This is the second of this two part interview with Kousaku Yokota JKA. Sensei Yokota: student of Sugano Sensei, Personal Assistant to Master Okazaki, Instructor at the ISKF Headquarters and now member of the JKS, with almost 50 years dedicated to the Martial Arts. This indepth interview – humorous, insightful and sometimes quite poignant – explores his experiences with Master Okazaki, Master Nakayama and Master Asai with stories of his time competing and coming up against the ferocious Sensei Yahara- Shaun Banfield 07
(SB) You were a full time instructor at the ISKF headquarters. What were main technical things ISKF emphasised and can you share some of your experiences from this time in your life.
(KY) ISKF was a branch of JKA (recently I heard Okazaki sensei broke away from JKA) so our techniques were purely JKA style. The Philadelphia dojo was known for its bloody kumite. We did not think a punch or a kick was in or scored if it did not reach the target. We were supposed to hit only the gi but often times, intentionally and unintentionally, the punches and kicks went through. Unless we knock some one down we did not apologize. Nosebleeds were a common happening among the senior belts (black belts). However, we were very careful with the junior belts so we never injured them. We were in the middle of tough neighbourhood of Philadelphia so the expectation of “fighting” training or kumite was different. I liked it and I feel that it is the way kumite should be. It should be something to be feared and not of “fun”. I have not visited Philadelphia dojo for over 20 years. I hope they are doing kumite in the same spirit even now at that dojo.
(SB) What then drew you to the JKS?
(KY) Definitely it was because of Master Asai and his karate. He was the only one I know who can move and use techniques like he did. It was beyond JKA and Shotokan. He had Asai style karate and you have to see it to understand it.
When I was young I was very much satisfied with the powerful movement of JKA techniques. I still like and honor the one punch, sure kill concept. “Kime” was the ultimate. At Philadelphia dojo I saw many older practitioners having problems with their backs and knees. But I did not pay attention to it. Actually I thought that came from their poor techniques or wrong stances so that was their fault. However, I saw the similar problems among the senior students in Japan, I began wondering if there may be a flaw in the way we trained in JKA. This was a sensitive subject as you are pointing a finger to the core of the practice of JKA. To make the long story short, I realized that what is lacking in JKA training is the emphasis on relaxiation of the muscles as we stressed too much on Kime or total focus.
Actually, to practice the “soft” side of martial arts I joined Nishino style ki school in Tokyo between 1998 and 2000. Master Nishino was able to throw (jump) people around without physically connected by simply with his “ki”. To make the long story short, he could throw around hundreds of his students and assistant instructors but he could not do anything with me. I really wished he could throw me around. Nevertheless, he asked me to leave his class as he was embarrassed that he could not do anything. Even though I did not learn the “secret” of ki from Nishino sensei, I learned how to relax more. I definitely increased the ki level within myself even though I cannot throw an opponent with my ki.
I did not practice karate at all during my 2 and a half-year stay in Japan. I returned to California in 2000 and I was searching for something. With due respect to ISKF, this organization was getting too restrictive for me. That was the year Asai sensei started his organization, JKS. Asai sensei held a seminar in California in 2002 and I participated in this fateful seminar. When I saw him performing at the age of late 60’s, I knew this is the master I wanted to follow.
It was not easy for me to severe the relationship with JKA. I had been a member over 40 years and had a life time membership. It took me a year before I officially resigned from ISKF (which means JKA). It was difficult but I believe I did the right thing. I have no regrets now.
There are two major reasons why I decided to follow Master Asai. One is the way he can move his body. I wished to learn the way to use my arms like whip as he did. The other is his commitment to karate practice. He got up at 4am every morning whether he was in Tokyo or travelling overseas. He put his 2 to 3 hour training daily. Even when he was in the hospital I heard he was doing some exercises such as squeezing a rubber ball to strengthen his grip, etc. Most of the senior instructors give up on training. They get out of shape and stop showing the techniques when they teach. I believe karate is lifetime training so Asai sensei is a perfect model for me.
