Shihan Yokota: Debunking Shotokan Karate Myths
Shihan Koss Yokota is a 8th Dan Shotokan master who started his martial arts journey in the Hyogo Prefecture, more than 49 years ago. In 1981 and 1982, he was crowned champion of the Hyogo prefecture which he represented at the JKA All National Championship in Tokyo.
He currently serves as the technical director of the World JKA Karate Alliance (WJKA) and has recently published a book named “Shotokan Myths“, in which he exposes myth and misconceptions many western Karate practitioners have.
What motivated you to write a book about Shotokan myths?
I have been practicing Shotokan karate for 49 years. Along the way I have come across with the questions and doubts in the way we practice but I was a blind follower until very recent. I always kept myself under radar so to speak and did not express my opinions. When two of my teachers passed away (Master Sugano and Master Asai, 2002 and 2006 respectively), I decided to come out. I am aware that it is a taboo for a Japanese instructor to speak up and criticize his own organization or his teachers. When I hit the age of 60 I figured someone has to do this dirty work for the sake of Shotokan karate. There are many incorrect and wrong teachings and training methods. Some are kept behind the curtain of mystery. Some are simply believed so blindly they became the “fact” or “truth”. I wanted to tear down this curtain and show what real Shotokan karate is. We must not follow teachers blindly. We must think and continuously ask questions.
|Master Jun Sugano (1928-2002)9th dan JKA,
Vice Chairman of JKA
|Master Tetsuhiko Asai (1935-2006)10th dan JKS,
Founder of JKS and Asai style karate
Where do these Shotokan myth come from? Who first propagated them?
The word “Myths” came to me because I have trained in many dojos in Japan, US and some other countries and found that some wrong ideas were believed by almost all the practitioners. It bothered me as no one seemed to doubt or question them, let alone challenge them. I also realized there is a cloud of mysticism around the Asian culture particularly of the martial arts. Some Asian instructors hide behind that mysticism curtain as it makes them look good or give them more value.
I felt it was about time that some one to step out and blow away the cloud so we can really understand what Shotokan karate is. Without this process we cannot expect Shotokan to truly improve or advance. With the current trend, it will end up in a museum not too far in the future as the people begin to realize the mysticism does not work in a real fighting.
What is your definition or idea of what “real Shotokan” is (or should be)?
An excellent question! Some people define it to the original JKA lead by Master Nakakama. I go even further back to Funakoshi and his roots. I want to find how the original karate was when he brought it to Japan. During the years of propagation of karate in Japan, Funakoshi had to compromise many things. For instance he had to de-emphasize the throwing and join locking techniques from bunkai as he did not want to compete against Judo and Jujitsu. He also emphasized “gentleman’s way” by tagging the art to “self defense”. I do not mind he changed the names of kata and adopted judo uniform, etc. But I want to search for the original techniques that are more martial art and not the techniques that are modified for sports karate.
Why didn’t you simply debunk the myths and create a new style with it?
Some people may do that but that is exactly what I want to avoid. Putting a different wrapping on the box will not make the thing inside the box different. My last teacher was Asai sensei. He introduced a lot of techniques from White Crane kung fu into his karate but he did not call it Asai karate. He continuously called Shotokan karate. He is my model and I teach his style of Shotokan karate.
By introducing white crane techniques, doesn’t Asai sensei make his Shotokan teaching less authentic?
You are correct that Asai sensei introduced some kung fu techniques. I call it “extended” shotokan karate because it is still based on Shotokan karate. Indeed it has some techniques and kata that are not found among the regular shotokan organizations like JKA. So, we keep authentic shotokan as a core and we have some extended or additional techniques to supplement the areas where we think Shotokan lacks, namely close distance fighting.
Unless you are the creator of the kata, how can you be certain that the bunkai or meaning of the kata is the correct one, or the one that the creator meant to propagate?
That is very true. Most of the explanation to bunkai before 20th century was handed down from a master to the students verbally. This is why there are many different interpretations and many were lost. We assume Funakoshi sensei learned all the bunkai to the kata from the two sensei he had; Itosu and Azato. In order for us to believe Funakoshi sensei’s bunkai was correct, we have to assume the bunkai Itosu and Azato were correct. There is no way we can prove those assumptions are correct.
