Just shy of his 35th birthday, Taku Ito may be the youngest of the four Japanese anglers who will compete on the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2022, but he’s also the most senior, with two campaigns under his belt. He first fished the tour in 2020 and was joined by Kenta Kimura in 2021. For the 2022 season, Daisuke Aoki and Masayuki Matsushita will bring the total of Japanese anglers among the field of 94 to four.
There’s nothing new about having that many Japanese anglers at this level. For the first 10 years of Elite competition, the same four Japanese pros – Takahiro Omori, Morizo Shimizu, Kota Kiriyama, and Yusuke Miyazaki – competed, with varying levels of success. In 2015 and 2016, they were joined by Ken Iyobe, but subsequent retirements and departures meant that by 2018 only Omori and Shimizu were left, although they were joined for that one season by Shin Fukae. By 2019, Miyazaki was the only Japanese Elite, and that came after he spent two years away from tour-level competition.
In the late 1990s, the New York Yankees had a “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada. In an era of free agency and relative parity, those four athletes built a dynasty that won four World Series titles together. The early Elites had four Japanese pros who brought their stories to the ESPN stage. Whether you call the 2022 group the new “Core Four” or perhaps the “Fab Four,” they all have proven track records that should lead to continued success on the water.
The early years
At a tackle show in the early 1970s, famed lure designer (and subsequent Elite Series competitor) Lee Sisson represented Lew Childre, whose baitcasting reels were made in collaboration with Shimano. At one point he left the booth and came back to find an anonymous note indicating that their products were “from the same people who brought you Pearl Harbor.” That sort of prejudice was extended later that decade to compact Japanese cars, which were seen by some as bringing on the demise of American manufacturing.
That’s a far cry from the treatment that Ito received on tour last year, particularly in smallmouth country, where his every word was captured and massive crowds cheered his success on the water and on stage. They simply could not get enough of his humility, talent and joie de vivre – exuberant enjoyment of life.
It’s also a far cry from the tremendous respect afforded Japanese rods, reels and lures today. From Lucky Craft to Megabass and beyond, high-end Asian gear has become synonymous with success at all levels of bass fishing competition. Now, even the most sheltered American anglers know how to order specialized gear from abroad, and American retailers are pressured to have JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) selections.
It took a while to get from that first extreme to the second.
Early on, several Japanese anglers flew over for Bassmaster Invitationals and other events like the WON BASS U.S. Open on Lake Mead. They were often boater-on-boater draws, so they didn’t need to have a boat in the United States to compete. For most, it was a challenging logistical scenario, as in the pre-internet age mapping and arrangements could prove difficult. Gradually, a few started to keep a boat and truck stateside so that they could fly over and compete. Companies like Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits helped with the cultural exchange.
In 1993, Norio Tanabe became the first Japanese angler – actually, the first non-American angler – to win a Bassmaster tournament when he outlasted the field in the 1993 Kentucky Invitational on Kentucky Lake. Notably, that was also the site of Shimizu’s lone win on tour. He won the 2006 Elite Series tournament there, which was known as the “Bluegrass Brawl” but is perhaps better known as the site of his “big mama” catch.
Two years earlier, Omori became the first non-American angler to win the Bassmaster Classic. Like Shimizu’s win, it was characterized by pure joy, and punctuated by a signature phrase: “I knew it.” When he took his victory lap in Charlotte, his boat featured the flags of both Japan and the United States. In an example of the sport coming full circle, his winning lure was a vintage balsa crankbait made by Bagley Bait Co., the company that had employed Lee Sisson for many years.
The new group
In 1997, The Wall Street Journal reported about Japan’s “Bassu Boomu,” the rise of tournament culture across the Pacific. A decade later, in 2007, Buddhist priest Shigeru Tsukiyama qualified for the Classic and was featured in the sports section of The New York Times. The implication in both stories was that the mix of uber-American bass culture and Japanese fans represented a “fish out of water” paradigm. Today, while there’s still some mystery around Japanese fishing culture, the perceived divide no longer really exists.
Today Americans are eager to absorb and implement the latest in Japanese tackle and techniques, whether that be drop shotting, Neko rigging or swimbaits costing hundreds of dollars. Likewise, for anglers across the ocean there is increased interest in what goes on during Elite events. Munenori Kajiwara, proprietor of Japan Import Tackle in Illinois, and a stalwart supporter of the Japanese pros’ efforts here, said that he’s seen the Japanese anglers’ success in the United States spawn new interest in his home country.
“The bass publications in Japan used to have one or two pages of coverage of the U.S. tournament scene,” he said. “Nowadays it’s often 20 or 30 pages, and because of that I think there are a lot of anglers over there who want to come.”
After Brandon Palaniuk won the Elite Series Angler of the Year title in 2017 and Aoki won the comparable title in Japan, Kajiwara helped to arrange an opportunity for the two of them to fish together and served as an interpreter.
Coincidetally, the four Japanese pros already know each other.
“We’ve been competing since we were kids,” Kimura said. “I know them all pretty well, specifically Matsushita because he is one of the guys that I grew up with on Lake Biwa.”
Aoki is perhaps the most decorated of the four in their home country. He has won enough AOY titles across various circuits to challenge Roland Martin or Kevin VanDam. Indeed, Kajiwara compared him to VanDam, except in reverse: He gained his titles through extreme finesse rather than through warp speed power fishing.
