Japan's Technical Competitions EXPOSED!
Like many others, I used to watch videos coming out of Japan showing demonstrations and teachings form the top technical demonstrators in the country. The techniques seemed stylistic and rather different to a lot of what I had learnt as a skier in other countries. None the less I was very impressed at the precision and skill these skiers demonstrated. Names like Maruyama Takao, Iyama Keisuke, Yoshioka Daisuke and Yamada Takuya were names frequently found on my Youtube search history. These skiers gained recognition by clawing their way up the rankings of the Ski Association of Japan (SAJ) technical skiing competitions. Some have come from backgrounds in World Cup alpine and moguls, others from instructing backgrounds. They are now all competing in the most respected and widely participated skiing competition in Japan.
My interest in these championships stemmed from my background as a ski instructor and demonstrator. I trained very hard to achieve a standard of skiing to pass certification exams. However I was captivated by these Japanese competitions as they provide participants a similar environment to an exam but with a competitive focus rather than a competency standard. This competitive focus encourages increased speed and performance and ultimately evolves technique past a predetermined standard. Along with the competitive environment that these competitions provide, another point of interest is that these competitions require the participants to compete in multiple aspects of skiing. Competitors in the Japanese tech champs need to be extremely versatile showing a high level of skill and proficiency in all disciplines of both on and off-piste skiing. This separates those coming from a specific focus such as racing or moguls from those that technical strong all round skiers.
Skiing in Japan was heavily influenced by Austrian ski technique. As early as 1911, Major Theodore Edler von Lerch of the Austrian army was stationed in Niigata where he taught Japanese officers, soldiers and locals how to ski. These first students of skiing later became Japan’s first ski club named “Lerch No Kai” (the Society of Lerch). In 1930, the Japanese government employed one of Austria’s top ski instructors from the Arlberg region, Hannes Schneider, to share his modern ski methods. He taught hundreds of Japanese skiers through this period bringing ski technique to the public. To this day Japanese ski schools continue to employ top Austrian examiners to train the public and provide high level training to ski instructors around the country. More recently Richard Berger, Martin Gugganig and Bernd Greber were among those employed to guide ski technique in Japan through the 1990’s. Martin Guggenig in particular was the Maruyama Takao’s (most national championship victories) main coach throughout his younger years.
In 1963 the first All Japan Technical Skiing Championships began in Niigata prefecture. The competition started small but has grown to be one of the biggest ski competitions in Japan with thousands of skiers now participating each year. Competitors first participate in a regional competition judged by the heads of their local SAJ area. The top competitors then progress through to the state championships. The best of these groups then progress to the national competition usually held in March each year.
Competitors in the state and national championships compete in a wide variety of tasks. These tasks change each year in the hope to challenge the participants. Tasks may include short turns, long turns and rhythm changes each performed on groomed, off piste and moguls. All tasks are performed on steeper black runs. Each task is scored by 5 judges comprised of previous champions, SAJ demonstrators and national coaches. Each judge provides a mark out of 100, the highest and lowest scores are removed and the middle three are added together to make up the competitors score for that task. At both state and national levels participants compete over several days with 3 tasks performed per day. The scores given for each task are added together to determine the winner of the competition. For this reason, absolute mastery of all types of skiing along with ones ability to consistently perform at a high level is necessary.
While Austria has heavily influenced technique in Japan, over the last 2 decades these competitions have spawned new ‘competition’ technique that is used to facilitate higher scores and appeal to the changing judging criteria. The judging criteria is similar from year to year but does evolve from with the sport. Speed, ski performance, edge control, efficiency of movement, deflection across the hill, rhythm and terrain tactics are always at the heart of the judging criteria. However it seems that there are certain criteria that are prioritised more heavily than others and this shifts every few years. We are now moving into a phase where the judges are looking for 2 clean purely carved lines left in the snow (particularly through the top of the turn). While that might seem like an obvious criteria for high level skiing, it was not always the most prioritised point. For example some of the other criteria speed or rhythm may have been held in higher regard in previous years. With those focus on such steep terrain, purely arcing a short turn was not the priority. With this new focus the competition short turn for instance has changed to become more like a slalom size with a longer radius and a longer rhythm. With the gradient of the slope that this is performed on, this can also have an impact on the movements these skiers are making which can be viewed as stylistic.
All athletes in these competitions compete on alpine FIS equipment (boots and skis) for the increased stiffness and performance that it offers. The tasks stipulate a short or long ski to be used but there are no exact ski lengths or radius’s listed. Typically athletes will use a WC SL as their “short ski”, and a WC SX or GS as their “long ski”. The mogul and off piste tasks usually stipulate use of the short ski. Waxing is a big part of the competition as speed is so heavily weighted. Each ski brand is represented by several technicians that wax and tune skis each night and also assist athletes at the top of each run similar to a FIS race. The brands are a prominent part of these competitions with almost all athletes from a state level and higher being aligned with a brand of equipment and clothing. They are either professionally sponsored by their brand or an ambassador, or representative, paying a subsidised amount for their equipment (in a similar way to pro-deals or pro-forms for instructors in most other countries). The brand then employs coaches who may be previous champions, current competitors or current judges who are sponsored by said brand to train all of those competing for that brand. As you can imagine this in itself can form alliances between judges and athlete and also can effect the overall criteria of the events.
