By Aimee Crawford
From the Olympics to Cobra Kai, karate is having a moment — and so is Sakura Kokumai. The first U.S. athlete to qualify for Olympic karate, and the first to compete, was a real-life karate kid herself.
Kokumai, who was born in Hawaii, took up the martial art at age 7, when her mother enrolled her in a class at the local YMCA.
Like the fictional Daniel LaRusso, the young protagonist played by Ralph Macchio in the hit 1984 movie, Kokumai fell in love with the sport, finding purpose and self-confidence in karate’s balance of mind and body. Like LaRusso, she later trained in Los Angeles — and Okinawa, Japan — for competitions. But unlike LaRusso, she has never used her martial arts skills in combat.
“I get asked all the time, ‘Have you ever been in a fight or beaten somebody up?’” says Kokumai, now 28 and ranked No. 7 in the world., which is making its Olympics debut at the Summer Games in Tokyo. “I tell them, ‘No. We’re told not to get into fights.’”
Karate made its Olympics debut at the Summer Games in Tokyo. Kokumai, a seven-time U.S. champion, reached the medal round in women’s kata — a form-based solo discipline in which competitors are judged on technical ability as they demonstrate movements against a virtual opponent. (The other Olympic karate discipline, kumite, involves sparring.) Kata is more performance than combat, says Kokumai, who describes it as “figure skating without music.” Each athlete’s performance is scored on speed, power and precision.
“Kata is more artistic than kumite,” she says. “It’s 70 percent technical, 30 percent athleticism. There are fast movements, slow movements, a lot of breathing involved. Basically, kata tells a story of a fight in three-and-a-half minutes.”
Kokumai was the only American woman among the 40 athletes competing at the Nippon Budokan, the mecca of Japanese martial arts. Karate was approved for the Tokyo Games thanks to a rule change that allows host nations to propose additional sports for inclusion in their Games.
The sport’s Olympic debut happened to coincide with the success of Cobra Kai, the blockbuster Netflix series that kicked its way into the pop culture zeitgeist last year. The show, set three decades after the original Karate Kid film, reignites LaRusso’s rivalry with his high school nemesis, Johnny Lawrence, and features dramatic, drawn-out fighting sequences that take place in — and more often outside of — the dojo. Kokumai has watched every episode of the series … and has mixed emotions about how it showcases her sport.
“I’m a fan of The Karate Kid movies. They do a good job of showing the more realistic side of karate, which is such an old martial art,” she says. “Cobra Kai? It’s the Hollywood version of karate. It’s silly and fun. As a martial artist and as an athlete, it’s hard for me to say whether it’s good for our sport.”
The show has also spawned more silly questions.
“When they find out that I practice karate, people ask me: ‘Can you break wood? Can you break a brick?’” says Kokumai. “I have never broken a brick in my life. Or wood. If anything, I may have broken chopsticks, but just for fun. Breaking things was never part of my training. It goes to show how different the show is.”
In Cobra Kai, a grown-up LaRusso does teach his students a style of martial arts based on kata, which he learned from his sensei, the wise and mystical Mr. Miyagi (played by actor Pat Morita). Mr. Miyagi, like karate itself, was born in Okinawa. In season three, LaRusso returns to the island to search for more of his mentor’s wisdom.
“That episode was my favorite because they did a good job of portraying the connection between karate and Okinawa,” says Kokumai, who has trained and competed on the Japanese island prefecture, where karate is believed to have originated in the 1400s before making its way to mainland Japan in the 1920s. “Okinawa is an important place for karate.”
As karate returned to its roots to debut in the Tokyo Games, Kokumai was grateful for the added visibility for her sport. Ultimately, if Cobra Kai helps draw more curious viewers to real-life karate, she’s fine with that.
“I’m glad that people are paying attention to the TV series because they can say, ‘Oh, karate … we kinda know what it is.’ And maybe then they will watch it,” she says. “What I do is really nothing like what they portray on the TV show. But if Cobra Kai helps bring our sport to a wider audience, then that’s a good thing.”
