Tenkai Tsunami, 24, is the World Boxing Association (WBA) female super flyweight world champion, a title she earned after only four years of training with Toshihiro Yamaki, who introduced women’s boxing to Japan in 1999. At 160 cm and 52 kg, Tsunami is a petite right-handed powerhouse famous for a mean left hook that helped her grab the title belt on Feb. 26 this year in Tokyo. She took the boxing world by storm with her stamina and fearless nonstop punches in 14 wins — five by knockout — and only three losses. In all her 17 matches, Tsunami has never been knocked down and credits her rise to stardom to her trainer. Yamaki not only taught the scrappy Tsunami boxing but also the teachings of Bushido, the codes by which these two samurai conduct their affairs, not only in the ring but also in life.
I’m not a woman who fights: I am an athlete who happens to be female. I’m in the ring to put on a great show and kick some butt while keeping good manners and following the samurai rules of fair play. Some people don’t want to watch women boxing? That’s easy to fix! They should stop looking at us as girls and then they might start seeing athletes, cause that’s what we are.
Who knows where they will end up? I never thought I’d be a boxer. After high school, I got a job in a factory in Kyushu where my mom was working. We were on the line, making car parts. Then one day in 2003, my friend, Tenku Tsubasa, called and said she was moving to Tokyo to become a boxer and asked me to join her. As a joke, we made a bet: If Japan won the soccer game we were watching, we’d go. Our team did win, and we moved.
Major life decisions are never planned but happen naturally. Tenku transformed herself into a boxer, and when I saw her in the ring, I thought she was magnificent! I wanted to be up there like her, so four years ago I began training seriously. I didn’t wonder if boxing was a good or bad choice for me: I just felt it was something I could do well, so I did it.
In real life, fighting sucks! I stay away from any arguments. I love kind people and am very gentle outside the ring.
I have the belt and my coach wears the pants that go with it. The belt is made for one person, but it really belongs to two: my coach and me. He saw my potential and made me into a champion. I went a long way because of him — he is the engine in my machine.
You don’t have to experience everything the world offers. I’m in Tokyo to do boxing, not to enjoy city life. I don’t want to see all the delicious foods and cute clothes and handsome boys, because they would just distract me from my training and that would be the end of my career.
You can’t do anything bad when you see the sword in front of you! Japanese samurai used to commit seppuku if they made a mistake. They were always living by strict morals, knowing that one mistake would mean death. That is how my trainer and I live: We are 100 percent responsible for our actions.
The gym is filled with bushido spirit. My coach is a samurai: He embodies self-respect, responsibility and self-sacrifice. We girls can be samurai, too, like Tomoe Gozen, who was a great samurai woman in the 13th century.
I am a world champion, but it is my coach who is world-class. He allows me to focus on my training. I just work out, not work in some job like most boxers do. That’s how I could become a champ in just four years.
In any job, if you want to succeed, you must refrain from having fun. For me, the most important thing is to get stronger at boxing. I run 8 km every day, study and train. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, for four years, I did everything to become the strongest competitor. It’s a war! Even my relaxation is designed to make me into a better boxer. If I wanna succeed, this is the way to do it.
Even children from poor families can be happy. When we moved to Kagoshima from Okinawa, my stepdad’s relatives wanted to adopt some of us — there were six of us kids back then — but my mom would not hear of it. Children should never be separated, she thought. She was correct! I never felt I missed out on anything. We were loved and fed, so everything was OK.
Kids need order. Our grandparents were very strict. We had to sit in seiza (kneeling with the heels below the buttocks) and eat nicely. Every morning we cleaned the garden, washed the floors and made the house neat. We lived like we were in a Buddhist temple. We loved it and adored Grandpa and Grandma.
Even in business, be a samurai! We Japanese call it shikon sho-sai, a term that means one must live by the codes of Bushido in all aspects of life, including commerce. Business and sports must be all about fair play. For example, top executives in Japan make no more than about five times what a factory worker makes. Bosses even clean the grounds and offices sometimes. We wouldn’t have the kind of financial crisis we are having right now if all the businesses in the world were run with such ethics.
After you have done something for yourself, you should do something for others. When I stop boxing, I will follow in my mom’s footsteps again and work at a nursing home, taking care of elderly people. They need all the power we can give them.
In any sport, unless you get used to the pain, you can’t survive. It took me about one year, but now I don’t feel the blows anymore.
Life is nothing but carrying a heavy bag that one can never put down. You have to make yourself stronger so you can manage it, and remember that a lighter bag is not necessarily easier to carry: The heavier the load, the greater the feeling of accomplishment.
Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Weekend Japanology.” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/