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Table Tennis Prodigy Makes Successful Super League Debut (June 24, 2005)

Fukuhara concentrates during a match. (Jiji)
On June 5, 2005, Japanese table tennis prodigy Fukuhara Ai, 16, made her debut in China's Super League, where the sport's elite players compete. Aged just 14 at the 2003 world championships, Fukuhara became the youngest Japanese competitor ever to reach the best eight, and a year later in Athens, she became the youngest ever from Japan to compete at table tennis in the Olympics. Fukuhara, who is known to her fans as "Ai-chan," is very popular in China and received boisterous support from the Chinese fans during her debut match.

A Successful Debut
China is the world's top table tennis powerhouse, as evidenced by the nation's sweep of all five events at the most recent world championships in Shanghai. The world's elite competitors play in the Super League, in which 12 teams representing regions throughout China compete in two round-robin competitions in a battle for the championship. Fukuhara, a second-year high school student, joined the Liaoning team, which boasts the likes of Wang Nan, a former winner of three straight world singles championships.

In the June 5 opening-day match against the Sichuan team - played on Liaoning's home from home in Huangshan, Anhui Province, near Shanghai - Fukuhara paired with Wang Nan for the doubles. In a successful debut effort by "Ai-chan," the pair won their match 3-1 and contributed to the team's victory.

Fan Favorite
At the venue, Fukuhara, who is widely recognized even in China, received a big ovation from the capacity crowd during player introductions prior to the competition. The crowd also cheered her on during her match, shouting "Go Fukuhara Ai!" After handling a local TV interview in fluent Chinese, Fukuhara's exhilaration was evident. "I'm so happy," she said. About her dream pairing with Wang Nan, she commented, "Wang did eighty percent of the work today. In the world championship I represented Japan and she represented China, so it felt a little strange to be playing together as a doubles pairing."

Fukuhara is quite familiar with China. For the past six years, Liaoning has been her practice base, and she considers it a second home. She is fluent in Chinese, and has honed her skills by practicing with top local players, all of which has made her a popular figure in China. At the World Table Tennis Championships in Shanghai held last April and May, though she failed to get beyond the best 16, the local media followed her progress every day. And prior to the start of the championships, she played a role in fostering goodwill between China and Japan when, as a symbol of friendship between the two nations, she was appointed a "people's ambassador" by Chinese ambassador to Japan Wan Yi.

For Fukuhara, who will be gunning for a medal at the Beijing Olympics three years from now, her participation in the Chinese Super League provides her with a place to hone her skills. "Politics and sports are different. China is the place that has helped me to develop since I was little," she said. And while Fukuhara may view herself as a table tennis player first and foremost, many others have high hopes that she will serve as a bridge between China and Japan.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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