Japan’s Olympic hopes ride on women

Four women wrestlers, who share 20 Olympic and World Championship gold medals among them, are changing gender perceptions in a traditionally male-dominated society.

Takehiko Kambayashi
Bouncing back: Saori Yoshida, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist, gears up to defend her title after her first-ever international defeat in January.

At a recent workout of Olympic hopefuls in Japan’s capital city, each of four wrestlers circles inside the mat, trying to tackle or pin the other – just another intense day of training by Japanese athletes ahead of the Beijing Games.

But these athletes face extra pressures: Not only do their country’s top hopes for gold ride on their takedowns, but so do the hopes of thousands of young women who see in them a defiantly different role model.

It’s an unusual turn of events in a country where few people place high expectations on women. But the four wrestlers – Saori Yoshida, Kyoko Hamaguchi, and the Icho sisters, Kaori and Chiharu – are inspiring many Japanese by their performance in an event that debuted only at the 2004 Athens Games.

Between them, the athletes have collected 20 Olympic and world championship gold medals, according to the Japanese Olympic Committee. In Athens, all were awarded a medal, with Ms. Yoshida and Kaori Icho clinching golds, and Chiharu Icho and Ms. Hamaguchi capturing the silver and the bronze, respectively.

“When they perform brilliantly, that makes us think ‘I can also do something,’ ” says Kayo Tamura, a big NBA fan and foreign language major at Dokkyo University near Tokyo. “I think many young women feel uplifted.”

The wrestlers are not the only women garnering praise as Japanese gauge their country’s prospects for August. Also highly anticipated are the women’s judo and marathon events. Though Japan won only three to five medals in each of the Olympics between the 1988 Seoul Games and the 2000 Sydney Games, the country snagged 16 gold medals in Athens – matching its take in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Women were responsible for nine of those – five in judo, two in wrestling, one in marathon, and one in swimming.

Japanese athletes usually do well in judo, swimming, and the women’s marathon. But in 2000 at Sydney, Naoko Takahashi took Japan’s first Olympic gold medal in women’s track and field. In 2004, Mizuki Noguchi won the gold, beating Britain’s world-record holder Paula Radcliffe, and now she is gearing up to defend her title.

Judo icon Ryoko Tani, seven-time world women’s under-48 kilograms (about 105 lbs.) champion, is aiming for a third straight Olympic gold, while three other women judoka will also go for a second straight gold. And the former Ryoko Tamura, who married professional baseball player Yoshitomo Tani in 2003 and gave birth to a boy in late 2005, is eyeing another barrier-breaker.

“I won gold as Tamura in Sydney and as Tani in Athens. In Beijing, I will win gold as a mother,” says Ms. Tani, whose nickname “Yawara-chan” refers to a popular manga character.

Despite all the adulation, though, the athletes are the exception in an unapologetically male-dominated society. According to a recent United Nations Development Program’s Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which assesses equality by looking at women’s participation in business and politics, the GEM of Japan was ranked 54th among 93 countries. Only 9.4 percent of parliamentary seats are occupied by women, which ranks the nation 104th out of 188 countries surveyed as of May 31, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of parliaments.

Still, the rise of female athletes is energizing some fans, who suggest that women may be outshining men in the battle of the sexes.

“It seems men lack spirit while women have high-level energy. That has become a sort of social phenomenon,” argues Keita Fujii, an economics major at the Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. “More women also seem to be able to stand up the pressure than men.”

Last year, at the World Championships in Athletics in Osaka, the only athlete who clinched a medal was Reiko Tosa, who won the bronze in the women’s marathon. All of the much-ballyhooed male athletes ended up losing. Ms. Tosa is aiming for her first Olympic medal in Beijing.

In the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, Shizuka Arakawa became the first Japanese to be awarded a gold medal in the women’s figure skating, and the only Japanese to win a medal that year.

But the women’s wrestling team has experienced setbacks. Yoshida’s winning streak screeched to a halt at 119, when she suffered her first-ever international defeat, losing to American Marcie Van Dusen in mid-January in Taiyuan, China. The unexpected loss rocked the team’s confidence.

“I could not believe it,” says Chiharu Icho. “That made us realize the world level had risen.”

It was a wake-up call, says Yoshida, a five-time world champion with bobbed hair. “My defeat caused every one of us to work with a sense of urgency.”

The loss made them practice harder and study more seriously, says team coach Kazuhito Sakae. “They have also become emotionally mature.”

“We worked very hard until we almost threw up,” emphasizes a solemn-faced Hamaguchi, whose father was a professional wrestler nicknamed “Animal.”

“The Japanese women’s wrestling team is the world’s strongest,” she says, “and Saori, Chiharu, Kaori, and I believe all of us can win gold.”

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