Former Japan high school star aims to put Samoa on wrestling map

By Ikuo Higuchi

(Editor's Note: The following appeared on the Japan Wrestling Federation website on Nov. 2. It has been translated and published by permission.)

TOKYO -- On the Japan wrestling schedule, the National Non-Student Open falls far below the level of major tournaments like the Emperor's Cup and Meiji Cup, which serve as the qualifiers for the world and Olympic teams.

As such, it is rare to see a prospective Olympic team member entering the tournament. Yet at this year's event, which was held for the first time in three years due to the pandemic, there was one, although it is not Japan's team that Gaku AKAZAWA is hoping to make for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

A former high school star, Akazawa won the freestyle 70kg title as a member of a team from the Pacific Island nation of Samoa, which he hopes to represent in Paris. 

The 32-year-old Akazawa, whose quest for Olympic glory included a four-year sabbatical in Russia, was wrestling in his native country for the first time in three years at the Non-Student Open, which was held Oct. 29-30 in Fujimi, Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo.

Akazawa, who was unable to obtain Samoan citizenship in time for the Tokyo Olympics, is hoping the paperwork comes through in time for Paris. "I have never stopped dreaming of appearing in the Olympics," he said. "I will make every effort as I try to become an Olympian from Samoa."

JPNGaku Akazawa celebrates his victory at freestyle 70kg for Team Samoa. (Photo by Japan Wrestling Federation)

Akazawa last competed in Japan at the 2016 Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships. The victory in Fujimi was his first anywhere since winning the National Inter-High School title at 66kg in 2008, which made him the first-ever national champion from Hanasaki Tokuharu High School in Saitama Prefecture.

His coach at Hanasaki Tokuharu, Takuya TAKASAKA, was on hand to watch the former prodigy show his fighting spirit with tough wins over several opponents with pedigrees. In the semifinals, Akazawa defeated 2018 national collegiate champion Hayato OGATA 8-2, then took the title with a 6-2 win over Kantaro YAMAZAKI, who won both the spring and fall titles of the East Japan collegiate league in 2018.

"It was a long time since I've wrestled in Japan, so I had no idea what level I am presently at," Akazawa said. "I was nervous. By winning the title, it gave me some idea of where I stand, and I'm honestly really happy."

Asked what was the source of his tenacity and stamina that allowed him to rally to victories, he replied, "Every morning and night, and sometimes three times a day, I train intensely. I think that came out today."

In Samoa, wrestling is still far from popular, and with the pandemic limiting activities, there are only about 10 wrestlers over the age of 14 in the entire country. The majority of competitors are still beginners, and he cannot train in a way that sharpens his skills. "Instead, I think I was able to win on physical strength," he said.

JPN1Akazawa, right, poses with competitors at the Samoan national championships in the capital Apia in August 2021, where he served as a referee. (Photo courtesy of Gaku Akazawa)

From Russia, with determination

The Non-Student Open, as the name implies, is for anyone out of school, and draws a wide mix of wrestlers with various backgrounds, from former high school champions to more than a few who started the sport after leaving college to keep in shape and maybe practice on weekends at a local club.

But for Akazawa, it presented a challenge directly related to getting to Paris. "I hadn't wrestled in Japan for a long time, so I think there were people who thought I had retired," he said with a smile.

Akazawa, who had won national junior high school and JOC Junior Olympic titles, went to Nihon University following his Inter-High School success, but was unable to repeat it on the collegiate level. Plagued by injuries, Akazawa's file in the database of the Japan Wrestling Federation website, which lists all results, has no entries for his years at Nihon.

He would not make his first appearance at the Emperor's Cup (held in December) until 2013, the year he graduated from Nihon. He placed fifth at 60kg.

Never abandoning his Olympic dream, he chose a path that took him to one of the premier powerhouses in the sport, Russia. He headed to Krasnoyarsk, the Siberian city well known in Japan as the host of the prestigious Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix, to continue his career.

