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Interview with Shihan Yokota

Can we please start by asking you how you first started you karate training and why? (Kousaku Yokota)     My father was a Kodokan judo blackbelt, so he encouraged me to take up judo when I was in junior high school.  There was no judo club in my school so I went to the ward police station headquarters where the policemen were teaching martial arts (only judo and kendo).  I took up judo when I was 13 and practiced for 3 years.  I earned a junior black belt and won a high school championship. One day a short boy joined the judo club.  I clearly remember him to be quite strange because every time I threw him down on the mat he would spring up and gets in a strange stance (I think it was a cat stance now that I think of it).  Normally a new student would not jump up from the mat after being thrown down like he did.  I had never seen this unusual move.  After a few weeks I got to know him better so I asked him why he did this.  He said he practiced karate and he was taking up judo to learn how it was to be thrown so he could fight a judo man.  Up to that time I really believed that judo was invincible and greatest martial art so I said to him “So, you learned karate cannot beat judo, right?’  To my surprise he said, “Judo is great when some body grabs you but a judo guy cannot beat a karate guy if he is more than 3 feet away.”  I did not understand what he meant as I did not know the techniques of karate.  He explained and demonstrated what karate could do and I was very fascinated.  When I went into senior high school, although the Judo club tried very hard to recruit me, my mind was set.  I wanted to start karate.  Again, there was no karate club in my school so I joined a karate club at the main YMCA in my hometown, Kobe.  That dojo happened to be the headquarters of JKA (Japan Karate Association) of Hyogo prefecture taught by late Master Sugano (9th dan).   (SB)     Can you please tell us a little about Sugano Sensei, and your early experiences with him and karate? (KY)     Sugano Sensei was a big guy especially a man of his generation.  He must have been 180cm tall and weighed about 90 – 100kg.  When I first joined the club in 60’s, I was one of the lowly students so I did not have any interactions with him.  One thing I can say is that he flunked me when I took my first kyu test.  It is unbelievable that I could not even pass my first kyu test.  It is a long story so I will not explain how it happened. Sugano Sensei was independently wealthy.  He owned a bar and a tobacco shop that were very profitable.  After the evening trainings, he used to take us to his bar.  We did not drink any alcohol but we enjoyed the informal gathering with the other instructors.  At those get together, we could ask him some personal and karate related questions which we could not do at our dojo (it’s a Japanese tradition that the students never ask questions).  He told us that we should never pick up karate as a profession to earn living.  This is because by doing so, your students become the “customers”.  You would be afraid to lose the customers and your training methods would change thus the quality of your instructions would be compromised.  He had a big impact as I was thinking of becoming a full time instructor and living on this profession.  Actually, none of the instructors under Sugano Sensei’s command were full time instructors.  They all had some kind of jobs to support their families. As far as the karate is concerned I remember he had a very “heavy” punch.  His fist was like a hammer and when he hits you (in a demonstration) I did feel like a sledgehammer had hit me.  The impact went through my whole body.  He had a very scary face as well.  I don’t know the translation but his face looked like a Japanese “oni”, like a goblin or a devil.  He told me that the local yakuza (Japanese mafia) were afraid of him and I believe it.  Here is a not so scary looking picture of Sugano sensei. Unfortunately, he liked to smoke and drink.  After having some drinks he told us some interesting stories and some crazy things he did when he was young.  I would not go into this but I really enjoyed listening to his stories.  He had heart attack when he was in his 60’s so the doctor told him that he should not drink or smoke.  I remember him saying; “I would not like to live long if I cannot enjoy my life with my favourite vices”.  He passed away in 2002 at the age of 74.  Like Asai sensei he was not scared of dying.  He went like a samurai but in a different way. I want to add something here.  As I lost my original sensei in 2002, I was free to resign from JKA.  This is why I could transfer to JKS in 2002.   (SB)     You enjoyed a very successful competitive career am I right? Could you please tell us about some of the most vivid memories you have from your competitive years. (KY)     Though I did enjoyed the competitions when I was active in that aspect of karate, to be honest, I was not very active in the tournaments when I was training in Philadelphia during the 70’s.  I have treated karate as a martial art since then so my motivation was always beyond tournaments.  I competed in the US only a couple of years and got some good experiences. There were many good competitors in East Coast region so I enjoyed competing against them. As I was not getting enough training at Philadelphia dojo, I decided to go back to Japan to complete my Kenshusei training there.  I went back in ’81 and stayed in Hyogo prefecture for two years. Upon returning to Hyogo, I went back to Sugano sensei’s dojo and continued my serious training.  Even though my purpose of the training was not tournaments, I will mention about them as you are asking about my competition experiences. I entered the prefecture championship, which was elimination round for the national championship, a few months after my return.  Luckily I placed first so got a ticket to JKA All Japan Championship in Tokyo.  That is probably the most memorable experience out of my competition days.  I competed with the best competitors of the world in that era such as Osaka sensei and Yahara sensei.  They are my age group and they were in their prime time.  Also, this is the first time I witnessed, with my own eyes, Master Asai’s techniques in his demo.  I was truly impressed by his techniques as they were very unique and unlike JKA karate.  His arms are like whips and flew around so fast.  It was unbelievable and he left a tremendous impression on me. In 1981 I also represented my prefecture in Kokutai (All Japan Athletic Fair), which was held in Shiga prefecture.  It is like a miniature Olympics and karate was one of the new events.  Also, it should be noted that JKA joined WUKO hosted tournament for the first time.  It was memorable as I saw and competed against, for the first time, the top-notch karate practitioners of other styles such as Shito Ryu, Goju Ryu and Wado Ryu.  I was also exposed to the protective gears like Menho (face protector) and large fist pad.  I believe in not using any protective gears including groin cups so I did not like them.   These equipments allowed the techniques that were way short in distance (as you are not supposed to touch the face mask to win a point).  That was also the first time I saw a fighting style with a lot of hopping.  This kind of kumite may be popular in Shotokan now a days.  In 70’s and early 80’s our stance was low and pretty much stationary.  We moved our steps carefully and never hopped.  We believed in Ippon shobu and our moves are very similar to two samurai in a sword fight. I represented Hyogo prefecture in All Japan Championship in ’82 and that was my last event in my competition life.  I was 35 years old and many coaches were younger than me.  I returned to the US (California) in ’83 and never competed again.   (SB)     You mentioned you competed with the likes of Osaka and Yahara. Did you ever get the chance to fight either of these? (KY)     At the national championship, (read more...)   Shihan Yokota has published numerous articles and books: +Marcus Hinschberger

