Exclusive Interview: Rika Usami – The Undisputed Queen of Karate Kata

By Jesse | 26 Comments

Imagine the sound of 12’000 people giving somebody a standing ovation.

Then imagine that this “somebody” is a tiny Japanese girl, performing kata in the middle of a huge arena.

That girl is Rika Usami.

At the recent World Championships in Paris, France.

And that’s the mesmerizing power of her incredible kata performances.

rikausami-jap

Rika Usami in action.

Truth be told, some people even think she would have won the mens’ division!

Now, before we go any further with this article, let me clarify something: Although I know *some* people think competing in kata is a “waste of time”, many others (including me) think it’s a beautiful display of grace, strength and speed. Because no matter what side you stand on, and no matter what style of Karate you subscribe to, there is something to be said for this:

A good kata is damn impressive to watch.

And perhaps the most impressive of all is Rika Usami.

For those wondering, her recent merits include several gold medals from huge competitions such as the Japanese National Championships, Asian Championships, World Championships, Istanbul Open, Jakarta Open, Dutch Open, Paris Open, Salzburg Open and other premier events in the world tournament scene.

Needless to say, I’ve been filming her top-class kata performances for a long time now. You’ve probably seen her Bassai Dai, Seienchin, Koshokun Dai, Koshokun Sho, Tomari Bassai or Chatan Yara Koshokun many times if you follow my YouTube channel.

However, not until this weekend did I actually interview her!

Shame on me, I know.

But, I finally did it.

After receiving a call from her sponsor for a nearby seminar, hosted by the national Inoue-ha organization, I booked a meeting with her in the same hotel that my chat with male kata World Champion Antonio Diaz from Venezuela took place last year.

In other words, it was time for another exclusive KbJ interview!

But this time with Rika Usami – The Undisputed Queen of Karate Kata.

You ready?

Focus – kata Suparimpei

Sitting in front of me in the hotel bar, this early spring morning, is Usami-san – wearing a grey wool sweater, a brown leather bag and a huge purple wrist watch to match her giggling personality. Me? I’m armed with nothing but my dear old denshi jisho (electronic dictionary), a voice recorder and a bear hat.

Without further ado, here’s what I managed to transcribe from the captivating discussion I had with Rika, about her life, training and thoughts.

Enjoy, Karate Nerds™!

J (Jesse): All right, Usami-san! let’s take it from the beginning: When, where and why did you start Karate?

RU (Rika Usami): “I started Karate when I was 10 years old, by joining a Goju-ryu style dojo located near my family’s house in Tokyo. The reason was because one day I saw a cool female fighter on TV, which made me really curious about the martial arts. Back then, my older brother had already been practising Karate for a while, even letting me wear his gi on occasions, so that helped me a lot when I decided to eventually start practising Karate myself.”

J: And at what age did you start competing in kata?

For Rika, flawless technique is the key to effortless action.

RU: “My first tournament was when I had green belt. I was in elementary school at that time, 12 years old. It was a pretty small tournament though, consisting mostly of kids from nearby towns’ dojos. I actually did not participate in any bigger tournaments until I was 15 years old.”

J: So how long did it actually take before you started winning most of your tournaments?

RU: “I was 17 years old when I won a big tournament for the first time. That was the national high school championship. So, it actually took me 7 years to win my first tournament in Karate!”

J: And you’ve been winning a lot more since! Why do you think you’ve had such great success in tournaments anyway?

RU: “Probably because I truly love Karate more than anything else. Plus, I get a lot of support from people around me. Those are the reasons, I think.”

J: Speaking of people around you, can you tell me about your sensei? What is it about your master that makes him so special?

RU: “You mean Inoue sensei? Well, first of all, he teaches me not only the physical aspects of Karate, but he also helps me improve my mental abilities. It’s the spiritual aspect. Also, the main thing that separates Inoue sensei from other instructors is that, unlike many masters, he spends a lot of individual time together with me, to make sure I understand each ‘waza’ (technique) very clearly, practising together with me for long hours.”

J: And apparently it’s working! So, before you won the female kata division at the WKF World Championships in Paris, how did your actual training/preparation schedule look like? I can imagine it was intense!

RU: “Yeah, in order to prepare for the World Championships, I naturally went to Tottori, where Inoue sensei’s dojo is located, for some very intense training. Around this time there were many other international students there too, training together to win in Paris, like Antonio (Diaz). Along with these dedicated athletes, I sometimes practised from 10 am to 10 pm. Many times I practised by myself too, even after finishing the group training sessions.”