“He was the first to truly adapt JDM tackle to finesse fishing,” Kimura said. “He designed his own finesse rods and reels for Pure Fishing Japan, and he was using 3-pound test for tournaments when everyone else was using 8-, 10- or 12-pound test.”
He continued, “Eventually, no one could beat him so he was forced out, and at that point he decided to fish against the best U.S. anglers.”
Kimura claimed that Aoki struggled at first in the U.S. because he decided to abandon his finesse roots in favor of a more “American” style. Only when he went back to his technical areas of expertise did he win an Open and qualify for the Elites.
Ito, whose rapidly-developed smallmouth prowess resulted in a win on the St. Lawrence River in 2021, said something that should scare the shorts off of the rest of the field.
“Aoki is a very good fisherman, maybe better than Taku,” he said. “I think he is definitely better with smallmouth, because he’s won Japanese smallmouth tournaments while my first time fishing for them was in the U.S.”
Kimura, Ito said, is more out of the Takahiro mold, a U.S.-style power fisherman “and he is also very famous in Japan, especially as a lure designer.”
Matsushita may split the difference between power and finesse. He says that he has “no real style, but I will continue to do what I think is best to catch fish while I continually improve. I have 25 years of fishing experience, but very few of those have been in America and there are differences.”
Their styles may be different, but they share a bond that did not exist for the earliest Japanese competitors on American circuits. That is an ability to key each other in to the intricacies of travel, food, language and cultural differences.
“The culture in America is different from what we are used to, and we often help each other with travel arrangements and tournament information,” Matsushita said. “As the most senior Elite, Taku is very helpful to us.”
“He knows more about travel, lodging, rules and all of the behind-the-scenes requirements of the Elite Series," continued Matsushita. “I look to him for guidance and appreciate the help he gives us. However, we are competitors, and we do not share spots or fishing information with each other. Each angler finds their own fish and spots and fishes according to their strengths.”
Ito agreed. “They are all good guys and my three best friends, but we do not share information. We are rivals.”
Part of the historical intrigue surrounding Japanese pros’ success on tour has been their early access to cutting-edge and hyper-refined techniques and tackle, particularly in the finesse realm. When Ito won at the St. Lawrence, he told Bassmaster.com that he was using “Japanese techniques.” That included soft plastics from companies including Nories and Ecogear, typically marinated in a Japanese scent he prefers not to publicize. He also uses highly specialized terminal tackle, much of it of his own design from Ryugi.
Aoki’s success is also largely attributable to his intensely personal tackle selection – most of which is produced by his signature DStyle tackle, which is distributed in the U.S. by Kajiwara. It includes not just finesse gear, but lures from all of the major categories as well.
“I’m pretty sure that he could do well with anyone’s baits,” Kajiwara said. “But these are all built very specifically for particular techniques and applications.”
He added that as American anglers have learned about this gear and where it excels, they no longer blink at the prices. The early debates over whether a $15 JDM jerkbait is worth the price are largely ancient history.
“I have local, small-scale tournament fishermen here in the Chicago area who are not wealthy, who rush to buy $1,000 rods and $1,000 reels from me, and then they ask me to tune them,” said Kajiwara. “Social media has had a huge impact on that. If Taku uses a Steez, people want a Steez. I continue to be surprised that the high-end stuff goes first.”
Of course, ongoing supply chain issues may limit even the most eager buyers. Some of the JDM gear introduced to the U.S. audience by the Japanese anglers may be coveted by their American peers, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to get it.
Texas angler Calvin Balch met Matsushita while fishing the Central Opens in 2016, and since then they’ve become friends, with the Japanese angler leaving his boat and truck at Balch’s house when he returns to Japan.
“He became part of my family,” Balch said. Despite being an experienced and avid angler, Balch said that he’s learned a ton from his fellow angler, not just about specialized gear but also about how to employ that gear.
“His attention to detail is ridiculous, and he leaves nothing to chance when he is out there,” Balch explained. “If you asked me what his style is, I don't really know what to call it. Unique fits. He does things that I have not seen other anglers do.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that the new Core Four or any of their countrymen will ever take either of the sport’s major titles. After all, each can only be awarded to one angler per year, and the field is stout from top to bottom. What is certain, however, is that some of the obstacles that made achieving those goals difficult have been reduced. Each now has a support system in place within the U.S., utilizing each other as well as American contacts. Furthermore, as noted above, many of the logistical challenges that may have hampered Japanese pros in the 1980s and 1990s have been reduced by the rise of the internet, which makes travel and translation substantially easier.
Those hurdles have also been reduced by the path of those who came before them. The earliest pioneers forged everything on their own, and now even though many of them have returned to Japan they’re still giving back. Tanabe, for example, who fished his last B.A.S.S. tournament in 2005, took an early interest in the others.
“Shin was his apprentice, and then Taku was his apprentice,” Kajiwara said. “He raised a lot of good athletes, and now those anglers will raise a third generation of Japanese pros.”
What they have now is a farm system of sorts, which allows the best anglers with the greatest desire to bridge any remaining cultural differences. What the future holds is unknown, but what is certain is the Core Four are poised to take their Japanese-bred desires and skills to the next level on the tour.