Kousaku Yokota, an international karate master who gave a weekend seminar recently at John Turnbull Sensei’s dojo in Southampton, began with judo at the age of 13, a martial art practiced by his father, in his hometown of Kobe, Japan.
“I thought judo was it,” Yokota Sensei said during a conversation at Turnbull Sensei’s house in Bridgehampton the day the seminars were to begin. “But after I’d been practicing a couple of years, a new guy came to my class — a very short guy I could throw easily. But every time I threw him he would jump up like a grasshopper!”
“I thought that was very strange. When you’re thrown in judo you’re not expected to jump up — you slap an arm as you fall to the floor and stay down for a short moment. When I asked him why he popped up like a bouncing ball, he confessed to me that he was a karate guy who was practicing judo to supplement his karate. I had thought that judo was the most lethal form of the martial arts, but he said no, no, that karate was, that he could disable me with a karate move before I could throw him.”
To test that assertion “I grabbed both of his arms so he couldn’t punch me. He smiled and without moving his arms he kicked me in the groin! Not that hard, but enough so that I let his arms go as I crumbled to the ground. In judo it’s just throws. So that got me interested, it convinced me that karate [imported to Japan from Okinawa in the 17th century] was the better way. I stopped judo completely. My dad didn’t like it, but he said, ‘At least it’s a martial art.’ ”
After a year during which he studied the Shotokan style in Kobe and the Gojuryu style in Osaka, about 30 miles away — there are many styles of karate — Yokota Sensei dropped the latter style entirely in favor of the former, which he found to be “more complete.”
His first mentor, he said, had been an imposing 6 foot, 200-pounder, Sugano Sensei, “strong like a bear. . . . We were all afraid of his punch when he summoned us to demonstrate. He pushed us to the limit!”
He had been lucky, he said, inasmuch as he had been able to practice karate throughout his life. “In Japan, most have to quit at 22 when they begin working from 8 in the morning until midnight. There isn’t enough time.”
The 65-year-old eighth-degree black belt, who lives in San Jose, Calif., came to this country in 1966, at the age of 19, graduated from the University of Delaware with a business degree, and became a high tech salesman, which enabled him to teach karate on the side. He’s been teaching for 40 years. “My heart,” he said, “has always been in karate.”
Faithful practice, he said, in answer to a question, furthered self-realization and helped the karateka face down his biggest enemy — himself.
Of course, self-realization hadn’t been uppermost in his mind when he was a teenager, and “looking to be a bad martial artist!”
While Yokota Sensei thinks competitions have become over-emphasized at the expense of the martial art’s ascetic Samurai tradition, he competed frequently in full contact tournaments when he was younger, until his retirement at 37, not long after having held his own as the eldest competitor in the All Japan championships in 1981 and ’82.
At 50, he said, he — a 5th degree black belt at the time — felt that he’d reached a plateau, and underwent two-and-a-half years of Ki (inner force) training in Japan before meeting up again with Tetsuhiko Asai, a 10th degree black belt whose Taiwanese-based style, he said, was well suited to more experienced practitioners.
The Ki training produced mixed results: While he believes that one can internalize and use the universal force that surrounds us, his master’s failure to fell him by pointing a finger — even as he was able to topple countless others in this way — persuaded Yokota Sensei that he could learn no new techniques there.
Asai Sensei, whose method he now teaches throughout the world, had, however, impressed him greatly. “He was in his late 60s and was flexible — his movements were sharp and dynamic. I thought, ‘This is the way I want to look in my 60s and 70s.’ And so — this was in 2003 — I decided to follow his path.”
The effectiveness of Asai Sensei’s style — an admixture of relaxation and explosive power — was abundantly evident during the weekend seminar. Yokota Sensei’s arms were like whips, his fluid movements like those of a jungle cat.
These analogies did not overstate the case, Turnbull Sensei, a 6th degree black belt himself, and one of the highest ranking Shotokan practitioners in the United States, said during a separate conversation. “There were 35 of us who took his seminar, many of us very experienced black belts, and we really were awed by him — by his grace, his speed, his power, and the knowledge he had. He was very inspirational. . . . It was a tremendous honor for us that he came here. He’s one of the top international instructors in the world. He’s published books, videos. . . .”
The director of the World Japanese Karate Association-U.S.A., Turnbull Sensei said, “I’ve been doing karate for 45 years and I’ve never taken a better seminar.”
“When you’re older you do the movements more efficiently,” Yokota Sensei said, when questioned, adding that his 20-year-old son “wastes a lot of energy.”
“The key part is breathing. That’s very important. And daily practice of the forms and stretching.”
“I try to flow like water,” he said, with a smile, when this writer said he’d seen his movements so described in an interview published a year ago.
“Sometimes, at our dojo we flow like molasses,” Turnbull Sensei interjected, with a laugh.
Asked if he was planning to teach “forever,” Yokota Sensei smiled again. He had never, he said, been sick a day in his life.
And to what did he credit that?
“To karate and tea. I drink a lot of tea — green and black, with honey.”