Among the first of Hidetaka Nishiyama’s students in the United States, James Yabe was at the forefront of Shotokan practice in the United States. He has trained with many of the JKA‘s top instructors in America and Japan and has become a top instructor in his own right. He was a top competitor in the 1960s and 1970s.
James Yabe was born on 23 November 1941, in a relocation camp in the United States. Dotted around the country, the relocation camps had been set up during World War II to house Japanese-Americans. There was an unfounded fear that they could be working with foreign powers against the United States.
After the war ended in 1945, the Yabe family relocated to Japan.
Around 1950 the Yabe family returned to the United States, settling in Los Angeles. James Yabe began attending Jordan High School.
In 1955 Tsutomu Ohshima, a student of Gichin Funakoshi, moved to the United States to continue his studies in economics. He attended the University of Southern California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Ohshima taught his first Shotokan Karate class in the United States in January 1956. Some of his fellow students at UCLA had heard of him and the Karate he practised. They persuaded him to teach them.
The class Ohshima taught was located in the Japanese business district of downtown Los Angeles. A small band of American students were soon attending the class. Training was hard but they stuck with it.
James Yabe began training with Ohshima in 1958. He spent every available free moment practising Karate.
After Ohshima returned to Japan, his senior students, George Takahashi and George Murakami took over the teaching at the club.
Hidetaka Nishiyama arrived in the United States in 1961 at the invitation of SAC (Strategic Air Command), students and JKA members living in the United States. Many of the SAC students had previously practised Karate when stationed in Japan and Okinawa.
In the United States Nishiyama created the AAKF (All-American Karate Federation). In November 1961 he opened a dojo in Los Angeles. Yabe started training at the dojo. Some excellent students he eventually trained at the dojo included Ray Dalke, Frank Smith, and Takashi Aoki.
In December 1961 Nishiyama organised the 1st AAKF National Karate Championships. It was held at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles and was sponsored by the California Karate Association. The proceeds from the event were donated to the March for Muscular Dystrophy.
There were competitors from the United States, Canada, and Hawaii. Yabe competed in the tournament as a brown belt. He defeated Greer Golden to become the kata champion. He also defeated Gene Takahashi to win the kumite title. Yabe became the first AAKF Grand Champion.
In 1962 the 2nd AAKF National Karate Championships were held in Philadelphia. Yabe was the overwhelming favourite to repeat his feat of the previous year. He retained his kata title by defeating, Edward Shinfuku and Gene Takahashi into second and third place. However, the 3000-strong crowd was stunned when Jules Paulin defeated him in the kumite final.
On 24 November 1963, the 3rd AAKF National Karate Championship was held in the Kezar Pavilion, San Francisco. The tournament was sponsored by the North California Karate Society. The main judges were Hidetaka Nishiyama (5th Dan), Teruyuki Okazaki(4th Dan), Takayuki, Mikami (3rd Dan), and Masataka Mori (2nd Dan). Yabe regained his Grand Champion title. He defeated Gene Takahashi and Kenneth Funakoshi in the kata final. In the kumite final, he defeated Thomas Morikawa who was the oldest competitor in the tournament at 44 years of age.
in 1964 Nishiyama promoted Yabe, alongside Takashi Aoki and Gene Takahashi to 2nd Dan. Later that year he travelled to Tokyo, Japan, where he competed in the 7th JKA All Japan Karate Championships. In his kumite bout, he lost to Tetsuhiko Asai, who would go on to win the kata event.
Yabe continued his winning ways at the 6th and 7th AAKF National Karate Championships in 1966 and 1967. In both tournaments, he won the kata title. In the 1967 tournament, he lost to teammate Frank Smith in the kumite semi-final. Smith defeated Kenneth Funakoshi in the final. Yabe was named “Best Overall Contestant“.
On 19 October 1968, the 19th Olympic Commemoration World International Karate Championship tournament was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. There were teams from the United States, Europe, Japan, Mexico, and South America. The United States team comprised Frank Smith, John Gehlsen, Ray Dalke, and James Yabe.
The 8th AAKF National Karate Championships were held the following day. Masatoshi Nakayama, Manzo Iwata, and Hironori Ohtsuka were the guests of honour. Yabe won another kata title, with Takashi Aoki and Frank Smith, in second and third place.
Between 10-13 October 1970, the 1st WUKO World Championships were held in Tokyo, Japan. There were 145 competitors from 22 countries. Dan Ivan headed the US delegation to Japan. Don Buck, Gene Takahashi, Hiroyasu Fujishima, and Jon Evans, were the coaches of the team. Yabe was selected to be a member of the United States National Team. In the Team Kumite event, Japan ‘B’ defeated the US 3-1 to finish third. Yabe lost to Takaji Ogata in his bout.
On 5 March 1972, the US Team selection for the 2nd WUKO World Karate Championships was held at the Los Angeles City College. Yabe was 1 of 7 selected from 67 competitors, to represent the United States. Between 21-22 April 1972, the 2nd WUKO World Championships was held in Paris, France.
Yabe moved from the United States to train in Japan in 1972. Trained as an engineer, he had taken a job in Japan so that he could train with the JKA. He attended UCLA, where he received his bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Control Engineering.
Although Yabe attended classes at the JKA Hombu, he was unable to attend the JKA Instructors class, due to work commitments. In the evenings, he began learning Eishin Ryu Iaido.
While in Japan, Yabe was fortunate enough to receive one-on-one instruction from Keinosuke Enoeda, Hiroshi Shirai, and Hirokazu Kanazawa. he also had the opportunity to train at Masatoshi Nakayama‘s Hoitsugan dojo.
After several years in Japan, Yabe returned to the United States in 1976. He established Karate classes at the Gardena Buddhist Church and at UCLA. He was also an assistant instructor at the LA Central dojo.
In 1980 Richard Kim selected Yabe to be a member of his coaching staff for the US National Karate team.
Through the years Yabe continued to teach Karate while working full-time as an engineer.
Yabe joined the ASKA (American Shotokan Karate Alliance) in 2004. Randall Hassell was the Chief Instructor of the ASKA. Yabe eventually became the ASKA’s Technical Director.
Although James Yabe is now in his 80s, he continues to be a much in-demand instructor. He is a strong proponent of the Budo aspects of Karate. While competition is just one aspect of Karate, Karate is first and foremost a martial art.