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[JAPAN SPORTS NOTEBOOK] Ryosuke Irie Extends Reign as 100-Meter Backstroke Champ

Four-time Olympian Ryosuke Irie continues to look ahead, aiming to qualify for the 2024 Paris Games. At age 33, he remains one of Japan’s top swimmers.

For Ryosuke Irie, consistency is a defining characteristic of his swimming career.

The proof is in the numbers: Irie has won 10 consecutive national titles in the men's 100-meter backstroke. In other words, sustained excellence at the national level.

Irie continued his decade of dominance in his best event on Wednesday, April 5 at Tokyo Aquatics Centre, extending his victory streak by clocking 53.46 seconds to win this year's final.

The Osaka native, a four-time Olympian, improved upon his time from his qualifying heat (53.99) earlier in the day at the 99th Japan Swimming Championships.

In the final, Riku Matsuyama claimed the silver (54.46) and Reo Miura hauled in the bronze (54.69).

With the win, Irie, 33, booked a spot in this July's World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka.

Ryosuke Irie (ⒸSANKEI)

Ryosuke Irie Focused on Swimming Faster

Irie has high standards for himself and declared after the race that he wasn't satisfied with his time.

"I feel like I'm not good at it now because my time is slow," Irie said in a post-race interview, according to NHK. "But now that I've been selected for the national team, I think it's time to start again for the summer world championships."

Although success in Japan is always a target, success overseas is another target for him.

Ryosuke Irie (KYODO)

"I decided to strongly aim for the Paris Olympics to be held in 2024," Irie was quoted as saying by He added, "I want to swim without regrets for the two years leading up to the Olympics."

Irie was the 100 backstroke bronze medalist at the 2012 London Olympics and nabbed the silver in the 200 backstroke in England. He also competed in the men's 4x100 medley relay in London, helping Japan earn the silver.

In his other three Olympic Games, starting with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Irie didn't finish with a medal. He has, however, bolstered his credentials with four medals in World Aquatics Championships competition: a pair of silvers in the 200 back (2009 in Rome, 2011 in Shanghai) and two bronze medals (100 back in Shanghai and 4x100 medley in 2013 in Barcelona).

Rikako Ikee pumps her fist after winning the women's 100-meter butterfly national title on April 4. (KYODO)

Ikee Qualifies for Worlds

Rikako Ikee won the women's 100-meter butterfly final on the opening day of the national championships on Tuesday, April 4, completing the race in 57.68 seconds.

Ikee, a two-time Olympian who battled leukemia in 2019 and 2020, finished strong, moving from fourth place to first after the turn. She met the qualifying standard set by the Japan Swimming Federation for the world championships.

Ai Soma took second in 57.85 and Hiroko Makino finished third (57.94).

After the race, Ikee spoke about how she psyched herself up for the race.

"You are Rikako Ikee," Ikee related to reporters, explaining what she told herself before the race. "If you do your best, there’s no reason for you to lose."

Ikee also put her performance in perspective.

"I thought that I was only 1 percent confident that I could really win," Ikee was quoted as saying by NHK before adding, "I was thinking about looking around and not rushing and focusing on my own race, so today's power is 120 percent."

Rikako Ikee in action in the women's 100-meter butterfly final at the Japan Swimming Championships on April 4. (ⒸSANKEI)

Did Ikee exceed her own expectations?

She continued, "I think I took a big step forward to be able to challenge [at the world level]. However, looking at the world, I'm not even at the level of [top] 16. It's still not a fast time, but I have a lot of room to improve."

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Japan Entrants Shine at World Junior Championships

The future looks bright for the Japan men's and women's senior national gymnastics teams.

That's the biggest takeaway from the 2023 Artistic Gymnastics Junior World Championships. The meet was held in Antalya, Turkey, from March 29 to April 2.

Japan captured team titles in the men's and women's competitions, giving the Japan Gymnastics Association, the sport's national governing body, plenty of hope that the current junior standouts will enjoy future success on the senior level.

Tomoharu Tsunogai, 16, won a pair of gold medals in the men's parallel bars and horizontal bars events.

