Yokota Yoshiaki sensei, 8th dan Aikikai, should be one of the world’s most renowned Aikido shihan, up there with great names like Yamada and Chiba, Tada and Tamura. In my eyes, he is the best of the best, but until one fateful day in 2008, I had never heard of him, despite having lived and trained in Japan for six years at the time. Truth be told, Yokota Sensei saved me from quitting Aikido. I’ve never quit anything before in my life, but around the time right before I met sensei, I was very disillusioned with where Aikido was taking me
by RIONNE “FUJIWARA” MCAVOY
Yokota sensei was the captain of his Judo club in Junior High School at the age of twelve, but decided to instead pursue Karate. He also joined an Aikido club in high school, and did Aikido during the day and karate during the evening for about seven years. He decided to dedicated himself to Aikido and spent two years at the Aikikai Hombu as an uchi-deshi (live-in student). Yokota sensei’s aikido is powerful, effective, and recognizable. He is the current Monday night and Saturday afternoon teacher at the hombu dojo.
To understand why I revere Yokota sensei so much, I have to take you back to my own martial arts beginnings.
I was not quite seven years old and was on a three-day elementary school camp: not the one where you stay overnight, we went home at the end of each day. During one of the activities on the second day, I noticed a severely overweight older boy who couldn’t keep with the other children. He was 12, a full 5 years older than myself. Throughout my adult life up until the age of 25, I was always the smallest and skinniest boy — so what happened next defies any kind of logic whatsoever. I went right up the twelve-year-old and screamed, “Why are you so slow fatso?”
Young children don’t know better, and usually get taught a lesson in some way or other. My lesson was the hard way. The twelve-year-old turned around and punched me in the face. I don’t recall anything being broken, but I do recall a lot of blood.
When I got home that day, my father wasn’t angry that I had been punched; he was angry that I didn’t fight back. To understand this kind of mentality, you only need to understand that although I am Australian, my father was from a rather rough area in the North of England. He was raised during the period of, and immediately following, World War II. Everyone was poor, and survival was top priority. Fighting, he says, was second nature to young boys in England. I guess he wanted me to be like that too.
He immediately searched the yellow pages for the nearest martial arts school. The closest was a Tae Kwon Do class at a local high school. My father had done TKD in the 1970’s when he first moved to Australia, so he enrolled me immediately. I quickly rose up through the ranks, and was a 2nd dan junior black belt on the Australian National under 13’s team, on the fringes of an ‘elite’ squad that the national federation would train in the event that TKD became an official Olympic sport (in 1994 it did, but this was to be implemented in the year 2000). About a year into my TKD training, an English woman who was helping train the kids in TKD, mentioned to my father that her husband did Aikido. The moment my father joined that Aikido dojo was actually the beginning of my Aikido training. Growing up, he was always trying to practice techniques on me. I was his uke for all his grading preparations — most of the time, he’d go through the entire 5th to 1st kyu syllabi on me in the swimming pool (in Australia it’s quite normal to have a large outdoor swimming pool at home).
One thing that struck me as a kid was that Aikido bored me. All I wanted to do was punch and kick like Jean Claude Van Damme, and not flip people over like Steven Seagal. Yes — I, like many others of the era, grew up watching 1980’s action movies. The more these bad-ass guys kicked butt on screen, the more I wanted to be like them — and that meant training more. I was really enjoying my TKD, but one day out of the blue, my father pulled me out of TKD and enrolled me into a Karate dojo.
“You can’t punch your way out of a wet paper bag” he said. And there I was, starting all over again. A white belt after 2 years of being a black belt. I found it hard at first, and took all my frustration and aggression out on the kids in my age group. In fact, my father used to sit and watch every training session, almost egging me on. He would give me pep talks at home and who was a “smart ass,” and who “needed to be taught a lesson”. He wanted me to be the ‘top dog’ in the class and to show it. I didn’t know at the time, but I was getting a good insight into what budo is NOT about.
I took a few years off martial arts during my teenage years, but went back to karate when I was nineteen. Three months back, as an orange belt, I found myself Queensland State kumite champion, standing on the podium in the middle of two black belts. You can imagine what the crowd thought when they saw an orange belt beating two black belts to win the under 65kgs division. At 19, I weighed 63kgs (138lbs) compared to the almost 90kgs now. In fact, learning martial arts as a skinny person certainly helped me even when I started putting on more muscle.
It was shortly after this that I took my first trip to Japan to visit my best friend, who was living there as an exchange student for a year. He wasn’t into martial arts at all and even though I did go to my Australian Karate sensei’s sensei’s dojo couple of times a week, it is fairly obvious that I had more important things on my mind at nineteen, and ended up giving up Karate for good.
