During every Olympics, the host nation always garners extra attention, and that will certainly be the case again this year with Japan, a country that has global stars, Olympic legends and exciting youngsters among its ranks.
Japan is coming off its best-ever medal haul, having earned 41 medals at the 2016 Rio Games, but it could find even more success this year. The Tokyo Olympic program has more medal events than ever thanks to the addition of several new sports, and because Japan has top contenders in many of those new sports, it's not hard to imagine them eclipsing that total from 2016.
Below we've highlighted some of the top Japanese athletes expected to compete at the Tokyo Games. Some of them are already known globally, but many others could elevate their profiles this summer with buzzworthy performances on home soil.
Looking for learn more about the top athletes of the Tokyo Olympics? Be sure to check out our lists of U.S. athletes to watch and international athletes to watch.
Naomi Osaka, Tennis
Japan's Naomi Osaka is shaping up to be one of the biggest names at her home Olympics. Osaka has picked up four Grand Slam titles since 2018 — making her the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam. A near-universal fan favorite, Osaka was one of the highest-earning athletes in the world in 2020, surpassing Serena Williams to become highest-paid female athlete ever over the course of a year. Along the way, Osaka used her growing platform to advocate for social justice causes.
Kei Nishikori, Tennis
Rio bronze medalist Kei Nishikori could be in line to further the intrigue around tennis for the host nation, perhaps playing both individually and alongside Osaka in the mixed doubles event. Although he’s reached just one Grand Slam final (2014 at the U.S. Open, when he became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final), the former world No. 4 remains one of the highest-paid tennis players as he stages a comeback from undergoing elbow surgery in 2019.
Hideki Matsuyama, Golf
By earning the green jacket at the Masters Tournament in April, Hideki Matsuyama became the first Japanese man to ever win a major golf tournament. Come July, he’ll be looking to add even more to his already successful 2021. Matsuyama is far and away Japan’s best golfer on the men’s side, and barring an unthinkable collapse, he’ll be Japan’s top competitor when the men’s tournament gets underway on July 29. Matsuyama is currently the 18th-ranked men’s golfer on the planet — 58 spots ahead of the next closest Japanese golfer in the World Golf Rankings.
Rui Hachimura, Basketball
Taken ninth overall in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards, Hachimura was the first Japanese player ever selected in the first round of the draft. The 23-year-old, who was born to a Japanese mother and a Beninese father, grew up in Japan and then spent three years at Gonzaga before entering the draft. When he takes the court in Tokyo, Hachimura will be the biggest star on the host nation’s basketball team. He has been a regular starter at power forward in his two seasons with the Wizards and averaged 13.8 points per game this past season.
Masahiro Tanaka, Baseball
Former New York Yankee All-Star pitcher Masahiro Tanaka opted to return to his native Japan for the 2021 season, making him eligible to play for the Olympic hosts this summer. The NPB, Japan’s top-flight baseball league, has scheduled an Olympic break to allow its national team the best chance to win the gold medal on home soil. Tanaka has officially been named to the national team's roster and will be one of the most recognizable players in the tournament. It will be a second Olympics for Tanaka, who pitched for Japan at the Beijing 2008 Games as a 19-year-old.
Saki Kumagai, Soccer
The captain of Japan’s national women’s soccer team is considered by many to be the best player, man or woman, that Japan has ever produced. Kumagai has spent the last eight seasons as a defensive midfielder for Olympique Lyonnais, the most successful women’s soccer club in Europe. She was instrumental to Japan’s phenomenal stretch from 2011-2012, during which it won the FIFA Women’s World Cup and took silver at the London Olympics. “Nadeshiko” has struggled in the time since, though, and are not considered among the medal frontrunners at their home Olympics this summer. Kumagai has a deal in place with Germany's Bayern Munich for the upcoming club season.
Kohei Uchimura, Gymnastics
Widely regarded as the best male gymnast of all time, Japan’s Kohei Uchimura qualified for his fourth — and almost certainly final — Olympic squad. Uchimura is the only gymnast (male or female) to win back-to-back Olympic all-around titles, but instead of pursing a team or all-around berth this time around, Uchimura has said he will focus on competing individually on high bar.
Ueno Yukiko, Softball
Ueno became a legend of Japanese softball when she pitched Japan to victory over the United States in the Beijing 2008 gold medal game. Thirteen years later, she’s as determined as ever to chase another gold medal on home soil. She’ll be 39 when the Games begin in July, and with softball not included in the Paris 2024 Olympic program, Ueno knows this is almost certain to be her last chance to make more Olympic history with her national team.
Rikako Ikee, Swimming
The Tokyo Olympics were an afterthought to Rikako Ikee in 2019. The Japanese swimmer, then 19, was fighting a year-long battle against leukemia so painful that at times, she said, she felt death was inevitable. Luckily, Rikako’s treatment was successful and, thanks to the Olympic postponement due to COVID-19, she was able to resume training in time to qualify for the Games in her hometown of Tokyo. While Rikako did not qualify for an individual event, her participation on Japan’s 4x100m medley relay promises to be one of the emotional highlights of the Games.
