Spotlight on the main medal contenders. Number 6: Japan

Medal spotlight on Japan: Tsunami is always on their mind

Plenty of money has been spent trying to boost the Japanese team's medal haul – but the real world is never far way

First there is the perspective. Last Saturday, Japan's Olympic team gathered in Tokyo for the official send-off to the Games. Amid the usual pomp and fervour that accompany any such occasion each of the athletes was handed an unpainted, hand-carved wooden medal made from the debris left by last year's tsunami that devastated the north-east of the country. The gesture moved javelin thrower Yukifumi Murakami to tears.

On the ribbons attached to the medals are messages written by the children who created them. "Bring back a lot of medals, please," says one. "Waiting for your medals," states another. These simple medals offer perhaps a unique and contradictory combination of both a humbling pointer to the real world that lies beyond gyms, stadiums, swimming pools and fields of play, accompanied by yet another reminder of the particularly intense pressure that sportspeople at this elite level operate under.

Japan have spent heavily on the sportsmen and women sent on their way from the Yoyogi stadium, venue for the 1964 Games, by the country's crown prince, prime minister and 10,000 fans. There may be a ring of Ally McLeod and Scotland's Tartan Army about it – when they were ferried around Hampden and then sent off to bring home the 1978 World Cup – but Japan has a more realistic, if no less pressing, desire for success.

The need to bring back home medals, in particular the gold medals that were in short supply four years ago, is not simply because it is the winning that counts – it is also that Japan is in the process of bidding again to host the Games. That is not a cheap process; £5m has been spent on a pavilion and accompanying publicity in London.

Tokyo lost out to Rio to stage the 2016 Olympics and is now up against Istanbul and Madrid for the 2020 edition with a final decision to be made in September 2013. A recent survey of the three cities found public enthusiasm for hosting the Games at less than 50 per cent in Tokyo – both their rivals were more than 70 per cent. A lack of public support was given as one of the reasons for failing in 2016. Nothing would raise those numbers – and perception matters to the International Olympic Committee – quicker than a raft of sporting success in London.

Japan's national Olympic committee, which has spent £50m on the team for the Games, is all too aware of this. Part of Japan House, next door to the park in the Westfield shopping centre, includes a private area for the team's athletes to relax, watch Japanese TV and eat Japanese food in order to try and ensure they are in the best possible frame of mind to compete. "If Japan does not do well in this Olympics, the excitement and movement for 2020 in Tokyo will cool down," said Takafumi Wada of the Jiji press agency.

The team has been set a target of 15 golds and fifth in the medal table – in Beijing they won nine and finished 10th, something of an embarrassment in the backyard of their historical rivals. It was a hiccup – so the Japanese hope – after steady improvement since their low of 1996, when they finished 23rd. In Athens they came fifth.

To return there, Japan will require success in their traditional areas – judo, gymnastics, wrestling and swimming. Those four sports have brought three-quarters of Japan's Olympic medals. The Japanese team is 293-strong. Like many of the major nations that is a smaller contingent than at recent Games – below 300 for the first time since Sydney 2000.

There is a fear that it will need a run of surprise medals to reach the target because this is not a golden generation of judoka and wrestlers with many of their big (in both senses of the word) hopes heading towards the wrong end of their careers. The dominance enjoyed in the heavyweight divisions in judo is on the wane as it is in women's heavyweight wrestling. Saori Yoshida remains a strong contender in the 55kg wrestling though. One of Japan's great Olympians, she is looking to win a third gold – she has not lost at the Games for more than a decade.

Yoshida is one of three key figures in the team. The dazzling Kohei Uchimura defends the men's all-round individual gymnastics – he is potentially one of the best men the sport has seen. In the pool it is the Frog King who carries Japanese hopes. Kosuke Kitajima is bidding to win both the 100m and 200m breaststroke titles for a third Games in succession. That would be a remarkable sporting achievement – and one that could not be more timely indeed for his hometown of Tokyo.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital