TOKYO — Following a power harassment scandal in Japan’s karate world just before the Tokyo Olympics, former world champion Rika Usami became the new coaching director to strengthen athletes at the Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF), introducing a scientific perspective to coaching in a martial arts world that values tradition.
In May, the 35-year-old woman replaced Masao Kagawa, who injured Ayumi Uekusa, 28, a medal prospect in the women’s 61-plus kilogram kumite category at the Tokyo Olympics, in a practice session using a bamboo sword.
In 2012, at the Karate World Championships held in Paris, France, a country known as a karate powerhouse, Usami competed in the kata category, in which she demonstrated how to attack and defend against a hypothetical enemy and won first place with her crisp, sharp moves. After her performance, she received a standing ovation from the discerning karate fans who filled the venue. The number of views of her performance on YouTube has now exceeded 17 million, and it has been described as “the most beautiful kata in the world.”
Eight years after Usami’s retirement, and with just over two months to go before the start of the Tokyo Games, she was suddenly asked to become the coaching director at the JKF. “I wasn’t expecting it, so I was surprised,” she said. At first, Usami was not sure if she could do the job, but the people around her said, “You are close in age (to the athletes) and can support them well. I’ll support you if anything happens,” and her resolve was confirmed.
Former world karate champion Rika Usami is seen at the Champ Karate Club in Musashino, Tokyo, on March 8, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)
Former world karate champion Rika Usami is seen at the Champ Karate Club in Musashino, Tokyo, on March 8, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)
Usami is the first woman in Japan’s karate world to be appointed as a coaching director. “I am not conscious of my gender. There are things that only I can do. I want to do what I can do without pushing myself beyond my capabilities,” she explained.
After retiring, Usami studied sports systems research at the graduate school of Kokushikan University, and scientifically analyzed the difference between superior and inferior kata forms from the viewpoint of movement analysis. With the help of students, she measured the time required for thrusting and pulling movements. She found out that the greater the difference between the slow and rapid force, the faster the speed. Making use of this experience, she said, “I would like to teach from a theoretical perspective.”
At an Olympic team practice session, more than 40 cameras were set up in a 360-degree area around the athletes to record their movements. The idea is to strengthen the athletes by introducing “free viewpoint cameras,” which can synthesize and check the images. Uekusa said, “I think it will be difficult to change anything drastically right away, but I want to keep practicing with faith in Usami.”
Usami works as a specially appointed physical education instructor for a prefectural sports association in Tottori Prefecture, where her former master, Yoshimi Inoue, who passed away in 2015, lived. While raising her 3-year-old son and with the help of her family, she takes on the heavy responsibility of being expected to have karateka perform well in the specialty sport of the country where it originated.
During her junior high school years, Usami did not participate in any national championships, but in her third-year of high school, she won her first national championship. Usami recalled her time at the Karate World Championships, where she reached the top in her second attempt, “I was able to grow through the frustration of losing. When I lost, I got stuck in a slump, and to get out of it, I had to go back to basics. By starting from scratch, I was able to reach the top of the world.”
Because of this, Usami analyzed herself, saying, “I will do what I set my mind on doing. The axis of my mind will not waver.” Her goal for the Olympics is to have Japan’s karateka win all eight events. To achieve this, she said, “In the end, the Olympics is a game of the heart. I hope that the athletes who are able to compete on the stage of their dreams will be able to demonstrate the power they have. I would like to provide mental support to achieve this.”
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Rika Usami
Born in 1986 in Tokyo. Usami was victorious in the Inter High School Sports Festival in her third year at Teikyo University Senior High School. In 2007, when she was a senior at Kokushikan University, she won the JKA All Japan Karate Championship for the first time, and since 2009 she captured four consecutive titles. In 2010, when she participated in the Karate World Championships for the first time, she placed third, and in 2012 she triumphed in the event. Usami retired in 2013, and in 2015 became an ambassador for the JKF, with the aim of having karate adopted as an additional sport for the Tokyo Olympics, and also served as a coach for the Japanese national team.