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Year in Review: Japan's Top Sports Highlights in 2023

Baseball held our attention with Shohei Ohtani's achievements and the WBC, but there were top sports highlights in many fields up to the last days of the year.

A steady flow of banner achievements produced Japan's top sports highlights in 2023.

From Samurai Japan's title-winning performance at the World Baseball Classic in Miami on March 21 and notable accomplishments in basketball, figure skating, track and field, golf and boxing, among other sports, fans had plenty of exciting highlights throughout the past 12 months.

Baseball provided a continuous pulse to the year's overall sports narrative ― with the WBC plus the NPB and MLB seasons and Shohei Ohtani becoming the unanimous American League MVP for the second time. Offseason contract news kept the sport in the spotlight.

top sports highlights
Takakeisho is surrounded by supporters after winning the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament on January 22. (ⒸSANKEI)

January

Running: In a non-Olympic year, from the get-go, there was no shortage of other sporting events to grab people's attention, including the Hakone Ekiden, officially known as the Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race. It is held annually on January 2 and 3 and was first staged in 1920. The televised spectacle covers 107.5 kilometers on the first day and 109.6 km on the second.

Sumo: In sumo, Takakeisho triumphed in the New York Basho,  posting a 12-3 record to claim his third Emperor's Cup.

Basketball: Also in January, Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. It marked the first time in his NBA career that the Toyama native, a first-round draft pick in 2019, switched teams. 

February

Fencing: Women's sabre fencer Misaki Emura reached No 1 in the world rankings, it was announced on February 13. She became the first Japanese female to be a top-ranked fencer in an individual discipline.

Take a Food Journey Around the World!

March

Figure skating: Competition at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships began in late February in Calgary, Canada. Japan's junior stars shined throughout, led by men's and women's gold medalists Kao Miura and Mao Shimada, with Nozomu Yoshioka and Ami Nakai earning bronze medals in their respective events. 

Later in the month, Saitama Super Arena hosted the World Figure Skating Championships (March 22-26). Shoma Uno and Kaori Sakamoto defended their men's and women's world titles, respectively. Adding to Japan's medal haul, Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara triumphed in pairs.

Grand Prix Series
Two-time world champions Shoma Uno and Kaori Sakamoto. (ⒸSANKEI, KYODO)

Sumo: In the Spring Basho, aka the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka, then-sekiwake Kiribayama was the winner in a playoff to earn his first makuuchi division title. The Mongolian-born wrestler was promoted to ozeki, and with it came a name change (Kirishima) on May 31.

Baseball Fever Thrills the Nation

Baseball: For two full weeks, the World Baseball Classic, which started on March 8, was the biggest sports story in Japan. Even exhibition games in the run-up to the tournament received major news coverage on TV networks and in the Japanese-language sports newspapers. 

And then Japan rattled off wins against China (8-1), South Korea (13-4), the Czech Republic (10-2) and Australia (7-1) at Tokyo Dome to advance to the quarterfinals.

In the quarterfinals, a 9-3 win over Italy manager Mike Piazza's squad booked a spot for Japan in the semifinals in Miami. A 6-5 win over Mexico followed, pitting Japan against the United States in the final. Japan's Munetaka Murakami and Kazuma Okamoto homered in the final but Team USA then pulled within 3-2 in the eighth inning. 

Samurai Japan's Shohei Ohtani fires a pitch to United States superstar Mike Trout in the WBC final in the ninth inning on March 21 in Miami. (KYODO)

Then Samurai Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama called on Ohtani to pitch the ninth. The move seemed to come straight from the pages of a Hollywood script.

Ohtani walked the first batter he faced, then got Mookie Betts to hit into a double play. Up next: Mike Trout, Ohtani's Los Angeles Angels teammate. And Trout struck out swinging, giving Japan its third WBC title (after championships in 2006 and '09).

"I've seen Japan winning, and I just wanted to be part of it," Ohtani told MLB.com.

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April

Figure skating: In the World Team Trophy figure skating competition, Japan placed third behind the United States and runner-up South Korea in the final standings on April 15 at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.