(SB) You mentioned your experiences trying to improve your understanding of Ki. How would you describe ‘Ki’ and how does it relate to the karate we practice?
(KY) Ki is a difficult one to describe as you cannot see or locate it in your body. I define it as the essence or energy that gives life to us. This essence cannot be seen or measured but we should not deny its existence because of this. There are a lot of other things about us that cannot be seen but exist. For example, you may be sad, happy or in love. You cannot prove you have such feelings or measure how much but you know you have those feelings.
There are at least two aspects of ki. One is health related and the other martial arts related.
I can only say about my own ki. Thanks to continuous karate and ki training, I can say that I have been able to keep perfect health. I have never had any serious illness in my life. Actually, I have never been in a hospital except for the injuries I received during kumite exercises. In spring, I may feel some irritation in my nose due to the excessive pollens in the air. As soon as I feel this I tell myself that I will not have allergy. Then, I feel fine in a day or two. I can control all this in my mind. Again, I do this using my strong ki level.
Some of the ki experts say they can see the ki condition of the other people and can influence the ki state. As an extreme case, it is documented that a ki expert can give full anaesthesias before major medical operations. But I have not been able to influence the other people’s ki and improve their health yet. It looks like I need to train more.
Ki is an internal energy that supports your mind matters such as determination, perseverance, fear, courage, etc. By building your ki, you will have a stronger mind; determination, perseverance and courage. At the initial stage a practitioner may have only the brutal courage. This is why Funakoshi sensei put “Refrain from violent behaviour” in Dojo Kun. By developing ki through proper breathing exercises, you can reach a stage that is beyond the emotional limitations such as hatred and anger.
(SB) Why do you think this instructor could not throw you, did you ever discover why?
(KY) I can only guess. Nishino sensei must have used some type of hypnotism to those people. I really cannot say his ki was so strong that he could throw any of us by his ki alone. I must have developed strong ki through practicing martial arts all my life and was not induced into his hypnotism.
(SB) Master Asai has sadly passed away, news that saddened the entire Martial Arts world. What are your memories of him, and would you share a few stories of him?
(KY) Yes, that was the saddest thing in my entire karate life. I had only 4 years of close relationship with Asai sensei but yet we developed a very close tie. He always wanted to extend his presence in the US and I was the key man to do so. I always searched for a master who can surpass age. He was like a father to me.
He passed away on August 15 last year. I found out on that very day as I happened to call the JKS headquarters. It was shocking but I sort of expected this. Let me tell you why.
We (JKS Americas) invited Asai sensei to make an US tour in the summer of 2006. I visited JKS headquarters about a week before the US trip in June. Master Asai’s assistant, Sensei Ishimine told me that Asai sensei had been seriously ill. He had pneumonia in the previous month and had been hospitalized for two weeks. He had just been released from the hospital and had lost 10 kilograms of his body weight while he was in the hospital. He was a thin person to start out (maybe 50 kg) so losing 10 kg means 20 percent of his body weight. I knew he really was seriously ill. So, I told Ishimine sensei we should cancel his trip to the US and he gladly agreed. I called my contact in NY that night and told him that his trip had to be cancelled. However, the next morning I received a call from Ishimine sensei that Asai sensei was at the headquarters office that day and he wanted to see me. When I saw him that afternoon he looked like a different person. He was a thin person but he was always full of vigour like a sword that is thin but very sharp. At this time, he looked sick and aged. I told him that we had cancelled his trip to the US in the following week. He got very upset to hear my report and told me emphatically, “I promised those people in the US that I would visit. I deliver what I promise. Even if it kills me I am going there.” So, he knew that trip might shorten his life. He did not want to prolong or save his life if he had to cut off his teaching. He flew to New York the very next week and spent nearly 10 days in the US and Mexico. I joined him at a seminar in Los Cabos Mexico towards the end of the tour. He was so sick he had difficulty getting out of his bed in the morning. He insisted on going to the dojo where the seminar was held. We called a physician and had the local doctor take a look at Asai sensei. The doctor said Asai sensei could go but he should not do any physical activities as he was that weak. He could have stayed at the hotel but he did not want to disappoint the students so he went. He lined up in the starting and ending rituals. Though he let the assistant instructors teach the class he cut in several times to make comments. He wanted to be an active part of the seminar. He really gave 100% of himself and he was a samurai by serving his duty by burning his life. He went back to Japan early July. I was relieved that we had completed his tour without any incidents and he returned to Japan safely. I was hoping he would take it easy and recuperate but obviously he did not. There was all Japan Championship towards the end of July and I heard that he was fully involved in the event. Master Asai exhausted himself from this event and he just went into coma right after it.
