The power of creativity and imagination
~How sports can contribute to an intercultural society~

The power of creativity and imagination ~How sports can contribute to an intercultural society~

Panasonic Center TOKYO held an online event series; "The power of creativity and imagination", where guests are invited to think together about various social issues. On Saturday, August 7th, 2021, a talk session was held between Panasonic brand ambassador, Sakura Kokumai, who represented the U.S. in Karate Women Kata at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and Mitsukimi Kubota, member of the Meiji University karate team.

Sakura has lived outside Japan since she was very young, and currently uses Los Angeles as her base as an athlete, while also teaching local children the joys of karate. Joining her for the session about sports and culture was Mr. Kubota, who also has the experience of competing internationally as a student athlete. Their talk revealed the fascination of encountering different languages and cultures.

Theme 1 : About the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020

When asked about how it felt to participate at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 after a year's postponement, Sakura told us in obvious delight, "I'm so glad that the Olympic Games could be held. It was wonderful to be able to see the other athletes who I knew at the Olympic Village and to share our joys together."

Photo:Talking session

Before Sakura competed at the Olympic Games, Panasonic held an event with the Little Tokyo community in Los Angeles, as the local children cheered Sakura on using colorful drawings. Sakura looked back and commented, "I realized that I was able to participate at the Olympic Games thanks to the help of so many people. I felt so much power from them, even from far away!" We could feel the deep bonds between people connected by sports.

Theme 2 : About the background of the two athletes

The next topic covered the backgrounds of the two guests.

Sakura was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to parents from Okayama Prefecture in Japan. When she was seven, she joined a karate community class held at the local YMCA school from the recommendation of her mother. "I was interested in karate because my relatives used to learn it. I met a really good instructor and quickly grew to like karate, which made me want to learn it really more." Days of earnest practice followed, which lead to Sakura being selected to represent the U.S. at the age of 14. After going back and forth between the U.S. and Japan through her high school days, Sakura based herself in Japan for the first time as a university student, and spent six years there until graduating.

Mr. Kubota's grandfather apparently had a strong impact on his starting in karate. "My grandfather was an instructor of a karate dojo, and I just thought he was so cool. I decided to get into karate because I wanted to become strong like my grandfather."

Mr. Kubota then asked Sakura if she experienced any difficulties, such as during training, due to difference of environments between the U.S. and Japan. Sakura replied that, "For sure, some things weren't so easy. If there wasn't a dojo nearby, I'd get permission to use a community gymnasium to practice at. I'd find different ways of training, and I would increase my motivation by looking at videos of my sessions." Even under the different environments, her passion allowed her to keep practicing at a high level. "That's so proactive! I think your ability to positively deal with different situations is a real asset." said Mr. Kubota in admiration.

Theme 3 : Introducing the fascination of karate

The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 was the first ever competition to feature karate as an official Olympic sport. How did the two athletes react to this announcement?

Photo:Sakura and Mr. Kubota

Sakura told us that she was unable to hide the burst of happiness when she heard that the sport she'd been putting effort in since childhood, would be a part of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. "I remember asking again and again if it was really true. I'd watched the Olympic Games since I was young, so of course when the decision was made, it made me focus more on my practice with the hope of going to the Olympic Games and winning a medal. As part of my preparations, I drew up a plan toward reaching my goals." Mr. Kubota expressed the same feelings, saying "I felt so happy on thinking that this would be a great opportunity to show the fascination of karate to people who don't really know much about it." The topic then moved on to the fascination of karate as a sport.

Photo:Talking about two types of karate

There are mainly two types of karate. Kumite (sparring) is where two competitors wearing safety equipment compete for points with effective techniques to the top or lower half of the opponents' body. Kata (forms) involves the display of a series of techniques for attack or defense against an imaginary opponent. Sakura explained, "For kumite, the speed and power of the punches and kicks while attacking the head, face, chest, and so on are the basis for judging. These techniques are the key points to watch. With kata, it's the solidity, clarity and force of the movements. The athlete's sensibility and physical presence are also reflected in the points. In a way, it's a little bit like gymnastics or figure skating."

Talking about the attraction of kata, Mr. Kubota also added on, "A really good kata practitioner can change the whole atmosphere of the venue in a moment. It's impossible to take your eyes off the really powerful athletes."

Both guests specialize particularly in the kata called Suparinpei. "Suparinpei is a longer demonstration compared to other katas; therefore you can show your sense of tempo and rhythm for a longer time", explained Sakura. Mr. Kubota agreed, saying that this kata is easier to express yourself to the full.

Theme 4 : Sports and culture

The discussion then moved on to the differences in culture between the U.S. and Japan, and also about cultural exchange. As mentioned earlier, Sakura promotes Japanese culture through karate at the Japanese-American community in Los Angeles.