Kokumai split her childhood between Honolulu and Tamano, Japan, the homeland of her parents, Chieko and Keiji Kokumai. She and her younger brother Alex were both active kids.
“I played all sports growing up — soccer, tennis, you name it,” she says. “My mom sailed, so as soon as we started walking, my brother and I were on boats.”
Karate became her favorite outlet. She progressed from the YMCA to a local dojo, where her training became more focused. By 14, Kokumai had made the Junior National team. She has represented the U.S. in competition ever since. Karate also helped her bridge the cultural gap when she moved to Japan during high school.
“Karate kept me grounded,” she says. “When I was going between two countries and cultures, karate was the connection, the one thing that was always the same.”
Kata, with its fixed set of movements and rhythms, particularly appealed to her. “Being able to express myself through movement was something I loved doing as a kid because sometimes I wasn’t good at doing that verbally,” she says. “Kata made me feel powerful. But it was peaceful at the same time. Even now, when I feel frustrated, I just kind of fall back on training.”
Kokumai attended college in Japan, earning an undergraduate degree in linguistics and education at Doshisha University, then a master’s degree in international relations from Waseda University. She took a corporate job in Tokyo after graduating, but continued to practice karate.
When the International Olympic Committee voted in 2015 to add karate to the Tokyo Games, Kokumai had decisions to make. She knew that she wanted to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, but she wasn’t sure how to make that dream a reality without a roadmap. “I didn’t know what it took to get there, because there was no example,” she says. “It’s the first time, and there was no past karate Olympian.”
For several more months, she tried to continue both her job and training, but found herself falling asleep on the mat while she was stretching after workouts. “I realized that juggling work and karate was impossible,” she says. “I wasn’t giving 100 percent into the sport that I loved.”
So she quit her job and moved to California in 2017 to chase her Olympic dream. She stayed in L.A. with Gary and Rumiko Stevens, family friends she had met through the karate circuit. They had an extra room and an empty garage, which Kokumai converted into her gym. She didn’t have a car — or a full-time coach. Kokumai trained on her own, using mirrors and video replays to critique and correct herself.
In 2018, she found a strength and conditioning coach, Nghia Pham — but he was in San Diego. So, twice a week, she took Amtrak or rented a car and made the two-hour drive south.
Pham, a former Marine who did tours of combat in Iraq and Kuwait, owns Optimum Training and Performance. He has worked with professional athletes and other Olympians.
“I knew right away that there was something very special about Sakura,” says Pham. “Her intensity, her focus, her desire … it was unique. She was making all these sacrifices — competing all over the world, living out of a suitcase and taking an Amtrak down to see me — and she wasn’t getting paid for any of it. She had no sponsors. Sometimes you see athletes who are willing to work just because they see a prize in front of them. But for Sakura, it was all about her passion for karate.”
Pham helped Kokumai build strength and explosiveness while teaching her about sports psychology and nutrition. “I told her, ‘Your talent alone is not gonna be enough,” he says. “You’re going to need not just the physical strength, but also the mental and the spiritual strength at the highest level of competition.”
Their training sessions would often last hours. Sometimes Kokumai would remain at the facility afterward to practice her kata — and stay so late that she missed the last train home. Pham let her crash overnight at the gym.
The hard work and sacrifice paid off. Kokumai won the gold medal in the women’s individual kata event at the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru. She was named the 2019 Female Athlete of the Year at the U.S. National Championships, then won silver at the Karate1 Premier League tournament in February 2020 in Dubai, her best finish in the sport’s top international circuit. On March 18, 2020, she became the first American ever to qualify for the Olympic Games in her sport.
The global coronavirus pandemic forced sports, and the rest of the world, to shut down right around the time Kokumai was named to Team USA, so her celebration was short-lived. The Tokyo Games were officially postponed on March 24. Kokumai went back to training in the garage, over Zoom — and wherever she could find space.
On April 1, she was warming up for a run at an Orange County park when a man approached her and started yelling. He grew increasingly aggressive, so Kokumai started recording video of him with her cellphone.
