Figure skating has become one of the most popular sports in Japan. The country has seen many masters of the ice throughout the years, and many of Japan’s top skaters have gone on to enjoy celebrity status. Japanese figure skaters have been particularly dominant in men’s and women’s singles events during many points of the sport’s history, and the popularity of the sport along with the number of figure skating champions from the country will likely continue to grow.
An Illustrious History
Japanese figure skaters have made their mark in the sport throughout much of the sport’s history. As the years have progressed, more of the nation’s skaters have managed to reach the upper echelons of the sport and establish themselves as figure skating legends.
Nobuo Sato, one of the earliest icons of Japanese figure skating, managed to win 10 Japanese national men’s singles titles and competed at two Olympic Games, finishing as high as eighth place at the 1964 Winter Olympics and fourth place at the 1965 World Figure Skating Championships. Kumiko Okawa, who would later become Nobuo Sato’s wife, won two Japanese national titles and finished a respectable eighth place in ladies’ singles during the 1968 Winter Olympics.
In the 1970s, Emi Watanabe emerged to become Japan’s best ladies’ singles skater and an elite international competitor. In addition to her eight national titles, Watanabe captured the bronze medal at the 1979 World Figure Skating Championships by finishing in third place. She would go on to finish in sixth place at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
Later into the 1980s, Japan’s jumping phenomenon Midori Ito rose to the pinnacle of the sport. After a strong fifth-place finish at the 1988 Winter Olympics, Ito became the first woman to land the difficult triple axel jump later that year at the NHK Trophy and repeated the feat at the 1989 World Figure Skating Championships to claim the title. Ito would eventually win the silver medal with her second-place finish at the 1992 Winter Olympics.
After the 1992 Olympics, Yuka Sato, daughter of champion skaters Nobuo and Kamiko Sato, finished in a strong fifth place at the 1994 Winter Olympics. The next month, Sato won the gold medal at the World Figure Skating Championships before an electrified crowd in her home country.
No Japanese figure skater would win another Olympic medal until 2006 when Shizuka Arakawa claimed the gold to beat out heavy favorites Sasha Cohen of the United States and Irina Slutskaya of Russia for the Olympic title. Arakawa accomplished this feat two years after winning the gold medal at the 2004 World Figure Skating Championships.
Between the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, Mao Asada emerged to become one of Japan’s most formidable competitors in the ladies’ singles event. After settling for silver behind countrywoman Miki Ando at the 2007 World Figure Skating Championships, Asada claimed the world title the following year. At the 2010 Olympics, Asada became the first woman in figure skating history to land three triple axels in a single competition, which earned her the silver medal behind South Korea’s Yuna Kim.
Another first was accomplished at the 2010 Winter Olympics when Daisuke Takahashi won the bronze medal and became the first Japanese men’s singles skater to win an Olympic medal. He then stood at the top of the podium when he became the world champion a month later.
The next Olympic cycle saw the emergence of Yuzuru Hanyu. After winning the bronze medal at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships, Hanya captured what would be his first of two Olympic gold medals at the 2014 Winter Olympics. After defending his Olympic title in 2018, Hanyu became the first men’s singles skater to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals since American skater Dick Button in 1948 and 1952. The defense of Hanyu’s Olympic title came after he won gold medals at the 2014 and 2017 World Figure Skating Championships.
Even though Japan has not enjoyed the same level of success in ice dance and pairs figure skating, a Japanese pair team did manage to make their mark on the world of figure skating. Mervin Tran, who was born in Canada but went on to represent Japan in international competition, teamed with Japanese pair skater Narumi Takahashi and captured the bronze medal at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships. This accomplishment was a first-ever for a Japanese pair team.
Japan’s Modern Figure Skating Heroes
The legacy of Japanese figure skating has helped hone the competitive careers of some of today’s Japanese skaters. Below is a list of skaters who will likely vie for spots at the 2022 Winter Olympics and may continue to accomplish great things in figure skating beyond the next Olympics:
Yuzuru Hanyu – Most figure skaters would retire after enjoying such a successful career, but Yuzuru Hanyu seems poised to go for his third Olympic gold medal in 2022. Nathan Chen of the United States, Mikhail Kolyada of Russia and Jin Boyang of China will likely be among Hanyu’s top international competitors who may stand in his way to another title.
Shoma Uno – Skating much of his career in Yuzuru Hanyu’s shadow, Shoma Uno has still proven to be a threat to Hanyu’s spot as Japan’s leading men’s figure skater. Uno claimed silver medals at the 2017 and 2018 World Figure Skating Championships as well as the silver medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics. Uno also has four Japanese national titles to his name.
Yuma Kagiyama – Despite never having been to a World Figure Skating Championships as of 2020, Yuma Kagiyama has still turned many heads in the figure skating world thanks to his smooth, flowing style across the ice and effortless jumps. Many fans of figure skating believe that Kagiyama could be a contender at the 2022 Winter Olympics. His medal collection so far includes two Japanese national bronze medals and a bronze medal at the 2020 Four Continents Championships.
Rika Kihira – This two-time Japanese national champion is known for landing the triple axel consistently in competition and has worked a quadruple salchow into her repertoire to contend with Russia’s dominant ladies’ singles skaters. Kihira has also won two Four Continents Championships titles and a gold medal at the Grand Prix Final.
Kaori Sakamoto – After surprising the figure skating world by earning one of two spots to represent Japan at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Kaori Sakamoto has shown consistency in national and international competitions. In addition to her Japanese national title, Sakamoto earned gold medals at the 2018 Four Continents Championships and 2020 NHK Trophy.
Wakaba Higuchi – Known for combining her impressive athleticism with artistry, Wakaba Higuchi used her talents to win the silver medal at the 2018 World Figure Skating Championships. A triple axel jump in her repertoire will likely be more consistent in time for the 2022 Olympics.
Satoko Miyahara – This veteran of ladies’ singles figure skating has had to fend off younger talent in recent years, but her consistency continues to earn her respectable finishes in national and international events. In her eventful career, Miyahara captured a silver medal at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships along with a bronze medal from the event three years later. She has also won four Japanese national titles in her career and placed fourth at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Rika Mura and Ryuichi Kihara – Paired together since 2019, Rika Mura and Ryuichi Kihara are hoping to earn an Olympic spot and qualify for both phases of the competition in the pairs event at the next Olympics. Even though this team likely won’t be in medal contention, they have shown promise in competition. Kihara’s vast experience with previous partners, which includes two prior Olympic appearances, will likely contribute to this partnership’s success.
Kana Muramoto and Daisuke Takahashi – Japan has never won an ice dance medal at the Olympics or World Figure Skating Championships, but Kana Muramoto and Daisuke Takahashi hope to change that in the future. After enjoying a highly successful career in men’s singles skating, Takahashi decided to return to competitive figure skating in ice dance, and he and his partner managed to win a Japanese national silver medal. The team hopes to qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympics to represent Japan.