Sakura Kokumai, the seven-time United States karate national champion, listens to music to help her relax and eats lots of rice to “give (her) that power” before a competition. However, during competitions, she is laser focused.
“Usually, when I’m in my zone, I focus on my performance, my movements and my breathing,” Kokumai told the Nichi Bei Weekly in a phone interview.
This summer, Kokumai will be one of several karate athletes aiming to qualify in the Tokyo Olympic Games’ debut of the sport. In February, Kokumai earned a silver medal in an Olympic qualifying match at the Karate1 Premier League tournament for kata (form) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, according to the Team USA’s Website. She is best known for demonstrating kata.
Kokumai, who was born in Honolulu, was seven years old when she started taking a karate class at the YMCA after school.
“I really enjoyed practicing with other friends … From YMCA, I moved to a karate school, and from there, it evolved,” the USA Karate National Team member said.
Her devotion to the sport has since grown. Over the years, she gained an appreciation for traveling with her teammates and representing the U.S.
“When I got introduced to competitions at the age of 14, I enjoyed traveling with my friends and representing (my) country, competing in the sport (I) love, (I) can’t ask for anything more,” Kokumai said.
Kokumai looks forward to the opportunity to represent the sport and leave an impression on people watching karate for the first time.
“I really would like people around the world to see what karate is because we haven’t had that spotlight before,” the 27-year-old said. “I realize it’s become bigger than the sport, and if I can be in a position where I can share that then I think it’s a wonderful thing.”
The Shin-Nisei karate sensation said she has had to learn to be independent, which includes training solo — without the benefit of a coach. With no job, no car, and no home of her own, according to NBC, she lives with a host family in northern Los Angeles. Her international competitions in South America in her teenage years helped develop her sense of independence.
Kokumai said she usually trains from five to nine hours per day, depending on the day.
“From a very young age, I was training on my own,” Kokumai said.
“Growing up, I think I was trained to do things for myself, to train for myself and that has definitely helped me in my current position,” she added.
Kokumai said she has been motivated by the announcement that karate would make its Olympic debut in the summer Games in Tokyo.
This is a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said of potentially representing the U.S.’ karate team.
For the Olympic hopeful, the opportunity to compete in Japan is remarkable.
“I grew up in both cultures and both countries,” Kokumai said.
She previously competed at the venue where the athletes will compete, the Nippon Budokan, when she was a college student.
The U.S. national champion has many mentors. One person she looks up to is Rika Usami, a fellow karate athlete and past teammate.
“She’s been a person who I’ve looked up to for a very long time,” Kokumai said.
Kokumai has advice for younger athletes wanting to be great. “I want kids to understand that anything is possible as long as you put the effort and time into it, and if you’re patient,” Kokumai said.
With the coronavirus pandemic spreading around the world, however, one of the questions that remains to be answered is whether the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be postponed.
Kokumai said the possibility of postponement won’t affect her training schedule and how she prepares for the Games.
“My mind is still fixed on the Olympics starting in July, so (I) am training and preparing accordingly,” she said.
Kokumai received her undergraduate degree in linguistics and education at Doshisha University in Kyoto. She received her master’s degree in international culture and communication studies at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Prior to training for the Olympics, Kokumai did “office work” for a corporate company in Japan.