Sakura Kokumai Finishes Fifth In Karate’s Olympic Debut

by Lisa Costantini

Sakura Kokumai competes during the Women’s Karate Kata Elimination Round at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on August 05, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.


TOKYO — Born in Hawaii to Japanese parents, Team USA’s Sakura Kokumai had always associated with both the U.S. and Japan, spending most of her life going between the two countries. So after Tokyo was announced as the host city for the 2020 Olympic Games, karate was added to the program. Kokumai had hopes of winning the first-ever gold medal in karate in Olympic history.

In the first of the two karate events making their Olympic debut in Tokyo, Kokumai competed in the kata division, which consists of a series of precise movements performed alone and often compared to a gymnastics floor exercise. 

By the end of the women’s first day, Kokumai had finished in the third spot with 25.54 points. It was enough to advance her to the bronze medal match taking place the following day in Nippon Budokan, an indoor hall, which was originally built for the judo competition in the 1964 Games and where the first karate world championships took place in 1970.

“Growing up in Japan, almost half my life, it’s exciting to be able to go back to a place where I grew up and compete at the most historical martial arts venues in Japan,” Kokumai said after becoming the first karate athlete named to the U.S. team earlier this year.

In her final kata, the only American woman competing among the 40 athletes taking part in karate in Tokyo performed a suparinpei, which means one hundred and eight hands and contains techniques and variations that mimic crane movements. 

Going against Viviana Bottarro for the bronze medal, the judges awarded the Italian the winner. 

“I am happy to be back here in Japan. It was a very special Olympics,” Kokumai said after her competition ended. “Unfortunately, I am not able to go back with the hardware but I’m pretty proud with all the performances that I did.”

With karate not on the Paris program for 2024, Kokumai is hoping she’ll get another shot at a medal down the road.

“As a karate athlete, we have been doing this for the love of our sport. And I really hope that people are able to see what we do as athletes,” the karateka said. “We train very hard — just like any other athlete — and I believe that we belong here in the Olympics. Unfortunately as of now, this is a first and last, but hopefully we will be able to make a comeback in the next few Olympics coming up.” 

In the gold medal match, Spain’s Sandra Sanchez was awarded the winner and Japan’s Kiyou Shimizu went on to take silver.

Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.

Lisa Costantini is a freelance writer based in Orlando. She has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications, and has contributed to since 2011. 
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