Shotokan Myth #6 Makiwara Training

Makiwara is a true tradition of karate and its training is a must for all karate-ka. The makiwara has been a fixture in karate dojos since its introduction to mainland Japan in the early 20th century. We have seen pictures of Funakoshi sensei punching one with his geta (wooden clogs) on. I have even heard that some of the modern day sensei would carry portable makiwara in their suitcases with them when they travel. The makiwara had been an important training tool in my karate life as well. Let me explain how I got introduced to this traditional equipment in my first days of karate training. At the first dojo I joined in the early 60’s (Kobe Shotokan Karate Club), I remember there were several makiwara posts, some were wrapped with straw ropes and some with softer pads. I also remember that those pads were no longer white or have their original colors, whatever they were. The pads I saw were reddish black, covered in dried blood. It was obvious that my senpai punched these posts over and over again even when their fists were bleeding. My senpai, Kato-san once said, “Now look. My fist is so strong I can punch like this.” He punched straight into a wooden 4 x 4 beam of the dojo. Bang! Bang! The beam shook but he felt no pain. (At least he did not show it.) Wow! I was very impressed. If he could punch that beam like that, he could easily kill me. Honestly, it really made me scared of this senpai and he won unconditional respect from me. So as soon as I was allowed to punch a makiwara I started the tradition with full might. My dohai (student who started at the same time) Nakai and I punched the makiwara hundreds of times every day. In a year Nakai had developed some very respectable calluses but I couldn’t. I was frustrated and thought I was not punching hard enough. No matter how hard I punched the makiwara, the calluses on my fists did not get larger. ( Later, I realized that this was due to my skin’s very rubbery and soft characteristics. Actually, these characteristics are very good for they also allow me to be flexible as well. ) Despite not developing any respectable calluses, I kept the makiwara habit for more than 15 years. I must admit that the resonating sound made by hitting a makiwara in a dojo was euphoric, especially when the rhythm is so close to that of my own heartbeat. I wondered if makiwara training is a true tradition and whether it was handed down for many centuries.We knew that the makiwara came from Okinawa but we have little documentation to support its history. I discovered, to my surprise, that this tradition is only 100 years old since its invention. It is believed that Matsumura Sokon (1809 – 1899) initially invented the makiwara and Itosu Anko (Master Funakoshi’s sensei, 1830 -1915) popularized it in the early 1900’s. Matusmura sensei took kenjutsu called Jigenryu of Satsuma. Jigenryu is a very unique style and their main practice is (read more...) Shihan Yokota has published numerous articles and books:

Shotokan Myth #3 Silent Kiai

Kiai

When we think of Ki-ai what do you think?   If you are an old guy or a gal like me you remember that funny sound Bruce Lee made.  An amusing story from the past involves the men’s after shave called Hai Karate.  If you remember this then you must be at least 50 years old.  This product was advertised on TV in the 60’s and possibly in the 70’s.  Here is what the announcer said: ANNOUNCER: “Hai Karate aftershave is so powerful; it drives women right out of their minds. That’s why we have to put instructions on self-defense in every package. Hai Karate, the brisk splash-on aftershave that smoothes, sooths, and cools. Hai Karate, aftershave, cologne, and gift sets. Hai Karate, be careful how you use it.” Then there is a skit with a guy who has to fight off the girls who would try to grab him after using this aftershave.  Some of my friends must have believed that I needed this because for several years, each Christmas I would receive numerous bottles.  I really appreciated their genuine interest to help me out but I had to toss most of them because I could not use them up if I had lived to 100 years old.  Besides I did not like the smell.  I knew the aftershave would surely drive the girls wild or rather; it would have surely driven them away. I also have a very memorable incident with ki-ai which I would like to share.  I started karate 46 years ago (1963) in Kobe Japan.  Thanks to the following experience in my very first class I still clearly remember that wonderful day.  I can vividly picture this senpai, Tanaka (not the famous JKA sensei) in front of me.  He stood a little over 5 foot but he was a towering figure to us.  He slowly stepped up to the new students (me included of course).  We were brand new, excited and were dying to learn those deadly techniques.  He said very nicely, “You boys (no girls dared to join as it was thought to be too rough, but that was exactly the reason why I joined) have to learn how to say Osu.”  As the readers know, Osu is a very convenient word in Japanese that can be used for meaning “yes”, “no”, “maybe”, “I will try”, “right”, “sure‘ or whatever.  It could mean almost anything and, we were always happy to use it as we could sound like a tough karate guy.  So, we all said “OSU”!  The senpai then said “What?  I can’t hear you!”  So we repeated with a louder voice but that still did not please him.  He then said “you guys just don’t have spirit”.  “You are going to learn how to Ki-ai today and you will learn to show your spirit.”  Then, he gave a real LOUD Ki-ai which pierced through our bodies and sent shivers down our spines.  Then he smiled and said “OK boys you will Ki-ai without stopping until I return.”  We thought he would return in a few minutes but he did not come back until the end of the class, 2 hours later.  We were yelling “Ya” or “Tou” or whatever the Ki-ai we thought cool (we didn’t know Bruce Lee yet).  The senpai’s word was the command (plus he was looking at us from the other side of the dojo) so none of us would stop.  After 30 minutes or so we started to cough and lose our voice.  At the end we could hardly make any sound at all.  We left the dojo very quietly that day.  Incidentally, all the brand new students except one did not come back after the first day.  That was his way to separate the normal people from the crazy one (me).  My voice was gone for several days but I showed up at training the very next day.  I could only whisper on the following day and my mother did not seem to mind as the house was quiet for a change.  Thankfully the senpai did not ask me to Ki-ai on the second day but my training did not get any easier either.  He now told me to stay in Kiba dachi for 2 hours.  He kept on saying, “Lower! “.  When my legs gave out and I fell down, I guess I was too “low” so he said “Get up”.  It went on like that (very simple exercise but very looooong) and I am sure you can guess how the rest of the Japanese way of training or breaking in the new student went on.  I am still not sure if that senpai really knew what he was doing or if he was simply too lazy to figure out a more sophisticated training. OK, you’ve heard enough funny stories about Ki-ai.  Now more serious stuff… There are many articles on Ki-ai and most of the authors stressed the importance of doing Ki-ai and how to do it.  Some explained the meaning of Ki-ai and the others showed the relationship to breathing.  If that is the case, then you will ask why I am writing this used up and uncontroversial subject.  Well I am one of those people who do not like to take things for granted.  So today I want to take up the challenge and ask “Is ki-ai really important?” and “Is ki-ai necessary in karate training?”  You might say, “You must be crazy to challenge these things.”  Maybe the readers are correct and I may fumble nicely with this subject.  But I think it is a good exercise to investigate instead of just believing something because many instructors and the “experts” say it is so. (read more...)     Shihan Yokota has published numerous articles and books:

Debunking Shotokan Myths

Shihan Yokota: Debunking Shotokan Karate Myths

Shihan Yokota Yokota 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.
JunSuganoMaster Jun Sugano (1928-2002)9th dan JKA, Vice Chairman of JKA TetsuhikoAsaiMaster 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. kiKi (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:

Book Shotokan Myths

About the Author

Yokota Sensei has extensive martial arts experience. Not only does he have over 46 years of Shotokan Karate experience, he has also studied other styles of karate such as Goju-Ryu and Kyokushinkai, as well as Judo and Ki; his Kobudo weapons experience includes Nunchaku and Sai. Yokota Sensei started studying the martial arts in 1960 at the age of 13 when he joined the Judo club at the Hyogo Prefecture Police station. Yokota Sensei then switched his martial arts training to karate in 1964 when he joined the JKA dojo in Kobe Japan. In the 70's, Yokota Sensei became a full time instructor at the ISKF Philadelphia dojo where he taught and competed. He returned to Japan and completed his instructor's training in 1983 under the late Master Jun Sugano, 9th dan, JKA Vice Chairman. Yokota Sensei was the champion of Hyogo Prefecture Championship in 1981 and 1982, and he represented Hyogo prefecture at the JKA All National Championship in Tokyo during those years. Yokota Sensei attained all his dan ranks up to Go-dan from JKA. After switching to JKS, the late Master Tetsuhiko Asai granted him Roku-dan. Sensei Yokota received his Nana-dan and Hachi-dan from WJKA (World Japan Karate Association). The WUKO (World Unite Karate Organization) also recently granted him Hachi-dan. He holds the positions of Technical Director and Shihankai member at WJKA. He is the Chief Instructor at Byakkokan Dojo in San Jose California and his passion is to propagate Asai-ryu Shotokan karate-do.
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