The Japanese National Junior Figure Skating Championships 2014

February 7, 2015

By Atsuko Kuryu
Photos © Keiko Kasai

The Junior Nationals were held Nov 22 - 24 at the Asahi Alex Ice Rink in Niigata. The competition was very hot among ladies and showed how deep this field is now in Japan. In the Men’s discipline, something unexpected happened: Shoma Uno - the perfect (which I recently called him), made lots of mistakes and was defeated by the young Sota Yamamoto in the free skating. This was really something, but there’s more: two brand new ice dance couples were introduced. Keep reading and enjoy the rich and wonderful world of Japanese juniors!

Men

Shoma Uno, age 16, won this title again, but this time it was not the overwhelming victory people had expected. Sota Yamamoto, 14, closed in on him with consistent jumps and amazing ice coverage. The bronze medal was supposed to be a more close race, but Shu Nakamura,18, won it easily with two solid performances.

If you are following the juniors, you probably already know who Shoma is. He won the Junior Grand Prix event in Croatia and was second in Nagoya. He has two convincing weapons, a quadruple toe and a triple Axel, and became the favorite for the upcoming Grand Prix Final (he won gold there). He showed a wonderful short program and got 82.72 point after landing the triple Axel cleanly for the first time in competition. In the free program, he surprisingly included two quadruples and two triple Axels, something most senior skaters hardly ever try. This attempt was not completely successful, but when he does make it, he will leap up the ladder to the world elite. Shoma said it took him a long time to master a clean triple Axel, but once he made it, he found it easier than landing the quad, which he had managed earlier. The challenge of including these jumps risked his gold medal as he failed three of the four, and only got 128 points. But thanks to his big margin in the short program, he claimed his second Junior national champion title with an overall score of 210.72. Shoma was born an entertainer and seems to also be a natural-born dancer. To our surprise, he said he has no ear for music and doesn’t like dancing, although nobody there believed a word of it.

Sota was second overall as expected, but did surprisingly win the free skate. He has competed in two Junior Grand Prixs where he won silver both times and made it to the final. That says something about his ability. He landed most of his jumps easily and with flow. What I like the most about him is his speed and wonderful ice coverage. Right after he started, he boosted his speed and moved even faster and elegantly over the rink. He has not succeeded a triple Axel in competition yet, but he keeps trying and will land it cleanly soon. He won the free skate with 134.69 points and together with the 67.81 he received for his short program, he earned his first medal in Junior nationals (his overall score was 206.10 points).

Shu is a promising skater and it was said that Utako Nagamitsu, who coached Daisuke Takahashi, gave up the thought of retiring after Daisuke’s retirement, because she wanted to continue teaching Shu. He landed a triple Axel and performed two very expressive programs. Dancing nicely to the music, he earned 61.63 for his short program despite falling during the combination. In the free program, he moved beautifully to classical music and displayed another aspect of his skating. His overall score was 184.08. Shu has a lot of potential so please keep your eye on this young man.

Kazuki Tomono, age16, has been noted for his entertainer ability since he was very young. Now he has gained the necessary jumping skills and become a serious competitor. He even landed two triple Axels though none were clean. But as always, the audience really enjoyed his performance. He was 4th in both programs (60.80 and 118.85) and finished 4th as well.

Another great entertainer, Taichiro Yamakuma,14, said he enjoyed getting applause from the audience as it gave him energy and showed his strength as an entertainer, especially in the free skate. His jumps were clean except the triple Lutz, and even more, he kept contact with the audience throughout his performance. Naturally, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. Hidetsugu Kamata, 18, who won the Asian Trophy Open in August, slipped down to 6th with a total score of 168.61 points. He has shown remarkable progress lately. His jumps are getting more consistent and his moves are more graceful. I hope he keeps improving even more.