That eight week stay ended up turning into eighteen months. I went home at the end of the eight weeks, dropped out of college, quit my part time job and came straight back to Japan. I spent the first thirteen months of that eighteen month trip partying in Tokyo.
But something kept eating at me. I missed the dojo. It was in my blood. Since six years old, I’d only ever known training. So in November 2001, I took my Japanese speaking friend to the Aikikai Hombu Dojo and enrolled. I figured at the time, with all that ukemi training in a swimming pool, I’d be fine.
I was wrong.
After a month at the hombu, I quit. I desperately wanted to be good, but I didn’t speak any Japanese and the classes (even the 2nd floor beginners class) are not designed for people who don’t know how to roll or break fall. In fact it’s a problem I come across all the time at the hombu dojo even today. Unless you have a personal relationship with a particular sensei, there is very little actual teaching going it. You watch and then you do. In other dojo’s, the sempai-kohai (senior-junior) system is still somewhat in place (in the West, there is proper instruction from the sensei) but at the hombu dojo not so much. I often come across people who are desperate for someone to teach them but are either too scared to ask (due to the absolute silence in training) or don’t know how to ask. It’s a problem we really must look at.
After quitting, I went back to my party ways, but it was still eating me up inside. A friend of my father’s recommended I try Gessoji Dojo — the famous dojo of Tada sensei. My time in Japan was winding down as I had decided to go back to school in Australia, but I thought I’d check it out anyway. I went down there, met Tada sensei, but decided that with limited Japanese ability, and the fact I would be going home in a couple of months, I should wait.
So in January 2003, I joined my father’s Aikido dojo. He was the assistant teacher and taught his own class on Tuesday nights. My main teacher was another Englishman, Graham Morris sensei. Graham had come over to Australia as a 2nd dan in the 1980’s and established his own dojo as there was no Aikido around at the time. My plan was to go back to Japan anyway, so I jumped in with two feet and learnt the basics, getting my 5th and 4th kyu under Morris sensei. After a one-year exchange program in Japan (where I studied at Tada sensei’s dojo, getting my 3rd and 2nd kyu), I went back to Australia to graduate from college and got my first kyu under Morris sensei.
All I cared about was going back to Japan and literally the week after graduating from college I was back on a plane and back in Gessoji Dojo. I trained at Gessoji for 4 years — I loved Tada sensei and everything he taught. He developed his own breathing system called ki no renma (cultivation of ki). It is the stuff of legends, and I still practice it privately to this day. Something wasn’t sitting right with me, however, and I knew I had to leave.
As great as this grandmaster was, as friendly as his students were, I had a different background. I was used to fighting in tournaments, I was used to the butterflies before big fights (at least to me they were big). I was used to hard training (pushups, situps, and squats were normal in my karate dojo), and I started becoming disillusioned with Aikido.
BJJ was taking off at the time (I remember two Scottish friends, who were doing BJJ, ridiculing me for doing Aikido), UFC was peaking and here was skinny little me trying to do something I wasn’t totally at home doing. So I started hitting the gym hard in the mornings, and although still going to Gessoji at night, I also started going to the Hombu Dojo again.
I practiced with several hombu shihan, and although I made new friends and learnt new ways of doing Aikido — still, something wasn’t sitting right with me. This was not the Aikido I wanted to do. This was also not the martial arts I wanted to do.
I was at a crossroads. I wanted to quit, but I didn’t want to give up.
“Why don’t you go back to Karate?” asked one of my friends, an American named Eric who was a professional heavyweight kickboxer in Tokyo (RIP — God bless your soul). I had been in Japan for a number of years already at this time and had built up a good number of close friends here.
“No” I said. “I want to be a professional wrestler”.
Can you imagine? I was now about 75kgs, a good solid 10kgs of muscle added, but still far too small to be a wrestler.
Eric said to me “Look man. In Japan, MMA guys do Pro Wrestling, kick boxing guys do MMA, everyone here is doing everything. Why don’t you come with me to Ihara Kickboxing Dojo — you never know where that might lead to.”
I agreed. It couldn’t hurt right? I did miss the kicks a lot after all. My father had held kick and punch pads for me 3 days a week after school while I was growing up. He also made sure I spent a minimum of 1 hour a day on the sandbag before any school homework was done. Martial arts came first, school second for him. I thank him daily in my mind for this.
For all of 2007 and half of 2008, I was juggling the gym, Kickboxing and Aikido together. People in Gessoji Dojo (both Japanese and foreign aikidoka) would make comments like, “You are getting too much muscle. Your Aikido will not be good,” and “You can’t do both, you should just choose Aikido.” This didn’t make any sense to me, and was part of the reason I wanted to throw it all way and just do kickboxing.
