The reigning Olympic champion finally appears to be snapping out of his post-Rio 2016 funk as he clocked 4 minutes, 13.32 seconds at his national swimming championships - meeting the Games qualifying standard.
And he did it having just come out of quarantine, in his first 400 IM race in an Olympic pool since February.
“I’m jetlagged, tired, and didn’t have much time to get ready”, said Hagino, who holds the 400 IM Japan record of 4:06.05.
“Being perfectly honest, I wasn’t exactly peaking for this meet. But I wanted to see how well I could do given the circumstances and I wasn’t too shabby.
“I don’t think for a second I can make the team with this time. But to meet the standard without tapering does give me confidence.
“I’m taking it as a positive because now I can train over the winter without worrying about my time”.
It's all in the mind
Hagino topped the heats with a 4:16.75 and in the final, emerged out in front at the 150 turn, never looking back.
He touched the wall more than a full second ahead of runner-up Honda Tomoru with world champion Seto Daiya suspended for these championships.
Hagino was the first to acknowledge he is nowhere near where he wants to be, technically and physically.
But at least the 26-year-old - once destined to be a face of the Games on his home soil - is now seeing the glass half full, something he has struggled to do since falling out of form post-Rio 2016.
Hagino has entered in five events at this meet, which he would not be able to do if he was still in last year’s form.
On Friday, Hagino will race in the 200 freestyle and 100 backstroke.
“I’m not going to lie, the final was tough for me”, he said.
“Especially my legs, they weren’t in it right from the fly. I didn’t think I was swimming a 4:13. I went through the free telling myself that I have a lot of work to do.
“The preparation for this competition was far from ideal. I think I was swimming on sheer will but that is a good sign for me."
“I know my time was far off my best but I’m just happy that I won for starters, and with what I think is a decent time.
“I came here wanting to stay confident. A year ago, I was holed up inside myself, thinking only about what wasn’t working.
“But right now, I’m in a very positive place”.
Grand opening of Tokyo venue
Hagino also credited his performance to the shiny Tokyo Aquatics Centre, which housed its first meet without a crowd, and with thorough coronavirus countermeasures in place.
The Aquatics Centre is the Tokyo 2020 swimming venue. Next year’s nationals in April will double as the Games trials for Japan.
“I got a lot of help from the pool today”, he said. “The moment I walked in I was like, ‘Wow’ - despite only the coaches being in the stands.
“I almost forgot I was competing and felt like a fan. But the pool is that awesome. I’m so lucky”.
In the men’s 100 breaststroke, 19-year-old rising star Sato Shoma held off former world record-holder Watanabe Ippei and dethroned six-time defending champion Koseki Yasuhiro to win his maiden title in 59.59.
Nakamura Katsumi stormed to his sixth successive victory in the 100 free (48.80) over 2019 world silver medallist Matsumot Katsuhiro.
Watanabe Kanako edged Aoki Reona for the women’s 100 breaststroke crown (1:06.78), her fourth title in the race while Mochizuki Kinuko took the 400 free in 4:08.43.