Misugu Okamoto, Skateboard Park
A contingent of young Japanese skaters have started taking women’s park contests by storm, and Misugu Okamoto, who turns 15 in July, is leading the way. Okamoto came out of nowhere in 2019, starting the season as a relative unknown and ending it as the champion of nearly every contest she entered, including X Games and the world championships. Currently the No. 1 ranked skater in women’s park by a wide margin, Okamoto boasts difficult tricks (including a 540) and huge airs in her runs, all of which have helped set her apart from the competition and establish her as the host nation’s top hope for skateboarding gold at the Olympics.
Yuto Horigome, Skateboard Street
While Nyjah Huston has been setting the bar in skateboard street contests for over a decade now, Yuto Horigome has become one of his biggest challengers in recent years. The 22-year-old Tokyo native is ranked No. 2 in the world just behind Huston, but those two are well ahead of the rest of the field in points. The duo found themselves trading places on the top two steps of the podium at some of the major contests in 2019, with Horigome winning X Games and Huston winning the world championship. That trend has continued so far this year, with Huston taking first place at Dew Tour and Horigome winning gold at the world championship.
Kawai Risako, Wrestling
After winning a gold medal at the Rio Games in 2016, Kawai Risako is hoping for more of the same at the Tokyo Olympics. This time, though, she’ll be competing at 57 kg instead of 63 kg, a decision which ultimately ended legendary Japanese wrestler Kaori Icho’s bid at a fifth Olympic appearance. Kawai won three straight gold medals at the World Wrestling Championships from 2017 to 2019 and has four gold medals from the Asian Wrestling Championships under her belt as well. Japan has been the most successful country in women's wrestling since it debuted at the 2004 Olympics, winning 11 out of a possible 18 gold medals.
Shohei Ono, Judo
As the birthplace as judo, it's no surprise that Japan has historically excelled in the sport. Japanese athletes have won 39 gold medals in judo, more than any other sport, and one judoka hoping to add to that total is Shohei Ono. Ono is expected to represent his home country in Tokyo this summer and is shooting to defend his title in the men’s 73 kg division. He won gold in Rio and has four world championship gold medals to his credit, including two from the 2019 World Judo Championships (one for 73 kg and another for mixed team). In the prime of his judo career at 29 years old, Ono is considered one of the top judokas in the world and hasn't lost a match since 2014.
Kiyou Shimizu, Karate
Because Japan is also the birthplace of karate, the host nation will be particularly invested in the sport's first (and, for now, only) Olympic appearance and hoping to capture several gold medals. One of the top karatekas set to represent Japan in Tokyo is 27-year-old Kiyou Shimizu. Shimizu has won gold medals at the Karate World Championships twice (2014 and 2016), as well as a silver medal in 2018. She’s also a two-time gold medalist at the Asian Games (2014 and 2018). Shimzu specializes in individual kata and is expected to be one of the top competitors in that discipline once the Games begin.
Tomoa Narasaki, Sport Climbing
No country boasts a deeper roster of sport climbing medal contenders than Japan, and Tomoa Narasaki is at the top of the class. The 24-year-old from Tochigi Prefecture has mastered the bouldering discipline and excels in both speed and lead climbing as well. He is the defending world champion in the combined competition, which is the format that will be contested at the Tokyo Olympics. Narasaki is also a three-time World Cup champion in bouldering and combined and will be the gold medal favorite when sport climbing debuts in his home nation.
Yusuke Suzuki, Track & Field
Race-walker Yusuke Suzuki, 33, is the reigning world champion in the men’s 50km walk and current world record-holder in the men’s 20km walk. Despite having a collective seven men in the top 15 all-time in those two events, Japan only just recently won its first Olympic race-walking medal — Hirooki Arai took bronze in the men’s 50km walk in Rio, the nation’s first individual medal in a track or road event since Mizuki Noguchi’s marathon gold in 2004, and first such instance on the men’s side since Koichi Morishita’s marathon silver in 1992. Suzuki didn’t race in Rio due to a groin injury, but he’s expected to contend for gold in the 50km walk at the Tokyo Olympics.
Athletes to watch from other countries
The United States Olympic team is expected to include over 500 athletes for the Tokyo Olympics. Here we've highlighted some of the Americans who you'll want to have on your radar during this Olympic season.
With over 11,000 athletes expected to take part in the Tokyo Olympics, there are bound to be quite a few that turn in star performances. Here we've highlighted a few athletes from around the globe and across various sports that deserve to be on your radar during the upcoming Games.
Get to know Tokyo
Want to know more about Japan? Learn more here about the vibrant capital city that will be hosting the Olympic Games. You can also find the official mascot and medal designs.