It always seems that whenever Sensei Yutaka Koike makes the visit to teach in the UK, I am destined to be unable to attend. So many times have I received information about a seminar he is conducting, but when I check my diary I am pre-booked, or tied up with work. Gutted as I always am, I try to always keep my eyes peeled in hopes that I will be able to attend a seminar with him.
All who train with him share very similar sentiments. The one word that I consistently hear cropping up is ‘innovative’, attributed to his original and unique teaching approach, built upon an impressive foundation of superb physical skill. Footage I have seen has been outstanding, not surprising really when you consider his teacher.
Starting karate at age fifteen, after seeing Sensei Yoshiharu Osaka’s superb display of the kata Kanku Dai, he started training the following day at the JKA Hombu Dojo in Ebisu. After a time there, in 1990 he enrolled at Teikyo University studying English Literature. It was here that he came under the guidance of Sensei Masao Kagawa. Later completing the JKA Instructor Class in 2000 under a long list of senior names including Kagawa, Abe, Yahara and Isaka, it was from here that he set off to Europe.
In this interview, helped translated by Bo Gort and Scott Langley, gives a broad insight into the experiences of this innovative karate instructor. Sincere thanks to Sensei Koike for being so kind and generous with his time and energy, and thank you to Bo Gort and Scott Langley for doing such a great job translating the material. – S. Banfield 2009
Questions by THE SHOTOKAN WAY
(Shaun Banfield) Thank you very much for being kind enough to give us this interview. It is very much appreciated! Prior to practicing karate, had you any experience of any other Martial Art?
(Yutaka Koike) No I hadn’t.
(SB) You started karate at the age of 15 am I correct? What initially prompted you to start karate?
(YK) Yes you are correct. As a small boy I used to play baseball, which is a very popular sport in Japan. All boys dream about one day becoming a professional baseball player. But when I got a bit older, around the age of twelve or thirteen, I started to feel uncomfortable with team sports and I gave up baseball. I had always been fascinated by martial arts in movies and on TV. Then one day I went to visit the Japan Karate Association Hombu Dojo. There I saw Osaka sensei demonstrate Kankudai, which had a very strong impact on me. I loved the sound of his hands cutting through the air and his movements reminded me of a very beautiful graceful animal. So that day I decided to join this dojo.
(SB) And where did you train and with whom?
(YK) I Started at JKA Hombu Dojo in Ebisu. At the time I started training there were many different instructors, so I can’t really say who my main sensei was.
(SB) Can you please tell us a little about the training you experienced at this early stage in your karate career?
(YK) I used to go to the dojo five days a week, Monday to Friday and I would train one or two hours. The instructors were very kind to the beginners and the training was very basic, so I enjoyed training very much.
(SB) In 1990, you enrolled at the famous Teikyo University. What degree were you studying?
(YK) Officially I was studying English literature but I spent so much of my time training that you might as well say I took a degree in karate.
(SB) And why did you choose Teikyo University to study at?
(YK) Training at the JKA Hombu Dojo, I was learning from many famous Sensei, but Kagawa sensei was the most inspiring to me. Whenever I went to his classes I always felt very motivated and energized. He became my hero. And since he was the chief instructor at Teikyo University I decided to study there.
(SB) It was whilst at Teikyo University that you came under the guidance of Sensei Kagawa am I accurate? Had you trained with him at all or to any great extent prior to joining the university?
(YK) Yes, he would normally teach twice a week at the JKA Hombu dojo and I would always make a point of attending his classes, so when I went to Teikyo I had already been training with Kagawa sensei for three years.
(SB) How would you describe the training and what did it consist of most prominently?
(YK) Every morning at seven o’clock we would go for a run outside in the university grounds. We would have to sprint up a steep hill maybe ten or fifteen times and then go back to the dojo for general strength and fitness training. We would finish the morning session with Kata. In the afternoon we would train for another two or three hours. We would do a lot of repetitions of kihon waza, and tube training. We would do lots of different kumite training (gohon kumite, ippon kumite, jiyu ippon kumite). Exactly what type of kumite training we’d do would depend on the season. If it were competition season for example we would train more specifically for that. Only rarely would we do kata. Most times our coach for morning an afternoon training would be Kanayama sensei.
This may sound like a standard training regime similar to any other dojo but please don’t underestimate the immense pressure we were under.
(SB) Do you have any stories or anecdotes that you could share with us from your time training there?
