Because Japan doesn’t have a high-profile national championship or a helpfully scheduled pre-Olympic continental championship (and because the men’s team hogs all the attention), the women’s team has a tendency to be overlooked or be an afterthought in addressing the major players at international competitions.
When discussing who replaces Romania as the next member of the Big Four, Japan never comes up. And yet, Japan has qualified for the last six consecutive team finals (including the last two Olympics), an achievement matched only by the US, Russia, and China. As far as perennial powers in recent years go, Japan is the fourth one. This is my way of saying it would be foolish to underestimate Japan’s ability to do some damage at these Olympics, exactly like I’m about to do.
Not really. Japan has more than enough talent to make this team final, but it will be a close-fought thing and is not a comfortable proposition. The team’s recent top scores from the two national championships and NHK Trophy would put Japan somewhere on the cusp of the team final (in, but just in)—acknowledging of course that comparing scores from different national meets is a fool’s game—and the rise of teams like Germany, Brazil, and the Netherlands back into the mix is making it that much harder to feel comfortable about the prospects of recent sure-things like Japan and Italy.
Sae Miyakawa – 2015 floor 4th place, the one who has all that floor difficulty like front 1/1 + double front, should medal all the time
Mai Murakami – 2015 AA 6th place, 2016 Japanese champion, weirdly doesn’t make teams sometimes even though she’s obviously the best one, on this team though, sleeper pick in AA
Aiko Sugihara – 2016 Japanese AA bronze, 2016 Japanese bars and floor silver, line and leg form are her cool jams, deceptively competitive floor
Asuka Teramoto – 2015 Japanese champion, 2014 beam 4th place, the one you’ve seen a billion times, here to save beam forever
Yuki Uchiyama – The one you haven’t heard of, 2015 Japanese silver and world team alternate, here to make sure Murakami doesn’t have to do all the bars.
Projected Olympic Lineups
Vault – (Sugihara) Murakami, Teramoto, Miyakawa
Bars – (Murakami) Uchiyama, Sugihara, Teramoto
Beam – (Uchiyama) Sugihara, Murakami, Teramoto
Floor – (Teramoto) Sugihara, Murakami, Miyakawa
Deciding who will do the AA in qualification is quite straightforward for Japan. Miyakawa’s bars and beam are weak—she won’t be forced to do them—and while Uchiyama is fine on vault and floor, she’s clearly below the level of the others. Murakami, Teramoto, and Sugihara will do the all-around, with Murakami and Teramoto expected to be the highest scorers and advance to the final.
The potential team final v. qualification lineups are a bit trickier to figure, especially for beam because it’s such a problem. I’d love to see Uchiyama get a shot on beam in the team final because she has wonderful qualities and a more difficult routine than Sugihara (6.1 to 5.9 attempted at NHK), but she has fallen a bunch this year. To me, she’d still have to earn that spot in qualification because right now, Japan is looking at a lot of lower 13s on beam—a devastating possibility. The team absolutely must value hitting above scoring potential. A 13.6 is workable. A 12.5 is not.
Teramoto could also go on floor in a team final scenario, but Sugihara’s routine is the higher-potential option. Sugihara is now competing a 6.0 D and has worked out some twisting combos to rack up connection bonus.
Perhaps counterintuitively, no country is more reliant on the power events at these Olympics than Japan. This team is going for the full vault and floor strategy and just trying to get through bars and beam (with the exception of Teramoto to save the day). Japan will expect to rank as a top-5 team on vault and floor and will hope that’s enough to carry them through to the team final over countries using some 5.5 floor Ds. That very well could happen since a 45 on vault and a high 43 on floor are not out of the question at all.
This vault and floor strategy is not without its risks, though. On vault, they’ll go with a DTY from Murakami followed by rudis from Teramoto and Miyakawa, but Miyakama’s landing can be a little triangle-shaped and Teramoto’s rudi has been a epic multi-year odyssey. At worlds last year, Teramoto fell on it in qualification and downgraded to the layout half for the team final, a move Japan cannot afford this year if vault is to score high enough.
