I have written previously about Shihan Kousaku Yokota, 8th Dan Shotokan Karate, and his book Shotokan Myths.
Note: For non-Japanese stylists, Shihan means a master level instructor, (above an ordinary Sensei).
This is one master that I particularly hold in very high respect for 2 main reasons. Firstly is that through his book Shotokan Myths, he seeks to give us (mainly in the West) the real truths behind much of the mysticism and mis-information that has built up over the years for social, political and even commercial reasons. The honesty and directness is very refreshing.
Secondly is that he truly understands the difference between Western and Eastern thinking and applies it (rather than expecting others to meld to his way).
I hope I don’t offend anybody here, but most of my previous experience of Japanese Karate masters was that some of them would even pretend that they could not speak English properly when you know full well they can. This was so that they did not have to teach you very much.
When I took my early gradings in the late 70’s early 80’s under the late and charismatic Ray Fuller, we would all come out from his classes thinking “wow, isn’t Karate great” and being really inspired to learn it all. When I moved to Scotland and gradings were conducted by 2 senior Japanese masters, my class mates come out saying “isn’t the wee man great”. I was thinking to myself, yes he is technically brilliant, but I’ve learnt very little. There’s a stark difference.
This is why after several emails between Shihan Kokota and myself, I was blown away when this Japanese 8th Dan suggested that we have a chat on Skype and that I don’t need to be so formal with him.
I don’t think Shihan Yokata will mind me sharing this with you, but in one of his emails to me on the subject of being a master, he said “I am only 64 so I am still too young to hold that title. I will wait till I am 70 or even 80 and see if I feel old enough to be a master”. For a man who’s trained in martial arts for over 50 years, compare that to the many much younger martial artists who readily use the title Grand-Master!
Anyway, on to the interview. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Shihan Yokota’s answers and I hope you do to.
CW: Please tell us how old you were when you first started your martial arts training, how you started and what led you to focusing on Shotokan Karate in particular?
KY: My father was a Kodokan judo practitioner so I wanted to practice judo as soon as I was in junior high school. I joined a club at the local police station where the policemen taught the classes and I was 13 at that time. I was an energetic child so I loved the rigorous training of judo and practiced it very diligently. After a year or two later a new student joined. He was a short and small guy so I threw him easily. He liked to be thrown but he was different. If you are familiar with judo, a person who gets thrown would do ukemi (breaking the fall with slapping an arm on to the floor) and stays down for a short moment. That was what I expected from the new student but he jumped up like a bouncing ball every time I threw him. As he was a small boy and was light it looked very natural. I did not think too much about it. As he was a cheerful fellow I got to like him and we became sort of friends after several months of training. One day after the training, we walked to the bus station together. I asked this boy (maybe he was 16 or 17) why he would jump up after a throw. He surprised me with his answer. He said he is a karate practitioner and he wanted to learn judo to improve his karate. I knew the word of karate and have seen a demonstration or two but I had no idea about karate. I still believed judo was the most lethal method of martial arts so I asked him if he would switch to judo. He said no way as karate was the meanest system of fighting. I could not believe his words. I told him that I could throw him on the hard road and hurt him. He told me that he could disable me before I had a chance to throw him. I thought he could not punch me if I grabbed his arms very quickly. So, the next day, I asked him to show me how he would disable me as I grabbed both of his arms so he could not move them at will. He smiled and without moving his arms he kicked me in groin. I know he only tapped me but I had to let the arms go as I crumbled to the ground for a few seconds. I saw the sparkles in the eyes and I knew he could kill me. He apologized and helped me up. After this event, he stayed with us for a few more months but he went back to his karate training. During that time I asked him to teach me karate but he said he was not an instructor and he could not teach. So, I waited till I get my shodan in judo before I made my switch. I had to do this to show to my father that I was serious in training in judo.
