Japan 12, Korea 8 in 36th annual friendlies

Korea and Japan met in Hanam for a series of team badminton friendlies this week, with Japan’s favourites winning all but one tie. Story and photos by Don Hearn Bi-national […]

Korea and Japan met in Hanam for a series of badminton friendlies this week, with Japan’s favourites winning all but one tie.

Story and by Don Hearn

Bi-national challenges, exchanges, and friendlies have been a part of badminton development in both Korea and Japan for decades now.  When members of Japan’s national A and B teams descended on Hanam City, just east of Seoul, earlier this week, it was further evidence that the pendulum had shifted toward what is now the badminton world’s strongest team.

Japan’s women’s team in Hanam was led by reigning women’s doubles World Champions Mayu Matsumoto / Wakana Nagahara.  They made one appearance, in the first tie, winning a near-rematch of the Singapore Open final from last weekend, but prevailing over Kong Hee Yong in straight games in her alternative pairing with veteran Kim So Yeong, as Kim Hye Jeong, the other half of the Singapore Open runner-up pairing, was not entered in the friendly.

In fact, Korea’s women’s team in particular could hope for nothing but upsets as Japan fielded exactly one player who was ranked anywhere near the lowly depths of the Korean challengers.  That player, world #87 Asuka Takahashi, still managed to beat #78 (pictured).  An had produced two incredible upsets in last year’s edition of this event when she shocked both Aya Ohori and Sayaka Sato.  At the time, An, aged 16, had only ever participated in two senior international tournaments.

The Irish Open winner pushed Asuka to 3 games in the second tie but a day earlier, she was just shy of pushing world #13 Sayaka Takahashi to a third game.

The current dominance of Japanese shuttlers over their western neighbours is not unprecedented.  In fact, this nearly annual friendly event began in 1982, when a 17-year-old Park Joo Bong (pictured above, with Kanta Tsuneyama) first joined Korea’s national team.  Park had made a major splash a couple of years earlier when he pulled off some upsets in a bi-national sporting event between Korean and Japanese high school athletes that began in the late 1960s.  The Japanese team showed up in Hanam with both of its Korean coaches, Park Joo Bong and Choi Sang Beom (pictured below), as well as  coach Kei Nakajima.

Once the senior badminton friendlies began, Korea already had an All England champion and they would remain by far the stronger team over the next 3 decades.  This year’s results, with Japan winning 3 of 4 ties across 2 days, marked only the second time in the last 11 years that Korea had been on the losing end overall, the other being in 2012, when the Olympic qualifying period left both teams seriously under-strength.  Even in 2014, Japan’s Thomas Cup-winning men’s team was almost at full strength and still won only one of two ties and last year, Japan fielded a full-strength women’s team a few weeks before winning the Uber Cup and Korea still won both ties.

The Singapore Open near-final was not the only rematch to take place in Hanam.  Saena Kawakami (pictured above) also repeated her dominance over Korea’s Lee Se Yeon, whom she also beat earlier this month in the final of the Osaka International Challenge.

In the second tie, Lee Se Yeon (pictured below), currently ranked 90th in the world, was the closest Korean player to pulling off an upset in singles when she came up just short, losing 21-11, 20-22, 25-27 to world #19 Aya Ohori.

As for the upset victims, the ones who lost twice were Takuto Inoue / Yuki Kaneko and Ayako Sakuramoto / Yukiko Takahata (pictured above).  The world #12 women’s doubles pair lost to world #28 Baek Ha Na / Kim Hye Rin in the first tie and in the second, they went down to Kong Hee Yong and Kim So Yeong.

Inoue and Kaneko lost in the first tie to a fired-up new pairing of Kang Min Hyuk and Kim Jae Hwan (pictured below), who were coming off consecutive runner-up performances in the Osaka and Hanoi International Challenges.

The Korean team made a much better showing on the second day.  Not only did the men win their only tie out of 4, but the women went from losing 1-4 on Day 1 to only 2-3 on Day 2.  The men were helped by an upset by Kim Dong Hun (pictured above).  The world #220 had pushed #11 Kanta Tsuneyama to 3 games but in the second tie, he got the better of #58 Yu Igarashi.

Heo Kwang Hee was the only Korean who faced two opponents ranked slightly below him and beat them both.  On the other hand, 19-year-old Baek Ha Na (pictured below) followed up her win with her regular partner Kim Hye Rin against Sakuramoto/Takahata by teaming up with veteran Jung Kyung Eun in a scratch pairing on Day 2 and taking down Nami Matsuyama / Chiharu Shida, to whom she and Kim had lost in the Spain Masters semi-finals.