I made up my mind. I was going to quit Aikido at the end of 2008 and go into Kickboxing full time, with the hope of one day being a wrestler. The only reason I didn’t quit on the spot was that my friend from Australia was coming over for the 2008 IAF International Congress to be held in Tanabe — the birth place of O’Sensei.
It would be fun, I thought. My good friend on the mats in Japan, beers and shenanigans after training. We checked in on the Sunday and the week of training began the day after on the Monday. First up was Seki shihan. I had also never seen him before and enjoyed his teachings more than any other I’d seen. Was this the guy for me? Wasn’t I going to quit anyway? Seki sensei ended up becoming my second favorite teacher at Hombu but at that stage I’d made the decision already. I am done with Aikido. This Tanabe congress was my farewell tour.
Thirty minutes of rest after Seki shihan’s class, another guy I hadn’t heard of, Yokota shihan, walked onto the tatami. Suzuki Toshio sensei was his uke. My Japanese was pretty good at this point and Yokota sensei said to Toshio sensei, “Yosshu, yokomen ikou”, which translated loosely as “Give me a yokomen.”
You’ve all seen the old Batman show from the 1960’s. Whenever there was a punch thrown or some kind of action in the show, words would flash on the screen in comical fashion. POW! SWISH! WHACK! ZLOPP!
Yokota sensei demonstrated his first technique. My eyes were wide open in astonishment. What was I watching? I knew in an instant. I found my sensei. I had spent all my Aikido life looking for this guy, and I had finally found him. It’s a moment I’ll never forget in my life. I compare it to finding the career you knew you were born to do.
To my astonishment, sensei threw a side kick to demonstrate correct distance. As of this writing, he actually threw one to me when he used me for ukemi at Hombu dojo last night. His kicks are as sharp, accurate, and fast as any high-ranking karateka. At that Tanabe congress, he locked on an armbar from iriminage for fun. I was giddy with excitement. His Aikido was not brutal (although I’ve heard stories of his younger days), but it was as close to perfect in my eyes as I had ever seen. Everything that I had been seeking was finally right in front of me.
For me, I came from a kicking and punching background (and over the past 10 years, wrestling and grappling) and Aikido had always needed to make sense from a martial point of view. Here was a guy showing us that Aikido is indeed, a real martial art with real martial intent.
I was sitting in seiza, but surely looking like a child in a candy shop, Sensei looked at me and pointed. My heart was beating fast. I stood up and grabbed him. I don’t remember what happened next. I remember being on the ground, and I remember the only thing that saved me from injury was my ukemi. Not that Sensei would have injured me – I mean that someone who wasn’t trained to take ukemi would have had their head taken off! He threw me again. Same result. For only the second time in my Aikido life (I once grabbed Tada sensei’s wrist and he put me in a sankyo before I could count to two), I had not ‘taken’ ukemi; I had simply naturally just ‘done’ ukemi. The difference is hard to explain, but I can put it down to this: as uke you go to attack tori but you know your role, you know you have to take good ukemi and you are 100% compliant. With Yokota sensei, it is different. You attack, and he’s either there right on you, or he’s a ghost who has moved and is ready to take you apart. He will cut you down, and all you can do is ‘do’ the ukemi. In Japanese it would be a difference of “ukemi wo toru” to take, verses “ukemi wo suru” to do.
I quit Gessoji Dojo the following week. It was a hard thing to do, but I knew the path I wanted to pursuit was with Yokota sensei at the Hombu dojo.
When Sensei returned to the hombu the week after the Tanabe school, I was there, one of the first on the mats. As we all lined up, I saw a wiry but ripped, white bald guy stretching like a gymnast. As soon as Sensei bowed and we stood up to warm up, he ran to the very front. For 10 minutes of stretches, this Jason Statham-looking fella was as intense in his warms ups as I had ever seen. Little did I know I was looking at my future senpai, and one of my future best friends, DJ.
I touched on it briefly already but this is where the importance of the senpai-kohai relationship in martial arts is so important. DJ, an accomplished American martial artist in his own right and one of Yokota sensei’s top students, helped fill in the gaps. He was my ‘Yokota translator,’ helping me understand what Yokota sensei was REALLY saying. Sometimes I feel there is a gap too large to overcome when you are training with some of the big shihan. I certainly felt that way with Tada sensei, whose knowledge is infinite, yet whose students were trying to replicate almost seventy years of martial arts, without really knowing what made Tada sensei the man and teacher that he is.
DJ showed me how a kohai should be raised. Taking care of Sensei when needed, cleaning the dojo, manner and etiquette, and sometimes having to be the bad guy in the room when visiting foreigners got out of hand with their sloppy dojo etiquette. I now have a couple of kohai myself and thanks to DJ, I think I am doing a decent job with them.