“You’re a loser. Go home, you stupid b—-,” he yelled. “I’ll f— you up.” At one point, he could be heard yelling the word “Chinese.”
“I was trying to process what was happening in real time,” she says. “I’m an athlete and I’m quick on my feet, but he was much bigger than me and I didn’t know what he was going to do.”
The park was busy when the incident took place, and a number of people walked by without offering to help Kokumai. It wasn’t until the man finally retreated that a woman with a dog asked if she was ok.
“For the longest time no one did anything. People would walk by, some even smiled,” says Kokumai. “It was disheartening.”
Kokumai had become another victim in a string of anti-Asian attacks, propelled by rhetoric surrounding COVID-19, across the U.S. “It was my first experience with such an aggressive and obvious hate crime,” she says. “I was surprised, but not surprised at the same time. I had been reading the news and seeing how people had been reacting to these incidents. So it was more of a realization: This really does happen. I had to experience it to really understand.”
Her family in Japan found out about the incident on social media. “It became national news there,” she says. She called Pham to tell him about it and ask for his advice.
“I told her, ‘Well, you now have a platform. You can speak up when others can’t,’” says Pham, who was born in Vietnam and came to America when he was 11. “So how can you make it into a positive, something that will help people rather than cause more hate or anger or negativity? You can raise awareness that this is happening to people in our community. And you can let people know that we, as Americans, as human beings, need to step in and help each other.”
Kokumai decided to share the incident with her 37,000 Instagram followers. “Normally, I’m the type of person who likes to keep things private,” she says. “But the incident in the park put things into context for me, and made me want to spread awareness and make a difference. I was a target because of how I looked. Not because I am an athlete or because I compete in karate — but because I am Asian. The thought of it happening to people I know really scared me.”
Kokumai was reassured by the reaction to her post. She was most surprised by the outpouring of support from her competitors. Several coaches and athletes from Japan’s national team reached out. “They said, ‘Hey, we might be rivals, but we’re here for you, we’re thinking of you,” she says. “Keep training hard.’”
Weeks later, the man who confronted her was arrested after allegedly assaulting an elderly Korean-American couple at the same park.
“The response that I got after I posted helped me realize that I was not alone,” says Kokumai. “I was really surprised by how many people reacted to it and how many people I could reach. It made me realize that we all just need to look out for each other.”
Even though Kokumai has spent much of her life traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Japan, there was never any question which country she would compete for in the Olympics. “As a Japanese American who was born and raised in Hawaii, I have always considered the United States my home.” she says. “Hawaii is where I learned karate. I idolized athletes who represented the U.S. The U.S. is the country I have competed for since I was 14.”
She has already inspired a new generation of karateka. Art Ishii, the head instructor at Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu of Little Tokyo dojo in Los Angeles, says that Kokumai immediately connected with his students, from juniors to senior black belts, when she visited and trained with them. “Sakura has the perfect combination of talent and skill. She has a humble yet confident personality, and a wonderful sense of humor,” says Ishii, who is helping organize a watch party for Kokumai at the Terasaki Budokan, a sports center in L.A.’s Little Tokyo community, when she competes on Wednesday. “She was especially good with the kids in our program. She represents the best qualities of Japanese and American cultures. We are proud to call her our friend.”
In Tokyo, Kokuma finished third on the first day of competition, with 25.54 points, and advanced to the medal round. There she faced a familiar foe, Italy’s Viviana Bottarro, who had defeated Kokumai at the 2018 world championships, for the bronze medal. In her final kata, Kokumai performed a Suparinpei, an advanced form featuring techniques and variations that mimic crane movements. The judges awarded Bottarro the match, and the bronze.
“I’m very proud of my performance. I would not change anything about it,” Kokumai said after her competition ended. “Unfortunately, I won’t be back with the hardware. But it was a very special Olympics.”
She also hopes that the Tokyo Games helped create some global comradery and heal the collective wounds of the past year, at least a little.
“I think the world needs sports right now,” she says. “I hope my performance will inspire others to feel empathy toward their neighbor — whether it’s the family next door or someone on the other side of the world. I hope that these Games bring the world together a little bit.”
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