Ken Aragaki
August 14, 2015

TOKYO (AP) After 17 years of intensive training, Japanese university karate champion Emiko Kawasaki may be about to realize her lifelong dream and have a chance to compete at the Olympics.

Karate, a martial art consisting of punches, kicks and blocks, is among the sports Japan is considering for inclusion on the Olympic program for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Although karate has failed to win Olympic inclusion three times before - for the Beijing, London and Rio Games - chances are a lot better this time for the traditional Japanese sport.

Tokyo organizers, who are also considering the inclusion of baseball and softball, squash and surfing, have until Sept. 30 to select one or more events to recommend to the International Olympic Committee. The IOC's final decision comes in August 2016, when it meets ahead of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

For 22-year-old Kawasaki, having a chance to compete at the Olympics would be the ultimate reward for her daily 5.30 a.m. runs and countless hours of practice and competition.

''I don't see anything I've gone through as sacrifices,'' the second-degree black belt said. ''I see myself first and foremost as a karate competitor.''

If approved, karate would be contested in two categories; a solo performance called kata, or ''form,'' which demonstrates the choreographed sequences of karate techniques; the other is sparring matches called kumite.

Kata must be precise, speedy and powerful as two contestants perform their katas and a panel of five judges decides the winner. There are 86 designated katas, each lasting 3-5 minutes.

During a recent practice session at Tokyo's Kokushikan University, the 4-foot-11 (1.5-meter), 113-pound (51-kilogram) Kawasaki practiced a kata routine called suparinpei, jump-kicking in the air repeatedly.

Kumite consists of three-minute sparring for men, and two-minute matches for women. For safety reasons, international competition usually mandates that punches and kicks must be stopped before they make excessive direct contact with an opponent.

Those from karate schools that practice full contact would be allowed to take part in the Olympics if the sport was included, but would have to abide by the rule over contact and wear mouth guards, body protectors and padded gloves, as well as shin and foot guards.

Sergey Kushnir, a former coach for the U.S. karate team who runs Syracuse Martial Arts Kenkyukai in upstate New York, said divisions among karate organizations have been an obstacle in the past to the progress of the sport.

''We are all separated even among ourselves. We cannot even agree what karate is,'' Kushnir said in a telephone interview. ''Hopefully, we'll unite to get into the Olympics.''

Misaki Oku, a 19-year-old first-degree black belt who is on Japan's national team, wants to compete in kumite in 2020 and says karate's virtues of respect and courtesy make it a good fit for the Olympics.

''We should never lose the basic values of our martial art,'' Oku, her face bruised from training, said in an interview.

In a recent presentation to the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, World Karate Federation General Secretary Toshihisa Nagura emphasized that while karate has truly become a global sport, it embodies the traditional Japanese values of Budo or ''the martial way,'' referring to the rigorous discipline and spiritual purity that is asked of the practitioner.

''It has spread worldwide as a global sport, crossing the boundaries of nations, regions and race.'' Nagura said. ''But at the same time, our biggest appeal is that it originated in Japan.''

Adding to karate's momentum, the Tokyo city government unanimously adopted a resolution in November calling for the inclusion of karate and the combined bid for baseball and softball.

The Japan Karatedo Federation says more than 100 million people practice karate in 190 countries, more than baseball and softball's combined total of 65 million players in 141 countries.

Shuji Kusaka, JKF secretary general, believes karate meets all the criteria the IOC will be looking at in a new event, including universality, roots in tradition and gender equality.

''All we need to do,'' Kusaka said, ''is just wait for the happy news.''

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