(YK) I have very many stories of course. However, one aspect that pervaded my whole time in Teikyo University was the strict hierarchy that we had to adhere to, and the pressure that came with this system. For instance as a low grade you always had to carry your sempai’s bag and of course obey your sensei and senior students. In many ways I lived in a state of fear and constant alert to my sensei’s moods and whims. However this had a positive result in that it created in me a heightened awareness to other people, which helped me to read my opponent’s mind in a kumite situation and in many cases predict what technique they were going to perform and thus win the fight.
(SB) And what was it like training under Kagawa Sensei? How did he help develop you at this stage in your karate career?
(YK) Kagawa sensei is technically perfect so all the students were more than 100% confident in following him, but at the same time we were always very stressed when Kagawa came to Teikyo on a Tuesday because there was always a chance that you had to fight him. I saw very strong and competent senior grades become like kindergartner kids when they were paired up with him. But while we were all scared of Kagawa sensei we also admired him tremendously. His techniques are so solid, beautiful and effective. He has a very clear mind which expresses itself through his techniques.
(SB) Do you have any significant stories of Sensei Kagawa from over your years with him that you could share with our readers?
(YK) I have so many stories and ideas it is so difficult to pinpoint one. I am sorry.
(SB) Teikyo University has over the years generated some superb talent, notably within the competitive arena. Why was this so do you think?
(YK) There was never any compromise in our training. I would say that the training at Teikyo is the hardest of all the karate universities. Kagawa sensei may have been brutal but he also stimulated us to achieve our highest potential. His strong and charismatic personality made us try our absolute hardest. Kagawa sensei also had a particular talent for picking out karate students from high schools who through his coaching would eventually become champions, even though they may not have been particularly successful until then.
(SB) You yourself have a very impressive competitive record, placing 2nd at the All-Japan Championships for example. Who did you face at this competition?
(YK) In the final I faced Yamaguchi sensei. I didn’t stand a chance!
(SB) And who would you describe, both within the competitive arena and within the dojo, as your hardest opponent? Would you recall your memories of fighting this person?
(YK) There was a particular guy, the captain of the Nihon University Karate team who I had fought many times before but I had never been able to beat him. Then one day, at the team kumite finals of the Kanto regional championships I faced him again. Our fight was to be the decisive fight as my team had lost two out of four fights already. Even though objectively speaking he was not only bigger than me but also more talented, sharper and faster, this time I had no problem in beating him. I felt so strong and full of the spirit of Teikyo University, I felt that my mind and body were perfectly aligned, and we won the competition.
(SB) At that point in your karate career, how important was competition success?
(YK) For me personally competition was not very important. Initially I didn’t have a strong competitive drive, but I was also afraid to lose, so I thought it was better not to bother with competition at all. I was much more interested in Karate as a martial art. But of course when I was in university I had to enter competitions and I didn’t always want to lose them, I was under pressure to win. And then I began to find competition more useful and enjoyable, they can help you find your weaknesses and push you to exceed your limits.
(SB) How should karateka view competition within the great scheme of the karate journey do you believe? What role does it play?
(YK) As I said in my previous answer competition can fulfil some very important functions but I do think that karateka should not attach too much value to competition success, because if you are not careful it can result in ego problems. There is a tendency these days for some associations and dojos to be very competition oriented and I don’t think this is a good thing. What happens in these dojos is that talented kids are singled out at the cost of the less talented ones and I don’t like to see such a strong emphasis on the divide between winners and losers. Karate should be enjoyed by all practitioners regardless of whether they have any special talent. Of course originally there was no competition in Karate and I find that competition karate in many ways is very limiting and a perversion of the original art. I much prefer dojos where everyone is encouraged equally and where there is a good atmosphere.
(SB) You graduated from the Instructor Class in 2000 am I correct on the date?
(YK) Yes you are.
(SB) What prompted you to enrol on the course?
(YK) I wanted to be an international karate instructor and I felt I didn’t have enough knowledge when I finished university.
(SB) And who were your main instructors on the course at the time?
(YK) There were Asai sensei and Yahara sensei but mostly we were taught by Abe sensei, Isaka sensei and Kagawa sensei. Also training with me were Kanayama sempai, Yamaguchi sempai and Richard sempai.
(SB) Can you please tell us a little about each of these instructors and give us an insight into their personalities and their karate?
