The big question of karate in its Olympic debut: is it a sport or a martial art?
TOKYO – It would be hard to find someone more qualified to lead the Japanese national karate team than Rika Usami.
She is a third degree black belt and won a world championship in 2012. She is a real celebrity in the sport, with videos of her performances accumulating tens of millions of views. She even wrote a thesis on the art of punching.
Yet as karate made its Olympic debut in Tokyo, its sudden rise in May rocked the sport in its homeland. Unlike her predecessors, she is young, feminine and ready to challenge the received ideas of a traditional discipline, some would say, to excess.
“I was shocked by the decision,” said Ms. Usami, 35, speaking from her home in western Japan. “It was something no one had ever considered.”
His appointment, which came after his predecessor was accused of injuring an athlete with a bamboo sword during training, crystallized a decades-old question in Japan.
Is karate a traditional martial art, a tool to forge the body and temper the mind? Or is it a modern competitive sport, a showcase for elite athletes, with a place in the Olympic Games today?
For many conservatives in Japan, karate and other Japanese martial arts represent values such as self-sacrifice and deference to authority which they see as fundamental to national character and essential to the rebirth of the land from the ashes. of World War II.
But this fictionalized vision of a virtuous warrior code – known as bushido, or “the way of the warrior” – also had a dark side: overwork, harassment, and intense pressure to comply which in extreme cases can lead to death.
For karate, whose roots stretch back hundreds of years to the islands of southern Okinawa, the decades-long quest for Olympic acceptance has involved negotiating a delicate balance between preserving the positive aspects of its tradition and meeting the needs of modern sport.
It means creating new rules, new training regimes and new ways of managing the relationship between athletes and coaches, said Hironobu Tsuchiya, professor of sports psychology at the University of Sports Health and Sciences. of Osaka, who advised the Japanese Olympic Committee.
“Is karate a martial art or a sport? Everyone has different goals, ”he said. The first is “to cultivate your humanity. Participation in competitions is only one aspect of this process. But sport is all about being faster, higher, stronger. It’s a huge gap.
Even as karate practitioners around the world prepare for three days of Olympic competition starting Thursday, the debate over whether to bridge this gap, or whether this is even a goal worth pursuing. penalty of being prosecuted, rages on.
Finding an answer is perhaps more urgent than ever. Globally, karate faces more and more competition from other martial arts. Kung fu is flashier. Krav maga, from Israel, is more practical. Taekwondo and Judo are more established as competitive sports. And jujitsu, thanks to the success of mixed martial arts competitions like the UFC, is the choice of people hoping to turn professional.
In order for karate to thrive in this crowded environment, it needs to smooth out its rough edges and become more universal, said Kazuyoshi Ishii, a karate master and promoter who started full-contact K-1 fighting tournaments in Japan early on. 1990s as a way to shine a light on karate.
In recent years, as K-1 has been eclipsed by the more hardcore spectacle of the UFC, Mr. Ishii’s vision for karate has become more family-friendly and friendlier.
“Visa will not sponsor a sport where people’s faces are covered in blood,” he said in a recent interview. “Parents don’t want to put their kids in a classroom where they hurt themselves. “
Over the centuries, karate practitioners have selected techniques for their effectiveness in combat. But moves chosen for maximum lethality are impractical for competitive tournaments.
Previously, this disconnect had helped derail several attempts to bring karate into the Olympics. He barely made the cut, even in his home country, only slipping into the lineup at the last minute thanks to interventions from powerful political figures like Yoshihide Suga, the current prime minister and former karate practitioner.
The conflict between old and new karate goalkeepers came to light in May, when one of Japan’s national team star athletes, Ayumi Uekusa, accused her longtime coach of harassment.
In a statement, she wrote that he injured his eye during a training session where he tested the skills of team members by attacking them with a bamboo sword. He continued to use the sword in training despite repeated requests that he stop.
Ms Uekusa’s accusations quickly made headlines, forcing the Japan national team to oust coach Masao Kagawa. He said at the time that he took “full responsibility” for his training methods but had no intention of harming anyone.
With the Olympic Organizing Committee drowned in accusations of misogyny after its leader made sexist comments that forced her to resign, the national karate team chose Ms. Usami as their new coach.
His selection for a position that was traditionally reserved for drunk men until their fifties was intended to show the world that karate, and Japan itself, embraces diversity, said Toshihisa Nagura, secretary general of the World Federation. of karate.
Ms. Usami’s interest in sports dates back to her childhood, when she fell in love with a TV show about a young woman who saves the world through martial arts.
But rather than continue fighting, she became a specialist in kata – fixed sequences of solo movements, much like a gymnastics routine, which are judged on the speed, strength, technique and concentration of the practitioners. (Kata is one of two Olympic karate events, along with kumite, which involves training against an opponent.)
Ms. Usami quickly rose to the top of the sport, winning national tournaments at the high school and college levels. At the 2012 Karate World Championships in Paris, she won a gold medal for a routine that combined absolute stillness with kicks and punches so fast and powerful that her uniform whip slammed around. her, echoing across the stadium. The audience gave him a standing ovation.
She retired soon after and began a Masters in Sports Science. She focused on demystifying karate, exploring ways to quantify the techniques that traditional instructors had wrapped up in esoteric and metaphysical concepts like ki – an obscure life force that originated in Chinese Taoism.
Ms. Usami used computer-assisted video analysis to refine her techniques and prioritized athlete mental health, a radical notion for a discipline whose idea in sports psychology has long been to shout louder.
The changes have been effective, said Nagura, the head of the World Karate Federation.
“She is able to teach athletes in six months or a year a skill that would have taken 10 years to learn already,” he said.
As karate navigates between the old and the new, the process of making it an Olympic-caliber sport remains unfinished. He will not appear at the next Olympic Games in Paris, even if France, half the size of Japan, has three times as many participants.
Yuko Takahashi, a former member of the Japan national team who runs a karate dojo in Tokyo, praised Ms Usami’s promotion but wondered if karate would bring any significant changes.
After years of frustration with the governing body of karate in Japan, she created her own group to promote a more diverse and student-centered view of the sport. She has learned, she said, that “it is incredibly difficult to change the organization, especially as a woman.”
When Ms. Usami talks about the future of the sport, she argues that just like when performing a kata, the most critical element is balance.
“It’s important to see karate as a sport. And also as a martial art, ”she said. “It is precisely because these two parts exist that karate is karate.”