Shihan Kousaku Yokota, whose title means ‘master instructor’, is the founder of ASAI, the Asai Shotokan Association International, and a martial artist with over 53 years of experience. Born in Kobe, Japan, 300 miles south of Tokyo, he began studying Judo at the age of twelve, under his father, a Kodokan Judo practitioner. At 15, he moved to karate, and studied under Japan Karate Association (JKA) Vice-Chairman Master Sugano, eventually earning the rank of eighth dan. In 2002, and after forty years with the JKA, he left to follow Master Tetsuhiko Asai in his new organisation, the Japan Karate Shoto Federation (JKS). Master Asai died in 2006, and Shihan Yokota left the JKS in 2009 to establish the ASAI, and organisation to honour his deceased master, and continue his style of karate. Currently, he lives in Sacramento, California, and trains at home for between four and six hours a day, under the belief that karate instructors, regardless of their age, must remain in peak physical condition. To him, one’s successes or strengths in the past mean nothing, and it is only through continued work that one can claim to be truly strong.
Q 1) Firstly thank you for accepting this interview. I would like to start with Shotokan. Many Karate instructors identify shotokan as an unique style because of the particular shotokan katas Sochin, Unsu, Gankaku, Gojushiho Sho and Dai. What is secret of these katas? Are you agree with them?
I do not consider Shotokan to be so unique. In fact, all the styles are unique in their own ways. Standard Shotokan (i.e. JKA) has 26 kata and I like many of these kata. Though it may seem to be a lot of kata, in fact, it isn’t when you compare to how many kata the Shito-ryu practitioners practice. They have more than 70 kata. At ASAI, we have about 30 additional kata but only five of them are required. All the other kata are optional for the advanced students.
Q2) Karate, and in particular Shotokan Karate, is one of the most popular martial arts in the United States. What is the history behind this huge popularity?
I believe the popularity of Shotokan karate came from the project Master Nakayama (the first Chief Instructor of JKA). He did two notable things that resulted in the popularity of Shotokan around the world. One is the first one to start the Zenkoku taikai (All Japan Championship). He organized this event in 1957 and many young Japanese people came to Shotokan, then eventually this spread to out side of Japan. The second is the dispatch of the instructors around the world in the 60’s. The notable ones are Okazaki, Mikami and Nishiyama to the USA, Enoeda, Kase, Shirai and Ochi to Europe, and many other to other parts of the world. Other styles did something similar but not as aggressive as the JKA did.
Q3) Why did you found Asai Shotokan International? Please tell us more about Asai, and why you decided to incorporate his work into your organisation?
I am happy to explain this. This is a long story but it means a lot to me. As I earlier mentioned that I was a life time member of JKA. Karate was very important and I was a full time practioner for many years. I even competed in the tournaments until I was 38 years old. I enjoyed it very much and my sensei had to tell me to retire as I was getting older than the coaches of the other teams. After that I moved to California and had been training on my own. After nearly ten years I felt I reached a platau or learned all I could and could not improve any more. I lost interest in the shotokan karate that was simply too physical. I stopped training karate towards 1996 or 1997. I decided to move back to Japan to learn Kiko (Chigong in Chinese), the exercise of Ki to help my karate. I moved to Tokyo in 1998 and lived there for 2 and a half years. During that time I became a student of Nishino Kokyuho dojo in Shibuya (a busy section of Tokyo). Master Nishino was (and still is) the most famous Ki master in Japan. I will not go into this too deeply but I could not be satisfied with the teaching at his dojo so I returned to California in 2000. During the first year after my return, I was in a limbo. I was debating within myself if I should give up karate training completely. It was a very critical moment. I can clear say that if I had not met Master Asai in 2001, I would not have published three Shotokan books and would not have established this organization, ASAI.
As Master Asai was the technical director of the JKA in the 80’s and I was one of the members of the JKA, I knew about this famous karate instructor. In fact, I have watched his demo at one of the national championship tournaments in Tokyo when I participated in it in the early 80’s. I knew he was a great master but there were many other great masters in the JKA then such as Tanaka, Mori, Oishi and Ueki. So, though I was impressed with Master Asai’s demonstration I did not think too much about it. I also knew that he left the JKA with Abe and Yahara in 1990. But I remained in the JKA as I did not want to get involved in the political matters. Then in 2001, there was a seminer of Master Asai organized by a local American practitioner. So, I participated in one of his classes which changed my karate life. He was in his mid 60’s and I saw a role model in him. In the past, I was dissapointed many time by the Japanese “masters” who simply got old and could not move like when they were young. On the other hand, Master Asai I saw was flexible, fast and powerful with his moves and the techniques. I was in my mid 50’s and I remember that I told myself, “That is how I want to be in ten years”. I am in my late 60’s now and I am no where near where Master Asai was but now I have a visible goal. He was like that almost until his last year of his life (passed in 2006).
