TOPArt & CultureSports & FitnessTokyo 2020: Introducing Japan’s Gold Medalists (Part Three)

Tokyo 2020: Introducing Japan’s Gold Medalists (Part Three)

In the last in our short series, we look at Japan's gold medalists from the second week of the Olympics

By Matthew Hernon

In the final week of the Games Japan added another 10 golds to finish with 27 in total. That’s 11 more than they managed at their previous best competitions in 1964 and 2004. With the judo having finished, wrestling took center stage for the hosts in the last seven days. Five golds came in the sport including two from the wonderful Kawai sisters. There were also top podium finishes in boxing, baseball, karate, skateboarding and another for Daiki Hashimoto in gymnastics. Here’s the final in our series looking at Japan’s gold medalists from Tokyo 2020.

Sena Irie — Women’s Flyweight Boxing 

It was the manga Ganbare Genki that first piqued Sena Irie’s interest in boxing. A story about a boy who wants to emulate his father by taking up boxing, it inspired her to give the sport a go even though women’s boxing wasn’t very popular at the time in Japan. She was further encouraged to take it even more seriously after women’s boxing made its debut at the London Games in 2012. The following year came the announcement that Japan would be hosting the 2020 Olympics. That gave the Tottori Prefecture-native something to strive for.

Irie went on to win consecutive national junior titles as well as a bronze medal at the 2018 World Youth Championships. In April 2019, she met the Philippines’ Nesthy Petecio for the first time, winning in a split decision. Petecio got revenge at the World Championships a few months later before Irie made it 2-1 in 2020. Their fourth match was for the gold medal in Tokyo. It was another tight contest between the two with the Japanese woman just edging it. “I want to end my career with success, so I’ll retire after graduation from college.” said the Nippon Sport Science University student after the bout. Now that’s she’s got her gold, her next dream is to get a job related to one of her other passions: either computer games or frogs.

Daiki Hashimoto — Men’s Gymnastics Horizontal Bar 

Japan has won more medals in gymnastics than any other sport at the Olympics. Legendary figures include Takashi Ono, the country’s most decorated Olympian with 13 medals and Sawao Kato, who has won more golds (8) than any other Japanese athlete. Though Daiki Hashimoto has some way to go to catch either of them, he certainly made a good start at his first-ever Games. Following his silver with the team and gold in the all-around event, the Tokyo-native then topped the podium again in the horizontal bar competition.

Hashimoto, who has just turned 20, started gymnastics aged six, following in the footsteps of his two brothers. A series of injuries hampered his progress in his early teens, but his luck started to change at high school. At the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart, the then 18-year-old was instrumental in helping Japan win a team bronze. That, though, was nothing compared to what we saw in Tokyo. Building on his wonderful performances in the first week, he produced something special on the horizontal bar in the second. 15.033 won him the contest, making him the first Japanese gymnast to claim two individual golds at an Olympics since Koji Gushiken in 1984.

Sakura Yosozumi — Women’s Park Skateboarding 

The top four places in the women’s park skateboarding competition were occupied by three teenagers and one pre-teen all born in Japan. 15-year-old Misugu Okamoto just missed out on a medal to Sky Brown, a Miyazaki-born 13-year-old who chose to represent her father’s country of Great Britain. One year her junior, Kokona (also written Cocona) Hiraki became Japan’s youngest-ever medalist at the Olympics as she secured a silver. And then there was Sakura Yosozumi, the first-ever winner of the competition at the Olympics. At 19, she must have seemed like a veteran to her rivals.

Jealous of seeing her brother have lots of fun on a skateboard, Yosozumi decided to take the discipline up herself in her final year at elementary school. After acquiring the basic skills at an institution in Osaka, she built a ramp in her garden. She would wake up at 6:30am to practice and then go back to it for several hours after school had finished. Her hard work soon began to pay dividends as she won the 2018 World Championships and Asian Games. Her greatest achievement came at the Tokyo Games, though, as she just did enough to edge out Hiraki.