A ‘kuri-uke’ block – kata Chatan Yara Koshokun

RU: “Strength training is the starting point for my techniques, and it’s actually very important for this reason. You must do it. For any technique to be properly stabilized, basic physical strength is essential. Therefore, I perform strength training with the following philosophy in mind; great technique in kata can only be achieved with having a solid foundation of strength. That’s my opinion.”

J: And if anyone doubts that, you are living proof! So what about kumite? Do you practise kumite? A lot of kata competitors seem to shy away from it. Explain your thoughts on the relationship between kata & kumite.

RU: “After I started to seriously participate in kata tournaments, I started to train some kumite as well, to complement my basic (kihon) training. The main difference in the relationship between kumite and kata is that there is always a physical opponent in front of you in kumite, whereas in kata you are performing alone. But, you have to keep in mind that there is someone in front of you when you do kata too! So, kumite has really helped adjust my kata based on that conception.”

J: That’s an incredibly valuable insight. Now let me ask you a trickier question: What is your opinion about the difference between so-called “traditional Karate” (as a martial art), and “contemporary Karate” (as a sport)?

Winning gold at the Asian Games.

RU: “Hmm…. that’s very difficult [laughs]! *Long pause* Well, my thinking is that you shouldn’t consider those two – traditional/contemporary Karate – as separate things. Instead, try to find where the vital areas shared by both approaches converge, and focus on those. That’s very important, I believe. The most valuable aspects of Sports Karate and Traditional Karate are the ones that will overlap.”

J: That’s an important concept indeed, yet hard for people to grasp! Speaking of important; if you could choose the top 3 most important attributes a person needs to become really good at Karate, what would those be?

RU: “The first one is basic physical preparation. The second one is Karate strength/conditioning and the third one has to be technique. The fourth one is… Oh, sorry! I could only choose three, right? Okay. That’s it. Or, no, wait a second! Here’s a better answer: Body, mind and technique.”

J: Ah, you mean ‘Shin-Gi-Tai’ [Mind-Technique-Body]?

RU: “Yeah, exactly. Shin-Gi-Tai!”

J: Hah, I almost expected you to say that! So, if we flip the script: What are the top 3 biggest mistakes you see people making when practising Karate?

RU: “Since I cannot speak for others, this answer is based on myself only, okay? The first mistake is, you lose against yourself. Secondly, you fail to properly listen to your master [laughs]. Finally, you just need to keep practising, repeatedly, and not giving up too early.”

J: And 99% of those three mistakes are based on the mind! So, what kind of mental attitude do you think is actually required for somebody to perform a world-class kata? And how does one train to foster that mindset?

RU: “This answer is simple: To be able to perform your best at a tournament, it is important to simply act as normal as possible. And for that, you need to be very mentally focused during regular training time.”

J: That is indeed super important. Train as you compete, compete as you train. Now, let’s talk about your victory at the 21st World Karate Championships in Paris. A crowd of 12’000 people were giving you standing ovations before you had even finished your final kata. Unbelievable. Explain that feeling.

Rika is the Japanese Champion – several times in a row.

RU: “Yes. When I won the World Championships, that was absolutely the happiest moment in my entire career. And then, when I realized that people around me were even more excited about my victory than myself… I became overwhelmed.”

J: I even remember your sensei crying of joy after that incredible final. Yet, you are not longing for an encore. Explain your recent decision to retire from Karate competition – what are your future plans?

RU: “Before I won the World Championship title, I had received an offer for advancement to Kokushinkan University. So, after achieving this major Karate goal of my life, I felt I was ready to retire as a competitive athlete and move on to my next goal – to become an instructor for the Karate club at Kokushinkan University. Right now, I’m studying real hard for this, and althought a lot of people have different opinions about what I should, or should not, do with my career – I’d like to continue my education while sharing my experience as a Karate teacher in order to help the new generation.”

J: Commendable. Although a lot of people will miss seeing your kata performances! Lastly, what is your message for everyone who aspires to achieve your high skill level in Karate, and kata specifically?

RU: “Everyone has a goal. Whether that is to become a world champion or not doesn’t really matter. Although your goal may often look hard to achieve at first, if you continually make efforts toward your goal, then your time, energy and commitment will never have been wasted. So, keep it up as much as you can. Stay strong until you win against yourself. And at the end of the day, you will always be the winner.”

J: Wise words from a wise champ! Thanks a lot for your time Usami-san, and good luck with your new career!

*High five*

RU: “Thank you very much!”

Now, to conclude this exclusive interview, allow me to post two videos that I captured from this weekend’s kata seminar with Rika herself, hosted by the national Inoue-ha Shito-ryu organization.

