Takahashi Ran: Japan’s Secret Weapon at the Paris Olympic Games?Sports
An Indispensable Player
The first official volleyball match the Japanese men’s national team played in 2023 pitted the squad against Iran. In the game, part of the FIVB Volleyball Men’s Nations League contested by 16 teams, Japan achieved a resounding 3–0 victory against its greatest Asian rival.
The start of the game was key. With precise positioning and skill, outside hitter Takahashi Ran fended off one powerful spike after another from the Iranian team. Japan built momentum with spikes by captain Ishikawa Yūki and by capitalizing on early mistakes by Iran, with the team taking control of the match early on.
National team coach Philippe Blain has said that Japan is a team that improves by acting defensively, and true to these words, the squad has used its defense to beat high-ranking international teams boasting taller players. Even with a complement of young, up-and-coming outside hitters challenging for a starting spot, Takahashi has time and again shown himself to be an indispensable asset.
It is a different era for the Japanese men’s volleyball team, who previously went years without winning a single international game. At the Tokyo Olympics, Japan made it through the preliminary round to qualify for the quarterfinals for the first time in 29 years. Then, at last year’s Nations League competition, Japan posted a 9–3 record to secure a spot in the final round for the first time ever. Although the team finished fifth after being knocked out by Olympic champions France in the quarterfinals, its Nations League performance showed just how far Japan has come. This is reflected in the global rankings as well, with Japan climbing the ladder from eleventh to seventh to their current spot at fifth.
So what is behind Japan’s burgeoning strength? Two major factors stand out: the marked improvement in individual performances and coach Blain’s systematic team strategy. Ace player Ishikawa, for instance, has made tremendous strides in terms of individual performance. He first joined Italy’s Serie A, one of the top volleyball leagues in the world, while still a student at Chūō University. He developed immensely while playing in the highly competitive environment, which propelled him to his current position as captain of the Japanese team. His success has inspired others to head overseas, helping bring about a change in the attitudes and views of Japan’s volleyball players.
Following in Ishikawa’s Footsteps
The most prominent among this new wave of players is the 22-year-old Takahashi, who is currently in his fourth year at Nippon Sport Science University. Takahashi says that he has looked up to Ishikawa since he was in high school, but rather than simply being star struck, he was inspired to follow his lead, which has contributed to his rapid progress.
Ishikawa and Takahashi’s connection predates their time together on the national team. While playing for Chūō University, Ishikawa was coached by Matsunaga Rio, who went on to coach Takahashi at Higashiyama High School in Kyoto.
Benefitting from the same training as Ishikawa did under Matsunaga, Takahashi in his final year led Higashiyama to victory in the All Japan High School Championships. At 19, he became the youngest player ever selected for the men’s national volleyball team and went on to start all of the team’s matches as an outside hitter opposite Ishikawa at the Tokyo Olympics.
Takahashi’s defensive abilities are what enabled him to win a regular spot on the international team so quickly after being called up. When he joined the Japanese squad, he was already one of its top receivers of serves and spikes.
Takahashi traces his defensive skills to his childhood. “Ever since I started playing volleyball in elementary school, I’ve had a knack for receiving spikes,” he says. After practice, he was known to query his parents on whether they had seen his performance. “I wasn’t all that tall yet, but I liked running around the court and predicting how other players would strike the ball so as to position myself to receive it and send it back up into the air.” His older brother Rui was a frequent training partner, hitting balls for him to receive.
Takahashi says that Rui, who currently plays for the Suntory Sunbirds in the Japanese V League, is the reason he started playing volleyball and was also key to his journey in becoming an ace receiver. “Rui was crazy about volleyball and always had a ball with him,” Takahashi recounts with a smile. Even after practice, he would be eager to play more and would drag his younger brother to a nearby park to pass the ball. “We made our own net, and Rui would spike the ball at me, again and again.”
In junior high, Takahashi started out playing libero, a purely defensive position. He would later switch to outside hitter, both attacking and defending, although his enthusiasm for receiving remained strong. He hit a growth spurt in his third year, and as he put on more height his attacking shots improved. At the same time, he continued to hone his defensive abilities.
Receiving shots remained a focus when he joined the Higashiyama High School volleyball team, which also stressed the importance of defense. Takahashi would practice digs and other defensive shots over and over, both in team practices and on his own.
Jump to Serie A
The Tokyo Olympics boosted Takahashi’s confidence in his defensive abilities, but also revealed weaknesses in his offensive game. Realizing that he needed to develop his spike to contend against the high blocks of overseas players, he decided to take his talents to the top-ranking Italian Serie A league while still a student at Nippon Sport Science University. Following the Olympics, he played in his last game for his university team and then travelled to Italy in December, joining Pallavolo Padova part way through the 2021/22 season. The timing was not to his advantage, though, and as most positions on the squad were set by the time he arrived, he had few opportunities to play.
Takahashi passed on playing for his university team during the 2022/23 season, choosing instead to join Padova in the preseason. He performed solidly in practice matches and scored a starting position as outside hitter, remaining a regular part of the rotation throughout the season.
At 188 centimeters, Takahashi is short for a spiker. He notes that taller players invariably get more opportunities, especially on teams overseas. “It’s a fact that in volleyball, height is king,” he exclaims. “Even moderately skilled players can make it if they are tall.” Despite his height disadvantage, he exerted a strong presence with his attacks to earn a starting spot at a position featuring many players who are over 2 meters tall.
Mixing up his arsenal of spikes, he staved off his opponents attempts to predict his moves and consistently scored points. Describing the challenges of playing over the long season, he says that “opponents have plenty of time to study your strategy, and you can’t always be in top condition for every game.” He admits that he performed better in some matches than others, but he points to this as helping him learn to mix up his strategies and bolster his repertoire of spikes, particularly off-speed variations. “I would study the other team’s setup and focus on ways that I could use feints and blocks to increase scoring chances.”
Experience in Top League Pays Dividends
Playing on the Japanese national team this year, Takahashi has put his experience in Serie A to work, becoming an indispensable player for the team both on defense and when attacking. As of the end of the second week of the preliminary round of the Nations League, Takahashi had played in every match, and Japan remained in top place with eight consecutive wins. In the seventh match, Japan scored its first win in 30 years against powerhouse Brazil, with a spike from Takahashi earning Japan the deuce point that finished off the fierce battle in the fifth set. The team went on to claim its first-ever bronze at the competition.
The qualifying tournament for the Paris Olympics will be held in Japan from September 30 at the National Stadium in Tokyo, and Takahashi is set to have an ever greater presence for the Japanese men’s team.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Takahashi Ran spikes the ball in a game against Iran, June 6, 2023, Nippon Gaishi Hall, Aichi Prefecture. © Jiji.)