Tsunogai was also fourth in the men's all-around, fifth on the still rings and helped Japan defend its team title along with Haruto Kamiyama and Masaharu Tanida. Japan's men amassed 164.831 points, while China took second with 161.229.

The Junior World Championships debuted in 2019.

Tanida enjoyed the opportunity to compete in Turkey despite some struggles with his pommel horse routine.

"I made errors on the first apparatus, and I am the team captain. But everyone said, ‘Don’t worry, we don’t care,' " Tanida, 18, commented later, according to this International Gymnastics Federation report. "It was very good teamwork. At this competition we discovered what teamwork is. It was a great experience, and we want to continue it in the future."

Also for Japan, Haruka Nakamura, 14, claimed the women's all-around title, finishing with 51.765 points to edge compatriot Sara Yamaguchi, who had 51.532.

Nakamura and Nakamura were joined by Mika Mizuno in the women's team event. They finished with 104.30 points to hold off the United States (102.198).

Koshigaya Alphas coach JR Sakuragi made his season debut as a player on April 1. (B.LEAGUE)


Alphas Coach Sakuragi Unretires as a Player

JR Sakuragi, in his second season as head coach of the Koshigaya Alphas, has a modified title this month after recently announcing he was unretiring at age 46. He's a player/coach now.

Sakuragi, the 56th overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, made his season debut on April 1. He's played sparingly since becoming an active player again, but he's eager to give his team a spark.

In an interview with basketball reporter Takeshi Ichiki on the YouTube channel BTALKS posted online in mid-March, Sakuragi discussed his thoughts on returning as an active player.

"What made you change your mind?" Ichiki asked Sakuragi during the interview.

"Time," he said, indicating that during his retirement ceremony in 2020 he felt it was the right time to hang up his shoes.

"I won championships, I won MVPs, I won everything, I did it. So there was nothing left for me in the game, so I was content, I was just happy to move to the next stage [as a coach]," added Sakuragi.

"But time passes, and I think it's because I continue to work out. I never stopped. After retirement, I still worked out every week. It was my hobby to work out, so I just maintained my condition. So when the topic came up [with team management] I just said, 'why not?' "

JR Sakuragi greets fans on April 1 at Ota City General Gymnasium, where the Alphas played the Earthfriends Tokyo Z. (B.LEAGUE)

Age is Just a Number, Sakuragi Insists

The question of age also came up in the interview, specifically if Sakuragi fears that he's too old to make a comeback.

He rejected that notion by saying, "No, no, because I don't feel my age. I'm 46, but I don't feel like it."

Sakuragi went on: "I always say the age is not the number, the age is the body. How your body feels is your true age."

Ichiki noted that Sakuragi's passing skills always impressed him.

"I always try to use my teammates and save my energy, so that was my style," Sakuragi said with a laugh. 

Koshigaya (43-13 through April 8) is one of the top teams in the B.League second division, aka B2, and has set a target of earning promotion to B1 for the 2023-24 campaign. The Alphas opened the 2022-23 season with 14 wins in their first 17 games.

"We're looking to win," Sakuragi said during the video interview before adding, "we're focused, we're determined, and that's our goal: to win the championship."

JR Sakuragi talks to reporters on April 7 after the Alphas' home game against the Fukushima Firebonds. (B.LEAGUE)

Koshigaya's Weekend Highlights

In a two-game home series on Friday and Saturday, April 7-8, the Alphas defeated the Fukushima Firebonds 89-75 and 76-72.

Sakuragi played just under 3 minutes in the series opener. He had one point, one rebound and one turnover.

Koshigaya overcame a 28-14 deficit after one quarter on Saturday to earn the win. Sakuragi didn't play in the series finale.

"It was a game that challenged our defense," Sakuragi told reporters in a postgame news conference, "especially [when] we gave up 47 points in the first half. I really challenged our guys to lock down on defense, get some stops and at least limit them to 15 (points) a quarter was the goal for the second half and we did that ― 25 points in the second half for Fukushima. So we were proud of that effort."

Sakuragi, a naturalized Japanese citizen, also known as JR Henderson, starred at UCLA (1994-98) before launching his pro basketball career with the NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies. He played in Venezuela and France before joining the JBL's Aisin SeaHorses in 2001, and was a franchise cornerstone until retiring in 2020, several years after the team was rebranded the SeaHorses Mikawa.


