Sakura Kokumai poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Each Tuesday leading up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, which will be held in the summer of 2021, TeamUSA.org will introduce you to an athlete you should know prior to Tokyo – as part of the “Tokyo Tuesday” series. There’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Follow along on social media with the hashtag #TokyoTuesday.
The first question that Sakura Kokumai gets when she tells people she practices karate is, “Are you a black belt?”
“That’s followed up by, ‘Can you break bricks or boards?’” she said. “I’ve never broken a brick or a board in my life. I think people see it as a very aggressive sport, or because of Hollywood they see it as being very hardcore. The way I see it, it’s an art form.”
Kokumai, 27, will represent the U.S. when karate makes its Olympic debut at the 2021 Games in Tokyo. The fifth-ranked women’s kata athlete in the world, she hopes to not only win Team USA’s first Olympic medal in karate but also share the beauty of her sport with the world.
It’s a journey that started when she was just 7 years old growing up in Honolulu. Initially, Kokumai practiced both disciplines of karate that will be featured in the Olympics: kumite, which is sparring against another athlete, and kata, which is a series of choreographed movements performed solo. She loved both, but did better in competitions at kata. Around 16, she decided to focus on that.
There are 102 different kata recognized by the World Karate Federation, each a set series of movements that take a maximum of three minutes to perform. At the Olympics, athletes choose which kata to execute but will only be allowed to perform each one once throughout the competition.
So if Kokumai chooses the same kata as an athlete from Spain or France, she said, they’ll perform the exact same routine.
At least on paper.
“What’s great about that is that I’m kind of short, I’m not too tall, so the way I perform is different than the way the Spanish athlete might perform the same kata,” said Kokumai, a member of the U.S. national team since 2007, world bronze medalist and multiple-time national
champion. “Your personality comes out. I’m closer to the floor so I can show more speed, more power than the other athletes who are maybe taller. Just being able to show that gives it a little flavor.
“In the kata itself we’re fighting an invisible opponent, so we’re telling the story of a fight. When you see it you only hear the breathing and the gi, which is the uniform. We don’t have music or any external thing that can help with your performance. It’s just us and the referee looking at technique and athleticism through the performance. I always enjoy doing my kata in front of people who have no knowledge of karate because I finish and they say, ‘OK, I don’t know what you just did, but that was amazing.’”
Kokumai became the first U.S. karateka to qualify for the Olympics, which she did in March by virtue of her world ranking. Only 10 athletes of each gender will qualify in kata.
That the Olympics will be held in Japan makes it even more special for Kokumai, whose parents hail from the country.
Kokumai was actually in Japan attending grad school when the International Olympic Committee first announced it was adding karate to the program for 2020.
“I didn’t really believe it,” she said. “It was a big deal over there, all over the news, on TV, in the newspapers, so obviously it was real, but because I didn’t grow up dreaming about competing in the Olympics it took a while for me to understand what that really meant. After it marinated and I understood what that meant, that was my goal from there.”
Kokumai, who now lives in San Diego, split her time between Hawaii and Japan growing up. Karate is like football in Japan, she said, and so practicing it there gave her an outlook that was different from what she had in the United States. The opportunity to represent the U.S. in karate in Japan is going to feel very much like a full-circle moment.
“Karate has been a part of my life for a long time now,” she said. “It may be new to the Olympics, but there are so many karate practitioners around the world, and I think that people who practice karate have a relationship with the sport that’s very personal. I’m hoping the Olympics will allow people to see what we do and why we do what we do.”