By Steve Slater
LONDON (Reuters) - Teenager Kasumi Ishikawa is leading Japan's youthful charge to grab its first Olympic table tennis medal at London 2012 and establish her country as the one best able to challenge China's dominance.
In the hall next to where dejected Japanese were declaring that their judo is dead after their worst showing ever in the sport they gave birth to, they are hopeful of at least one, and possibly two, medals in the table tennis.
Ishikawa, 19, put disappointment at narrowly missing out on a single's medal behind her on Saturday to help Japan's women's team comfortably beat Germany 3-0 on Saturday in what was a potentially tricky encounter.
"At the moment my main concern is to win the semi-final and then we'll think about how to compete with China," Ishikawa laughed when asked if Japan can emerge as China's main challengers in a new era.
Japan's women are seeded second and their men are seeded third.
Ishikawa is joined by Ai Fukuhara, 23, and Sayaka Kirano, 27, in a lively team. Often throwing the ball more than 12 feet high on service, they then launch quickly into attack and take the game to their opponents.
They were cheered on by 20 Japanese junior high school students who lost family members in last year's deadly earthquake and tsunami.
"I was so close watching the players. It was so exciting," said Haruna Ise, 13, adding that success here in London would certainly get more youngsters at home playing the sport.
After the misery of last year's tsunami and nuclear crisis, Japan's Olympic contingent hope a good performance in London will lift the entire country, especially if they can pip South Korea to be the "best of the rest" in Asia, excluding China.
Ishikawa, from Yamaguchi, is from a family of table tennis players and is coached by her mother Kumi.
The teenager, who won Japan's national singles title last year, has risen to number four in the world rankings.
"I would like to learn from the Chinese players as much as possible and beat them playing my own style," Ishikawa said after losing in the singles semi-final to China's eventual winner Li Xiaoxia.
China have won all seven women's singles golds since the sport was introduced to the Olympics in 1988.
Ishikawa was trounced in the bronze medal match by Singapore's Tianwei Feng, who she could face again in the team semi-final.
"My stamina is still good," she said, when asked if her exertions in the singles could backfire.
Third seeds Singapore will play North Korea later on Saturday for the right to take on Japan.
China defeated the Netherlands 3-0 in Saturday's first quarter-final.
Japan's men face Hong Kong in their team quarter final on Sunday, spearheaded by Jun Mizutani, ranked fifth in the world.
(Reporting by Steve Slater)