TOPTokyo LifeNews & OpinionJapanese Athletes to Watch at the Winter Olympics 

Japanese Athletes to Watch at the Winter Olympics 

From Yuzuru Hanyu to Ayumu Hirano, we look at Japan's best medal prospects in Beijing  

By Matthew Hernon

Japan has sent 75 female and 49 male competitors to Beijing, making it the country’s largest-ever team at an overseas Winter Games. The hope is that they can surpass the record-breaking 13 medals achieved in PyeongChang. So, who will be the star performers this time around? Here’s a look at some Japanese athletes to watch at the Winter Olympics.  

Figure Skating  

Yuzuru Hanyu (Men’s Singles)  

It’s one of the most eagerly anticipated contests of the Beijing Games. Yuzuru Hanyu, aiming for an unprecedented third successive Olympic figure skating title, is going head-to-head with current World Champion Nathan Chen for gold. The American has been the dominant force in the sport since PyeongChang. However, on the globe’s biggest stage, you can never rule out Japan’s “Ice Prince.” Victory may come down to whether or not Hanyu can pull off the quadruple axel.  

Best of the Rest  

Also competing against Hanyu in the men’s singles competition are compatriots Shoma Uno and Yuma Kagiyama. Uno took home the silver four years ago and will be hoping for another podium finish in Beijing. Kagiyama finished second at last year’s World Figure Skating Championships behind Chen. In the women’s event, Kaori Sakamoto is Japan’s best medal prospect. Making her Olympic debut in Korea four years ago, she finished sixth. However, ROC, with Anna Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusova and Kamila Valieva, are expected to dominate.   

Nana Takagi and her sister Miho are both aiming to add to their medal collections in Beijing | Photo by Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

Speed Skating 

Miho Takagi (Women’s 500m, 1,000m, 1,500m, 3,000m, Team Pursuit)  

Looking to add to her tally of three medals from PyeongChang, speed skater Miho Takagi is one of Japan’s best hopes for a gold in China. Four years ago, she helped her country top the podium in the team pursuit, but had to settle for a silver and bronze in her individual events. Japan’s captain at the Games, she’ll be taking part in four individual competitions and the team pursuit this time around. She’s favorite for gold in the 1,500m race.  

Nana Takagi (Women’s 1,500m, Mass Start, Team Pursuit)  

Joining Miho in the team pursuit is her older sister Nana Takagi. The 29-year-old will also be going up against her younger sibling in the 1,500m race and competing in the women’s mass start event. She took gold in the latter four years ago. Her biggest rivals in that race are likely to be Dutch pair Marijke Groenewoud and Irene Schouten. Other names to look out for include Canada’s Ivanie Blondin and Italy’s Francesca Lollobrigida.  

Nao Kodaira (Women’s 500m, 1,000m)  

Defending her 500m Olympic title in Beijing, Nao Kodaira is likely to face stiff competition from America’s Erin Jackson. Last year, Jackson defeated Kodaira to become the first Black female skater to win a World Cup. She has been the form competitor in the 500m since. Kodaira, though, knows what it takes to win on the biggest stage. She’ll also be competing in the 1,000m, a race in which she picked up a silver medal in 2018.   

Best of the Rest 

Ayano Sato is another Japanese speed skater capable of challenging for medals. She’s competing in the 1,500m, 3,000m and mass start races as well as the team pursuit. In the men’s competitions, Wataru Morishige and Tatsuya Shinhama currently lie second and third behind Canada’s Laurent Dubreuil in the World Cup rankings for the 500m. They will also compete in the 1,000m race. Japan’s best hope in the longer distances is Seitaro Ichinohe. He’ll race in the 1,000m, 1,500m and the men’s mass start. 

Ryoyu Kobayashi is aiming to improve on his sixth place position four years ago | Photo by Marcin Kadziolka/Shutterstock

Ski-Related Events 

Ryoyu Kobayashi (Ski Jumping: Normal Hill, large Hill, Team Large Hill, Mixed team) 

The men’s normal and large hill ski jumping competitions are wide open with several potential winners. The two jumpers who’ve stood out this season are Japan’s Ryoyu Kobayashi and Germany’s Karl Geiger. The former, who finished first in 2019, leapt to his seventh World Cup win of the season last Saturday, briefly putting him on top of the overall leaderboard. Geiger wrestled it back the following day in what was the last jump before the Games.  

Sara Takanashi (Ski Jumping: Normal Hill, Mixed Team)  

No ski jumper, male or female, has won as many World Cups as Sara Takanashi. She recorded her 61st victory last month and has four WC overall titles (an all-time female record). The Olympics haven’t been as kind to her, though. She has just one bronze medal to show for her efforts. Can she improve on that in Beijing? Austria’s Marita Kramer was seen as the strong favorite, but a positive Covid test means her participation is now in doubt.  

