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Countdown clock showing five days until the Tokyo 2020 Opening ceremony

The Japanese Olympic Committee has set a target of 30 gold medals for the Tokyo 2020 hosts – nearly double their previous best of 16 in 1964 and 2004.

So where might they be won? Here are a few contenders from Team Japan.

Kento Momota – Badminton

Kento Momota
World number one Momota has won the past two Japan Opens

Two-time world champion and world number one Kento Momota had been expected to be among the favourites for gold at Rio 2016.

But just a few months before the Games, the 26-year-old was banned from playing by his national federation after admitting to gambling – an illegal activity in almost all forms across Japan.

In January 2020 he was involved in a fatal road crash, with Momata needing surgery on a fractured eye socket and fearing he might never play again.

Two months later the Tokyo Olympics were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic and he comes into the rearranged Games having “rediscovered the joy of badminton”.

If he can win gold, Momota, who went to school in Fukushima – the location of the devastating 2011 earthquake – says it will make up for letting people down in 2016.

“It must be fate the 10-year anniversary [of the earthquake] overlaps with the year of the Tokyo OIympics, at a time when I’m in great shape,” he said. “I blew it for a lot of people at the last Games and I want to make up for that.”

Women’s volleyball team

Women's volleyball team
Japan won gold at the 2019 Asian Championships, and won 12 out of 15 matches at this year’s Volleyball Nations League

Japan’s women, who are fourth in the world rankings, carry a lot of hopes although are arguably under less pressure than when they won gold in 1964.

Back then the team were not keen on taking part in the Olympics – despite having inflicted a first-ever World Championship defeat on the Soviet Union two years earlier – because they were at a ‘marriageable age’.

After receiving more than 5,000 letters begging them to compete, they relented and the ‘Witches of the Orient’ – coached by Hirofumi Daimatsu, a former platoon commander in the Japanese Imperial Army – won gold.

It remains the most-watched sporting event in Japanese television history – up to 80% of the population were tuned in.

The most recent Japanese Olympic medal in women’s volleyball was the 2012 bronze.

Wrestling – Freestyle

Risako Kawai and Yukako Kawai
Risako (left) and Yukako are aiming to become the first sisters to win Olympic wrestling medals

Risako Kawai, 26, is hoping to make history along with her younger sibling Yukako, 23, as they aim to become the first sisters to win Olympic wrestling medals.

Risako competed in Rio in the 63kg class, and after winning gold and famously scooping her coach on to her shoulders in celebration, she stepped down a weight class so her sister could take her slot at 63kg.

Risako has gone on to win three straight world titles since Rio.

Yukako won silver at the 2019 World Championships, and in 2020 won the Asian Championships, beating 2019 world champion Aisuluu Tynybekova along the way.

Skateboarding

Some of Japan's Olympic skateboarders: Momiji Nishiya (left), Misugu Okamoto (centre, top), Ayumu Hirano (centre, bottom) Kokona Hiraki (right)
The hosts have contenders across the skateboarding field, with the sport making its Olympic debut

Street

Momiji Nishiya is ranked fifth in the world at the age of 13, having taken silver at June’s World Championships. She also won an X Games silver in Minneapolis when she was just 11 and was named Asia Rookie Of The Year 2020.

Ayumu Hirano, 22, has twice claimed the runner-up position behind American snowboarder Shaun White at the past two Winter Games.

White had hoped to compete in the Olympics’ maiden street skateboarding competition, but is concentrating on aiming for his fourth Winter Games in 2022 instead.

Booking a Tokyo spot means Hirano will outdo White by appearing at a summer and winter Games.

More than 100 athletes have achieved that double but only five have won medals at both, most recently American Lauryn Williams (athletics: 4x100m gold and 100m silver; bobsleigh: two-woman silver).

Park

Very few people had heard of 15-year-old Misugu Okamoto when the Olympic qualifying window kicked off at a Dew Tour event in Long Beach, California in June 2019.

But such was the dominance of her display – by an unheard-of margin of 15 points – a little over two years later she will start as favourite in Tokyo.

She won every international competition she entered in 2019 and finished on the podium, albeit in third, at the 2021 Dew Tour event in Des Moines in May.

Kokona Hiraki, 12, will become Japan’s youngest summer Olympian, surpassing swimmer Yukari Takemoto, who took part in the 1968 Mexico Olympics at the age of 13 years and 174 days.

Hiraki is used to making history. She became the youngest female competitor at an X Games when she competed in the 2019 edition aged just 10. She is the world number six and won the Japanese national title this year, no mean feat given athletes from Japan fill four of the top seven spots in the world rankings.

Surfing

Kanoa Igarashi
Kanoa Igarashi was the youngest rookie on the 2016 World Surf League Championship Tour

Kanoa Igarashi, 23, was born in the United States to Japanese parents.

When his surfing-mad father Tsutomu and his wife Misa found out they were expecting a baby they decided to move the family to ‘Surf City’- Huntington Beach, California – to give their child the best shot at becoming a surfing superstar.

Despite the fact he lives in the USA, Igarashi is a household name in Japan having starred in a reality TV show about his life as a surfer since he was 11.

He won his first professional surf contest when he was just 15 and in 2019 won his first World Surf League Championship Tour event in 2019 in Bali.

He also has a secret weapon as his father Tsutomu grew up surfing at the Olympic venue Tsurigasaki Beach.

“He and his friends discovered that wave,” Igarashi says. “They climbed through fences and hiked through the grass to find this wave, and they called it the Dojo, and it was their little secret spot.

“And it’s definitely a very emotional, special connection for him – a wave that he discovered is where his son will compete at the Olympics for the first time. It’s such a crazy, full circle.”

Karate

Ryo Kiyuna
Ryo Kiyuna has won five gold medals at World Championships

Ryo Kiyuna, 31, is arguably at the top of Japan’s gold-medal contenders – in any sport.

He has won the past three men’s kata world titles and was undefeated during the last uninterrupted season in 2019 – a run which included five Premier League events, a third successive Asian title and an eighth national title.

He has had the same master – or coach – since junior high school and never takes days off from training.

Those days consist of five to six hours of technical practice followed by one or two hours of physical work. He also coaches four days a week.

Kiyuna comes from Okinawa – the home of karate – and he incorporates traditional Okinawan dance in his programme, and has also studied the eye movement of lions and tigers to help his routines.

Judo

Japan's mixed Judo team at the 2019 World Championships
The team event is scheduled for the last day of judo competition, and the Japanese squad will be hoping to end the Olympics on a high

Mixed team

“This is one we want to win – no matter what.” The message could not be clearer from Yasuhiro Yamashita, president of the Japanese Olympic Committee.

Their triumph at the 2019 World Championships in Tokyo was their third consecutive title. They made it four in a row in June in Hungary.

Despite their team containing none of their Tokyo-selected athletes (they sent a B-team to Budapest) they won all eight of their bouts in Hungary, including beating arch rivals France in the final.

They ended those World Championships with six golds, four silvers and two bronzes. No other nation won more than a single gold, while Japan’s overall tally of 12 medals was eight more than anyone else.

Tennis

Naomi Osaka training on Center Court at the Ariake Tennis Park
Naomi Osaka training on Center Court at the Ariake Tennis Park

Last but by no means least, four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka has been dubbed one of the faces of these Olympics.

But having not played since withdrawing from the French Open in June, will she be able to live up to the expectations of the host nation?

Before her withdrawal, Osaka had won the past two Grand Slams on hard courts, and she is the current world number two.

But with no crowds at these Games, will the ‘home advantage’ exist in Tokyo?

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