Softball Japan: How to repeat as Olympic gold medalists 13 years later

Softball Japan: How to repeat as Olympic gold medalists 13 years later
In August, the WBSC's Federation Focus series is on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic softball and baseball gold medal-winning Federations. This will lead to two distinct episodes of the series on Japan who topped the podium in both softball and baseball at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, starting with the Japan Softball Association.

One month on from Japan's incredible win against USA in the gold medal game of the softball tournament at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the Japan Softball Association (JSA) talked with the WBSC, as part of the Federation Focus series, about the National Team selection process and the status of women's softball in the top-ranked country, Japan.

On 27 July, Japan lived up to home expectation to repeat as Olympic softball gold medallists on home soil, 13 years after earning its first-ever Olympic gold in Beijing.

Watch Japan clinch gold against USA in the Tokyo 2020 softball gold medal game:

The WBSC discussed the milestone accomplishment with Shinsuke Yabata, a Japan Softball Association (JSA) Executive Board member, who serves as the National Team director and was on the ground during the Olympics as the team leader.

"I'm full of joy and gratitude for being able to participate in Tokyo 2020," Yabata told the WBSC, "despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was such an honour to win a gold medal in my home country."

Before joining the JSA as a board member in 2014, Yabata, 57, enjoyed a playing career at the high school and college level, and had a successful coaching career. He was the head coach of the U-19 World Championship runner-up and of the U-16 2009 World Champion Japan.

Japan started the selection process in 2015 with Reika Utsugi named as head coach in 2017.

"We were mostly concerned about transparency and objectivity," said Yabata. "We had a selection committee composed mainly of all managers of the Japanese women's league. We held meetings twice a year in 2015 and 2016, and members had enough discussions to form three teams: the main squad, TAP-A and TAP-B. TAP is the acronym for Target Age Project.

"We kept working on these selections. It took three years of work to narrow down the number of athletes to the 15-player Olympic team."

When asked about the main challenges in 2020, during the pandemic outbreak, Yabata said the main priority was ensuring the safety of all participants. "I mostly focused on the infection control measures. We complied with the WBSC, JSA and National Team guidelines. We tried to ensure protection from the infection to athletes and staff members."

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- The 2020 Federation Focus series

Women's softball in Japan involves 1,737 players in 89 clubs competing at the top level, 2,537 players in 122 teams at the college level.

Over 55,000 girls play softball at the high school, junior high school and elementary school levels.

Approximately 12,448 girls and women, age 15 to 50 and over, play in 643 lifelong category softball teams. Moreover, it is said that there are several-fold unregistered softball devotees in Japan.

JSA has 13,628 registered coaches, 39,018 umpires and 10,478 scorers.

Japan is now ranked the world No. 1 women's softball programme by the WBSC (on both men's and women's softball).

"We are aware of the fact that softball in Japan needs change. We have been dealing with a declining number of athletes at the top competitive level. We hope that the Olympic gold medal increases women's softball popularity. Softball can be a lifelong sport; it brings physical and mental health."

Yabata san is already focused on what comes after an Olympic gold medal. "The second half of the Japanese women's league will open soon. There's no National Team activity during the season. At the end of November, we will select a new group of players and start working with them."

And the goal for the future? "In the short term, we want to send a competitive team to the World Games and the Asian Games in 2022. Japan is the six-time defending Asian champion. We want to compete at the top level in the 2028 Los Angeles and the 2032 Brisbane Olympics in the long term. Overall, our goal is to remain on top of the WBSC World Rankings."

The JSA was established in 1949 when it became an independent organization from the Japan Rubber Baseball Association. The first women’s softball national championship was played the same year. JSA joined the WBSC (the International Softball Federation (ISF) at the time) as early as 1951.

The JSA agreed to send their national champions to the American Softball Association (ASA) National Championship in 1962. JSA vice president Jiro Iwano was the head of the delegation. He became instrumental in organizing the first Women’s Softball World Championship in 1965. Japan participated in the first Men’s Softball World Championship in 1966.