Judo family business for Abe Hifumi and Uta

World champions as brother and sister, Japanese siblings lock in on one goal: gold at Tokyo 2020

By Shintaro Kano

Abe Hifumi and Uta will forever be joined at the hip, not only as brother and sister, but also as fellow judoka on the cusp of achieving greatness together.

In 2018 in Baku, Hifumi and Uta became the first Japanese siblings to win a judo title at the same world championships, a rare accomplishment even by the high standards in the birthland of the sport.

“I wanted to become champions as brother and sister more than win a second straight title”, Hifumi, who is three years Uta’s senior, told reporters after defending the men’s 66-kilogram crown with victory over Kazakhstan’s Yerlan Serikzhanov in the final.

“I’m glad we got this done. My sister won first, and that allowed me to really lock in on my final”.

Road to Tokyo

The sky-high expectations, from within and outside, are for the two to reproduce the feat at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. But first things first: Hifumi must qualify for the Games to be held in the summer of 2021.

While Uta, the two-time reigning champion in the women’s 52 kg, locked up her place on the Tokyo 2020 team in February after defeating world No. 1 Amandine Buchard of France to capture Grand Slam Dusseldorf, the jury is still out on Hifumi.

As two-time champion, Hifumi was tipped to retain his title at the world championships in Tokyo in August 2019 and had he done so, it would have effectively punched his ticket to the Olympic Games.

But his long-time rival Maruyama Joshiro had other ideas, eliminating Hifumi in the semifinals and leaving the elder Abe in tears in the corridors of judo’s mecca, the Budokan.

Hifumi got even the following November at the Grand Slam Osaka and also took Dusseldorf – but with Maruyama absent because of injury. Over their careers, Maruyama has the slight edge with a 4-3 record.

Abe Hifumi must get past arch-rival Maruyama Joshiro to reach the Games.

The men’s 66 kg is the only division the All Japan Judo Federation has yet to decide on and it could be settled by a one-off between Hifumi and Maruyama at the national weight-category championships whenever it is held before 2021.

Stoking the fire

Throughout their entire life, it is Uta who has been doing the looking up to Hifumi, ever since 5-year-old Uta took up judo after tagging along her brother to practice on the tatami mats.

But now, with Uta the world champion and the one who has secured passage to Tokyo 2020, it is Hifumi who is doing most of the admiring.

“My sister means a great deal to me. Her repeating as champion at the worlds really fired me up”, Hifumi said, according to Japanese sports website The Answer. “I was third and she won – she passed me. I know she’s my sister but it stung.

“I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or bad thing but that stoked the fire within me. I felt like I absolutely could not lose to my sister and it’s kept me going. We’ve really been able to push one another”. - Abe Hifumi

Perhaps inheriting the genes of her father who is a firefighter, Uta was always the feisty one in the Abe family – and some would say the more naturally talented judoka who has clearly tapped into her potential.

Abe Uta is poised to become a huge star for Japan at next year's Games.

At last year’s worlds, Uta beat Rio 2016 gold medallist Majlinda Kelmendi to repeat as champion and until Bouchard tripped her up in the final in Osaka, Uta had been on a phenomenal run of winning 48 consecutive matches against non-Japanese opponents.

Hopes in Japan are immensely high that she will bring home the country’s first gold in the women’s 52 kg category.

With her telegenic looks and competitive dominance, Uta has become one of the host nation’s female faces for the Games alongside the likes of Osaka Naomi, karateka Shimizu Kiyo and sport climber Noguchi Akiyo.

Although she may have traded places with her brother for the spotlight, Uta knows what Hifumi is made of - and capable of.

After watching Hifumi succumb to Maruyama, Uta said, “My brother may have lost but I know he has a lot of pride.

“I don’t expect him to give in. He will bounce back stronger and stronger and I want him to be the big brother who’s always guided me again”.

On 2 January of what was supposed to be the Olympic year before the Games postponement that would come, Uta and Hifumi went to a shrine in their hometown of Kobe for their New Year’s prayers per Japanese custom. Their wish, naturally, was the same.

“We have to become No. 1 – together”, said Abe Uta. “We’ve been targeting 2020 all this time. Winning at the Games is a must”.

Added Hifumi, “We have one goal: to become Olympic champions as siblings”.