Japanese volleyball player wants to shine as team captain, mother, and most of all, as middle blocker for the team
In the course of her journey toward the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, ARAKI Erika had two major decisions to make.
One day, shortly before the start of the year 2020, Araki received a phone call from NAKADA Kumi, the head coach of the Japanese national women’s volleyball team.
“I want you to captain the national team,” Nakada said.
Araki was taken by surprise and was not able to reply immediately as she was also thinking about how IWASAKA Nana would feel. Iwasaka had served as captain ever since Nakada assumed the position of head coach.
At the World Cup 2019, the team had given a lacklustre performance and finished in fifth place, raising concerns over how the team would fare at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“We can’t win because we don't have a team leader for the players,” Nakada said. Some also pointed out that the team’s strategies and plans were unclear, and the team lacked unity. There was uncertainty in the team. Araki, who had captained Japan’s national team at the London 2012 Games and led the team to secure its first medal in 28 years, lamented the situation more than anyone.
She decided to rise to the challenge for the Olympic Games, and said yes to Nakada the following day.
Just as the year 2020 started and Araki readjusted her life in towards the Tokyo 2020 Games as the captain of the national team, the Games were postponed by one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Araki will have turned 37 years old at the time of the Games. While unsure about being physically read, she was also worried about spending another year on long training camps, away from her daughter who was still in her first year at elementary school. Despite being shocked about the postponement of the Games, Araki made another momentous decision.
“The postponement can’t be helped. I can’t afford to be pessimistic about this. I just have to get on with it.”
“It wasn’t just my aspiration for the Olympic Games that drove me forward, but also all the hard work that the entire team had put in towards gaining a medal. I also felt a sense of mission to fulfil my responsibilities as the captain,” she said.
When the postponement had been decided, Nakada contacted Araki immediately, but Araki assured her that she intended to persevere.
In July, Araki turned up at the national team’s training camp. When Nakada saw her in person, she was relieved.
The head coach told her, “Seeing you training hard every day, I can tell that you’ve joined the camp and are very determined. You’ve also been working on your conditioning during the stay-at-home period while looking after your daughter, which is very impressive,” Nakada said whilst expressing her full confidence on the team captain.
Japan’s unique strategy
With Nakada's leadership, the Japan national team's strength lies in what they refer to as the ‘JAPAN WAY’.
Japan has no outstanding ace player such as ZHU Ting of China, who tops the world ranking, Tijana BOSKOVIC of Serbia, the ‘queen of volleyball ’, and Paola EGONU of Italy, who earned a silver medal at the FIVB Volleyball World Championship.
Moreover, the average height of the team is 10cm shorter than most of the world’s top teams. If Japan were to play in the same way as its major international opponents, they would have no chance of winning. The team therefore needed a unique strategy able to withstand whatever their opponents might throw at them.
And to test if this strategy works effectively, the team are doing high speed and good combination plays in offence and positioning a maximum number of attackers.
The ‘JAPAN WAY’ strategy involves a number of things: establishing a robust serve-receive formation that can withstand the world’s strongest serves; strengthening digs (spike receives) to battle against teams that have an ace player positioned as the opposite (opposite the setter); switching swiftly from solid defence to offence; consistently positioning three or four attackers to confuse the opponent’s blockers and perform complicated attacks; and increasing the number of back attacks to hit from a variety of locations, adopted in game-style practice to give three points to back attacks.
Last August 2020, the national team played a series of group matches behind closed doors where they employed their new offensive tactic that integrates multiple attackers and back attacks during rallies.
“We are now focussing more on our offensive strategy, such as increasing the variety of attacks including combination plays and using multiple attackers to score points. We hope to gain more accuracy and use our tactics against international opponents too,” said Araki, thrilled by the team’s performance in its first real match after many months.
While the team strategy is now set, there was another concern—the team also needed to figure out the so-called ‘One Frame Volleyball’, a tactic advocated by Nakada. The technique requires players to perform the ball sequence with swiftness and fluidity, so much so that the entire flow can be captured in a single frame of a picture or photograph.
“This technique imposes extra burden on the players, which aims to get them to make appropriate moves, whilst at the same thinking of the team and their opponents to make quick decisions to secure scores,” Nakada explained.
However, the One Frame Volleyball tactic resulted in some poor performances from the team. Serves are always received in a rush with a low pass, giving the centre player insufficient time while tosses are more concentrated toward the left, which in turn leaves the attacker insufficient time and her attacks blocked. This was evident during the Nations League and the World Cup.
