‘Japanese Doll’ Ai Fukuhara breaks China’s heart with retirement from table tennis

  • Social media darling will build her family and work to promote the sport
  • Fans respond with an outpouring of affection for her deep ties to the country
PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 7:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 10:37pm

Table tennis icon Ai Fukuhara, known to her millions of fans in China as the “Japanese Doll”, announced her retirement on Sunday, causing an outpouring of affection on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Unusually for a Japanese player, Fukuhara has more than 3.9 million social media followers in China who adore her because of her deep ties to the country.

She has been training with the Chinese national table tennis team in the northern Liaoning province since she was five and speaks fluent “Dongbei hua”, the northern Chinese dialect.

“Thank you all the province teams for letting me train with you. I feel my skills have improved greatly since I began training in China,” Fukuhara said in the Weibo post announcing her retirement.

She also thanked her fans for their support.

“Now that there are so many great players in the team, I can finally let go of the pressure that I have been putting on myself. From now on I want to work to promote table tennis,” Fukuhara wrote in Chinese, adding that she was retiring to build her family.

She married Taiwanese table tennis player and fellow Olympian Chiang Hung-chieh in 2016. They have a daughter together.

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“Good luck with the next stage of your life Ai-Chan,” many Weibo users wrote to Fukuhara, using her Japanese nickname. “You will always be the most loved Japanese player in China,” one Weibo user said.

“It’s OK if you don’t play table tennis, just upload a video where you speak Dongbei hua once in a while,” said one commenter.

Fukuhara, now 30, began competing at the Olympics at the age of 15. She won silver at the 2012 London Olympics, and Bronze in Rio four years later. Her retirement means she will no longer be playing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I’ve been saving money to go and see you in Tokyo since 2016, now I feel like I’ve lost something very important, but I still wish you happiness in the future,” wrote one Weibo user.

Fukuhara won the hearts of Chinese fans after her loss to Chinese player Li Xiaoxia in 2016. Even state-run China Central Television praised her performance, saying she had done a “fabulous job”.

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Fukuhara became so popular in China that social media users even suggested she marry a Chinese man. Some fans have even pinned the future of Sino-Japan relations on the table tennis star.

“The friendship between China and Japan will always need you,” one heartbroken social media user commented on her retirement post. “Because of you, I no longer dislike Japan as much as I used to, and sometimes I even hope you will win when you play against China,” wrote another.

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The table tennis prodigy began playing at the age of three, and was competing at age four. She became a professional player at 10 and the youngest player for the Japanese national team the following year.