Featured interview: Team Japan

- Lausanne, Switzerland

Q = Interviewer Wei Xiong for ISU
RH = Rika Hongo
KT = Keiji Tanaka
SM= Satoko Miyahara
YH= Yuzuru Hanyu

Four skaters from Japan, Rika Hongo, Keiji Tanaka, Satoko Miyahara and Yuzuru Hanyu talked to us about their skating career, competitions and their programs for this season amongst other topics before the ISU Four Continents Championships 2017.

Feature-Keiji1-625885080Q: How did you get into figure skating?

RH: My mother is a figure skating coach. I followed her to work when I was three years old, and I played around the rink. When I was five, I told her that I want to learn figure skating, and that’s how I started.

KT: There was a skating rink near my home, so at the beginning I went there just for fun. It was during my first grade in elementary school. Then I enjoyed it so much that gradually I started to take regular skating classes, and before I realized, I was already a member of the skating club.

SM: I started skating when I was four. I lived in the U.S. for two years and a half when my parents were studying there. There was a skating rink inside a shopping mall, when I went there, I tried to skate for the first time and I really enjoyed it, so I started to skate.

YH: It was my elder sister who started to skate first. At that time I wasn’t particularly into figure skating, but I was just following my sister and skating with her.

Q: When did you decide to dedicate yourself to this sport and be an athlete?

RH: I was inspired by Shizuka Arakawa’s victory at the 2006 Olympics, since then I started to dream about competing at the Olympics, and I started to train hard to be a skater.

After she won the Olympics, there was a parade in her hometown Sendai, and you were the kid who accompanied her in the parade car. Do you still remember that day?

Yes, I remember I was sitting next to her, and I saw the shining gold medal at a close distance. I thought that was so cool and I was inspired.

KT: After I joined the skating club, I think being an athlete just became something very natural to me, and I never thought about quitting because training was tough.

SM: I kept skating and naturally began real training after I came back to Japan. When I was in third grade in elementary school, I competed at my first international competition. Ever since then I realized I would become an athlete.

YH: For me, an athlete equals to an Olympian, an Olympic gold medalist. When I was around five-years-old, I already seriously thought about winning the gold medal at the Olympics. But what made me want the Olympic title strongly was the battle between Yagudin and Plushenko at 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Feature-Satoko1-628943090Q: Did you already have the confidence that you were going to be a top skater in the world?

Tanaka: I still don’t think I am competitive on the international stage, but one thing that inspired me was when Yuzuru won the World Junior Championships. He is the same age as me, and the best among us. When he won the junior title, I thought it was really awesome, and I wanted to catch up with him. So I made up my mind and set my goal to be a competitive skater in the world. One year after, I won the silver medal at junior Worlds.

SM: I didn’t think about being a top skater at that time, but I strongly wanted to go to the Olympics.

YH: Yes! I remember I got the second place at my first ever competition since I started to skate, but soon I won my next competition. I was presented a trophy in that competition, and I lifted the trophy over my head, just trying to imitate what Plushenko and Yagudin always did. It was a small trophy like this size (he pointed to his beverage bottle), and I did it like this (he held up the bottle over his head). It was a small, domestic competition, I think I was five years old, or maybe first grade in elementary school.

Q: Being an athlete is tough, but is there anything even tougher that you hadn’t expected or imagined?

RH: All your time is occupied by skating, I train every day, and it is so difficult to find some time just to hang out with your friends. Also, I need to get up early in the morning, that’s also tough.

YH: The risk of injury is high, and there is no guarantee that the harder you train the better you become, so I think that’s really the difficult part. Also, I think this is unique in Japan, but figure skating is so popular here that I cannot go out easily, and there are paparazzi around, so this is something difficult to deal with too.

(Does training in Canada make things easier?)

Yes, I can get more of my own time in Canada.

Feature-Rika1-624176782Q: What’s your favorite element in figure skating and what gives you headache?

RH: I like the jumps the most. Among all types of jumps, I like toe the most, but I am not good at loop.

KT: I like doing footwork, especially when it fits the music, it feels really enjoyable. As for what I am not good at, compared to those best skaters in the world, I have a lot of work to do on my spins.

SM: I like all elements. But I am not good at twizzles, and I wish I could spin faster on flying camel spins.

Q: Could you share with us the stories or inspirations of your programs this season?

RH: My free skate this season is choreographed by Akiko Suzuki. I want to enhance my presentation, and I think I can learn a lot from her. Before she retired, we were skating in the same rink, and I was always amazed and inspired by her. It feels great that I can continue to learn from her now in this way.

KT: It is a new genre of music (“Federico Fellini Medley”) that I’ve never tried before, so it was really difficult at the beginning of the season, I just couldn’t catch the feeling of the program, and couldn’t show the right facial expression. When I made a mistake on the first few jumping passes, it felt very hard to concentrate on presentation, and hence couldn’t put the program together. But at the NHK Trophy, I did well with the first few jumps, so I carried the momentum to the rest of the program, kept the energy and paid attention to facial expressions. I finally felt I was able to perform this program well.

SM: Tom Dickson recommended the “Star Wars” music to me in the middle of last season, and we started to do the choreography right after the season ended. The music is something different from what I’ve skated to before, but I think it is so cool and I like it.

