Yokota Kousaku Shihan is now a 8th dan black belt, who was the student of sensei Sugano personal assistant to Master Okazaki, Instructor at the ISKF Headquarters, student of Master Tetsuhiko Asai. With more than 50 years of experience in martial arts. We, at Budokarate.ru got a chance to get an interview with Shihan about his Way of Karate, his views on modern shotokan and many more…
Greetings sensei! Its an honor for me to speak with you, and I want to thank you for this opportunity. I guess that our readers will be interested to know when did you started to train karate, and why?
I started my training in Karate in 1962 when I was 15 years old. Why I started karate involves a story which I must explain.
My first experience in martial arts was with Judo. My father was a black belt from Kodokan (the headquarters of Judo in Tokyo). I think he got his sandan while he was attending his university in Tokyo. When I graduated from the elementary school and was getting into a junior high school, I told my father that I was interested in martial arts. In fact I wanted to do Kendo or Kenjutsu but my father said I should pick up Judo so I did. The police station of our ward had a Judo program for the children. One policeman was our sensei. He was big and strong. He impressed us so much we were convinced that the Judo was the best martial art.
After two years of training, one small young man (maybe he was an university student) joined the club. As he was totally new I could throw him easily. He was polite and very enthused. One thing I noticed about him was he would jump up right away after he was being thrown down. He was like a toy that was designed to hop up. When we are thrown, we normally rolled over into all fours (hands and knees on the floor) before we stood up again. However, he jumped up from the supine position (lying on his back) without rolling or using his hands.
We all thought he was strange but did not ask him why, until he told us that he was leaving the dojo after about one year. So, after the last training I walked with him to the nearby station where he took a train to go home. During our walk, I asked him why he decided to quit after only one year. He said that he was really a Karate practitioner and wanted to learn Judo’s throwing techniques as well as the floor work (holding and pinning techniques). So I asked why he would quit as Judo was more devastating martial art than Karate. At that time, I had very little knowledge about Karate. Besides, we saw a movie called Sugata Sanshiro in which a Judo guy wins in a match with a Karate guy. So, we believed Judo was much better as a martial art.
Surprisingly, he told me that he would tell me the truth as he was leaving the dojo. He said he respected Judo and learned a lot from Judo, but he definitely believed Karate was more effective in a hand to hand combat. I strongly objected and told him that I threw him many times and he could not do anything to me. He told me that was because he did not use his Karate techniques. At that time, I truly believed that I could grab and throw him before he could do anything. So, without a warning I grabbed (or tried to grab) his jacket to throw him. At that moment, to my great surprise I found myself knocked down on my back and staring at the guy who was standing over me with a shocked face. I did not know what had happened. I felt something hit me very sharp on my belly. The guy quickly apologized and helped me stand up. Apparently he kicked me in the belly and knocked me down. As the distance was so short and I was not expecting anything like this so I did not see his leg to move. It was like a magic.
He told me that he did not kick me too hard, only enough to knock me down. In fact, he said he was surprised that I fell as his intention was not to knock down but only to push me away from him with a kick. He told me that he could have kicked harder to break a few of the ribs and to finish me with a punch to the face after the kick. He totally convinced me with this demonstration that Karate can be more effective in a hand to hand combat. I really wanted to learn Karate but I had to stay with Judo and wait one more year until I graduated from the junior high school.
Who was your teachers? How long did you train with each one of them, and what influence each of them had on your technique and vision about karate?
I consider that I have three teachers.
The first sensei is Sugano sensei, my first sensei who was the co-chairman of Japan Karate Association, 9th dan in Kobe Japan. I trained under him for 26 or 27 years. He was a big and strong karateka. I learned how to generate power by watching him. He was also brutal in his training. He used to open the windows in the winter time even when it was snowing outside. Then, in the summer time he shut the windows and turned off the fans. The floor became very wet with our sweat thus very slippery. He told us to go faster and we used to fall down especially we had to do the kicks. It was so hot in the room we felt like we were training in a sauna or steam room. We felt like passing out many times. By the way we trained we learned not only how to keep the balance but also to be tough and enduring. He passed away in 2001.
