot for Japan in Nur-Sultan, but failed to clinch it for herself when she lost in the bronze-medal match to Anna SCHELL (GER). 

The two Greco-Roman tickets to Xi’an up for the grabs went to world team members. Defending champion Shogo TAKAHASHI defeated 2017 winner Tsuchika SHIMOYAMADA 5-3 in the 67kg final, while Shohei YABIKU blanked Kodai SAKURABA 4-0 at 77kg for his first title in two years and fourth overall.

Day 4 results


57kg (25 entries)
Final - Rei HIGUCHI df. Yuki TAKAHASHI, 7-6
3rd Place - Kotaro KIYOOKA df. Taiki ARINOBU, 8-4
3rd Place – Yudai FUJITA def. Kaiki YAMAGUCHI by Def.

65kg (21 entries)
Final - Takuto OTOGURO df. Rinya NAKAMURA by TF, 10-0, 2:59
3rd Place – Shoya SHIMAE df. Ryoma ANRAKU, 3-2
3rd Place – Masakazu KAMOI df. Takuma TANIYAMA, 2-2 

74kg (26 entries)
Final - Keisuke OTOGURO df. Daichi TAKATANI, 14-8
3rd Place – Yuto MIWA df. Ken HOSAKA, 4-3
3rd Place - Jintaro MOTOYAMA df. Ranmaru AKAOGI by TF, 10-0, 2:42

67kg (21 entries)
Final - Shogo TAKAHASHI df. Tsuchika SHIMOYAMADA, 5-3
3rd Place - Katsuaki ENDO df. Daigo KOBAYASHI by TF, 9-1, 5:02
3rd Place - Yuji UEGAKI df. Ryo MATSUI, 6-1

77kg (17 entries)
Final - Shohei YABIKU df. Kodai SAKURABA, 4-0}
3rd Place - Tomohiro INOUE df. Yudai KOMURO by TF, 9-0, 2:01
3rd Place – So SAKABE def. Takeshi IZUMI by Def.

Women’s Wrestling
50kg (25 entries)
Final - Yui SUSAKI df. Yuki IRIE, 2-1 
3rd Place – Miho IGARASHI df. Remina YOSHIMOTO, 4-2
3rd Place - Eri TOSAKA df. Umi ITO, 12-4

68kg (9 entries)
Final - Miwa MORIKAWA df. Naruha MATSUYUKI, 2-1
3rd Place – Rin MIYAJI df. Sara DOSHO by Def. 
3rd Place - Masako FURUICHI df. Hikaru IDE by Fall, 1:53 (8-0)