(YK) All of them are extremely professional instructors but to go into their individual personalities here would take up too much space. The only thing I will say here is that each sensei had such a deep knowledge of karate. Especially Asai sensei was very important to me. Once or twice a month he would come to the dojo, to watch him was amazing. He inspired me to explore my karate and made me see how limited it had been thus far.
(SB) Who were the other karateka enrolled on the instructor course at the time?
(YK) Tom Kompier started on the same day as myself and in my final year of the course my kohai from Teikyo University Yasuhisa Inada and Scott Langley from the UK also joined.
(SB) Could you tell us about your experience of being on the instructor course? Possibly share a few stories?
(YK) Of course the term Instructors’ course is a misnomer. Nothing is taught on the course. However, you learn very quickly! What I am trying to say is that each sensei is different. Kagawa Sensei and Kanayama Sensei’s punch is like a sledge hammer and the sound of their kime is like a shotgun or magnum 44. Yamaguchi Sensei is completely different. When he punches you it is like being hit by needles and the sound of his kime is like a machine gun. No-one can teach you to block or move faster, however, there are ways to motivate you to improve. This is what the instructors’ course did.
(SB) From the technical perspective, what were the most important things you took away from your experiences on the course?
(YK) Kagawa sensei taught me the meaning of the Japanese saying Koketsu ni irazunba Koji o ezu. Which can be roughly translated as: if you want to get at the tiger’s kids you will have to get past the tiger who is guarding the entrance of the cave. Possibly the equivalent of English sayings like ‘nothing ventured nothing gained’, or ‘no pain no gain’. You could say that I faced a whole bunch of tigers on a daily basis during the instructor course. As well as that, if I were to compare the university training to the instructors training I would say it was quantity versus quality. Although there wasn’t much instruction in the normal sense of the word I learned mostly observing my sensei and copying their technique.
(SB) And whilst on the course, did you refine your very popular teaching style?
(YK) No I wouldn’t say so, the style of teaching I have now was developed much later, after I left Japan.
(SB) Following your graduation, you went to Switzerland. What prompted your decision to go there?
(YK) I had been looking for a job as a karate instructor in North America or Australia but had found that they were quite saturated with karate teachers already, then the opportunity came up to go to Switzerland and I happily took it.
(SB) And can you tell us a little about your time there?
(YK) I moved to Switzerland in 2000. I worked for an organization called SKAS and taught in as many different dojos as possible. I didn’t have a sensei there, most of the time I was training by myself. This meant that gradually I stopped progressing. I had to work very hard just to stay on the same level, so I felt that my shotokan was stagnating. On the other hand, I had a chance to develop my own individual way of teaching, which was in many ways a diversion from traditional shotokan. Which was received very positively in Europe. Also, when I was in Switzerland I spent a lot of time studying Bunkai, something which I had not previously done as much.
(SB) And in what year did you move to Italy?
(YK) I moved to Italy in 2007.
(SB) Can you please tell us about JKS Italy and your hopes for its developments?
(YK) I was actually not associated with the JKS in Italy, I was part of an organization called Makotokai Federation, which is an umbrella association uniting many different martial arts. Within this federation Instructors with many different backgrounds all work together and exchange ideas, to create a harmonious whole.
(SB) You are an internationally demanded instructor. Can you please give us an insight into your teaching style?
(YK) I would say my teaching style is always changing, even until today. When I first came to Europe the little Swiss kids in my classes were always commenting on my narrow slanty eyes and I felt that maybe my eyes were a representation of my mind, which was also narrow. But gradually during my stay in Europe my mind has expanded. During my time in Switzerland I met two different sensei both of whom blew my mind away; Steve Ubl sensei (from the USA) and Paolo Bollafio sensei (from Italy). I felt they were masters in every sense of the word both physically and spiritually. I wanted to be near them and was very curious about how they had become like they were. Both of them influenced my teaching style in a major way.
Steve Ubl sensei reminds me of a Japanese sword, very very sharp, almost as if the blade will cut you before you have even touched it. Steve sensei’s techniques are extremely fast, sharp and explosive, I feel this is due to the strong and direct connection between his mind and his centre. Paolo sensei on the other hand reminds me more of a Chinese sword, which is curved and not quite as sharp as a Japanese sword. To use it correctly you need to harmonize your whole body, and this is what Paolo sensei has mastered. His technique is more circular and uses wave like motions (by the way Paolo sensei himself has a deep knowledge of the Japanese sword).
