Tokyo, Japan, March 21, 2018 – The Japan men’s national volleyball team start training for a busy 2018 on April 9 with a five-day training camp in Tokyo followed by two weeks in the southern city of Kagoshima.
In their build-up to the inaugural edition of the FIVB Volleyball Men’s Nations League (May 25-July 8), the Japan squad will head to training camps in the Netherlands (May 12-18) and France (May 19-22). They kick off their Nations League campaign in Rouen, France, on May 25 in Pool 1 where they will play France, Australia and Iran.
After that, they will head to Brazil to face Korea and the United States as well as their hosts, and then they will become hosts themselves, facing Bulgaria, Italy and Poland in Osaka. Their long journeys continue as they travel to Germany, where they will face the home team, Russia and Argentina, before coming closer to home with matches in China against China, Canada and Serbia.
Last year was a bit of a mixed bag for the Japanese. They eventually finished as runners-up in Group 2 of the FIVB World League, losing 3-0 to Slovenia in the final, despite edging the Slovenians 3-2 in the group stage. Japan finished the group stage fourth with a 5-4 record, similar to Asian rivals China (fifth) and Korea (sixth). Three of their losses went to full sets along with two of their victories. In the Group 2 semifinals they also defeated hosts Australia before losing to Slovenia.
Japan were hoping to use their strong World League performance as a springboard for the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup, which they hosted, but things didn’t quite go according to plan as they faced the cream of volleyball’s top teams. They managed to pick up only two sets in their five straight losses. Japan’s French assistant coach Philippe Blain acknowledged that the Japanese have to find more answers to their problems.
Other teams, he said, were “more powerful and more smart, so we faced many problems. We need to find better skills, especially in our passing but also we need to find a solution to the size gap.”
While the Japanese players have always had good discipline and superb defence, they have struggled against bigger and stronger teams, but they have found taller players such as Issei Otake and Taishi Onodera in recent years and can start to compete with the best. At the Grand Champions Cup, five of the young squad were 200 cm tall, with the oldest player being captain Hideomi Fukatsu at 27. Yuki Ishikawa, 22, is a key member of the team, while Masahiro Yanagida has one of the most devastating serves in the game.
At the Grand Champions Cup, Blain acknowledged that the ultimate target is the Tokyo Olympics in 2020: “It’s a long-term programme to arrive at Tokyo 2020. These kinds of matches represent the kind of experience we need to have. We have to learn from these matches to find solutions to our problems and difficulties. These competitions are the best form of evaluation of what we have to do and what we have to develop and what we have to increase. It’s a young team and they must learn.”
The Japan men’s team have been rebranded as the “Ryujin Nippon” or Japan Dragon Gods whose overwhelming strength (according to the definition on the Japan Volleyball Association website) controls heaven and earth and who are “filled with the desire to be strong, intense and noble.”
Yuichi Nakagaichi, a star opposite on the Japan team in the early 1990s, remains at the helm of the squad, having been appointed in late 2016. Japan failed to qualify for the 2014 FIVB Volleyball Men’s World Championship, but they have qualified for this year’s tournament, which they will use as another step along the way to Tokyo 2020.
Nakagaichi has said he hopes to boost his squad of players in 2018, but realises there’s no simple answer to overcoming his team’s problems.
“There’s no silver bullet,” he states. “So currently we are trying to tell ourselves to be more aggressive and to improve our teamwork. We want to have a more mental approach and learn mental techniques to raise our motivation. There are techniques for learning such things, but on the court when we are faced with tough situations there should be a leader who can help others and push the other players.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have a clear answer to this problem yet. Strengthening the mentality of the players isn’t easy. The players must grow as people. We have to have a complete approach that involves the physical side and the mental side, as well as individual growth. Looking towards Tokyo 2020, we need more tall players like [201-cm Taishi] Onodera. We want to face more teams with height and power and find ways out of our problems.”
Japan may not have reached the heights they expected in 2017, but under the guidance of Nakagaichi and Blain they are a demonstrably better team and this has not gone unnoticed by their peers.
“I think Japan have been raising their level year by year,” France coach Laurent Tillie notes. “We played Japan in 2014 and I seem to recall they weren’t so strong, but I think in 2015, 2016 and 2017, they have evolved as a team and are becoming more effective. They always have a problem of height, but they have speed, technique and good defence. I adore their fighting spirit. Whether they are winning or losing, they always fight as one.”
Following the Nations League, Japan will be concentrating on two other major events: the Asian Games in the last two weeks of August and the World Championship in September. With two years to go to the Tokyo Olympics, development will be the main theme for 2018. With a new younger, taller squad of players, the only way for Japan should be up.
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