May

Baseball (MLB): WBC hero and Boston Red Sox rookie outfielder Masataka Yoshida was named the AL Player of the Week (May 1-7). He batted 480 (12-for-25) in six games that week and had a 16-game hitting streak end two days later.

Terunofuji
Yokozuna Terunofuji shoves Kiribayama out of the raised ring in a Summer Basho bout on May 27 at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan (KYODO)

Sumo: Yokozuna Terunofuji secured his eighth Emperor's Cup with a 14-1 record in the Summer Basho, his one highlight in a disappointment-filled year. Terunofuji coped with numerous injuries and missed four full tournaments and a large chunk of another one.

Basketball: In the B.League Finals, the Ryukyu Golden Kings captured their first title since the 2015-16 season, when it reigned supreme in the now-disbanded bj-league. Ryukyu defeated the Chiba Jets in the best-of-three title series, completing its title quest with a two-game sweep capped by an 88-73 triumph in Game 2 on May 28 in Yokohama.

The Jets won a league-record 24 straight games during the regular season and finished with the circuit's best-ever record (53-7).

top sports highlights
Judoka Natsumi Tsunoda (left) in action with France's Shirine Boukli in the women's 48-kg final at the World Judo Championships on May 7 in Doha. (KYODO)

Judo: Also in this busy sports month, Japan dominated at the World Judo Championships (May 7-14) in Doha, hauling in six gold medals: Hifumi Abe and Uta Abe, Natsumi Tsunoda, Saki Niizoe and Akira Sone. No other nation won more than two. The nation's top judoka added the mixed team title after this report was published.

top sports highlights
Shohei Ohtani hits a three-run home run in the sixth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Angel Stadium on June 21. (KYODO)

June

Baseball (MLB): Ohtani smashed 15 home runs in the month, a franchise record for the Angels. He led the American League with 44 homers in 2023, becoming the first Japanese player to lead the AL or National League in homers in a season.

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July

Sumo: Mongolian sekiwake Hoshoryu, nephew of former yokozuna Asashoryu, captured his first grand sumo tourney title with a 12-3 record in the Nagoya Basho. It included a triumph over Hokutofuji in a playoff. 

The drama of the final day was underscored in Hoshoryu's post-victory remarks.

"I'm thrilled," Hoshoryu said. "I had to win in regulation because that was my ticket to the playoff. In the playoff, I just tried to do everything I could to win because I came this far."

top sports highlights
Japan setter Masahiro Sekita in action against Italy in an FIVB Volleyball Nations League match on July 23 in Gdansk, Poland. (VOLLEYBALL WORLD)

Volleyball: In the FIVB Volleyball Nations League, which concluded on July 23, the Japan men collected a bronze medal, beating reigning world champion Italy in the third-place match in Gdansk, Poland.

Japan grabbed its first medal at a major men's volleyball global competition since claiming the bronze at the 2009 FIVB World Grand Champions Cup.

Boxing: Naoya "Monster" Inoue, who vacated the bantamweight division in January as the undisputed champion, won the WBC and WBO super bantamweight title belts on July 25 at Ariake Arena. Inoue's eighth-round technical knockout of Stephen Fulton proved that he was a force to be reckoned with at the heavier weight class (see below).

Fencing: At the World Fencing Championships in Milan, Emura won her second consecutive women's sabre world title on July 27.

Haruka Kitaguchi
Haruka Kitaguchi makes her victory-clinching throw in the women's javelin final on August 25, at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest. (©SANKEI)

August

Javelin: Effervescent javelin thrower Haruka Kitaguchi won the gold medal with a top throw of 66.73 meters at the World Athletics Championships on August 25 in Budapest. A year earlier, Kitaguchi was the runner-up in Eugene, Oregon, tossing her javelin 63.24 in the American city.

"Javelin is not a very popular event in Japan but I think it's becoming more and more popular," the 25-year-old told a news conference. "Before, nobody knew about this event but now when I got gold, I think it will be more popular."