The second teacher was Teruyuki Okazaki, ex-chairman of ISKF, 10th dan. I was one of the assistant instructors at the headquarters in Philadelphia. I trained under him for about nine years until I returned to my home in Kobe in 1981. Okazaki sensei was an excellent karateka and his basics were almost perfect. He was known for his beautiful yoko geri so we all tried to imitate that kick.
When I was training at the Philadelphia dojo, I remember that our kumite was very severe and contacts were allowed. Seeing a bleeding nose was almost a daily event. The students did not quit even after this brutal kumite training. This was in the 70s when Bruce Lee became very famous. We had a waiting list of more than 100 at this dojo. Many of the students wanted to be like Lee, I think and did not want to quit.
My last sensei is Tetsuhiko Asai, the technical director of JKA in the 80s and the founder of JKS, 10th dan. I trained under him only five years since he passed away in 2006. However, he had the biggest impact on my karate and I am still following his way of karate. I call it Asai ryu. After he became one of the instructors in JKA, he was dispatched to Taiwan to teach karate there. During his stay he picked up White Crane kung fu. His karate was definitely different as his move was more circular and fluid. He also created more than 100 kata as he felt the standard 26 JKA kata was not enough. He was flexible and agile even when he was in his 60s so he became my model who I wish to follow and imitate. I plan to train till the day of my last living day and to promote Asai ryu karate around the world.
Kata is probably the most arguable exercise in karate. Some say that kata is anachronism, others that kata is most important part of karate, but had a hard time explaining why… Can you explain why the kata is so important? Is it not possible to learn how to fight without kata?
OK there are two questions.
- a) Why the kata is so important? B) Is it not possible to learn how to fight without kata?
Let me tackle with the first question. This is a very heavy question and it requires complex answer. Therefore, I have written an essay about this subject, and placed it in my 3rd Shotokan series book, Shotokan Transcendence. As it was a 19 page essay I will not repeat the whole concept here. I will share only the conclusion, that is, we need to train kata to achieve the maximum result in open hand combat. If you are interested in finding the reasons why, please read Chapter 5 under the title of “The reasons why we must preserve our kata”.
The second question is also answered in my essay. The conclusion is yes you can learn how to fight without kata but only to the street fighter level. If you wish to go beyond, you need to train in kata. You will find the details in the same chapter.
Is there some predetermined bunkai in modern kata, or that’s a field for personal research for each karateka?
First of all, we must know that the possibility of bunkai is infinite. In other words, it can change depending on the circumstances of all variables in the fight. There are some standard or popular bunkai for each kata, but we must not be trapped in them. They are only one example of many or infinite possibilities. As you cannot study or train the infinite number of bunkai situation, one needs to train more to understand the other possibilities. The level of bunkai understanding will also change as one improves his karate skill. Once you achieve the total understanding of kata after repeating it thousands of times, he will be able to use the techniques in kata in any possibilities regardless of the situations and the circumstances. It sounds contradictory but we must practice kata without thinking of bunkai so that we can achieve the skill level that allows all bunkai.
What was the reason for Asai sensei of creating so many kata?
There are two schools on the number of kata one should learn.
One is to learn and train a few kata intensively. The famous advocate of this school is Motobu Choki (1870-1944), an Okinawan master who competed with Funakoshi in teaching budo karate in Tokyo. He believed in practicing only a few kata, he was popularly claimed that the only kata he had practiced was Naihanchi (Tekki in Shotokan), even though it is documented that he knew other kata. He believed that by mastering a few fundamental kata like Tekki, one can attain all the techniques one needs in a fight.
