Predictions 2023: Japan's Figure Skaters Poised for Another Banner Year
Ice Time's Jack Gallagher predicts stellar performances from Japan's skaters over the next 12 months after collecting a slew of medals at major events in 2022.
Coming off their best year ever, Japan's figure skaters head into the 2023 New Year on a roll. Predictions are that they will continue their success.
In the past 12 months, the Hinomaru won half of the singles medals at the Beijing Olympics and world championships, while also earning a team medal at the Winter Games and a pairs runner-up spot at the worlds.
World champions Shoma Uno and Kaori Sakamoto, who took home individual medals in China, are both in top form after winning national titles in December 2022 at the Japan Championships in Osaka.
Uno and Sakamoto will be favored to repeat as world titlists when Japan hosts the world championships in Saitama in March. Sota Yamamoto and Mai Mihara will both be in medal contention at the worlds after successful Grand Prix campaigns.
The pairs team of Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara will be favored to win their first world title after collecting the silver medal in 2022. They took home the gold medal at the Grand Prix Final in Italy in December.
Predictions: Uno Leads Strong Men's Field
The 25-year-old Uno is at the top of his game now without a true peer. He has given no indication of thinking about retiring from competition, so as long as he remains healthy, he will be adding more medals to his trophy case. With the next Olympics three years away, Uno is enjoying the here and now. He is uncertain if he will try to compete at Milan/Cortina 2026.
Yamamoto, who has been enjoying a renaissance this season, will aim to join his friend Uno on the podium at the worlds. The Osaka Prefecture native, who will turn 23 on January 10, claimed the silver medal at the GP Final this campaign in his first trip to the event.
In addition, the talent for the Japan men is deep with a trio of young stars on the rise. Yuma Kagiyama, Shun Sato and Kao Miura all head into their primes.
The 18-year-old Sato, who enjoyed a fine GP season that saw him earn two medals, came in fourth at the GP Final. He was passed over for the team for the worlds after narrowly missing the podium, finishing fourth just one point behind Kazuki Tomono, at the Japan Championships.
Predictions: Women's Roster Bolstered by Veterans
Sakamoto is a force on the women's side, where there are more challengers than Uno has. Her training partner Mihara will attempt to win her first medal at the worlds in 2023.
Before the worlds, Sakamoto and Mihara will participate in January's Winter World University Games in Lake Placid, New York.
Mihara is enjoying the best season of her career, having won the GP Final and both of her GP assignments.
Rinka Watanabe, who won Skate Canada and made the GP Final, has raised her game this season and shown she has potential for the future. She will be the third member of the Japan team at the worlds and will also compete at the Four Continents in February.
Futures of Kagiyama, Kihira Depend on Health
With the Russian skaters still ineligible for international competitions, the overall outlook for Japan is bright. However, a couple of big questions remain ― the outlook for Kagiyama and Rika Kihira ― which we should have answers to as 2023 progresses.
Kagiyama, the silver medalist at the Olympics last year, missed the GP season while recovering from an injury to his left ankle. The 19-year-old made his return at the Japan Championships, where he finished eighth and was clearly not at full fitness.
Kagiyama was scheduled to compete at the World University Games, but withdrew to give his ankle more time to heal. His recovery in the coming months will be closely watched, as he still has many years ahead of him as a competitor.
Kihira, who missed all of last season with an injury to her right ankle, returned in the fall of 2022 for the GP campaign. But like Kagiyama, she had not completely recovered. She began the GP season with her jumps limited due to the injury, but was hoping to get them back in time for the Japan Championships and have a chance at making the team for the worlds.
But that didn't happen as she finished in 11th place.
The 20-year-old Kihira appeared to be Japan's brightest star on the women's side before her injury. A two-time Japan champion, Kihira was expected to be in the chase for a medal in Beijing, but never had a chance to get there. She is still young enough to have a good shot at making the next Olympics ー providing she can regain her health.
Predictions: Outlook Promising for Juniors in 2023
Mao Shimada, the Junior Grand Prix Final and Japan junior champion this season, made the podium in third place in her first competition against seniors at the Japan Championships in December 2022. The 14-year-old Shimada is already a star and will have extended time in the juniors due to changes to the ISU rules in the summer of 2022.
Shimada will be the favorite when the World Junior Figure Skating Championships are held in Calgary, Canada, in late February. Japan's women could add a second medal in Alberta with Ami Nakai, who was third at the Japan Junior Championships, joining Shimada on the team.
The Japan men will also have a good chance at the gold in Calgary. Miura will lead a two-man team with junior champion Nozomu Yoshioka. Now 17, Miura came in a disappointing sixth at the Japan Championships. But he possesses a great amount of raw talent that is still being refined. And on a given day he is capable of winning many competitions.
Both the junior women and men will be looking to regain a third spot for the Hinomaru at the 2024 world junior championships. They can do this with a combined placement of 13 or less in both disciplines.
Predictions: Pairs Miura, Kihara on Top and Likely to Maintain Success
Miura and Kihara, who made history for Japan with their gold at the GP Final, continue to improve. They missed the Japan Championships due to travel issues on their way from their training base in Toronto. However, they will look to regain their form at the Four Continents Championships in Colorado Springs in February.
Kana Muramoto and Daisuke Takahashi will represent Japan at both the Four Continents and worlds after winning their first national title together in December. Muramoto and Takahashi are making incremental progress in their partnership ー with results. But they are not likely to challenge for a medal at the worlds due to the strength of teams from Canada, the United States and Italy.
Author: Jack Gallagher
The author is a veteran sports journalist and one of the world's foremost figure skating experts. Find articles and podcasts by Jack on his author page, here, and find him on Twitter @sportsjapan.