FIFA Women's World Cup
Japan's Hinata Miyazawa scores the opening goal in the first half against Spain in a FIFA Women's World Cup Group C match on July 31 in Wellington. (KYODO)

Soccer: Nadeshiko Japan reached the quarterfinals of the FIFA Women's World Cup. A 2-1 defeat to Sweden on September 11 in Auckland ended Japan's title hopes.

Hinata Miyazawa won the Golden Boot as the top scorer (five goals) in the World Cup.

Basketball World Cup
The thrill of victory: Yuta Watanabe celebrates Japan's triumph over Cape Verde on September 2 at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Okinawa City. (KYODO)

September

Basketball: With victories over Finland (August 27), Venezuela (August 31) and Cape Verde (September 2), the Japan men's national team finished with a 3-2 record at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Okinawa City. Akatsuki Japan, competing with only one NBA player (Yuta Watanabe), booked a spot in the Olympic tournament in 2024 in Paris. 

"We're going to Paris," Japan coach Tom Hovasse declared after the Cape Verde game. "These are the moments where you really get a chance to prove yourself, but also improve yourself. That's the mindset all of our guys have. We've got some young guys that really stepped up."

Sumo: In the Autumn Basho, Takakeisho grabbed his second title of 2023 by beating Atamifuji in a playoff at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan. He posted an 11–4 record in the 15-day event.

World Wrestling Championships
Japan's Yui Susaki (right) competes against Mongolia's Otgonjargal Dolgorjav in the women's 50-kg final on September 20 at the World Wrestling Championships in Belgrade. (KYODO)

Wrestling: Japan excelled at the 2023 World Wrestling Championships in Belgrade (September 16-24), winning six gold medals, more than any other nation. Yui Susaki, Akari Fujinami, Haruna Okuno, Tsugumi Sakurai, Nonoka Ozaki and Yuka Kagami brought home gold medals from the Serbian capital.

Swimming: Four-time Olympic gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on September 30.

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October

Baseball (MLB): New York Mets pitcher Kodai Senga completed his first MLB season with impressive statistics. He was 12-7 with a 2.98 ERA and struck out 202 batters in 166⅓ innings. The Mets, on the other hand, posted a dreadful 75-87 record, which resulted in manager Buck Showalter getting fired. (New York won 101 games in 2022.)

Rugby: The Brave Blossoms, aka Japan's national rugby squad, were eliminated from the Rugby World Cup in France after a 39-27 defeat to Argentina in Pool D. Japan went 2-2, beating Chile and Samoa, while also suffering a 34-12 defeat to England. After the tournament, Jamie Joseph departed as Japan's head coach, and his predecessor, Eddie Jones, returned for a second stint in charge.

Japan Series
Hanshin Tigers manager Akinobu Okada receives the traditional victory toss (doage) after the team's Japan Series Game 7 win over the Orix Buffaloes on November 5 at Osaka's Kyocera Dome. (KYODO)

November

Baseball (NPB): The Hanshin Tigers stormed past the Orix Buffaloes in a dramatic, all-Kansai Japan Series, collecting their first NPB championship since 1985 with a 7-1 victory in Game 7 on November 5.

Tigers manager Akinobu Okada returned to lead the Central League club in 2023 for the second time. He managed the team from 2004-08, and maximized his players' talents throughout this past season.

Japan Series MVP Koji Chikamoto, the team's leadoff hitter, summed up the Tigers' approach after the title-clinching game.

"We came out to play hard each and every game, and the result was that we played good games," Chikamoto was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.

Figure skating: On the ice, Beijing Olympic silver medalist Yuma Kagiyama emerged victorious in the men's singles figure skating event at the NHK Trophy on November 25 in Kadoma, Osaka Prefecture.

Sumo: In the final grand sumo tourney of the year, Kirishima proved worthy of his new ozeki status, finishing with a 13-2 record in Fukuoka to snatch his second Emperor's Cup of the year.

top sports highlights
Equinox, guided by Christophe Lemaire, pulls away for a four-length victory in the Japan Cup on November 26 at Tokyo Racecourse. (ⒸSANKEI)

Equinox Rides Off into the Sunset with a Victory in Final Race

Horse racing: Equinox, the world's top-rated horse, completed his career with a riveting victory in the Japan Cup on November 26. 

