Interview with Sanbukan Dojo: Mits Yamashita, In Memoriam

Mits Yamashita was a powerful force for Yoshinkan Aikido in California. In this special interview, eleven of his black belts and senior students came together to issue a few words of remembrance and memorial for Yamashita. In it, they narrate important parts of their teacher’s life, how they began training under him, and what kind of person he was both on and off the mat. Great thanks to Cindy Johnson and Gary Abrajano for acting as intermediaries throughout the interview process. All images provided by Sanbukan Dojo and Toru Hashinokuchi.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you all for taking the time to participate in this very special interview remembering Mits Yamashita!

Everyone: We are happy to be here and say a few words about our sensei.

MAYTT: Mits Yamashita began training Yoshinkan Aikido in 1958. To your knowledge, what influenced his decision to pursue aikido? How did he know, in your opinion, know that this was the art for him?

Toru Hashinokuchi (left) poses next to Mits Yamashita (right) who just received his godan certificate. Hashinokuchi was his uke for the test in September 1990.

Mike Jackson: Shihan Mits said his father would never let him study a martial art, but his father would judo throw Mits around. Shihan Mits said he first got strong on the farm. Although he was a little kid, it was his job to pick, crate, and haul Napa cabbage.

“Big Mike” Troscan: Shihan Mits lost a fight as a youth and decided he would never let that happen to him again. After hearing about the art of aikido and a story of one person being able to fight multiple opponents, he asked his Japanese friends to keep an eye out for an aikido school. Eventually he met Virgil Crank.

Toru Hashinokuchi: Shihan Mits grew up on a farm and was a gardener as a kid. Shihan Mits would be a gardener during the day and attend college classes at night. Shihan Mits said when he met Virgil Crank and took aikido lessons for six months. He knew he would be an aikido sensei. 

Pete Paredes: Sensei Mits said he walked by a class in Lomita, California where people were flipping and being thrown around. This is where he met Sensei Virgil Crank. Mits was very interested in the rolling, flipping, and throwing because it went along with his gymnastics and pole-vaulting background.

MAYTT: Yamashita did not limit himself to just aikido, but participated in many different arts, ranging from boxing to judo, from Tang Soo Do to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, taking on a mixed martial arts mentality. In your time training with him, how have you seen the other arts and systems influence his aikido and vice versa? With all this martial knowledge, did he ever consider establishing his own style or system of martial art?

Johann Hellmansberger: Sensei Mits would say, “Any art by itself is weak.”

Gilbert Rodriguez: Sensei Mits’ syllabus has the breakdown of what he taught which is basically aikido, elbow series, judo in the osoto series, Karate/Soo Bahk Do in the kata, and the Don Angier series. During the class, Mits would also teach us boxing drills, judo throws, Jujitsu/grappling, Capoeira, Systema, and other things.

“Big Mike” Troscan: When Shihan Mits would teach at El Camino and Harbor Colleges, he would often teach sequences from other arts, like judo, or boxing or BJJ. I’ve seen Gene Labell, Hayward Nishioka, the Gracie family, Salem Assli, and other greats show up to share their arts with the class. But he still considered these arts as separate from his aikido.  He loved them and studied every art he could for his whole life, but ultimately, he considered himself an aikido man.  The other arts improved his aikido and that’s why he didn’t call his art “Yamashita Aikido” since his experience led him to an aikido that looked slightly different than the traditional art. Shihan Mits said very strongly, “I am a Yoshinkan Aikido instructor; I will always be with Yoshinkan Aikido.” He said this, despite the negligence, in my opinion, that they showed him.

Toru Hashinokuchi: Shihan Mits included judo in his aikido classes with the osoto gari series along with teaching judo throws. Also, Shihan Mits included the elbow series, which is a mix of Muay Thai and an earlier aikido style of using elbows.

Mike Jackson: Gozo Shioda gave Sensei Mits his school’s name Sanbukan and the idea of the Sanbukan was the combination of the arts.

Pete Paredes: Sensei Mits’ core was aikido. The other arts came around his aikido. The other martial arts were a conglomeration that added and improved his own art of aikido.

Bernardo Mares: Sensei Mits didn’t think about his own style, but just trained with other martial arts. Sensei Mits’ aikido mixed with other martial arts is very effective for the streets.

MAYTT: Given his involvement in other martial disciplines, how important was lineage when it came to his instruction? How did Yamashita’s lineage define his teaching style in your opinion?

“Big Mike” Troscan: Shihan Mits had the utmost respect to everyone else that has come before him. When it came to his art, it was Shihan Mits making himself the best Shihan Mits he can be, just as he expected his students to be the best they can be. Shihan Mits didn’t rely on the lineage to say, “So and so did it this way; that’s why it’s better.” It was all a matter of Shihan Mits putting it to the test, his reality, and making it work and making the best aikido he could. Shihan Mits gave lineage and others all the respect but didn’t follow their path.

Mike Jackson: Sensei Mits’ primary mission was never to be the greatest fighter. He said everything was to be the greatest teacher and greatest ability to help students. Sensei Mits was able to break down the technique to its smallest steps. That was his life.

Gilbert Rodriguez: While I was training in Shotokan Karate, everyone was trying to copy the teacher like robots. I’m so glad I went to Sensei Mits’ class because I felt relaxed and welcomed.  The welcoming group and Sensei Mits’ harmonious attitude infused into the class made you want to learn. When I went to class, I knew there was something new I was going to learn. Sensei Mits taught his version of aikido to his students and to us. You evolve it to your style, and I evolve it to my style. And each of us develops it to their own style. Your feeling, your height, your weight, your speed, and your slowness; all of it plays a part and it’s always evolving.

Cindy Johnson: During an aikido demonstration, Sensei Mits asked me, “What do you think of this school? They look great and the teacher is moving great.” We both noticed the students moving exactly like their teacher. Sensei Mits quietly didn’t agree with that and believed that each student will be stronger if the art included their self and their style.

Yamashita demonstrating a punch in close quarters.

MAYTT: Furthermore, do you feel he evolved past his lineage? If so, how did he define his own way?

“Big Mike” Troscan: Shihan Mits said, “Your aikido should never look like my aikido. Because you’re six-foot-four and I’m five-foot-six, our centers are different heights and our relationship with our opponent will be different. I might be dealing with someone with a higher center and their center will be lower for you. It’s going to look different. If your aikido is looking like my aikido, then I’m doing something wrong as a teacher.” In terms of lineage, Shihan Mits would say, “This is how Japan does it.” and shows it in Japan’s way. Then say, “This is how I want it for the test but oh, this is the way I do it.”

Shihan Mits had lineage and showed respect, but there was always Shihan Mits’ way. In the early 1990s, there was a way to do the techniques and it changed by the late 1990s to 2000s.  Shihan Mits’ art always evolved.

Toru Hashinokuchi: Shihan Mits was very open minded and learned new and different arts because of his open mind and creativity. Shihan Mits continued to stay humble even while creating his own way in aikido.

Mike Jackson: Shihan Mits would say, “There is the basic form,” and he wanted the basic form to be taught and then the student would adapt as your physical needs were. And that was always the challenge.

Pete Paredes: Sensei Mits would talk about Gozo Shioda and his visits to their dojo here. Sensei Mits said Shioda was interested in why Sensei Mits is teaching judo and incorporating judo in his syllabus. Shioda gave Sensei Mits the Sanbukan name to his school. Within recent years, Sensei Mits talked of the influential [Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu instructor] Yukiyoshi Sagawa. Sensei Mits evolved by always moving forward and creating/reforming his aikido techniques, even up until his passing. Sensei Mits further evolved by being open to other martial art forms whether it was boxing, wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Systema. Don Angier of Yoshida-ha Shidare Yanagi-ryu was a big influence on him.

Bernardo Mares: Sensei Mits was not traditional, but he followed the traditions of Yoshinkan Aikido as being a combative art and adding a mix of different martial arts. Sensei Mits earned respect from the martial arts community as he made aikido street practical and combative.  Sensei Mits went beyond tradition by training and teaching with all the different martial arts he experienced. 

MAYTT: In 1968, Yamashita took over responsibility for Sanbukan from early Yoshinkan pioneer Virgil Crank. Could you give some background on the relationship the two men had and how this event influenced Yamashita’s martial career?

Gary Abrajano: Sensei Mits didn’t take over responsibility after Virgil Crank. Walter Foster was actually the head of the school and Sensei Mits only trained and taught some of the classes. Afterwards, Shihan Mits started his own dojo. Then Gozo Shioda named the dojo ‘Sanbukan,’ since Sensei Mits was teaching Yoshinkan Aikido with other martial arts.

MAYTT: What was the relationship between Yamashita and Virgil Crank, and later with Walter Foster? How did these relations influence Yamashita’s martial arts career?

