The Yomiuri ShimbunThe Japan men’s judo team has a mission for Rio — to wipe away the memory of the 2012 London Games, the worst humiliation it ever experienced. And the judoka who aims to make the biggest push to restore Japan’s pride is a man who has long been unknown.
Hisayoshi Harasawa witnessed the men finishing without a single Olympic gold medal for the first time in history while watching the London Games on TV. The prestige of judo’s mother country was dragged through the dirt, but Harasawa had no particular feelings about it. As a judoka who had no impressive achievements, it was something happening a world away.
“I thought it had nothing to do with me. Plus I’d never imagined being a national team member at the Olympics,” said the 24-year-old Harasawa, who will represent Japan in the over-100-kilogram division at the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Games.
When Harasawa was a child, he never aimed for the Olympics. Born in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, he joined a judo school near his house when he was a first-grade primary school student. He entered a middle school that did not have a judo club, so he had to practice at Hayatomo High School, which was in the same neighborhood. At that time, young Harasawa did not have any particular goal in judo.
He went on to enroll in Hayatomo High School and joined the judo club in the 66-kilogram division. He was not particularly strong — he remembers being thrown by a female judoka of the same age. “At the time, I thought I’d stop practicing judo when I graduated from high school,” Harasawa recalled.
However, as his frame got bigger, he began winning. He had been taller than others since childhood, but his height soon exceeded 180 centimeters. As there were only about six members in the club, self-motivation was required. Mitsuya Nakamura, the coach, sensed his potential. “He was open-minded. I remember him diligently practicing during workouts,” Nakamura said.
Harasawa took part in a national high school championship during his second year, but lost in the third round of the 90-kilogram division. However, Nihon University coach Jun Konno was impressed by the unknown competitor.
Harasawa did not have good gripping skills, allowing opponents to use various moves on him. However, his flexibility saved him from being defeated by critical throws.
“More than anything, he had good eyes, which conveyed his never-say-die mentality even when he was on the brink of a loss,” Konno said.
Harasawa moved up to the over-100-kilogram division in his third year and won third prize at the Inter-High School Championships.
“People had so many expectations of me. So I couldn’t quit,” he recalled.
When Harasawa entered Nihon University, he was still not particularly determined. Yet hard practice at the university led him to stay focused.
He often did randori, a sparring style of practice that closely resembles the actual conditions of a judo match, for more than two hours without a break. “I went all-out to keep up my training.” His potential flourished thanks to his tireless commitment.
The All-Japan Judo Championship in 2013 was a turning point for Harasawa. He took part in the competition for the first time and finished in second place.
“I began yearning for strength. I also had a burgeoning feeling that I didn’t want to finish in the condition I was in at that time,” Harasawa said. He started thinking about competing on the world stage.
Harasawa won the All-Japan Championship in April last year for the first time. He then had an uninterrupted string of victories in both domestic and international competitions, where his strengths were his uchimata throw and his stamina, which enables him to keep moving even at the end of a match.
It took him only a year to overtake rival Ryu Shichinohe, who had won silver two years in a row at the World Championships. As a result, Harasawa was selected to represent Japan in the over-100-kilogram division at the Olympics.
Now that the competitive race for an Olympic ticket is over, he realizes the heavy burden of representing the nation. Harasawa has no experience at worlds, so the heavy pressure he will feel at the Olympics is unimaginable. Moreover, at the top of the heaviest division is a gigantic wall — Teddy Riner of France.
Even so, Harasawa is well-aware that the pride of Japanese judo is at stake at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
“I have some fear,” Harasawa said. “However, if the competition day comes and all my preparation is complete, I’m confident that I can overcome the challenge.”