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Sakura Kokumai’s special karate journey to Tokyo 2020

American karateka's quest for glory in the Olympic debut of the sport comes after success and setbacks as she prepares to represent Team USA at the 2021 Games in her second home, Japan
By Ashlee Tulloch

Tokyo 2020’s significance is unprecedented, and for Sakura Kokumai it will also be a homecoming of sorts in 2021.

The 28-year-old Team USA karate athlete is a first-generation American, born in Hawaii, with Japanese parents. She spent much of her childhood and schooling in Japan, so her connection to the country is strong.

“Japan is a special place to me,” she tells Olympics.com in an exclusive interview.

“To be able to go back to Japan and perform in front of the world, but also in front of people in Japan and represent the US, it means everything,” Kokumai says.

As an eight-time USA National Champion and a six-time Pan American Champion, she is seen as USA’s best chance of Olympic karate success.

On top of that, it’s one of five new sports making its Games debut, so there’s no shortage of pressure.

“For karate to be in the Olympics for the first time ever, I'm really proud that I'm representing the sport in Tokyo,” Kokumai shares.

But while the Tokyo Games in 2021 are special to her for a multitude of reasons, it could also be her only shot at Olympic glory. Karate is not on the programme to be contested in Paris in 2024, and the Los Angeles 2028 sports have not yet been finalised.

Tokyo calling Kokumai

The Japanese-American can’t wait to go back to her roots.

She has a few trump cards up her sleeve for the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021.

For one, she’s familiar with the venue, having competed several times at the Nippon Budokan where the sport will make its Olympic debut.

She also has local support.

Whether or not Japanese fans are able to cheer her on in the stadium, she will still have a big local backing. Many of her friends and family are still living in Japan and she’s eager to not disappoint them.

I think not many people will be able to say I'm going to represent my family's country and also the country I was raised in.” - Sakura Kokumai.

Equally she feels she’s harnessed the ability to perform under pressure.

“I’ve always been that type of person that was able to channel all these nerves into my performance,” she tells Olympic Channel.

“I do get nervous, usually a couple of days before or maybe a week or two before is where I get nervous, but that’s where I rely on training and all the daily grind that I go through, and when I get to an event I just try to appreciate everything that I’ve been through, and all the people that have been supporting me, and I think those pressures kind of turn into strength.”

The sport: Karate

Two types of karate will debut in Tokyo. Kumite and kata.

Kumite is head-to-head sparring against an opponent. Kokumai’s event, kata is an individual discipline where an athlete is judged on a series of predetermined technical movements performed alone. She will be judged on speed, focus, strength, balance, breathing, and rhythm.

Kokumai is eager to change how people view the sport and break stereotypes about her sport.

“The goal is to be at the top of the podium, but I really want to take this opportunity to show the world what karate is,’’ the karateka says.

She sees it as an art form, but generally the American feels others have a different perception, possibly due to what they see in Hollywood movies.

Speaking with Team USA she revealed that when she tells people she does Karate, the first question they ask, is “are you a black belt?” then "can you break bricks or boards?”

Her reply: she said. “I’ve never broken a brick or a board in my life.”

But as an ambassador for the martial art, she takes her responsibility seriously.

“I hope that I can represent our sport well, and I hope I can inspire other people to do the same in terms of going out there, doing your best to reach your dreams, your goal.”

Sakura Kokumai's bumpy ride to Tokyo

Her journey has not been without its challenges.

As a seven-year-old she took up karate in Hawaii and competed in her first international tournament at 14. She quickly showed promise.

“As a kid I was really shy. I was really quiet. I wasn’t too good with expressing myself,” she told us.

But wearing karate uniform helped her discover an inner strength within herself. A strength that’s still with her today.

“It really made me feel good to wear a ‘gi’, to put a belt on and for some reason, it made me feel powerful. The way I see that hasn’t really changed, but I do feel in a way, bigger and more confident. This is my karate side of me.”

A bronze medal breakthrough

At the 2012 Paris World Karate Championships she made her mark and claimed bronze in individual kata.

It was her breakthrough.

“This competition changed my life. It was the moment I realised I was one of the best in the world,” Kokumai told NBC.

In the years that followed, she continued to reach the podium at international events, and it was 2016, as a 23-year-old, having just completed a master’s degree in international relations in Japan, she learned her sport would be included in the Tokyo Games. This became her goal and motivation.

Progress despite difficult moments

A few months after the Tokyo announcement, her coach died. Kokumai began to struggle to balance working and training.

She decided to quit her job in Japan and pursue her Olympic dreams by training in Los Angeles and living with a host family, practicing in their garage.

The decision paid off.

In 2019 she won gold at the Pan American Games, coaching herself.

Despite more challenges for her Olympic journey as the world was hit with the global Covid-19 pandemic, she’s remained positive.

Now in a new home, the 2021 hopeful has converted her garage into a training room with mirrors.

Kokumai raising awareness after being verbally abused

Kokumai admits she’s a private person, but after being verbally threatened by a man while training in a park in April 2021, the Asian-American athlete felt compelled to share her experience and use her platform to raise awareness and encourage others to have respect for one another.

“It took time to process after it was done. But in that moment, I was just trying to be aware of what was happening, and I did realise that he was yelling at me, I did realise at the end there was some racial slurs."

“I just tried to stay calm. My friends reminded me the first rule of karate is to not be in a position to practise karate. So, I tried to not make the situation escalate.

“I understand the importance of being a role model because you never know who you're inspiring. You never know who's watching you. You never know who you're who they're listening to," she shared with Olympics in a recent Instagram IGTV live interview to mark 100 days to go to the Tokyo Games in 2021.

“I do understand that I do have a platform. I do understand that I am representing the sport in this country. So, when something like that happened, I thought it was really important to raise awareness, that it could happen to anybody. And we all just have to be there for each other.”