After three years of going undefeated as Japan’s all-around champion, Mai Murakami handed the crown back to Asuka Teramoto this year, who put up two incredible performances to earn a 55.999 on both days of competition, edging Murakami out by just over a point with her combined total.
Teramoto last won the All-Japan title in 2015, and it was looking like three-peater Murakami would snag it again this year, but Teramoto had a flawless competition whereas Murakami had a fall on beam on the first day of competition, putting her at a full-point deficit going into the final.
Without a fall in the final, however, Teramoto still had the edge, finishing just 0.033 ahead of her teammate because Teramoto was just that good. She’s been on fire in recent weeks, winning the bronze medal at the Tokyo World Cup before finding success here, and at the All-Japan Championships, she brought the power with her Rudi on vault, looked clean on both bars and floor, and beam – her best event – was tidy and lovely to watch.
Beam has been Teramoto’s biggest asset to the team over the past couple of years, but while that alone could have made her a lock alongside Murakami, the fact that she continues to make incremental improvements across her other events to truly stand out as one of the top all-arounders in the world means Japan is going to be a team we can’t ignore at worlds this year and at the Olympics in 2020.
Aside from beam, this was also a very strong competition for Murakami, who did exactly what she always does on vault and floor, and her bars were solidly hit as well; it may not be her best event, but she never has anything truly wrong with her performance there, and this trend continued for her at this competition.
Murakami also did a great job coming back from the beam fall to hit a good routine in the final, earning a 13.5 with just minor bobbles throughout, and both she and Teramoto are once again on their way to securing world championships team spots at this month’s NHK Trophy, where the top three all-arounders get automatic bids.
With the all-around final score from All-Japan Championships added to the NHK Trophy total to determine the rankings at that meet, Hitomi Hatakeda – who made her worlds debut last year competing all four events in the team final – is also looking capable of snagging an automatic spot, finishing third here with a 109.398 combined score that included a 54.632 in qualifications, which she slightly upped in finals with a 54.766, hitting all eight routines throughout this competition and posting the highest bars totals with scores of 14.166 and 14.200.
It took Hatakeda a few years at the senior level to go from B team to worlds lock, and while she’s slightly behind her two more veteran teammates in terms of difficulty, she is super clean and consistent, and to see her just a point behind the top two on both days of competition is a huge testament to her talent and ability at the moment.
With some of the country’s strongest bar workers retiring or not competing at a hundred percent at the moment, this is probably the biggest disadvantage for Japan, especially as most of the other top teams are capable of scores close to the 15s here. While Hatakeda isn’t quite there, she is the program’s clear standout on the event, and with Teramoto and Murakami rounding out the lineup with generally solid routines of their own, they can at least do enough here to stay afloat.
Also finishing in the top eight here were junior Chiaki Hatakeda in fourth with a 106.697, 2016 Olympian Aiko Sugihara in fifth with a 105.664, the young and internationally untested Akari Matsumura in sixth with a 104.964, Ayaka Sakaguchi in seventh with a 104.963, and first-year senior Chiharu Yamada in eighth with a 104.430.
Sugihara, in her first competition for Mukogawa Women’s University after finishing up high school and her club career, has generally been a mainstay on Japanese teams since 2015 for her impressive work on beam and floor, though she’s struggled with injuries since Rio and hasn’t been able to get the upgrades she needs to stay at the top. Still, it’s impressive to see her remain pretty close, and she had a solid first day of competition at All-Japan, with beam just a little tricky for her in the final.
With her two strongest events the opposite of Hatakeda’s, I’d say these two balance each other out nicely and it would make sense to keep Sugihara in the mix for worlds this year, especially as the only other seniors capable of outscoring her on beam or floor can only do it on one event, not both. Hopefully she’ll continue to get stronger as the months go by, but either way, she’s still solidly in place to contend for Stuttgart.
A year ago, I’d say Sae Miyakawa would perfectly round out the team with her work on vault and floor, but unfortunately with the coaching drama that caused her to step back from the sport last summer, she wasn’t able to train for some time, and she came back pretty heavily downgraded at this meet, finishing 74th all-around in qualifications, with her floor score just a 10.266.