I was 16 when I switched to karate. I did not know that there are many different styles in karate so I did not ask that boy which style he was. I thought karate was only karate. I wanted to dive in karate in full so I decided to train every day. I joined a karate club at a local YMCA (Kobe is my home town) but they practiced only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. So, I went to another YMCA in Osaka (a big city about 50km from Kobe) as they trained on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. One thing I did not know or realize was Kobe YMCA club was Shotokan (JKA) and Osaka club was Gojuryu (with Gogen “Cat” Yamaguchi). I trained at those two clubs for one year before I quit Gojuryu. It is a long story how this happened but I will keep this story to another occasion. I stayed at Kobe YMCA club for 3 years and practiced Shotokan under Kashimoto sensei. Sugano sensei was his teacher and he came to see the training once in a while. I remember this clearly as I was scared of him. When I rejoined his dojo about 15 years later he was not as scary as I thought but for a high school boy Sugano surely had a scary face. Many new students quit but I stayed and I got my shodan when I was 18 (1965).
CW: Sounds like a painful introduction to Karate! What kind of a man was Master Jun Sugano and what was his main strengths in Karate?
KY: He was independently wealthy so he did not need to earn money from Karate which I liked very much. He did not care whether you join his dojo or leave. He liked the traditional hard training and he liked to push you to your limit.
He was a large man for Japanese. He was close to 180cm tall and weighed nearly 100kg. He was strong like a bear. We were all afraid of his punch when he uses you as his opponent in a demonstration.
CW: Later you trained with Master Tetsuhiko Asai, 10th Dan and founder of the JKS. What made you change over to training with him? What kind of a man was he and what unique things did he bring into his Karate teaching?
KY: When I hit the age of 50 and Godan in JKA, I felt I reached a plateau. I felt I could not learn anything new to develop my karate and I was very discouraged with my karate. This is when I was reconnected with Asai sensei. He came to California for a seminar. Of course, I have known him from 80’s and have seen his demonstrations at All Japan National Championship in Tokyo when I participated in 1981 and 1982. I knew his karate was great and different. I saw my answer in his karate. He was in his late 60’s and he was flexible and his moves were sharp and dynamic. I said to myself this is the way I want to look in my 60’s and 70’s. I decided to follow his path in 2003 when I resigned from ISKF (JKA then).
You must experience his karate to fully appreciate Asai ryu karate. The movements are freer or less restrictive. There are more complex foot work with a lot of spins and rotations in many different ways and directions. Many combat effective techniques such as finger thrust, enpi, teisho, etc. are used and practiced. Your body is required to be flexible and that is not limited to the hip joints but all joints including back bones. The flexibility of the muscles is critical so that your moves will be fluid like a cat or a tiger. The body movements follow the nature of water (fluidity) and they are performed with the strong foundation of the legs. This is why we include the exercises like one leg squats and other squatting involved workouts. Your body needs to be like a whip when your arm and leg techniques are executed. There are too many unique things and I cannot list all of them here.
CW: He sounds a very interesting man. I understand that Master Asai also trained in White Crane Kung Fu, which had quite an influence on his Karate (which you describe above). When Funakoshi first introduced Karate to Japan, he tried to hide some of the Chinese influences on the art. How was Master’s Asai’s Chinese influences accepted by the Japanese Karate community? And how did the Twainese accept Master Asai teaching Karate in their country when they have so many of their own martial arts?
KY: This is an excellent question and I can write a book on this. Let me explain something about your statement, “When Funakoshi first introduced Karate to Japan, he tried to hide some of the Chinese influences on the art.” There were two major reasons for his action. One is he wanted to brand Karate as an Okinawa grown martial art which is true despite there was an influence from the Chinese martial arts. The second reason was the period when he introduced karate to Japan. The first public demonstration Funakoshi did in Tokyo was 1922 and that was exactly when Japan was in a war against China. It was wise for him to de-emphasize anything that may be related to China and Chinese culture.
Back to your question about Asai sensei’s karate, unfortunately, he was regarded as unique to be nice or an odd ball by some of the JKA instructors. I do not think his ability (Nakayama claimed he was the best karate-ka JKA has ever produced) was not truly appreciated or received the credit it deserved. After passing of Nakayama in 1987, Master Asai tried to change the syllabus of JKA and that caused so much up roar the organization split in 1990.
