TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese figure-skating fans head into next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in an unusual position with no-one in their once powerhouse women’s team assuming the mantle of the retired Mao Asada.
Olympic 2010 silver medalist and three-time world champion Asada, known in Japan by the affectionate nickname “Mao-chan,” retired in 2017, leaving the country’s legions of fervent fans, as well as the media, at a loss.
“There are a lot of skaters, but nobody really comes to mind as Mao’s successor,” said Hiroko Yamaguchi, a 41-year-old secretary watching December’s Grand Prix Final in Japan.
“There was just something about her. I got so much energy watching her skate.”
The problem is not a lack of candidates.
Six women fought to top the podium at December’s nationals and claim one of the two Olympic team spots, a prize ultimately won by Satoko Miyahara, 19.
The second spot went to Kaori Sakamoto, 17 and relatively unknown even in Japan, who finished second in the nationals in her first full senior season.
“The Japan Skating Foundation (JSF) only cares about skill,” said Hirotaka Matsuoka, a professor of sports marketing at Tokyo’s Waseda University.
“But TV and so on, they appear to be wavering over who to focus on and promote.”
Asada was a household name for so long, she began attracting attention as a junior, that her retirement produced banner headlines and television stations broadcast her retirement media conference live.
“I think it boils down to these three overlapping factors: her tremendous success in a relatively long career, her tender age and cute and youthful looks, and her carefully curated public persona and frequent appearances in the media,” Michelle Cho, a visiting gender studies scholar at MIT who has studied sports in Japan, told Reuters in an email interview.
“Asada has a ‘good girl’ or ‘girl next door’ kind of image that draws from Japanese feminine stereotypes of being chaste, humble, dutiful and a good homemaker.”
Miyahara was long seen as Asada’s probable successor, but suffered a stress hip fracture in 2016 that kept her out of competition, and the public eye, for roughly a year, dimming her popularity.
Still, her dogged efforts at rehabilitation, covered extensively by the media, touched a chord in a culture that values perseverance.
Her lyrical, floating routines to “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Madama Butterfly” also “speak to Japanese feelings,” according to a viewer at the Grand Prix Final, where she finished fifth.
Sakamoto remains an unknown quantity, but her attitude and perky character, shown by her grin when her Japan nationals results came up, could make her appealing.
“How much impact and popularity Sakamoto might have depends entirely on how she does at the Olympics,” Matsuoka said. “She does give a bright and energetic impression.”
Wakaba Higuchi, who has a slightly longer senior-level career than Sakamoto despite being a year younger, had been widely expected to make the Olympic team, but was chosen for the world championships instead.
Known for her dynamism, Higuchi faded towards the end of last year and finished fourth at nationals, which the JSF said held more weight in their Olympic team decision, media reported.
But Higuchi has also faced criticism on social media for reportedly saying her skating was due to “inborn talent,” and that the skater she most admired was South Korea’s Yuna Kim, not Asada.
“There are certain social expectations of women skaters so that if they deviate from them, they will most definitely be condemned by society,” said Ho.
“The idea is that even if you indeed have talent, you aren’t supposed to brag about it.”
Matsuoka agrees that Higuchi’s tendency to let her feelings show may have hurt her with the media, though not the JSF.
But he believes there is a bigger problem for Japanese figure skating - the lack of a national program overseen by the JSF to train and promote skaters.
Currently, skaters are mostly left to themselves, their coaches and the companies they may belong to.
“It seems as if the JSF should think a bit more about how to keep the popularity of skating up and not just leave it to individuals,” he said.
“Then you end up with a situation where somebody like Mao emerges and after her, there’s nothing.”
Editing by Greg Stutchbury