Gary Abrajano: Sensei Mits was a student of both Virgil Crank and Walter Foster. When Virgil Crank left to be a CIA advisor, Walter Foster became the dojocho and Sensei Mits was still a student and would assist in teaching. These experiences became a basis for Sensei Mits’ Aikido training. 

MAYTT: When did Yamashita establish his Sanbukan Dojo? What factors inspired him to strike out on his own?

Gary Abrajano: Sensei Mits set to commit to a life of teaching so started his Aikido dojo in 1973. Later, Gozo Shioda visited Sensei Mits’ dojo and named it Sanbukan in 1980. Just to clarify the evolution of the dojo. 

MAYTT: How did you come to first train under Yamashita? What were your initial impressions of him and how did further training either reinforced or altered those impressions?

Larry Jones: I studied karate first and then got out of that. Then I saw a hapkido demonstration and I liked the flow and tried to find something like that. Sensei Mits’ school was the only school that offered that. I look the bus to the school and watched the class. Didn’t understand what they were doing but I liked the camaraderie in the class. Sensei Mits was very open and very friendly. Then I came back next week and started. This was either 1977 or 1978.

Gary Abrajano: I first met Sensei Mits at a summer aikido session at Los Angeles Harbor College, which was only a month and a half long. I had a lot of fun and Sensei Mits was very friendly and had an openly positive attitude. I then asked if Sensei Mits had his own aikido school. Sensei Mits said he didn’t have a place for his school yet but will have a place soon and he would let me know. He gave me his number and I would call him asking if his aikido school was open yet. Sensei Mits said, “No, I haven’t found a place yet,” and he would let me know. This lasted for months, close to a year. Then Sensei Mits finally let me know about his aikido school opening near Artesia and Downey Avenue and I started with him there in 1994.

Gilbert Rodriguez: In 1979, I was studying Shotokan Karate and only the black belts were allowed to study another martial art at my dojo. I always wondered why; I always wondered why I couldn’t. Some of the black belts were going to an aikido class. I wondered why and what they were learning. At the same time, I was watching a lot of samurai movies and shows at the time. So, I found out where the black belts were going to an aikido class, so I went to check it out. I see this guy, I didn’t know it was Sensei Mits at the time, and this guy is hunched over like the letter C and his back isn’t straight. Instead of standing up like a samurai where their back is straight, Sensei Mits’ stance was hunched. And I asked, “Hey, how come your back isn’t straight?” Sensei Mits and I became friends immediately and I always remembered our first meeting. From that time on, I studied aikido with Sensei Mits.

Taken August 1990, Yamashita (left) and Hashinokuchi (right) practice for Yamashita’s test in the El Camino College physical education room.

Johann Hellmansberger: I started January 1980 at El Camino College and intended to take a California Law class and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I put in the incorrect five-digit class sequence where the class was at. I ended up in Sensei Mits class by mistake and I saw him talk and I was asking myself, “What the hell is this class? I thought it was a law class.” And I heard Sensei Mits’s speech on self-defense and how to defend yourself. I thought I would give the class a chance and see what it was all about. I didn’t have any interest in martial arts and didn’t have a desire to take a class like that, but once I saw Sensei Mits speak and teach, I thought, “Wow this class is really good.” I was very impressed with his teaching manner, the way he treated the students and the strength of his art. I was very, very impressed.

Bill Bubinski: I was a national weightlifter and bodybuilder, and I had the attitude back then that I can walk through walls. My friend, Frank Colewell, who was a black belt, started to train with me and told me I should meet his friend Mits Sensei, who happens to be one of the finest martial artists you will ever meet and the nicest person. So, I went down to the class and met Mits Sensei. Mits Sensei did a nikajo on me and stopped before I would falter. I said to myself that I should learn this because it has something I never experienced and felt before. I came back to the next class and joined the dojo. This was around September 1978.

Mike Jackson: I was taking judo classes at El Camino College and met high ranking black belts, the Nakai brothers. They encouraged me to join the Nazaki Judo Dojo at the Gardena Valley Gardener’s Association, which I joined. Later, in 1974, I was at the El Camino College wrestling room watching a police defense tactics class. Shihan Mits was the teacher and he introduced himself and sat down next to me. Shihan Mits was so nice and encouraged me to join his aikido dojo. I stopped going to the judo classes and I joined Shihan Mits’ aikido dojo at John Ogden’s judo dojo in Long Beach in 1975.