Regarding the second part of your question, how did Taiwanese accepted his karate, I cannot tell you too much as my exposure to the Taiwanese on this matter is limited. I have spoken to Mrs. Asai who was a Taiwanese origin and I also have met a few JKS members from Taiwan. They all told me that Asai karate is different from JKA and also kung fu (white crane style). I support this idea and it is true that JKS had the affiliates not only in Taiwan but also in Hong Kong and some other Chinese cities. If Asai karate is not good enough or too similar to the kung fu style then his karate would have not received this much of support by the Chinese people.
CW: What other martial arts besides Shotokan Karate have you studied along the way and how have they affected your development as a martial artist?
KY: I already mentioned that I took Judo for 3 years. With karate, I took one year of Goju ryu when I initially started karate training. The period was so short so fortunately or unfortunately, I do not have any effective influence from this experience.
In 1981, I also took Kyokushinkai training for one year. I wanted to learn the full contact karate to expand my kumite experience and ability. It definitely had some positive influence and learned several very important facts about kumite. I can write a book on this too but I will stop with only one comment. I suggest all the Shotokan practitioners who are into competitions or tournaments to experience full contact karate. Then they realize that the sports karate kumite is not a martial art activity.
I also took a Ki training for over two years at Nishino dojo in Tokyo (1998 and 1999). Even though I do not feel that my ki became stronger I can tell that ki exercise made my body more flexible and elastic.
CW: What about weapons? Which weapons have you studied and how relevant are traditional weapons to the modern Karateka?
KY: I practiced kobudo including nunchaku, tonfa, sai, three sectional stick and 9 chain whip. I find nunchaku and chain whip are the best supplement to karate training especially in developing the circular motions with your arms. The weapons are the extension of your body so it is good for all the advanced practitioners to select at least one weapon and include that to the regular training.
CW: Karate has many elements to it. Do you have any particular favorite element? If so, what is it and why?
KY: There are five major elements in karate;
1. Stretch and exercise
They are like five fingers in your hand. They have different functions but yet all of them are necessary to do the coordinated work of karate. I like them all in their own ways. What I love is the art of karate as a whole.
CW: In your younger days you had a very successful competition career, could you tell us a little about that please?
KY: I have had some years of tournament days when I was younger but I cannot say it was a very successful competition career. Maybe my highlight is the participation of All Japan Championship (JKA) in 1981 and 1982. I was lucky to be a state champion of Hyogo prefecture in those years. I was also a representative of Hyogo prefecture in National Athletic Tournament (Japan’s local Olympic game) called Okutai (short for Kokumin Taiku Taikai) in 1981 which was the WUKO event when JKA joined as one of the karate organizations for the first time. One funny story I can tell you is a little story when I checked the roster of the karate participants in Okutai. It listed all the participants from 47 prefectures of Japan and it showed the styles (Shotokan, Gojuryu, Shitoryu and Wadoryu), dan rank and age. I was 35 years old then and I knew I was one of the most senior participants as most of them are in their 20s and a few were even in their high teens. I was going from one page to another not finding anyone in their 30’s. I finally came across a guy who was either 33 or 34. So I said to myself “Yes there is another senior guy who is willing to mingle with those young guns.” I wanted to find out if he was in kumite or in kata. I flipped the pages to find him but he was not in the competitors list. So I thought “Maybe he is one of those back up guys.” But when I got to the last page where they showed the names of the coaches he was there. So I realized that I was older than this coach and I was the oldest competitor in that big event. I retired after this tournament.
CW: I have read a number of interviews and articles on how most Karate in Japan has become almost obsessed with competition results as a way of measuring a clubs success. Do you feel that this is a fair criticism?
KY: I am afraid the competitions and tournaments are very popular and play a very important role in many dojo and organizations. It is true that a karate magazine may use the competition results to measure a club’s success especially among high school and university clubs. However, many instructors know the difference between the tournament karate and martial arts karate. They do not use the competition results to measure the level of a regular dojo. At least that is what I see with the instructors in my home town, Kobe.
