Naoki YASU ×

Wheelchair Fencing

Yuki OTA

Federation Japonaise D'escrime

Photographs by Keijiro KAI │ Interview & Text by Satoshi TAGUCHI

Diversity of Thoughts Between Setting Up and Attacking
From “En Garde” to “Allez”: The Myriad of Thoughts in That Singular Moment
“En garde! Prêts? Allez!” As the calls of the referee ring out, the athletes, in their wheelchairs fixed onto pistes in the ground, flash into action. They wear white jackets, white knickers, and sturdy masks. The resounding noise of metal against metal, and the squeaking of the wheelchairs. The match is decided, for the most part, in a second or two. This is the world that Naoki Yasu has become a part of, just two years after his departure from the basketball court—his love of 20 years. He is working towards the Tokyo Paralympics, just two years from now. He wishes he could say his trademark physical strength and stoicism are seeing him get better and better every day, but it’s just not that easy. He struggles now in the sheer amount of depth involved in wheelchair fencing. So who better for him to talk to than Yuki Ota, the pioneer of Japanese fencing, and the world’s top of the top? And as could be expected from someone so extraordinary, his thoughts too are nowhere near average.
Similar, Yet Different,
But Actually Similar
We’ve been told that you have had experience with wheelchair fencing. Is it any different from able-bodied fencing?
Yuki Ota (“Ota”): Yes. With all fencing, the strategizing begins even before the referee does the calls. But this element is even more prevalent in wheelchair fencing. The strategic aspect of it is more intense, in other words. Because the distance between you and your opponent is fixed, it’s common for the match to be decided right when the referee does the call. You have to be able to read your opponent before the match, and figure out where you want to attack, where you think they’ll attack. It may actually be similar to baseball, in that sense. Are they going to throw a fastball, or a slider? The pitcher is 18.44 meters away from you. If you wait until they throw the ball and you figure out what kind of ball it is, then swing your bat, it’s too late. So the batter tries to analyze what kind of ball it will be, what kind of trajectory it will take, and makes preparations before the ball is released. It’s the same thing. You have to predict, to some extent, that they’ll come at you a certain way. You get it right—it feels good. You get it wrong—they beat you. Am I explaining this right?
Naoki Yasu (“Yasu”): Oh, of course [laughs], I’m not an authority on this or anything. What you said is actually something I’ve just recently started working on [laughs]. When I first started wheelchair fencing, all I knew was that it was a battle with no escape. I had no idea about all this “strategy” and “reading the opponent.” It’s only recently, after meeting my coaches, Ying Ki Fung1 and Madoka Nagara, that I’ve started to really understand wheelchair fencing.
You’re learning the mind game and strategizing aspect of the sport?
Yasu: I’d always felt it was that kind of sport, even before. But when it came down to the actual match, I’d just go for whatever tactic I wanted to try out, instead of anything like a strategy. It didn’t occur to me to read my opponent, or to figure out what kind of tactic would be good against them specifically. So my matches would always just be us jabbing at each other, or avoiding each other. I finally started learning about all that other stuff, and it’s made the sport a lot tougher.
You’ve started to see the depth in the sport.
Yasu: Until then, I was just trying to move as quickly as possible to score a touch, and that was it. But now I’m training in the strategy aspect of it, and my focus is on how effectively I can bring out my own tactics within these larger strategies that I’m learning.
Don’t you think strategy is an important part of able-bodied fencing as well?
Ota: Yes. You start training strategy though, and you stop being able to win matches for a while. You’ll probably experience this too [laughs]. Every fencer starts off by swinging their swords around like they’re in a swordfight. And if you’re strong enough physically, just swinging your sword around can get you a touch sometimes. Brute-forcing it like that can land you some wins, but there’s a limit to how far you can go. If you want to be a more advanced fencer, you have to scrap what you know and build everything back up from scratch. And you can’t win while you’re in the process of doing that.
But it’s a process you need to go through to become stronger.
Ota: Yes. You have a lot of physical potential, and incredible speed and power compared to the other fencers in Japan, and you can win domestic matches through these elements alone. But in matches overseas, there are tons of other fencers who have your speed and power, and that’s where you’ll start to need the strategic aspect of it. You’ll also need a Sun Tzu, Art of War-esque strategy. I think if you incorporate these into your fencing, a whole new world will open up for you. You can also just take these tactics and strategy as far as you can—consider the difference between maneuver and strategy, for example, and see how you want to spend the month, two months, even six months before a match. In my case—I’m Asian, and I’m shorter than a lot of the other fencers, and so if I wanted to win matches at the world-class level, these were all things I needed to consider.
This way of thinking, this prep—the maneuvering and strategizing—were to make up for your relatively lower physical ability?