He had no sponsor. When his visa expired, he would return to Japan, work some odd jobs to save up money, then return to Krasnoyarsk. He endured this unstable life for four years from 2013 to 2017, all because of his love for the sport and his desire to become an Olympic champion.

But no matter how much he trained in a top wrestling country, such instability in his daily life certainly made it difficult to focus on the sport. He would return to Japan to compete in the Emperor's Cup and Meiji Cup (the All-Japan Invitational Championships, held in the spring), but was unable to finish on the podium.

The Olympics seemed farther away than ever. But his dream never faded. What caught his attention was that one of his Russian wrestling buddies, instead of competing for the stacked Russian team, had changed nationalities and made it to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

While such a move is exceedingly rare in Japan, it is not without precedent. A minor comedian named Neko HIROSHI (neko means cat; his real name is Kuniaki TAKIZAKI) became a Cambodian citizen so he could run the men's marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

While his move gained attention as a celebrity, he also faced criticism as his best time would not have even made the Japanese women's team. He finished 138th in Rio, 37 minutes behind the winner with a time that would have placed 85th in the women's race.

Akazawa, whose case is different in that he is already on a global level, began to think about how he could go about changing nationality. Thinking of countries with the easiest route for qualifying he was attracted to Oceania. An English teacher from his junior high school days just happened to be dispatched to Samoa under a Japan International Cooperation Agency program as a judo instructor, and Akazawa got the wheels in motion by contacting him.

With that as the turning point, he relocated to Samoa in June 2017.

JPN3Maulo Willie ALOFIPO, a former rugby player, accompanied Akazawa to Japan and finished second in both styles. (Photo by Japan Wrestling Federation)

Spreading the word in Samoa

Jerry WALLWORK, president of the Samoan Wrestling Federation, bought into Akazawa's enthusiasm and dedication and pledged his support. The following year, Akazawa married a local nurse named Sinevalley. He applied for a change of nationality with eyes on the Tokyo Olympics, but it did not come in time. "It's hard to get Samoan nationality," Akazawa said.

Akazawa currently earns a living as the owner of a massage parlor, and is able to continue his wrestling career through support from the federation. For the Non-Student Open, Samoa had come out of lockdown and Akazawa had needed to return to Japan for a family matter, so he decided to use the opportunity to enter the tournament and see where he stood.

He was to be accompanied by two Samoan wrestlers, who entered the individual tournaments in both styles. The trio would also enter the team event. However, the father of one wrestler took ill and was unable to make the trip, and Team Samoa had to withdraw.

The remaining wrestler, Maulo Willie ALOFIPO, made the most of his trip, winning silver medals in both styles at 97kg and gaining valuable international experience. The 25-year-old  was originally a rugby player and has only been wrestling for two years.

"There are common points between rugby and wrestling," Akazawa told Alofipo in recruiting him to the latter. "You can do it just once a week if you want, but why don't you give it a try?"

Alofipo gradually started spending more time in wrestling. He practices in the morning before going to his day job on a cacao plantation, then returns to the mat for an evening session.  He made his international debut in August this year, finishing fifth at freestyle 97kg at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England.

As for his runner-up finishes in the Japan tournament, he commented, "I'm really happy. Japan is a very high level. It's a thrill to be able to fight here."

Asked about his goal from here, he replied, "The Olympics."

Both Akazawa and Alofipo remained in Japan after the tournament with plans to stay until late December. Akazawa said they will work out at his alma maters of Hanasaki Tokuharu High School and Nihon University.

Although his victory earned him a spot in the Emperor's Cup in December, Akazawa did not enter. His latest foray was to test his current level, and, regarding himself now as "Samoan," he said he draws the line at competing for the title of No. 1 in Japan.

 JPN3Akazawa records a fall in the second round at the National Non-Student Championships. (Photo by Japan Wrestling Federation)

Building a new powerhouse

When deciding what high school he would go to, Akazawa bypassed the powers of the day for Hanasaki Tokuharu, which was virtually unknown in wrestling circles. "Rather than get stronger on a strong team, I wanted to go to a no-name school and beat the powerhouses one after another," he said at the time.

