Oita woman pushes herself as firefighter, strives for karate Olympic gold

As a member of a world karate championship team aiming for Olympic gold in 2020, Hikaru Ono is confident of her strength. But even for her, working as a firefighter is physically draining.

A typical bag carrying a hose and other equipment weighs about 10 kg. Standing only 155 cm tall, Ono finds it difficult to run with more than one or two of them. She often lags behind her male colleagues during drills.

Ono, a 24-year-old member of the city of Oita’s fire department, was frustrated by her lack of physical strength compared with her male colleagues. But she was reluctant to admit that she could not keep up, fearing that she may be looked down on in the male-dominated workplace.

But an unusual meeting of female firefighters helped change her attitude.

“I was advised by a senior firefighter not to have illusions about the job. She told me that the work would never go well if I weren’t honest about what I can and cannot do,” Ono recalled. “She said there are things only women can do.”

This advice made her focus on the unique role she can play in dealing with emergencies.

While rushing a man in critical condition to a hospital, Ono accompanied his panic-stricken mother in the ambulance in the hope of reassuring her.

“I thought that as a woman I would be the one who could sympathize with her,” Ono said. After arriving at the hospital, she was thanked by the mother for staying with her.

According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications’ Fire and Disaster Management Agency, women account for 2.5 percent of all firefighters in Japan. Women make up 8.5 percent of police officers and 5.9 percent of Self-Defense Forces personnel. In Oita’s 488-strong fire department, there are only eight women.

Influenced by her older brother, Ono started karate as an elementary school first-grader. She performed well in national competitions during junior high and high school.

After graduating from Doshisha University in 2015, Ono chose to become a firefighter.

“I wanted to return the favor to the people in my hometown who had helped me with my karate by using the physical strength I have confidence in,” she said.

In the 2016 World Senior Championships, Team Japan, including Ono, came out on top in female team kata, a discipline in which practitioners execute a specified series of moves in total sync.

Selected by the Japan Karatedo Federation as a candidate athlete for the Olympic national team, Ono has set her sights on a gold medal in the 2020 Tokyo Games, in which karate will be one of five new Olympic sports.

She practices every weekday for about three hours and spends weekends competing across Japan and overseas.

“I’m thankful to all my colleagues for their understanding and support,” Ono said when explaining how she balances work and her karate activities.

Her next goal is to pass the driving and operating test for fire trucks.

“I want to perform in the field on par with the men,” she said.

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