Photo/IllutrationMiyu Hirano competes in the 2016 table tennis Super League in China. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

China is a global powerhouse in more ways than one.

But the country appears to be getting increasingly antsy at the progress being made by Japan's rising stars in table tennis, a sport it has long dominated.

It has denied entry to potential Japanese medalists eager to hone their skills in China's Super League, considered the top competition in the world, in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

China in the past was far more cooperative about allowing Japanese players to compete. The sudden change in policy may reflect concerns held by Chinese sports authorities.

A high-ranking official of the Japan Table Tennis Association (JTTA) said China "may have strengthened its cautionary stance toward the rapid progress being made by Japan."

The JTTA was recently contacted by its Chinese counterparts and told that foreign athletes would not be accepted into the Super League.

That notification revolved around 17-year-old Miyu Hirano. She won the women's singles title at this year's Asian championships after defeating a string of Chinese rivals, including Ding Ning, the current No. 1 ranked player in the world.

Hirano, who played in the Super League for the first time in 2016, wanted to further improve her skills by participating this year as well, but that was not to be.

Other Japanese athletes who have been denied a place in the Super League include Kasumi Ishikawa, who was on the Japanese women's team that won the bronze at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, as well as Koki Niwa, a member of the silver medal-winning men's team at Rio.

At the age of 14, Tomokazu Harimoto became the youngest quarterfinalist at this spring's world championship. His parents are both from China, so he had planned a training camp in China. But that had to be scrapped after Chinese sports authorities refused to endorse his plans.

China in the past has denied entry to foreign athletes in the Super League in the year before an Olympics. But that has now been moved up, apparently at the behest of Beijing authorities, according to a senior JTTA official.

Japan has been inviting Chinese coaches to Japan to help develop talent, but another JTTA official said, "China has begun placing restrictions on the dispatch of coaches."

While China has enjoyed a long run as the premier nation in table tennis, the popularity of other sports, such as soccer, has diluted its athletic talent in table tennis, according to some officials.