By Wade Townsend
Japanese table tennis is entering a Golden Age.
Over the past twenty-four months there has been a growing number of signs that we’re seeing a resurgent Japan. But any doubt of this is all but gone after the Seamaster 2018 World Tour LION Japan Open.
On home soil, Tomokazu Harimoto and Mima Ito did what a short while ago would have seemed impossible. Amongst a field of the world’s best, including China’s elite, the Japanese teenagers won the Men’s and Women’s Singles titles.
Everyone from chatroom commentators to the globe’s most credentialed coaches have an opinion on the sensational re-emergence of Japanese table tennis. But who is better placed to talk about the changing tide than those at the epicenter of it all; the players and officials themselves. And one man sticks out above all others, Japanese Table Tennis Association (JTTA) Vice Chairman, Masahrio Maehara.
For Maehara there are always three goals in mind.
“Improve the skill of Japanese players. Ensure that all people involved in table tennis can live a stable life. Increase table tennis fans.” Masahiro Maehara, JTTA Vice Chairman
Turning local talent in to a global sporting phenomenon isn’t luck. Fostering the next generation has been at the forefront for JTTA for well over a decade now.
The rise of Ai Fukuhara seemed to be a catalyst for the national association to realise that they could focus their resources on a younger generation of athletes. Maehara sees the addition of that Hopes to the Junior and Senior National Teams in 2001 provided the conditions for talent to blossom.
But then there is the training itself which Japan is offering. It’s a holistic approach to table tennis education that goes much further than drills and technique.
“The content of the training camps is mainly targeting their coaches and parents, teaching skills, physical training, nutrition and mental health guidance every year.” Masahiro Maehara, JTTA Vice Chairman
The players that have prospered under this attention and care, and know that this support has been vital in their development.
“Having the National Training Center where we can practice at any time in the best condition imaginable, with wonderful sparing partners and staff so that we don’t feel any stress while practicing.” Mima Ito
Then there is Maehara’s goal of making table tennis a sustainable sport and also winning over more fans.
In 2004, Japanese Table Tennis Association (JTTA) decided that table tennis needed a makeover. A team was formed with one goal in mind; to improve the sport’s presentation at the All-Japan Championship.
“By enhancing the presentation at the All Japan Championships, the motivation of the players improved a lot and the media focused on table tennis.” Masahiro Maehara, JTTA Vice Chairman
The two factors of marketable talents and a modern presentation of the sport was a recipe for success.
For Mima Ito, her rise has its origins in the stars that came before her; namely Ai Fukuhara and Kasumi Ishikawa. These two darlings of Japanese table tennis are responsible for making the sport glamorous in their home country. Together the duo has made their sport one of the most marketable and sought after properties around.
“I think they are the starting line to bringing back the spotlight to table tennis in Japan and I really wanted to follow that path.” Mima Ito
What Michael Jordan did for basketball around the world, Ai Fukuhara was able to do for table tennis in Japan. Before her the sport only existed inside the playing halls. After Ai-chan, the game changed, and Mima Ito is the latest player to carry her mantle.
Thanks to the efforts of the likes of Maehara to improve sport’s presentation, athletes are now superstars and household names. Daily commuters on Tokyo trains are met by the faces of the Japanese women’s team, while instant curry packets come with the grinning face of Jun Mizutani.
Table tennis is now a viable route for the stars of tomorrow to take if they want a sustainable and fulfilling life as an athlete in Japan.
With the system in place, the attention now turns to what’s in store for Japan. Their athletes are now rivalling China for spots on titles and podium places.
Who better to ask then wonder-kid Tomokazu Harimoto about what to expect from Japanese table tennis in the coming years.
For him the next goal on the horizon is clear.
“I think there is only one event, and that will be the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. We would like to win four gold medals.” Tomokazu Harimoto
The target is set. There will be doubters, but if current progress is anything to go by, the the disbelievers may be thinning. If this dream does become a reality, it will be the culmination of almost two decades of reforming and reimaging Japanese table tennis.