Meet the Tokyo 2020 Athletes: Karate Sensation Ryo Kiyuna

This month we kick off our Meet the 2020 Athletes series, which we’ll be running over the next year in the build-up to the Summer Olympics and Paralympics, set to be held between July and September 2020. First up is karate sensation Ryo Kiyuna.

A three-time world champion and 2017 World Games winner, Ryo Kiyuna has been almost unbeatable for the past six years yet remains a relative unknown in Japan. With karate making its Olympic debut at next year’s Games, it’s a great opportunity for the 29-year-old Okinawan to showcase his amazing array of skills to a much wider audience. Kiyuna competes in the kata division – the demonstrative side of karate, featuring one athlete alone on the mat performing a series of pre-meditated movements. 

“I started doing karate when I was around five because my friend did it and I thought it looked cool,” recalls Kiyuna. “I took part in a lot of competitions during my kindergarten and elementary school days, winning some of them. I didn’t think I was particularly good at it or anything, it was just for fun. I played baseball as well for the same reason. When I was in high school I started to think more seriously about the sport. To continue, I knew I would have to aim to be the best in the world. Anything below that wouldn’t be enough.” 

Before taking on the world, Kiyuna had to first establish himself domestically. He competed against the country’s elite karateka while studying English literature at university. After graduating, the then 22-year-old represented Japan for the first time at the 2012 Karate World Championships in Paris, winning a bronze medal. It was a respectable showing, but he wasn’t satisfied. Two years later, appearing in the same competition in Bremen, Kiyuna took home the gold, defeating crowd favorite Ilja Smorguner in the final. 

“It’s always an honor to represent my country,” Kiyuna tells TW. “Everyone knows Japan has a strong reputation for karate. Competing domestically to make it on to the international stage is intense so it’s important not to fail when you get there. Winning my first world championships was a big moment for me. It felt like all those years of sweat and sacrifice had been worth it. The fact that it had been 12 years since the last Japanese winner in the individual kata division made it extra special.” 

For Kiyuna that was just the beginning. He defended the world title two years later in Austria then won it for the third time in Spain last year. The Okinawan also triumphed in three consecutive Asian Senior Karate Championships and took home gold medals at the 2017 World Games and the 2018 Asian Games. Proving that he is human, Kiyuna did lose a match 18 months ago to Spanish rival Damian Quintero in the Karate 1 Premier League. It was his first defeat in the competition since 2012. At the time of writing, he has won 16 out of the 18 Premier League titles in which he’s appeared. So, how is he able to maintain such a remarkable level of consistency? 

“I just work hard and fortunately have a very good environment to practice in,” says Kiyuna. “You need good people around you and that’s what I’ve got. My senior at the dojo is a former world champion and so is my mentor and trainer, Tsuguo Sakumoto. I often work with him from late in the morning until mid-afternoon and then again in the evening after doing some physical training. I was around 13 the first time I met Sakumoto-Sensei. His enthusiasm and passion for the sport was amazing to see. It’s exactly the same today. He was my hero then and still is now. I’m always learning from him.” 

Like Kiyuna, Sakumoto also won three consecutive Karate World Championships as well as two World Games in a row and two World Cups, earning himself a place in the Guinness World Records. A legendary figure in the sport, he helped to globalize the Okinawan style of karate known as Ryuei-ryu, which was originally only taught to members of the Nakaima family. The first “outsider” to master the discipline, Sakumoto has passed on his skills and knowledge to many students including nine world champions, two of whom came from outside Japan. The hope now is that Kiyuna will become Sakumoto’s first-ever student to win an Olympic gold medal. 

The campaign to bring karate to the Olympics began with Jacques Delcourt in the 1970s yet didn’t feature in the IOC’s agenda until 2009 when it failed to receive the two-thirds majority vote required to be included. Seven years later came the news that all fans of the sport were waiting for when it was announced that karate along with surfing, climbing, skateboarding, baseball and softball would be added for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. 

“I don’t feel nervous about it or anything. I can’t wait to compete, and I believe I can win it”

“A lot of people put a great deal of effort and time into getting us a place at the table, and for that I’m really appreciative,” says Kiyuna. “When I took part in competitions as a youngster, I never imagined that one day there would be a chance to possibly appear at the Olympics. It’s great for the sport and will hopefully lead to an increase in the number of people wanting to give karate a try. For me personally, the aim is to qualify and then go for gold in Tokyo. I don’t feel nervous about it or anything. I can’t wait to compete, and I believe I can win it.” 

There will be eight karate gold medals up for grabs next summer: six in the kumite (fight) competition (with three categories for each sex) and two in the kata event. In the female division of the latter, Japan’s Kiyou Shimizu is the current favorite. Like Kiyuna, she has been the dominant force in the discipline for the past few years, winning four Asian titles, the 2017 World Games, and two consecutive Karate World Championships, though she lost the crown last year to Sandra Sanchez of Spain. As for Kumite, Japan has a number of names to look out for such as Miho Miyahara (-55kg), Ayumi Uekusa (+68kg) and Kayo Someya (+61kg), Ken Nishimura (-75kg), and Ryutaro Araga (+75kg). 

In early September, Japan’s finest will compete against the top karateka on the planet at the penultimate K1 Premier League event of the season which takes place at the Nippon Budokan in central Tokyo. It will be the final event to be hosted at the historic venue before renovations begin in time for next year’s Games. “The best athletes in the world will be in attendance because everyone will want to see what it’s like performing in the stadium prior to the Olympics and this is the last opportunity,” says Kiyuna. “I’ve competed there many times so my preparations will be the same as always. That said, with the Games less than a year away, there will be extra excitement for this event. It’s important that we put on a good show.” 

The Karate 1 Premier League event will be held at Nippon Budokan from September 6-8, 2019. More info at premierjapan.tokyo.jp


Photograph by JK Fan

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