Pete Paredes: I was a member of the Manhattan Beach Athletic Club and one of Sensei Mits’ brown belt students was showing some guys some kind of hand techniques. I asked what they were doing. The brown belt said it is aikido. I asked if I could join them because it looked so fascinating. The brown belt ended up being a lieutenant with the Redondo Beach Police Department. He told me to go to El Camino College and join the self-defense class with Sensei Mits. I was thrilled and Sensei Mits was a very interesting man, and he would tell fascinating stories. Sensei Mits asked me to join the others at the aikido dojo in Long Beach. This was in 1982.

Bernardo Mares: I liked the Steven Segal movies, and I didn’t know it was aikido until I saw an interview of Steven Segal on The Arsenio Hall Show and he said he trained in aikido. In 1991, I saw a big banner off the 405 Freeway that said, “Learn Aikido Here.” Near the corner of 190th Street and Vermont Ave in Gardena/Torrance, there was a fitness/racquetball center with a judo school and an aikido school. I checked it out and met Sensei Mits there. Sensei Mits was very friendly and welcoming to me. Sensei Mits sat next to me and was very attentive and explained the art of aikido. I joined right away.

Toru Hashinokuchi: In Japan, I took judo and kendo in school while growing up. When I came to the US, I wanted to continue training in martial arts. In 1987 at El Camino College, I saw an aikido demonstration with Sensei Mits and Sensei Larry Jones. I was so impressed, I asked Sensei Mits about his aikido dojo. Sensei Mits told me about his aikido dojo in Long Beach. I decided not to continue my English ESL classes in the evening and immediately joined Sensei Mits’ dojo at John Ogden’s school in Long Beach. I feel humbled to be one of Shihan Mits’ black belts, especially being born and raised in Japan, and coming to the US and training with Shihan Mits is an honor.

MAYTT: What was his teaching and training methods like in comparison to his peers? How did he differentiate himself from his contemporaries? Was it something he intentionally sought out to do?

Johann Hellmansberger: Sensei Mits made his class fun, where other schools would be strict and very regimented. Sensei Mits made it fun for the students and kept the atmosphere very light and enjoyable. Sensei Mits was motivated to keep the class interesting and fun while keeping the students involved.

Bill Bubinski: Mits Sensei combined aikido with other martial arts and learned the strong points and weak points of other techniques and skills. By doing this, he became stronger and made the other arts strong. Mits Sensei started off with the basic eight techniques and became strong by learning all the strong and weak points.

Pete Paredes: Sensei Mits always brought around any martial artist and would have them give a demonstration of their art to the dojo. Sensei Mits way of teaching was excellent. Sensei Mits would break down the technique step by step to the fundamentals. Sensei Mits said, “There is no way that is wrong, there’s just better ways of doing it.”

Toru Hashinokuchi: Shihan Mits taught his students to be open minded as he was open minded to train in many different martial arts. Shihan Mits’ way was practical and very effective and real. The Japanese way of training was strict and stiff at times, whereas Shihan Mits was very soft, gentle, and open in his ways of aikido and his teachings. Shihan Mits had a way to mix tradition and still be current and practical in his techniques. 

Yamashita’s and Hashinokuchi’s picture next to Bruce Lee’s in the November 1990 issue of Black Belt Magazine.

MAYTT: What was the average training regimen like for any given day at Sanbukan? How did Yamashita’s endeavors in other arts demonstrate themselves in the way he led and instructed classes?

Gilbert Rodriguez: Sensei Mits classes were so much fun and such a joy to be there with all the students. In my previous karate class, I always felt like I was going to get hit and get injured; it was a lot of sweat and pain. Sensei Mits’ aikido class was the opposite; a very welcoming and open-minded class, just as Sensei Mits was open to other martial arts disciplines.

“Big Mike” Troscan: Not being bound by the aikido structure; Shihan Mits would let the student resist in any posture that they wanted. The student didn’t have to resist in an aikido posture. Students were allowed to throw realistic punches, not just be limited by the aikido structure in the attack. Shihan Mits would let the students throw punches like a boxer with crosses, jabs, and roundhouse punches from a boxing stance. Shihan Mits’ class would do murder lines, similar to judo classes, where one person does the technique, and the students line up and attack one after the other.

Every now and then, Shihan Mits would throw in and teach another art in order to build up individual students’ ability to defend themselves in a fight from Boxing, Judo, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. 