Although Yokota sensei does want Aikido to be a guiding light for peace, showing the true beauty of Aikido, he also fully believes that from a budo point of view, Aikido can be used for self-defense. For Yokota sensei, issatsu no shunkan means that the ‘opportunity’ to attack or defend is just in an instant. That is included inside the waza (technique).
Sensei teaches us to just move and react on natural instinct — to have as many weapons up our sleeve as we can. Issatsu no shunkan is something you have to cultivate yourself, but as for the waza, he wants us to move and react: to never be static, never be heavy. A lot of other sensei want to slow things down, feel the connection, the heaviness and that is totally fine. It’s different but it’s fine; it’s just another style of Aikido. Yokota sensei doesn’t focus on slow and heavy; he focuses on speed and timing. He shows us where you can get kicked and punched, where you can put your own throws. You can see that he studied Karate and Judo, as it permeates his Aikido waza.
For example, in iriminage, you go round and round and then ‘pow:’ you throw him. But in reality, you can’t turn, you can’t do this nice fluid beautiful moviment. Once you have entered, ‘pow,’ you immediately throw him. All this is included in our Aikido practice.
For ukemi, we have always been taught that you have to feel, yes, but Sensei always tells us to learn how to avoid being hit. A lot of people do ukemi purely for their partner to be able to do techniques, so it becomes a practice where you both move nicely (or for this younger generation, for YouTube). But in reality, ukemi is about escaping. If you are no good in ukemi, if you cannot take ukemi, you cannot understand Aikido. Receiving ukemi and throwing (technique) are both equally important.
Yokota sensei is the guy who made me believe in Aikido again. Knowing that he came from a Karate and Judo background also gives me the confidence to go out and cross train. It was DJ who taught me the idea that Aikido is the sogou budo (an all-encompassing martial art), and that in order to understand just how powerful Aikido can be, we should go out and cross train in other martial arts. It’s vital to pick up other skills necessary to plug all the holes that modern day Aikido has. You can see the Karate in Yokota sensei’s Aikido, just as you can see his extensive knowledge of weapons.
In April 2012, at the grand old age of 30, I enrolled in a professional wrestling dojo that was operated by former WWE Superstar Yoshihiro Tajiri. This is quite unheard of in Japan for two reasons;
1. Foreigners cannot just walk into a Japanese professional wrestling dojo and start to train. They usually have to have some kind of previous experience to even be considered and even then, it is usually a straight up NO. My Japanese ability and previous martial arts experience helped me get my feet in the door.
2. At 30, I was considered far too old to be a rookie with zero wrestling experience.
What I didn’t realize when I signed up was that I was about to get an education in old school Japanese martial arts training. The wrestling industry here in Japan hasn’t caught up with the West and it is still a ‘make it or die’ mentality. I have never been put through so much intense physical training in all my life. We did a minimum of 300-500 hindu squats every session as well as countless other grueling conditioning drills. What I didn’t know at the time was that, as Eric had said, since the beginning of professional wrestling in Japan, everyone did indeed cross over. All of the original professional wrestlers in Japan were mostly either Sumo or Judo guys. So it made sense later on when I filmed a documentary (I am also a filmmaker) for the Olympic Channel on Japanese Judo  that I saw that my wrestling cardio training is exactly the same as what Olympic Judo athletes were doing. In fact, one of the pioneers of early Japanese professional wrestling was Kimura Masahiko, who is widely considered one of the greatest judoka of all time. He also the man who tapped out Gracie jiu-jitsu developer Hélio Gracie with a reverse ude-garami arm lock that is often called the ‘Kimura.’
I gave away Aikido for 3 years while I pursued a fulltime wrestling career. Little did I know that I was getting a master class in grappling and wrestling, all the while thinking I was doing WWE style wrestling (the difference between the WWE American style and Japanese style professional wrestling is immense).
It took me leaving for three years and then coming back to fully appreciate Yokota sensei’s Aikido. I had a new skillset up my sleeve that I didn’t have before I left aikido and I realized straight away just how important it is to cross train. I am thankful to Yokota sensei (and DJ) for showing me that indeed Aikido IS the all-encompassing martial art, we just have to know what we are searching for.
9 minute version: https://www.olympicchannel.com/en/video/detail/how-japan-came-to-be-a-land-of-judo-legends
26 minute director’s cut: https://vimeo.com/497241478
Copyright Rionne McAvoy ©2020
All rights are reserved
The present article has been published on Aikido Italia Network thanks to the kind authorization of the author
Source: Rionne McAvoy, It Had To Be Felt #65: Yokota Yoshiaki: “Issatsu no Shunkan”, Aikiweb, 2020 http://www.aikiweb.com/forums/showthread.php?t=25726