Ota: You’re better built than I am, so you probably won’t have to think as much as I did to win. But I still think learning strategy is important. If you’re never sure how you earned a point, or why your opponent earned a point, you won’t be able to recreate anything good that you do. You try to do the same thing, but you can’t, and this prevents you from advancing past a certain point.
Yasu: I think that’s precisely where I am right now.
Thought Processes Upon Thought Processes
Supercompensation—The Faintest Glimmer of Understanding
You were nodding pretty furiously while listening to Ota [laughs].
Yasu: Yes [laughs]. It’s because I’m really struggling right now.
Ota: It’s something that’s necessary to become a better fencer. It’s like supercompensation—you have to get worse for a little while before you can get better. Or like jumping. You have to bend your knees first.
Yasu: I started working on this last October, and it honestly just feels like it’s getting harder and harder. Maybe it would be different if I’d started wheelchair fencing on more of a blank slate, but I also spent more than twenty years playing wheelchair basketball. With that, I’d always used something closer to natural instinct, and I think this is what gave me my aversion to “thinking” when playing sports. But now, all I can do is just keep working on it. It’s been six months, and finally I can feel the faintest glimmer of understanding as to where strategy fits into fencing as a sport.
You’ve started feeling like it’ll make you stronger?
Yasu: No, no. Not at all. It’s still really difficult for me to come up with an offensive strategy that fit the situation, and I still don’t have nearly enough tactics in my arsenal, as well as the knowledge to use them. And in my matches against foreign fencers, I still can’t analyze my opponent and bring out tactics the way my coaches have trained me to. I’m still so far away from the “getting stronger” phase of this whole process. I’m just confused and struggling [laughs].
Did you struggle with this kind of thing as well?
Ota: I think I was clever, in that sense. I was good at getting my thought processes and my movements to sync up with each other. And I’m devious [laughs]. I try to learn from people who aren’t doing so well, and not just the people who are doing really well. I like to just keep watching them, and think, and analyze. Why is that person having such trouble? But everyone has had experiences where you know something with your mind, but can’t get your body to do it. If you look at the amount of time you have, and realize you can’t fix a weakness of yours before a set deadline, then it’s also important to be able to switch your mindset and just work on improving your strengths. You also have to make adjustments so your weaknesses don’t hamper these strengths. For example, in fencing, the last thing you want is a mistake that leads to a point against you. That’s the one thing you have to work the hardest to prevent.
Yasu: I see. I’m hoping I’ll get to that level of mental preparation.
Ota: Mistakes that lead to points against you—for example, little quirks in your stance when you’re on-guard. Really good fencers can tell just from these quirks what your strategy is. Again, it’s like a pitcher’s form in baseball. If the way you throw is different for fastballs and curveballs, your balls will be easy to hit. It’s only because your form is the same that they can’t tell which one it will be, and end up with a swing and miss. So if you can control the quirks in your stance, you can use them as a feint against your opponents.
Yasu: I know exactly what you mean, and I understand it too. But when I think about it in terms of my own fencing, it still feels like I’m only just beginning to understand it all. It still feels like real results are so far away. My quirk, for example, is that I’m impatient, and that I tend to go on the offense just because I’m itching to get a point. But when I do that, I usually end up losing the point to my opponent.
Ota: If that were me, I’d think to myself—what are my reasons for wanting that point so badly? Why do I want it, and what elements are present that make me want it?
I see. It’s a sport that involves a lot of thought.
Yasu: Yes, it seems like it. Wheelchair basketball was hard physically, and sometimes I got so tired from practice alone that I wouldn’t be able to move. Wheelchair fencing isn’t as physically exhausting, but it causes a fatigue that just makes you keep yawning, if that makes sense, and it’s mentally exhausting as well. Like the more you work to understand the sport, the more you want to run away from it.
Fencing = A Battle with the Self
The Necessity of Athletic Reform for Further Development
You switched over from wheelchair basketball, a team sport, to wheelchair fencing, which is an individual sport. Did you feel any sort of loneliness?
Yasu: Yes, of course. It took me about a year to get used to it. Especially because I was winning so much, strangely, when I first started fencing. I put pressure on myself—that I needed to keep winning, and I felt like people were expecting me to win, and that made me feel even lonelier. Before, I was a part of a team, and we helped each other when we were down. But now, I have to deal with my struggles all on my own, and I don’t really know how to handle that stress.
Ota: I know what you mean. But when it comes down to it, everyone makes decisions for themselves, on their own. When you were playing basketball, you decided whether to pass or shoot, for example, all by yourself. It might feel lonely, but at the same time, is it really fun to do sports if no one is expecting anything from you?