The other very remarkable thing about Paolo sensei is that all his students seem to be extraordinarily happy people. So there are elements of both these sensei’s styles that I have tried to incorporate in my own teaching style.
(SB) You have developed many unique training methods that you use to help students to develop. Can you please give us a few examples of such unique and innovative training methods?
(YK) First of all I would say that I like to pull my students rather than push them. By this I mean that I try to be compassionate with all my students and motivate and encourage them to develop rather than put them under pressure to perform. As my master said: when you go to the restaurant they serve you food, but you will have to choose from the menu what you want to eat.
Secondly, even though proper posture is vital and the foundation of all effective technique, I try to go beyond teaching correct posture to try and make my students aware of the energy that they can generate or regulate with each technique.
Also I could say that I use all the tools available to me to make my students feel comfortable and relaxed when they are in our dojo. For instance I play different types of music during training, burn incense and use techniques from Feng Shui to create a positive atmosphere in the dojo. Training can be very different, sometimes it might be physically very hard and the students might sweat a lot, other times maybe it is not as demanding, but my main objective is always for the students to leave feeling energized, happy and satisfied.
While the points I have mentioned before may sound a little bit unconventional, I do think it is very important for students to understand the specific character of karate. So I encourage my students to be energetic, focused and alert. Then hopefully my students can use karate to their general benefit and it will help them in their daily lives in this complicated and hectic society.
(SB) What are the most important things you stress when teaching?
(YK) I think the answer to this question is covered by the previous one as well.
(SB) You describe your karate as Shin-Gi-Tai am I correct? Can you please explain what you mean by this?
(YK) I have seen some dojo in the west that are called Tai-Gi-Shin, but this is not so good and that is why I have possibly said in the past that Shin-Gi-Tai is important to me. We must always start with the hard parts. When we learn karate we start with the most basic and, therefore, hardest aspects (kihon). As we progress we can move onto more natural movements, which have been enhanced by our practise of kihon. The same is true with Shin-Gi-Tai. Of course we can do nothing without our body (Tai) but we must start with our heart/spirit. This is mirrored by the term Shu-Ha-Ri. At first we must follow our sensei, have trust in them. Then we must develop our technique (Ha/Gi) and then eventually we must develop our own way (Ri/Tai). Of course the difficult part is finding your master. In Okinawa they say you must spend three years walking in order to find the right master.
(SB) What does kata mean to you, and how do you think kata should be used in order to maximise development within the karateka?
(YK) I have to say that for me kata is very romantic. Of course we don’t have a full history of the development of kata in Japan. Documents have been lost or destroyed and we will never know for sure. However, if we take a kata like Kanku dai we can imagine many years ago a guy called Kushan waking up one day and creating Kushanku (the origin of Kanku dai and Kanku Sho). Many years have past and of course these kata have changed, but important elements still remain. People who practise energy based arts (like Chi Gong) practise the same movements as the beginning of kanku dai. People who practise Aikido can see parallels from their arts to movements in the same kata. The point is that these kata have so many levels, with such great depth that even today they still hold secrets.
Maybe the only problem is with competition as competitors have to show only the aesthetic level of the kata. Other aspects may have been lost as judges can not/do not see different layers of the kata.
(SB) What is your favourite kata and why?
(YK) I think it is always important to keep moving and developing. As such it is impossible for me to say which is my favourite kata… I simply don’t have one.
(SB) Those who speak of you mention your smoothness of movement. How do you develop such smooth, relaxed movement?
(YK) I think the question answer itself. In order for you to be smooth, you must be relaxed. After that you must also be happy!
I think it is important to do karate for life (Shogai Budo as Asai Sensei used to say – Budo from birth to death). If you train so hard that it damages your body, this is not balanced. If you don’t train so hard that you don’t fulfil your potential, this is also unbalanced. For me, I want to have a smooth, balanced life and I wish my karate to be the same.
(SB) Is there anything you would like to discuss that I have neglected to ask you about?
(YK) In this interview we have talked a lot about Teikyo University. Of course maybe many of your readers will be interested in this, however, I think we need to be more balanced. Teikyo training is very specialised and has an important role within the shotokan world. However, it is just a part of what karate is and I think we must all be more open minded in our approach to the way we train and how we think of our martial art.
One of my sensei once said don’t limit your mind in this limited life we have.
(SB) Can we please say a big thank you for this opportunity to speak with you! Can we wish you all the best for the future?
(YK) Yes you can!!