Japan’s Top 20 Sports Stories of the Decade (2010–2019)

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With the 2010s ending we take a look back at some of our favorite Japanese sporting highlights of the past decade.

20. Honda’s Magic Steers Japan Through

Japan played some excellent football as they defeated Denmark 3-1 to qualify for the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Two exquisitely struck free kicks by Keisuke Honda and Yasuhito Endo gave the Samurai Blue a deserved 2-0 lead at the break. The Danes threatened to get back in it when Jon Dahl Tomasson scored a rebound from his own missed penalty, but then Shinji Okazaki put the icing on the cake, tapping home after some brilliant work by Honda. For two-thirds of the game against Belgium in 2018 they were even more impressive, but over 90 minutes this remains the team’s best performance at a World Cup.

19. Six Golds for Ikee

At the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta teenage swimming sensation Rikako Ikee was on sparkling form, winning an incredible six golds in the pool, the second-highest in the history of the event behind shooter So Gin-man. The then 18-year-old did, however, manage to equal the North Korean’s record tally of eight medals in total and in doing so became the first woman to be named MVP at the Games. Four months after her heroics in Indonesia, Ikee sadly announced that she had been diagnosed with Leukemia. Set to be the poster girl of the 2020 Games, she said she still hasn’t given up on her dream of appearing at the Olympics in Tokyo.

18. Ohtani Named Rookie of the Year

Labeled the ‘Japanese Babe Ruth’ by the press, expectations were extremely high as Shohei Ohtani made the move from the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to MLB side the Los Angeles Angels in 2018. The then 23-year-old dealt with the pressure well, enjoying a fine debut year both as a hitter and batter. He became the first Major Leaguer since Ruth in 1919 to hit 15 homers and pitch 50 innings in a season. The Iwate Prefecture-native finished the campaign with 22 home runs, 10 stolen bases and 51 RBIs. It came as no surprise when he was named the American League Rookie of the Year.

17 A Japanese One-Two in Dubai

Set against the backdrop of the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the Dubai World Cup was an emotional occasion for Japanese trainers who all wore black polo shirts with the word “Hope” emblazoned on their sleeves in the build-up to the world’s richest race. Taking place just 15 days after the disaster, Victoire Pisa became the first horse from this country to take home the top prize, edging out compatriot Transcend. “It has been a really dark time for Japan and hopefully, this will help to lift the country,” said Victoire Pisa trainer Katsuhiko Sumii at the end of the race.

16. Lee’s Stunner Secures a Fourth Asian Title

Japan became the most successful side in the history of the Asian Cup thanks to a 1-0 victory over Australia in the final of the 2011 tournament. They needed penalties to get the better of South Korea in the semi-finals and it looked like this match would be heading the same way until Tadanari Lee converted Yuto Nagatomo’s cross with a fantastic volley in extra-time to settle what had been a nervy encounter. Though not the most prestigious competition in international football, it does mean a lot to the Samurai Blue who celebrated winning it for the fourth time.

15. Sato’s Indy 500 Triumph

“There isn’t a single other experience in life that comes close to the feeling of being in the lead of the Indy 500 with two laps to go,” wrote the then 40-year-old Takuma Sato on The Player’s Tribune website a month after he became the first Asian driver to lift the prestigious Borg-Warner trophy. The Japanese man, who was a cycling champion during his youth, held off the challenge of three-time winner Helio Castroneves by two-tenths of a second to claim the title in an event known as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He was then invited to throw the first pitch at a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

14. Nishikori Upsets Djokovic

After grueling games against Milos Raonic and Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori played some of his best-ever tennis to oust the world number one ranked player Novak Djokovic at the semi-final stage of the 2014 US Open. It was a hugely impressive 6-4, 1-6, 7-6, 6-3 victory by Special Kei, but he was unable to reproduce that form in the final going down 3-6, 3-6, 3-6 to Croatia’s Marin Cilic. It was the first time since the 2005 Australian Open that one of the ‘big three’ (Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal) had failed to make a Grand Slam Final and it’s only happened once since.

