Husband and wife pair realize dream of competing at Winter Games

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Misato and Takeru Komatsubara perform in the figure skating team event on Monday.

OKAYAMA — After helping Japan claim bronze in the figure skating team event at the Beijing Winter Olympics, married couple Misato and Takeru Komatsubara are aiming to deliver another strong performance in the ice dance event, which starts on Saturday with the rhythm dance segment.

Misato, 29, from Bizen, Okayama Prefecture, and her U.S.-born husband, Takeru, 30, also known as Tim Koleto, delivered strong performances that earned Japan its first medal in the team event on Monday.

Misato began figure skating in elementary school, and after much deliberation, switched from singles to ice dance in high school to gain a shot at competing on the world stage.

When she was 20 years old, she split with her then partner because of physical and mental strain and returned to Okayama Prefecture for a year to hone her skills.

Courtesy of Junko Hasui
Junko Hasui, right, poses with Misato and Takeru Komatsubara at the Okayama International Skating Rink in Okayama after the pair won the NHK Trophy in November 2020.

Eager to continue competitive ice skating but struggling to find a new partner in Japan, she used a website that helps skaters find partners from all over the world.

“She had two choices, retire or go overseas,” recalled her mother Yasumi. “She was already halfway to her goal. I wanted her to see it through to the end.”

Misato eventually found an Italian partner and moved to Milan.

Living in a country where culture dictates that “not expressing an opinion, is the same as not having an opinion,” Misato had to learn to adapt. She studied Italian to help her communicate and spent two successful seasons in the country.

After achieving good results in Italian competitions and competing in the European Figure Skating Championships, Misato was given the option of becoming an Italian citizen to get the opportunity of competing in the Olympics.

Her mother knew that participating in the Olympics had been Misato’s goal since childhood, and she had been mentally preparing herself for her daughter’s decision to switch nationalities, but Misato declined the offer. “I can’t give up Japan,” she said.

In 2016, Misato formed a pair with Takeru, who expressed a desire to represent Japan from the offset. They got married in 2017.

“Misato knew the weight that comes with changing nationality, and she respected Tim’s wishes,” Yasumi said.

They were initially based in Montreal but they spent time in Okayama in 2019-20 so that Takeru could complete the procedures necessary to become a Japanese citizen.

He took time out of his busy schedule to study Japanese at the Okayama Institute of Languages in Okayama from September 2019 to May 2020 as an interview is an important part of the naturalization process.

“Generally, when people study a language, they lose concentration after about 90 minutes or so, but Tim was able to study for three hours at a time without losing focus,” said Junko Hasui, one of Takeru’s teachers at the school.

Hasui often heard Takeru say, “If I don’t get Japanese citizenship, I won’t be able to fulfill our dream [of performing at the Olympics].”

When she asked him how his parents felt about his decision to change nationality, he said his family was supportive because he was trying to fulfill his dream.

Acupuncturist Yuki Akiyama, who has treated Takeru at a clinic in Okayama, said Takeru’s enthusiasm to learn Japanese was impressive.

“He asked me to speak to him in Japanese. Whenever he had a word he didn’t know or understand, he would look up the meaning and try to learn it,” Akiyama said.

Takeru’s efforts paid off. He became a Japanese citizen in November 2020, and the couple went on to win the Japan Figure Skating Championships in December 2021.

Takeru wanted to adopt a kanji name when he became a Japanese citizen and first considered an uncommon pairing of characters that can be transliterated as Teimu, but instead opted for Yasumi’s suggestion of Takeru, written with a single kanji character that appears in the Japanese words for “respect” and “precious.”

“As he has decided to represent Japan, I’m certain that he wants to be loved by people in Japan,” Yasumi said.

Takeru’s language ability has improved so much that he now responds in Japanese during interviews.

When the couple left Japan for Beijing on Jan. 29, Yasumi dropped them off at Shin-Kurashiki Station.

“Thank you for everything, mom. I hope you will continue supporting us,” Takeru said to her.

Language teacher Hasui said: “I am so happy. It’s like a dream. Without Tim’s decision, this day would not have been possible. I’m proud I’ve been able to help them achieve their goal.”