From Karne Hesketh’s injury time try in Brighton to Yuzuru Hanyu’s flawless displays on the ice, it’s been a year to remember for fans of Japanese sports. Here’s a look at some of the highlights, lowlights and stand-out performances from the past twelve months.
By Matthew Hernon
Team of the Year
1. Japan Rugby Union Squad
No doubt about this one. The Brave Blossoms produced the biggest shock in World Cup history, defeating South Africa in the opening game of the tournament. After losing to Scotland they then went on to win two more against Samoa and the US. Not bad for a side who prior to the tournament had only recorded one victory in 24 World Cup matches.
2. Japan Men’s Gymnastics Team
After a 37-year wait the Japan team finally won a gold at the Gymnastics World Championships.
3. Japan Women’s Football Squad
Norio Sasaki’s ladies reached the World Cup final for the second time in succession before losing out on the top prize to the US.
Male Athlete of the Year
1. Kohei Uchimura (Gymnastics)
The man known as “Superman” hasn’t lost in the all-around event since 2008, so it came as no surprise to see him win yet another world title in 2015. He also picked up a gold on the parallel bars before leading Japan to victory in the team competition. Widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time.
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (Figure Skating)
On a different planet from the rest, he seems to set a new world record every time he sets skates on the ice. The first skater to break the mythical 300-point barrier.
3. Ayumu Goromaru (Rugby)
He’s become a household name since the World Cup and even boosted tourism in Gifu: the hand gesture of a Buddhist statue there resembles his pre-kick action.
Female Athlete of the Year
1. Saori Yoshida/Kaori Icho (Wrestling)
For the past decade these two ladies have been so dominant in their categories it is difficult to split them. In 2015 Yoshida won her 13th world title while Icho won her 10th. At 22 years of age, Eri Tosaka looks like she’ll become the next big wrestling star from Japan, having claimed her third gold medal at the Worlds in the 48kg competition.
2. Kanako Watanabe (Swimming)
The teenager produced a late surge in the 200m breaststroke final in Russia to win gold at the World Aquatics Championships.
3. Aya Miyama (Football)
The captain and heartbeat of the Japan side that reached the World Cup Final. Voted the third-best player of the tournament.
Young Athlete of the Year
1. Kenzo Shirai (Gymnastics)
He’s only 19, but already has three skills named after him (with a fourth possibly on the way). Known as the “Twist Prince,” he is one of the biggest risk-takers in gymnastics and in October became world floor champion for the second time. He followed that up by helping his country win a gold in the team event.
2. Kanako Watanabe (Swimming)
Along with her gold in the 200m breaststroke, she also picked up a silver in the 200m individual-medley.
3. Abdul Hakim Sani Brown (Athletics)
Broke Usain Bolt’s World Youth Championship record in the 200m and made the semi-finals at the Worlds. Named the IAAF Rising Star of the Year.
1. Eddie Jones (Rugby)
Speaking to Weekender two years ago, Jones said that he wanted Japan to “be respected, with people saying the team have enough about them to trouble any side in the world.” It’s fair to say he achieved his goal with his brilliantly prepared squad lighting up the World Cup. In November he agreed to become the coach of England.
2. Hajime Moriyasu (Football)
Won his third J-League title in four years as coach of Sanfrecce Hiroshima after a play-off final victory over Gamba Osaka.
3. Kimiyasu Kudo (Baseball)
Guided the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks to their second successive Pacific League and Japan Series title. Received the Matsutaro Shoriki Award.
1. Karne Hesketh’s try (Rugby)
The last play of the match and Japan could have kicked for a draw. It would’ve been an unbelievable result against a formidable South Africa side; however, the players weren’t satisfied with that and decided to go for a scrum. It proved a wise decision. Hesketh’s beautifully orchestrated try gave Japan the most stunning World Cup victory ever.
2. Natsumi Hoshi wins gold (Swimming)
A few months after having her thyroid gland removed due to Grave’s disease, Hoshi came from behind to win the 200m butterfly event in Russia.
3. Nadeshiko into the Final (Football)
Deep into stoppage time, England defender Laura Bassett put the ball into her own net to give Japan a dramatic semi-final victory.
1. Nadeshiko humbled in the final (Football)
Norio Sasaki’s ladies had done brilliantly to get as far as they did, but their performance in the final against the US was horrendous. Going down 4-0 after just 16 minutes, their game was effectively over before the crowd had a chance to catch their breath. Despite scoring twice to recover some pride, it was a day to forget for Japan.
2. Nishikori’s injury struggles (Tennis)
It was supposed to be the year that Nishikori properly challenged the game’s elite players. Unfortunately injuries have once again held him back.
3. Semi-final agony (Baseball)
3-0 up in front of a packed Tokyo Dome, Japan looked set to reach the final of the WBSC Premier 12. Then Korea scored four in the ninth to stun the home crowd.
Looking ahead to the 2016 Olympics, Weekender previews some of the Japanese stars we expect to shine in Rio.
Kohei Uchimura (AA/Parallel bars) and Kenzo Shirai (Floor Exercise) will be expected to take home golds, but the main objective for both is a team victory. Japan boasts a strong group of male gymnasts with the likes of Kazuma Kaya, Ryohei Kato and Yusuke Tanaka all capable of winning medals.
Japan won just a single judo event in London, but should do much better this time following a successful World Championships last year where they picked up eight golds. Kaori Matsumoto will be attempting to defend her crown from four years ago while younger names like Takanori Nagase, Mami Umeki and Ami Kondo are definitely worth looking out for.
Japan will go to Brazil with a number of formidable swimmers including 2015 world champions, Kanako Watanabe, Natsumi Hoshi and Daiya Seto. Kosuke Hagino, who missed out on the worlds due to a broken elbow, is arguably the strongest of the lot and is expected to compete in a number of events. He was named the World Swimmer of the Year in 2014.
Players like Kasumi Ishikawa, Ai Fukuhara and Jun Mizutani are all ranked highly; however, their best chance of a medal could come in the doubles.
Traditionally one of Japan’s strongest sports. Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho will both be aiming for a record fourth Olympic title. Eri Tosaka, making her debut at the Games, has dominated her category in recent years. Other female wrestlers who could be in contention for a medal are Risako Kawai and Sara Dosho.
Best of the Rest
22-year old Mayu Hamada wanted to be a speedboat racer as a youngster but is now dreaming of a gold in the Taekwondo featherweight division. Weightlifter Hiromi Miyake is looking to follow in the footsteps of her uncle who won gold at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. Fencer Yuki Ota and archer Takaharu Furukawa will be hoping to better the silver medals they received at the London Games. Kento Momota is an exciting prospect in the badminton competition. World Record holder Yusuke Suzuki and Takayuki Tanii are likely contenders in the 20km and 50km walks.
Main image: Rugby World Cup official site