CW: That’s good. We’ve also previously discussed how the levels of violent crime in Japan are so low that even in Tokyo young ladies feel quite safe walking home alone late at night (something that would be considered madness in many Western cities). As such most Japanese people do not see any real need for self defense. Although this is a fantastic achievement for the Japanese people, which many in the West would like to emulate, how has it affected the Japanese perspective on making (or keeping) their martial arts practical and functional?
KY: It is true that Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. So, the people do not pick up karate or any martial art for a self-defense purpose. They choose to practice one of them for other purposes or objectives. I believe the lack of this need for self-defense was one of the reasons why bunkai was not seriously studied in Japan. I am also afraid that Samurai spirit is almost extinct in Japan.
CW: That’s quite sad to hear you say that. During World War II the rest of the world could not help but admire and respect the fierce fighting spirit and sacrifice of the Japanese servicemen. Japan has also been very influential in spreading so many fine martial arts to the rest of the world. I was therefore quite surprised the first time you told me how you feel about the Japanese fighting spirit today. Would you please elaborate on those views for the readers?
KY: When Japan lost in WWII, it was our first total defeat in any international wars. It is sad to admit but it is true that the Japanese lost both the patriotism and samurai spirit. The entire nation went to commercialism and the core value has changed dramatically from honor to money. Some good part of the old culture did survive, however. In Japan, we see more respect to the others as well as the rules and the laws. For instance, at a red traffic light a pedestrian would stop and wait until it turns to green even if it is 2am and there is no traffic in the street. This is why it is very safe not only in the small towns but also in any of the big cities in Japan. However, the general population lost some important values such as honor and principle. Along with it, we lost the fighting spirit to uphold those values. The occupation army (mostly the US military) after the WWII did a good job as they planned to change the social structure and education in Japan so that it can never be a threat to the US or other allied countries. It was a cunning strategy but the Japanese must not blame the US for its policy as they did the similar treatment to Germany but the Germans recognized the consequences if they followed blindly. The Japanese were too naive as they had never lost in a major war and the leaders were not prepared for this kind of policy and to bring the Japanese population back to the old culture with honor and self-respect.
CW: That’s a shame. You have also told me how you have found many of the bunkai explanations given to various kata movements in mainstream Shotokan to be quite unrealistic. We discussed in particular the double Uchi Uke “blocks” near the beginning of Bassai Dai which is simply not realistic when used literally as 2 blocks and could only conceivably work with a compliant attacker. When did you first start to doubt the explanations that you were being given for these bunkai and how do you think they came about?
KY: My sensei, Master Sugano, told us at one of the casual meetings we had after training that we should not be fooled with the names of the techniques that are used in kata. He also told us that kata do not always start and end with a block as it is publicly announced by many organizations including JKA. He told us that most of those techniques are attacking techniques. He further explained that there is no one application or bunkai to any of the techniques. He said the fighting situation has millions of variations thus a technique must be any solution that works in a particular situation. He told us that our mind must not be ridged but fluid and open so we can be prepared for any situations.
First of all, bunkai is not popular or common in Japanese dojo. The main reason is, believe it or not, JKA headquarters at its foundation chose to drop bunkai from its main syllabus so that the sufficient knowledge was not handed down from Funakoshi. At JKA headquarters in 50’s and 60’s, a standard training menu was only kihon, kumite and kata. Any of the bunkai training was almost completely ignored. Along with bunaki, another major component, kobudo, was dropped from the menu. Now I am talking about the general trend. There were a few instructors and dojo like Master Asai and Master Sugano who considered bunkai and kobudo as the important aspects of karate and believed they must be studied along with other elements.
CW: It seems then that you were very fortunate in your teachers. How did you go about finding more realistic applications for yourself?
KY: Sugano sensei used to tell us, “Do not get stuck on one application. The actual applications are limitless. The techniques must be free and natural”. I could not quite understand what he meant when I heard it more than 30 years ago but now I am beginning to understand it. As you practice all the different techniques in many kata and if you keep your mind free, the applications can be “felt”. One technique can be very neutral so to speak. In other words, I can feel that a technique can be a block but at the same time it can be a strike. A good example is the very first move of Bassai Dai. In the end, any applications can be correct if it serves the purpose of the situation. So, I do not look for, or I’d better say I do not need to look for more “realistic” applications any more.