13. The Drama in Saitama

19 fights, 19 wins, 16 of those by K.O., Naoya Inoue is unquestionably one of the best pound-for-pound boxers on the planet right now. His most hard-fought victory thus far came over Nonito Donaire for the World Boxing Super Series title at the Saitama Super Arena this autumn. A strong contender for the fight of 2019, both men traded blows until the final bell. In the end, the unanimous decision went to the Japanese boxer. Prior to the spectacle, the Filipino slugger vowed to his sons that he would be bringing home the title. Following the defeat, he humbly asked his opponent if he could borrow the Muhammad Ali trophy for the night to honor his promise. Inoue generously complied.

12. Speed-skating Successes in Pyeongchang

At the 2018 Winter Olympics, speed skater Nao Kodaira vowed to win gold for her close friend and former teammate Miyako Sumiyoshi who passed away three weeks before the Games. After claiming a silver in the 1000m, she then duly delivered on her promise, triumphing in the 500m race. In the Team Pursuit, Japan won a very close final against the Netherlands by 0.13 seconds. Alongside Ayano Sato was Miho and Nana Takagi. The sisters enjoyed a fine Olympics with the former taking home an individual silver and bronze, while the latter won the inaugural mass start speed skating event.

11. A Surprise Silver in the Relay

Of the record 41 medals Japan won at the Rio Olympics the most unexpected came in the men’s 4x100m as Ryota Yamagata, Shota Iizuka, Yoshihide Kiryu and Asuka Cambridge took home the silver, surpassing the bronze earned in Beijing eight years earlier. Widely praised for their baton-passing technique, Japan were neck-and-neck with Jamaica going into the final stretch. Unsurprisingly, Usain Bolt powered away for his ninth Olympic gold, but Cambridge did manage to hold off the challenge of the US (who were later disqualified) to get the silver. Podium finishes at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships showed it was no fluke.

10. ‘Smiling Cinderella’ Captures the Open

Playing in her first-ever international competition in what was only her second trip abroad, Hinako Shibuno caused a major upset at the Women’s British Open, edging out America’s Lizette Salas by one stroke to take home the title. Ranked 559th in the world at the start of 2019, she climbed up to number 44 before the tournament began but was still a rank outsider. The lady dubbed the ‘Smiling Cinderella’ held her nerve with a birdie at the end to finish on 18-under. She’s the second Japanese player – male or female – to win a major. Hisako ‘Chako’ Higuchi was the first back in 1977.

9. Icho Leads Japan’s Wrestling Dominance

Trailing 2-1 with five seconds remaining, wrestler Kaori Icho produced a brilliant two-point takedown to pull off a dramatic victory over Russia’s Valeria Koblova in the women’s freestyle 58kg final at the Rio Games. In doing so, she became the first female in any sport to win gold in individual events at four consecutive Olympics. Saori Yoshida failed to add to her three, as she lost in the 53kg final to America’s Helen Maroulis, though, the Japanese female team did manage to win three of the other four gold medals available with Eri Tosaka, Risako Kawai and Sara Dosho all topping the podium.

8. Kisenosato Ends 19-Year Wait

Soon after capturing the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament in 2017 with an impressive 14-1 record, Kisenosato (born Yutaka Hagiwara) was named as the 72nd Yokozuna, becoming the first Japanese-born wrestler to earn the prestigious title since Wakanohana in 1998. For the past two decades, sumo has been dominated by wrestlers from Mongolia. It’s also a sport that has been riddled with controversies, so Kisenosato’s rise to the top (and Kotoshogiku’s Emperor’s Cup triumph a year earlier) was a welcome boost for local fans. Unfortunately, the joy didn’t last long. Injuries took their toll and he was forced to retire earlier this year.

7. Ichiro Bids Farewell

Japan’s number one sporting export played his final professional game in front of a packed and emotional crowd at the Tokyo Dome, leaving the field in the eighth innings to a rapturous three-minute standing ovation. At the start of the decade, the man known simply as Ichiro became the first Major League Baseball player in history to reach the 200 hit mark for 10 consecutive seasons. In 2015, he recorded his 4,257-career hit, breaking Pete Rose’s all-time record for hits in top tier professional baseball. A true giant of the sport, it was fitting that his final game for Seattle Mariners would come in his home country. The passionate fans gave him the send-off he deserved.

