by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor
Equally, one year ago in Qatar, six Japanese players competed in the Women’s Singles event; the one difference to last year is that Yuka Ishigaki was on duty, Sakura Mori was absent.
Now turn the clock back to 1996, the first ever ITTF World Tour Grand Finals and to the following year in Hong Kong; not one Japanese name appeared in either of the Women’s Singles or Women’s Doubles events. It was not until 1998 in Paris that we witnessed Japanese female players in action at a Grand Finals.
Keiko Okazaki departed in the opening round of the Women’s Singles event, Ai Fujinuma and An Konishi reached the Women’s Doubles semi-finals.
Furthermore, we had to wait to 2000 in Croatia before Japan gained an ITTF World Tour Women’s Singles winner; Chire Koyama emerged successful before early in the following year, Yoshie Takada succeeded in England. However, neither were home grown players, both honed their skills in China. Chire Koyama was the former He Zhili, the 1987 World champion, Yoshie Takada was previously known as Fan Jianxin.
It was not until later in 2001 when Aya Umemura won in Brazil, that Japan spawned its first ITTF World Tour Women’s Singles champion. One year later Aya Umemura retained her Brazilian title but then there was a four year gap until Sayaka Hirano succeeded in Serbia.
How Japan yearned for a return to the 1950s and 1960s when the likes of Tomie Okawa, Fujie Eguchi and Kimiyo Matsuzaki alongside Naoko Fukatsu, Sachiko Morisawa and Toshiko Kowada had all won the Women’s Singles title at a World Championships. Notably Kimiyo Matsuzaki had won twice to give Japan the title seven times between 1956 and 1969.
Major progress came at the GAC Group 2014 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals when Kasumi Ishikawa struck gold; that was significant but more significant was that fact that colleagues Ai Fukuhara, Sayaka Hirano, Yuka Ishikgaki, Mima Ito and Ai Fukuhara also competed; as now there was a major Japanese presence. One year earlier in Dubai, the tournament actually being staged in early 2014 and clashing with the Japanese National Championships, the number had been zero.
At the start of the ITTF World Tour Japan was in a lull, now consider the current 2017 situation. Accepted there are now more tournaments on the calendar but both Kasumi Ishikawa and Mima Ito have won Women’s Singles events on the Seamaster 2017 ITTF World Tour; also Mima Ito has won on the Challenge Series alongside Hitomi Sato, Honoka Hashimoto and Saki Shibata.
Simply at the start of the current century, in Japan, a system aimed at excellent was put in place. Nothing happens overnight, that is the hard lesson to learn; now the fruits are yielding.
China is still the major force, no question but Japan is the major challenger and how long before the sun rises and sets on names who match the achievements of 50 and 60 years ago? A gap between China and Japan exists can that gap gradually be narrowed, can it be narrowed in Astana?