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State of the Nation: Japan

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UPDATED:  I think that in the past, a Grand Prix Final medal may have guaranteed a spot on the Japan world championship team, but I have also seen it stated that if Mao Asada medals at Nationals, she'll be placed on the world team; I guess the Japanese federation reserves the right to make the choices.  If anyone knows the official qualification guidelines if there are any (and which I cannot find) that would be helpful!  If the Grand Prix Final medalists make it, then Kozuka, Oda, and Murakami are in.


With the various country national championships coming up, I am going to try to take a look at the state of country's skaters and how they have fared thus far this season and who might make their world teams.  I am not sure how many I can get to so I'll just start with Japan, since the world championships take place in Tokyo next March and the country's nationals is next week.  And while I'm not getting into it below, we also have Four Continents Championship this season, which many world contenders from Asia will surely be competing at and will give us yet another look at how they are doing prior to Tokyo.

Grand Prix Expectations

Japan received quite a bit of press heading into the Grand Prix Final last week because the nation qualified three skaters in both singles events.  At least one title was likely expected, but there was a true possibility of up to six medals.  That's how competitive the Japanese skaters are.  I have to think Japanese skate fans consider the event to be a failure in that there was no gold won. 

The Mens

I think it is also evident that unless Daisuke Takahashi starts skating a lot cleaner than he has been, Patrick Chan of Canada is the favorite to take the gold in the men's event at the world championships.  Chan is winning the championship unless he falls AT LEAST four times and Nobunari Oda, Takahiko Kozuka, or Takahashi gives the performance of his respective life AND lands a quad.  Oda and Kozuka have a great disadvantage in components and they have beautiful skills but little to no showmanship.  I foresee a sad day in Tokyo when the world championships come around.

Takahashi, when he is not falling too much, is such a joy to watch because he performs every second of the program.  He has the best components in the world, in my opinion.  But he was supposed to have a surgery to remove bolts from his knee (from a prior surgery) and earlier this year he postponed that until after next year's world championships.  I have no idea if this is what is affecting him.  He stated that his Grand Prix Final warm-up collision with Takahiko Kozuka was not the culprit in his poor showing there.  Still, he looked very sluggish and since he hasn't exactly seemed like that in other competitions this season, something must have been up.  Hopefully he overcomes it soon.

Nobunari Oda really does have the jumping ability to compete with Patrick Chan, if he lands his quad and doesn't make too many other mistakes.  But his programs this season are not really connecting.  Last year he at least had the adorable Chaplin part to play which tended to cover for his weaknesses in the showmanship area, but he is scoring very low in components versus Patrick Chan this season.

Takahiko Kozuka is also having components trouble.  He has been perhaps the best technical skater among the men and the most consistent.  But his short program is a horror, and he has been hit or miss performance-wise in his free skate.  It can be beautiful but he has to remember that he is skating for an audience at times.  It will take a combination of terrible technical skating from Takahashi and Chan and a pretty-much error-free program from Kozuka for him to win international competitions against them.  Fortunately for Kozuka, he can be a clean skater.

The Ladies

On the ladies side, the national podium will determine which three ladies go to worlds, and it's going to be the cause of at least one major heartbreaker (haven't we gotten used to seeing one Japanese favorite lady or another missing out each year?).  I fear Akiko Suzuki will be the one deemed expendable, although in my opinion she's got the most complete package of any of the top Japanese female skaters right now. 

Kanako Murakami has boundless energy and is adorable in her short program but I haven't warmed to her free skate.  I don't think the style is right for her, right now.  Still, she is one of the few ladies doing a triple/triple this season, so that is a huge plus in her column.  Her Skate America win was more due to the mediocrity of the competition but there is no dominant skating this season, so that's not a bad way to win.  Two Grand Prix medals (including a win) and a Grand Prix Final medal her first season out as a senior make me think she will likely end up on the podium at Nationals. And I can't imagine her not bringing down the house with that short program if she performs it at worlds. (Updated:  Murakami may already have a worlds slot due to her Grand Prix Final medal, but I'm trying to confirm...)

Miki Ando is ever-present and at times she can take advantage of a low level of competition by swooping in, landing five triples in the free skate, and winning.  However, she can also land a bunch of triples and be completely overlooked by the judges for skaters with more attractive qualities, as happened at last season's Olympics.  I don't necessarily look forward to Ando's skating, but the last time a world championships was held in Tokyo, she won (2007), and she has also been rumored to be considering taking next season off.  I can't imagine that whatever fight is in her will not come out at the nationals so she can go out with a bang at worlds.

I find Akiko Suzuki to be overlooked by the judges in program components, as I mentioned in my GPF breakdown.  I don't know what it is about her they find lacking - she has great choreography, interesting programs, a lot of speed and energy.  However, she does have a lower technical content than the other Japanese ladies and has been getting some edge calls.  Add that to a slip here and a doubling of a jump or underrotation there, and Suzuki may be fighting to stay on the podium.  Still, she has two of the most entertaining ladies programs of the year for me.

Mao Asada.  I have no idea whether Asada's troubles have come from a coaching switch, a reworking of jumps, or mental issues.  With Asada's components and overall amazing skating, I would never count her out.  If she even lands a majority of her jumps she could easily make the Japanese podium at nationals.  But not if she gives up on her jumps or her programs.  She really is the wild card.  (Not to mention the other amazing skaters in Japan just waiting for their shot at the top!).

Who do you think will make the world team?

The Others

Japan is not really a presence in ice dancing, but they are trying to become more of a presence in pairs with the young couple of Takahashi and Tran.  I think these two did about as well as they could have been expected to on the senior Grand Prix with two medals (and they just won the Junior Grand Prix Final).  They have some weaknesses and don't skate clean but they also have a lot of potential and I assume they are aiming for a top ten finish at worlds.