It was Equinox's sixth consecutive win in a G1 race, including three in 2023 in JRA events, with the Tenno Sho (Autumn) preceding his come-from-behind triumph in the Japan Cup with winning jockey Christophe Lemaire

A few days later, it became official: Equinox had been retired to stud at Shadai Stallion Station in Hokkaido. He had eight wins and two runner-up finishes in 10 career starts.

top sports highlights
Miyuu Yamashita plays in the final round of the Bridgestone Ladies Open on May 21 at Chukyo Golf Club in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture. (ⒸSANKEI)

Banner Achievements for Japanese Golfers Yamashita, Hisatsune

Golf: November was also a notable month for Japanese golfers, with Ryo Hisatsune winning the PGA European Tour's Rookie of the Year accolade and Miyuu Yamashita claiming her second straight JLPGA Tour season title.

Soccer: After placing 13th in the J.League in 2022, Vissel Kobe vaulted to the top and won the franchise's first-ever league crown on November 25.

Shohei Ohtani
Los Angeles Dodgers newcomer Shohei Ohtani is introduced at a news conference at Dodger Stadium on December 14 in Los Angeles. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SPORTS)

December

Baseball (MLB): On December 9, Ohtani sent shockwaves around the world, announcing on Instagram that he had agreed to a record $700 million (about ¥100 billion JPY), 10-year deal to join the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Days later, it was revealed that the Dodgers had also hammered out the details of a blockbuster contract for Yamamoto. The 25-year-old pitcher, who tossed his second career no-hitter on September 9, is set to earn $325 million USD (about ¥46 billion JPY) over 12 years with LA. Yamamoto, who was considered NPB's top pitcher, went 16-6 with a 1.21 ERA in his final season with the Buffaloes.

Speaking at his introductory news conference two days after Christmas, Yamamoto spoke about the overwhelming excitement he feels about this next chapter of his career.

"I am beyond ecstatic to become a member of this historic franchise," Yamamoto said, according to MLB.com. 

He added, "I cannot express how much it means to me to be able to call Los Angeles my new home."

Big Success for Skateboarders, World Champion Skaters and Star Jockeys

Skateboarding: At the World Skateboarding Tour Tokyo Street 2023 World Championship, held December 10-17, Japanese athletes collected five of the medals. Sora Shirai nabbed the men’s title, with Kairi Netsuke and Yuto Horigome placing second and third. In the women's event, Yumeko Oda grabbed the gold and Tokyo Olympic champion Momiji Nishiya finished third.

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Figure skating: Elsewhere, a pair of national title reigns continued in Japanese figure skating. At Nagano's Big Hat Ice Arena, Uno won his second straight and sixth overall men's title, equaling legend Yuzuru Hanyu's all-time mark at the Japan Championships on December 23. 

A day later, Sakamoto triumphed for the third consecutive year at nationals on December 24.

Horse racing: Yutaka Take and Lemaire piloted Do Deuce and Regaleira to wins in the last two JRA G1 races of the year, on December 24 and 28, respectively. Take collected his record-tying fourth Arima Kinen title on Christmas Eve, his 81st G1 win, while Lemaire earned his 50th four days later.



Naoya Inoue
Naoya Inoue punches Marlon Tapales in the 10th round of their undisputed super bantamweight title fight on December 26 at Tokyo's Ariake Arena. (ⒸSANKEI)

Inoue Unifies Super Bantamweight Division

Boxing: And finally, boxing delivered one of Japan's top sports highlights of the year on December 26. 

Unbeaten Inoue (26-0, 23 knockouts) became the second man to claim four title belts in two weight divisions with his 10th-round knockout of Marlon Tapales in their super bantamweight bout at Ariake Arena. 

It was only Inoue's second bout as a super bantamweight, a fight that showcased his superior all-around skills, speed and punching power.


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 X (formerly Twitter) @ed_odeven.

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