With the way Japan’s qualification system works, it means she’s out of the NHK Trophy and she might not be eligible to compete floor at the All-Japan Event Championships in June, the final stop on the worlds team selection route, though I can see the national program making an exception for her. Either way, she doesn’t look anywhere near ready for a major international assignment, though hopefully the training situation she’s in now is happier and healthier, and if all goes well, I’m sure she’ll be able to build back up for a Tokyo bid.
For now, with Miyakawa out of the picture, Japan has a Rudi from Teramoto and a Yurchenko double from Murakami making them one of the better vault teams, but both Hatakeda and Sugihara both have a Yurchenko one-and-a-half, which isn’t ideal. There are, however, a number of solid young all-arounders with good Yurchenko doubles and potential for more, like Matsumura and Sakaguchi, who finished sixth and seventh here.
This is the first time Matsumura has really entered my radar. A young senior with no international experience, she actually snuck onto the bars podium at last year’s Event Championships, and she’s consistently been solid on vault. After not making the all-around final last year, moving up to sixth place here is super impressive, and I can see her entering the mix for that alone, with bars – which are solid enough – also helping her case.
Then there’s Sakaguchi, who became a senior last year and won vault at Japan’s world cup trials in December, earning her spots at the world cups in Melbourne and Doha this year. Though her difficulty isn’t high enough to make her a strong vault specialist, her Yurchenko double is very nice, and she also has solid potential on beam and floor, making her another good option for that final team spot.
The gymnast who could potentially make the most sense next year, however, is Chiaki Hatakeda. Still a junior, Hatakeda’s fourth-place finish came thanks to her excellent work on vault, beam, and floor. Though she no longer does the quad pass on floor, her tumbling overall is strong, including a tucked full-in, a triple full, and a 2½ to punch front, and her 13.433 on this event in the all-around final was the third-best score of the day.
The health and depth in the Japanese program is in a great place, not only thanks to those in the top eight, but also to many others who finished just outside of it, like the talented bars gymnast Yumika Nakamura (11th place), the solid vault and floor worker Kiko Kuwajima (12th place), and the mostly clean Nagi Kajita (15th place), all of whom could also be legitimate options for the team this year, and who have the potential to improve on their standings at the NHK Trophy.
As for the men, some struggles from Kohei Uchimura in qualifications left him in 40th place all-around, keeping him from the final and leaving him wondering if it’s going to be time to retire after a series of injuries have kept him from getting back to his full potential. Kenzo Shirai also struggled, finishing last in the all-around final after fighting through pommels, rings, and high bar, and Ryohei Kato finished 24th all-around, with rings and high bar also bringing him down.
The young Kakeru Tanigawa, an alternate for worlds last year who first became known for dethroning Uchimura at last year’s All-Japan Championships at just 19, won his second title in a row with a combined score of 170.265, posting an 85.566 on the first day of competition and then an 84.199 in the final. Kazuma Kaya finished just behind him with the silver medal, getting a 169.328 combined total, while Kazuyuki Takeda won bronze with a 169.197.
Rounding out the top eight for the men were Shogo Nonomura in fourth with a 168.763, Wataru Tanigawa in fifth with a 168.430, Fuya Maeno in sixth with a 168.397, Daiki Hashimoto in seventh with a 167.962, and Kentaro Yunoki in eighth with a 167.130.
Unlike the women, specialists also competed in this final, with Kazuki Minami posting the top floor score with a 14.633, Kohei Kameyama winning pommels with a 15.166, Takuya Nagano winning rings with a 14.800, Hidenobu Yonekura winning vault with a 15.200, and Sho Yokoyama winning high bar with a 14.533, while all-arounder Yuya Kamoto won p-bars with a 14.966, so as always, the men’s team for worlds will be impossible to figure out.
The NHK Trophy will be held from May 18 through May 19, which is where the first gymnasts will be named to the 2019 world championships teams for both the men and the women.
Full results from the All-Japan Championships are available here.
Article by Lauren Hopkins