Tuesday, November 23, 2010

First Living Martial Arts Treasure Recipient

I was asked to discuss our USNKA Living Martial Arts Treasure Award recipients and why they were selected. I'll occasionally post stories about each, starting here with our first.

Soke Tak Kubota (right) and student, actor James Caan (left)
Soke Takayuki Kubota, 10th Dan, was the first to receive our award. I first met Soke at Ed Parker’s 1965 International Karate Championships in Long Beach. A few months later, I hosted the United States Karate Winter-National Championships in San Jose. He drove up with John Gelhsen and demonstrated (along with Bruce Lee), as he had at Parker’s. I soon began training with him at his LA IKA dojo (flying down on my one day off and returning that night). I consider myself his student to this day. He is one of our greatest fighting tacticians, has a great sense of humor, and is very down to earth.

Raised in Kyushu, the southern-most of the old Japanese islands (not counting Okinawa) during World War II, he began training at just four to defend his homeland. He said they didn’t train for form or physical fitness. They trained only to fight for their lives barehanded on the beaches – as there were no weapons or ammunition left at this point in the war. He describes the training as being “real kill karate”. So at this young age, he and the others trained with deadly seriousness each day, including punching the makiwara 500 times per day and kicking a bag filled with sand an equal number.

Japan was devastated from the constant bombings. So when an American bomber crash landed, the local people rushed out to vent their anger on the American crew, intending to lynch them. But Soke’s father, Denjiro, intervened. He made his neighbors take the crew to his small factory, where he locked them in a storage room. Three times each day, Soke would take the crew food prepared by his mother, Semo. After the war ended, the crew returned to thank his family for saving their lives and caring for them. They would return on occasion and bring Soke gum and candy and tell him about life in America.

Many Japanese were literally starving to death at the time. So, at thirteen, Soke made the difficult decision to move to Tokyo to find work and ease financial pressure on his family. But Tokyo was filled with people with the same goal. He was forced to eat out of garbage cans and sleep in the park until a police sergeant took him in, in return for him teaching the sergeant taiho jitsu, police defensive and restraining techniques. (Soke’s father had been a high ranking expert in the art and teacher to the Kumamoto police department.) In Tokyo, he trained directly under Gichin Funakoshi, and then 10th Dan Kanken Toyama, direct student of legendary grandmasters Itosu and Higashionna. An article appeared in Black Belt Magazine about Soke’s work as a bodyguard for the American Ambassador to Japan. It also documented an event that occurred while he was working with the Tokyo police, in which he broke up a prison riot single handedly. I once asked him how he was able to stop so many people by himself. He basically said he had messed up the first guy so badly that no one wanted to be number two.

Like me, karateka Harvey Eubanks, training lieutenant for Los Angeles Police Department, read the article and arranged for Soke to come to the United States in 1965 to train their training personnel. They also helped get him the necessary papers to remain here. So, while training LAPD and the FBI, Soke opened a dojo here and taught his Gosoku (Hard and Fast) Ryu style of karate. Since then, he has trained some of this country’s top competitors. Tonny Tulleners and John Gehlsen were selected to represent the United States at the first WUKO World Karate Championships, held in Tokyo in 1970. There were no weight or belt divisions. Tulleners placed third in kumite, while Gehlsen received the Tamashii Award. Tulleners, Gehlsen, and George Byrd were selected to the U.S. team for the 2nd championships, held in Paris in 1972. Val Mijailovic and Boban Petkovic have represented the U.S. very admirably in many championships over the years. (Chuck Norris also trained with Soke to learn hand techniques. Another big-name American martial artist wanted to train with him too but had such a bad attitude Soke refused him.)

I was fortunate to be allowed to study with many of the world's top martial artists over the years. But had I not, Soke Kubota would have been far more than enough.


  1. My husband is George Byrd's son and I am trying to find any information about him or his family. If there is anything you could give us please email me at megadocious@gmail.com

  2. Unfortunately, I don't know anything that would be helpful, just some karate stories. But I've forwarded your email address to someone who would either know more or know someone who would know a good deal about him. Hopefully you'll hear from him soon.

  3. I'll try to post some stories on George in coming blogs so you are aware of those. I have a couple of old photos that I will post as well.

  4. Thank you so much! Any help I can get is most welcome.

  5. I received a response from Val Mijailovic, who knew and trained with George. He said he would email you. He's a great guy who knows everyone who trained with George.

  6. If this is the same George Byrd who fathered many children across the northern continent, then I may have a contact for you. His oldest daughter and son I grew up with in Duarte, California. She is my sister-in-law and has contact with many of the half-siblings. You can reach me at rose.huff@gusd.k12.ca.us I will call her to see if it's okay for me to give you her number. Wow, what a coincidence!

  7. Hi, I posted a response a while ago but it didn't publish, for some reason. I'm working on a piece on George, as promised (but late). The problem is he fought some demons in his life and I always try to keep things as positive as possible, especially for those who are no longer with us. He had some tremendous strengths. He represented the USA at the World Karate Championships, one of just 7 men selected that year. Thanks for your note and patience with me.

  8. Great post. I also trained with John Gelhsen, George Byrd, Val Mijailovic and Boben. I stopped training in 1980 after ten years. Wish I would had continued. I was an L.A. cop at same station as John Gelhsen. Val and I started our training together. Take care to all of you.
    Tom Cooper

  9. Those were exciting times for me, training with such great men. Too bad you didn't continue but it's never too late. I'm about to turn 69 and still train, although less intense these days. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it.