This is the first 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
(Shaun Banfield) 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.
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, I did not face Yahara sensei. But in an invitational tournament we held in Hyogo, I did. He gave me such a good roundhouse kick to my side, a few of my ribcage bones were fractured.
In kata, of course, Osaka sensei was the champion so I competed against him as one of the finalists. I never went past quarterfinals, however.
(SB) Competitively, who would you say was your biggest influence?
(KY) Osaka sensei was my model in kata and respected him as his moves were textbook accurate. A lot of kata performers change their kata to make them look fancy or dynamic, etc. Osaka sensei did the kata as it is shown in Master Nakayama’s textbook, Best Karate. He was accurate and powerful but his performance had something more, which is very difficult to describe.
Yahara sensei was my model in kumite because he was not interested in winning. He threw some unique and difficult techniques (like a heel hook kick) and seemed to enjoy them. Most of the competitors throw only front kicks and reverse punches to ensure the winning. To me there is little learning in repeating the same techniques. I want to see the back kicks, uraken uchi, etc. though it is more difficult to get points from those techniques. Actually Yahara sensei rarely became a champion as he lost for trying those difficult techniques.
(SB) You mention that Sensei Yahara was not interested in winning, rather treating the competitive experience as an experimental lesson to be learned from. Is this the way you feel competition should be treated, emphasis on experience rather than winning?
(KY) In my opinion, yes. To me, winning has very little meaning. Tournament karate is quite different from real fighting. It is good to have that experience to get motivated and to face some nervous situations. But we must know and understand the real purpose and objectives that you should get from the tournaments.
(SB) You were a graduate of the JKA Kenshusei. Who took most of the sessions during your time there?
(KY) I started the instructor’s training with Okazaki sensei in late 70’s. I graduated in ’83 from Master Sugano class in Japan. My teachers in addition to Master Sugano (9 Dan) were sensei Kashimoto (8 dan), sensei Sakai (6 dan) and sensei Terada (6 dan).
(SB) Can you talk us through your day to day training at this point in your life and what elements were stressed most?
(KY) The main thing in my training days in 70’s and 80’s was to see what my physical (closely associated with my mental) limit was. I knew the free flowing and automatic technique will come only after the break through as a result of extremely demanding (almost impossible) training. In addition to my regular karate training (classes and self training), I did 500 push ups, 500 sit ups and 500 makiwara punches daily. I was so tired after a day’s training; I had to climb up the steps literally on my hands and knees to my room on the second floor. So, my idea was to build the foundation with my body while I was young as I formed karate techniques upon the foundation. I was pretty good shape and did 3,333 push ups on my 33rd birthday (1980). I do not recommend this kind of training as a lot of push ups itself will not aid to one’s karate skills. Actually, building too developed muscles on your chest is counter productive to many of the karate techniques that I found out later.
Oh I have to share a funny story with my 3,333 push ups. I did the push ups in the dojo in the afternoon after a morning class (it happened to be Saturday, I think) so no one was there except for Okazaki sensei who was in the office doing some writing. It took me a few hours to do all those push ups. Okazaki sensei came out of the office once to go to the bathroom while I was doing my exercise but he did not say anything to me except he laughed lightly. I did not know how to take it but I had to keep on going to finish my goal. When I finally completed the push ups it was around 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Then Okazaki sensei came out of the office and said “Oh today is your birthday. I will treat you to a dinner.” I was so happy that he would take me to a dinner, which rarely happened to any instructors. First of all Okazaki sensei was so busy to do such a thing plus he did not want to show any favour to a certain instructor. He was all smiling while he was driving. I was happy to see him celebrating my birthday. He took me to this restaurant “all the crabs you can eat” place. This is where you need to crack the shells with the metal tool. This action is not difficult or hard for any adult. But after hours of push-ups my muscles on my chest and arms were all worn out. I had all kinds of trouble in trying to crack the shells and Okazaki sensei laughed very loudly seeing this. I was a little upset because I thought he was too mean to do this to me. At the end, he asked “Can you defend yourself now?” Even though he enjoyed a comical scene, he was trying to teach me that I must have the mental state to stay ready to defend myself at any time regardless of the situations I am in.