She explained that it was something natural for her to start this. "When I was living in Japan, I always taught karate to children during break times at my practice sessions, so when I went back to the U.S., I kept on doing the same thing. I naturally carried on doing it because when you teach kids, you get a powerful sense of energy from them."

Sakura raised the warmth of the people as the main reason for making Los Angeles her base, talking a lot about why she likes the place so much. "The people are just so friendly and kind. Everyone's so open, and they're so supportive of me. I also like the environment where I can go hiking or enjoy the sea as a break from practicing. It's really the best environment for someone who does sports."

Mr. Kubota also seemed to have a positive impression on interacting with different cultures, as he told us about an experience where he felt the different style of communication to Japan very interesting. "I've been to U.K. for the world championships, and to Canada for the North American tournament. After the match we would exchange T-shirts and hugs, which is different to Japan. The competitors and the people watching are eager to talk, and it felt very friendly."

Then, the discussion moved on to whether either of them have ever experienced troubles or hardships upon interacting with people from other countries. Sakura talked about the small differences she noticed while in Japan as a college student. "The senior-junior relationship, which is unique to Japan, and the group discipline were the things that stood out. If I went to get a drink of water for myself, I'd find everyone was waiting together when I got back. They'd say 'You're really a free spirit, aren't you?' But it didn't worry me too much."

Mr. Kubota then asked her how she overcame those difficulties of culture when facing them. "I had already come up against the language barrier when I went to the world championship at the age of 14. But actually, I found it interesting. Even if you can't understand what the other person is saying, you can communicate by body language. We both had karate in common, so I found out that it was possible to get across more than you would think."

Sakura went on to talk about the power of sports. "Even though sports is about competing against each other, if we have a same goal or a dream, like wanting to compete at the Olympic Games, it is natural that a bond is built between us. We were all so happy to be here at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and it made us feel united beyond the barriers of language. Sports is really something that goes beyond borders."

Questions from the participants

Next, the two athletes answered to the questions raised by the participants joining from online.

Q : This is a question for Sakura. Given that you're based in another country, what do you think are the good points of Japan, and the attractions of a different culture?

Sakura : Oh, anime! Everyone loves anime and manga, and they know more about it than me. They ask me really specific questions, like whether there are really such-and-such types of vending machines in Tokyo, and so on. That shows you how much the Japanese culture has spread in other countries.

Q : This question is for both of you. Can kata competitors show their originality, even though the forms are fixed?

Sakura : Everyone's got a different physique, and in my case, I think I can make use of the fact that I'm shorter. We each have our own sense, so the way we move, even in the slightest of a move, the forms is different for each person.

Mr. Kubota : There's definitely an originality. Karate practitioners decide which particular points they want to emphasize, or expression more powerfully, and so on. So I think that everyone has his or her individuality.

Q : Sakura, do you think there are less cultural barriers now compared to when you started karate?

Sakura : The evolution of technology has made us much more easier to share information with people in abroad countries. In the past, we had to open up a computer and access a website to exchange messages, but now days, you can do it with a smartphone. The way we communicate has changed and shortened each other's distances.

Q : This is a question for Mr. Kubota. What makes Sakura so wonderful as an athlete?

Mr. Kubota : Maybe it's the point that she has so much power despite having a smaller frame. Also, when compared to other competitors, she's also amazing for the many types of expression that she has in terms of tempo.

Sakura : Thank you!

Mr. Kubota also had some questions for Sakura as a same Karate athlete.

Mr. Kubota : How do you handle food that doesn't suit you or problems of time difference when in other countries?

Sakura : Keeping yourself in good shape is quite important, so I take instant rice and canned food in my suitcase. I also buy fresh vegetables and fruits at the local supermarkets to eat. As for my sleeping, I always try to get into the location of the tournament two weeks before the competition to adjust myself. If I can't do that, I calculate back from the time difference and try to adjust my sleeping time accordingly.

At the end of the event, they both gave some messages to the audience.

Sakura : I truly believe that I was able to compete here at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in a healthy situation thanks to the support from all the people around me. I'm happy that even just a few people in the world saw the fascination, and took more interest in this sport through this competition. Thank you so much for your support!

Mr. Kubota : It was a wonderful opportunity to take part in this event, to talk about cultural differences and our dedication towards karate. It was a great experience to realize that sports allow people to mutually enjoy beyond the barriers of culture. Thank you very much for having me today.

Sakura talked so many episodes during this event, but never once did she describe any episodes of having difficulties in other countries. We feel that this is certainly because the bonds between people created by sports, have the power to overcome barriers of nationalities and cultures. The audience members also must have felt the power of sports throughout this event.