Japan’s Triple Threat

Some strong judo countries have the luxury of having a “good problem”, whereby they have two top competitors in the same weight class. A case in point would be Azerbaijan’s -73kg division, where they have Rustam Orujov and Hidayat Heydarov.

Japan, of course, has that problem in abundance. At -73kg, there’s Shohei Ono and Soichi Hashimoto. At -66kg, there’s Hifumi Abe and Joshiro Maruyama. At -60kg there’s Naohisa Takato and Ryuju Nagayama.

And, so it is with their women’s categories too. At -52kg, for example, there’s Uta Abe and Ai Shishime. But at -48kg, Japanese has three top competitors: Natsumi Tsunoda, who won gold at the Ulaanbaatar Grand Slam in June; Funa Tonaki, who won the gold at the Hungary Grand Slam last week; and Wakana Koga, who just won gold at the Zagreb Grand Prix, which is ongoing at the time of writing.

Koga is the youngest of the lot, at 21 years of age (Tonaki is 26 and Tsunoda, 29). She is also the least accomplished of the three, though she is already a World silver medalist and now, with her latest win at the Zagreb Grand Prix, she has three IJF World Tour gold medals.

She has done well internationally. Besides losing to Tsunoda twice so far (2022 Paris Grand Slam and 2021 World’s), she has lost only to two other players: Daria Bilodid (UKR) in 2020 and Julia Figueroa (ESP) in 2019. However, Bilodid has moved up to the -57kg division and Koga beat Figueroa in the 2021 World’s. So, it seems her main challengers are domestic: Tsunoda and Tonaki.

Tonaki is the No. 1 in Japan at -48kg. She is an Olympic silver medalist and a World Champion. She also has two World silver medals and 10 IJF gold medals. She is ranked 5th in the World.

Tsunoda is the No. 2 in Japan, and just right behind Tonaki in the world rankings at No. 6. She too is World Champion and she also has a World silver at -52kg (she is one of the rare ones who actually moved down a weight class). She has seven IJF gold medals.

For sure, Koga has got a long way to go to over-take Tonaki and Tsunoda but she has youth on her side. And if her powerful performance in Zagreb is any indication, she is surely someone to watch out for in the coming months and years.