The year 2008 will be the fifth since Shoichi Yanagimoto, head coach of Japan's squad, started coaching the Japanese Women's National Team and this will undoubtedly be the most crucial year for him and his squad.
Five years ago, Yanagimoto picked then young promising players i.e. Megumi Kurihara (23, 186 cm, Pioneer Red Wing ), Kana Oyama ( 23, 187 cm, Toray Arrows) and Saori Kimura (21, 184 cm, Toray Arrows) and Japan's squad took the World Cup 2003 by storm. Building on a momentum from the World Cup 2003, the squad qualified for the Olympics in Athens at the World Olympic Qualifying Tournament in 2004. Japan had put a stop to the absences from the Olympics and finished in fifth place.
After the Olympics in 2004, Yanagimoto's squad has had its ups and downs; however, they gradually improved. In 2005, due to injuries, the coach was unable to pick his best members. Nevertheless, despite the concerns of everyone involved, Yanagimoto superbly turned this negative into a positive, and created a very good team with small players.
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 in the curtain raiser, Yamagimoto reorganized his team the following day and the players were able to realize their potential. Finishing fifth in the Championship, Japan missed an opportunity to win a medal; however, the come-from-behind victory over Serbia and Montenegro (3-2), who finished third, gave Japan confidence and hope.
The start of the 2007 season seemed very bright. Most players who were considered the best in the previous year's Premier League were gathered at the first camp. Although some experienced players i.e. Kaoru Sugayama and Kana Oyama quit the team because of injuries that required rehabilitation with their club teams, the team skipper, Yoshie Takeshita, and co-skipper, Miyuki Takahashi, led the team. The most significant thing for the team was that the most reliable spiker, Megumi Kurihara, made her first appearance in the National Team since the Olympic Games in 2004.
In fact, the absence of some outside spikers was the reason for a poor team performance and the goal of the team to be among the top three could not be fulfilled at the World Grand Prix 2007. Immediately after the World Grand Prix 2007 the squad started a training camp in preparation for the 14th Asian Championship.
In September 2007, at the 14th Asian Women's Championship in Thailand, Japan beat China for the third time in 24 years. That was a sensational moment for Japan to have realized a long-cherished dream. Furthermore, the Japanese players gained a lot of confidence in their Volleyball and the momentum towards the World Cup 2007.
With the momentum gained from the Asian Championship and adding new power to the team with a new promising setter, Yuki Kawai, Japan's squad entered the World Cup 2007, the first qualifier for the Beijing Olympics. Yet despite good performances, Japan could not reach its goal - to secure a berth at the Beijing Olympics 2008, and Japan had no choice but to compete at the World Olympic Qualification Tournament in Tokyo in May.
The final goal of Yamagimoto's squad this year - to win a medal in Beijing - is, needless to say, unchanged. The forthcoming World Olympic Qaulification Tournament and the World Grand Prix 2008 would be simply the first and the second steps toward the Olympics. Recognizing that most participating teams in the Olympic qualifier are very hard to beat, Yanagimoto and his players are sure to fight bravely in order to get over their first hurdle.
Although there are many Volleyball coaches in the world, there are not many like Shoichi Yanagimoto, the present Head Coach of the Japanese Women's squad, who has been involved in various aspects of Volleyball throughout his career.
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, one of the major companies in Japan, and was selected for Japan's National Team squad. He achieved remarkable success - first at the Asian Games in Iran in 1974, third at the World Championship in Mexico in 1974 and fourth in the Olympics in Montreal in 1976. Furthermore, for four seasons from 1980 to 1984 Yanagimoto played two roles at New Nippon Steel - as Head Coach and as the key setter - and he led his squad to a glorious victory in the Japan League, the then premier league in Japan, and Yanagimoto was voted Best Coach in 1982.
In 1985, Yanagimoto was invited to Thailand to coach the Thailand Men's National Team. Despite a lack of time and difficulty in communicating to his players his passionate ideas about coaching, Yanagimoto guided them to first place at the SEA Games. He sometimes recalls this time in Thailand and is convinced that his experiences there have broadened his horizons and mind.
In the following year, 1986, Yanagimoto was asked to be involved in the founding of a new team, Nisshin Steel, and to coach them. So he resumed his career in Japan and Nisshin Steel soon got promoted to the first division, the V. League. As a result, Yanagimoto's reputation as a coach was enhanced.
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. However, in 2002, despite being one of the top teams, the owners decided to follow the example of Hitachi, Odakyu and UNITIKA and close down their Volleyball team as a cost-cutting measure due to the long-lasting economic depression.
In spring 2003, Yanagimoto was appointed as Head Coach of the Japanese Women's National Team squad by the JVA. Within eight months his squad had made a remarkable improvement and ended up fifth at the Women's World Cup in November. At the World Olympic Qualification Tournament the following year, Japan finished first and eventually qualified for the Olympics in Athens. Japan ended up fifth there and Yanagimoto keenly realised that his team lacked international experience and solid individual skills.
Yanagimoto's next goal after the Olympic Games was to join the top group at the World Championship in 2006. Japan's team which competed at the World Championship was in good form and despite the tough competition schedule, the players played consistently well and ended up 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' ability.