Fourteen-year-old table tennis player Tomokazu Harimoto was elated after defeating formidable opponent Jun Mizutani at the national championships on Jan. 21 to become Japan's youngest national table tennis singles champion.
"This is the best moment," he said. "From now on I want to make this my era." After his victory against Mizutani, holder of a record nine All Japan Championship titles, Tomokazu firmly hugged his 47-year-old father and coach Yu Harimoto, and they shared the happy moment.
Tomokazu's trademarks are his victory cry each time he wins a point and his flamboyant back-arching pose. But when he clinched the title on Jan. 21, there was no pose or cry. Instead, he quietly placed his paddle on the table and with a smile ran to his father, who was waiting at the side of the court. It was an expression of gratitude to his dad, who had taught him table tennis for years and had waited for that moment.
Yu came to Japan in 1998 from China's Sichuan province as a table tennis coach. He and his wife Zhang Ling, a former representative at the world table tennis championships, who is now 45, gave birth to Tomokazu in the city of Sendai. Tomokazu took up a paddle at the age of 2, and swept up titles as he grew up.
Yu has a gentle personality, and while Tomokazu says he hardly ever remembers his father telling him off, the dad did thoroughly instruct him on his backhand shots and the basics of footwork. Tomokazu was often told, "Hit the ball with a form that looks good (for the spectators)." Though Tomokazu does not have a strong build and his muscular strength measurements are on the lower end of the scale among Japan's national team members, he is able to hit accurate shots without a huge amount of strain in all sorts of positions thanks to his father's training.
With encouragement from those close to him, Yu acquired Japanese citizenship in the spring of 2014, and changed his surname from Zhang to Harimoto. Seeking a richer training environment, Tomokazu in 2016 enrolled in the Japanese Olympic Committee's Elite Academy Program, using the Ajinomoto National Training Center as a base. By entering an environment in which he could mix with other top athletes, Tomokazu was able to improve his forehand shots, which had remained an issue for him. Last year, he became the youngest player to represent Japan, at the age of 13.
Yu, who remains with Tomokazu and coaches him on weekdays at the National Training Center, commented, "Everyone contributed to his victory. The training camps and other programs enabled him to grow stronger."
Tomokazu, meanwhile, praised his father, saying, "He treats me the same through good times and bad." With Yu's birthday approaching on Jan. 24, his son's victory, giving the teen the honor of being Japan's youngest national table tennis singles champion, was an early birthday present.