Kiyou Shimizu isn’t just an athlete, she’s an artist. Just take a look at footage of her stunning win during the 2014 World Karate Championships in Bremen, Germany. She makes strong, deft movements across the mat, throwing herself gracefully in the air before landing in a low lunge with remarkable precision.

At this particular meet, she was storming through the Chatanyara Kushanku, a particularly complicated kata. The kata is an element of karate that consists of choreographed movements designed to be practiced alone in an effort to perfect one’s techniques. With her face focused and determined, the commentators in Bremen praise Shimizu’s boldness, speed and accuracy. Though a solitary figure on the mat, the energy she’s expending is electric — and the crowd, which responds enthusiastically, feels it.

Shimizu became the world champion in women’s kata at this event, and it’s a win that she hopes to repeat at this year’s Summer Olympics. It would be a particularly sweet victory for her and Japan, as these Games mark the first time karate — in both its kata and kumite (sparring) forms — will be included in the roster of events.

The road to the Games

The same year Shimizu was wowing crowds in Bremen, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) implemented a new agenda that would allow host cities to add sports to their particular Games. Tokyo is the first to take advantage of this change and, along with karate, sports fans will be seeing the debuts of surfing, sports climbing, skateboarding and baseball/softball.

“These five sports represent an innovative combination of established and emerging, youth-focused events that are popular in Japan and will add to the legacy of the Tokyo Games,” an IOC spokesperson tells The Japan Times. But what will this mean for the legacy of karate?

“We were absolutely thrilled,” says Antonio Espinos, president of the World Karate Federation (WKF), calling it “a dream come true.”

The Nippon Budokan will host the karate events during the Olympics. | KYODO
The Nippon Budokan will host the karate events during the Olympics. | KYODO

“Karate deserves to be permanently included in the sports program of the Olympic Games, and we hope that our sport can continue demonstrating the great added value we have as an Olympic discipline,” he says.

Karate’s inclusion at the Olympics comes after its being rejected three times, but the new IOC rule grants it a moment in the spotlight that practitioners are hoping will cause the world to fall in love. Its journey is being compared to that of another martial art, taekwondo. The Korean sport saw its first addition to the Olympics roster at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, but only gyeorugi — full-contact sparring that’s analogous to karate’s kumite — appeared. Karateka, the athletes who perform karate, will get to show off their skills beginning Aug. 5.

“Thanks to written memoirs of Okinawan masters, we positively know that in the old days kata was the prime method of teaching and learning,” says Eduardo Gonzalez de la Fuente, a visiting researcher at El Colegio de Mexico and sociologist specializing in the geopolitics of martial arts. “Unlike kumite, kata is apt to be performed throughout one’s life into old age, changing with ourselves, so it can truly be a lifetime art.”

The origins of karate are still “the million-dollar question,” according to Fuente. Historians have long sought its exact origins, he adds, but one thing is for certain: Karate originated in Okinawa.

Hayato Sawada, head of Okinawa Prefecture’s Karate Promotion Division, is hopeful that the martial art’s inclusion at the Olympics will be a chance for the tropical archipelago to be recognized as the cradle of karate. Okinawa and the Japanese government are currently engaged on the road to getting karate listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

“With karate adopted as an official event for the Tokyo Olympics, Okinawa, the birthplace of karate, is expected to attract more and more attention from all over the world,” Sawada says.

Specifically, Sawada expects that the awareness of Okinawa as the birthplace of karate will continue to increase in the future. According to the island prefecture’s Karate Promotion Vision objective, only 34% of the rest of Japan recognizes the Okinawan provenance of karate, compared to 96% of the residents in Okinawa Prefecture.

“Karate seems to be held in Japan as a distinctive cultural icon of the nation, but at the same time there is a great lack of knowledge about it,” says Fuente, calling this a “sad paradox.”

Thank you, Pat Morita

Karate has long been an international sport. Although taekwondo’s governing bodies are based in South Korea — the International Taekwon-Do Federation and a partnership between Kukkiwon and World Taekwondo (the latter being the authority for taekwondo at the Olympics) — the WKF is headquartered in Madrid.

“The immigration policy that began at the end of the 19th century introduced Okinawa’s karate to the world,” Sawada says, adding that U.S. military personnel and civilian employees, fascinated by karate in an Okinawa under U.S. military rule (1950-72), went on to train and actively spread karate when they returned to their home country.

In “Bruce Lee: A Life,” author Matthew Polly writes, “(in 1964) karate was one of the hottest fads in America. Elvis Presley and Sean Connery were devoted students. At every West Coast fair there were inevitably demonstrations of Japanese styles alongside square dancers and Miss Teenage contests. Even royalty took up karate.”

In 1984, the martial art received another huge boost with the release of the hit film “The Karate Kid,” starring Ralph Macchio as an American teen who learns about the history and artistry of the sport from an Okinawan neighbor, Mr. Miyagi, played by Japanese American actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita (1932-2005).