And that was pretty much what he did. In his third year in 2008, he helped Hanasaki Tokuharu end the 14-year reign of Ibaraki Prefecture's Kasumigaura High School at the Kanto High School Championships (Kanto is the region of Japan that includes Tokyo and its environs).

Kasumigaura would get revenge later in the team final at the Inter-High School Championships, but in that match, Akazawa defeated the reigning national champion (shown in the top photo). He made a name for himself and helped launch a new powerhouse on the scene just four years after its founding.

The energy and enthusiasm that Akazawa feels in Samoa now are incredibly similar to "those days." Samoa enjoys warm weather year round, with average lows of 23 C and highs of 31 C. The wrestling room is an open-air facility with a roof, much like in the Japan of another era when each town had an outdoor sumo ring located next to the local shrine.

Whereas gyms in Japan are now air-conditioned, it is a world of difference in Samoa. "Every day, I practice drenched in sweat," Akazawa said.

Rugby is still king in Samoa, and trying to increase participation in other sports is no easy task. But there have been inroads made, as Samoa has been represented at the Olympics in judo. In wrestling, the lone Olympic entry in its history was at the 2000 Sydney Games, when Faafatai IUTANA qualified at Greco-Roman 76kg. Samoa had a fair number of gold medalists at the Oceania Championships, although none since 2011. So the potential is there.

Achieving his own Olympic dream will be a link to the spread of wrestling in Samoa. For now, as he awaits word of being granted citizenship, Akazawa will continue to focus all of his efforts on making it to Paris. Most of his high school teammates have long left the mat and have followed a path into coaching. But at least one of the "Class of 2008" still has a burning passion for the Olympics.

-- Translation by Ken Marantz


Motoki moves up to stun Ozaki; Otoguro, Fujinami, Fumita all prevail

By Ken Marantz

TOKYO (December 25) -- In a tournament that had its share of shocks, none was as stunning as the one pulled off in the finale by Sakura MOTOKI, who followed up her upset of the Olympic champion at women's 62kg by taking down the reigning world champion.

Motoki, moving up to the Olympic weight class from 59kg, handed world champion Nonoka OZAKI her first domestic loss in four years with a come-from-behind 4-2 victory in the final at the Emperor's Cup All-Japan Championships on Sunday at Tokyo.

"Since losing at the World Championships, I've thought for the last three months of winning here and I'm happy I was able to pull it off," said Motoki, who won a world bronze medal at 59kg in Belgrade in September a month after winning the world U20 gold.

The other featured finals went according to form, with Olympic champion Takuto OTOGURO and former world champions Akari FUJINAMI and Kenichiro FUMITA all emerging victorious on the last day of the four-day tournament that is also serving as the first domestic qualifier for next year's World Championships, to also be held in Belgrade.

Otoguro, appearing in his first competition since winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics at freestyle 65kg, finished up an unscored-upon run to his third national title and first since 2019 with a 4-0 victory over world U23 bronze medalist Ryoma ANRAKU.

Teen phenom Fujinami, returning from a spate of injuries that cause her to withdraw from both the senior and U20 worlds, captured her third straight title at women's 53kg with a 5-0 victory over a rejuvenated Haruna OKUNO that also extended her current winning streak to 106.

Okuno had pulled off one of the tournament's upsets by knocking off Olympic champion Mayu SHIDOCHI in the semifinals on Saturday.

Olympic silver medalist Fumita continued an unusual pattern of winning in even-numbered years, defeating Maito KAWANA in the Greco 60kg final to add to the titles he won in 2016, 2018 and 2020.

The victorious wrestlers moved halfway to securing spots on the world team to Belgrade, where, for those in the Olympic weight classes, the first qualifying berths for the 2024 Paris Olympics will be at stake.

The losers will get another chance at the second domestic qualifier, the Meiji Cup All-Japan Invitational Championships in June, where a victory will set up a playoff with the Emperor's Cup champions.