Still, the overwhelming message was that the gap is significant between Korea and Japan at the moment.  Not only was Japan able to field seasoned veterans like Aya Ohori (pictured above) and win two matches against Korean challengers, but the other story is who was not in attendance.  Japan may have brought their World Champions in women’s doubles but when they submitted their roster originally, Matsumoto/Nagahara were still only their 3rd-ranked pair and the top two pairs – incidentally ranked #1 and #2 in the world until less than a week ago – stayed home.  Similarly, Japan left two world’s top 5 women’s singles players out of this event.  Meanwhile, Korea was also absent their top four singles players in the world rankings but only one of these is even in the world’s top 30.

In the men’s game as well, with Son Wan Ho injured, only world #26 Lee Dong Keun was absent from Korea’s singles squad, while all of their healthy men’s doubles pairs were in attendance.  Japan was minus their two top 10 men’s doubles pairs.  Incidentally, Takuro Hoki / Kobayashi (pictured below), who won in three games in the first tie against Kim Won Ho and Park Kyung Hoon, recently had their first major semi-final outside of Korea.  Previous to this month, their only appearances at the former Superseries-level had been at the last two Korea Opens but they finally cast their net a little wider by reaching the semi-finals of the Malaysia Open Super 750.  Still, Japan has two much more consistent pairs to depend on in events such as next month’s Sudirman Cup in Nanning.

The coaches in both Korea and Japan will get back to work with their charges and many of the players involved in the friendlies in Hanam this week are bound for Wuhan for next week’s Asian Championships.  For Japan, three singles players and two doubles pairs are headed to China, while from Korea’s friendly roster, only Kim So Yeong / Kong Hee Yong and two pre-swap men’s pairings will be fielded for the continental championships this year.

Men’s team friendly #2: Korea 3, Japan 2
MS1:  Kim Dong Hun (KOR) beat Yu Igarashi (JPN) 18-21, 21-9, 21-12
MD1:  Kim Dong Ju / Na Sung Seung (KOR) beat Takuto Inoue / Yuki Kaneko (JPN)  21-16, 21-17
MS2:  Heo Kwang Hee (KOR) beat Koki Watanabe (JPN) 21-16, 22-20
MD2:  Kang Min Hyuk / Kim Jae Hwan (KOR) lost to Akira Koga / Taichi Saito (JPN) 22-24, 21-19, 23-25
MS3:  Moon Joon Seop (KOR) lost to Hashiru Shimono (JPN)  21-23, 7-21

Women’s team friendly #2: Japan 3, Korea 2
WS1:  Aya Ohori (JPN) beat Lee Se Yeon (KOR)   11-21, 22-20, 27-25
WD1:  Ayako Sakuramoto / Yukiko Takahata (JPN)  lost to Kim So Yeong / Kong Hee Yong (KOR)  11-21, 14-21
WS2:  Saena Kawakami (JPN) beat Sim Yu Jin (KOR)  14-21, 21-8, 21-14
WD2:  Chiharu Shida / Nami Matsuyama (JPN) lost to Baek Ha Na / Jung Kyung Eun (KOR)  17-21, 22-20, 14-21
WS3:  Asuka Takahashi (JPN) beat An Se Young (KOR)  21-11, 17-21, 21-10

Men’s team friendly #1: Japan 3, Korea 2
MS1:  Kanta Tsuneyama (JPN) beat Kim Dong Hun (KOR)  21-15, 21-23, 21-12
MD1:  Takuro Hoki / Yugo Kobayashi (JPN) beat Kim Won Ho / Park Kyung Hoon (KOR)  21-18, 15-21, 21-14
MS2:  Yu Igarashi lost to Heo Kwang Hee (KOR)  17-21, 15-21
MD2:  Takuto Inoue / Yuki Kaneko (JPN) lost to Kang Min Hyuk / Kim Jae Hwan (KOR) 17-21, 23-25
MS3:  Koki Watanabe (JPN) beat Ha Young Woong (KOR)  21-19, 21-11

Women’s team friendly #1: Japan 4, Korea 1
WS1:  Sayaka Takahashi (JPN) beat An Se Young (KOR)  16-21 20-22
WD1:  Mayu Matsumoto / Wakana Nagahara (JPN) beat Kim So Yeong / Kong Hee Yong (KOR) 21-17, 21-12
WS2:  Aya Ohori (JPN) beat Sim Yu Jin (KOR) 21-14, 21-13
WD2:  Ayako Sakuramoto / Yukiko Takahata (JPN) lost to Kim Hye Rin / Baek Ha Na (KOR)  21-15, 19-21, 19-21
WS3:  Saena Kawakami (JPN) beat Lee Se Yeon (KOR)  21-15, 21-7

Don Hearn

About Don Hearn

Don Hearn is an Editor and Correspondent who hails from a badminton-loving town in rural Canada. He joined the Badzine team in 2006 to provide coverage of the Korean badminton scene and is committed to helping Badzine to promote badminton to the place it deserves as a global sport. Contact him at: don @ badzine.net