The 2021-2022 figure skating season is well underway as we head towards the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. One story that has already emerged this season is the success of Japanese pairs and ice dance teams on the international stage. Despite the fact that Japanese fans make up a massive part of the global figure skating fandom internationally, the pairs and ice dance events have traditionally not enjoyed the level of popularity that the singles events inspire.
A Little Bit Of Backstory
Before we dive into where ice dance and pairs figure skating are today in Japan, it’s worth taking a brief look at the history. Since pairs figure skating became an official event at the Japanese national figure skating championships in 1955, there have been 18 seasons where no pairs team competed in the event at all, most recently in the 2012-2013 season. The best finish for a Japanese pairs team at a senior international event was in 2012 when Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran received a bronze medal at the World Figure Skating Championships.
Since ice dance became an official event competed at the Japanese national figure skating championships in 1956, there have been six seasons where there was a single ice dance team competing, most recently the 2007-2008 season. The best finish for a Japanese ice dance team at a senior international competition came in 2017 when Kana Muramoto and Chris Reed received a bronze medal at the Four Continents Championships.
The depth of figure skating talent in the singles events is vast in Japan. Every year, there are at least 5-10 in both the men’s and women’s singles events that could realistically be at the top of the leaderboard nationally. Any of these top skaters could realistically expect to also be competitive on the international stage. Because of this, fans tend to focus almost exclusively on following the singles events, knowing that there is always a good chance that a singles skater representing Japan will be at the top of the podium. With the resounding success of these singles skaters, it’s not uncommon for fans, both Japanese and international, to gravitate to building fandoms around the likes of Yuzuru Hanyu, Mao Asada, or Miki Ando as examples.
Due to the incredible depth in Japanese singles, as well as the increased focus on quads for both men and women, there may also be a misconception that skaters who compete in pairs or ice dance are simply skaters who were not talented enough to achieve success in singles events. However, in countries where skaters have traditionally enjoyed international success such as Canada, Russia, China, and the United States, the pairs and ice dance events tend to enjoy just as much popularity as the singles events. Japan has not yet been able to crack this widespread success internationally.
Putting Together a Team
Another issue Japan faces is the global challenge of putting an ice dance or pairs team together. There are a lot of reasons for this, one of which is the declining popularity of the sport among men internationally. It is also important in a pairs team to have two people whose heights are vastly different, a unique challenge in Japan since the average height of men and women are generally fairly close.
In today’s figure skating world, it’s not uncommon to have to look internationally for a skating partner in either pairs or ice dance. There are historical examples of Japanese skaters leaving to compete for other countries. Rena Inoue left Japan to represent the United States with her partner and later husband John Baldwin from 2000-2010. Yuko Kawaguchi (Kavaguti) also left Japan and mainly represented Russia with partner Alexander Smirnov from 2006-2017.
On the flip side of this, skaters that are originally from other countries frequently represent Japan on the international stage. One of the more recent, and probably most well-known examples includes the Reed family skaters, American-born ice dancers who represented Japan. One-half of the current top ice dance team representing Japan, Tim Koleto, is an American-born skater who previously represented South Korea and Norway before teaming up with his current partner Misato Komatsubara to represent Japan.
The International Skating Union (ISU) is quite strict about multinational partnerships, however, and it has become quite cumbersome for these partnerships to be created. Among the regulations are that skaters must wait a full year between representing two different countries, and skaters must meet the residency requirements of the country they intend to represent. Depending on the situation, this can be quite a challenge for skaters wishing to represent Japan as part of a partnership.
Nowhere To Practice
Unfortunately, despite—and even because of—the massive popularity of figure skating as a sport in Japan, many top figure skaters in all disciplines eventually leave the country, at least temporarily, to train overseas. Some athletes have left due to rink closures, while others have found it easier to focus on their training away from the distractions of the celebrity status afforded by their success in the sport. Factors such as these create an even greater challenge accommodating pairs and ice dance teams, who require more physical room to train.
Relatedly, because the singles events enjoy such popularity in Japan, many of Japan’s coaches focus exclusively on training singles skaters. Ice dance requires specialized training in elements like dance lifts and intricate footwork patterns; for pairs, athletes need to add throws and side-by-side jumps. Those coaching these disciplines too need specialized training to set their teams up for success.
Into the Future
With the recent successes of Japanese pairs and ice dance teams on the world stage, it will be interesting to see if these events gain popularity in Japan. Riku Miura and Ryuichi are looking to become the second Japanese pair in skating history to qualify for the ISU Grand Prix Final after winning a silver medal at this year’s Skate America.
Former singles skater Daisuke Takahashi has come out of retirement to compete in the ice dance event with partner Kana Muramoto. Their first event of the 2021-2022 season will be the NHK Trophy. There’s a lot of potential in these teams, and the skating world could certainly benefit from what they bring to the table.