You are always shy off the ice, is it difficult to skate to something so “cool”?

Yes, I really need to pay a lot of attention to the movements and scale when I skate, and give much more strength than before.

YH: The music of my free skate was composed by a Japanese composer, if I go deep into the story behind the music, it was actually the opening song of 1998 Nagano Paralympics. My mom watched the Nagano Olympics and Paralympics, and then she wanted my elder sister to skate, so she took her to skating class. If you think about it, those Olympics were the starting point of my skating life, so I want to use this piece of music. Also, as I mentioned, it was composed by a Japanese composer, so I think I can continue to present something I’ve learned from “SEIMEI”.

The Olympics really is something special for you, isn’t it?

Yes. On one hand, when it comes to competing at a competition, like in Sochi, I treated it as a normal competition; but on the other hand, I am planning and preparing for the next Olympics, so I guess I have a special feeling for it. Of course, I want to win the gold medal again in Pyeongchang.

Your long program is called “Hope and Legacy”, and you talked about how skaters’ performances can remain as a legacy. Which performance of yours do you think is your legacy?

YH: It was my first novice national championships, which I won. I was very happy at that time, not only happy for the win, but also for my score. It was still under the 6.0 system, I watched competitions on TV a lot, so I knew only those very top skaters in the world could get over 5.5 points, but I got 5.2 for my presentation. I was so happy at that time, and my performance at that competition became my motivation of skating, and it still motivates me now.

Feature-Hanyu1-629147354Q: What’s your equity in Team Japan? For example, are you the one that laughs the most, or talks the most, or are you the one who likes to give advice and take care of rookies, or are you the one that doesn’t talk at all, etc.

RH: There are younger skaters coming up this season, but this is only my third year on the senior circuit and there are more experienced skaters than me, like Asada or Murakami, so I am the one who still tries to learn from the elders during competitions.

KT: I am the shy one and not good at talking. On the contrary, Yuzuru is very outgoing and really talks a lot, sometimes I cannot follow him.

YH: We are all teammates, but at the same time competitors. For example, I am at the same age with Ryuju Hino and Keiji Tanaka who also competed at NHK Trophy, we know each other since we were kids, we are really good friends off the ice, but on the ice, we are competitors.

Q: Yuzuru, Keiji just said you always talk so much that he sometimes cannot follow.

YH: I admit. I really talk a lot, but I am thankful that he is always willing to listen. Just like I said, we knew each other from long ago, so I feel like he can understand me.

Q: How about in the skating club? For Rika and Satoko, there are many younger girls in your rink, do you give them advice?

RH: I talk to them a lot, but we seldom talk about skating.

SM: I often practice with them, and I get stimulation from them, I enjoy skating with them. I don’t always do that, but sometimes I do give them advice. I also have things to learn from them, so I think it is a very good training environment.

Q: What do you like to do off the ice?

RH: I like sleeping and eating. I especially like ice cream, so whenever there is a limited edition or new flavor of ice cream, I will go get it and enjoy.

KT: I like watching movies. Recently I watch a lot of Japanese movies.

SM: I like reading books and sleeping, and I like cooking. I like something sweet, and I like Japanese food. I cook for my family when I have time.

Q: Yuzuru, you are taking university courses via e-school, right?

YH: Yes, but I am too busy training to keep up with my studies. Nevertheless my classes are very interesting. I am majoring in Human Science, it is very broad, and I study a lot about human, about computer science, etc. Recently I am really into Human Bioethics. I’ve thought a lot about “life” in my life so far, and I am also thinking about “life” when I perform “Hope and Legacy”, so studying Human Bioethics helps my skating. Given that I don’t really have much time, I try to take less courses, but study in depth and make every minute out of it count.

Q: One thing I have to ask Keiji, your name “Keiji” (which means “police” in Japanese) is so special. Who gave you the name?

KT: It was my father. He gave me this name because it is very unique, you can’t really find another person with the same name, and he wants me to be a person with strong sense of justice. He didn’t expect me to be a policeman, but I think this is really a good name, and I am glad that people can remember me by this name.

Q: Last but not least, what would you say to non-figure skating fans to invite them into the world of figure skating?

RH: Figure skating is a sport that combines both the excitement from the athletic side and the beauty of artistry. Nowadays, top men skaters are doing different quads, ladies are challenging triple axels, the technical development with rewarding scores can really excite the audience. As for the art side, as long as you watch a competition, watch how the skaters perform their story with the music, you will understand the beauty of it.

KT: It is a sport with so many different and unique personalities. Compared to other sports, skaters can demonstrate their personalities by choosing different music and performing different choreographies, so it is not only a sport that embeds artistry, but there are infinite possibilities of how you demonstrate the artistry. On the athletic side, there will be more and more difficult elements in the competition, like the quads, so you can enjoy both the art and the athletics in the same sport.

SM: It is a sport at which you need to excel technically, but the performance can touch the audience’s hearts like other forms of art. I think that’s the charm of figure skating.

YH: Figure skating is very popular in Japan now, but it didn’t come over night. In recent years the level of men’s and ladies’ singles became higher and higher, I hope people around the world can look at the sport from an international point of view, and be excited for the development of the sport regardless of which part of the world.

Q: Thank you very much for the interview and good luck for the rest of the season!

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