Kanoa Igarashi: Why I Now Represent Japan and Not the USA

Jake Tellkamp

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Updated 1728d ago

Shidashita in Chiba, Japan, is the quintessential drive-up and surf spot. A parking lot of dirt and asphalt above the high tide line serves as equal parts peanut gallery, locker room, and a place to swap surf stories.

Tsutomu Igarashi, the father of world tour surfer, Kanoa, remembers the days before the parking lot back when he and his friends bushwhacked through thick foliage, climbed over the jetty and became the first group to surf Shidashita. It was their refuge, a slice of serenity an hour and a half away from Tokyo’s dense metropolis.

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Never in a million years did Tsutomu think that his secret spot would host surfing’s debut in the Olympics and that his firstborn son would carry Japan’s hopes as the nation’s best chance for a gold medal.

“I never dreamed of competing in the Olympics or getting a gold medal. I never thought it would be possible for surfing and for the first one to be in Japan? It felt like a higher power put this opportunity in front of me to make my family proud,” said Kanoa.

A few weeks back, Kanoa Igarashi announced that the American flag next to his name would be changing to the colours of his ancestral home. By doing so, he became the first athlete confirmed for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as well as the first Japanese surfer on the World Tour.

As the host nation, Japan automatically receives one slot for the men’s and women’s event out of the twenty available according to International Surfing Association president, Fernando Aguerre.

Upon the announcement, Kanoa faced the backlash from those who felt he was jumping ship to Japan for fear of not being picked to represent the USA.

Competing for Japan, he’s the top-rated surfer but as a U.S. citizen, he’s fourth behind John John Florence, Kolohe Andino, and Sebastian Zietz. Japan’s wildcard slot didn’t factor into Kanoa’s choice at all, however.

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USA Surfing director Greg Cruse said he asked Kanoa not to make a decision until Olympic qualifications were finalized. With deep ties to the event site at Shidashita, a household name in Japan, and a wizard in waist high waves, Kanoa was a viable choice for the USA had he not declared for Japan.

“It was one of those things where everything came together. I believe in signs and there were signs everywhere saying, ‘Do it, do it!’ It’s at my dad’s spot and will probably be my grandparents last Olympics they’ll ever see,” said Kanoa.

Kanoa is one of the success stories that have come out of the USA Surfing organization, an amateur contest series that brings professional surfing’s infrastructure to athletes under the age of 18. Tour surfers, Kolohe Andino, Conner Coffin, and Griffin Colapinto all came out of the USA Surfing events.

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So naturally, when he qualified for the World Tour in 2016, Kanoa chose to represent the red, white, and blue.

It was a decision that came easily to him. Home for Kanoa is the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier. It is where his father taught him to surf and where he won the U.S. Open of Surfing, a victory that meant more to him than making the final at Pipeline in his rookie season.

Asked whether he would rather win a world title or an Olympic gold medal, Kanoa chose the latter.

“The Olympics is my family's only opportunity to watch me compete live. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins they watch me surf every event online, and for them to see me surf in person for the first time representing Japan makes it that much more special for them.”

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The decision is Kanoa’s way of saying thank you for the sacrifices his parents Misa and Tsutomu made so that he could pursue professional surfing. Both of his parents came from humble backgrounds. His mother's family still own a noodle restaurant in a quiet sector of Tokyo and his father’s family run a custom steel business.

The Igarashi's immigrated to Los Angeles 25 years ago with little money and a handful of English phrases between them.

Both surfers, they dreamed of starting their family on American shores so their children could enjoy surfing life year-round. Winters in Japan can be brutally cold.

Kanoa remembers feeling different when he started school in Huntington Beach, California, a town that is glaringly white. According to the City of Huntington Beach 2018 census, only 13 percent of residents identify as Asian.

“I was definitely an outsider at first,” said Kanoa about his early childhood, “but the surfing community in Huntington has always been a family to me.”

As he became a regular face on the podium in California with a Japanese film crew behind him, Igarashi had his share of those who were jealous of his success. While it didn’t faze him, racist remarks weren’t uncommon. I was definitely an outsider at first but the surfing community in Huntington has always been a family to me.

“That’s one of the insights I have as a Japanese American athlete. Americans are more competitive and are driven to take down their competitor as they see someone’s success as an attack on their own. Japanese are happier to see one of their own do well because its an island and the population is smaller. Success feels shared. It’s good for me having both.”

If there would be an exception amongst Japanese surfers, it would be Hiroto Oharra.

Before Kanoa’s decision, Hiroto was Japan’s highest rated surfer on the Qualifying Series. In 2015, Hiroto took out Kanoa in front of his hometown crowd en route to winning the US Open of Surfing. According to Kanoa, Hiroto couldn’t be happier for him.

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“I grew up doing contests in Japan and that’s probably something a lot of people don’t know. They’ve always looked at me as one of theirs. When I would leave to go do events overseas and come back, they’d look at me to see what I had learned.”

Kanoa Igarashi, who’s the last name means the 50-year storm in his native tongue, is a true citizen of the world. From an early age, Kanoa has lived the jet set lifestyle of a professional surfer.

After finishing the 2017 World Surf League Championship Tour, he spent the holidays in each of his three homes. First to Tokyo then to Huntington Beach to stock up on surfboards, before jetting to Portugal to spend New Year’s with his girlfriend and fellow professional surfer, Teresa Bonvalot.

He’s in the prime of his career and enjoying every minute of it. The flag next to his name may be different, but Kanoa Igarashi’s goal is the same. To win and make his family proud.