Five Japanese television networks covered Hanyu’s performance at the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow. So did several dozen print journalists and photographers who recorded his every jump, spin and utterance. Last spring, the skating website icenetwork.com found Hanyu on the cover of 19 publications called mooks — a combination of magazine and book — at a Japanese bookstore.
The bookstore was not in Tokyo. It was in Midtown Manhattan.
“It reminds me of when Michael Jackson was in his heyday, or meeting the Pope,” said Jackie Wong, a prominent skating blogger and former skater who lives in New York. “People see Hanyu for the first time and they become hysterical or they’re moved to tears. It’s like their lives are complete. It’s crazy.”
As Hanyu was introduced in Moscow for the short program at the Rostelecom Cup, Japanese fans waved small national flags. On one side of the rink alone, there were 16 banners proclaiming “Go Yuzu” and other exhortations. As Hanyu began to perform to Chopin, the crowd grew so quiet that the scrape of his blades could be heard in the upper reaches of Megasport Arena.
A month earlier, Hanyu had set a world record for points for a short program. But in Moscow, he landed clumsily on a quadruple salchow and put his hands to the ice after an awkward combination jump. The judges placed him second to Chen. Still, Hanyu’s appreciative fans showered the ice with dozens of Pooh dolls.
“Did you see the Poohs?” Yoshiko Kobayashi, the high-performance director of the Japanese Skating Federation, later asked an American reporter. “The ice turned yellow.”
After a news conference with international reporters, Hanyu was engulfed on a dais by Japanese reporters and photographers.
Kobayashi pulled a stopwatch from her purse.
“I control,” she said.
The Japanese reporters would have five minutes, she said. She gave them almost seven, then freed Hanyu from the scrum.
The next day, Hanyu’s fans again gathered to watch his free skate. Among them was Saori Kanayama, 30, a Japanese flight attendant who had traveled from Dubai for the competition. She had planned her vacation to attend the Olympics. All she needed was a ticket.
Hanyu’s fans wrote thousands of letters to him, made dolls in his likeness and sent him origami, cookies and towels to wipe his face after training. Kanayama brought rock music CDs with her.
“He has too many Poohs,” she said.
Her reasons for following Hanyu’s career so closely were partly cultural. “Japanese people are shy, we are not supposed to show our honest feelings,” she said. “As a skater, Yuzuru doesn’t hesitate to show how much he wants to be No. 1.”
Wearing a white tunic and skating as a character out of Japanese folklore, Abe no Seimei, a kind of soothsayer and supernatural protector, Hanyu landed a quadruple lutz for the first time in competition. It is the most difficult of the four-revolution jumps currently being performed, requiring the jab of a toe pick, a liftoff from the back outside edge of one skate and a landing on the back outside edge of the other skate.
But the performance was not flawless. Hanyu finished second over all to Chen. Some of his fans cried in the stands, including one wearing a costume identical to Hanyu’s.
Frank Carroll, a renowned American coach who guided Evan Lysacek to a 2010 Olympic gold medal, attended the Rostelecom Cup. In his view, Hanyu seemed diminished.
“I don’t see what he had a few years ago,” Carroll said. “I’m sorry. I know he does some beautiful things, but I don’t see the inspiration.”
At a news conference, Hanyu complimented Chen as “a wonderfully talented person who does great jumps with a balletic expression.”
“I need to practice more and more,” Hanyu said.
The next evening, Hanyu’s supporters were newly ebullient in filling the lobby of Moscow’s Aerostar Hotel, where the skaters were feted at a banquet. The fans formed two lines through which skaters walked, some stopping briefly for photos and autographs.
A kind of spirit seemed to overtake Hanyu when he skated, lending him endearing masculine and feminine qualities, said one fan, Junko Ino, 36, a teacher from Fukuoka, Japan.
“He’s powerful and tender,” Ino said. “His emotion will heal your heart.”
Sayuri Arimoto, 50, a software engineer, had traveled from San Mateo, Calif., to see Hanyu, even if it left her co-workers puzzled. “You travel to Europe just for figure skating?” they asked her.
When Hanyu was home in Japan, he sometimes skated at midnight for peace and quiet, his coach said. And in Toronto, where he trained most of the time, he occasionally called his coach to ask for a ride, uncomfortable with some fans who knew his daily routine and waited to ride the bus with him.
