From Naomi Osaka to Kohei Uchimura: Twelve Japanese superstars to look out for at Tokyo 2020

With 500 days to go before the next Olympic Games in Japan, we look at the home-grown favourites for gold

Japan is looking to wow the world at Tokyo 2020.

The Japanese capital will be hosting its second Summer Olympics, from 24 July to 9 August, 56 years after having organised the Olympic Games for the first time.

Tokyo 2020 has promised to deliver "the most innovative Games ever organised."

Here, we take a look at twelve Japanese athletes that have made excellence their habit and as such, will be looking to win gold for their countrymen in the Tokyo 2020 arena.


Naomi Osaka – Tennis

Naomi Osaka shot to prominence when she defeated Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final, becoming Japan's first tennis Grand Slam champion.

She then cemented her place at the top table of tennis by winning the Australian Open making her the first Asian player to lead the world ranking.

Wonderfully talented but humble to the point of shyness, she embodies Japan's ideal image of a professional athlete and tickets to her matches in Tokyo could be very hard to come by.

The duel national (Japanese and American) has expressed her desire to win a gold medal for the Tokyo 2020 host nation:

"I really want to experience the moment and at the same time, I know I want to win the gold medal."

Kaori Icho – Wrestling

Kaori Icho's medal record speaks for itself.

A four-time Olympic champion and ten-time world champion, the 34-year-old went undefeated between 2003-2016.

Icho is the first female in any sport to win individual gold medals in four-consecutive Olympics and is a firm favourite in Japan, having been awarded the People's Honour Award in 2018 by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The freestyle wrestler took a two-year break from the sport after Rio 2016, but won the All Japan Women's Open Championships late in 2018 and looks to have rediscovered her form.

Kiyo Shimizu – Karate

Kiyo Shimizu, a.k.a. the ‘Queen of Kata’, will be one of the favourites to land the sport's first-ever Olympic gold medal.

Karate has 130 million practitioners around the world, but having originated in Japan there are high expectations for the home athletes at the Toyko 2020 Games.

Two-time world champion Shimizu is perhaps the far-eastern nation's most renowned exponent and dominates the domestic karate scene.

The 25 year old enjoys a fierce rivalry with Spanish reigning world champion Sandra Sanchez, who pipped Shimizu earlier this month at the Karate 1-Series A event in Salzburg.

Mima Ito – Table tennis

China's dominance in table tennis has come under threat recently from Japan, and a major part of that threat is Mima Ito.

The 18-year-old won doubles bronze at Rio 2016 to become the youngest female Olympic medallist in the sport (when she was just 16).

Her performance in Rio propelled her to further success including singles victory at the 2018 Swedish Open, where she shocked Chinese heavyweights Zhu Yuling and Liu Shiwen (World No. 1 and 2 respectively at the time).

In January 2019, Ito became the first table tennis player to win three titles in two consecutive years at Japan's national championships.

Akiyo Noguchi – Sport climbing

Sport climbing is another sport that will make its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, and expectations will once again be high for home athletes for a sport in which Japan boasts many of the male and female top-10 climbers.

However there is a twist. Sport climbers at the Olympics will be tested in all three of the sport's disciplines, namely lead, boudlering and speed.

Typically climbers specialise in one or two of these variations, for example Akiyo Noguchi.

The 29-year-old has won four Climbing World Cups in bouldering, while also being an accomplished lead climber.

But she's been working hard at improving her speed, and her 2018 Asian Games victory (which included speed) would suggest she could win the sport's first-ever Olympic gold medal.

Akiyo Noguchi is a four-time bouldering world champion

Saki Kumagai Football

Tokyo 2020 will be a chance to put some unfinished business to bed for footballer Saki Kumagai.

The Olympique Lyonnais defender won an Olympic silver medal at London 2012, before winning finishing second at the 2015 Football World Cup.

After captaining Japan to victory in the 2018 Asian Cup, there is no doubt that her team stands a good chance of success on home turf.

With 100 caps for her country and success at club level (she scored the decisive goal on Lyonnais' 2016 Champions League final triumph), the host nation will look to her for inspiration.

