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Japan Para Badminton’s Moment in the Spotlight: The Reasons Behind Their Success (Part I)

Since Japanese athletes had their moment in the Badminton World Championships in 2019, badminton has been at the front and center of attention in Japan. What you may not have known, however, is that Japan also has multiple world-class, top-level para badminton players—Tokyo 2020 gold medal contenders like Sarina Satomi (WH1) and Yuma Yamazaki (WH2) of the Wheelchair class, and Ayako Suzuki (SU5) of the Standing class—that are finding their own place in the spotlight. Here, we look into what’s currently happening in the world of badminton.

Badminton and Para Badminton Players, Building on Each Other’s Success

The able-bodied badminton players on the Japan national team, including Kento Momota with his No. 1 world ranking, have risen amongst their competitors to become medal contenders in all five badminton events at Tokyo 2020.

Though the players representing Japan for the Paralympic Games may not be medal contenders for all five events, Japan is still a para badminton powerhouse, with a stellar player roster compared to other countries. “I think if the Tokyo Paralympic Games were actually held this year, we could’ve gotten a minimum of 11 slots,” said Chief Director Kazumi Hirano of the Japan Para-Badminton Federation, about what the Japanese para badminton world had achieved on their march to Tokyo 2020. (As of May, decisions have yet to be made on how players will qualify for the Paralympic Games.)

That Japan found such success in para badminton, despite it being a relatively new sport, has largely to do with how open and accessible the sport is, as well the meteoric rise of able-bodied badminton players in Japan, which, in a sort of natural evolution, led to the rise of top-level para badminton players as well.

Though Japan’s able-bodied badminton players are now some of the best in the world, it hadn’t always been this way. In Athens 2004, Japan suffered a crushing defeat, with only a single win across their entire national badminton team. To overcome this predicament, they brought in a new head coach—Park Joo Bong, a well-established coach from Korea. This decision drought drastic change to the Japan team, but it wasn’t the only reason they got better.

Starting when the National Training Center opened its doors in 2008, the training of badminton players in Japan had shifted focus—from companies each training their own athletes, to training camps for all members of the Japan national team. The Nippon Badminton Association also began putting more of a focus on training junior players, even creating a new national tournament specifically for children, and gave players more opportunities to compete in friendly tournaments, training camps, etc., with foreign players.

“Having these new national-level goals gave the players and coaches more motivation. And interacting with foreign players let them see how they stacked up against the world, and helped make them more resilient players,” said President Norio Noto of the Japan Schoolchildren Badminton Federation, looking back on this shift in training.

Ayaka Takahashi (left) and Misaki Matsutomo, Rio Olympic Games gold medalists photo by Getty Images Sport

The first to develop and blossom under these reforms were Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo, gold medalists of the Women’s Doubles event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and nicknamed the “Takamatsu Pair.” Another example of a player that trained under this new system is the slightly older Ayako Suzuki.

Ayako Suzuki, who will be 34 when the Tokyo Paralympic Games are held

Suzuki, who was born with an impairment in her right arm, had gone head-to-head with able-bodied players even before competing in para badminton tournaments. It also helped that she’d grown up in Saitama Prefecture, an area that was already more competitive in terms of badminton. Suzuki said, looking back on her days as a junior player, “It was really, really hard to qualify for national tournaments from Saitama. The whole time, my goal was to get to the Inter-High School Championships.”

Not only was she able to fulfill this goal, she went on to compete in the All-Japan Junior Championships immediately after, and win second place. Consider that Takahashi and Matsutomo also came in second place in this tournament, and you can see just how much Suzuki had grown as an athlete. Her experience in this kind of high-level, competitive environment had given rise to the fierce fighting spirit she showed at the HULIC DAIHATSU Japan Para-Badminton International 2019, where she won her third consecutive victory.

Yuma Yamazaki trained in her junior years as part of a powerhouse team

Yuma Yamazaki was another player that picked up steam during her junior years. She had trained with a team that had given rise to some of Japan’s top players, and even competed in a national tournament before being involved in an accident as a first-year in high school. “The rigorous training I had up to junior high definitely formed the foundation for my current performance,” said Yamazaki.

Osamu Nagashima, Japan’s most prominent Wheelchair class player, had also honed his skills in Saitama Prefecture, building a solid training foundation as one of the best players in the prefecture. After being involved in an accident while at university, he started badminton again—this time on a wheelchair.

Osamu Nagashima, considered the leader of Japan’s wheelchair badminton scene

There are currently 300,000 players registered at the Nippon Badminton Association, with this number increasing by 100,000 in the 15 years from 2004 to 2019. The growing popularity of badminton and the players’ growing level of skill had had a synergetic effect, and ultimately heightened the level of para badminton players as well.

*This article is continued on Japan Para Badminton’s Moment in the Spotlight: The Reasons Behind Their Success (Part II)

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by X-1

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