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Top 5 Japanese female wrestlers at the Olympics

Some of the greatest names in amateur female wrestling hail from Japan. The country has created a niche for itself at the Olympics much like South Korean archery.

At the 2021 World Wrestling Championships in Oslo, Japanese wrestlers won 4 golds, 3 silvers and 2 bronzes from the 10 weight categories of the Women’s Freestyle competition. This was soon after the Tokyo Olympics where Japanese female wrestlers showcased their supremacy with 4 golds from 6 events. The same happened at Rio 2016.

Women’s wrestling has had World Championships since the 1980s and has been an Olympic sport since Athens 2004. Over the last three decades, Japanese female wrestlers have created a dynasty much like South Korean archers or the US basketball team. Japan has had a longstanding tradition in men’s wrestling but it’s in the women’s events where the nation has truly exerted it’s dominance in the amateur wrestling world.

Presenting the 5 greatest Japanese female wrestlers.

Saori Yoshida

Saori Yoshida

Saori Yoshida’s career summary is truly mind-boggling: 13-time World Champion, 3-time Olympic Champion, 1 Olympic silver medal, 4-time Asian Games Champion, 4-time Asian Champion.

Very rarely in the history of sport has one athlete so dominated their event as Yoshida has in Women’s 53/55 kg freestyle. She famously lost only 3 bouts in a senior international career spanning from 2001 to 2016. Her streak included an unbeaten run in 119 matches from 2001 to 2008.

Her final defeat was against USA’s Helen Maroulis in 55kg gold medal match at the 2016 Olympics. The impact of the result on the wrestling world can be seen by Maroulis and Yoshida’s emotion-charged reactions at the end of the bout. Yoshida announced her international retirement soon afterwards.

Yoshida’s father was her first wrestling coach, much like the case of the Phogat sisters of Dangal fame. Her two older brothers are also wrestlers. She is presently a coach in the Japanese women’s wrestling team. Judging by results in the recent World Championships, it seems her influence on Japan’s wrestling will continue for long.

Kaori Icho

Kaori Icho

At Rio 2016, Kaori Icho became the first female athlete from any sport and the first wrestler, male or female, to win 4 consecutive Olympic golds. Her fourth Olympic gold came months after facing her first competitive defeat in 13 years at the hands of the Mongolian Orkhon Purevdorj (who incidentally was beaten by Sakshi Malik in the 63 kg repechage at Rio).

Both Icho and Yoshida were under tremendous media pressure to achieve the historic ‘four-peat’ but the former succeeded where the latter failed.

Icho reigned over the 58/63 kg field from 2002 to 2016 barring a brief hiatus in 2008-2009 when she shifted to Canada in search of different training methods. Her career highlights read: 4 Olympic titles, 10 World titles, 5 Asian titles and an Asian Games gold and silver.

While she failed to make it to the Japanese team for Tokyo 2020, her status as a wrestling GOAT remains unblemished. Icho, like Yoshida also hails from a wrestling family. Her elder sister Chiharu Icho is a 3-time World Champion herself and won 48 kg silvers at Athens and Beijing.

Risako Kawai

Risako Kawai

The careers of Risako Kawai and Kaori Icho have uncanny similarities. Icho’s bid to compete in her fifth-straight Olympics was ended by Kawai, who is at present one of the reigning queens of Japanese female wrestling. Kawai first emerged as Icho’s potential successor by winning the 63 kg World silver as a 19-year old in 2015. She bettered it with a gold at the 2016 Olympics.

She won 3 successive World titles from 2017-2019, each in different weight categories. Just like the case of Icho, changing her weight from 63 to 57 kg made no difference to Kawai as she won her 2nd consecutive Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020 in the lower weight class. At Tokyo, she became the first Japanese female wrestler apart from Yoshida and Icho to win 2 Olympic golds.

The 62 kg gold at Tokyo meanwhile was won by Kawai’s younger sister Yukako. Both sisters will be looking to dominate their respective divisions for years to come.

Hitomi Obara

Hitomi Obara

Hitomi Obara‘s story is inspirational. She was the first Japanese female Olympic champion outside the Yoshida-Icho duopoly. Her London 2012 gold in the 48 kg category came after 8 World titles in 48/51 kg from 2000 to 2011.

Despite having a stellar run in the World Championships, Obara could not even qualify for the Japanese Olympic wrestling team for 2004 and 2008. Her main category of 51 kg was not part of the Olympics while 48 kg was dominated by Chiharu Icho and her own sister Makiko and 55 kg meant going up against Yoshida. She suffered from depression as a result and contemplated retirement at one stage.

Nevertheless her husband and family encouraged her Olympic dream. She switched to 48 kg following her sister’s retirement and made her Olympic debut in 2012 at the age of 31. The rest is history.

Kyoko Hamaguchi

Kyoko Hamaguchi

Despite numerous World Champions and an excellent coaching structure, Japanese wrestlers have traditionally enjoyed lesser success in the highest weight classes.

Kyoko Hamaguchi is a notable exception. Though she has never won an Olympic gold, her name appears on this list as she has won 2 Olympic bronzes (2004, 2008) and 5 World titles, 2 silvers and 3 bronzes from the heavyweight 72/75 kg class. Hamaguchi is the most successful Japanese wrestler, male or female, from the higher weight categories in the modern era.

Her father and coach Heigo ‘Animal’ Hamaguchi is a professional wrestler. Hamaguchi herself has been involved in the pro-wrestling scene including training the WWE star Sarray.