Photo: Mark Runnacles/Getty

I Was Attacked for Being Asian

Even after a lifetime of training in karate, it was hard for me to know how to protect myself

akura, my namesake, means “cherry blossom” in Japanese. The pink flowers are one of Japan’s most iconic and beloved images. They’re also the country’s national flower. Around the world, when the cherry blossoms bloom, the whole world watches, a tradition called hanami in Japan.

Having the world’s eyes on you can be an incredible privilege. As the first American karateka to ever qualify for the Olympic championships, it’s an honor to introduce millions around the world to the ancient sport this summer. Other times, questioning stares can be a sign of something more dangerous.

A few weeks before the start of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I was training in a Southern California park when a man approached from the nearby parking lot. As he stomped across the grass toward me, he yelled racial slurs, threatened to attack me and my loved ones, and said that I should be scared of what he could do to me because I was “little.” I had heard stories of experiences with hate violence from members of the Asian American community, but I never thought it would happen to me, too.

Every day it feels like any one of our brothers or sisters, our parents or grandparents, could be next. Especially since violence against people of color in this country is nothing new. Sometimes it feels like people of every culture and every skin color are just passing a baton to each other in a cycle of hatred that never ends.

Experiencing an act of hate can be a difficult thing to talk about, but I chose to speak out because these acts of violence are happening across the country and all over the world. It’s crucial that people understand what is going on.

The word “karate” famously means “open hand” — we are not taught how to start a fight; rather, we are taught how to protect ourselves. While practicing, we train our minds and bodies for all types of challenges outside of the dojo as well. But even after a lifetime of training in karate, it was hard for me to know how to protect myself when I experienced a real attack. And what hurt almost as much as the shouted slurs was the silence from witnesses who saw the attack and did nothing. That’s why it’s so important for bystanders to step in. Directly inserting yourself in a situation with an aggressor can be unsafe, but there are so many ways to prevent things from escalating or to interrupt them when they start.

For instance, when it became clear they were witnessing an act of hate, someone could have come up to me and started a conversation with me to draw energy away from the attack. Or someone could have checked in with me while the man was shouting threats and asked if I wanted someone to walk with me to another area. I made sure to record the attack on my phone, but not every person who is experiencing hate violence has a phone in their pocket or will remember to pull it out in the moment. A bystander can record the incident on their phone to discourage the perpetrator from getting even more violent on camera — and if no one felt prepared to step in when an attack occurred, they could have come up afterward and asked if I needed any support getting somewhere I could recover.

Whichever approach you take, the most important part is to not turn your back on us. Step up and make a human connection. That’s all we’re asking for.

Over the past few weeks, I have been so thankful for all the people who spoke out and reached out to me after the incident. These connections have made me realize that I am not as alone as I felt like I was in that moment. Here in Los Angeles, the community in Little Tokyo has supported me from the beginning of my career and has always made me feel at home. And some of the most meaningful messages of support have been from people in Japan who saw the video of the incident and let me know that they are here for me. These moments have made me feel even more proud to be Japanese American and to have such a strong and supportive community behind me no matter where I go.

This year, I hope the Olympics also serve as an opportunity for Japanese Americans to not only show this country and the world what we love about Japanese culture — from the food to our art to the meanings and significance of our practices and rituals — but also showcase the resilience and sense of community among Japanese people.

Despite people who question why I wear the U.S. flag in competition as an Asian American, I have never felt like I was less than fully American or fully Japanese. If anything, living in both countries has made me even more proud of who I am, because I have always been surrounded by people who represent their own cultural backgrounds with pride.

I know that a lot of young athletes are excited to watch the Olympics, and since karate’s inclusion in future Olympic Games isn’t guaranteed, I hope they will have an opportunity to dream, prepare, and compete one day. Being part of the first generation of Olympic karate competitors sometimes feels like we have been given the pieces of a puzzle that we get to put together ourselves, shaping the future of our sport. As senior athletes, it’s our responsibility to not only inspire the next generation but also pave the way for them so they do not have to face the same struggles and uncertainty we did. I hope younger generations can also see Asian Americans among the top athletes in the world and feel proud of who they are, whether they want to be athletes or not.

I couldn’t be more excited to represent my nation in the country of my family’s heritage, in a city and arenas that I have returned to throughout my career. It really feels like coming full circle to be able to go to Japan for the Olympics.

Everyone’s road to Tokyo has been paved with personal sacrifice, uncertainty, and serendipity, but getting to Tokyo 2020 isn’t something that would have been possible on my own. Rather than deter me, the recent attacks have shown me how many people across the country and around the world truly support me. Knowing that these are the people I truly represent has put a fire in me to keep going, and I can’t wait to just soak it all in, go out there, and compete.

To learn about more Olympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin July 23rd on NBC.

Team USA Karate