The Shotokan Way: Interview with Master Y. Yaguchi

31/10/2009 22:56


Sensei Yaguchi teaching. Yutaka Yaguchi is simply a living legend. He is undeniably one of the most significant figures in the development of Shotokan Karate in the USA. He is a student of Master Nakayama, whilst also having been graded to shodan by Master Funakoshi. Here in our exclusive interview he talks about his experiences in the early JKA Instructor Classes, his time with Master Nakayama and Sensei Okazaki and his teaching in the US. This is a fascinating interview from a remarkable man.


Many thanks to Dale Weyant for helping organize the interview, Tatsuun Ryu for translating and Catherine Pinch for editing. Also Many thanks to Masters Magazine - - for kindly providing photographs.- Shaun Banfield 08


Questions by The Shotokan Way.


(Dale Wayant)     Can I firstly say a big thank you for being so willing to do this interview with us, it’s a great honour to have an interview with you for this Online Magazine. How and why you first started on your path in the Martial Arts?


(Yutaka Yaguchi)     When I was growing up, I was really shy. Even though I was an athlete, competing strongly in local swimming tournaments, I couldn’t look another person in the eyes. However、 I felt very relaxed in the water because you don’t, and can’t, talk to other people (laugh). I guess in a sense, I never liked being in the spotlight, probably because of my lack of self-confidence. When I enrolled in university there were lots of promotions from various martial arts clubs attempting to get first year students. I had no idea what karate was then, but I was extremely impressed by their training. Back then, I knew I was physically strong from swimming competition, but more than that, I wanted to gain more self-confidence. I thought these Karate people seemed quite strong and confident, so I joined Karate.


(DW)     I have read that you graded for your shodan and nidan under Master Funakoshi. Am I right?


(YY)     First, I want to clarify that I didn’t receive 2nd Degree black belt from Master Funakoshi. I was awarded 2nd degree thru 8th degree from Master Masatoshi Nakayama. I failed my Shodan test twice. Back then there was only one black belt test per year, and about 300 students testing to get their black belts. Each time, only a handful of people passed at each test. The skill level of the karate-ka at my university was not as high as at some of the more well-known karate universities such as Keio, Tokyo, Takushoku and Waseda. I think there were various reasons for this. At those schools there were many experienced senior students who taught the junior students, and therefore their skill level improved faster. In our university, our karate club was started as a Shito-ryu club, however it was changed to Shotokan three weeks after I started, and we didn’t have experienced senior students to teach us correctly.


At that time, Master Funakoshi was famous. He was at such a high level compared to me and all of the people I trained with. Because of this I never actually spoke to him; I just saw his face. Additionally, he was always very busy watching the many testing students. Of course, I always greatly admired him.


(DW)     And what did the examinations under him consist of, would you care to share your memories from these times in your life?


(YY)     Today’s tests are systematic and organized: Kihon, Kata, and Kumite. When I tested for shodan, we performed Tekki Shodan first. The senseis reviewed Master Nakayama with Sensei Yaguchiour performance of the kata, especially our stances, and decided if we could go on to the next round. If we failed the initial kata test, that was it, end of the test. I failed the initial Tekki test twice, but on the third attempt in the third year I made it through the Tekki Shodan, completed the rest of the exam, and was awarded Shodan. After Tekki Shodan, we went through Bassai-Dai, then Ippon Kumite. Free sparring at Shodan tests was implemented in Master Nakayama’s time. In Master Funakoshi’s time, free sparring was used only for those testing above 2nd degree black belt. Kihon consisted of Jodan Oizuki (step-in punch to face level), Chudan Oizuki (stomach level), Sanbon-zuki (punch twice to face level and once to stomach level), Ude-Uke (arm block), and Maegeri (front kick). Combination techniques were developed by Master Nakayama. Because of the simplicity of the tests, each technique was required to be very powerful. The difficulty of techniques at that time was about 4th kyu level in today’s testing system. Stances and strength were more important than anything else.


(DW)     You took part in the 2nd Class of JKA Instructor’s class. What made you decided to travel in this direction?