Araki and the other players are perfectly aware of this issue.
“The players also provided feedback, and we all agreed that we should communicate [more]. We decided to try to be quick when necessary but call out to each other when the pass needs to be floated high. During practice, the head coach also tells us that some passes should be floated up high. She also tells us when to wait and when to speed up or slow down our passes. So, I think we’re all on the same page now,” Araki explained.
All these step-by-step efforts are all necessary to be build a great team with the same purpose.
The appointment of AIHARA Noboru as a new coach is also positive for the team. A distinguished leader who guided Higashi Kyushu Ryukoku High School to 12 national championships and led younger players to the FIVB Volleyball Women's U20 World Championship, Aihara executed Nakada's plans into concrete terms and has provided finely-tuned instructions to help the team understand the strategy.
“For a team without any outstanding ace player to defeat the world’s top-tier teams, its members need to bring out the best in one another. Our strong points, I believe, are our unique quick combination plays, and the tenacity and concerted teamwork that allow us to clinch the last point of a match. We want to play with a solid unity at the Olympic Games,” Araki says.
It looks certain that the Japanese national team is undergoing a major transformation.
For volleyball, for my daughter
In Japan, women’s volleyball is well-established tradition and history that began when the team won the gold medal at the Tokyo 1964 Games.
Head coach Nakada said she is determined to “make devoted efforts because the Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo.” For Araki, the Tokyo 2020 Games will be her fourth Olympic Games since Beijing 2008.
“I consider the Tokyo 2020 Games to be the grand finale of my career, so I’d like to do my best until the very end and finish with a great result that makes me cry with happiness,” Araki said, expressing her ambition for her second medal.
2012 Getty Images
Araki captained Japan’s national team at the London 2012 Games, where they secured a bronze medal—its first medal for 28 years.
While she feels apologetic that her mother and husband are now more in charge of taking care of her family, Araki continues with her athletic endeavours believing that her daughter will hopefully learn something from seeing her mother make an all-out effort at the Olympic Games—all because she loves volleyball.
“I heard that my daughter asked my mother why I loved volleyball so much. She said, ‘Mummy always says she loves me more than anything, but she leaves me to go and play volleyball.’ She is too young to understand that my love for her and my love for volleyball are different kinds of love. Although she may not be able to understand now, I hope to perform in a way that I can be proud of because she will remember that when she grows up,” she said.
“The Tokyo 2020 Games are the major target for volleyball players. The event will be a great opportunity to convey the beauty of the sport. Volleyball is a fun sport, isn’t it? It’s easy to understand and can be played by people of all ages."
"I think volleyball suits the temperament of the Japanese people. If the national team achieves results that the nation can be proud of, the sport will develop even further. I will strive to play games that will hopefully be a moving experience for the spectators."
Scoring as a middle blocker
Araki has a reputation as ‘a dependable captain’ and ‘athlete mum’, but more than anything, she has long harboured an aspiration to contribute as a middle blocker. The middle blocker constitutes the basis of the ‘JAPAN WAY’, and the position also holds the key to the team’s total defence.
She also feels a sense of frustration about the Japanese team having gained a reputation as having middle blockers with a weak presence and few hits.
At the London 2012 Games, where Japan gained a bronze medal, Araki only scored a total of 32 points in eight matches (20 points for spikes). At Rio 2016, she appeared to have been unable to build a strong relationship of trust with the setters before the Games started, which resulted in 36 points in six matches, of which only 20 points were earned with spikes. She is hoping to put this all behind her at the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“I should be a middle blocker easy to set a toss for. Unless the middle blocker makes decisive plays, the side players’ move will be wasted, so I hope to be able to score points. I’d like to display my agility and be a trouble to our opponents. As a blocker, I hope to lead systematic blocks that make the best of Japan’s defensive prowess.”
Selected to join the national team in 2003, Araki is a three-time Olympian with two MVP awards, three Spike awards, and seven Block awards in the V. League under her belt. She is one of Japan’s top athletes both in name and substance, and yet, she says, “I’m a bad player. I don’t have enough skills. I want to improve more and more,” even to this day.
Inspired by young players aged 20 or so, she engages in hard training while continuing to learn more.
When asked if she will be better than she has ever been at the Tokyo 2020 Games, she said: “That’s for sure! I’m determined to work hard for that,” with a broad smile on her face.