The Novice National champion Sena Miyake,12, and 4th place winner Shingo Nishiyama, 12, didn’t make the free skate, while silver medalist, Kosiro Shimada, 13, and bronze medalist, Yuta Kishina,13, finished 16th and 24th respectively.Sena displayed a wonderful sense of musicality and beautiful movements, while Shingo skated very easily and freely on the ice and indicated great potential.Kosiro got the crowds excited as he landed one jump after another in his amazing free skate. His cuteness awakened maternal instinct among the female audience. Yuta’s posturing was beautiful and gave a glimpse of his genius.

Let me make some room also for the skaters who didn’t get good results, but stood out in some other way. Daisuke Miyata’s free program was notable because of his step sequences, which matched the music very well and expressed the feeling of the music. Tsunehito Karakawa’s skating skills were amazing. His easy skating and wonderful edges brought joy to the audience. Kotaro Takeuchi’s short program, a Chaplin medley, was very entertaining and stayed high quality despite of a fall.

Ladies

Wakaba Higuchi, 13, and Yuka Nagai, 17, have been fighting head-to-head lately. Wakaba was stronger at the Tokyo regionals, while Yuka defeated Wakaba at the East Japan sectionals. And here Wakaba claimed her first Junior national champion title. Yuka Nagai, who was one of two favorites, popped her attempted triple Salchow and made some minor mistakes on other jumps. She was 4th in free skate and third overall. Both girls qualified for the JGPF (Yuka came 2nd) and the Japanese Senior Nationals, so we can expect more of the exciting race between them. Performing a solid free skate, Kaori Sakamoto,14, the novice champion of the year before, finished 2nd overall. The Novice champion Yuna Aoki, 12, was 3rd in the short program after landing all the jumps cleanly, but slipped to 5th place after the free. The up-and-coming novice skater, Marin Honda, 13, got a little behind in the short where she was 7th, but bounced back to 4th.

Wakaba totally dominated the rink with her overwhelming power and energy. She landed 10 triple jumps in total and got plus GOEs for almost all of them. It seems like she was attacking everything all through her performances. Amazing speed, great jumps, and a quick and smooth step sequence; the audience appreciated everything she did and gave her a huge standing ovation. She got 187.95 points overall. Being asked if she realized her score was a new record for Junior nationals, she said she didn’t, but was very happy to hear it. She wanted to brush up her jumps for the JGPF and Japanese Senior nationals.

Kaori had great speed which made her look very free on the ice. However, the best thing about her performance was the high quality of her jumps, which are high and light. She had focused so much on her jumps that it seemed she had not listen to the music very well before, but that part had improved. The difference in interpretation was remarkable, especially in her short program. Kaori’s overall score was 168.82 points.

After having had a hard time last year, Yuka returned with more grace and maturity. Not because she is a bit older than the other top five skaters, but because of her own refinement. Her performance stood out, even when she had several mistakes. She was only 2.49 points behind Wakaba after a flawless short program. Unfortunately she was unable to collect enough plus GOE and popped her triple Salchow, and her free program score only added up to 107.25. That was why she didn’t get the silver medal. However, the beauty of her performance was well beyond junior level. She later finished 5th at the JGPF.

Marin Honda’s free performance was incredible. She landed almost all of her difficult triple jumps and also showed a wonderful sense of musicality. She has drawn attention from the public since she was very young, as the next young genius after Mao Asada. Nobody knows what will happen in the future, but at age 13, her potential and dedication to this sport made her as special as Mao was at that age.

The new novice hope, Yuna Aoki, landed a triple Salchow-triple loop combination cleanly and was third after the short program. The flawless short made her a tentative star in some media. Maybe it also made her a little nervous. She attempted a triple Lutz-triple loop combo in the free skating, but several triple jumps were under-rotated. Because of those mistakes, she didn’t make the podium. However, she had landed all those jumps cleanly at the Novice nationals in October. She has great jumping- and skating skills. Both Marin and Yuna have great spins, too. Yura Matsuda looked very lady-like this time. Last year when she won bronze at the Junior nationals, she was a cute little 16-year old. Now she’s a grown-up young lady. She performed a beautiful short program to Piano Lesson. The audience (and judges) was touched by her performance and her 56.41 points placed her 5th. It was a shame she under-rotated some jumps in the free, and finished in 6th place total.