I started working the northern winter’s in Japan in 2009. This was very exciting for me as it was my chance to engage in this world of competitive technical skiing. It was a tricky road over the following 5 years to find the information and acquire the necessary level of certification to be eligible to compete. The SAJ have a competency grading pathway that starts at level 5 and culminates at level 1 (Kkyuu level). Anyone can take part in these gradings and a lot of the skiing public train for these levels in the same way that most students in the west do badge tests, or skill gradings with ski schools. These are national gradings and can be done in any ski resort in Japan that hosts an SAJ ski school. The Ikyuu level is the level required to compete in the technical championships and requires a score higher than 75 (out of 100) in long turns, short turns, moguls and traversing tasks. The public can then progress further and to participate in 2 demonstrator levels that require further training and a high level of competency.
In 2015 I first competed in the regional and state competitions. The state event felt like a world cup race with thousands of spectators, all the ski brands, news teams, broadcasting cameras and journalists, famous skiers, hundreds of course maintenance workers and a truly electric vibe. To be honest I was in awe of such an incredible event all focused around technical skiing! The night before competition, I attended the opening ceremony along with 300 other competitors and was awestruck by the grandeur of the event. The following day was my first taste of participating in one of these events and as you’ll see in this video it was a little overwhelming.
I later found out that I was one of the first non-Japanese competitor in these competitions. However through the 90's the SAJ also operated an 'international' Technical Championships which was open to all nationalities. This international competition attracted skiers from around the world and contributed to the international fame held by some of the best in skiing such as Richard Berger, Martin Gugganig, Bernd Greber and Steve Smart.
One thing that immediately struck me about this competition was the incredibly high standard of skiing. Despite the difference in style and technique, these skiers are incredibly precise with their movements. Given the competitive nature of this sport, it has pushed skiers to move as fast as possible both in their movements but also in the speed they travel down the hill when performing each task. This was mind blowing as I have raced and consider myself a reasonably fast skier, but I was on the slower side in comparison to some of these skiers. To compete at these high speeds, while performing technically accurate movements, without making mistakes shows an absolute mastery of the task. Given that these skiers were performing at this level in all aspects of skiing was inspiring to say the least. The video below shows a little more of the general standard of ability on day 2, the semi finals of the 52nd Hokkaido Technical Skiing Championships. (Keep in mind this is only the state level of competition and not the national level.)
The next video further shows the aggression and speed these competitions create. The adverse weather conditions provided an extremely difficult stage for the finals on the final day of competition. Despite the difficult visibility and inconsistent snow conditions, competitors were still taking it down the hill with incredible speed! Quite frankly it was terrifying and further demonstrated the level of skier participating in these events.
Unfortunately at this time the SAJ did not allow foreign competitors to progress through to the National level of competition. Meaning that even if a foreigner was to finish in first place, they would not progress. In 2015, the top 30 positions were selected to represent Hokkaido at the All Japan National Skiing Championships.
As of 2018, the SAJ have allowed foreigners who place highly enough to be selected to go through to the All Japan National Championships. In 2018, they allowed those placing in the top 30 at the Hokkaido championships to proceed to the national championships. Unfortunately in 2018 I placed 32nd. At the 2019 Hokkaido champs they allowed the top 22 athletes through and I placed 23rd.
While it would be fantastic to be selected to compete at the National event, my main reason for doing these competitions is to be inspired and to learn more from the Japanese about their high level of technical skiing. There are very few opportunities to ski with such an advanced group of skiers (Interski and filming with Projected Productions being the other opportunities). As such I am thrilled to be a part of these competition even if only at the state level.
Unfortunately the international skiing community do not seem to be all that impressed by the Japanese technique as seen from many online comments and forums on the topic. While I agree that certain aspects of this competitive technique are rather different to what other countries are accustomed to, this technique is thoroughly justified by those can perform at this high level and understand it properly. There are also the comments made online about the softer snow allowing skiers to get away with more stylistic and inaccurate technique. After skiing in all conditions with the top skiers mentioned above, I can assure you that they are highly skilled and can outperform most skiers on all snow type. As mentioned some of these athletes come from WC SL, GS and mogul backgrounds.
I encourage anyone with an opinion on Japanese technique/skiing to go and watch live, or participate in a state or national competition before commenting. Unfortunately video does not do any skier justice. Seeing these skiers live will provide you with an accurate understanding of how fast they ski and how skilled these athletes are, regardless of where their hands are.
For a first hand look at the competitions from the perspective of national champion, check out Projected Productions special episode featuring Maruyama Takao. In this episode, Takao talks us through his career as an athlete, coaching and training through his earlier years, current ideas on skiing and his thoughts on these competitions. Visit Vimeo on demand to view the episode here.
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