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Figure Skating

Predictions 2024: Japan's Figure Skaters Set to Continue Run of Success

After a banner year in 2023 for Japanese figure skaters, there are realistic expectations for a plethora of notable accomplishments once again in 2024.

Happy New Year to JAPAN Forward and SportsLook readers. We are pleased to bring you "Predictions 2024," a special New Year's series sharing the foresight and expectations of selected contributors for the coming year in their fields of specialty, continuing with Ice Time columnist Jack Gallagher's forecast for Japanese figure skaters.

Next in the Series

Coming off another fantastic year on the ice, Japan's figure skaters will look to carry the momentum they have built up into 2024. The outlook for the next 12 months is very bright.

Skaters for the Hinomaru won both golds in singles as well as the pairs gold at the 2023 World Figure Skating Championships in March in Saitama. Moreover, they claimed four of the six senior singles medals at the Grand Prix Final in Beijing in December. The cumulative total of seven medals at the combined Junior and Senior GP Final was also a record for Japan.

Two-time world champions Shoma Uno and Kaori Sakamoto retained their titles at the recent Japan Championships in Nagano. They will be going for three-peats at this year's worlds in Montreal in March. Sakamoto will be favored to become the first woman in 56 years to win three consecutive world crowns. Peggy Fleming of the United States was the last to accomplish the feat in 1966-68.

Uno will be facing a major challenge in his bid after being soundly beaten by American Ilia Malinin at the GP Final. It is clear Uno is going to have to up his game to top the worlds podium for a third time and he recognizes that.

"I know I have to deliver the best performance of my career, otherwise I can't win," Uno stated at a press conference in Nagano the day after winning his sixth national title on December 24.

The 26-year-old Uno, a three-time Olympic medalist, intimated that he would likely increase the number of quadruple jumps in his free skate from four to five and use four different types of quads in a bid to challenge the 18-year-old Malinin, who has a quad axel in his arsenal.

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Shoma Uno competes in the men's short program at the Japan Championships in Nagano on December 21, 2023. (KYODO)

Predictions: Uno, Kagiyama, Miura and Sato a Powerful Quartet

Though Uno is no longer a clear favorite to win worlds, he remains one of the two best skaters in the world and on a given day could take home the gold once more. With the Milan/Cortina Olympics just over two years away now, Uno's results in Montreal could determine his thoughts about the future. He will be 28 at the 2026 Games if he decides to compete. That is the same age Yuzuru Hanyu was when he retired.

A healthy again Yuma Kagiyama, who was runner-up to Uno at the Japan Championships, and world junior champion Kao Miura, who was fourth, will be in the medal picture at the worlds after strong seasons on the Grand Prix circuit.

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Yuma Kagiyama (ⒸSANKEI)

Shun Sato, who finished fifth in Nagano, continues to improve and will be looking to make a bigger jump in the coming year. He medaled at both of his GP events in 2023 and took the bronze at the Four Continents Championships earlier in 2023.

If Uno does decide to retire, the young guns of Kagiyama (20), Sato (19) and Miura (18) would very likely comprise Japan's men's Olympic team for 2026.

Sota Yamamoto, who took third at the nationals, Kazuki Tomono, who placed sixth, and Nozomu Yoshioka, who has improved significantly in the past year, reflect the depth of the Japanese men's roster.

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Kaori Sakamoto competes at the Japan Open on October 7, 2023, at Saitama Super Arena. (KYODO)

Predictions: Sakamoto Still the Queen, but Youngsters on the Rise

Sakamoto is without a peer on the women's circuit at this time and barring injury should continue to dominate. There are those who attribute her success in part to the absence of Russian skaters. However, a couple of points should be noted.

First, if the Russian skaters are allowed to compete in the next GP campaign, the new rules about age will have taken effect, meaning that a skater would have to be at least 17 to compete in seniors. No more 15- or 16-year-olds jumping their way to senior glory.

Second, by the time the pre-Olympic season starts in the fall of 2024, Russian skaters will have missed three world championships in a row. This means that under the current rules, they would only be able to have a maximum of one singles skater entered in each discipline at the 2025 worlds.

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Mone Chiba in an October 2023 file photo. (Chris Jones/USA TODAY SPORTS)

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Predictions: Chiba and Yoshida Poised for More Success

Backing up Sakamoto in the women's ranks is Mone Chiba, the 18-year-old from Sendai who came in second at the Japan Championships, and Hana Yoshida, also 18, who collected two GP medals this season. Both of these skaters have the tools to be successful in the coming years.

Veterans Mai Mihara, last season's GP Final titlist who has been dealing with an ankle injury in the 2023-24 season, Rinka Watanabe, who was sixth in Nagano, and Rion Sumiyoshi, who collected two GP medals in 2023, combine to give Japan a deep bench in the women's ranks.

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Rika Kihira in a September 2022 file photo.

Can Kihira Make a Successful Comeback?

A real question mark for 2024 will be the status of two-time Japan champion Rika Kihira, who chose to sit out this season while continuing to recover from a foot injury she suffered in July 2021. The 21-year-old will have missed two of the past three seasons by the time the next GP series comes around and one has to wonder what her level will be if and when she can return to full health.

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Mao Shimada performs her free skate at the Junior Grand Prix Final on December 8, 2023. (KYODO)

Predictions: Shimada Will Lead Strong Women's Junior Ranks in 2024

World junior champion Mao Shimada is expected to continue her winning ways this year. The 15-year-old won her second straight Junior Grand Prix Final title on December 8 and has been victorious at an amazing 10 straight junior competitions without a loss over the past two seasons.

Shimada will put that streak on the line at the Winter Youth Olympics in South Korea in late January. She will be favored to take the gold again there and at the World Junior Championships in Taipei in February. With a triple axel and quad toe loop, Shimada will be difficult to beat.

One of the revelations of the JGP season was the emergence of 13-year-old Rena Uezono, who captured two medals during the campaign, before getting the bronze at the JGP Final. To top that off, she came in fourth behind Sakamoto, Chiba and Shimada at the Japan Championships.

The teen, who hails from Nagoya, seems on her way to becoming a bona fide star judging by what she has shown the skating world so far. She is a solid bet to join Shimada on the podium in Taiwan and give Japan two medals like it got from Shimada and Ami Nakai at the 2023 world juniors in Calgary.

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Rio Nakata (©ISU)

Predictions: High Hopes for Nakata

The outlook on the junior men's side is excellent as well, based on the results of JGP Final winner Rio Nakata this season. He showed off his dynamic skating by coming from fourth place to top the podium in Beijing. And the 15-year-old has to be considered the favorite for gold at both the Winter Youth Olympics and world juniors.

Shunsuke Nakamura, this season's Japan junior champion, and Haru Kakiuchi will aim to bring Japan multiple medals at the world juniors as Miura and Yoshioka did in 2023.

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Pairs partners Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara are seen training at Saitama Super Arena in March 2023. (KYODO)

Predictions: Pairs Miura and Kihara Must Overcome Late Start to Season

Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, the 2023 pairs world champions, will be a question mark if they compete at the worlds after missing the entire GP season due to a back injury Kihara suffered in training.

If Kihara can return to fitness in time, Miura and Kihara could have a shot at the podium in Montreal. However, their lack of competition this season will be difficult to overcome.

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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, and find him on X (formerly Twitter) @sportsjapan.

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