Karate popped up again in Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 film, “Kill Bill,” and a recent revisiting of “The Karate Kid” has introduced the sport to the YouTube-Netflix generation via the 2018-21 TV series “Cobra Kai,” which boasts tens of millions of viewers worldwide.

“For me,” Fuente says, “karate is a cultural phenomenon that has transcended the realm of martial art practices to evolve into one of the most recognized icons of our contemporaneity.”

Today the WKF counts 100 million practitioners of karate worldwide, but whether its appearance at the Olympics will cause the kind of surge in popularity that was seen throughout the 20th century remains to be seen.

Make it official

As it turns out, however, iconic film characters and an impact on Hollywood aren’t enough to win over the IOC. In 2019, the Olympics body turned down an application to have karate included at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

It’s an odd move, considering the martial art’s popularity in France, which is the second-best performing nation at the world championships (behind Japan) and the birthplace of Henry Plee (1923-2014), the “father of karate in Europe.”

Following the IOC’s announcement, Espinos took to the WKF’s website to vent the organization’s frustration: “We believed that we had met all the requirements and that we had the perfect conditions to be added to the sports program; however, we have learned today that our dream will not be coming true.”

Nevertheless, Fuente calls the Tokyo Olympics “a first-class stage for karate,” noting that no other sport is up for a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage classification.

“If, following the participation at the Olympics, sport karate takes further precedence over the traditional non-competitive one, Tokyo may well suppose a backlash for the UNESCO aspirations,” he continues.

On the other hand, Sawada believes “it is necessary to develop competitive karate and traditional karate as the two wheels that will lead the world’s karate enthusiasts.” He mentions Okinawa-born Ryo Kiyuna, who is a three-time gold medalist in the men’s kata event at the World Karate Championships, as Japan’s Olympic men’s hopeful at this year’s Games. And, of course, there’s Shimizu representing Japan’s hopes on the women’s side.

Karate’s inclusion in the Olympic Games has been many years in the making — “a long and strenuous process” that suffered many upsets along the way, according to Espinos. With its Hollywood fan base, this year’s Olympic opportunity and perhaps even a UNESCO affiliation, he’s positive about what’s to come for the Okinawan martial art.

“It is clear that the future of karate is very bright,” he says.

Kiyou Shimizu and Ryo Kiyuna are two of Japan’s best hopes for medals in karate at the Games | REUTERS
Kiyou Shimizu and Ryo Kiyuna are two of Japan’s best hopes for medals in karate at the Games | REUTERS

Five karateka to watch at the Tokyo Games

By Chang-Ran Kim

Every sport needs its heroes, and these five athletes could possibly be the reason your children will be begging for after-school karate lessons:

  • Sandra Sanchez (Spain): Once dismissed as too old to compete at the highest level, the Spaniard will be looking to add Olympic gold to her numerous honors just one month shy of her 40th birthday. Sanchez started practicing karate at age 4 alongside her older brother, rejecting her parents’ chosen activity for her — ballet. She has won a record 36 medals in the sport’s top-billed Karate 1-Premier League.
  • Ryo Kiyuna (Japan): With hardly a loss to his name on the world stage in recent years, the 30-year-old native of Okinawa — the birthplace of karate — is known for the power of his air-splitting punch and is hot favorite for gold in the men’s kata category. Training under great karateka Tsuguo Sakumoto, Kiyuna has brought into his regimen the “Ryumai,” or local Okinawan dance, to achieve what his master calls “artistic awareness” and to incorporate Okinawan culture.
  • Hamideh Abbasali (Iran): For the world’s second-ranked karateka for female kumite (+68 kg), the Games’ one-year postponement was a blessing. The Iranian suffered a serious knee injury with two seconds left on the clock at the Karate 1-Premier League finals in Salzburg last year. She won gold there against Italian Clio Ferracuti, but the injury took her away from the tatami for a year while she recovered from surgery.
  • Kiyou Shimizu (Japan) A poster child for Japan’s karate in the women’s kata category, Shimizu — like her perennial rival Sandra Sanchez — was inspired to start karate after visiting her brother’s dojo as a girl. But through most of her teens, the Osaka native struggled for success during her teens but in her final year of high school, she put pressure on herself by vowing to drop out if she didn’t win the national championship. She won, and many victories followed, including one in 2013 that crowned her as Japan’s youngest national champion at age 19.
  • Tzu-yun Wen (Taiwan) After qualifying once for the Olympics in March 2020, the 27-year-old female kumite (-55 kg) karateka had to do it all over again in a close contest after the Games were postponed. An all-around athlete who has also played table tennis competitively, Wen counts her boyfriend Wei-Chun Hsu — also a karateka — as her biggest inspiration to persevere through difficult times, including when a major hip injury in 2013 threatened her career.

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