On floor, Miyakawa and Murakami will be performing among the most difficult routines in the competition, both showing DLO 1/1s and tucked double doubles and both capable of a 6.5+. Murakami re-upgrading to the tumbling level she showed as a junior should be a huge boon to Japan’s floor, but as for Miyakawa, even though she is a legitimate medal threat with a hit routine, she has fallen a number of times this year and has recorded more 13s than 14s. Despite the risk, I do think Japan must go for all this difficulty in order to stay ahead of the challenging teams, but it won’t be a relaxing stroll.
It’s nonetheless necessary because Japan’s scoring potential on bars and beam is clearly lower, with neither guaranteed to be a top-8 total. The team just doesn’t have the beam scores or consistency beyond Teramoto, and while the bars lineup has some lovely form, it also doesn’t have those 6.0-D routines that most countries use these days and will be quite susceptible to amplitude deductions on top of that.
I wouldn’t count out Sugihara to qualify into the all-around since she has some pretty steady 14 potential going on, but the favorites will be Murakami and Teramoto, last year’s 6th- and 9th-place finishers respectively. Teramoto will be particularly encouraged that she was able to manage that 9th with a fall on beam, and both gymnasts should be able to surprise with high finishes again this time around.
Murakami absolutely nailed what was probably her best meet ever for that 6th place in 2015, proving what she’s capable of when she actually hits beam. A 14 on beam is far from a given for Murakami, but when she gets it, she has the scores on vault and floor to make a serious push into the 57s. What may hold her back from doing any more damage than that is bars. She’s just not a huge fan. She can get through it, but the handstand deductions rack up massively and amplitude is a struggle. It’s pretty much always a 13.
Teramoto is a different story in that she doesn’t have a true weak event, which has kept her so competitive in the all-around for the last five years. She’ll just dance through a meadow of 14.3s and let everyone else have their 13 moments. The rudi also does help a lot. It gives her that single big number so that she’s not another random 56, though she may find that her floor score just isn’t high enough to take advantage of the tenths to be gained there.
Top 10 is a tough, but clearly realistic, goal for either.
Vault – Sae Miyakawa elected not to perform two vaults at worlds last year, so she has been somewhat off the vault final radar. She does, however, have a competitive rudi and a DTY for a 6.2/5.8 difficulty that could be enough to sneak into the final. On both vaults, she has a tendency to land under control but very low-chested, so if she does her two vaults, the degree to which chest position is being punished (versus landing lunges) will determine her ability to catch those 6.2/6.0 vaulters to try to get into the final.
Bars and Beam – Teramoto is the team’s leader on both events, and there were years when she did make finals, bars in 2011 and beam in 2014. Bars is too deep for her this year, though beam is always a possibility given her crisp and elegant performance style. Teramoto missed the beam final by just 0.133 in 2015 and should at least hang around again this time.
Floor – Japan’s best (only?) opportunity for women’s medals at these Olympics will come on floor, though it will not be easy. With Biles and Raisman heavily favored, there’s not much room left for any others. Although as mentioned, Miyakawa and Murakami have insane tumbling. If they hit, I imagine they’d both make the final.
Miyakawa’s raw tumbling talent is at near-Simone levels, but the major different between the two is ease. For Miyakawa, it looks as hard as it is, which is made evident by the fact that she tends to fall. This year, more often than not. If she’s able to hit in both qualification and the event final, she probably deserves a medal for her remarkable routine, though a major challenge will come from her teammate, who has shown more consistency this year and appears to be the more reliable 14.8.
Murakami has made a floor final before, but not in 2015 when she was competing just a 5.7 difficulty. Which is like a 2 for her. (Remember when she was a junior and basically doing quintuple fronts on vault?) This year, Murakami has been back up to 6.5 and swept the floor titles at nationals, NHK, and event nationals. Miyakawa may have the bigger peak score, but if she’s still slightly off, Murakami is an excellent nominee to sneak into those medals herself. Perhaps the favorite to do so.