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Watanabe changes judo’s landscape

KUALA LUMPUR – Kiyomi Watanabe has opened the door for other Filipino-Japanese to join the national team, a development which the national sports association hopes will elevate the level of competition back home.

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Watanabe, 21, collected her third straight gold medal in as many Games appearances, making her one of the country’s best bets in the Asian Games next year in Indonesia.

In the quickest bout in judo, Watanabe finished off Orapin Senatham of Thailand in 36 seconds.

Mariya Takahashi, one of five Fil-Japanese in the lineup, also struck gold at the expense of four-time Games champion Surattana Thongsri who she also stopped.

Judo chief David Carter said before Watanabe’s arrival, Tomohiko Yoshina was the first Filipino of Japanese descent to play for the country.

Yoshina represented the country in the 2012 London Olympics, according to Carter.

But Carter said it was Watanabe who inspired other Fil-Japanese recruits.

“Malakas ang appeal ni Kiyomi, eh,” he conceded.

The three other Fil-Japanese in the team are brothers Keisei and Shugen Nakano, who earned bronze medals in their respective weight classes, and Kohei Kohagura.

The Nakano brothers’ inclusion was made possible by their older brother, Kodo who competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

“Because of his age, I asked Kodo to concentrate on coaching his younger brothers,” said Carter.

Takahashi was discovered during the national team’s training in Fuji Gakuen in Yamanashi, Japan last year.

“Word spread out that we were looking for Fil-Japanese, but actually we did not,” Carter said.

He said some Fil-Japanese approached them and asked that they try out for the team.

“How can I say no?” Carter asked. “Kita nyo naman sila, sa umaga training, sa tanghali training, sa gabi training. Natural sa katawan nila ang judo. Hindi kagaya sa Pilipinas na kailangan mo pang i-push ang mga bata.”

There are three more Fil-Japanese judokas who are in the national pool, according to Carter.

He said that is understandable that there are some grumbling among homegrown talents who felt that their spots were taken.

“Pero nagkaroon naman ng tryouts sa Manila before the selection,” he explained.

Sydney Sy, the only homegrown Filipino in the team, won the bronze in the men’s 78-kilogram division.

All in all, the national judo team won 2 golds and 3 bronzes, a marked improvement from its 2015 haul of 1 gold and 2 bronzes.