Great interview with Shihan Yokota 8th Dan by Charlie Wildish
Note: For non-Japanese stylists, Shihan means a master level instructor, (above an ordinary Sensei).
This is one master that I particularly hold in very high respect for 2 main reasons. Firstly is that through his book Shotokan Myths, he seeks to give us (mainly in the West) the real truths behind much of the mysticism and mis-information that has built up over the years for social, political and even commercial reasons. The honesty and directness is very refreshing. Secondly is that he truly understands the difference between Western and Eastern thinking and applies it (rather than expecting others to meld to his way).
I hope I don’t offend anybody here, but most of my previous experience of Japanese Karate masters was that some of them would even pretend that they could not speak English properly when you know full well they can. This was so that they did not have to teach you very much.
When I took my early gradings in the late 70′s early 80′s under the late and charismatic Ray Fuller, we would all come out from his classes thinking “wow, isn’t Karate great” and being really inspired to learn it all. When I moved to Scotland and gradings were conducted by 2 senior Japanese masters, my class mates come out saying “isn’t the wee man great”. I was thinking to myself, yes he is technically brilliant, but I’ve learnt very little. There’s a stark difference.
This is why after several emails between Shihan Kokota and myself, I was blown away when this Japanese 8th Dan suggested that we have a chat on Skype and that I don’t need to be so formal with him.
I don’t think Shihan Yokata will mind me sharing this with you, but in one of his emails to me on the subject of being a master, he said “I am only 64 so I am still too young to hold that title. I will wait till I am 70 or even 80 and see if I feel old enough to be a master”. For a man who’s trained in martial arts for over 50 years, compare that to the many much younger martial artists who readily use the title Grand-Master!
Anyway, on to the interview. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Shihan Yokota’s answers and I hope you do to.
CW: Please tell us how old you were when you first started your martial arts training, how you started and what led you to focusing on Shotokan Karate in particular?
KY: My father was a Kodokan judo practitioner so I wanted to practice judo as soon as I was in junior high school. I joined a club at the local police station where the policemen taught the classes and I was 13 at that time. I was an energetic child so I loved the rigorous training of judo and practiced it very diligently. After a year or two later a new student joined. He was a short and small guy so I threw him easily. He liked to be thrown but he was different. If you are familiar with judo, a person who gets thrown would do ukemi (breaking the fall with slapping an arm on to the floor) and stays down for a short moment. That was what I expected from the new student but he jumped up like a bouncing ball every time I threw him. As he was a small boy and was light it looked very natural. I did not think too much about it. As he was a cheerful fellow I got to like him and we became sort of friends after several months of training. One day after the training, we walked to the bus station together. I asked this boy (maybe he was 16 or 17) why he would jump up after a throw. He surprised me with his answer. He said he is a karate practitioner and he wanted to learn judo to improve his karate. I knew the word of karate and have seen a demonstration or two but I had no idea about karate. I still believed judo was the most lethal method of martial arts so I asked him if he would switch to judo. He said no way as karate was the meanest system of fighting. I could not believe his words. I told him that I could throw him on the hard road and hurt him. He told me that he could disable me before I had a chance to throw him. I thought he could not punch me if I grabbed his arms very quickly. So, the next day, I asked him to show me how he would disable me as I grabbed both of his arms so he could not move them at will. He smiled and without moving his arms he kicked me in groin. I know he only tapped me but I had to let the arms go as I crumbled to the ground for a few seconds. I saw the sparkles in the eyes and I knew he could kill me. He apologized and helped me up. After this event, he stayed with us for a few more months but he went back to his karate training. During that time I asked him to teach me karate but he said he was not an instructor and he could not teach. So, I waited till I get my shodan in judo before I made my switch. I had to do this to show to my father that I was serious in training in judo.
I was 16 when I switched to karate. I did not know that there are many different styles in karate so I did not ask that boy which style he was. I thought karate was only karate. I wanted to dive in karate in full so I decided to train every day. I joined a karate club at a local YMCA (Kobe is my home town) but they practiced only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. So, I went to another YMCA in Osaka (a big city about 50km from Kobe) as they trained on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. One thing I did not know or realize was Kobe YMCA club was Shotokan (JKA) and Osaka club was Gojuryu (with Gogen “Cat” Yamaguchi). I trained at those two clubs for one year before I quit Gojuryu. It is a long story how this happened but I will keep this story to another occasion. I stayed at Kobe YMCA club for 3 years and practiced Shotokan under Kashimoto sensei. Sugano sensei was his teacher and he came to see the training once in a while. I remember this clearly as I was scared of him. When I rejoined his dojo about 15 years later he was not as scary as I thought but for a high school boy Sugano surely had a scary face. Many new students quit but I stayed and I got my shodan when I was 18 (1965).