Saki Kumaga at the London 2012 Olympics, where Japan won silver


Kosuke Hagino – Swimming

Swimmer Kosuke Hagino is no stranger to the Olympic podium, having won three medals (including one gold) Rio 2016, with a further bronze at London 2012.

Even more impressive? Despite all of his experience, the 2014 World Swimmer of the Year will still only be 25 years old at his home Olympics.

Hagino specialises in the individual medley and 200 m freestyle, and will spearhead what is expected to be a very strong Japanese swimming team.

Kento Momota – Badminton

Expectations were high for Kento Momota to become Japan's first men's singles badminton Olympic champion heading into Rio 2016.

But after being caught gambling illegally he was suspended from the Nippon Badminton Association, and missed the Games.

After serving a one-year ban, the 24-year-old exploded back onto the scene with victory at the 2018 Badminton Asia Championship, defeating Rio Olympic gold medallist Chen Long in the final.

Later that year Momota clinched the 2018 World Championship in Nanjing, meaning he is now leading the race to be ranked World No. 1 shuttler in 2020.

Tomokazu Harimoto – Table tennis

Japan's threat to China's table tennis dominance also extends to the men's game, due to the emergence of Tomokazu Harimoto.

The naturalised Japanese athlete, born to Chinese parents, first raised eyebrows in 2018 when he shocked Chinese two-time Olympic champion Ma Long in the Japan Open quarterfinals.

Harimoto squashed any lingering doubt that this was a fluke by becoming the youngest-ever winner of an ITTF World Tour men’s singles title, clinching the Czech Open title at the age of 14 years and 61 days.

A silver medal in the men's singles at the Youth Olympic Games followed, before an even greater achievement: Victory in the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals.

If Harimoto can continue this curve of progression, not only will he be hoping to secure a medal, but he may even be the favourite in Tokyo.

Kei Nishikori – Tennis

Perhaps the most globally-recognised name in the men's list, Kei Nishikori has been a main-stay of tennis' ATP Tour since 2008.

Since then he has won 11 singles titles and was runner-up at the 2014 US Open, making him the first Asian male player to reach a Grand Slam singles final.

But Nishikori's accolades extend beyond the professional tennis tour. At the Rio 2016 Olympics he defeated Rafa Nadal to win the men's singles bronze-medal match.

With a career-high world ranking of No. 4 in 2015, Nishikori is a hugely popular figure in Japan. In fact, he gets so swamped by fans when he returns home, he has to be accompanied by bodyguards and will undoubtedly enjoy raucous home support in 2020.

After an injury-plagued few seasons, he is back to full fitness, and keeping fit will be his biggest barrier before Tokyo.

Shohei Ono – Judo

One of the most eagerly anticipated events at Tokyo 2020 is Japanese national pastime, judo.

One look at the 2018 Judo World Championships results will show that this could be a literal gold mine sport for Japan at Tokyo 2020, with the Olympic hosts scooping eight out of a possible 15 gold medals.

Among all their champions though, one may rise above them all in Shohei Ono.

The two-time world champion, Asian Games champion and Rio 2016 gold medallist competes in the lightweight division and has remained unbeaten internationally since 2015.

Kohei Uchimura – Gymnastics

As with any older gymnasts, 30-year-old Kohei Uchimura has had his struggles with injury.

But as a triple Olympic gold medallist and 10-time world champion, many consider him to be one of the greatest gymnasts of all time.

He pulled out of all the individual all-around events at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Doha last year, so Japan's policy may be to manage their man, and ensure he makes it to Tokyo.

What doesn't help their case is Uchimura's reputation for executing difficult and complex routines, but that's what makes him the best!

Also keep an eye on...

Ayumu Hirano is a name more synonymous with winter sports fans, having won two silver medals in halfpipe snowboarding at Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018.

In Korea he was famously just pipped to top spot by a resurgent Shaun White.

But Hirano may be able to avenge his lost to the American at Tokyo 2020.

Just like White, Hirano is also a talented skateboarder and is also keen to test himself on four wheels at Tokyo 2020, where skateboarding will make its Olympic debut.


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