The other school is to learn and train as many kata as possible. Definitely Master Asai was for this belief. His thinking was the techniques found in the 26 JKA kata are not sufficient. As we all know that Funakoshi changed the stances in many kata. The most critical one is neko ashi dachi in all Heian and some advanced kata. As Master Asai considered neko ashi dachi is critically important he adopted many kata with this stance. He also found the tenshin (body rotation) moves in those 26 kata are not sufficient. In the JKA kata, only a few reverse body rotations are found such as Gankaku and Ji-in. In addition, he felt more open hand and the elbow techniques should be practiced. So, what he did was to make a kata with a certain emphasis of one or two types of techniques. For an example, Rakuyo is a kata with various types of enpi (elbow) techniques, Seiryu is a kata of whip arm techniques, and Kyakusen is a kata with many different kicks including ushiro geri and whip kicks. He feared that by practicing only a few kata, your training will be limited to them. By practicing many different kata one can learn and practice wider variety of techniques and combinations. I agree with him so I added 30 or so more Asai kata in addition to the JKA kata in my kata raptor.
You are running organisation called “ASAI”. Can you tell more about it?
I am very happy to do so. First ASAI stands for Asai Shotokan Association International. I chose this name because we want to promote budo karate and to remember the name of Master Asai who changed my karate. I was a member of JKS, the organization Master Asai created in the year of 2000. I was a member of JKA for 40 years (1962 to 2002) and I did not want to resign but I had no choice. In order to follow Master Asai’s karate I joined JKS in 2002. I stayed there even after his passing but resigned in 2009 as I felt that JKS was not paying sufficient effort to follow Asai style and feared that his name will be forgotten. After leaving JKS I felt I needed to establish my own organization to accomplish my objective, so I started ASAI five years ago. Our objective is to promote budo karate and also to add the Asai ryu karate to standard Shotokan karate.
What is unique about ASAI is that we focus on budo karate. This means we do not agree with the current trend of karate becoming more and more sport that is promoted by World Karate Federation (WKF). We believe in shobu ippon kumite so ASAI has its own tournament rules which is very similar to the rules JKA used to have. We fear that the watered down karate often found in the WKF tournaments will ruin the true essence of karate and karatedo. This is a sensitive subject so I have a lot to say but I will refrain myself from doing so in this interview. I expressed my opinion and the reasons in another book of mine, Karatedo Paradigm Shift Chapter 14, “Want to win vs do not want to lose”. In this chapter I described what will happen to karate after karate begins its history in the Olympics.
We are also totally non-political, because we consider the segregating politics that are common among the organizations is the cancer of karate. The best way to improve our karate as a whole is to keep the doors open and we exchange our knowledge between the practitioners.
The biggest benefit this organization provides to its members is the direct access to Chief Instructor (me) and also to our Shihankai board. We have a board of 7 senior (6 dan and above) instructors around the world (2 in the US, 2 in EU, 1 each in Japan, Middle East and S. America). With these members combined, you are talking about more than 300 years of karate experience. If any of the members have any technical questions they can ask me and I will get back to them directly with the answers. If I am not sure or unfamiliar with the questions, I contact the Shihankai board to access their knowledge. I know quite a few Japanese karate organizations but none of them provide such a service.
Another unique benefit for the ASAI members is the Online Dojo training and online dan examination. This is something very new and unknown, a lot of people are skeptical and negative. I wrote another essay on this subject and you will find it in Chapter 8: “Is internet dan examination valid?” of Karatedo Paradigm Shift. I have explained about Online Dojo training as well as the online dan examination matters in this chapter.
Don’t you think there is too much sport in modern karate? Everything most people do is for sake of sport. Many techniques never used in competition, and almost forgotten, such as mikazuki geri, shuto, haito, elbows, knees etc…
I agree with you 100%. We believe in budo karate. In our kumite we are not practicing to get a point but rather to achieve a killing technique. I have already stated my position with karate being included in the Olympics. I know we will be a minor group but we will continue to preserve the true essence of budo karate that was brought from Okinawa.
Is it good idea to use researches of modern sport science in shotokan or knowledges developed by karate masters in the past century is enough?
