With its practitioners numbering over 130 million around the world and nearly 200 nations having become members of its international governing body, karate has become more of a global sport than Japan’s own, traditional martial art.
Yet men’s kata champion Ryo Kiyuna insists the atmosphere feels more intense when he showcases his skills in tournaments in his native Japan as opposed to other events around the world.
That feeling was magnified when he competed at the Japan Cup Karatedo, the national championship held in December at the historic Nippon Budokan.
“When I compete overseas, the fans clap even during my performance,” said Kiyuna, who captured a sixth straight Emperor’s Cup last month. “But when I compete on the national championship stage, they stay silent until the end and give me big applause once it’s over. And it makes me feel so great.”
But the venue might feel different during the summer of 2020, when Kiyuna, 27, could be participating in the Tokyo Olympics.
Good for host nation
Last year, karate, which originated in the Ryukyu Kingdom before it was called Okinawa, was included as one of the five new sports on the Olympic program for 2020 and is expected to contribute to Japan’s medal count.
It is a dream come true for the current elite young karateka (practitioner of karate), as they could become heroes at the globe’s biggest sporting extravaganza in front of a home crowd.
But these highly disciplined Japanese karateka continue to maintain a one-day-at-a-time, one-tournament-at-a-time mind set, and have avoided looking too far ahead to 2020.
That is especially the case for those who compete in the kata (form) competition, in which the karateka showcase specified, prearranged moves and are judged on the speed and accuracy of their performance.
Kiyou Shimizu won the women’s individual title at the national championships, extending her Empress Cup-winning streak at the Japan Cup to five.
As she had done in previous national and world championship competitions, the 24-year-old selected “Chatanyara Kushanku,” her preferred style, at the Japan Cup. But she emphasized that the quality of her performance is different every time.
“Even during the five years, I experienced so much,” said Shimizu, who is also the two-time reigning world champion. “My performance has been different every year, so I wasn’t dwelling (on winning another one) too much.”
Kiyuna, Shimizu and other karateka say there are no shortcuts to developing their performances. All they can do is keep working hard to hone their skills in the dojo.
Kiyuna said he plans to refine what he has done instead of tackling new things.
“There’s nothing else but you just have to keep doing what you have done in kata,” the Okinawa native said. “You keep doing it over and over and make it better for yourself.”
The repeated practice provided Kiyuna with concrete faith in himself entering the Japan Cup. He said he “had confidence to win” if he could perform the same as he does in his practices.
Learning new tactics
Meanwhile, Ayumi Uekusa, a flamboyant female champion in kumite (in which two karateka fight against each other), might be a little different from other old-school karateka. The 25-year-old has improved her skills and isn’t adverse to adding new tactics to her arsenal.
That helped her rack up a third consecutive Japan Cup title this year.
In the last 12 months or so, Uekusa has learned some taekwondo by going to a dojo run by a former Olympian in the martial art about once a month to improve her kicking, which she thought was a weak point.
The defending world champion put those lessons to use in her semifinal match against Ayaka Saito successfully landed a high kick to Saito’s head with only one second left to dramatically earn a spot in the final.
But whether continuing past training or trying something new, the three champions are further honing their skills for the Tokyo Olympics.