Then And Now: Changing Times in Japan


In the early hours of March 11, 2011, I was emailing a contact in Japan. It was less than two weeks until the World Figure Skating Championships were supposed to begin in Tokyo and somehow I had forgotten to send an ID photo for my press credential.

I attached a photo and sent it to the organizing committee and they got back to me with a quick reply to acknowledge its receipt and to say they were looking forward to seeing me in Tokyo. That would have been about 11:00 am local time. Just over three hours later, the most powerful earthquake ever to hit Japan happened unleashing a devastating tsunami. Worlds was relocated.

Three years later, Japan finally gets to host the World Championships. The event is taking place in the Saitama Super Arena, which is located in Saitama Prefecture, just outside the Tokyo Metropolitan area. The arena acted as a temporary refuge shelter for some of the thousands of people who lost their homes in the earthquake and tsunami.

This week it will be filled with happier moments, as the world’s best figure skaters come to a country that has embraced the sport of figure skating like no other.

It is also the season of the cherry blossom, a time of transience and change in Japan. The school and work year ends here in March and begins in April and during the brief time the cherry blossoms bloom people gather in parks underneath the trees drinking and eating till late at night.

Fittingly enough in this Olympic season, this year’s World Championships will also witness a changing of the guard. Only five of the skaters and teams that medaled in the individual events in Sochi will compete in Saitama and many others who did not medal at the Olympics have retired.

Some skaters who thought about hanging up their skates after Sochi have decided to give it one more try, while some will be looking to build on what they achieved at the Olympics in their quest for greater glory. There will also be newcomers for whom Saitama will be remembered as the special place where they first represented their country at a World Championships.

Tickets for the event sold out almost immediately when they went on sale. It is hard for people who live outside Japan to fathom just how popular the sport of figure skating is here now. The top figure skaters are stars and appear in advertisements and on TV. The audience at the Saitama Super Arena will enthusiastically cheer on both the Japanese and non-Japanese skaters.

The main rink and practice rink are both located inside the Saitama Super Arena. However, the official hotel for the skaters is located in downtown Tokyo, which is an hour away by shuttle bus from the venue. For the convenience of the skaters, the organizers have arranged beds and a sleeping area for those who might want to have a quick nap without having to travel back to the hotel.

2014 is an anniversary year for many of the most important moments in Japanese figure skating history. Midori Ito won Japan’s first ever World title 25 years ago in Paris, France (1989). Yuka Sato won gold at home in Makuhari in 1994 (another post-Olympic Worlds); 20 years later she will be back at Worlds coaching American Jeremy Abbott, Valentina Marchei of Italy and Canada’s Elladj Baldé.

Shizuka Arakawa won the World title in Dortmund, Germany in 2004. She will mark the 10th anniversary of that victory by commentating for Japanese television here in Saitama.

The sign on the window at the ticket office this morning announced that all practice tickets for today are sold out.

I am very much looking forward to covering my first World Championships for International Figure Skating magazine and hope I can share the excitement of seeing the new wave of champions come into bloom right before our very eyes.