TOKYO (June 17) - Yet another rising star in Japan’s galaxy of women wrestlers has emerged as teenager Haruna OKUNO made the leap from cadet to senior title holder by capturing the 55kg gold medal at the Japan National Invitational Championships.
Okuno edged former world champion Chiho HAMADA, 3-2, in the final on the second day of the three-day tournament, which is titled the Meiji Cup and does double duty as the final domestic qualifier for this summer’s World Championships in Paris.
That victory came several hours after the unseeded 18-year-old Okuno, the 2016 world cadet champion at 52kg, began her day by ousting newly minted Asian champion Sae NANJO, 5-2, in the first round - and six months after failing to get even a sniff of a medal at the National Championships (Emperor’s Cup) at 53kg in December.
“I was always thinking about winning the title, and I’m really happy to achieve it,” Okuno said. “I am generally lighter than the others, and there were other factors this time. But I wasn’t going to make any excuses. Whoever I faced, I came up with a strategy aimed at winning the championship. I didn’t want to lose to a name.”
The 17-year-old Nanjo had won her first national senior title in December, and also struck gold at the Asian Championships in New Delhi last month. But in between, Okuno, who struck gold at the Klippan Open in February, beat Nanjo at the domestic Junior Queen’s Cup.
“Nanjo won at the Emperor’s Cup and she won at the Asian Championships and I frankly thought that was impressive,” Okuno said. “But I beat her at the Queen’s Cup. I’m a year older than she is, and it was a matter of pride that I couldn’t lose to her.”
As for making the jump from cadet to senior, Okuno pointed to a quirk in Japanese school system. The school year starts in April, and being born in March meant Okuno was almost a year younger in terms of development compared with her classmates.
“Those of the same generation were becoming champions before me,” said Okuno, a Mie Prefecture native who hails from the same wrestling club as world and Olympic Games champion Saori YOSHIDA. Yoshida’s father, Eikatsu, established and directed the club until his death of a brain hemorrhage in March 2014.
“This time, I got over the wall and won the title as a senior, but I’m not thinking how great it is. There are many good wrestlers younger than me, and this encourages me,” Okuno added.
In other women’s action, Mayu MUKAIDA, the world champion at 55kg, continued a current roll of success by defending her 53kg national title with a 5-0 victory over Yu MIYAHARA. That was a repeat of the Emperor’s Cup final in December.
Mukaida, who was part of the teen titan trio with Nanjo and Yui SUSAKI that swept the lightweight gold at New Delhi 2017, needed to win just two matches, and posted a technical fall before topping Miyahara. Still, she was quite critical of her own performance, particularly for giving up a takedown in the final seconds of the final.
“This is linked to going to the world championships, so I went into the tournament really wanting to win,“ Mukaida said. “I always get a little defensive at the end. Avoiding that was an issue I wanted to address. (In the final), I was defensive again. I’m repeating the same worries. I’m happy to win the title, but there are things that I really need to reflect on.”
The women’s 63kg final was an all-Ito affair, as Ayaka ITO downed unrelated namesake Yurika ITO, 6-2, to add her first Meiji Cup gold to her two Emperor’s Cup titles.
The women’s team to the Paris world championships will be decided at a future meeting of Japan federation officials.
In contrast, the men’s berths are being determined by a more straightforward method. The Emperor’s Cup champions can secure the berth by also winning the Meiji Cup. If the winners are different, they have a one-shot playoff immediately following that day’s action.
Takatani’s golden wedding gift to himself
One of Japan’s top hopes for a freestyle medal in Paris, 2014 world silver medalist Sosuke TAKATANI, booked his ticket to the French capital with a solid performance at 74kg, capped by an 8-2 win over Yajuro YAMASAKI in the final.
But Takatani’s fourth career title and first in two years was particularly special, as he later explained: “The reason is that, in January, I got married and this is my first national tournament since then. If I lost here, people would have said it was because I got married. By winning the title, I showed that we could win as a team.”