At the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club, Hanyu’s team makes a great effort to answer his fan mail and to keep fans, bloggers and other journalists from intruding to videotape his practices.
“You can have a bad day and nobody’s going to be writing about it,” said Orser, Hanyu’s coach.
When he did not receive a desired result, Hanyu said, he felt a need to apologize to his fans, but did not consider the expectations of his supporters and the news media to be a burden.
“Honestly,” he said through an interpreter, “sometimes I’m feeling like they treat me as a celebrity or an idol, but I’m not quite that. But I understand they’re all here to support me and I appreciate that passion.”
In the lobby of the Aerostar Hotel, Hanyu emerged through a side door, wearing a black suit for the banquet. He almost reached the elevators before fans noticed him. They hurried to take photos and videos. Among them was Hiroko Sato, 49, a neighbor of Hanyu’s in Sendai, Japan. Her family’s construction company had sustained damage during the 2011 earthquake.
Hanyu was training at the Sendai rink and, terrified, ran outside in his skates when the ice began to rumble. He and his parents and his sister were left without electricity or drinking water. They spent three days at an emergency shelter at a gymnasium. The rink closed for several months, leaving him a skating vagabond.
Upon winning a gold medal at the 2014 Olympics, Hanyu, then 19, worried aloud that his victory would be a frivolous gesture to those who had suffered in Sendai. That was not true, said Sato, his neighbor. Hanyu skated in a benefit for victims of the earthquake and donated royalties from his two autobiographies to the rink in Sendai.
Hanyu had called her after the earthquake, she said, asking, “Are you O.K.?” and telling her, “Hang in there.”
“He gave hope for us,” Sato said. She teared up as she recounted the destruction of the earthquake. “He got the gold medal at the Olympics.”
The second week of November, Hanyu was set to compete in his second major pre-Olympic event of the season, the NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan. Orser, his coach, had described Hanyu as being “so focused, so driven” that he was “on the verge of manic” in his determination to win a second Olympic gold medal.
Orser tried to convince Hanyu that there should be a natural ebb and flow to a long skating season. Button, the 1948 and 1952 Olympic champion, cautioned Hanyu not to overtrain. And one of Hanyu’s idols, Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, the 2006 Olympic champion, suggested that Hanyu would not need five quadruple jumps in his Olympic free skate as Chen of the United States aspired to.
Shoma Uno, a Japanese teenager who finished second to Hanyu at the 2017 world championships, was also a magnificent jumper. But Hanyu had a decided edge over other skaters in the completeness of his performance — spins, skating skills, transitions between jumps and musical interpretation, Plushenko said.
“If he has three quads and skates clean, he can win the Olympics one more time,” Plushenko said. “If he does all the things he can, he’s going to win easily.”
The biggest hurdle to his own failed attempt to repeat as Olympic champion, Plushenko said, was injury: “In my head I was ready to skate but my body is sometimes going, ‘No, wait, please, please.’”
His words were prescient. On Nov. 9, a day before the NHK Trophy began, Hanyu attempted a quadruple lutz in practice, but his legs landed in a pretzled position. More than 100 Japanese journalists turned up at a news conference that evening to learn of Hanyu’s condition.
The next day, it was announced that he had ligament damage in his right ankle but would try to compete. Instead, he withdrew. (Weeks later, it would be revealed that the ankle had also sustained tendon and bone damage.)
“I am very sorry to have everyone worried,” Hanyu said in a statement.
At Osaka’s Municipal Central Gymnasium, where the NHK Trophy went on without Hanyu, his fans were left dejected. Zeng Yuemeng, 28, an Osaka airport worker, said she had moved to Japan from China in July because of her favorite skater. She carried a Pooh keychain on her purse.
“Because this is his country,” Zeng said of Hanyu, “maybe I can see why he has become such a perfect human.”
Other fans took a half-hour train ride to pray for Hanyu at a Shinto shrine in Kobe, Japan. Because the shrine’s name — Yuzuruha — resembled the first name of the skater, it had become a popular place for fans to write their well-wishes to Hanyu on round wooden plaques. Hundreds of plaques hung on racks at the shrine.