I wish he thought of himself as Shogun and not samurai. In a losing battle, Shogun would retreat back and regroup for another battle. A samurai would jump into a battle regardless of the outcome and he is happy to die in a battle. Asai sensei told me he was a samurai and he proved it by his last action. I feel guilty for organizing that US/Mexico tour which became his last overseas tour. I wish I could have cancelled the tour so he could have prolonged his life. I told this to Mrs. Asai who visited me in San Francisco this month. Then she said, “Mr. Yokota, you could not stop him. Asai sensei would not cancel the trip for the fear of his life. He always wanted to die like a samurai so he did.”
(SB) Master Asai repeatedly made references to making your body like a whip. What did he mean by this and how would you describe his karate?
(KY) I can only say his body was like a whip. You just have to see his movements to appreciate it. He can move his body in that way because firstly he is flexible and he can relax his body completely. His moves come from complete relaxation to a quick snapping of his arms. The move is so sharp his knife hand is like a knife. A typical Shotokan expert has strong punches and kicks, but they are not a sharp knife or a sword. Master Asai was the only one who could do it. I think he trained a lot of Chinese style martial arts, especially White Crane style of Southern China. This is why he uses a lot of open hand techniques and body turning/rotations. Many techniques are not found in the regular workout of JKA style dojos.
(SB) He also stressed the importance of using the joints correctly. In what ways did he influence you and your understanding of the human body and how it can be used to create devastating levels of power.
(KY) You are correct. To deliver a whip like knife hand strike, elbow and shoulder joints become very important. The same thing can be said for the hip joints, knee joints, etc. for the kicking techniques. He explained that the body parts must be trained to move independently like the chains of a 9 sectional chain whip (a Chinese weapon). A punch does not start from an elbow or from a shoulder. It starts from the upper spine that is connected to the shoulder joint. The left side of the body must be totally independent from the right side or from the lower body sections (stances and leg moves including kicks). In other words, while a left punch or a strike is being delivered, simultaneously your right arm should be available and ready for a block, parry or attack technique as well as the legs. By being able to do these tasks, Asai sensei can deliver a devastating and blinding strike to the groin while ducking under a front kick. This ability will enable you to throw multiple (nearly a dozen by both hands) whip hand techniques in less than 2 seconds (as shown in his recent video). I cannot imitate Asai sensei’s techniques as well as I wish I could but now I understand how the body should be trained.
Interestingly, a lot of people think this is applicable for only the long techniques such as back hand strike or knife hand strikes. Actually, by having good control of the sections of the body, we can deliver much power in short distance, commonly called one inch punch. If you move your arm as one piece your punch is like a baseball bat in a jabbing motion. By being able to move the different portions of the section that starts from the spines to the fist, it is like transcending the power by hitting one billiard ball to another. You do not need to move the cue stick too much in distance (maybe an inch would do) to hit the first ball. If the next ball is near, then the energy is transcended almost instantaneously. It flies away and hit the next one with great impact. That is only a visualization example and the mechanism of one inch punch is quite different. However, I think one can picturize how a punch that travels only an inch or less can deliver tremendous amount of power by this analogy.
(SB) Did you ever learn how Master Asai achieved that total relaxation? And what types of methods did he use to develop this relaxation?
(KY) To be honest, I could not find the “secret” from him. When I asked him several questions regarding his training for relaxation, he only told me “you need to train every part of your body”. However, he never mentioned the specifics of the exercises. He only said he has some unique training methods that normal person even the black belts would find challenging. Unfortunately, he did not reveal what those exercises were. I was close to him but I was not one of his inner students (uchi deshi). He might have revealed his secrets to some of those uchi deshi but you need to ask them.
