Graceful and soft-spoken, the young athlete's countenance changes when talking about table tennis. It's a "daily battle," says Miu Hirano, suddenly emanating considerable strength.
At 23 years old, Hirano also has many passions, and one of them is Sanrio's famous character, Hello Kitty.
JAPAN Forward sat down with the Olympic medalist for an interview on October 10. Showing us her prized Hello Kitty hairpins, Hirano talked about her life in sports and her sponsorship agreement with Sanrio. She also talked about the hope she has going forward.
An Early Start in Table Tennis
Hirano first approached the sport of table tennis at just 3 years old.
"My mother taught a table tennis class on the second floor of our house. My grandmother would sit with me downstairs, waiting for my mum to finish teaching," she explains.
Hirano said she was "sad not to be part of the fun." Therefore, she insisted on joining the other children in playing.
Despite the young age, Hirano recalls she already had a competitive instinct. "I would often play against a couple of kids my age. I didn't want to lose against them, so I would want to work even harder," continues Hirano.
At age 7, Miu Hirano had her dream set: She wanted to become a table tennis athlete and compete in the Olympics.
The Start of Hello Kitty Fandom
Just like her love for table tennis, it turns out Hirano had another childhood passion: Hello Kitty.
At 6 years old, even before aiming for table tennis, her dream was to work in a Sanrio store selling Hello Kitty goods.
"Children often idealize the motion of scanning goods at the cashier, right? I wanted to do that at a shop selling Hello Kitty goods," says Hirano, laughing.
When asked why, Hirano just says simply: "She's just so cute!" She is referring, of course, to Sanrio's design of the global icon of kawaii (cute), Hello Kitty. As a child, Hirano's lunch box and school supplies were all Hello Kitty-themed, she tells us.
"Even as an adult, I think Hello Kitty is really kawaii. She makes people happy," as Hirano puts it.
She explains that her ideal would be to have Sanrio make Hello Kitty-themed table tennis goods.
In addition, she has a dream of Sanrio introducing Hello Kitty as a table tennis athlete.
"Better yet, if Sanrio made a much cuter version of me as a character, playing table tennis, I could then pose with Hello Kitty!" Hirano says gleefully.
Hirano The Athlete
Since her childhood matches, Hirano has accumulated an impressive number of sports achievements, as well as Hello Kitty memorabilia.
In March, Hirano was part of the team that won the T.League 2022-2023 season in Japan.
At the same time, the athlete takes on challenges with an ever-present dose of kawaii. At the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, fans gifted her Hello Kitty-themed goods from the stands, as they became aware of her passion for the Sanrio character. "I feel that receiving these presents has brought me closer to my fans," reflects the young athlete, smiling.
Hirano's love for Hello Kitty is also creating bonds with her athlete friends. After giving a pin badge as a present to a fellow player, other athletes came up to ask where Hirano got the cute pins. "The pin was really popular! I realized that Hello Kitty is really loved by everyone in the world," she says.
The Road to Paris 2024
These days, Hirano has her eye set on qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics. To that end, she has a grueling routine of hours and hours of practice. Of course, she jokes that she has plenty of room to use Hello Kitty goods here too, including an ice pack to cool off.
Amidst the kawaii, Hirano's aim is clear: "My goal is to win. Win [first] in the qualifying matches, with the ultimate aim of winning an Olympic medal, whether it's in the women's team or the singles," she says.
Qualifying for the Olympics differs depending on the category, and Hirano is aiming to compete in both in the singles and the team matches.
"There isn't much time, so every day is a race to victory," she explains with grit.
For Hirano, the hardest part is practicing as if it were a competition.
"If one doesn't practice with a competition mindset, it's quite normal to be nervous during matches," she says. "And that's when mistakes happen."
At the same time, Hirano is mindful of how her performance can be key in bringing new interest to the sport.