Yukako Kawai — Women’s Freestyle Wrestling 62kg

“My sister and I are aiming to win a gold medal each,” Yukako Kawai told TW when we spoke to her early last year. The younger of the siblings, she was the first family member in action at Tokyo 2020. After disposing of Bulgaria’s Mustafa Yusein, a former World European champion, in the semi-final, she met pre-competition favorite Aisuluu Tynybekova for the gold medal. The Kyrgyzstani wrestler looked in majestic form having won her qualifying bouts by an aggregate score of 24-0. In the final, though, it was the Japanese wrestler who just about came out on top despite a late fight back from her opponent.

Watching on in the stands was Yukako’s jubilant sister Risako who had earlier booked her place in the 57kg final. Five years earlier Yukako was watching with her parents as Risako took home the gold in Rio. “At that time, I had a shoulder injury and was not practicing satisfactorily,” she said. “Until then, competing at the Olympics seemed so far away for me, but after seeing my sister win the gold medal, my desire to participate at the Games alongside her grew quickly.” The desire wasn’t just to participate, but to win gold and she did that in style.

Risako Kawai — Women’s Freestyle Wrestling 57kg 

After Yukako’s triumph, there was a sense of inevitability about Risako making it a double family celebration. Competing in the 57kg category, she looked in control for much of the tournament, including the final. Her toughest match arguably came in the semi-final against fellow gold-medalist from Rio Helen Maroulis. The American, who defeated Saori Yoshida in 2016, had gone up a weight whereas Risako had gone down one. The Japanese woman got the better of her rival in a cautious encounter that finished 2-1. She then topped the podium for a second time following a 5-0 victory over Belarus’ Iryna Kurachkina.

Born to parents who both wrestled at quite a high level, it was inevitable that the Kawai sisters would take up the sport. Risako led the way winning two World Youth titles before her Olympic success in Rio. Since then, she has triumphed at three World Championships in different categories. Stepping down a weight for the Tokyo 2020 Games meant she wouldn’t have to come face-to-face with her sister in qualifying. What it did mean, though, was a match up against Kaori Icho, the first female in any sport to win individual-event golds at four consecutive Olympics. With two in the bag already, you wouldn’t rule out Risako one day equaling that record.

Ryo Kiyuna — Men’s Karate Kata

Standing on top of the podium a teary-eyed Ryo Kiyuna looked at his gold medal and then at the picture he was carrying. It was of his late mother who sadly passed away two years ago. “The day before I left Okinawa for the Olympics, I decided to bring the photo with me,” he said. “I wanted to climb to the highest part of the podium with her. She has been my support, my core, since I was a young boy, so I wanted her to see the view from the top. I think she was smiling and crying in heaven.”

Kiyuna made history in Tokyo, becoming the first Japanese Olympic champion in karate and the first person from Okinawa to top the podium at the Games. A three-time World Champion in individual kata, he hardly ever loses. In fact, his only defeat in recent years came in February 2018 to Damian Quintero. The Spaniard was also his opponent for the gold medal match in Tokyo. Though he impressed with a score of 27.66, Kiyuna is on a different level. The Okinawan drew gasps from the few people in the audience for his performance which garnered 28.72 points. Sadly, karate will not be included at the next Olympics in Paris.

Mayu Mukaida — Women’s Freestyle Wrestling 53kg 

At an event introducing Tokyo’s emblems and slogans for the 2020 bid in 2012, four young athletes from the JOC elite academy participated in the presentation. It included a 14-year-old wrestler named Mayu Mukaida. “I want to practice more and compete at the same stage and win an Olympic gold medal,” she said. The 2016 Games came too early, especially as she was competing in the same weight category as Saori Yoshida. One of the greatest wrestlers of all time, Yoshida had a remarkable record of 16 consecutive Olympic and World Championship victories but lost her final bout at the Games to America’s Helen Maroulis.

