Women first competed in the World Championships in 1980 at the tournament held in Madrid, Spain. Suzuko Okamura became the first individual kata world champion. Her victory was the start of total dominance of the kata events by the Japanese women. From 1980 to 2004 they remained undefeated in the event. Arguably the greatest of these champions was Atsuko Wakai. She is the only woman to win four consecutive world kata titles. This feat earned her an entry in the Guinness Book of Records and made her one of the most dominant world champions, male or female.
Atsuko Wakai was born on 12 September 1971 in Gifu, Japan. Aged only four years she was involved in a serious car accident. She was hospitalized for four months after suffering head injuries. The accident also affected her nervous system, which led to coordination problems.
At the age of six Wakai began studying Seigokan Goju-ryu Karate under Yasufumi Ono. Her parents believed that Karate practice would help her regain some strength and coordination. They were proved to be correct. She continued practicing until she entered university.
In 1992 she graduated from Kindai University, based in Osaka, where she studied business for two years.
Prior to university Wakai had competed in kumite and kata at local tournaments and events. Her focus changed when she came third in an All Japan tournament, in kata. She had competed in a number of All Japan tournaments but could not break into the top two positions. She had considered retiring from competition, but her friend Shinichi Hasegawa persuaded her not to.
Wakai eventually won the All-Japan title in 1997 and this led to a call up to the national squad. She would go on to win the All Japan title eight years in a row.
Wakai’s call up came when she had already graduated from university. Her competitive career started at a time when most competitors would be looking to retire from competition to pursue their careers.
1997 saw the beginning of an international career that would last for eight years and bring much success. Wakai’s first international success came at the 2nd Ladies International Karate Cup held in Tokyo. In the same year she got the first of her World Games titles in Lahti, Finland. She would go on to win three consecutive titles at the World Games. If that was not enough she also won the World Cup and Asian Karate Championships.
The following year Wakai won the first of her four world titles in Rio de Janeiro, defeating Myriam Szkudlarek of France and Roberta Sodero of Italy in the final. The three women would contest several final international finals in the years to come. To add to her world title Wakai also won the Asian Games in Bangkok.
For the next couple of years Wakai was virtually unbeatable, winning all the major international tournaments she entered. This included winning the World Games on three occasions; the World Championships on four occasions; the Asian Games on two occasions; and the Asian Karate Championships on four occasions. During this time she received coaching from Akira Shiomi and some from the legendary Yoshimi Inoue.
Wakai won her third consecutive World Games title in 2005 in Duisburg, Germany. Later that year she retired from active competition. The previous year she had had won her fourth consecutive world title in Monterrey, Mexico, defeating Myriam Szkudlarek in the final. With this win she equaled the number of world titles of Yuki Mimura, which had not been won consecutively.
Wakai’s major honors include:
- World Championships – Individual kata – 1st place (1998, 2000, 2002, 2004)
- World Games – Individual kata – 1st place (1997, 2001, 2005)
- World Cup – Individual kata – 1st place (1997)
- Asian Karate Championships – 1st place (1997, 1999, 2001, 2004)
- Asian Games – Individual kata – 1st place (1998, 2002)
- All Japan Karate-Do Championships – Individual kata – 1st place (1997-2004)
2007 saw Wakai appointed to the position of director and head coach of the Seino Transportation Company Karate team. She has not limited herself to just these roles. She travels the world imparting her knowledge through seminars and courses. Her aim is to promote Karate especially among women, children and the elderly.
Atsuko Wakai is a true example of how perseverance and spirit can lead to great success. She will go down in history as one of the most dominant champions ever.
The following clips show Wakai in action: