By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor
Karate made its debut in the Olympics on Wednesday, and a well-known local athlete was among those taking part in history at the Tokyo Games.
Sakura Kokumai represented the United States in the Women’s Kata event, vying with the world’s top competitiors for the first ever Olympic medals in the sport.
Friends and fans in Los Angeles gathered at the new Terasaki Budokan in Little Tokyo to watch the live broadcast as Kokumai, a seven-time national champion and the first U.S. Olympic karate qualifier, fulfilled the dream of competing on the biggest of sports stages.
The viewing was organized by the Terasaki Budokan and the Little Tokyo Service Center, with support from Panasonic Corporation of North America.
In addition to the broadcast from Tokyo, attendees were treated to a demonstration by students of Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu Karate Dojo of Little Tokyo, children coloring messages of support for Kokumai and catering from Azay retsaurant.
A commemorative plaque honoring Kokumai was dedicated ahead of her first apperance in the Olympics. It will eventually be installed permanently in the Budokan’s gymnasium.
Panasonic highlighted the occasion by making a donation to the Budokan, including a high-definition video projector and displays.
Art Ishii, head instructor of the Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu Dojo, heaped praise on Kokumai, who has often trained with Ishii and his students.
“I could not have hand-picked a more qualified person, with such strength of character, for the Olympics,” he said during the watch party. “Her karate skill and training are extraordinary, because of her work ethic and her dedication.”
Kata is an individual performance sport, and Ishii explained that the scoring is based on several factors, including balance, execution of footwork and technique, and overall presence.
“The judges are looking for many things – stability, solid jumps, energy and any faltering in footwork or other moves.”
Kokumai’s performance in the early rounds propelled her into the medal rounds, where she qualified to compete for one of two bronze medals to be awarded.
In the end, the gold went to world No. 1 Sandra Sanchez Jaime of Spain, with Kiyou Shimizu of Japan taking the silver.
The two bronze medal winners were Mo Sheung Grace Lau of Hong Kong and Italy’s Viviana Bottaro.
In the Men’s Kata final on Friday, Ryo Kiyuna captured the gold medal for Japan. Spain’s Damian Quintero took the silver.
Ariel Torres of the U.S. and Ali Sofuoglu of Turkey took bronze. Torres won the first medal in karate in U.S. Olympic history.
“Growing up, my first introduction to karate was at a local recreation center so I know the value of having somewhere to go in the community to be active, especially for youth,” Kokumai said in a press release ahead of the competition. “I am honored to collaborate with Panasonic to give back to Terasaki Budokan, a cultural symbol for the Japanese American community that will give kids a place to exercise their bodies and minds, bring together families and inspire future generations.”
Rafu Shimpo photos by MIE ASO, MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS and J.K. YAMAMOTO