So, he saved my karate life and gave me a goal. I consider him to be the true genius of Shotokan karate who combined the standard Shotokan karate from the JKA with the techniques of White Crane kung fu. He knew more than 150 kata and practiced them. Though it was only five years he taught me the important thing in karate is the flexibility and the management of all the muscles. The emphasis was more on relaxing rather than kime (tension). His body was like a rubber and the techniques were delivered like a whip. In 2002, I switched my membership of the JKA (I was a member for 40 years) and became a member of the JKS which Master Asai founded in 2000. Since his passing in 2006, I have feared that the name of this great master who contributed a lot to the Shotokan karate may be forgotten. Even in the JKS the emphasis of Asai karate was waning so I resigned from the JKS in 2009 to be independent. At that time I did not think I would establish my own organization but in 2013 I came to conclude that I was the only one in the world who is serious enough to do it. So, I chose the abreviated name of ASAI (Asai Shotokan Association International). The name of the organization is Master Asai’s name so each time we refer to our organization you will recite his name. I consider this is the best way to remember his name.
Let me explain what ASAI (Asai Shotokan Association International: www.asaikarate.com) is.
Our karate is based on the JKA Shotokan with the extension of the Asai karate techniques. Our motto is open environment and non-political. This means we do not mind if a member chooses to belong to another organization. We encourage our members to learn from other organizations and the styles. We believe the best way to learn karate is to learn from everyone. Having a sectionalism (exclusive membership, etc) is as bad as egotism and they are both bad for karate. We want to spread this philosophy and reach out to all the karate people so we can unite and train together. Our objectives are 1) to remember the name of Master Asai and his karate and 2) to provide a common ground where all of us can learn higher level of karate barring none.
It has been only two years but I found many practitioners who agree with our philosophy and objectives. We have the members in more than 30 countries and the number is increasing each month. However, our objective is not merely to increase the membership or to expand the organization. If that was our goal then we will become commercial and business. We will remain to be non profit and non political karate teaching organization where the quality of karate skills is considered to be most important. We welcome the practitioners not only from the Shotokan but also from all other styles. If any of the readers are interested, please write to <email@example.com> and they can provide more information on the membership. If you have a Facebook account, you can contact me directly. My Facebook page is <Kousaku Yokota>. I welcome everyone.
Q4) Focusing on competitions, on one hand we see the JKA and Kyukushin tournaments which bring a significant number of spectators to their events, while other karate federations cannot attract such large audiences/ Why do you think this is?
I cannot answer this question of why the JKA and Kyokushin can bring a big audience to their tournaments as I do not pay much attention to the tournaments by both the contact and non contact karate organizations.However, I have noticed one thing clear that the sport karate is significantly becoming popular while the traditional karate (or Budo karate) is remaining the same if not decreasing. WKF is pushing karate to be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games.
Q5) On you your personal page, you used an interesting word, Mcdojo. Do you not think karate should be an Olympic sport?
I accept that sport karate has its place. I participated in many tournaments when I was young and I remember that a tournament was exciting. So I know it attracts many young athletes and the big events can attract a big audience.
Yes, I am against Mc Dojo and also karate to be included in the Olympics. I am aware that everything has its own benefits as well as the downside. For those two events I consider the downside outweighs heavily against the benefits.
Let’s start with a McDojo. It can be two different types of a karate dojo. One is where the parents drop off the toddlers (some times even the crawling babies) in care of a karate teacher who is either a high school or a college kid. It is a nursery institution with a cover up of a karate dojo. One may say, “What is the problem if it is a nursery where a toddler enjoys the karate plays?” If that teacher did not “teach” any karate techniques then there is no problem caused. However, if he or she tries to teach the “karate” techniques that can be a big problem.
Let me explain more as this is very important. A high school or a college kid may be genuinely a black belt but that does not mean he or she is qualified to teach. According to most of the International organizations including ASAI, an instructor must be at least third degree black belt. So if you are first or second degree black belt you are not allowed to teach. Why? Because we believe that teaching requires that much of experties. In Japan, most of the organizations have the children’s (or non adults) ranking. Until you are 20 years old, Nidan or second degree black belt is the highest rank a child can achieve regardless of how many years he/she may be practicing karate. When you become 20 years old, then for the first time he/she can take an exam to become Sandan or third degree black belt. So, definitely you will not see a high school person in Japan teaching the toddlers or the kids commercially. You can find only a few Japanese college kids who can achieve to Sandan before their graduation. So, what is wrong if a high school kid tried to “teach karate” to a toddler? It is very simple. If a toddler learns the techniques incorrectly then it will be so difficult to get rid of those bad habits if the child continues to practice karate at a bonafide dojo after he/she grew older. If this is not believable, think of speaking a language. Once you learn one language such as English, it will be difficult for you to pronunce the sounds of other languages such as Japanese. The reverse is also the same. I have been living in the US for many years but I cannot get rid of my Japanese accent.
