Sakura Kokumai brings Karate Kata to the 2021 Olympics

There are three pillars of karate training: kumite, kata and kihon. Most people are familiar with the first, in which two opponents face each other by hitting each other. But first-time Olympian Sakura Kokumai’s expertise is second, kata, a solo discipline in which athletes perform a defined choreography – think floor gymnastics or ice skating, but without music. Is kata easier than fighting on a mat? The native of Hawaii laughs. “Kata, easier than sparring?” It is a good one. “

The 28-year-old is the only contender for the U.S. team in the women’s kata division for the Tokyo 2021 Games, the first time the Olympics will feature karate. “It’s artistic in a way,” she says of the kata, which emphasizes breathing, form and precision. “We’re given a list of kata to perform, pick one and basically we have to make it our own by changing the pace, or making it faster or harder. (Both forms rely on kihon, which refers to basic techniques a student learns, such as punches, kicks, and stances.)

Kata and kumite competitions require varying degrees of physique and focus, Kokumai says, leading to good-humored verbal contests within the community. “There is a joke that you can see the difference in personality between a kata athlete and a kumite athlete,” she says. “That kumite athletes are usually not on time and get things right from the start. Kata athletes, by comparison, love to plan. We like everything to be neat and tight, and to be able to focus for longer hours. “

Although karate is new to games, it is a passion that Kokumai has had since childhood. She first joined a karate dojo at the age of 7 and immediately felt “super powerful” in the gi. At 14, she was on the National Junior Team. She has now been on the United States National Karate Team for 14 years and is a seven-time United States National Champion and six-time Senior Pan American Champion. In 2016, when she learned that karate was going to be included in the Tokyo Olympics, she had just completed a Masters in International Relations at Waseda University in Tokyo, less than 3 miles from where she will compete this month. -this. She moved to Southern California to train full time.

Going back to his American roots seemed good to him. While working with great coaches in Japan, she felt like she was seen as an outsider. “I am of Japanese descent,” she says. “And I have represented the United States since I started karate.” Regardless, in April she was targeted by a racist Orange County man, who told her to “go home”. As people of Asian descent make up Hawaii’s largest racial group, Kokumai was surprised. Although she has seen similar reporting on the news, “it definitely opened my eyes” to the hatred Asian Americans endured, she said.

Clearly, his path to the Olympics has been unusual – aside from the pandemic. Because karate is not a high profile sport in America, Kokumai and her teammates have had to largely fund their own resources without the help of large sponsorships, who can pay for everything from equipment to living expenses. (Team USA gives them a small monthly stipend, and Panasonic has pledged to sponsor her in 2020.) She has no coach or former US Karate Olympian to turn to for mentorship.

This made her even more determined to show off her skills on the world stage – and the opportunity could be fleeting. Karate will not be at the 2024 Summer Games in Paris, and the 2028 lineup in Los Angeles has still not been finalized. (It was the Tokyo organizers who proposed karate to the International Olympic Committee, which is likely waiting to gauge its popularity with viewers before making any decisions.), “She says.

Get to know Kokumai in the Bustle Booth quiz, below.

In the stirring booth

What’s your coffee order?


What weather locations are saved on your phone?

Tokyo, Newport Beach, Seattle, Honolulu.

What’s your sign?


If you weren’t a professional athlete, what career would you want?


Who is your sports idol?

Apolo Ohno, Michael Phelps.

What’s your favorite karaoke song?

Every Disney song. 🙂

What’s your pump song?

I usually have it remixed on my phone.

What has inspired you lately?

See all my fellow USA team athletes compete and crush it in their sports!

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