(YY)     I became an instructor trainee because Master Nakayama invited me to join the Instructor Training Program. At that time, I had been training every night after work. I was enthusiastic because I had Masters Nakayama, Okazaki, and Nishiyama as my inspiration. When Master Nakayama started the instructor training course, he set it up as two levels. One, called ‘Kou” was for trainees who ranked nidan and above; and the other, called “Otsu” was for trainees who ranked Shodan. Kou class required competing one year to become certified. The Otsu class required two years for certification. Since I was Shodan at that time, I had to enroll in the Otsu class. Master Kanazawa was one of the trainees in the Kou class. It was actually unclear whether I graduated in the 2nd or 3rd class. Master Asai enrolled in the Kou class when I was in the 2nd year. Since I was there already as a Kou trainee (2nd year and 2-dan), I became his senpai (senior). The Kou-Otsu system lasted for ten years. Most of people in Otsu class were working men.


In addition to my desire to train under these great masters, I also wanted to become the foundation of my University’s Karate club since there wasn’t a certified instructor. I didn’t want my juniors to struggle to learn without senior instructors to teach them, as I had when I was their age.


(DW)     In the Instructor’s Class, you trained alongside the likes of Enoeda Sensei, Asai Sensei, Mikami Sensei and Shirai Sensei. What was the atmosphere like in the classes.


(YY)     I can honestly say the experience was unreal. We had three trainings every day. We arrived at 6:00am to clean the restrooms, and then ran for half an hour. Master Nakayama taught class until 8:00am with the assistance of Masters Okazaki and Nishiyama. Back then, training was very simple. It included two hours of kicking techniques and two hours of striking techniques. From 10:00am to noon we trained with foreigners and working men. From 3:00pm to 4:00pm, we had a summary class for that day. From 4:00pm until 9:00pm, I was an assistant instructor. We spent 5 hours a day concentrating on our instructor training skills. This schedule went on for two years until we graduated. I am still proud of myself that I didn’t miss any of the classes. I was motivated and inspired to become as good as the other masters. I knew I could, if I made the effort. After graduating from the Instructor Training program, I could train at the same level as those masters, even sparring. Master Nakayama kept telling me to go back to the starting point, to basics. I was also told not to become arrogant. He said that to me for eleven years, until I left for the U.S.


Masters Enoeda, Asai, and Shirai were in my instructor class. Those karate men were all unique in their abilities and physical techniques. Master Kanazawa, Enoeda, and Shirai had very impressive, strong techniques. Master Asai was extremely agile and had great speed.


(DW)     Of your peers in the classes, was there anyone you predominantly partnered up with? If so, could you please tell us about your times training with these people?


(YY)     No, I didn’t have particular partner(s). When I was training by myself, I trained with younger students. I hung out with Master Asai and Yamaguchi regularly. In the Instructor class, we sparred with each other in a round-robin style.


(DW)     Instructors of the class at this time were the likes of Nakayama Sensei, Okazaki Sensei and Nishiyama Sensei, who are all world reknowned Karateka and Instructors. Who took most of the classes while you were there and what do you remember about them and their karate?


(YY)     Since Master Nakayama was Chief instructor, he taught the class most of time. He sometimes had Master Okazaki or Nishiyama instruct, but would review with them what technique to address in the class. I also trained under Masters Kase and Sugiura.


(DW)     In 1965, after the Instructor Class, you left Japan for the USA. Was this your first time to travel to the West and could you please tell us your first impressions of the US?


Sensei Yaguchi teaching(YY)     Yes, it was my first time abroad to the West. I became certified in 1959. I came to Los Angeles on June 5, 1965. It was night when I arrived. That first night I slept without worry or culture shock. However, the next day I wondered why I had come to the US. How was I going to talk to other people? How would I live? I was anxious and worried. My biggest impression and shock regarding American culture was the “help-yourself” custom. In Japan, there were lots of restrictions or disciplinary behavior. For example, we were taught to straighten our posture in public, not to laugh, not to show our teeth in front of people. On the contrary, in U.S., everyone behaved freely. Even their footwear was free. People went around in any shoes, sandals, or even barefoot if they wanted to. They were so free!


(DW)     Culturally, the West and the East are quite different. What would you say was the biggest thing you had to adapt to, that was different to Japan?


