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Subscriber Craig Kisro offers a look at the women’s JPBA

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Monday, May 3, 2021 8:00 am
Urara Himeji at the 2018 U.S. Open. Photo by USBC.

Subscriber Craig Kisro is a diehard bowling fan who remains a diehard bowler, throwing 16-pound equipment at 68 years old, practicing as many as 16 games in a day recently, and averaging 235 before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down bowling in California.

Kisro watches and keeps track of seemingly everything and often sends me information such as the super senior cashers in PBA50 events because PBA.com doesn’t note which players are super seniors.

Yes, Kisro takes the time to go through and figure out which players are super seniors, as he knows almost all of them and calculates the rest. It's a great piece of added value for his fellow subscribers because I simply don't have the time to do it.

One of the things he watches is the Japanese PBA, and he wrote an account of one tournament he watched on YouTube in December because he felt it was “something good that happened in our sport” and he wanted to acknowledge it.

“Even though it is entirely in Japanese (no subtitles), you can feel the emotion of the announcers as they are describing what is happening,” Kisro said.

Here is Kisro’s story:

While pretty much not being able to understand 99.9%+ of the dialog, I've become a big fan of ladies bowling in Japan. It started by finding their weekly "P League" shows on You Tube, a made for TV/DVD sale competition, and later discovering live streams of tournaments on the Rankseeker and Sky-A bowling channels.

Rankseeker will usually have cameras set up in the back on two non-adjoining pairs with commentary and will run a standings scroll at the bottom with the bowlers headshot during each game. Score monitors are superimposed and headshots of the bowlers on each pair are also visible throughout the course of each game. They will stream the qualifying rounds. Even though the stream is live, you can usually back up to watch something earlier or replay what just happened and catch up again.

Sky-A will usually broadcast the semi-finals or round-robin when that format is being used on television. They are set up on the last high end pair being used with multiple cameras and commentary. Graphics with bowler information is displayed before each bowler bowls their first frame. You can make out what a lot of the numbers mean such as birthdate and year they were accepted into the JPBA. Full 10-frame score is displayed. Almost every shot is immediately replayed. In many cases, both streaming outlets are being used at the same time so three pairs can be viewed during a session. There aren't any surprises. You know what to expect and get it, The JPBA website is very much up to date. Scores are timely put up in PDF format after each round or in segments. Player information is detailed. You can find out how every bowler that ever was a member finished in a tournament going back to (at least) 1969. Using the Google Chrome browser, just about everything can be translated to English. One key to understanding who is who and following someone is by their license number. In order to become a member and receive a number, they must pass a trial, which is held annually. Urara Himeji, the most dominant bowler on the tour for the last 12 years is #352 and her Team 352 is a brand. She competed in two tournaments in the U.S. in 2019 making it to the cashers round at Fountain Bowl and finishing 12th at the U.S. Open in Las Vegas. Several bowlers will proudly display their numbers on the back of their jerseys.

December 17-19, 2020 featured the 52nd Handa Cup, a major featuring a first place prize of 20 million yen (just under $20,000 US dollars), as opposed to the usual 1.2 million of a regular tournament. It was the last tournament of the year, an invitational with the top 72 being allowed to participate. As with previous recent events, there were few spectators allowed with timed lane movements and periodic cleaning breaks. Three 8 game blocks were bowled on in order, a challenging 41 foot pattern that was also used for the semi-finals and finals, a 35' pattern, and then a 47' pattern. Six perfect games were spread out amongst the three patterns. After 24 games with pins carrying over, the top 24 bowled a nine game semi final round with the top four advancing to the stepladder finals.

Qualifying was dominated by Miki Kokubo, a non-winner since becoming a member in 2014 with one stepladder appearance. Near the end of qualifying she had a lead as many as 254 pins over Urara with two games to go and 298 over Hiromi Matsunaga, who has been one of the top three ranked bowlers in 11 of the past 12 years including being #1 six times in a seven year stretch, with three to go before giving away a few pins to each at the end.

Even with such a large lead, it was apparent that nerves were starting to get to Miki, having to cross the house in the semi-final round with 2nd place qualifier Urara who was looking for her fourth consecutive tournament win. A 5th game 154 on the first of three featured pairs resulted in her lead over Matsunaga, who moved into 2nd, to be cut to 42 pins with Urara in third by less than 100. Hiromi pulled ahead in game eight with a 241 and held on to the top seed by 27 pins with a 184 finish. Miki was second with a nervous 176 last game on the television pair and Urara was third, 40 pins out of 2nd. The question was, who got the 4th  and final stepladder spot?

Going into the last game of the semis, Yuka Oshima was 4th and held an 18 pin lead over Kaya Sakamoto, who had won three times in a row earlier this year. One other was nine pins further back in 6th . Not being able to understand what the announcers were saying, I had to take my keys from the camera shots of the players in contention as they were milling about. Unable to figure out anything definite, I had to wait until they made the announcement, at which point the finalists would line up on the approach.

First was Hiromi, second Miki, with Urara in third. If you've read this far, this is where the story begins.

Yoshimi Kobayashi, 29, has been a member of the JPBA since 2010. Her best finish was a 3rd in 2016, which represented her only stepladder final. In over 100 events, she had cashed in less than 40% of those tournaments. She has made appearances in the P League. In the tournament previous to the Handa Cup, she held the 10 game qualifying lead, and after a sketchy five game semi-final round, got the eighth and final round-robin spot, which is where she finished. In this week's tournament, she'd largely gone unnoticed (but was wearing a jersey with her license #470 displayed) bowling consistently over the three patterns and qualified 8th. This is where she was sitting with one game to go in semis, 66 pins out of the stepladder. She was announced as the 4th qualifier and took her place to the left of Urara.