Akito Watabe (Nordic Combined: Normal Hill/10km, Large Hill/10km)  

Having debuted in Turin in 2006, Akito Watabe is preparing for his fifth Winter Olympics. He won silver medals in the normal hill competition in Sochi and PyeongChang, finishing behind Germany’s Eric Frenzel on both occasions. Frenzel’s part of a strong German squad that also features Vinzenz Geiger and 2018’s large hill Olympic champion Johannes Rydzek. Other names to look out for include Austria’s Johannes Lamparter and Norway’s Jarl Magnus Riiber.  

Anri Kawamura (Women’s Moguls) 

In December, 17-year-old Anri Kawamura won her first World Cup in Idre, Sweden. Her second came less than a month later in Mont-Tremblant, Canada. In the final meet before the Beijing Games, she added a third, taking her to the top of the leaderboard for the season. Behind her is Olympic champion Perrine Laffont. Kawamura was in junior high school when the Frenchwoman won gold in PyeongChang. Now, she’s aiming to take her title. 

Ikuma Horishima has won three World Cups this season | Photo by Juanan Barros Moreno/Shutterstock

Ikuma Horishima (Men’s Moguls)  

In 2017, Ikuma Horishima won gold in the men’s moguls competition in Spain, becoming the first Japanese freestyle skier to win a World Championship in any discipline. The next two World Championships, in 2019 and 2021, were won by Olympic gold-medalist Mikaël Kingsbury. The legendary Canadian skier and the Japanese man are seen as the two leading contenders going into the Beijing Games. Between them, they’ve won all seven World Cups this season. Horishima is one behind with three. 

Best of the Rest  

Daichi Hara, not Horishima, was Japan’s best performer in the men’s moguls competition in 2018. The 24-year-old, who is also a professional racing cyclist (keirin), won a bronze medal. He has an outside chance of making the podium again in Beijing. As does teammate Kosuke Sugimoto. The same goes for Kisara Sumiyoshi, Junko Hoshino and Hinako Tomitaka in the women’s competition. In ski jumping, Japan could be in contention for medals in the team events.  

Following two silvers, can Ayumu Hirano get that elusive gold in Beijing | Photo by Leonard Zhukovsky/Shutterstock

Snowboarding 

Miyabi Onitsuka (Women’s Slopestyle and Big Air) 

The youngest-ever snowboard world champion, Miyabi Onitsuka was tipped to challenge for gold at the 2018 Olympics. Sadly, she finished just 19th in slopestyle and eighth in big air. This time around, she’s determined to perform to her potential. “Of course, my aim is to win gold in both the slopestyle and big air competitions,” she told TW. “However, I think my best chance is in big air since it’s not affected by the environment.” 

Yuto Totsuka (Men’s Halfpipe)

Currently the number one ranked snowboarder in the world in the halfpipe division, Yuto Totsuka enjoyed a stellar 2021. After beating Australia’s Scotty James to gold at the X Games in Aspen in February, he then defeated him again at the same venue a month later to win his first-ever World Championships. In Beijing, he will have to contend with not only the likes of James and three-time Olympic champion Shaun White, but also the Japanese contingent. 

Ayumu Hirano (Men’s Halfpipe)  

That Japanese contingent, of course, includes Ayumu Hirano. Following consecutive silver medals in Sochi and PyeongChang, he’s hoping it will be third-time lucky in Beijing. The 23-year-old, who competed in skateboarding at the Summer Games, was absent from top-level snowboarding competitions for three years. Returning in February 2021, he’s been in great form since. Currently top of the World Cup leaderboard, in December he became the first snowboarder to execute a frontside triple-cork jump in a competition. 

Best of the Rest  

There’s a possibility that the 1-2-3 in the men’s halfpipe competition could all be called Hirano. Ayumu’s younger brother Kaishu along with Ruka Hirano (no relation) both have the potential to challenge for a podium finish in China. In the women’s event, Sena Tomita could be a dark horse for a medal. She won the prestigious X Games two weeks ago, though many big names pulled out including reigning Olympic champion Chloe Kim. Ruki Tomita, Kurumi Imai and Mitsuki Ono could also be in the mix for medals. 

As well as Onitsuka, Japan have Reira Iwabuchi, Kokomo Murase and Rina Yoshika competing in the women’s slopestyle and big air competitions. Murase currently leads the World Cup standings in the former and is third in the latter. Iwabuchi, meanwhile, is second in big air and third in slopestyle. Both are capable of winning gold in either event. The prospects of a medal in the men’s competitions aren’t as strong, though Kaito Hamada and Ruki Tobita are worth keeping an eye on.