6. History-Maker Hanyu’s Rise to the Top

In February 2011, Yuzuru Hanyu came to the public’s attention after finishing runner-up at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships. Three weeks later, he and his family were forced to live in an evacuation centre as their home was without water and electricity following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. The youngster would go on to front various campaigns to support victims of the disaster while continuing to climb to the top of his profession. The first person to break the 200-point barrier in the free program as well as the mystical 300-point mark in the combined score, he’s also the first male skater since Dick Button in 1952 to win back-to-back individual figure-skating Olympic titles.

5. Osaka’s Grand Slams

In 2018, Naomi Osaka became the first Japanese-born tennis player to win a Grand Slam when she defeated her idol Serena Williams 6-2, 6-4 at Flushing Meadows to take home the US Open. The then 20-year-old was in tears afterward due to the histrionics of her opponent, but nothing should take away from the quality of her performance. A few months later the half-Haitian youngster won her second consecutive major tournament, picking up the Australian Open despite being a set, 2-4 and 0-40 down to Hsieh Su-wei in the third round. She recovered and went on to beat Petra Kvitova 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 in the final. The triumph in Melbourne elevated Osaka to number one in the world rankings.

4. Super-Mura Soars Above His Rivals

Speaking to Reuter’s in 2016, Romanian legend Nadia Comaneci described Kohei Uchimura as “the greatest (gymnast) of all time.” It’s an opinion that many would agree with. In the first half of the decade, the man nicknamed “Superman” won the all-around title at every major competition and at the Rio Games won his second successive individual gold medal. Prior to that Olympics, the Kitakyushu-born star told TW that he wanted “a team gold more than anything.” Frustrated to have had to settle for silver four years earlier, he put in a sublime performance to help guide Japan to their first gold in the event since 2004.

3. A Memorable Home Tournament for the Brave Blossoms

After a shaky but victorious start against Russia hosts Japan produced what was arguably the second biggest shock in Rugby World Cup history when they defeated Ireland 19-12. They followed that up with a bonus-point win against Samoa thanks to a last-minute try. That set up a mouth-watering encounter with Scotland in Yokohama a day after Typhoon Hagibis devastated regions of the country. On an emotionally charged night, they played some breath-taking rugby, scoring four tries to win the game 28-21, becoming the first Asian side to reach the knockout stages. Eventual winners South Africa proved too strong in the quarter finals, but what a ride it had been.

2. Nadeshiko Win the World Cup

Prior to the 2011 World Cup final in Germany, Japan had never beaten the US, losing 22 of the 25 encounters between the two countries. That run looked set to continue when Alex Morgan scored the opener after 69 minutes. Aya Miyama’s strike sent the game into extra-time before Abby Wambach restored America’s lead. A beautiful volley from inspirational skipper Homare Sawa brought the teams level again which meant the match would have to be settled by penalties. Ayumi Kaihori saved two spot-kicks while Carli Lloyd blazed her effort over the bar. Saki Kumagai then fired home the winner as Japan became the first-ever World Champions from Asia. The U.S. haven’t lost a World Cup game since.

1. The Miracle of Brighton

The team with the best Rugby World Cup record against the side with the worst, South Africa’s clash with Japan in Brighton was supposed to be a completely one-sided affair. Remarkably, though, the Brave Blossoms were level with just eight minutes to go. Handre Pollard kicked the Springboks in front, but the underdogs weren’t done yet. Twice they could have opted for a penalty that would have given them a more than creditable draw. Twice they refused. Michael Leitch‘s courageous decision to go for the scrum paid off as Karne Hesketh went over to seal a stunning victory. As the Guinness ad said, they “could’ve settled…. instead went for history.”

Feature photo: Faiz Azizan / Shutterstock.com

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