Meet Japan’s Astounding Teen Prodigies

Japanese teenage prodigy

One of Japan’s most hotly anticipated movie releases of 2017, March Comes in Like a Lion, features a teenager calmly defeating seasoned pros at shogi. The lead character’s impressive skills, however, were nothing in comparison to a 14-year-old boy named Sota Fujii, who recently became a nationwide sensation after winning 29 shogi games in a row, breaking a record that stood for 30 years. Having won the heart of the nation, Fujii will probably go down as the standout Japanese teen of the year, though there have been many others who’ve caught our attention. Here’s a look at some of our favorites, in the areas of business, sports and entertainment.

The Start-Up Kids

At elementary school, Rika Shiiki had about 13 career goals. Not wanting to give up on any, she decided to start her own business so she could work on them one by one. Last year, the then 18-year-old was the youngest name in the media, advertising and marketing section of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Asia, a list that celebrates the region’s brightest young entrepreneurs, innovators and game changers. A year on and her company, JCJK, is preparing for an initial public offering (IPO). “We are a marketing organization made up of junior high and high school girls around the country who arrange questionnaires and partake in round table discussions,” Shiiki recently told Weekender. “2017 has been a tough year, but also an exciting one as we have expanded the business and are planning to go public.”

“At high school I felt I reached a limit in terms of what I could learn, so I dropped out to focus on the business”

GNEX is another company with big ambitions. Founded by Yoichiro Mikami during his early teens, it’s a digital marketing firm providing, amongst other things, SaaS push notification services from the web directly to users’ terminals. Over the past six and a half years, the organization has continued to grow and now boasts more than 5,000 clients. “At high school I felt I reached a limit in terms of what I could learn, so I dropped out to focus on the business,” he says. “In general, Japanese people are afraid to take these kinds of risks, and that’s one of the main reasons you don’t see many start-ups here.”

GNEX founder Yoichiro Mikami

Another teen who has taken up the challenge is Hibiki Iwano (pictured top and below). Diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, he struggled to keep up with classroom activities at school, and found it difficult to connect with others. So at age 13, he decided to quit, and within two years was running his own coffee business. “I had a hard time copying words written on the board, and there were many things I couldn’t do that brought me down,” he tells us. “I wanted to focus on what I could do with my own working style. I found that roasting coffee was the ideal way of expressing myself.” With the support of his parents, Iwano launched Horizon Labo this April. Located in Gunma Prefecture, the shop became so crowded that it has been temporarily closed, but the young entrepreneur has since started selling his beans online.

japanese teenage prodigy making coffee
Horizon Labo founder Hibiki Iwano

The Sports Sensations

Former international flanker for the Brave Blossoms Katsuyuki Kiyomiya felt his son had the physique to follow in his footsteps as a rugby player. Instead, young Kotaro decided to take up baseball. By the time he was 13, the six-foot, 206-pound junior high school student was already being compared to former New York Yankees slugger Hideki Matsui, and touted as the Japanese Babe Ruth. Now 18, Kotaro is the most sought-after batter in the country after deciding to turn pro rather than attend university. He holds the unofficial high school record of 111 home runs.

Another record-breaking teen making headlines is Takefusa Kubo. The youngest goal scorer in J-League history, he recently played in both the U-20 and U-17 World Cups. Signed by Barcelona in 2011, he scored 74 goals in his first 30 games at their famed La Masia youth academy. Three years later, he joined FC Tokyo as the Blaugrana had violated FIFA’s international youth transfer regulations. He can re-sign when he’s 18, and the dream for Japanese fans is to one day see him line up for the Catalan club in the Superclásico against Real Madrid’s U-15 playmaker Takuhiro Nakai.

In athletics, Yoshihide Kiryu became the first Japanese sprinter to break the 10-second barrier in the 100 meters, yet Sani Brown is the name creating the biggest buzz. The 18-year-old completed a sprint double at the national championships in June, and then two months later became the youngest-ever finalist in the 200 meters at the World Championships (198 days younger than previous record holder Usain Bolt). The half-Ghanaian runner is currently enrolled at the University of Florida.

At this year’s World Table Tennis Championships, Tomokazu Harimoto, just 13 at the time, caused the biggest upset when he defeated Olympic bronze medalist Jun Mizutani on his way to the quarter finals. A naturalized Japanese player with Chinese parents, he later became the youngest-ever winner of an International Table Tennis World Tour event, lifting the Czech Open aged just 14 years and 61 days, while compatriot Mima Ito took home the Women’s Singles title. The pair had a combined age of 30, and will both be expected to challenge for medals at the 2020 Olympics.

As will 17-year-old swimmer Rikako Ikee, who won three golds at this year’s World Junior Championships. At next February’s Winter Olympics, snowboarder Ayumu Hirano will be among Japan’s best hopes of a gold in the half pipe competition, while Marin Honda is viewed as the current golden girl of figure skating.

Despite just turning 20, Naomi Osaka also deserves a mention. The young tennis sensation defeated former world number one Angelique Kerber at the US Open, and last month beat Venus Williams at the Hong Kong Open.

The Young Entertainers

Almost a decade on from being named in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s youngest ever professional guitarist, 17-year-old Yuto Miyazawa is showing that he’s not just a skillful musician, but also a principled human being. “I played several charity concerts for refugees this year, donating all the revenue to the UN Refugee Agency,” he tells Weekender. “Even though Japan accepts few refugees, as individuals we can make a difference.” The mature teen started playing guitar aged three after being mesmerized by Queen’s Brian May, and rose to fame after performing on Late Night with Conan O’Brien as well as twice on the Ellen DeGeneres Show – where he also met his hero Ozzy Osbourne. The former Black Sabbath vocalist then invited the youngster to tour with him. “Playing on such a big stage was a great learning experience,” Miyazawa says. “I met many legendary artists including [Judas Priest singer] Rob Halford who protected me from a scary spectator.”

“Ozzy Osbourne invited the youngster to tour with him”

While admitting it’s not the kind of music he usually listens to, Miyazawa believes Babymetal has what it takes to make it to the top. The teenage trio are seen by many as nothing more than a passing fad, yet are still going strong three-and-a-half years on from their debut album. So far in 2017, they’ve toured with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Korn, and opened for Guns N’ Roses and Metallica. In the summer they launched The Five Fox Festival, a series of shows with gender, age and clothing restrictions. The group have many celebrity fans, including Slipknot’s Corey Taylor who recently revealed that his son got him into them.

For those who fancy something a little mellower, Mao Fujita is worth a listen. The 18-year-old pianist has already picked up numerous accolades during his short career, and added to his extensive list this summer when he was awarded the prestigious Clara Haskil Prize, named after the renowned Romanian pianist. The young prodigy, who started playing music at the age of three, is the third Japanese winner of the biennial competition. Since making his debut with the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra in 2010, he has been performing in solo recitals and joint concerts around the globe.

When it comes to acting, Mei Nagano is viewed by many as the country’s rising star of 2017. The 18-year-old has seen her reputation grow since performing alongside Ryohei Suzuki in the romantic comedy My Love Story! and this year played the lead role in the live film adaptation of popular manga Daytime Shooting Star. Mana Ashida, who appeared in Pacific Rim, remains Japan’s most famous teen actor. Known as a bookworm, she’s spent most of the year focusing on her studies, though did feature prominently in the 2017 mockumentary Yamada Takayuki in 3D.

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