Sakura MOTOKI (JPN)Sakura MOTOKI became the first Japanese to beat Nonoka OZAKI in four years with a victory in the women's 62kg final. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki/Japan Wrestling Federation)

The Japan federation has sweetened the pot for making the team to the Belgrade worlds, as a medal there in an Olympic weight means an automatic ticket for that wrestler to Paris. For women, in particular, the sense of urgency for getting to Belgrade is high.

Motoki has her own incentive for getting to the Olympics. Since she started wrestling at age 3, the Ikuei University student has been aiming to follow in the footsteps of her father, Yasutoshi, who competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where he placed ninth at Greco 63kg.

"My father had a tough road leading up to the Olympics, with injuries and losses along the way," the 20-year-old Motoki said. "I expected to have the same hard road. So like my father, I will never give up until the end so I can get to the Olympics."

Such conviction was on full display against Ozaki when Motoki trailed 2-0 in the second period, having given up a pair of activity points. Motoki cut the lead with a stepout, then clinched the win with a duck-under takedown with :24 left.

Ozaki made a desperate attempt for the winning takedown when she tried to spin behind in the final seconds, but Motoki managed to hold on for the victory. An unsuccessful challenge added the final point.

"In the three months after the World Championships, I feel I've made progress technique-wise and mentally," Motoki said. "I wasn't confident of being the strongest at 62kg, but I was confident that I was stronger compared to where I was at the World Championships."

It was in Belgrade that Motoki suffered a disappointing loss that, upon reflection, indirectly laid the groundwork for her win over Ozaki.

In the semifinals, Motoki had taken the lead against Anastasia NICHITA (MDA), only to be reversed to her back late in the match and eventually lose 7-5. Motoki had tried desperately to score at the end, which she later realized was a losing strategy.

"In the last 30 seconds, I was haphazardly trying anything and I couldn't win, which I later regretted," Motoki said. "I practiced a lot looking at how much time was left and thinking about what to do, and I think that paid off today."

The victory came in the wake of her 9-2 victory in the semifinals over Olympic champion Yukako KAWAI, who later revealed she had not fully recovered from a back injury that had forced her to withdraw from a domestic tournament in October.

"Looking just at results, Kawai and Ozaki are above me," Motoki said. "I finished third at the World Championships in a non-Olympic weight class. They have the gold medals from the Olympics and World Championships that I am aiming for. I saw myself as the challenger."

The 19-year-old Ozaki was left in tears, having come into the tournament on an amazing roll that included a win over Kawai at the Meiji Cup last May. In a three-month span this fall, she picked up in succession the world U20, senior and U23 golds.

"I always try to be aggressive in my wrestling, and when I try to think about what was lacking today, I don't know," said Ozaki, whose last loss to a fellow Japanese was in the semifinals of the inter-high school championships in August 2018 to Yuzuka INAGAKI.

Looking ahead to the Meiji Cup, Ozaki said, "There is nothing beyond that. I have to change gears and make next year mine."

Takuto OTOGURO (JPN)Takuto OTOGURO works to score a takedown against Ryoma ANRAKU in the freestyle 65kg final. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki/Japan Wrestling Federation)

Otoguro, the 2018 world champion, showed no rust from the 14 months he had been away from competition, as he wrestled a solid match against a formidable opponent in Anraku.

After gaining an activity point, Otoguro showed one of his best traits of quickly transitioning to score a takedown off a single-leg attack that Anraku fiercely resisted. In a tense second period with few attacks, Otoguro added a stepout at the buzzer.

"Today and yesterday, I had three matches in my first tournament in a while," Otoguro said. "As it went on, it got more enjoyable. I was able to beat strong opponents, so I think it was a good performance."

Otoguro said that he considered his time away from the mat as a positive. "There were no real drawbacks," he said. "Instead, I was able to focus on this tournament. There were only good aspects."

In Otoguro's absence, a new young champion has emerged in Rahman AMOUZAD (IRI). Otoguro said he did not watch this year's World Championships, but is aware of the Iranian. As for a possible meeting at this year's Asian Championships, Otoguro, who won back-to-back Asian titles in 2020 and 2021, would not commit.