CW: A number of Westerners have made big names for themselves in the field of applied Karate and practical bunkai geared for street self defense. How do you feel about their work and do you feel that they are on the right track or not?
KY: I believe there was a huge contribution by those practitioners and exposing there are other applications and bunkai. They tried to bring karate back to an art of self-defense so I give a credit for that. However, one thing we must not forget is that the number of applications is limitless and any of them are “correct” so it is almost impossible to list all of them. What you as a martial art karate practitioner must do is to learn the concept and the principle then apply them according to the situations that can be limitless. It is almost like Mathematics. There are limitless numbers and what we need to learn is the concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, etc. We all know that we cannot remember all the combinations of numbers which is unlimited. What is interesting with karate is it is somewhat different from Mathematics. In Mathematics 1 plus 1 is always 2, in karate it can be different numbers such as zero or three, for example, and those answers are all correct if they meet the principle of karate.
CW: Point taken. For many people, Karate is mainly about self defense. To others it is more about self developments. What are your feelings on this? Do you feel that either aspect takes precedence over the other, or are they both equally important?
KY: Those two aspects of karate must compliment each other thus they are equally important. I am afraid many practitioners put emphasis only on the physical part (self-defense or tournament) of karate. In fact, karate is the most primitive and less effective weapon when compared to a stick, a knife or a gun. How good is karate if it only creates a karate expert who has no respect and honor? What would be the difference between that to a gang who has a knife or a gun?
CW: Having been based in America for many years and teaching all around the world, how would you describe the attitude to training and the fighting spirit in the West?
KY: I found the practitioners in the countries I have visited (not only Europe but also in Latin America) have an excellent attitude in general. I cannot say which country has better or worse attitude because I found very serious and less serious practitioners in all countries.
CW: That’s good. You are also noted for the work you’ve done in uncovering myths within Karate (particularly Shotokan). In a culture noted for not questioning the official line, did this get you into trouble in younger days, or did you develop strategies for getting to the truth without rocking the boat too much?
(Note: I remember you saying that you sometimes had to wait until your master had taken a few drinks)!!
KY: In my younger days I did not ask questions as I followed our culture. The questions and doubts blew in me and I always investigated on my own mainly through the publications in Japanese. When I got older I had more chances to ask questions to Master Sugano and Asai. Yes, it was much easier to ask the questions in a non-training environment in a restaurant or a bar. I held my opinions and thoughts to the masters as I did not want to offend them or their organizations. I came out of the hiding only 3 years ago after the passing of both masters.
CW: I’m sure that many of us are very grateful that you have finally come out of hiding. You have also expressed concern with me previously that Karate “will end up in a museum some day”. Would you elaborate please and explain these concerns?
KY: Let’s look at the other martial arts that have become museum pieces. One is kyudo (Japanese archery). They judge the practitioner’s skill by their posture and the body movement only. It does not matter if their arows hit a target’s center or miss it by many meters. The original archery’s biggest purpose was, needless to say, to hit an opponent with an arrow. Now kyudo forgot the original (and true) purpose of shooting an arrow. Therefore, it cannot be classified as a budo (martial art) any longer. If an art loses the true purpose as a martial art then I consider it a museum piece. I definitely consider kendo and judo are definitely in that category. I am afraid jujitsu and iai-do are on the verge of joining the museum classification. Karate with the increase of sport karate is showing the same trend. Even if some of us would try to keep the martial art aspect of karate alive, we will no longer be the mainstream and our style of karate may be classified as a forgotten karate or a museum piece.
CW: I see what you mean. What are you personally trying to do to stop this from happening? Was this one of the main reasons why you wrote your recently released book, “Shotokan Myths”?
KY: You are correct. The main reason to publish my book was to expose and shed more light to the martial art aspect of Shotokan karate. The book was translated in German now and a company in Germany will publish it in the near future. I plan to have it translated in Spanish also. In addition, I plan to write more articles around the same theme and publish them in various magazines and publications. This interview is also contributing to my effort and I am thankful for the opportunity to express my thoughts and beliefs.