In the first one she demonstrates her final kata Chatan Yara Koshokun, and in the second one she actually walks you through the entire friggin’ kata, step-by-step, explaining important details along the way.

If you are the least bit interested in kata, this stuff is invaluable.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading:

PS. Want to see Antonio Diaz, male kata World Champion, explaining important details of his final kata (Suparimpei)? Check out my YouTube channel.

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

26 Comments

  1. Alessandro Timmi

    March 21, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Her wisdom and humility are typically Japanese, but always astonishing and instructive! In my mind, she is the model of the perfect Karateka!
    And it’s true, she won the World Championship in Paris and the public was more excited than her!
    Train as you compete, compete as you train, perfect synthesis Jesse: she personifies this way of saying.

  2. Lukas

    March 21, 2013 at 11:23 pm

    Amazing. Never heard of her before but her character seems as impressive as her kata;) Good news that she is teaching now!

  3. Sören

    March 21, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    She has such a cute voice, didn’t imagine that from her kiai.
    I think the world is going to miss her at competitions very much but I really have the hope that she will give seminars in the future. With most luck one could have she maybe will give one in Germany?
    I would be glad and blessed being able to learn from my big idol!
    Even from this interview (and the second video) I could learn a lot, thank you Jesse!

  4. Candy V.

    March 22, 2013 at 1:23 am

    Rika Usami is such a wonderful person and an inspiration to many. I am very lucky to have met her in person and exchange a few words. She’s amazing! :)

  5. Dod

    March 22, 2013 at 11:42 am

    One question I would like to see asked of a competition kata expert is how much they study the bunkai/ applications aspect of kata.

  6. daniel_s07@hotmail.com

    March 22, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    Love it! it was an amazing inspirational interview!

  7. Kraljevic Marko

    March 22, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    Sorry Jesse San but there is only one Undisputed Queen of kata and it is Atsuko Wakai. Rika is the princess but she is no match to Wakai. Even 42 years old she does better suparinpei than most of men do. Sorry to waist your time on this little comment. Oss

  8. sandy B Herman

    March 22, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Jesse San…..this is the reason why sports karate is so dangerous?….kata looks good ,but in real life,these techniques are without substance….no kime,no mushimi…without impact…so world champion my ass??

    • Ricardo Cruz - Brazil Inoue-Ha Shito-Ryu Honbu Dojo Technical Director

      March 25, 2013 at 12:31 am

      I had sworn to myself -- and even told Inoue Sensei that- I wouldn’t waste any single second of my lifetime replying to stupid comments on the internet (a guy named Ralf Hartung -- http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5o8W1kfdUf9Gn3dqyTu9Cg -- really had my fingers itching to type after I read some of his comments on Kata videos) but…

      First of all, Sandy… Shame on you for the swear words. Not really kind coming from a martial artist, even less from a girl. Anyway, one of the main differences in Japanese kata athletes trained by Inoue Sensei is EXACTLY KIME. The Western definition and understanding of KIME is WAY different from that of the Japanese. Westerners seem to have to SEE and HEAR Kime. First commandment in Japanese Karate: What looks and sounds strong, is not so strong…
      But… why am I writing this? Y’know something? As Inoue Sensei told me in our last encounter: When asked “why”, Ricardo… don’t waste time explaining on the Internet. Invite them to come to one of the dojos of our organization. Technical problems, we can solve, but we cannot change people’s bad nature. That’s why Inoue-ha is a great family.

      Put on your gi and look for a serious Karate dojo to practice.

      Osu!

      • shankar

        October 18, 2013 at 2:12 pm

        How true, How true. Ricardo-san your words echo full of truth, I can’t believe that people like Sandy exist in this world .If you speak good about something why speak at all.

        • shankar

          October 18, 2013 at 2:14 pm

          I mean,”If you can’t speak good about something why speak at all.

  9. Fabio

    March 22, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    Why do you write “Chatanyara Koshokun” and not “Chatanyara Kushanku” like you did before ?

    Is it the same ?

    Thanks for your answer.

    • Jesse

      March 23, 2013 at 12:26 am

      Fabio-san, it’s the same. :)

  10. Narges

    March 23, 2013 at 12:12 am

    Thank you for the very juicy material Jesse. There were some really GREAT points in that interview. But is the kata Chatan Yara Koshokun different from Chatan Yara Kushanku? Cheers

    • Jesse

      March 23, 2013 at 12:23 am

      Nope, Narges-san. Just spelling variations… ;)

    • Masoud Mokhtari

      March 23, 2013 at 12:28 am

      Hi Narge san!
      Not! there is same and It’s just an accentual difference according to Japanese and Chinese languages. History of kata showed double training of Kuwang Shang Fu, a chinese officer and Yara. When he traveled to okinawa and his village, Chatan, officer’s name changed to koshokun and /or kushanku.

