Ice Network

Rising stars of Asia: Quartet leads charge for Japan

Three ladies, one man from skating powerhouse qualify for JGP Final
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
Japan's four Junior Grand Prix Final qualifiers were all present at the West Japan Junior Championships (L-R): Yuna Shiraiwa, Mai Mihara, Marin Honda and Sota Yamamoto. -Wei Xiong

This season, four Japanese teenagers -- three ladies and one man -- qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain. In the last installment of our "Rising Stars of Asia" series, we take a look at these up-and-coming stars.

In the past decade, Japan has been a star-making factory in singles skating, producing the likes of Shizuka Arakawa, Miki Ando, Mao Asada, Daisuke Takahashi and Yuzuru Hanyu. These world and Olympic champions made figure skating one of the most-watched sports in their home country, and made figure skaters some of the most-admired athletes in Japan. Today, a group of youngsters who grew up watching and admiring them have made it to the international stage -- and they are ready to become the next generation of Japanese skating stars.

Born in 1999, Mai Mihara started skating when she was 8, at a time that coincided with Asada winning both of her Grand Prix events and claiming her first world title.

"Mao Asada is the skater I admire the most," Mihara said. "She is also the reason why I started to skate."

This August in Bratislava, Slovakia, the Kobe native surprised the skating community by delivering a free skate that scored 118.55 points, including a technical mark of 67.12 -- higher than that of any senior lady at the 2015 World Championships -- to win the silver. Three weeks later in Linz, Austria, she again finished runner-up to clinch a spot at the JGP Final.

Her results have come as a big surprise, even to Japanese media and fans, as she finished just fifth at her only JGP last season and came in seventh at the 2015 Japanese Junior Championships. How was she able to improve so much in just a few months?

"This summer I put a lot of effort into my skating, and kept working on my jumps," said Mihara, who started her season by winning the 2015 Asian Open Trophy. "When I got the chance to compete abroad, I was impressed by how good some of the foreign skaters are. They have long limbs, and their skating is very good. Some of them jump really high while keeping good flow -- the kinds of jumps that will definitely receive huge GOEs (Grades of Execution). I couldn't help but think, 'They are amazing!'

"When I saw how amazing they are, I wanted to be as good as them," Mihara continued. "So over the summer, I worked harder on my skating compared to last year, paying more attention to my steps and edge work, and I trained really hard in order to jump high."

Her hard work paid off, as she found her confidence.

"The results from my training are reflected in my competitions now," Mihara said. "I will keep improving toward the Final."

Compared to Mihara, Marin Honda is much more well known in Japan, partly due to her family background. She was born in 2001 as the third of five siblings in the Honda family. All but one of the Honda children, the eldest sister, are figure skaters. Honda started to skate when she was 2. Her older brother, Taichi, competed in the JGP Series, and her younger sister, Miyu, is not only a competitive novice-level skater but also a famous child actress.

Coming from such a background, Marin has received media attention from a young age, and even appeared in TV commercials -- something rare for a young skater, even in a skating-obsessed country like Japan.

The 14-year-old has not disappointed on the ice. In her first year competing on the JGP circuit, she won a silver medal in Colorado Springs, and then ascended to the top of the podium in Zagreb, Croatia, with two strong programs.

The student of Mie Hamada and Yamato Tamura is focusing on a particular aspect of her skating in the lead-up to the Final.

"I am now training hard not only on jumps but also spins," Honda said. "First, I am making sure I get all the levels. Then, I want to gain as many GOEs as possible. When you look at good spinners, the scores they get for one spin almost equal a good jump, so I think I need to match up to that."

She also looks forward to improving her performance in the short program.

"I am not good at short programs. There are only three jumping passes, so no mistake is allowed," Honda said. "Recently, I feel I can control my nerves better; I think that shows I have grown. The next goal for me is to skate a clean short program and head into the free in a good position."

Looking to the future, the Kyoto native wants to be recognized for her artistry.

