Karate Kicking to a Song by Sia

A post about inspiration in honor of International Women's Day

Posted Mar 07, 2017

This is a story about a woman you haven’t heard of who influenced a girl you probably don’t know but who did something with a singer you’ve certainly seen. We’re going to go from Takako Kikuchi to Mahiro Takano to Sia. Buckle up and hold on—we’re beginning at the end.

In fall of 2015 I saw an amazing music video—“Alive” by Sia. I love Sia’s music and her videos are typically fantastic. But “Alive” was something different—it includes a stunning performance of karate moves by an amazing young girl. I was totally blown away by the pure athletic ability of the girl and her sublime performance of some very challenging movements. I wanted to learn more about this kid—Mahiro Takano—and where she came from. But above all, the more I delved into the story of Mahiro Takano the more I wondered—who was her teacher?

There are many other articles on Mahiro but nothing really about her teacher—Takako Kikuchi--until now. Takako Kikuchi teaches at the Yukukai dojo in Nagaoka City, Niigata, Japan. She teaches daily classes with a small group of active students and about half of them are girls and women. When she was a little girl, Takako describes herself as physically weak with a disorder that affected her sensorimotor system. At that time she didn’t do any martial arts, but became fascinated by them—ironically—while living briefly in the United States in grade 6. As she told me, she started (and never stopped!) karate training at the age of 13 to “fortify myself both physically and mentally.” With the help of my friend at Chiba University, Professor Tomoyoshi Komiyama, I recently interviewed Takako Kikuchi.

E. Paul Zehr (EPZ): What was it that interested you about karate?

Takako Kikuchi (TK): I find that karate is always a personal challenge. If you immerse yourself in karate with seriousness, you must get improve yourself as part of the process. Therefore, you learn the importance of pursuing objectives. If you can get it, you will have a feeling of accomplishment which is one of the most attractive aspects of karate.

EPZ: What do you think are the main mental and physical benefits of karate for women (and men)?

TK: Psychologically, I believe that tolerance, thoughtfulness and respectfulness can be acquired though karate training. In addition, inner strength develops when you do your best in tense situations. For example, in competitive performances for kata (patterns) or kumite (fighting). In karate competition or training, you have to directly confront any opponent. You and your opponent attack each other with a barrage of punches and kicks which if they hit you will be very dangerous and painful. This experience of discomfort and realization of danger generates care and thoughtfulness about your opponent. Physically, karate training provides balanced strength within the entire body. In particular, martial arts develop core body strength and the ability to move in many directions. Concentration is very important aspect to quickly respond to the opponent’s movement, and to understand the opponent’s intention. To exert a strenuous technique or to make a “kiai” (spirit shout), you have to have good control relax or tighten up your body and control your breathing. Through all these aspects of karate training, you can be healthier.

EPZ: Historically more men than women have done martial arts. Thankfully this has changed a lot over the years. Do you think that women in martial arts have a more difficult time than men? What has your experience been like?

TK:  When I got started in karate, there were few female karate athletes. Because of that male karate athletes were not serious about training with women. When I was teenager, I worked hard training at the main headquarters so that I could get my brown belt. Even then, when I trained with male black belt holders, they often wouldn’t try their best. Some looked reluctant and not serious. So, of course, I tried to attack him with my full effort! Then he attacked back, very hard—too hard for our relative skills. We have been through a hardship during which there was little positive support about women’s fighting sports such as karate in Japan. Now, though, things seem to be changing quickly. Learning, training, and teaching karate is very supported. My family—my husband, my children—have all supported me so that I could pursue all my dreams in karate. This involves travel to camps and lots of work away from home.

EPZ: You have been very inspirational for your students. Do you enjoy teaching as much as performing?

TK: Yes! Teaching karate classes is really fun for me. I feel very happy when I can help a student perform a skill that she has never done successfully before. I enjoy devising ways to improve student performance and find ways to help them understand and perform by taking each student’s personality into account. I cannot always find enough time to train for myself, but I keep trying. It is very difficult while teaching my classes because I want to teach my students with my heart and soul.

EPZ: Now some questions about your famous young student. When did Mahiro begin training with you?

TK:  Mahiro’s brother and father got started learning karate together first. After about a year later, at the age of 4, Mahiro joined my karate class. When watching her brother’s training, she looked so enthusiastic and could not suppress her passion. Once she got started on her own training, she was able to quickly absorb so many techniques and kata. I could not believe her ability. She showed amazingly high concentration and understood and replicated everything I showed her! Usually, it is very difficult for junior students to correctly control their body and exert inner force from the central part of the body. In Mahiro’s case, however, everything looked opposite to normal. She seems to easily acquire difficult skills and movements. It is really amazing.

EPZ: What is the most memorable or unique thing about having Mahiro as a student?

TK: Mahiro’s supreme ability would be that she is able to quickly concentrate and then replicate whatever she has been shown. As I could see during making the Sia “Alive” music video, Mahiro could do the karate movements easily and without any errors. It was amazing! I think she is a genius for real. I have a wonderful memory about traveling to a karate competition by car. All Mahiro said was “I want to have a seat next to sensei”. I was delighted to realize then that little Mahiro liked me. From that point, whenever we would go to competitions by car, Mahiro always sat next to me. This is a cherished memory.

EPZ: Do you continue to enjoy Sia’s music? Did you know much about her before making the "Alive" video?

TK: Yes, I love her music! But, of course, I did not know Sia before getting involved with making that video and meeting Sia personally. At that time, I got to know Sia’s personality and I became even more a fan!

This brings us to the end of the story of the amazing Takako Kikuchi who inspired Mahiro Takano who was spotted by Sia and who all continue to inspire girls, boys, women and men the world over. As for that video, I suggest watching “Alive” again. It gives me chills every time I watch Mahiro Takano punch, kick, and kiai to the sound of Sia’s voice.

© E. Paul Zehr (2017)