When I was in Kobe I had some special training outside the dojo. I ran up the trail (about 2 miles of bending trail and the first half of it was a steep up hill path) of the mountain near my house (actually my parents’). At the summit I practiced kicks and punches against the trees and bushes for an hour or two. Then, I ran down the slope (very crooked and narrow path) as quickly as possible. This exercise taught me balance and quick body movements. If you step wrongly you could twist your foot and break your ankle. You could also get yourself seriously injured if you would fall down. It must be done very carefully but I ran down the hill at the full speed. It was like a down hill skiing. It was exciting and dangerous. I loved it. At the half way down, I changed to bunny hopping. Running down a slope in bunny hopping is also a challenging matter. You get a false impression that it is easier to hop down a slope than on a level surface. In fact you can hop more but you will pay for it the very next day.
The hardest thing in the dojo training happened in the summer. The Saturday training used to be 5 hours long (1pm to 6pm). It was too long and strenuous for the students so Sugano sensei usually stopped at 5pm or earlier. But it still was a long training. I did not have any problem with a long class as I was used to long training sessions. The temperature in the dojo in summer would get up to 90’s and the humidity was about the same degree. Sugano sensei would close the windows in the middle of the training. Some of the students literally passed out and many had to sit down and could not stand up again. There seemed to be no air to breathe and keeping moving in that condition was the worst I had experienced. The floor got all wet with our perspiration so we had to be very careful as it was very slippery. Many of us slipped and fell when we had to do some combinations and kicks. Those training sessions seemed to last forever. It really built our spirit and mind of perseverance.
He opened the windows in the middle of winter. The dojo was located on a hill side (maybe at the elevation of 1,000 yards) so it could be below zero. The floor was like ice but I did not mind that as much as summer training. I was used to train in that kind of condition in Philadelphia where it gets colder. I felt cold at the beginning of the training but I got warm and hot as I got into the middle of training. So, we all hated the summer training, which as fondly called “steam sauna” training.
No visitors were allowed to watch but one day in August Sugano sensei allowed one instructor from another dojo to watch. This instructor brought a video recorder and took the entire (or most of) training. He said he wanted to keep a record of the famous training of Sugano sensei. The training was open to any JKA practitioners but we rarely had any visitors. Some of the tough college boys from Kobe University came but they did not come back after one session. I wanted to have a copy of this video for my record. A few months later I saw this instructor at either a tournament or a dan examination so I asked if I could get a copy. He said he deleted most of the record as we did not look like seriously training. I could not believe it but according to this instructor through the video the viewers cannot feel the temperature and humidity. In the video we moved very slowly, looked tired from the very beginning and we even fell down. He expected the students of the famous Sugano dojo to move fast and strongly and he was disappointed to see our performance. So, I have no record of the hellish training of Sugano dojo.
I also did many 1,000 kick sessions as well as 100 kata without stopping. Both of those exercises, if performed correctly, will take about 2 hours each. In essence my objective was to put the repetitions in my karate training.
(SB) Who were in the classes alongside you whilst on the Instructor’s Course?
(KY) Muratsu, Takaba, Yamaguchi are the closest guys in my training days.
(SB) Toru Yamaguchi Sensei is obviously a world renown karateka. What was it like to train alongside such karateka?
(KY) Yamaguchi I knew in early 80’s is a different person. Yamaguchi sensei you are mentioning is the JKS instructor who is much junior (as far as the age is concerned). I have some acquaintance with Yamaguchi sensei of JKS and I respect his karate and his personality (he is a very humble person) as well.
(SB) Did you ever train with Nakayama Sensei? If so, could you please tell us about your training with him?
(KY) To be more accurate, I had an opportunity to train “under” Nakayama sensei. I enjoyed them, however, only a few times. In 1981 I visited Tokyo to pay my respect to Nakayama sensei. I visited his apartment and found he lived in the same building where he had his dojo, Hoitsugan. I only wanted to give my respect by giving my greetings at his door step and go home. I did not think he would remember me, just a member out of thousands of JKA students, but he remembered me. He remembered from the time I met him in Philadelphia during his visits to the US in 70’s. I was very honoured. He invited me in his apartment and I had a very personal (just he and I) meeting with him for an hour or so. We talked about karate but mainly about how it was in the US. He was very much interested in spreading karate through out the world and he thought Europe and North America were the key regions. His concern was the sectionalism and internal disputes among the dojo and organizations of not only Shotokan but even more closely of JKA. This was before his passing and he was worried that these internal “fights” would weaken the JKA. He asked what I thought we should do. Of course, I could not answer to such a difficult question. I mentioned to him that Taekwondo in the US had a support from the Korean government and they had very tight organization. Even though we thought the quality of instructions in Taekondo was poor, they were very successful in building many dojo across the US. I think he was aware of this approach and he said he needed to put more pressure on the Japanese government for more support. Unfortunately, he passed away in ‘87 and he was only 74.
