For the Japanese team, Tokyo 2020 presents the biggest stage of their careers as there will be massive expectations on them to deliver in front of their home audience.
The pressure will understandably be high given Japan’s quality and consistent performances in all five categories over the last few years. Yet, can Japan better China’s performance on home soil at Beijing 2008, where the hosts won three gold medals, while featuring in four finals?
Given the track record of Japan’s contestants, a five-gold sweep – as China accomplished in London 2012 – is in the realm of the possible, even if the odds are against it. The proposition might have a fairytale ring to it for Japan’s fans, but it remains a remote possibility as Japan have stiffer opposition in each of the five categories than China did in 2012.
Yet, if Japan are to match China’s rare feat of 2012, their hopes will be pinned on these players and pairs:
The two-time world champion is regarded as the frontline contender for gold, and with good reason. His ability to play error-free badminton over long periods, and his precision and craft, have seen him establish long periods of dominance on the circuit and win every title that matters. Yet, Momota has had a long layoff from competition following a serious traffic accident in January 2020 that required surgery; his return was further delayed by a bout of COVID-19 in January 2021. He eventually returned to competition at the YONEX All England in March 2021, where he beat two strong opponents – Parupalli Kashyap and HS Prannoy – before he was outplayed in the quarterfinals by eventual titlist Lee Zii Jia.
The second Japanese qualifier in men’s singles is world No.12 Kanta Tsuneyama, winner of the Gwangju Korea Masters in 2019.
Nozomi Okuhara, Akane Yamaguchi
Both are strong contenders for the crown alongside others like Tai Tzu Ying, Chen Yu Fei, and Pusarla V Sindhu. Okuhara and Yamaguchi have stellar records, with Okuhara slightly ahead on account of her World Championships gold and Rio Olympics bronze medal. Okuhara will take heart from winning her second YONEX All England title in March 2021 and the DANISA Denmark Open in October 2020; Yamaguchi’s last title was at the Princess Sirivannavari Thailand Masters in January 2020, but at this year’s All England, she showed trademark tenacity while falling in a sensational quarterfinal to Pusarla V Sindhu in what was the match of the tournament.
The world No.4 duo will go in to the Olympics having been in three successive finals – the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals 2019 (they were runners-up), and the All England of 2020 and 2021, both of which they won. They have improved dramatically over the last couple of seasons; quite remarkably, they have managed to get under the skin of the all-conquering Minions, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon/Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, beating them in their last four meetings. While their performance in the last full season (2019) was inconsistent, they will take heart from more recent performances. The combination is defensively solid and aided by Endo’s experience and Watanabe’s unique shot-making abilities.
Accompanying them in the men’s doubles draw will be compatriots Takeshi Kamura/Keigo Sonoda, whose last title was the Singapore Open in April 2019. As a pair that hasn’t enjoyed major title success, the pressure will be comparatively lesser on Kamura and Sonoda, but the Olympics do tend to throw up surprises.
Yuki Fukushima/Sayaka Hirota & Mayu Matsumoto/Wakana Nagahara
There’s little to choose between these two pairs, who have stood out in a talented women’s doubles field. Matsumoto/Nagahara have the edge; they beat their compatriots in two tight World Championships finals, besides the All England this year, but Fukushima/Hirota too have several big titles, including the All England and Denmark Open in 2020. While there are a number of other strong contenders, particularly Chen Qing Chen/Jia Yi Fan, Lee So Hee/Shin Seung Chan, Kim So Yeong/Kong Hee Yong and Greysia Polii/Apriyani Rahayu, this is the category in which Team Japan might feel the gold is theirs to lose.
Watanabe and Higashino are the sole Japanese qualifiers in mixed doubles, and with Watanabe playing two categories, it will require tremendous physical and mental effort to attempt a podium place. As a double titlist at the All England this year, Watanabe will have bounce in his steps; Watanabe and Higashino’s record in recent times will give them optimism, for they have two titles and three semifinal finishes from their last five appearances. Given the track record of other pairs like Zheng Si Wei/Huang Ya Qiong, Wang Yi Lyu/Huang Dong Ping and Dechapol Puavaranukroh/Sapsiree Taerattanachai, Watanabe and Higashino have their task cut out.