KY: I also accept invitations from any organizations or styles for a seminar so that I can share the concepts and training style that are related to the martial art aspect of karate-do. I have been testing my training menu all around the world and hoping that the participants would find the unique value of Asai ryu karate. So far I feel I have been very successful and the feedback has been very positive.
CW: I’m very glad to hear that. Can you give us a couple of simple examples of some of the myths you expose?
KY: Here are a few:
· Kata do not necessarily start and end with a blocking technique as it is commonly believed.
· There was no ki-ai routine (at least audible ones) in any of the original Okinawan kata before 20th century
· In the original kata you were not required to return to the exact spot where you start your kata
· Many techniques in kata are named with blocking techniques such as shuto uke, uchi uke, age uke, etc but the true applications are “hidden” behind those names and they are most likely attacking techniques.
CW: Interesting! Who is this book primarily aimed at and how exactly do you think it will help them?
KY: This book is primarily aimed for the advanced (dan belts) students who have been practicing karate for at least several years. However, the information in it is useful for the intermediate as well as the instructors as the subjects are very general and well known among all the Shotokan dojo.
CW: Many styles have been spawned or influenced by Shotokan. Therefore, although your book is called “Shotokan Myths”, do you think that it is relevant to people of other styles as well?
KY: I used Shotokan in the title because that is the only style I am familiar with. But this does not mean the subjects I covered are limited to Shotokan. Many subjects such as ki-ai, coming back to the same spot in kata, etc are common subjects as they stem from the same karate history regardless of the styles. I am sure Shito ryu, Goju ryu and Wado ryu practitioners can relate to the topics and learn something from this book.
CW: How well is the book doing and what kind of feedback are you getting from your readers?
KY: I only have the record of how many books were sold during the first 3 or 4 months, but we sold at least 2-3 hundred copies so I am very happy for the very positive reception of the book at the initial stage. It has been only 6 to 7 months since the initial publication so I will know how more on how well it will do as more time goes on.
The feedback I have received so far has been very positive. They agreed with my opinions and showed appreciation to bring the subjects out in public. Many have said they wondered about those points but they did not bring them out in the open as they assumed those points are not to be discussed or what they heard was the fact and not to be challenged.
CW: I’m glad to hear that it’s doing well. It should really pick up when the German and Spanish translations are completed. Have any of your Japanese peers objected to you writing this book and revealing what they would not?
KY: I knew they would object and advise me not to do this so I did not contact any of the Japanese peers about this project. I am also hoping that they do not read the books in English so they will never find out.
CW: Well we in the West are very glad that you have. What do you think the average Karateka can do to keep his/her training relevant for today’s world and to stop Shotokan from ending up “in the museum some day?
KY: Karate has many venues such as self defense, sports, health, discipline, confidence building, etc. All purposes are fine and we must not judge one purpose is better or worse than the other ones. The tournament karate seems to be becoming the main stream and majority in many countries. I wish to see more practitioners for the martial art karate and balance the scale. I wish to see the preservation of the original karate techniques by more practitioners.
CW: Understood and I hope that through your book and interviews like this, you are able to persuade more Karateka to do so. What are your future plans? Will you be writing any more books? Will you be travelling and teaching very much?
KY: I have many ideas about the next book. The only problem I have is time or lack of it. I cannot promise how soon the next one will be out or on what subject but it will be out as soon as I complete the content.
As far as the seminars are concerned, I am booked solid this year and have received many invitations for the next year. If the readers are interested in my seminars, the details can be found on the website of WJKA (www.wjka.org). All my seminars are open course, so, everyone is welcome. It does not matter from which organizations and styles you are from (as long as you pay the fees).
CW: Shihan Yokota, on behalf of myself and my readers, I would like to thank you for a very interesting and informative interview. It’s been an honour.
As mentioned by Shihan Yokota, he is interested writing more books. As such he is very interested in receiving feedback to answers above and about his first book if you’ve read it. Please leave your comments below. In particular if you would like to know more about any of the subjects that Shihan has touched on, then please tell him.