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Interview with Sensei James Yabe
by Kahealani Kamahele

James Yabe has been one of the pioneers of Shotokan Karate in the USA, starting training in the late 1950's, competeing in and winning numerous tournaments in the 1960's-70's.  He makes southern California his home base, where he teaches regularly, and in addition is a highly regarded instructor on guest courses around the USA and beyond.  In this interview, we learn more about this local legend. -Editor

(Kahealani Kamahele)     Every instructor wants to help their students improve. What is the main focus, or rather what is your teaching philosophy?

(Sensei Yabe)     The most important thing or my focus would be the body mechanics of relaxing during movement and tightening during impact. I try to concentrate more on the inner focus rather than the outside form. 

(KK)     What have the students in your dojo done to impress you?

(SY)     When a student has a lot of spirit it just brings the whole group up. It just stimulates the other students and creates a proactive learning environment. I have a group of kids that have consistent attendance. Those kids train hard and I am so impressed by their energy. This is something that you cannot teach; it is a natural ability. You either want to do it or you don’t. When the training gets tougher, they train harder with no interest to comfort themselves.

(KK)     There have been many technical changes in karate over the past thirty years. Where do you see the future of karate going?

(SY)     The foundation for Shotokan karate in the U.S was established during the 1960’s and 70’s by JKA instructors that were in the U.S at that time. I believe that even the technology of DVD, interactive training, and other such methods cannot change the fact that shotokan basics being strong will not change or be changed easily.
The question of karate becoming an Olympic event has been brought up as well. I do not view karate as a sport but rather as a martial art. I think that the Olympics would commercialize karate and change it into something that it was not intended to be. You can see how karate is becoming more and more commercialized through the movie industry. Many martial arts movies have been coming out and a lot of action movies contain martial arts techniques in them. More and more movie producers and directors are searching for people with martial arts training to perform the stunts. I mean you have to do what you have to do to make a living but this is not my definition of true karate.

(KK)     Most karate instructors have a home base or a dojo. You teach at various locations and don’t have a home dojo. Someone once commented in passing that you are like a “traveling salesman.” Seeing that you travel from location to location, what do you believe to be the ideal setting for training?

(SY)     My ideal setting for training is anywhere that is available. If you live in an apartment with no yard, you train in your living room; at work, your office or near your desk or the hallway at the company can be a place to train. I have a story to tell that might be a good example of what I am trying to say. I worked for an aerospace company; a long time ago… my co-workers knew that I taught karate so they asked me to teach them during lunchtime. We didn’t have anywhere at the company to train so we went into one of the empty conference rooms and closed the door. Since we didn’t want to get our business clothes sweaty or dirty, we took them off and trained in our underwear. We were doing hard basics, breathing hard, and moving around the room. People who were knocking at the door to come inside could hear physical activity and hard breathing going on but we would not let them in because we didn't not to be caught all sweaty in just our underwear. Lunchtime was over and people were waiting outside. They all wanted to see who was in there and what was going on. We came walking out, a group of grown men, all sweaty, messy hair, shirts untucked, ties loose around our necks and still breathing rather heavy. Can you imagine? (Yabe laughs) That’s what I call an “ideal” environment!!

(KK)     What has been your most memorable training experience? I mean you have trained for many years. What has been the one experience that will remain with you forever?

(SY)     During Mr. Nishiyama’s Traditional Karate summer camp in San Diego, I had the rare opportunity to be coached by Mr. Shirai. At the camp, we are given instruction by Mr. Nishiyama. After he is done, he blows his whistle and we all get up then find ourselves a partner. I was so fortunate to get Mr. Shirai as my partner every time. That training, that experience, I shall never forget.

(KK)     Sensei Yabe, what do you enjoy doing when you are not the sensei? Do you have any hobbies or other things that you enjoy?

(SY)      Well, I like guns and shooting. I especially like Skeet Shooting. Skeet shooting is a game that requires you to hit a moving target within a short period of time. This sport improves your reflexes. Like in kumite when it’s time to go, you go; rather than being too cautious and missing the opportunity to score. “Actually it does this.. it requires concentration, decisiveness, and reaction.”

I also like to collect swords. I have a few in my collection, samurai swords and iai. One of my memorable teaching experiences actually has to do with swords. I was teaching Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) for the movie “The Empire Strikes Back.” My job was to “SAMURAI-TIZE” him. The interview was very impressive. A woman came and took me to the 20th Century Fox Studio cafeteria for lunch. The architecture was unique and impressive.

(KK)     Sensei Yabe, you have been training and studying karate as a martial art since the age of 16. At the age of 20, still a brown belt, you became the combined champion at the 1st All American Karate Tournament, placing first in both kumite and kata. You were also a member of U.S. National Team at both the WUKO World Championships in 1970 in Tokyo and at the 2nd WUKO World Championships in 1972 in Paris. Your victories were numerous. (Yabe grimaces) Why is it that you are not in many shotokan magazines or books? Few people even know that you teach karate in the South Bay.

(SY)     I have always and will always consider myself to be just a student.

About the author: Kahealani Kamahele was born and raised in Hawaii of Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino and Spanish decent. She studied Shorin Ryu for 3 years, practicing 4 times a week 3 hours a day and competed in tournaments on the weekends. After a short break she began to study Shotokan under James Yabe, where she has been for the past 3 years.