Simon Denyer

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. Former bureau chief with The Washington Post and Reuters.

Aug 6, 2021
Published on: Washington Post
2 min read

TOKYO — Roughly eight centuries ago, a new martial art called karate came into being on a subtropical island now known as Okinawa. On Friday, an Okinawan won the first Olympic gold medal in men’s kata, one of the modern sport’s premier events.

“I’m very happy that I was able to make a mark in history,” said three-time world champion and now Olympic champion Ryo Kiyuna, speaking about his pride of bringing an Okinawan tradition to the wider world.

He was the first Olympic gold medalist ever from the southwestern island chain known for its sparkling blue seas and sandy beaches. But for the 31-year-old Kiyuna, there was no dramatic celebration after he won his gold medal contest. There was a quiet moment of contemplation, kneeling with his face down in a gesture of thanks.

Later, as he accepted his gold medal and stood for the national anthem, he clutched a framed photograph of his mother, who died two years ago at 57.

“After I won, I first wanted to tell my mom and also share my appreciation to everyone who helped me get here,” he said. “I wanted to tell my mom that I kept our promise.”

There are two forms of karate competition as the sport debuts at the Tokyo Games. Kumite is a one-on-one sparring contest that followers of judo, taekwondo and even boxing might find familiar. Kata is a completely different affair with elements of theater, dance and control over one’s body that is slightly reminiscent of diving. In a display of supreme self-discipline, contestants stand alone on the mat as they perform a choreographed routine of poses, chops and kicks.

Judges score them for their technical ability (including their stance, their transitions between moves, their breathing and their accuracy) and on their athletic prowess (their strength, speed and balance). The idea is that one might be able to picture the imaginary opponent.

Kiyuna began his routine with a chilling scream before moving in slow motion through an initial set of poses. Then came the power and speed, steely determination and controlled aggression radiating from his eyes.

Karate’s journey to the Olympics has been a long one. It was refused three times by the International Olympic Committee and only made it here after lobbying from Yoshihide Suga, then chief cabinet secretary and now prime minister.

Its future as an Olympic sport is uncertain — it won’t be included in the Paris Games despite an estimated 100 million practitioners worldwide.

Yet at the famous Nippon Budokan stadium, built for the judo contest at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the scene of many iconic rock and pop concerts — from the Beatles to Abba, Bob Dylan to Deep Purple — there was a new moment of Olympic magic as Kiyuna took the title, beating out Spaniard Damian Quintero in the gold medal faceoff. American Ariel Torres, 23, won one of the two bronze medals awarded, as did Turkey’s Ali Sofuoglu.

Karate traces its origins to the 14th century and the arrival of the first Chinese martial arts practitioners into what was then the independent Ryukyu kingdom. When samurai from Japan turned the kingdom into a puppet state in the 17th century and prohibited Okinawans from carrying swords, the martial art became an underground form of combat favored by young aristocrats as a form of secret resistance, known as “kara-te” or “Chinese hand.”

But as it developed, training soon focused on self-discipline, on restraint and on avoiding confrontation with a philosophy of “no first strike.” Later, the kanji characters for “kara-te” were changed to spell the phrase “empty hand.”

Karate only made its way onto mainland Japan in the 20th century and was transformed there, adopting the white robes and belts of the more popular discipline of judo and eventually turning an art form into a competition.

But its emergence as a global sport owes something to the American occupation of Japan after World War II. While Allied commander Gen. Douglas MacArthur swiftly banned military education and most martial arts in Japan, he left the less popular and lesser-known karate alone, giving it room to flourish.

Even more important was the extended occupation of Okinawa, which lasted until 1972; thousands of American military personnel and civilians developed a fascination with this exotic new form of self-defense and brought it into the global cultural mainstream.

Films such as “The Karate Kid” and “Kill Bill” and comedy-drama series “Cobra Kai” helped embed the sport in the global consciousness and inspired many people to seek it out. But in Okinawa it is a sacred tradition — not a sport but a way of training yourself and developing self-discipline as well as physical and mental strength.

“Okinawan karate is something that is traditional that hasn’t and shouldn’t be changed, kind of like classical music,” said Kunio Uehara, general secretary of the Association for the Promotion of Traditional Okinawan Karate. “But sports karate is more based on appealing to the judge, so the ‘form’ often changes. Okinawan karate is all about inner dialogue and strengthening your own mentality and not about others.”

While some experts in Okinawa are wary of what they see as Japanese colonization of their traditions, Uehera said the inclusion of sports karate in the Olympics may help traditional Okinawan karate’s bid to be designated an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.

Indeed, Kiyuna started out practicing traditional Okinawan karate and today draws inspiration in his routine from Okinawan dance.

“I think sports karate and traditional Okinawan karate all share the same feeling at its core,” said Kiyuna’s master, Tsuguo Sakumoto, who is 75 and once won seven straight world titles. “I was a torch runner at 17 in the 1964 Olympics, and all these years later today Kiyuna gave me a huge gift. Now I can return to Okinawa without any regrets. What Kiyuna has done today is really important for the karate industry and for future kids.”

“Moving forward, he will need to continue practicing to understand the core of karate. So for Kiyuna to really understand what karate is, I think it will probably be when he’s past 70,” he said. “Right now it can be about winning and losing, but I hope he continues to keep learning mentally and technically.”