Japan: The New Badminton Powerhouse

Japan: The New Badminton Powerhouse
Japanese badminton has become one of the new powerhouses in the sport despite Kento Momota’s recent ban after he admitted to illegal gambling. There is one key figure behind the success – Park Joo Bong.

He is a quiet man who speaks little but, when he does, finds exactly the right words. He is a legend in his home country of South Korea as one of the most successful all round players with a Gold Medal in the Men’s Doubles at the 1992 Olympics and a Silver in the Mixed Doubles in 1996. That’s in addition to a total of five World Championships Doubles titles. 
But it is elsewhere that he chooses to work his magic. In England first, then in Malaysia for a few years before he moved to Japan in 2004. Park Joo Bong brought what was missing to make this country of unique culture a badminton powerhouse.
When he was asked by the Japanese Badminton Association to take over there was hardly any unity in the country in terms of badminton. All top players were involved in their own companies as full-time employees, spending more time focusing on internal and National competitions than anything else.
Today the sport is still ruled by big companies but the mindset has changed. All Japanese top players have become aware that they can become world class players and perform on the international stage, making their ultimate goals winning Olympic Gold Medals, representing their country and making their employers proud. This ‘win-win’ situation has triggered some impressive results.
The players still train full-time under their own coaches, who are themselves hired by likes of NTT East, Sanyo, Tonami, Yonex and others, but all players come together at National Training Centre camps to prepare for big team or individual events. 
This is where Park Joo Bong performs his magic, thanks to the high demands he places on his players and by building new relationships with the squad. “In the past, players didn’t show as much respect to their coaches as they had not won any major titles. Park Joo Bong arrived and all of a sudden things changed as he brought in a lot of experience and inspired respect from all his players” explains Miyuki Komiya, a badminton reporter in Tokyo. 
A Culture of Dedication 
Park Joo Bong didn’t bring a revolution in the way the players looked at their sport. In Japanese culture performance comes with hard work and dedication – a philosophy Park also subscribes to. Players train hard – maybe harder than anywhere else on the planet and they fight for success like no one else, and never give up, no matter what. 
The image of Sayaka Sato at the London Olympics remains in everyone’s mind. She sustained a serious injury against Tine Baun, but refused to withdraw despite limping and crying in obvious pain. This behavior is quite symbolic of the Japanese culture and has served its badminton squad well. Many matches have been won because of the ability of the Japanese to return the shuttlecock once more into their opponent’s side of the net. 
But it wasn’t enough until Park Joo Bong came into the picture. He gave his protégés an inspired vision of the game. He sits on the coach’s bench whenever it matters and puts a lot of emphasis on the way he prepares players for matches, using videos and strategic plans. His genius and vision is served by the ability of his players to follow his lead with their eyes closed and perfect tactics. That works wonders. Culture and expertise blend into perfect match, aided by natural talent.
Team Spirit, Individual Jewels
The major breakthrough came in 2015, when the Japanese Thomas Cup squad (Men’s World Team Championships) achieved one of the biggest upsets of the past decade beating the best team in the world, China, in an epic semi-final, winning 3-2 before edging Malaysia 3-1 in the final. This victory brought Japanese badminton into the limelight like never before, in a country where team sports are often more popular than individual ones. 
But it wasn’t the first time that Japanese players had shone. Akane Yamaguchi, then 16, became the world’s youngest player to win a Superseries tournament in 2013 in Tokyo. Kento Momota and Nozomi Okuhara had rocked the boat on the junior tour by scooping the World Junior Championships in 2012.
The Women’s Doubles were also highlighted on a few occasions, including an historic Silver Medal win at the 2012 Olympic Games. More recently Sayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo have remained on top of the BWF World Rankings for over 12 months. 
The team spirit is strong and individuals have been inspired by the team’s successes and no longer fear anyone. Japan has seen the blossoming of a generation of incredibly talented players including Kento Momota and Nozomi Okuhara, who made history together by scooping the title in the season finale, the Dubai Superseries finals last December, lifting a whole nation’s hopes a few months before the Olympic Games. In March, Nozomi Okuhara became the first ever Japanese champion to win the prestigious Yonex All England. 
For the first time in its history, Japan is in a position to win Olympic medals in different categories – in all but the Mixed Doubles event – where the nation is still a little weaker than in the four other categories.
Kento Momota’s Setback
There was however a huge setback in Japan’s plans when in April news broke that its badminton jewel Kento Momota had admitted to gambling in an illegal Japanese casino six times during the previous few months. Several days later he was suspended indefinitely from the National team and was officially taken off the list for Rio Olympic Games.
A few of his teammates were also involved in the affair, including former No.1 Kenichi Tago, who also admitted to have gambled on many occasions, losing more than US$90 000. He was sentenced to an even tougher punishment being fired from both the National Squad and his company, NTT East. 
Momota’s ban has come at the worst possible time when all eyes are on him in the run up to the Olympics with more sponsors coming on board. With a clear view of Olympic medals, he had brought the sport into an even brighter spotlight.
It remains unknown when Momota will be able to return to play for the National team but he is still one of the names to look out for in Tokyo 2020, when he will be playing on home soil and will still only be 26 years old. 
In the meantime, the hopes of a nation rest on the shoulders of the others players in the squad – Nozomi Okuhara and others – to draw a veil over this whole affair and make their dear coach proud.

By Raphael Sachetat

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