"I'll talk it over with my coach," he said. "If I have the chance, I want to get started on having international matches."

Akari FUJINAMI (JPN)Akari FUJINAMI shoots for a takedown in the women's 53kg final against Haruna OKUNO. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki/Japan Wrestling Federation)

Fujinami's absence from the competition was not her choice, as a foot injury kept her from defending her senior world title in Belgrade and a knee injury forced her out of the world U20.

That meant she had not had a match since the national collegiate championships in August, where she won the 55kg title.

"Even though I was confident," Fujinami said. "I had had a series of injuries and there was a time I couldn't compete, so there was also uncertainty as well as pressure. I'm glad I could still come out with the win."

In the final, Fujinami used her low single attack to score takedowns in both periods and fend off all attacks to defeat Okuno for the fourth time in four career meetings, most recently a 4-0 win in the Meiji Cup final.

"I expected her to come up with a strategy, but I'm confident of my training and I put it all out on the mat," Fujinami said.

Kenichiro FUMITA (JPN)Kenichi FUMITA positions himself for a throw in the Greco 60kg final against Maito KAWANA. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki/Japan Wrestling Federation)

For Fumita, winning the Greco 60kg gold for his fourth career title and first since 2020 helped restore the good name of the Nippon Sports Science University (NSSU) alumni in Greco, which was dealt a number of setbacks earlier in the tournament.

Olympic bronze medalist Shohei YABIKU lost in the third-place match at 77kg, while Katsuaki ENDO failed to defend his title at 67kg with a loss in the final.

"Overall, it hadn't been a good tournament for the alumni from Nittaidai, for Shohei and Katsuaki," Fumita said, using the familiar term for NSSU. "In Greco, we have wrestled poorly."

Fumita, the 2017 and 2019 world champion who had to settle for a bronze this year, scored three points in each period for a 6-0 victory over Maito KAWANA to restore NSSU to good standing. He had a gut wrench from par terre in the first period and a takedown and stepout in the second.

It was far better than his opening match when he got thrown for 4 in a 7-4 victory over Kaito INABA, a current student at NSSU.

"In my first match yesterday, the bad side of me came out," Fumita said. "After that, I thought I had to turn it around and stop the bad flow so I aimed to get a good result. And I won and took a step closer to Paris."

ShotaTANOKURA (JPN)In-laws Shota TANOKURA and Mayu SHIDOCHI indicate the place each took in the tournament. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki/Japan Wrestling Federation)

Tanokura takes bronze in return pushed by in-law

One of the more interesting stories of the tournament culminated with former Asian champion Shota TANOKURA taking third place at Greco 55kg in his return from a four-year absence.

The 32-year-old Tanokura, currently the coach at Tokyo's Jiyugaoka Gakuen High School, was urged to give it another whirl by a family member, who just happens to be Shidochi. Tanokura's wife is the younger sister of Shidochi's husband and coach, Shota SHIDOCHI -- a classmate of Tanokura's at NSSU.

"'Let's go to [the] Paris [Olympics] together,'" Tanokura said was the line that Mayu used to pester him into returning to competition. "'Do it one more time.'"

Tanokura agreed, not so much over his own desire to make the Olympics but to assuage Mayu. "I wasn't thinking of Paris, but Mayu wanted to us to go together," he said. "If I went, she said it would give her mental strength."

He qualified for the Emperor's Cup by winning the title at the All-Japan Non-Student Championships in October. That was his first competition since placing eighth at 55kg at the 2018 World Championships in Budapest.

Tanokura won the Asian gold earlier that year in Bishkek, beating local favorite Zholoman SHARSHENBEKOV (KGZ) in the final. He also came away with the gold in his most recent Emperor's Cup appearance in 2017, adding to the titles he won in 2012 and 2013.

In Sunday's bronze-medal match, Tanokura showed some of his old magic with a majestic five-point throw in a 7-4 victory over collegian Yuto GOMI.