"It used to be that the older athletes were the ones pulling the sport forward. But now, we are the older generation, so I feel the significance of our performance in representing table tennis," she explains.
"This year could be crucial for table tennis in Japan. Therefore I, together with the rest of my peers, want to work hard to leave our mark and achieve positive results," says Hirano.
The Hard Road to the Olympics
Hirano's path toward competing in the Olympics started from the side bench.
She managed to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, at the age of 16, but only as a reserve. And as often happens in sports, hardship was the start of success.
In 2017, Hirano won the gold medal at the Asian Table Tennis Championships, stunning top-ranked athletes along the way. At just 17 years old, she also became the youngest to reach the top spot in the competition.
Months later, she snatched the bronze medal at the 2017 World Table Tennis Championships. The last time Japan had captured a medal at the world championship was in 1969 when Toshiko Kowada took home the women's gold.
This string of successes gained her the nickname "Hurricane Hirano." Yet, even with this track record, qualifying for the Olympics was not guaranteed. As she explains, "The level of table tennis in Japan is really high, so the qualifying stages are tough."
Medaling at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Many matches and hours of practice later, Hirano participated in her first Olympics, in Tokyo, at the age of 21.
As a reporter following the Games, I have a vivid image of Hirano hitting the ball with her bat with colorful hairpins keeping her bob haircut in place.
It turns out this fashion choice is also Sanrio-themed, as the pins feature characters such as Cinnamoroll and Pochacco. "I'll match different pins and colors depending on my uniform," she explains. "It's become a ritual of sorts," she concludes happily.
At the Tokyo Games, Hirano recalls vividly the women's team final in August 2021, where Japan was squaring off against China. A medal was certain, it was just a question of whether it would be silver or gold. The athletes couldn't drop their concentration. As she says, "We had a final to play, so we really didn't think of celebrating until we were done playing."
The Japanese team ended up claiming the second spot on the podium. It was only then, says Hirano, that she was hit with the realization of their achievement.
"Only when we received the medals did I fully realize what was happening," she recalls. "It had been a long road from the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics. Five years had passed and we were in the midst of COVID-19. But despite the hardship, I thought to myself: 'The hard work paid off.'"
An Olympian and Hello Kitty
In a serendipitous union, Hirano signed a sponsorship contract with Sanrio in 2022. As a result, Hirano's uniform features the Hello Kitty logo.
"It's great that I can compete while wearing the design of Hello Kitty. It makes me excited and pumped up to play," she says. Elaborating, she continues: "I feel like I am fighting together with a character I love [Hello Kitty] during my matches."
Sanrio goods are part of many aspects of Hirano's life as an athlete. When talking about her signature hairpins, she takes out a My-Melody-themed case and exclaims almost like she can't help herself, "Aren't they so cute?!"
In April 2023, Hirano's management company organized a birthday party for her, where the athlete enjoyed a Hello Kitty-designed cake.
In her free time, Hirano says she uses a Hello Kitty-themed apron and crockery at home.
More broadly, she reflects that the company culture is also rubbing off on her. Sanrio's corporate philosophy is "Everyone Getting Along Together."
"There are times in table tennis that you just have to be serious and focused," as she puts it. "Table tennis is an individual sport. Most of the time everyone is a rival." However, she also continues: "In my daily routine and even in matches, I want to become an athlete that people love and want to support."
A Message for 2024
Going forward, Hirano tells her fans that this is the year to look out for her.
"This year is crucial in preparing for the Paris Olympics, so I really want to make the most of it," she explains.
"I'm very happy that Sanrio, the company behind my favorite Hello Kitty, is supporting me. I want to leverage this energy as a driving force in my matches," she pledges.
More widely, she says: "I want to work hard, and become as big a phenomenon as Hello Kitty herself."
It sounds like table tennis fans might need to brace themselves for the cutest hurricane you've ever seen: Miu Hirano.
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This article is published in cooperation with Sanrio Company Ltd.
Author: Arielle Busetto