The other kind of Mc Dojo is a place where they offer you a big menu with almost any kind of martial arts starting from karate, judo, jujutsu to MMA. You can “learn” whatever the martial arts you may wish. We have one like this in our city and they are doing well. I hear this guy has five dojo in the area with total thousand students. This is not a surprise when you realize how popular eating at a McDonal is in the USA. I am sure I do not need to explain why this kind of Mc Dojo is not good for you and for karate.
Then why I am against having karate in the Olympics? I fear that karate will be watered down even more. No matter what the Olympic Charter may read, it is a commercial operation. In other words, it is an entertainment so whatever the event they have must appeal and please the audience. The rules will naturally changed to make is more visible and understandable to the audience who know nothing of karate. Here is the famous quote by the founder of the modern Olympic games, Pierre de Coubertin; The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.
However, this honorable concept has been almost totally wiped out as I have watched the games recently. Now, the winning is considered as the most important and the competitors would do almost anything including cheating and taking drugs. If you win then you are the hero. If you lose then you will simply dissapper or be forgotten. Two of the most important elements of budo are etiquette and respect. I am not just talking about if the competitors would do the bowing before and after a match. I am talking about the behaviors and the manners both on and foff the mat. I see many competitors are jumping up and down when he or she wins. This is not a budo way and this type of behavior is prohibited in the kendo matches. If a competitor raises his arm when he or she wins that person will be disqualified. We also see many coaches yelling and even challenge the decisions made by the judges. This is not a budo way. The budo way even expect the audience to follow the budo manner so that they will not yell, scream, jump up and down, etc. Once karate is inducted into the Olympics I am afraid all these budo ways will be discarded and the main objective of the matches will be to please the audience. What the audience like will determine the rules and the way it will be conducted.
As I wish to preserve the way of budo in karate, I strongly oppose it to join the Olympics. I am aware that I belong to a minor group but I am doing my part to express my opinion. We will find out next year if it will be included or not.
Q6) With recent pressure within the JKF, do you think Karate is suffering from disunification?
JKF expelled JKA early this year. Now they are in the court fighting about this. I do not know if JKF is suffering from disunification but I know the JKA is now on the verge of falling apart. A group of honbu dojo instructors headed by famous Tanaka and Osaka is protesting to the executive team headed by Nakahara and Ueki. Tanaka and Osaka group is already out of the JKA instructor’s list (check it yourself at www.jka.ot.jp). So, there are already two JKA groups but there is a rumor that a few of the instructors are planning to be independent or start their own organizations. The JKA had a big split in 1990 after the passing of Master Nakayama in 1987. At that time many big names left the JKA such as Asai, Abe, Yahara, Kagawa, Kase and Shirai. Then one of the major section of the JKA under Okazaki (his organization ISKF) departed from the JKA in 2007. If the JKA splits into two or more smaller groups then it may not be able to boast as the “largest” shotokan organization any more.
I also see some seeds of the future division or conflicts in other major shotokan organizations. One is SKIF headed by famous Kanazawa. This organization grew big as Kanazawa sensei travelled all around the world. He has a large follower group, almost adolizing him. In 2014, the organization quietly announced that the kancho position was to handed down to his son who is still very young and has not proven if he has the similar charisma to replace his father. The other organization is ISKF. The famous chairman of this organization, Teruyuki Okazaki sent out a letter to his members this summer that he was retiring and handing the chairmanship to his nephew (his brother’s son), Hiro Okazaki. Though Hiro has been training and teaching at the ISKF headquarters for many years, he is still young and there are many members who are older and have more years of training. Thus, it is still unknown if he is capable of commanding all those members.
Some members of both SKIF and ISKF have left them because of these power changes. They claimed that there were other instructors who were more qualified. They did not like the changes only to keep the master’s last name. I am not passing my judgement as this Soke system is not unique in Japan. I mentioned these matters as the question was about the disunification of the karate organizations.
I conclude that I predict that there will be more splits and breaking of the organizations in the near future. Is this good or bad? It is bad only if all those smaller organizations remain restrictive and fight each other. On the other hand, I am wishing the changes are good. By these break ups more practitioners will become more free and less restricted. I believe all of us need to have more cooperation and unity among the Shotokan practitioners. We all know that Shotokan karate came from one source, Master Gichin Funakoshi. We all respect him. So, to please him all of us must set the organizations and the politics aside and practice together under one roof. Is it possible? I think it is very difficult but possible. We, ASAI, are trying exactly that.
Interviewed by SportsEmic editorial team – Aug 2015