Japan finally clinched a berth at the Olympic Games in Beijing at the FIVB Olympic Qualification Tournament in May by finishing as one of the best-three teams of the competition, the second successive qualification for the Olympics for Japan's squad led by Shoichi Yanagimoto.
It is five years since Yanagimoto started coaching the Japanese Women and the forthcoming Summer Games will undoubtedly be the most crucial competition for him and his squad so far.
Five years ago, Yanagimoto picked young promising players Megumi Kurihara, Kana Oyama and Saori Kimura and Japan took the FIVB 2003 World Cup by storm. Building on this momentum, the squad qualified for the Olympics in Athens at the OQT in 2004. Japan had put a stop to their absence from the Olympics -- they missed out in 2000 -- but finished in only fifth place.
Since Athens, Yanagimoto's squad has had its ups and downs, but key players including team captain Yoshie Takeshita and Miyuki Takahashi have remained a constant factor and the team has gradually improved.
In 2006, at the World Championship in Japan, Japan's squad, as the organizing country, was under enormous pressure. Despite the loss to Chinese Taipei at the curtain raiser, Yamagimoto reorganized his team the following day and it was able to realize its potential. Japan finished fifth.
In 2007, Megumi Kurihara, the most reliable spiker, made her first appearance since the Olympic Games in 2004. In September, at the 14th Asian Women's Championship in Thailand, Japan beat China for the third time in 24 years, realizing a long-cherished dream.
Yanagimoto and his players know that they have physical disadvantages, but they compensate for these disadvantages with excellent teamwork.
Japan have a glittering Olympic history, claiming the first Women's Volleyball Olympic gold in Tokyo in 1964 and winning gold again in Montreal in 1976. In-between those dates, they won silver in Mexico in 1968 and Munich in 1972. They also won bronze in 1984 in Los Angeles.
Shoichi Yanagimoto, born in Osaka in 1951, was a promising setter even in high school and won two national high school titles. He decided to pursue a career as a Volleyball player with the New Nippon Steel team and was selected for Japan's national squad, winning gold at the Asian Games in Iran in 1974, bronze at the World Championship in Mexico in 1974 and coming fourth in the Olympics in Montreal in 1976.
For four seasons from 1980 to 1984 Yanagimoto played two roles at New Nippon Steel -- as Head Coach and as key setter -- and led his squad to victory in the Japan League. He was voted Best Coach in 1982.
In 1985, Yanagimoto was invited to Thailand to coach the Thai Men's National Team. Despite a lack of time and difficulty in communicating his passionate ideas about coaching to his players, Yanagimoto guided them to first place at the SEA Games.
In the following year, 1986, Yanagimoto was asked to be involved in the founding of new team Nisshin Steel and to coach them. Nisshin Steel soon got promoted to the first division V. League.
The year 1997 was the turning point in his Volleyball career when he took over TOYOBO Orchis, a Women's company team in the V. League, and won the V-League twice in five seasons.
In spring 2003, Yanagimoto was appointed as Head Coach of the Japanese Women. Within eight months his squad had made a remarkable improvement and finished fifth at the Women's World Cup in November. At the Athens Olympics, Japan finished fifth and Yanagimoto.
His next goal after the Olympic Games was a good finish at the World Championship in 2006. Despite the tough competition schedule, his players played consistently well and finished fifth.
Since the Olympics in 2004, however, all has not been smooth sailing for his squad. Whenever key players left the squad due to injuries, Yanagimoto has always tried to make his team strong by making the most of his remaining players' abilities.