I know many parts of bunkai were lost through the handing down process over many generations. Even though we will never know the true intentions of the creators, it is still our responsibility to research and investigate to find the “true” bunkai. Doing a kata without knowing bunkai I call it karate dance. Some of the instructors chose to drop off all kata practice from this fact. However, I believe there is enough value left in practicing kata. It would be a totally different topic to discuss on the value of kata.
Have you trained in Japanese Dojo? What were the differences in the understanding and beliefs about karate.
I was a member of JKA dojo in Kobe between 1963 and 66, then 1970 and 1971, and 1981 till 1983. The Japanese students are very serious and well disciplined. They are also very diligent and never give up. They do not cut corners and follow to a letter of what the instructors ask them to do. On the other hand, I must say that I found most of them lack the sense of curiosity or mind of investigation. They follow the orders but never dare to ask ”why?” or “is this true?” I do not think it is because they are incapable of doing so but they are discouraged to think that way. I hate to say but it is mostly to protect the sensei so they will not be challenged. One other thing I noticed recently in Japan (I travel to Japan very frequently) is that sports karate is becoming more popular and the martial arts karate is more difficult to find.
Being a Japanese instructor, are there concepts that you understand differently from your Western counter parts?
Many Japanese truly believe that they have a unique culture that no westerners would understand completely. When they speak among Japanese instructors in Japanese, I sometimes hear comments like: “They (the westerners) cannot know (comprehend) this kind of thing because they are not Japanese”. I think the gap of communication definitely is one of the causes of the myths and mysteries.
What benefits does Japanese speaking instructors have over non Japanese speakers?
The advantage I have over the western instructors is that I can get the comments that are not made up or modified from my sensei as I am a Japanese student of his.
Another advantage I have is the ability to read the martial arts books that are written in Japanese. I have more than couple of hundred books that are not only on traditional karate but on wide range of other martial arts and most importantly on ki. . I have not seen any good books on Ki that were either written in English or were translated from the Japanese originals.
Unfortunately to the western practitioners, the level of martial arts (of all traditional karate styles) books in English is very low. There are only a few books that are worthwhile as they were translated from the original Japanese books such as Hidden Karate. I wished more good books were translated and that would narrow the gap of understanding martial arts and what are commonly believed by many of the western practitioners.
What are the difference in the conception of Ki between a Japanese teacher and a westerner one?
This is a thousand dollars (pounds) question. I can write a book on this. I believe the difference is not in the conception between the westerners and the Japanese or Asian teachers. It is the degree of understanding or the lack of by the western teachers. I am not saying this to belittle the western teachers. I know the western teachers are very intelligent and diligent in studying the subject. But I think the subject of Ki goes beyond the power or martial arts. It in fact enters into the realms of religion and spiritual concepts which I believe the westerners have problems accepting.
Ki (or Qi/Chi for Chinese martial arts practitioners)
Your book, “Shotokan Myths” mentions that pre-JKA Shotokan karate katas most likely had no Ki ai or at least, involved no yelling. Could a Ki ai be done without the yelling?
Yes this is exactly the point of the chapter in my book and the title of the chapter is “Silent Ki ai”. The higher level of Ki ai in martial arts is one without any sound. As you know, Ki ai is made when a Kime (tension or focusing of muscles) is made such as at a delivery point of a punch. This is done by tensing your diaphragm and usually the diaphragm is pushed upward resulting in squeezing the lungs thus the gush of air goes up the throat and you will have a yelling.
By controlling the vocal code you can let the air out without making a sound but creating a Kime. In martial arts we must be able to make a Kime not only when we exhale but also when we inhale which is a difficult tast but can be and must be done. Try to make a Ki ai as you tense your diaphragm as you quickly inhale. It is diffcult to make a sound even if you tried. What you did is a Kime without a Ki ai. You can do the same thing as you quickly exhale. Ki ai is not a wrong thing but it is unnecessary to make a kime.
Shihan Yokota has published numerous articles and books: