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: