More Sports

Ryo Kiyuna, Kiyou Shimizu continue to help raise karate’s profile

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

There were a lot of fans angling to get a closer look at Ryo Kiyuna, after the Japanese men’s kata karateka captured gold at the Asian Games on Saturday at the Jakarta Convention Center Plenary Hall.

As he headed to doping control, Indonesian boys yelled to him, “Kiyu, Kiyu,” prompting the karate star to give them a polite wave on his way by.

Kiyuna, competing in his first Asian Games, was dominant on the tatami mat, where athletes demonstrate choreographed sequences of karate techniques. The Okinawa Prefecture native won each of his three matches in 5-0 decisions to add another achievement to his decorated career.

A dominant two-time defending world champion, Kiyuna needed things to go as perfectly as they did.

“When I left Okinawa, my master (Tsuguo) Sakumoto told me to win with all 5-0 decisions,” Kiyuna said. “So I’m happy that I did so.”

The six-time national champion then cracked a joke: “I wouldn’t be able to go back to Okinawa had I not won perfectly.”

Unlike kata competitions held in Japan, where spectators observe the performances quietly, the mood in Jakarta was very different. The Indonesian fans occasionally made noise, chanting and beating drums.

But when Kiyuna began his performance in the championship match, their reactions were different, with the fans in awe every time the Japanese made a sharp and powerful movement.

The two-time reigning world champion is perhaps seen as a lock for the gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Games, where the sport will make its Olympic debut. But the 28-year-old has remained modest and has not changed anything.

Kiyuna has even looked at other sports to use reference points for his own karate performance.

“I’ve recently been watching how the weightlifters are using their bodies,” Kiyuna said. “They are able to exert their maximum power all at once using their whole bodies.”

Meanwhile, Kiyou Shimizu had a slightly harder time than Kiyuna in winning her gold.

In fact, the 24-year-old barely edged out Hong Kong’s Grace Lau, who she later described as “probably the best opponent in Asia,” in a 3-2 decision in their semifinal showdown in the women’s competition.

But beating such a tough opponent as Lau in the final-four stage gave Shimizu a chance to test something she had recently worked on for the final. Shimizu used the Chibana Kushanku program, which she said is harder to execute at this stage.

She said the program requires more lower-body strength and is more difficult to execute perfectly. Still, she took a risk by choosing it for the Asiad final in the hope of raising herself to a higher level with the 2020 Olympics in sight.

“I have to make sure that I will make the three programs I used today perfect going forward,” the Osaka native said. “And I encountered issues in all the three.”

Like Kiyuna, Shimizu is one of the faces of the sport and is someone karate fans look up to. There was long line of officials from various countries waiting to ask her to take a photo with them on their smartphones.

“I was happy I got the support,” Shimizu said, when asked how she felt about being cheered on by the Indonesian fans during the competition. “Because our sport has been scheduled for the Olympics, it’s gotten more recognition. And we came down here to raise the profile of it as well. So it feels great to have won.”