By Hiro Yoshida
Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama has figure skating in his DNA and, at this week’s World Junior Championships in Tallinn, Estonia, the sixteen year old is aiming for the highest spot on the podium.
This is Kagiyama’s second season on the international junior circuit and he began with victory at the Junior Grand Prix held in Courchevel, France back in August. He bagged a silver medal at his second assignment in Gdańsk, Poland the following month to seal qualification to this season’s Junior Grand Prix Final. Prior to travelling to Turin, Italy, he also claimed the Japanese Junior title in November.
At the Junior Grand Prix Final, Kagiyama got off to a shaky start in the short programme when he turned an intended triple Axel into a double that got downgraded by the technical panel which left him sixth place going into the free skating. He rallied in the free to move up to fourth overall with teammate Shun Sato, who Kagiyama had beaten at Japanese Junior Nationals the previous month, taking gold.
“If I could sum things up in one word, it would be ‘frustrating’, Kagiyama said about his first Junior Grand Prix Final. “But more than that, I have learned a lot from this competition, and it has been a really good experience.”
Competing against strong skaters like Sato domestically has spurred Kagiyama on to even greater heights both at home and abroad.
“The presence of a rival like Shun has truly been huge,” he said. “Not only Shun, but I also have many rivals in East Japan and West Japan. I feel the improvement of these rivals has helped me to also get better. They make me feel like I need to work my hardest as well.”
Kagiyama closed out 2019 with a bronze medal at Japanese Nationals behind Shoma Uno and Yuzuru Hanyu and he was selected for the Japanese team for the 2020 Four Continents Championships in Seoul, Republic of Korea. He represented Japan at the Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland in January of this year where he captured the gold medal. The following month in his senior international championship debut at Four Continents, he recorded personal bests of 91.61 points and 179.00 in the short and the free respectively to finish third overall.
“At this competition I was not really concerned about medals or placements,” Kagiyama said about his Four Continents bronze. “I was focused on my own performances. When I heard I was third, I was truly surprised.
“This season I have made a lot of mistakes in my short programme and I wanted to skate without errors in the short and the free skating. There was a small mistake on the Axel at the end of my free, but I am satisfied that I was able to do both routines without making any big mistakes.
“This competition has given me a lot of confidence.”
Kagiyama’s father and coach, Masakazu, is a four-time Japanese champion who competed twice at the Olympic Games (1992 and 1994) and four consecutive times at the World Championships between 1991 and 1994. He also won a World Junior bronze medal during the 1988-1989 season.
The younger Kagiyama began skating at the age of five with his father as his instructor.
“I was taught from the basics,” he said. “He was strict, but conversely if he had not been so strict with me I think I would not have been able to grow as a skater as much as I have.”
In terms of his skating technique, the influence of his father is apparent. Kagiyama feels that, despite the many hours of practice he has put in, ultimately his talent is in his blood.
“Regarding my soft knee bend, rather than something I worked on in training, I believe this is more something genetic I inherited from my father.”
Naturally, there are those who will compare him to his father. This has not phased Kagiyama in the slightest.
“I do not mind it,” he said. “My father is an Olympian and I respect him very much for that. I also want to stand on the same stage he has.”
Coincidentally, Kagiyama is performing to music from the “Tucker” film soundtrack for his free programme. His father used the same music for his free thirty years ago that took him to his first Japanese national medal, a silver. However, Kagiyama and his choreographer Misao Sato were unaware of this fact until after the music had been chosen and the routine choreographed.
“I knew absolutely nothing about it,” Kagiyama said. “I heard the music, really liked it and thought ‘I want to use it’. Afterwards I heard from Misao and my father and I was really surprised.”
“There were a number of options, but out of those the rhythm that fitted him the most was this music,” Sato explained.
“At the time, neither Yuma nor I knew this and after we had picked the music and made the programme, his father told me ‘I actually skated to this music myself.’
“He (Masakazu) had very mixed feelings about it and a wry smile on his face when he said that. He told me, ‘At least get him a different costume’.”
Kagiyama has had plenty of opportunities to observe and measure himself against the foremost skating talent in the world this season.
“The number one foreign skater that I want to emulate is Nathan Chen and I would like to become a skater like him,” he said. “I am not at his level yet, but I hope one day to be able to compete alongside him as an equal.
“He is so solid overall with his elements and I think that is really impressive. Not only his skating skills, but also his capacity as a skater and an athlete is wonderful and he is someone I really admire.”
Kagiyama competed against China’s Han Yan at Four Continents and the Chinese skater is another skater to whom he aspires.
“I was so surprised at how smooth his skating was, and I want to be like him. When I saw him with my own eyes, I was shocked at his speed, but also how beautifully he skated. I want to use him as a reference.”
With a growing list of achievements to his name, Kagiyama is also earning the attention of the skating world outside of Japan. Stéphane Lambiel, who performed at the Youth Olympic Games opening ceremony and witnessed Kagiyama win gold in Lausanne, is among those who sees bright things for him in the future.
“Yuma was fantastic,” Lambiel said of his Youth Olympic performances. “I love his gliding and his speed, and he has this effortless push when he is on the ice. He also needs to mature in his interpretation, but it looks like he is on a really nice track.”
Kagiyama has so far only dabbled in the senior ranks and he is still uncertain about whether he will move up next season to garner some more experience ahead of the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
“The Olympics is a competition that I am aiming for. However, I do not know if I can say that I will definitely move up to senior next year. I want to decide depending on my results at Junior Worlds.
“If I make my senior debut next year, I want to do my best to compete with the top skaters from the beginning.”
For now, Kagiyama’s focus is on the competition in Tallinn this week.
“Of course, I am going there to win,” he said. “First of all, I want to give good performances and if I can win the gold medal that would be great.
“There is no big pressure on me at the moment. I am going into it as a ‘challenger’ and I want to keep pushing ahead.”