Yasu: I think you’re right. I used to wish I could go back to do basketball, but I’ve since gotten over that. Fencing is also fun in the sense that the work you do as an individual is reflected directly in your skills and your environment—the more you train, the more these improve. In basketball, you need other elements too, like communication and teamwork. With fencing, I really feel it when I get better. In the beginning though, I just felt so, so alone [laughs].
Just as there’s three types of able-bodied fencing, there’s also three types of wheelchair fencing—epee, sabre, and foil2. Which one do you focus on?
Yasu: Choosing is actually really difficult. I only have two to three years of experience in wheelchair fencing, and I have to choose two, and then narrow it down to one. For now, I’ve chosen foil and sabre, but it’s not like I was very confident in these decisions. I chose sabre because I thought it’d be easier for beginners like me, because all you need to do to get a point is to touch your opponent with your sword. And also because my coach, Ying Ki, specialized in sabre. I do occasionally think that foil may be the better choice for me, though.
Ota: I personally think sabre would be a good fit for you. Personality-wise as well. With foil, you have to go through a lot of training to develop the right sensitivities in your fingertips, which actually takes a long time. This isn’t something anyone is born with, and it’s almost a requirement to be good at this particular kind of fencing. At the Olympic level, for example, there’s not a single foil fencer in the past five Olympics that started when they were in high school—they all started much, much younger than that.
Yasu: Oh wow, I didn’t know that!
Ota: Yes. They all started in middle school at the latest. It’s actually been proven that people who start foil fencing when they’re 15, for example, can’t compete at the world-class level even after seven, eight years of training. This is just something that differentiates the foil from the epee or the sabre. Like when you plant a bunch of vegetable seeds at the same time, but depending on the vegetable, you harvest them at different times. There’s nothing you can do. But, for example, most of the epee fencers on the national team started in high school. Sabre too. Different events, different characteristics. They’re actually just as different as the 100 meter, 400 meter, and 1,000 meter races in track and field. They may seem similar because they’re all fencing, but they’re actually very different events. Regardless, I think sabre for you would be a good choice.
Yasu: I’ll just have to believe you and run with it [laughs]. If I could, I’d actually want to focus on just one. But of course there are other factors I have to think about, like player population, so I can’t say for sure.
Ota: Yes, wheelchair fencing is still only a developing sport in Japan. Once the market for it expands and it becomes more competitive, fencers should start specializing in just one. Even on a global scale, there are very few fencers—almost none, actually—that are equally good at two types of fencing. You have to be very uniquely talented to be able to do two.
Would you say competitive population is something that has to be addressed to strengthen fencing in Japan, whether wheelchair or otherwise?
Ota: Something that’s often talked about is competitive population and elite training. I personally think it’s best to separate the casual athletes from the “elite,” professional athletes from the very beginning. This is something that applies to education as well, but I think Japan tries too hard to give everyone the exact same services—giving the same English education to a kid who wants to go to Harvard, versus a kid who’s planning to take over his family’s sushi restaurant, for example. This system isn’t good for either of their eventual futures. It’s the same with fencing. The ideal training for kids who are shooting for the Olympics is different from the ideal training for kids who are just learning for fun, and I wish we could have a system that respects these individual differences. What we need to do is stop thinking about everyone on the same pyramid, and set up two different pyramids, and have fencing advance along those levels as well.
In that sense, the Paralympics will be a great opportunity to popularize wheelchair fencing. It’s just a bit over two years until the Tokyo Paralympics. Is everything going smoothly for you?
Yasu: No, I don’t know. I’m training and getting advice from my coaches and manager, but there’s just so many things I have to do, and so many skills I need to learn. I’m afraid I’m in a bit over my head [laughs]. But I know I shouldn’t panic, and that the right thing to do is to overcome each of my weaknesses one by one, as quickly as I can.
Ota: What’s the biggest issue you’re having right now with fencing?
Yasu: I think, again, it would probably be the strategy part of it.
On an Untrodden Path
Towards Success in the Tokyo Paralympics
Do you think Japanese people in general are not very good at thinking strategically?
Ota: On the contrary—we should be good at it. In strategy, you use numbers and statistics to win. For example, you think about the situations where you’ve won points, versus situations where you’ve lost them. Am I getting points through offense, or defense? You calculate all that using numbers, and the result is often different from what you thought just through intuition. That’s why it’s important first to figure yourself out through cold, hard data, and then decide what to do depending on the circumstances and conditions. That’s what strategy is all about. Japanese people are good with numbers, and so we should be good at it. There’s all kinds of things to analyze—which spot to go for, the initial speed of your attack, the angle of your sword when it touches your opponent. I personally like to think about my own fencing in these sort of terms.
