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Date: 8/10/2018

Poland 2018 represents the last chance for any Japanese women’s team to get competitive world championship experience before they host the 2019 IHF Women’s World Championship in Kumamoto at the end of next year.

With an average age of 17.81 at the U18 championship in Kielce, the Japanese have the oldest squad, led by 18-year-old captain Miyuki Abe and coached by Jun Tanaka.

The next two years could potentially be a very important period for handball in the Asian nation, not only with the world championships taking place, but the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and for coach Tunaka, he is keen to make the link between the past, present and future as he continues to develop players.

“The result for the Japan team at the last senior women’s championship in Germany was not so bad,” said Tunaka about the 16th place gained by the nation back in December last year. “We understand why, and how, we need to connect this youth level to the senior level and we would like to have the same ideas about our defence – the high-level defence.

“It is important - and we would like - to connect these players here in Poland to this senior level.”

While captain Abe could be too young for Kumamoto or even the Olympics, the Waseda University player recognises the importance of having two world events in her home nation.

“In recent years the Japanese teams could not compete in Olympic Games,” said the right wing. “But because we are the host country, now we can participate, and this provides us with a really big opportunity to promote handball in Japan.”

Abe started playing at the age of 10 after friends invited her to play with them and now she is representing her nation as captain at a world championship, a role she is clearly enjoying, although with some responsibilities.

“I wanted to spend time with my best friend and she wanted to play handball so that’s why I started – it’s really fun to play,” said Abe. “The players in our squad here in Poland are a real mix of different characteristics, but none of us like to lose.

“Even though I am the captain I don’t really care about the different ages [within the squad] as we are one team,” she continued. “But I am one of the oldest, so I do like to cheer up the younger players and ensure we all play with cheer against the other countries, as that is one way to promote handball in our country.

“When we line up before matches and the national anthem plays it lifts us all up – all our hearts are warmed up and we all get excited for the match ahead.”

With a tight 33:30 loss against Netherlands in their opening match – a game in which they led for most of the first half – the Japanese got off the mark with a 26:23 victory against Argentina as they look to get another win in their remaining games against Russia, Norway and China to grab an eighth-final place and look to record a top 16 place.

“We have two key points we are looking at: our high position in defence and a quick attack,” explained Tunaka. “When we compare ourselves to other countries the physical difference is maybe too different and tough for our athletes, so that’s why we are looking at this way.

“Our defence now is not so good,” continued the coach. "We hope they fight more in the next games, but our fast attack is very important because our team is very small - we want to have more fast attacks."

The 18-year-old pair of Osaka University of Health and Sport Science players Nao Takaki (right back) and Momoka Tsujino (left back) were two players to watch going into Poland 2018 after both travelled to Hungary to take part in the 2018 IHF Women’s Junior World Championship (although Tsujino did not play).

Takaki scored twice in her four games in Debrecen, but suffered an injury setback ahead of Poland 2018 which requires surgery and therefore, ruled her out of contention for Kielce. But, Japan have another impressive player in left back Ayame Okada. The 18-year-old has already made an impression for her team, scoring 16 times out of 19 shots and opposition teams focussing their defensive efforts on her.

“Her performance was not so good against Argentina, but we understand her strength,” said Tunaka. “Other teams are now studying her play, knowing how important she is for us – she is an important player for our team.”

Thanks to Japan team leader Takafumi Inafuku for the translation