Japan's karate kid

She has a soft spot for Duffy the Disney Bear and her favorite food is chocolate.

She does her homework before dinner but really loves skateboarding, playing video games and bouncing on her trampoline.

If Mahiro Takano sounds like any 9-year-old, think again: The third grader from Niigata, a rice-growing region in Japan, stars in Sia's latest music video "Alive," the just-released single from the singer's upcoming album.

In a backdrop of stark gray, the girl, wearing a white and black wig evocative of Sia's hairstyle, performs a dazzling routine with quick fists and kicks, and an adorably determined concentration of energy.

Mahiro, a three-time Japan karate champion in her age group, found making a music video was quite fun, and agreed she would do it again, especially if Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift offers.

The video shoot with Sia in a Tokyo suburb took about a week. She made a point to move to match the music, and "look cool," Mahiro said in an interview at her home, where she was gulping down her dinner of curry and boiled eggs before rushing to karate practice.

"She was nice," she said calmly of Sia. "She kept saying I was fantastic."

"Amazing" was the way her thoroughly impressed mother, Masayo Takano, remembers Sia repeatedly praising her daughter.

"I was so excited," her mother said, letting out a squeal not quite as fierce as the long throaty screams her daughter makes during her karate routines.

Mahiro — whose name means "ten thousand kindness, as well as ten thousand talents" — has a quick sweet smile when she isn't screaming.

Her kicks, turns and punches in the air are part of "kata" forms that are like choreography in the Japanese defensive martial art of karate. Kata competition is separate from combat matches, which are also part of the sport.

When doing kata, you slip into a focused character, Mahiro says, by imagining "a far more powerful enemy."



She lost a contest just once, when she was in kindergarten. She wept, she recalls, so painful was it to lose. The trick is to practice as though you are in competition, and compete as though you are in practice, she said.

And she practices with a ferocious frenzy, working out every day after school with her older brother. She was 4 when she started karate, inspired by her brother, then 5, who began lessons with their father, a truck driver.

The moves must be powerful, precise and sharp, and getting better never ends, you can keep working at one detail after another, she added, sounding almost like a guru.

When asked about the appeal of karate, her reply is rather simple — being able to make friends.

"You get to play with them," such as tag, she said.

Her parents say they are grateful to karate because it teaches a child discipline, hard work, the resilience to perform under pressure and manners. Bowing and cheerful replies, as well as constant practice and respect to hierarchy, exemplified in the belt system signifying skill levels, are integral to karate.

Her teacher Takako Kikuchi acknowledged that some purists may disapprove of a young woman's participation in a music video.

"But this little girl did not compromise in the music video. She is doing her best, delivering, correctly and thoroughly, one by one, the moves that she knows, with utmost concentration. There is nothing false about it, nothing made up. She is truly telling the world the way of karate," Kikuchi said proudly.

Mahiro has already been chosen an official "ambassador" for karate for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The sport is vying to be chosen for the games. Never mind that, even if that happens, Mahiro may not be old enough to compete. The age cutoff is still undecided.

"I want to go to the Olympics," she says, "and win a gold medal."



Text from the AP news story, Sia Video features child karaoke master with Olympic dreams, by Yuri Kageyama.

Photos by Eugene Hoshiko

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