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

*This article is a continuation from Japan Para Badminton’s Moment in the Spotlight: The Reasons Behind Their Success (Part I).

Setting the Stage with Adequate Training Spaces and the Right Training Culture

“Of course, that’s not all there is to it,” said Chief Director Hirano, however.

Prior to this, the Japan Para-Badminton Federation had struggled for a long time to access the gymnasiums they needed for their training camps. From this experience, they understand that “it doesn’t matter if you have good people—if the environment isn’t there, players aren’t going to get better.” They take pride in the work they’ve done to create world-class training environments (both in terms of actual training spaces and the training culture/system), since badminton was first announced as an official sport for the Paralympic Games in 2014.

Chief Director Kazumi Hirano of the Japan Para-Badminton Federation, giving his remarks at an international tournament

The biggest change they experienced in terms of actual training spaces came in September 2017, with real estate business Hulic Co., Ltd.’s decision to rent them a gymnasium in Nishi-kasai, Tokyo, free of charge—a gymnasium that would become the players’ base of training.

“Before, we could only have training camps for the Japan national team 2-3 times a year, with each session lasting about two days. And then, all of a sudden, we were able to have 14 of these camps a year,” said Chief Director Hirano.

The introduction of Kim Jeong-Ja from Korea as head coach also allowed the Japan team to come up with a long-term plan for strengthening their players. Head Coach Kim’s involvement also led to Japan’s Wheelchair class players visiting the Korea national team, who at the time in 2016 was taking the world by storm, and accompanying them on their training camp. The Japan national team also conducted joint training camps with powerhouse countries like China and Indonesia.

Kim (back right), who as head coach has worked to strengthen the Japan national para badminton team

This method, in which players are encouraged to interact with foreign players and get better that way, was the same method used by able-bodied players to get to the world stage. Said Chief Director Hirano, smiling, “Before, people said the Japanese players were shy. But now they seem more confident.” Indeed, building strong connections with players and countries overseas is one of the “soft,” more cultural strengths that the players have built from this shift in strategy.

How Close Communication Leads to the Discovery of Promising Young Players

Now that they had both the training spaces and the culture/system to train players properly, they had the right foundation to bring in and train new hopefuls.

22-year old Sarina Satomi, who won the Women’s Singles event at the TOTAL BWF Para-Badminton World Championships last year, had started the sport in 2016. And 18-year old Daiki Kajiwara, currently a Tokyo Paralympic Games hopeful, started wheelchair badminton in 2015, after being involved in a traffic accident.

Daiki Kajiwara, a young rising star

News of their skill reached the federation almost as soon as they started playing, and the organization was quick to react, inviting them to their training sessions.

These hopes were fulfilled when the two—having trained in a well-established environment, and competed in all kinds of tournaments before going overseas—ended up racing their way up the world rankings.

With more world-class players, an increase in travel costs is inevitable. Though subsidies are available, many of the players have to travel to more than 10 international tournaments a year, and the federation doesn’t have the resources to pay for all of them. That’s why, said Chief Director Hirano, “We sometimes had to look for companies that could back them up, and get them in contact with the players in question.”

Of course, this kind of corporate sponsorship is only possible because these are world-class players that have left their mark on the sport—and indeed, many of Japan’s top players are now employed by major companies, who provide them with the environment they need to focus on their training. This has the added effect of increasing motivation amongst the players, who now feel responsible for fulfilling their sports-related “duty” within the company.

Young star Sarina Satomi, a gold medal contender for Tokyo 2020

Sarina Satomi, after winning her gold medal at the TOTAL IWF Para-Badminton World Championships last year, had voiced her appreciation for the “tons of people” that had gotten her there, expressing her gratitude for the great training environment she’d had, and the companies that had helped support her journey.

“It’s not like we’re doing all we want to be doing, and there’s concern about whether we’ll be able to sustain this after Tokyo 2020. But regardless, we’ll keep working, so that this trend doesn’t end up being temporary,” said Chief Director Hirano, with conviction, about the future of the sport in Japan.

This conviction has not changed with the added turmoil from the coronavirus pandemic. The goal, for all those who love para badminton, remains—to create a strong organization that lasts 10, 20 years into the future.

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by X-1

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