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 is magnified when he competes at the Japan Cup Karatedo, the annual national championship meet which held its 45th edition over the weekend at the historic Tokyo martial arts venue, the Nippon Budokan.

“When I compete overseas, the fans clap even during my performance,” said Kiyuna, who captured a sixth straight Emperor’s Cup at the tournament on Sunday. “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.”

The historic site might feel more like a tournament held outside of Japan during the summer of 2020, when Kiyuna, 27, could be participating in the Tokyo Olympics.

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.

BBut these highly disciplined Japanese karateka continue to maintain a one-day-at-a-time, one-tournament-at-a-time mindset, 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 in the discipline 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,” the style she’s most comfortable with among the many different kata, at the Japan Cup.

But she emphasized that the quality of her performance is different every time. So coming into this year’s Japan Cup, she wasn’t focusing on defending her title but on putting up a better performance than her last one.

“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 and all they can do is keep working hard to hone their skills day in and day out 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 Prefecture 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.

Meanwhile, Ayumi Uekusa, a flamboyant female champion in kumite (in which two karateka actually 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 things 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 on Sunday. Down by one point, Uekusa successfully landed a high kick to Saito’s head with only one second left to dramatically earn a spot in the final.

After defeating Miho Miyahara in the final, Uekusa said her experience in taekwondo aided her, adding that “I didn’t make my kicks like that before.”

Overall, three winners — Kiyuna, Shimizu and Uekusa — out of the four individual divisions defended their Japan Cup titles (defending men’s kumite champion Ryutaro Araga lost to Daisuke Watanabe in his final).

But whether you keep training what you have done in the past or you try something new to develop your performance, you can’t stay the same in this sport of karate.

So the latest championships meant a whole lot different for those champions and they are going to keep training leading up to the Tokyo Olympics.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.