Yasu: I guess that’s the spirit that drove you to win two medals [laughs]. Hearing what you just said makes me feel even more panicked. Right now I’m training with my coaches and just starting to learn about all this strategic stuff, and I know I have to keep going with it if I want to be stronger, but I’m having such trouble catching up with the rest of the world.
Did you always have this sort of thought process?
Ota: I think it’s something I learned through fencing. This is something you can say about any sport, but I think the most important part of any sport is how well you can implement with your body what you’re thinking in your head. You don’t need any other quirks or anything else that you can’t control. That’s what you’re training—your thought process, your actions. Oh, yeah, if you want to learn more about strategy, there’s a manga, Hunter x Hunter, that would probably be helpful.
Yasu: A manga?
Ota: Yes. Just the first five volumes are fine. The important bit is the fourth phase of the hunter exam, with the kingfisher. It’ll teach you about the strategy in fencing. In professional terms, “first intention” and “second intention.” Once you understand this, your range of fencing skills will get so much wider. It’s also just a very good manga, too.
Seems there’s a lot of hints in unexpected places.
Ota: When I was a pro, I looked at everything through the lens of fencing. I was getting useful tips from all kinds of things. But I understand Yasu’s panic as well. There’s not very much until the real thing—the 2020 Paralympics. With this little time, you sort of end up just blowing through as much training as possible. Or, you’ll have to give up on certain things to keep a fighting chance. If you were a lunch box, for instance, you’d have to give up on being a super-elaborate lunch box with tons of sides, and be a single-dish lunch, like a beef bowl or a curry or something [laughs]. Strengthen the elements of yourself you’re confident about, and go into battle that way. You should organize in your own head what you’ll do and what you won’t do in the little over two years you have remaining.
Yasu: And I’d be able to do that if it were basketball, too [laughs]. It’s still difficult, with fencing, to figure out my strengths and weaknesses. When I started fencing I thought it’d be fairly simple, but nope, not at all. There’s all kinds of depth to it.
Ota: Well, I mean, it’s only been two years since you started wheelchair fencing! Think of it another way—it’s only been two years and you’re already going against world-class fencers. That’s incredible! If you keep training like you are right now and go to the Tokyo Paralympics, you’ll be such a unique example. Switching over from wheelchair basketball and four years later—the Paralympics. You might even inspire kids to try to be like you, because the path you’re on is one that nobody else has walked before. I’m sure it’s just difficult to find people that can teach you, except maybe your coach Ying Ki, considering able-bodied fencers like me don’t really know the precise details of what it’s like.
Yasu: The national team is coming together, and I feel like I’m finally in an environment where the coaches and the staff are all able to come together and share what they know about this sport. I think my current struggle is the most crucial element to me being successful at the Paralympics. And of course, I’ll definitely read Hunter x Hunter.
Head coach for Japan’s wheelchair fencing team since 2016. Born in Hong Kong in 1980. Famous fencer who has won five gold medals, as well as one silver and one bronze medal (sabre and foil events, individual and group events) at the Sydney and Athens Paralympics. Lives in Kyoto.
Fencing is divided into three events, with different weapons and rules. In foil, fencers use a relatively lightweight sword, and must hit their opponent’s target area (torso) with the tip of their blade while they have right-of-way. Epee is closer to a traditional duel, with a heavier sword and the entire body as a target. In sabre, fencers must follow right-of-way rules, but the target area is everything above the waist, with hits from any part of the blade (not just the tip) counting towards the score.

Naoki YASU

Born in 1977 in Hitachinaka City, Ibaraki Prefecture. When he was 14, a surgical error left him with serious difficulties with his left hip. Later, he became passionately involved in wheelchair basketball. Was selected as the MVP of the Japan Wheelchair Basketball Championship, competed in the Athens Paralympics, and joined the professional league in Italy, becoming one of Japan’s most well-known wheelchair basketball players. Switched over to wheelchair fencing in March 2015, and is aiming for a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

Yuki OTA

Born in 1985 in Kyoto Prefecture. Grew up in Shiga Prefecture. Started fencing in elementary school, and as he grew up, won repeat national titles in each age bracket. Won the All Japan Fencing Championships in his second year of high school, and has had a long reign as Japan’s top fencer. Won the silver medal for the men’s foil individual event in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and a silver medal for the men’s foil group event in the 2012 London Olympics—both a first for Japan. Has served as the President of the Federation Japonaise D'Escrime since 2017.