(SB) He truly was a Master who inspired so many around the world. What were the most vital developments he made to the Martial Arts do you think?
(KY) I believe there were at least two unique things that Asai sensei contributed to the martial arts.
One is definitely his karate style. Many karate instructors, not only Shotokan style but also other styles such as Shitoryu, told me that Asai sensei’s karate was different or unique. His karate, actually, did not look like Shotokan or JKA. It was indeed beyond Shotokan and JKA karate.
He practiced other styles such as Shito ryu and Goju ryu. In addition, he practiced Chinese style, Hakutsuru ken (White Crane style) extensively. He actually brought back many of the techniques that were taken out of Shotokan when JKA was formed. The techniques include the short stances (i.e. nekoashi and sanchin), open hand blocks and strikes, and body rotation moves. He even created many new kata (Junro 1 – 5 dan, mandatory kata for JKS) and revived old kata (Suishu, Kashu, Roshu, and many more). Asai sensei routinely practiced more than 150 – 200 kata. Just think. Most of us have difficulty remembering 26 basic Shotokan kata. So, it is amazing that Asai sensei remembered all those kata. He really was an encyclopedia of kata and karate.
The other major contribution to martial arts was the development of Wheel Chair karate. He told me that he had spent more than 20 years to develop this karate. He took so much time as he had to understand the limitation as well as the skills of the wheelchair movements. He put himself on one of these wheelchairs for many years and developed wheelchair kata. He also developed the kumite program. Now at JKS tournaments you can find the kata and kumite competitions for wheelchair practitioners. This is very unique as far as I know JKS is the only karate organization that offers such events. I wish to carry on his heritage so I have opened the door to the “challenged” people. The first thing I did was approaching the people who are older than 60. I started to hold a karate class at the senior citizen’s association in Japan town in 2006. Any senior citizen at this association can train at my dojo at no charge. I had one gentleman, 70 years old, joined last year and he liked it so much he decided to train three times per week. I have another dojo in Japan town so he practices along side of the students who are 40 or 50 years younger than him. I want more senior citizens to join but our training seems to scare most of them. I plan to contact the local hospital and see if there is any interest among the patients who are terminally ill. I am excited to see how I can expand my dojo in the future.
(SB) Everyone who talks of Sensei Asai describes him as pioneers who in many respects changed a lot in the way people understand karate-do and the human body. Where do you see your own research taking you and what are you currently practicing in your own karate right now?
(KY) You are right that Asai Sensei was a pioneer who expanded Shotokan and JKA karate to the next level.
I am very much interested in kinesiology and sports medicine. Up to now very small research was done on the karate techniques from that perspective. I am unable to go back to school right away but I am determined to do so some time in the future. My hope is to get a doctoral degree in that major though it may take many many years.
As far as practicing in my own karate is concerned, I want to continue my daily work out till the day I die as Asai sensei did. My goal is to live till 100 years old which means I have 40 more years to train.
(SB) Kagawa Sensei is now Chief Instructor of the JKS am I correct?. What do you think has made him such a highly respected karateka?
(KY) I need to make a correction. Kagawa sensei is Technical Director of JKS but not Chief Instructor. JKS has decided to forever reserve Shuseki Shihan (Chief Instructor) title only to Asai sensei. Kagawa sensei earned this very important role of Technical Director by his own right. He was JKA National Champion many times as well as World Champion in 80’s and 90’s.
He is one generation younger than me so I never encountered him in the tournament but I had to face him in my 4 dan exam. I remember he had a very fast kizami zuki.
(SB) Who would you say has been of the biggest influence on your karate?
(KY) Throughout my karate life I studied the methods of the JKA champions such as Oishi, Tanaka, Osaka and Yahara. I am sure they had some impacts and motivation in me but the biggest influence definitely came from Asai sensei. That is exactly how I wish I could move. I am 60 years young this year and I will continue to practice his way of karate for the rest of my karate life.