With Yoshida retiring, it was then Mukaida’s chance to shine. They were sizable shoes to fill and the fact that both women hailed from the same prefecture of Mie added to the pressure. She handled it well, claiming a silver medal at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships. She also won world titles in 2016 and 2018 in the non-Olympic weight of 55kg. The big test, though, would come at the Olympics. In the final, she was 4-0 down to China’s Pang Qianyu at the break but never panicked. She tied the score with leg tackles before striking the winning point with 15 seconds remaining.

Takuto Otoguro — Men’s Freestyle Wrestling 65kg 

In Tokyo we had the Abe siblings, the Kawai sisters and the Otoguro brothers. Five of them won golds. Unfortunately for wrestler Keisuke Otoguro, there was an earlier than expected exit in the men’s 74kg freestyle competition to Kazakhstan’s Daniyar Kaisanov. The following day, his younger brother Takuto began his Olympic journey in the 65kg category. After getting through the opening rounds relatively comfortably, he came up against reigning World Champion Gadzhimurad Rashidov in the semi-final. Leading 3-2, the Japanese man successfully evaded a hold from the Russian at the death to book his place in the final.

Standing between Otoguro and a gold was Azerbaijan’s Haji Aliyev, a three-time World Champion in the non-Olympic 61kg weight division. It was another intense encounter that went to the wire. Two cautions for Otoguro towards the end put Aliyev back in contention, but the Yamanashi Prefecture native managed to hold on for an impressive 5-4 win. “My brother lost (the other day) and both of us winning gold didn’t come true. So, I gave it my all to win this for my brother as well,” said the tearful wrestler after the match.

Yui Susaki — Women’s Freestyle Wrestling 50kg 

A gold medalist and Japan’s flag bearer (alongside Rui Hachimura) for the opening ceremony, Yui Susaki had an Olympics to remember. Remarkably, though, had it not been for China’s Sun Yanan, who she met in the 50kg final, she wouldn’t have even made the Games. Having lost in the qualifiers for the 2019 World Championships to compatriot Yuki Irie, Susaki thought her Tokyo 2020 dream was over. Medalists at the event secured spots at the Olympics and Irie was one of the favorites. She ended up losing her quarterfinal to Yanan, however, giving Susaki another opportunity. This time, she wasn’t going to let it slip.

Victory at the Asian qualifying tournament would be enough to book her a place on the team. First, though, she had to win the Emperor’s Cup. No easy feat. In the semi-final, she overcame Eri Tosaka, Olympic gold medalist from Rio. Then there was a nail-biting contest with Irie in the final. Getting through those bouts was arguably more difficult than the Olympics itself. Performing in her home prefecture of Chiba, she reached double-figures in all of her matches and didn’t concede a single point. That included her 10-0 win over Yanan in the final.

Men’s Baseball 

Between 1904 and 1988, men’s baseball featured eight times at the Olympics as an exhibition game. It became a competitive sport at the 1992 Games in Barcelona and was included up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. During that period Japan picked up two bronze medals and a silver, but a gold eluded them. With the sport returning for Tokyo 2020 anything but a podium finish would have been seen as a disappointment. Unlike the MLB, the Japanese leagues suspended their seasons to accommodate the Olympics. It meant the squad could feature high-profile players such as Tomoyuki Sugano and ex-New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.

The team got off to a nervy start. In the opener, the Dominican Republic led 3-1 entering the ninth innings. The hosts rallied to draw level and then Hayato Sakamoto delivered a game-ending bases-loaded single. He followed that up with a homerun in the next game as Japan defeated Mexico 7-4. The match of the tournament came against the US. Yuki Yanagita made it 6-6 in the ninth before Takuya Kai settled the encounter with a single in the 10th. After a semi-final victory over Korea, they defeated America again in the final to claim Japan’s final gold of the Olympics. The fact that it came in the country’s most popular sport made it extra special.

*Feature image by Rose Vittayaset