Japan’s elite karateka have had a tough 2020 as they’ve struggled with a long break from competitions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But when they step onto the mat at the renovated Nippon Budokan for the national championship on Sunday, they’ll be looking to deliver their top performances with the Tokyo Olympics in mind.

Ryo Kiyuna, the eight-time reigning king in the men’s kata, has not competed since the Paris meet of the Karate-1 Premier League circuit. But he’s taken his time off in stride and looks forward to competing before a crowd at the sacred martial arts venue.

“We’d had competitions almost every month and that’s obviously not the case this year,” the Okinawa native said during an online news conference Monday. “But I think I had a lot of time to reflect on my own performance and I was able to correct the areas I needed to.”

Kiyuna is one of Japan’s top gold-medal prospects for the Summer Games, which have been postponed by a year due to the virus. The three-time World Championships winner has aimed at nothing less than a gold medal at the Olympics on home soil, a goal that remains unshaken.

“Motivation-wise, my goal hasn’t changed a bit,” Kiyuna said. “I’ve been training hard with (my coach Tsuguo) Sakumoto-sensei and I’ve kept my motivation high.”

Kiyuna will enter the annual tourney having previously won an unprecedented nine consecutive titles. But the 30-year-old insisted that extending his title streak has never been his priority.

“I know it’ll be the new record,” he said. “But I’m not particularly caught up with the thought about keeping the streak intact. I’ve just trained as hard as I can and it has resulted in the outcomes I’ve come up with. So I’d like to show my own karate.”

In the women’s kata, Kiyou Shimizu has been equally dominant, taking the championship trophy home for seven straight years. While she again intends to be the last woman standing, the Osaka Prefecture native hopes to perform flawlessly in order to build momentum toward the Olympics, during which the competition will be hosted at the same venue.

“I’ve worked on improving my speed and the strength of my performance over the past year. I’ve tried to increase the power as if I’m actually fighting against a real opponent,” said Shimizu, who turned 27 on Monday. “I think I’ve gradually been able to show that. And if I can do that in competitions, that’ll help me toward the Olympics. I’ve never been away from competition this long. We don’t know if we will be able to continue to compete after this event. But if I can perform at my best based on what I’ve worked on, it’ll be a plus for me.”

Meanwhile, Ayumi Uekusa, an elite women’s +68-kg kumite athlete, confessed that she struggled with staying motivated after the games were pushed back.

“I’ve never had a time when I didn’t compete for this long, so I wasn’t sure what I should do. Plus, I was worried about whether my fighting spirit would be back like before,” Uekusa said. “But once we found out we would be competing at nationals, the feeling of excitement and pressure ahead of the event came back naturally to me. So I’ve realized that you get genuinely motivated when you are preparing for an actual tournament.”

Unlike kata competitions, in which athletes showcasing sequences of prearranged moves don’t face actual opponents, kumite karateka do square off against real opponents. Because of the pandemic, the athletes will be required to compete wearing headgear with face shields.

Uekusa said that she’s had to adjust to the new equipment as it changes her sense of distance and makes it harder to breathe while competing.

“It’s been proven that the headgear can prevent from spreading droplets,” said the 28-year-old, whose title streak at the tourney came to an end at four with a runner-up finish last year. “It’s not comfortable to compete with it, but it’s all for avoiding infections and I’ve practiced with it on.”

Organizers plan to sell enough tickets to fill roughly one-third of the stands.

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