(SB) You have studied the Sai and Nunchaku am I correct? Why did you decide to integrate these disciplines into your training?
(KY) I practiced not only Sai and Nunchaku but also Tonfa and three sectional staff. Out of all these, I like Nunchaku the most. Nunchaku is closest to the 9 sectional chain whip that Asai sensei practiced.
There are several reasons why I included the training of those weapons in my training repetour.
- I wanted to learn the original karate that was brought by Master Funakoshi and found Kobudo was a part of it. So, I took it up in 70’s. I think I was the only one who was practicing it at the Philadelphia dojo.
Kobudo is still practiced in Okinawa even now. When JKA was founded in mid 50’s it was intentionally dropped. I do not know the exact reason why but I believe it was a part of the main concept of changing karate to something that is easier to learn so that they can promote to more people and increase its membership. I do not disagree with this approach but I wish they had kept it to the senior students. Unfortunately, I discovered only few practitioners of JKA in both the US and Japan practiced Kobudo (openly). Those few practiced only Bo but not Nunchaku and Sai. I discovered that the Kobudo weapons are the extension of your body and techniques, as I explain below.
- Sai, Nunchaku and Tonfa have one common thing, that is, they come in a pair. We have two hands and they need to be used in harmony. Even though in our kata we use both arms but typically one arm is use for a punch then the other arm is pulled back to the hip. We find only few techniques that require both arms (i.e. juji uke in Heian Yondan and Godan or first several moves of Heian Nidan). I found using these weapons I can increase the body coordination particularly the upper body around shoulders to the arm regions.
- I also found Nunchaku to be quite different from Sai and Tonfa in the body mechanism of handling them. For this difference I liked Nunchaku much better. Nunchaku definitely helped me with my karate. So what is the big difference? Nunchaku is a short version of 9 sectional chain whip. It requires a lot of small and large swinging motions. You need to move your arms like whips. Whereas with Sai and Tonfa, though some swinging motions are also required, the movements are based on the linear actions and rather small. The wrist motion of Sai is rotational but you do not swing Sai around as you would do with Nunchaku so the use of the weapons is quite different. Tonfa also has the wrist rotation move to swing the tonfa sticks that is different from Sai and Nunchaku. So, Nunchaku is the only weapon that you would have the dynamic swinging motion of your arms as well as the quick rotation of the wrists. Nunchaku movements are often whipping techniques. Now I realize that it certainly has the common ground as the arm movements of Asai sensei technique.
(SB) What is Sensei Yokota’s favourite kata and why?
(KY) When I was competing my kata was Nijushiho. It is strange and coincidental that this kata was Asai sensei’s favourite and it was mine as well.
I have two kata I favour now. One is Gojushiho Dai and the other is Suishu. Gojushiho is supposed to be the last kata for a Shurite karateka. In Okinawan time, the students had to be 42 years old (42 is pronounced as Shi Ni same as death meaning you are old and close to death) before his teacher taught this kata. Now even the school kids are performing this kata. I like this kata because Neko ashi dachi is the main stance unlike all the other Shotokan kata.
I learned Suishu directly from Asai sensei. It has many open hand techniques that is a signature of Asai sensei. He told us there are 5 “hand” (“su” or “shu”) kata. They are Unsu (cloud hand), Roshu (wave hand), Kashu (fire hand), Fushu (wind hand) and Suishu (water hand). We learned Unsu from JKA time. I learned Roshu, Kashu and Suishu from Asai sensei. Fushu is the only hand kata I did not learn. I hope some day I will meet one of his students who know this kata.
(SB) Can I on behalf of myself and all of us at TSW say thank you for this opportunity to speak with you, and may we wish you every success for the future.
(KY) I enjoyed speaking about Master Asai and my karate life. Even though he passed away too soon, his spirit and love for karate live on. What he left behind within us is beneficial to all karateka. I hope all Shotokan practitioners will have a chance to see Asai sensei’s karate in video and DVD.
Sensei Yokoya can be reached at his website: www.jks-sanjose.com