Takuma Sato (foreground) and Felix Rosenqvist drive side by side during practice for the PPG 375, an IndyCar race, at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas, on April 1. (Larry Papke/AP)

Auto Racing 

Sato Finishes Last in 2023 Debut

Two-time Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato placed 28th in the PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, April 2, finishing last in his debut for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Sato, who had qualified sixth for the race, was involved in a crash on lap 48, and his No 11 Niterra Honda needs major repairs now. Sato is scheduled to compete in the Indy 500 on May 28.

Will his car be ready? Or will he need another ride?

Those questions will be answered in the coming weeks.

"I really feel sorry for the boys," Sato said of his crew. "The team did fantastic in preparations. It's really a pity."


The World Baseball Classic championship trophy on display at Yokohama Stadium on April 7. The trophy and other memorabilia from the 2023 WBC will be displayed at all NPB teams' ballparks. (ⒸSANKEI)


WBC Championship Trophy Begins National Tour

Samurai Japan's World Baseball Classic championship trophy is making the rounds of NPB's 12 teams' home stadiums.

The glistening trophy, which stands about 60 centimeters tall, made its first stop at Yokohama Stadium, home of the Yokohama DeNA BayStars on Friday, April 7.

According to NHK, an elementary-school student who visited Yokohama Stadium on Friday for the BayStars-Chunichi Dragons game that was postponed due to rain said that the trophy is inspiring.

"The power of the trophy was amazing," the sixth-grade boy was quoted as saying. "I play baseball, so I want to do my best so that I can appear on that stage someday."

Los Angeles Angels batter Shohei Ohtani reacts after home plate umpire Pat Hoberg called a pitch clock violation against Ohtani, who was batting against Seattle Mariners reliever Matt Brash during the sixth inning on April 5 in Seattle. (Lindsey Wasson/AP)

Ohtani Receives Pair of Pitch Clock Violations in Same Game

There's a first time for everything.

In Major League Baseball, as league officials have pushed to speed up games, a pitch clock was implemented for the first time for the 2023 season. According to new rules, pitchers are allowed 20 seconds to begin their pitching motion when there are runners on bases. They are permitted only 15 seconds when there are no runners on bases.

Getting the ball in play and keeping the game moving along is the target, and failure to comply with the pitch clock results in an automatic ball. ( has posted a thorough explanation of the new rules.)

Batters are also a target of the pitch clock, too.

What's more, there's now a 30-second timer between batters.

Los Angeles Angels superstar Shohei Ohtani was penalized as both a pitcher and a hitter on Wednesday, April 5, becoming the first MLB player to be penalized for both pitch clock violations.

Pitching against Cal Raleigh of the Seattle Mariners in the first inning, Ohtani tossed a pitch before the batter indicated he was ready. Therefore, an automatic ball was called against Ohtani to start the at-bat.

Raleigh, Seattle's third batter of the inning, struck out looking.

In the sixth inning, Ohtani's at-bat began with an automatic strike as home plate umpire Pat Hoberg enforced the 30-second time span between batters.

Ohtani Not Stressed Out About Infractions

Ohtani said he'll learn from his mistakes and get acclimated to the new rules.

"I had a chance to talk to the umpires after the game, and it cleared things up," Ohtani was quoted as saying by The Associated Press. "So, I know what I need to do, and the adjustments I need to do. It should be fine."

Ohtani (1-0) earned the win, holding the M's to one run and three in six innings in LA's 4-3 triumph. He walked four and struck out eight in his second start of the 2023 season.

Batting third in the Angels lineup, the 2021 American League MVP was 1-for-2 with an RBI and two walks.

Quote of the Week

"I was very thankful for everyone who has supported me through this long journey. Just pitching on the mound, it’s been a while. So I really enjoyed the moment."

Kenta Maeda, Minnesota Twins starter, on making his first MLB regular-season appearance in 591 days on Wednesday, April 5 against the Miami Marlins. Maeda, who underwent Tommy John surgery in September 2021, struck out nine in five-plus innings.

Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.



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