TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese judo has been in a state of decline in recent years but the country is pinning its hopes on an infusion of new blood at the London Olympics.
Japan tops the Olympic medals table for judo since the martial art was introduced at the 1964 Games with 35 golds, compared to 10 for France in second place.
Japanese competitors won eight out of 14 judo gold medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens but four years later that figure fell to four in Beijing.
Tomoko Fukumi, who won the women's 48 kilogram class at the final qualifier at the weekend, said on Monday that making the cut had triggered an instant bout of Olympic nerves.
"It has a sobering effect, more than feeling elated," the 26-year-old told a news conference in Fukuoka, southern Japan, after bagging her first title in two years.
"The London Olympics are just around the corner so I can't afford to waste a single day," added Fukumi, one of seven women judoka headed for the Games in July and August.
"Everything was on the line and I was so charged up for it."
Twelve of the 14 judoka who qualified to represent Japan will be making their Olympic debut following a spate of upset results during the course of the two-day meet.
Two-times world champion Haruna Asami left the arena in tears after a shock first-round loss.
"I was over-confident," sobbed Asami. "My world title is meaningless."
World champion Misato Nakamura, who beat world number one Yuka Nishida to win the 52kg title, was in a buoyant mood and vowed to improve on her bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Games.
"I'm improved so much since Beijing," she said. "I didn't really have a clue what I was doing in Beijing. There are only two months before London but I can still sharpen up.
"If I can perfect the weapons I have and fight to my potential the result will come."
There were upsets in the men's competition too as Keiji Suzuki's bid for a third consecutive Olympic appearance came to an abrupt end in the first round.
The 31-year-old, who captured heavyweight gold in Athens eight years ago, fought despite a shoulder injury and promptly called time on his Olympic career.
"The dream of another Olympics is over," he said. "Condition-wise I was not in shape. It was destiny. It wasn't meant to be."
Takamasa Anai won the men's 100kg class for the fourth year running, while national champion Hirotaka Kato claimed the 90kg crown.
"Looks like I will be shelling out for dinner a lot," the 27-year-old joked of being in London alongside such a young group of team mates.
Without figures such as Ryoko Tani, the pint-sized seven-times women's world champion and twice Olympic gold medalist, Japan's new generation must carry the flag in London.
"Helping to set the mood for the team will also be good for me," said 2010 world champion Anai. "I want to take on that role that Keiji Suzuki had as a mood-maker."
(Reporting by Alastair Himmer; Editing by Peter Rutherford)