(YY)     From a karate standpoint, western Karate training didn’t seem to have any particular order. For example, after bowing in to class, the students practiced whatever they felt like working on. In Japan, training was much more structured—Bow-in, stretch, Kihon for warming-up, Kata, then Kumite. Very organized and ordered.


(DW)     The US has a very impressive foundation of Shotokan Karate, with many of the greats residing there, including so many excellent names. You are of course very close with Okazaki Sensei, can you please tell us about him and how he has influenced you and your karate?


(YY)     It is a mistake to say that Master Okazaki and I have a very close relationship. Master Okazaki is my mentor, my father-figure, and my friend. However, it is misleading to say we “have a very close relationship”.


Master Okazaki has a tremendous spirit toward karate, one that has influenced me and helped me continue down this path. It is my goal to equal his amazing strikes, punches and kicks one day. He has more spirit than anyone I have ever met. He thinks on a different level, and his physical abilities are almost beyond human. He is also intellectual; he thinks about the development of Karate every day. I think the ultimate development of Karate is more important to him than eating and drinking. 


(DW)     Having practiced and taught karate for a long time, what would you say has been the most rewarding aspect of this path?


(YY)     Through Karate training, I have become very thoughtful of others’ feelings. Respect for others is very important to me now. I used to be oblivious of people’s feelings. I took many aspects for granted because I was a certified instructor and I thought that was all I needed to be a great instructor. However, through basic sparring, I learned that one can know how another feels by exchanging techniques. When both of you feel pain during sparring, you can begin to see how others feel in that process. My heart got bigger in a sense. I am more appreciative of other people’s kindness and sincerity now.


Sensei Yaguchi during demonstration(DW)     Shotokan today is probably very different to the way it was practiced during your early year. What kinds of developments have you personally seen that are for the better?


(YY)     Even though there are fundamental differences in our life style, thanks to the development of sport Karate (although I can not agree with some of the aspects), the speed of techniques got better. Also exchange of friendship from other schools became deeper. Tournaments have developed both friendships and rivalries. People’s abilities have also improved. School rivalries are more fun and sports-oriented, not openly hostile. Karate foundation as a whole has become very stable.


(DW)     And for the worse?


(YY)     With the improvement in Sport Karate, many put their priority only on speed. Because of it, focus (Kime) at the moment of impact has deteriorated. Completing a technique with Kime is the bottom line of Karate. People who focus only on sport Karate don’t have Kime. This is the worst aspect of sports Karate. Because of sports, strength of techniques is sacrificed over speed. I am hoping that students learn to differentiate between sports and martial arts. I hope everyone recognizes the difference between the purpose of sports and the purpose of martial arts.


(DW)     And how can Karateka around the world ensure Traditional Karate continues and does not get too “Watered down”?


(YY)     Now, Karate can not eliminate the sporting aspect. Recognition of both sport and traditional Karate is very important. Traditional Karate is more suitable to people above 25 years of age. All instructors need to find their way to teach both aspects, otherwise, students will get bored. And worse, Karate will become just another sport.


(DW)     In your own personal teaching, what would you say, technically speaking, are the most important things to stress?


(YY)     Basics are the foundation of Karate. Making solid ground for striking, punching, and kicking is essential. And also focus in Tanden (center of gravity). In addition, strong stance. Here is one good way to train: Focus on the distance between steps, weight shifting, power control with focus in Tanden, and merging your techniques with spirit. Technique without Kime has no effect. Keep those balances. When you go into a slump, go back to basics. Practice correct arm and wrist rotation, elbow position, and so on. BASICS. To keep all those in balance, basic stance (foundation) is crucial.


(DW)     And philosophically speaking, what do you think are the most important things to stress?


(YY)     The important items in karate are the same as the important things in life. Keep all the basic aspects in balance. Your foundation is comprised of the most essential points. When you are lost, return to basics, or your starting position. Very important.


(DW)     In the Martial Arts, the center of “Hara” is of great importance. Can you please explain to us the significance of it and how it relates to the Martial Arts?