That evening Nakayama sensei invited me to come to his dojo so I did. Unfortunately I do not remember much but the only thing that stuck to my mind about his training was that he stopped the training for short period to explain technical points. This was a rare thing in typical training in Japan at that time. Sugano sensei also made some comments on the key points but he would do this before the training. Once the training begins we just trained. Nakayama sensei suspended the movements many times to make some short comments. I think he was a very educated person and he wanted to have a very systematic training. I guess he could not stand looking at the students doing something wrong. Instead of saying we were doing wrong he wanted to explain what and why we needed to do certain techniques. It made sense and his comments made us think. This is a very valuable heritage I carry from him even though the number of trainings under him was only a few.
Another thing I remember clearly about Hoitsugan is its “dormitory”. I mentioned earlier that the dojo was located in the basement of the apartment complex. At the corner of the basement, there was a small section with bunch of beds (2 rows and 3 levels stacked up). There was hardly anything else in that section. They called this a “dormitory”. It wasn’t even a room so there was no privacy and minimum amenities. This was where the foreigners would stay if they needed a place to stay in Tokyo, one of the most expensive cities in the world. I thought if the training at the JKA dojo did not build a character of the visiting students from overseas, the living condition at this dormitory would certainly would do that. After the passing of Nakayama sensei, Kawawada sensei took over the dojo, but I do not know if he is still the chief instructor at Hoitsugan and if they still have this dormitory in tact.
(SB) You were the personal assistant to Okazaki Sensei am I right? What did that position entail?
(KY) There were half a dozen assistant instructors in 70’s (such as Ron Johnson and Gerald Evans) at the headquarters dojo on the 45th Street, Philadelphia. All of us took turns and taught the classes (we had one morning class and three in the evenings if I remember correctly).
In addition to the teaching, as a personal assistant, I took care of some personal things of Master Okazaki such as washing his gi. I did not mind this chore, as it is a typical thing for an assistant to do in a Japanese dojo. Another chore I had was preparing coffee for him. He did not smoke nor drink and his favourite was a cup of freshly brewed coffee. So, this was a very important ritual when Master Okazaki was in the office of the headquarters dojo (he came to the dojo about twice a week, he was visiting the affiliated dojos in the region on other days). I enjoyed this ritual as I got to drink a cup of coffee myself. Now I gave up on coffee and drink only tea. I also accompanied him to the other dojos and universities where he taught. He drove his big Buick and I carried his bag. I prepared his gi before the training and folded his gi after the training. I also assisted him in the class doing kata in front of the class, etc.
(SB) How did it feel to be so close to a Master and what was the most important thing you took away from being so close to him?
(KY) I felt very honoured to be so near to him. He picked me to do these tasks simply as I am Japanese. I was the only Japanese assistant instructor and he could speak Japanese. I think he really missed it as he had no other occasions to speak his native language.
He was one of the most flexible persons I have ever seen. He was always flexible even in the middle of winter. I am pretty flexible but I get stiffer in winter. I learned that I need to be ready to fight any time of any season and regardless of the environment or situations.
I also remember that he was very secretive about his training and karate skills. I wish I could boast that he had given me a one to one training, etc. but in fact that never happened. This is the same way to all instructors. He is from the old school. If a student wishes to learn karate skills from Okazaki sensei, he had to be in his class. That is it. He would not make any comments or teach any techniques outside the class situation. Even at a lunch or dinner table, he rarely spoke about the subjects that were related to karate even though many of us tried to direct our conversation to that direction. I respected him as he did not brag such as his karate skills or relationship to Master Funakoshi, even though he had all the rights to do so.
Read the second part of this interview in the next edition of TSW.