  11. Masoud Mokhtari

    March 23, 2013 at 12:15 am

    Hi dear Jesse San . It’s my first comment after being Karate Nerd and previous posts!
    I know, shame on me!
    But Usami Rika and her kata performances were too great and respectful to ignore!
    It is as a duty to thank you for this eye- catching post and Rika for times attaching us to Mob or PC!
    Be lucky!

  12. Mark Heyerdahl

    March 23, 2013 at 2:01 am

    This is an awesome post! The iceing on the cake is the instructional Kusanku video at the end, thanks for sharing!

  13. Herb

    March 23, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    Wonderful interview with a very talented Karate Do practitioner (Rika Usami). It has been my experience over the past 50+ years of participation in the unceasingly fascinating world of martial arts study, that seldom do we get such insightful and intelligent commentary from a really great practitioner of martial arts until long after their career has ended…if ever. Your questions were cogent, and her answers were excellent. Kudos to you for being at the top of your game with the questioning. Appreciations all around for this interview.

    I feel obligated mention that the the comment on the interview by one “sandi B. Herman was crass, tasteless, and indicative of how people will quite often tend to read an article and automatically amend and distort what was actually stated and put down in print.

    Nowhere in the interview was it stated or even implied that Ms. Usami was a “Kumite” World Champion. She did say that kumite as indeed an integral part of her overall Karate training regimen, as it is in the training regimen of virtually everyone who practices a legitimate and well-rounded study of traditional or non-traditional martial arts. For “sandi” to cast belittling, derisive, and dismissive comments on Ms. Usami’s World “Kata” Championship accomplishments and status because of Rika’s chosen emphasis on the Kata aspect of is perhaps indicative of “sandi’s” personal shortcomings and the shortcomings of those who taught / teach her!

    I must add here that I personally have yet to hear a single word of anything less than the highest praise for her performances and accomplishments from ANY of my fellow budoka and global friends in the Kyokushin, Shotokan, FMA, JKD, Silat, Gung Fu, and MMA communities. As time goes by, Ms. Herman may or may not eventually learn why the great Goju-Ryu master Gogen “The Cat” Yamaguchi ALWAYS stressed that there is far more to Karate than kumite and even competition. That fact may be incomprehensible to someone who has either been poorly taught, or perhaps hit in the head many times, but it is the truth. I strongly suggest that “sandi” needs lessons in civility AND humility. OSU!

  14. Te'o

    March 25, 2013 at 1:09 am

    Jesse-san, absolutely loved the article. She is my favorite of all time no doubt. I am very interested in the comments about physical training. In the past you have written some excellent articles on that specific topic and I have used many of the suggestions in my own training and in suggested supplemental training for my students. What I’d like to know is the types of strength training that she did during her preparation time. Or what she does during her normal training time for that matter. I try to use cycles to keep the body guessing and to also alleviate boredom. I am just finishing a cycle of composite weight training and going into a cycle of body weight with plyometrics. Any info would be awesome! Thanks again for the great interview! Alofas!!!

  15. Keith Varias

    March 25, 2013 at 11:11 am

    Thank you very much for this Super helpful and meaningful article. Everything you shared is worth spreading. I hope all the best to you!

    This is my first comment although I have been a Karate nerd for quite sometime now LOL.

  16. Barbara

    March 26, 2013 at 5:28 am

    Isn’t she just a wonderful model for all karate-ka to follow. Loved her championship kata and yes it was, to my eyes, the best kata I saw in the finals. (Sorry Antonio). It just came alive. Love her attitude, her intelligence and practical approach. Great interview.

  17. Patricia

    April 20, 2013 at 11:00 pm

    !! Jesse-san
    Usami Rika IS my favorite karate-ka and inspiration of all time! So happy and grateful you did an interview with her! Would love to meet her one day!!

    Keep up the good work and amazing articles!

    Merci Jesse-san!

    :)

  18. Tomson Chen

    July 30, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Jesse-san!

    I just signed up (I know! Did that way too late right?) for your online emails/guide. I find some very good articles in here and am on my way to becoming a true karate nerd (that is, based on your example).

    Anyways, my question is: What ryu of Kara-te does Usami-san practice?

    Thank you so much!
    Tomson Chen

  19. Sid

    January 16, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    How old is Rika Usami ?

  20. sean smith

    April 4, 2014 at 1:43 pm

    Very inspirational to see the hard work and dedication she has put forth and how it has proven it’s worth.

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