(YY)     The hara, or tanden, is your center. Your techniques have no true effect without bringing focus together with strong technique, strong Kime, and strong spirit. Bring all of your focus (spirit, technique, speed, and strength) to the tanden, and then distribute them throughout your entire body. Then, finish with Kime. Use the Tanden as a place where you transfer your focus. Other martial arts and sports are the same. The key point is in your body’s center of gravity.


Sensei Yaguchi during demonstration(DW)     Scientific studies into boxing have supported what karateka have been saying for a long time, that a powerful punch starts from the ground up, from the feet and upward. How do you think a karateka can maximize a powerful technique by using the floor and could you tell us your thoughts on how a truly powerful technique can be produced?


(YY)     I know I’m repeating myself, but the key is one’s foundation. Ensure your stances are correct, and your techniques feel natural. Stances in Shotokan karate are designed to use the floor to the maximum advantage. You must understand appropriate distance, and use vibration, rotation, and thrusting power at the right time. Distance is critical. Techniques can only be fully effective with proper distance between you and your opponent. Think about close, medium, and long distance, and which techniques are most effective at each of those three position. For example, when would you use a snapping technique versus a thrusting technique? Finally, always finish with Kime in order to control your power.


(DW)     Those who have trained with you comment on the fact that you spend much time emphasizing the essential character building aspects of the Martial Art training. In what ways do you think the Martial Arts develop the human character?


(YY)     The Dojo Kun should be taken seriously and followed. An instructor should always instruct with the Dojo Kun, and ensure students understand and incorporate it. If you spar with someone who doesn’t take the Dojo Kun seriously, there will almost always be injuries.


  • Seek perfection of character.
  • Be faithful.
  • Respect others.
  • Endeavor.
  • Refrain from violent behavior.


I don’t teach anyone who does not keep the Dojo-kun. As a matter of fact, I only want to teach people who understand and incorporate the Dojo-kun into both Karate and their lives. Remember those five disciplines. This is the foundation of instruction. People who cannot follow these disciplines cannot be taught.


(DW)     How would you say it has developed you?


(YY)     Now I am 74 years old. I have 57 years of Karate life; however, I haven’t mastered the Dojo-kun yet, although it has influenced me greatly. My first priority is my students, then myself. In my past, getting strong was my first priority. Now my main concern is my students. It took me a long time to realize the importance of what it means to be a good instructor and not be so concerned with myself.


(DW)     And do you hold the mentality of the samurai in your karate approach and could you please explain to us what this means to you?


(YY)     There are many ways to interpret the samurai philosophy. My opinion is that the samurai spirit requires you to be bold about stating your opinions clearly, and carry out your promises. I believe if you can do that, you are a samurai. Don’t be irresolute. In this modern day, it is wrong to say a samurai needs to defy death. In my opinion, holding and defending your beliefs strongly is the way of the samurai spirit. 


In Karate, it is the difference between techniques with Kime and without Kime.


Sensei Yutaka Yaguchi 9th Dan(DW)     Who would you say has been your biggest role model in Karate and why?


(YY)     Masters Nakayama and Okazaki. The way they have lived their lives is my inspiration.


(DW)     What is your favorite kata and why?


(YY)     Bassai-Sho…because it is short kata. (laugh). It requires mental flexibility (feeling). It doesn’t look complete unless you focus on each individual movement no matter how tiny. It also requires control of speed in techniques, and has motions that use Jodan, Chudan, and Gedan techniques simultaneously. This is a very interesting kata. It contains every Karate technical essential from the top of the head to the tip of the toe.


(DW)     And in what ways do you think practicing kata develops the karateka?


(YY)     In my opinion, Karate Kata develops a strong foundation for the execution of strong movements, strikes, and stances. I don’t personally find it interesting to analyze the line of movements in a kata. Analysis is not the purpose of Kata. Kata needs to be the asset to make strong techniques, stances, and basic foundation. You can’t defend yourself by performing the line of movements in a kata. Self-defense requires movements according to circumstances. Kata trains the body and mind for self defense.


(DW)     May we just say a huge thank you for this opportunity to speak with you and may we wish you every success and luck for the future.


Please also watch out for the book about Sensei Yaguchi ‘Mind and Body like Bullet’ by Catherine Pinch due for release in 2008


Search site

Ontario Karate College © 2009 All rights reserved.