This is an excellent question. I feel we can always learn something new from different studies. Therefore, I am for using the researches of modern sport science and kinesiology. At the same time, I must warn that many people blindly believe in the modern day science. We must realize it is only one way of understanding the universe including our body. We must not believe that science is always correct and has no limitation. As I stated earlier science is only one way and it can be helpful in understanding some things.
At the same time, we must not be little the teachings and understanding of the ancient masters only because they are old or came from the last century. The genuine truth remains as the truth no matter how old it may be. In many cases, we do not make enough effort to evaluate and discover the true meaning of their teaching. We must spend as much if not more in the study of the old teaching by those ancient masters.
JKA masters of 50-60 changed shotokan karate drastically. How do you think karate should develop in the future? Maybe there is already some trends regarding this questions?
Yes, it is true that JKA changed Shotokan karate, especially with their kata in the 50s. This is because Nakayama sensei wanted to organize the first All Japan Karate Championship (which came to reality in 1957). Nakayama sensei also inherited the hard and long stance karate from Gigo, the son of Master Funakoshi.
Consequently, some moves in the current kata do not make sense or cannot explain with a doable bunkai. The best example of this problem is the last three hops of Chinte. They added these three hops backward so that the kata performers can return to the starting point. I do not agree with the changes to the kata as they can change the meaning of the techniques as well as the purpose of the kata. I also do not agree with sanbon shobu (3 points matches). Karate is based on one punch sure kill concept. The objective of kumite match became just getting a point these days.
Funakoshi sensei was against the idea of making championship with karate. He passed away in 1957 so JKA could start its annual tournament in that year. I am sure he was against the idea for the same reason I am very much concerned.
Unfortunately, the same thing is, indeed, happening right now. Because the Olympic commission accepted Karate to be one of the events in the 2020 games, JKF (the Japanese branch of WKF) is changing the kata and kumite. There are many changes and I will not list them here but these changes are not good for karate. They are doing this to please the Olympic committees who are interested only in the commercial side of the event. If you look at what had happened to Tae Kwon do, you can easily guess what will happen to Karate if it becomes the regular event.
Do you practice some other styles of martial arts?
When I started Karate more than fifty years ago, I practiced Goju ryu karate for one year. I also practiced Kyokushinkai (full contact karate) for one year in the early 80s to get an experience of full contact kumite.
I also have picked up Kobudo in the 70’s. I have practiced Nunchaku, Sai, Tonfa, Sansetsu kon (3 section staff), Kyusetsu bin (9 chain whip) and Nanasetsu bin (7 chain whip). I think working with these weapons help understand the movements of our body. Shotokan, unfortunately, dropped Kobudo as the main syllabus. I recommend all the karate practitioners to pick up at least one weapon of their choice to their regular training.
At the end what can you tell to all who loves shotokan, and who cares about its future.
Thank you for asking this. I am very happy to have this opportunity to express my strong belief and desire with the readers who love Shotokan karate.
First of all, if you love Shotokan karate I must ask you to stay non-political and keep you mind open. The politics or narrow mind should not stop you from associating with the practitioners and instructors from other organizations or styles. We must keep our mind flexible so we can learn something new from everyone.
I love Shotokan but I do not claim Shotokan is the best karate style. Frankly, there is no such a thing as “the best style”. We have only the karateka or instructors who are either bad, good, better or best in their style regardless of the styles. Shotokan practitioners can learn from other styles and other martial arts such as Judo, Kendo, Kenjutsu, Jujutsu, etc. Let us keep our mind open and be willing to learn all the time.
Secondly, I hope all the readers will continue to train (mentally and physically) in the art of karate. Karatedo means the way of life which means practicing Karate not only in the dojo but also in our daily life. I am 70 years old now, but I spend 3 to 4 hours to train my body every morning. This is essential to improve and to keep the water hot as Funakoshi sensei told us in his 20 precepts.
I look forward to having an opportunity to meet you and train together one day in the future. Oss