The 28-year-old newlywed, who won his two other matches by technical falls within the first period, said he used the tournament to experiment with a new strategy on his takedowns. “Instead of just tackling, the main thing was to control the head by pushing down.”
That, however, led to an awkward moment, as Yamasaki dumped Takatani onto his posterior with a surprise takedown just 20 seconds into the match. But Takatani realized his mistake and never let his guard down again.
“I got my right hand up too high and he got in on me,” Takatani said. “I took a deep breath and relaxed and got back on track. I didn’t panic. I’ve progressed to where I think about what I need to do to win. The way I won this title was good.”
Takatani was competing a month after taking part in the Beat the Streets meet in New York, where he faced London 2012 gold medalist Jordan Burroughs. Even though he lost, 9-2, Takatani said he came back encouraged.
“I didn’t feel there was that much of a difference,” he said. “He (Burroughs) said let’s meet at the world championships.”
As was the case on the first day, only one of the six men’s weight classes in action resulted in the Emperor’s Cup winner failing to add the Meiji title, sending the Paris team spot to a playoff.
On Saturday, it came in the freestyle 97kg class, in which Naoya AKAGUMA lost a thrilling semifinal to eventual champion Koki YAMAMOTO, but came back in the playoff with a one-sided 6-0 victory.
In the semifinal, Akaguma came back from a 4-2 deficit to take a 6-4 lead, only to give up a takedown with five seconds left. An unsuccessful challenge made the final score 7-6. Yamamoto then earned his place in the playoff by demolishing Taira SONODA in the final, locking him up in a cradle for a fall in 1:06.
Sonoda’s loss denied his family a second title, as older brother Arata SONODA won his fourth straight title at Greco-Roman 130kg by defeating Hirotake TSUDA, 2-1, in a passivity point-filled final.
The other freestyle gold went to Asian bronze medalist Masakazu KAMOI, whose late first period takedown trumped the two points Kei YONEZAWA scored when Kamoi was on the activity clock.
Asian champion Takashi IZUMI won his first title in the Greco-Roman 71kg division, topping Tomohiro INOUE, 2-1, in another bout in which all points were awarded for passivity. Inoue had finished fifth at Rio 2016 at 66kg.
Shohei YABIKU, who withdrew from the Asian Championships due to injury, repeated his victory from the Emperor’s Cup final at 75kg over So SAKABE, scoring a late takedown to cap a 5-1 win.
Yabiku, who advanced to the final with a 52-second technical fall win over Wataru SAWADA, won his first invitational title, while preventing Sakabe from repeating as champion.
65kg (9 entries)
Final - Masakazu KAMOI df. Kei YONEZAWA, 2-2
3rd Place - Kiryu KINJO and Hirotaka ABE
74kg (10 entries)
Final - Sosuke TAKATANI df. Yajuro YAMASAKI, 8-2
3rd Place - Mao OKUI and Ken HOSAKA
97kg (11 entries)
Final - Koki YAMAMOTO df. Taira SONODA, by FALL, 1:06 (6-0)
3rd Place - Naoya AKAGUMA and Takashi ISHIGURO
71kg (11 entries)
Final - Takashi IZUMI df. Tomohiro INOUE, 2-1
3rd Place - Takahiro YAMAMOTO and Kazuhiro HANAYAMA
75kg (8 entries)
Final - Shohei YABIKU df. So SAKABE, 5-1
3rd Place - Wataru SAWADA and Hisamichi UNO
130kg (8 entries)
Final - Arata SONODA df. Hirotake TSUDA, 2-1
3rd Place - Ryuta KONNO and Shota ITO
53kg (5 entries)
Final - Mayu MUKAIDA df. Yu MIYAHARA, 5-1
3rd Place - Yuri YONAMINE and Yuka YAGO
55kg (8 entries)
Final - Haruna OKUNO df. Chiho HAMADA, 4-2
3rd Place - Hanako SAWA and Momoka KADOYA
63kg (7 entries)
Final - Ayaka ITO df. Yurika ITO, 6-2
3rd Place - Yukako KAWAI and Ayana GEMPEI