When rugby sevens made its Olympic debut at the Rio 2016 Games, the usual suspects were seen as the favourites to claim the sport’s first Olympic medals.

Yet it was Japan, who had not finished higher than 15th overall in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series for more than a decade, who lit up the tournament and came within touching distance of a surprise medal.

Japan ended up finishing fourth, losing to South Africa 54-14 in the bronze medal match, but they beat France and current World Series champions New Zealand in a glorious run to the semi-finals.

The likes of Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa – winners of the last 10 World Series titles – will again be the favourites later this month when sevens returns to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, but anyone discounting the hosts only needs to look at their performance five years ago.

In Rio, the Japanese team were driven by camaraderie and self-confidence, even if those on the outside doubted them.

Yusaku Kuwazura, known in Japan as Mr Sevens, was captain of the men’s team at Rio 2016 and is still adamant they should have done even better.

“Our goal was to get a medal in Rio, so we prepared for that,” the now retired Kuwazura told World Rugby.

“We got to fourth and so we didn’t reach our goal, but everyone seems to think we did really well. But we didn’t reach our goal, so we weren’t that impressed (with ourselves). But looking back on it, I guess we did do well.”

Japan’s 14-12 win over New Zealand was the shock of the tournament and Kuwazura said it was months in the making.

“For six months, we focused on New Zealand and worked on our strategy of how to beat New Zealand. That is probably why we beat them,” he said.

This attention to detail, combined with an unshakeable self-belief, means the current crop of Japanese players are determined to secure a medal this time around.

“They will want to win a medal this time, of course,” insists Kuwazura, and this has been the message relayed repeatedly from the Japan training camp.

With the 2020 World Series cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is harder than ever to judge form and predict a winner at the Olympics.

“We can’t participate at the World Series, which makes it hard to predict which teams are good. Nobody can really judge who is the best right now,” said Kuwazura.

Kensuke Iwabuchi, the men’s head coach, thinks this could favour the Japanese.

“At a one-off tournament anything can happen, especially in sevens. We need to peak at the Olympics,” he told World Rugby.

Japan have been drawn in Pool B alongside reigning Olympic champions Fiji, Great Britain and debutants Canada.

Chihito Matsui has been named captain of the Japan Men's Sevens for this year’s home tournament as Lote Tuqiri, Kazushi Hano and Masakatsu Hiko all make returns to the national sevens Olympics squad after helping Japan to the semi-finals at Rio 2016.

Rugby sevens is expected to be one of the most highly anticipated events of the Tokyo Games, following the outstanding success of Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, which captured the nation’s imagination with record-breaking broadcast audiences and huge numbers of new rugby fans across Japan and Asia.

The men’s competition will take place from 26-28 July, with the women’s tournament following on 29-31 July with the gold medal match happening on ‘Super Saturday’. All the action will take place at Tokyo Stadium, which was the venue for the opening match of Rugby World Cup 2019.