"I'm really happy," Tanokura said of coming away with a bronze, which qualifies him for the Meiji Cup. He is still undecided whether he will enter that tournament. "If I enter, I'll give it my all. Right now I'm torn. If my family pushes it, I might do it."

In the quarterfinals, Tanokura executed a nifty duck-under-and-lift that sent Kawana sailing head over heels and onto his back for 4 points, but he still came out on the short end of a 7-4 decision.

"That's the level I am at now," Tanokura said. "I didn't practice and you can't take matches lightly."

Tanokura's lone regret was that he didn't get to face either Fumita or Yu SHIOTANI, his former team member at Jiyugaoka Gakuen and a world 55kg bronze medalist, who had moved up to the Olympic weight class but lost to Gomi in his opening match.

Mayu SHIDOCHI (JPN)Mayu SHIDOCHI records a fall over Yumi SHIMONO in a women's 53kg bronze-medal match. (Photo: Takeo Yabuki/Japan Wrestling Federation)

As it turned out, bronze became the family color of the day as Shidochi bounced back from her stunning loss to Okuno to finish third at women's 53kg with a victory by fall over collegiate champion Yumi SHIMONO.

"Finishing up with a win is good leading up to the Meiji Cup," Shidochi said. "I'm glad I was able to turn it around. In the past, I wasn't able to do that."

Shidochi led 2-0 after receiving activity points in both the first and second periods, then fought off a Shimono takedown attempt that would have put her behind. When Shimono shot again, Shidochi straightened her up and pancaked her to her back, notching the fall at 4:59.

"The new generation of wrestlers are getting stronger," the 25-year-old Shidochi said. "They are providing the motivation for me to train hard to beat them. The Tokyo Olympics are in the past."

Shidochi knows that to have any chance of defending her Olympic gold, she will first have to face and defeat Fujinami.

"She's a really strong athlete, with a long reach and good speed," Shidochi said. "She's at the top of the world. To get to Paris, I have to beat her. Even for Fujinami, the 53kg class is deep."

Day 4 Results


61kg (14 entries)
Gold - Kodai OGAWA df. Hayato FUJITA, 7-0

Bronze - Kaito MORITA df. Kazuya KOYANAGI by TF, 11-0, 2:21
Bronze - Taichi YAMAGUCHI df. Kosei KANEKO, 10-8

Semifinal - Kodai OGAWA df. Kazuya KOYANAGI, 10-4
Semifinal - Hayato FUJITA df. Kosei KANEKO by TF, 14-4, 4:25

65kg (14 entries)
Gold - Takuto OTOGURO df. Ryoma ANRAKU, 4-0

Bronze - Kaiji OGINO df. Kenho UTO by TF, 11-0, 6:00
Bronze - Kotaro KIYOOKA df. Yujiro UENO, 14-6


60kg (11 entries)
Gold - Kenichiro FUMITA df. Maito KAWANA, 6-0

Bronze - Kaito INABA df. Kosei TAKESHITA by TF, 11-1, 4:22
Bronze - Shota TANOKURA df. Yuto GOMI, 7-4

72kg (11 entries)
Gold - Taishi HORIE df. Shoki NAKADA by TF, 9-0, 3:32

Bronze - Daigo KOBAYASHI df. Seiya TERADA by Fall, 4:03 (7-3)
Bronze - Tetsuto KANUKA df. Yuga KASUGAI, 9-5

Semifinal - Taishi HORIE df. Daigo KOBAYASHI, 3-1
Semifinal - Shoki NAKADA df. Tetsuto KANUKA, 7-1


53kg (9 entries)
Gold - Akari FUJINAMI df. Haruna OKUNO, 5-0

Bronze - Mako ONO df. Nagisa HARADA, 6-0
Bronze - Mayu SHIDOCHI df. Yumi SHIMONO by Fall, 4:59 (6-0)

62kg (11 entries)
Gold - Sakura MOTOKI df. Nonoka OZAKI, 4-2

Bronze - Naomi RUIKE df. Nayu UCHIDA by Fall, 5:58 (10-0)
Bronze - Kiwa IWASAWA df. Yukako KAWAI by Def.