"I think presentation is my biggest strength," Honda said. "I want to be a skater who can give a performance that the audience can enjoy."

Another student of Hamada and Tamura is 14-year-old Yuna Shiraiwa. Despite being the youngest of the three ladies, Shiraiwa has achieved the best results this season, winning both of her JGPs (in Colorado Springs and Logrono, Spain) and heading to Barcelona as the No. 3 seed.

Things were completely different for Shiraiwa last season. While competing as a novice, she placed fourth in the A division at the Japanese Novice Championships and ended 27th in the short program at the Japanese Junior Championships, a result that wasn't good enough to qualify her for the free skate.

This experience, however, served as motivation.

"When I looked around, I realized not only my jumps but my skating and presentation were far behind the field," Shiraiwa said. "It made me determined to train harder."

In her training over the summer, she focused on her basic skating skills and edge quality, and this led to improvement in other areas.

"I realized if I improve my skating, I can also form a better axis for my jumps, which leads to consistency," Shiraiwa said.

When asked about who she models herself after, the Kyoto native admitted that she is still developing her own style.

"I want to jump high and dynamic, like Miki Ando and Mao Asada," Shiraiwa said. "But for my skating, I look up to Gracie Gold and Carolina Kostner."

(Editor's note: At the end of November, all three ladies competed at the Japanese Junior Championships, with varying results. Honda, who was recovering from an ankle injury, and Mihara finished sixth and eighth, respectively. Shiraiwa delivered two mostly clean performances en route to the silver medal. The gold went to world junior bronze medalist Wakaba Higuchi.)

Compared to the Japanese junior ladies, who take up half the field in Barcelona, the Japanese junior men have been less competitive, after reigning JGP Final champion Shoma Uno graduated to the senior level. Nevertheless, the JGP Final silver medalist and world junior bronze medalist from last season, 15-year-old Sota Yamamoto, is aiming to continue Japan's winning streak at the event.

Judging from his long limbs, pencil-thin bodyline and huge yet light jumps, it is no wonder why Japanese media and fans like to call him "Hanyu II." Born in 2000, the Osaka native started to skate after watching Evgeni Plushenko's winning performance at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino.

"But after 2010, Plushenko seldom competes anymore, so I started to look up to Hanyu and learn from him," he explained. "I want to do the same thing he could do at the same age."

Yamamoto is a strong medal contender in Barcelona, where he will again square off with the 2014 world junior bronze medalist Nathan Chen. In their first meeting of the season, in Colorado Springs, Chen won the gold and Yamamoto finished third, more than 30 points behind Chen.

"I was too aware [that I would be competing against] Nathan before the matchup. Losing to him by 30 points made me realize that I am behind him in all aspects," Yamamoto said. "I have been training really hard since then, and I think I am getting closer to him now."

The hard work includes adding more difficult jumping passes to his program. Yamamoto is putting two quad toes and two triple axels into his free skate, which tests his stamina.

"My layout is getting more and more difficult, and I feel really exhausted during the second half of my program. The quality of my skating really drops, and it impacts my spins as well," he admitted. "So I want to strengthen my stamina from now on and be well prepared for the series of upcoming big competitions."

Yamamoto is looking forward to another matchup with Chen.

"I believe he is also improving, and there are many other excellent skaters," Yamamoto said. "I hope at that time I can narrow the gap, and it would be great if my performance can make him see me as his rival."

As excited as he is about the Final, he doesn't want to get caught up in results.

"Last year was my first time competing in the Final. I didn't set my sight on the podium but just wanted to perform the best I could," Yamamoto said. "I think that's the ideal mindset, so this time I want to also focus on bringing out the best of me.

"There is still a month to go before the Final, and a few more months before junior worlds." Yamamoto continued. "I want to skate better to the music, further polish my programs through competitions and really own my programs."

(Editor's note: Two weeks ago, Yamamoto claimed the national junior title, landing a quad toe-triple toe combination and a triple axel in his free skate.)