After the results were posted to the website, it turned out that a 267 game pushed her ahead of Yuki's 181 and Kaya's 208. Yoshimi was the 4th qualifier by 11 pins and was in her second stepladder.

Based on the experience and track record of the four finalists, a betting man would have put Urara and Hiroma in a final match rematch from two tournaments before. In Japan, match play begins with one bowler starting on the right lane and from that point on it is alternate shot. There is no 10th frame lockout or coaches to visit as there are no breaks. Urara chose to have Yoshimi start on the right lane. Using a red reactive ball, possibly a Pearl Vibe, she left the 1-2-8-10 washout. Urara, a hard thrower with touch, pulled out the international Physix Power Drive that she used to steamroll the stepladder a week earlier and flushed a strike. Yoshimi got 8-out on her spare attempt and you could see a rout in the making. Both however, left and missed 3-10's in the second. Yoshimi struck in the 3rd and Urara left the Greek Church, leading to the first of two mistakes that would eventually prove costly. While it was an unlucky break, she chopped the 6-10 straight back off the 9 on the spare attempt for 7-out. She came back with a light mixer strike on the right lane that was followed by a 6-10 spare on the left. That prompted a trip to the paddock to bring out a different ball, the Proof Pearl. Having a 12 pin lead going in the 6th following another open by Yoshimi, Urara put the ball down, possibly planning to use it on the hooking left lane, thought about it and decided to use it for the next shot on the right lane where she had struck previously with the Physix. The result was the ball going long for a 1-2-4-10 washout, which she failed to convert.

Yoshimi meanwhile left and converted the first of three consecutive half tens and Urara looking relieved, found a double in the 7th and 8th, and spared the 6-10 in the 9th. Yoshimi made a ball switch to an international urethane blue Black Widow and struck in her 9th. Up seven pins Urara left a half 10 on her first shot in the 10th and Yoshimi carried the 5 into the 7 putting her up by four. Urara covered the spare as Yoshimi left an 8-10. A strike on Himeji's fill ball and Yoshimi covering the 8 pin gave her a 168-167 victory. Urara's unfortunate chop and untimely ball switch proved to be the deciding factors.

The second match featured the two players without titles. Yosimi began by converting a 4-5-7 and Kokubo missed the 3-6. A four-bagger in frames 4-7 pretty much sealed it with the final score being 216-183. It had to be a little bit disappointing for Miki being at the top for so long in this event only to lose two positions in three games. It has happened many a time in our sport when stepladders are a part of the format.

The final match was against Matsunaga, It was a contrast in styles as Yoshimi was throwing the ball up 10 with soft speed and Matsunaga was going firm slightly pointing the pocket. A missed 2-4-8 and a 6-7 split proved to be Hiromi's undoing as Yoshimi was clean in a 216-197 victory. A couple of things that I thought were very strange.. normally when the champion has mathematically locked the title up, the alternate ball rule is waived and the losing bowler will finish her game giving the stage to the champion to have her name announced and clapping as she throws her last ball. Yoshimi completed her 10th frame first and Hiromi had changed balls and finished last with a turkey. Despite winning, Yoshimi was showing zero emotion as she had thus far during the telecast. It was then that I saw they were getting ready to bowl another game. In this tournament, the top seed had to be defeated twice. Yoshimi would have to beat Hiromi again.

Hiromi started with a 6-7-10 split on the lane she just finished striking out on and Yoshimi began with a four bagger. A second split in the sixth frame and a 10 pin leave in the 7th by Matsunaga put Yoshimi in a position to mark out for the win. A badly missed 10 pin still left her ahead by 23 pins with three frames to go. Each bowler spare-struck in the 8th and 9th.

Up 25 pins going into the 10th, and needing a mark to win ,Yoshimi went first and left a 6-10. Hiromi struck for a double. Yoshimi's attempt at the spare almost chopped the six but the spare was covered. Hiromi left the 4-7 and the match was over. From 8th place to the title in five games defeating the top two bowlers in the JPBA three times along the way. Her name was announced over the public address system as the champion and threw her last ball down the lane to clapping from all of those in the building. For the record, she left the 5-9 and had a 215-200 win. At that point she allowed herself some emotion and put both hands in the air, albeit for just a second. Tears of joy began to flow.

It is traditional in Japan to for the champions to be presented with a bouquet of flowers almost immediately after a win. It was no different in this case. Being interviewed shortly afterward is a part of the deal too.

Not knowing exactly what she was supposed to be doing, the flower presenter helped her face in the right direction for the correct camera shot and then sent her over to the microphone. After the interview, the finalists are then lined up on the approach for the awards presentation. Tournaments don't end quickly here. The trophy was huge and the cardboard check was of good size.

Lots of pictures were taken. Hiromi standing next to her helped her with where she had to stand at appropriate times; when to pick the trophy up; when to put it down. She was definitely overwhelmed by all of the attention.

After that, there were presentations by what appears to be tournament sponsors and then bowler interactions with the fans, passing out prizes of some sort. 

A few hours later, after composing herself, she was on a Rankseeker interview chat that lasted an hour. One thing I was able to deduce from that was since she won this particular tournament, she also earned the right to wear the JPBA logo with the gold frame. This meant she had also earned a permanent Class A license. I don't know what the benefits are but it is definitely a badge of honor. The requirements for earning this based on career statistics are stringent.

This was my interpretation of what I felt was a nice feel good story in our sport. I didn't want it to be lost in time as just another tournament.