Mai Mihara’s short program was perfect and highlighted by a delightful step-sequence. Her jumps were solid. Although she only placed 7th this year, she had improved a lot from last year when she won silver. Rin Nitaya, 17, who was the silver medalist at the Tallinn Junior Grand prix, Estonia, fell on the first jump, an attempted triple-triple combination. She only ranked 10th with 49.73 points in the short. Rin performed a solid free program, which was really beautiful and heartfelt. She came back to 8th overall. Novice bronze medalist Rinka Watanabe, 12, always skates with spirit and radiates joy, which seemed to rub off on the audience. She didn’t make the free skate, but it didn’t matter. She is a wonderful and charming skater, and that’s all worth gold at her age. Let me mention another novice skater, Tomoe Kawabata, also 12. She was only 6th in the Novice nationals and 15th here at the Junior nationals, however, her grade of potential looks really promising. Even while only warming up, her speed is amazing. I think she definitely has “it”. To our surprise, Yuhana Yokoi who competed at the Junior Grand prix in Nagoya, did not manage to make the free skate. She is also a wonderful skater, but she made too many mistakes. However, she has real guts and will come back stronger next year, I’m sure of it.

Ice Dance

There were two couples competing in this discipline. Although both teams only skated together for a few months, they displayed a wonderful harmony. Rikako Fukase/Aru Tateno, both17, won the first title with a total of 85.94 points. Aru competed last year with Kumiko Maeda, but they split and found new partners. Rikako and Aru looked a little nervous during the short dance, but relaxed in their free dance. The audience must have felt as though they were reading a story while watching the free dance performance - it was a wonderful program! Rikako has amazing flexibility and choreographer Masakazu Naruse included some movements for her to show off her ability as a single skater, which felt very natural even for ice dance. Aru, who is a charming ice dancer, has more experience in ice dance and led Rikako and displayed some wonderful poses. Rikako used to skate as a single and went to the try-out wondering if her skating skills would improve. She became fascinated with ice dance and teamed up with Aru, who was looking for a partner. Both of them will skate mainly as ice dancers from now on. Aru said they wanted to learn more difficult techniques, but they didn’t set any specific goals yet because they had just started. To be continued!

Ayumi Takanami, 13 / Daiki Shimazaki, 17, performed two lovely programs. The overall score (51.30) was not so high, but their cuteness added zest to the performance. Ayumi had just come back from the US, where she was learning skating at the Detroit Skating Club. She seemed to have an above average feeling for ice dance, more than usual for young Japanese female skaters. Daiki has his future set on ice dance and Ayumi also declared she will mainly skate as an ice dancer, so they could make a good couple in the years ahead. They said, in chorus, that they want to compete internationally in the future. I am very happy and excited to have such promising ice dance couples in juniors. Maybe they can fill in the gap and make Japan not only known for great single skaters.

After the beautiful victory ceremony, the skaters to compete in the Senior Nationals were announced:

Men - Shoma Uno, Sota Yamamot, Shu Nakamura, Kazuki Tomono, Daichi Miyata, Hidetsugu Kamata

Ladies - Wakaba Higuchi, Kaori Sakamoto, Yuka Nagai, Marin Honda, Yura Matsuda, Mai Mihara

No Ice Dancers will participate this season.

I enjoyed this year’s Junior nationals more than ever before. Since many top skaters, who have led Japanese figure skating for so long, retired or decided to have a rest at the same time, we worried about the future. But I and all the spectators were relieved by watching the young skaters’ performances here. There is a genius in each level and they are improving from year to year. I wish that all who dedicate themselves to this sport will flourish someday in their own way.

 






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