Toru Hashinokuchi: Shihan Mits’ way of organizing his classes and tests were very unique. The basic eight techniques were very practical and effective. No other school has the basic eight techniques. Shihan Mits included the judo series osoto gari to his classes and taught it to beginners so they can learn it right away and be able to defend themselves on the streets.

Pete Paredes: Class started with a traditional bow-in, warmups, and the Kihon Dosa/Promise forms. The Promise was to honor Gozo Shioda that Sensei Mits would incorporate the forms into his syllabus. Although Sensei Mits was a Yoshinkan man, he was free and innovative in his techniques.

Bernardo Mares: The aikido class was an hour and a half, and we were welcomed to stay longer. Sometimes we would stay for about two to three hours, sometimes most of the morning to afternoon training in different martial arts.

MAYTT: What lasting impact do you feel Yamashita left on his students? Was there one lesson that seemed to transcend all others?

Johann Hellmansberger: Sensei Mits’ motto was “Don’t Worry.” Sensei Mits made his students stronger and better people with their skill level and their mentality. He made them carry themselves in a positive way.

Larry Jones: Sensei Mits’ catch phrase was “Don’t Worry.”

Cindy Johnson: Talking with the students, most said they walked away saying Sensei Mits changed my life.

Pete Paredes: Sensei Mits was a kind and considerate human being. Sensei Mits always showed love and was so kind.

Toru Hashinokuchi: Shihan Mits left a lasting impact of kindness, humbleness, and an open mind. Shihan Mits influences others to have an open mind to study different martial arts.

Bernardo Mares: Sensei Mits was a skilled fighter, but very gracious at the same time.

From left to right: Jeremy Johnson, Gary Abrajano, Yamashita, Hashinokuchi, and Larry Jones.

MAYTT: In your opinion, what are some of the major contributions Yamashita provided not only to Yoshinkan but to the larger aikido community? What effects do you feel can still be felt today that can easily traced back to Yamashita?

Bill Bubinski: Mits Sensei was a great human being and is such a strong influential character. Mits Sensei became a great teacher and became a great human being. The way I see it, you can learn anything, but if you don’t have a strong mindset, it becomes useless.

“Big Mike” Troscan: Shihan Mits’ lasting effect on aikido is as an example of living the martial art. He lived the principles sincerely, going with the flow, not clashing, or finding conflict, having peace of mind and spirit. Shihan Mits spent his life helping others and being a role model in living a perfect life. In Budo, he was a role model of dedication, truth, and truly hard work. He put it all on the mat.

Gary Abrajano: Sensei Mits kept on creating, changing, and refining his techniques all the way until his last lessons before he passed. This ever-changing process of the arts is Sensei Mits’ lasting effect on aikido.

Pete Paredes: Sensei Mits’ major contribution was his flexibility and acceptance of other forms of martial arts.

Toru Hashinokuchi: Shihan Mits’ Sanbukan class and testing requirements are very unique. When I have gone to other aikido dojos in the US and in Japan, their Senseis would see the differences in style and ask, “Who is your Sensei?” These experiences and people’s reactions to the differences say a lot about the unique style of Shihan Mits’ Yoshinkan Aikido.

Bernardo Mares: Sensei Mits taught aikido as a combative art and not as a self-defense, dancing art. Sensei Mits said you can be gentle or you can be aggressive, and you can use both in aikido.

MAYTT: What do you think Yamashita would say about the current state of aikido today, pandemic and all? Would he be pleasantly surprised on how the art has made its way through such challenges, or would he offer some constructive criticism on how things should be looking to move forward?

Yamashita (right) and Hashinokuchi (left) in the November 1990 issue of Black Belt Magazine.

Johann Hellmansberger: Sensei Mits was his own maverick, and he wouldn’t comment on the current state of aikido. As far as the internet and watching techniques online, Sensei Mits always wanted the personal contact in person, and he just wanted to be a teacher and not a teacher online.

Bill Bubinski: Mits Sensei would not offer any criticism because it wasn’t in his nature, and he would not answer that question.

Gary Abrajano: Sensei Mits kept on evolving his art, in his own way and didn’t care about aikido in a bigger sense. Sensei Mits was focused and just wanted to change his art.

Pete Paredes: Attendance is low due to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and the art of grappling. It has pulled students away from aikido. Good thing Sensei Mits trained in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, grappling, and wrestling.

Toru Hashinokuchi: The popularity of aikido is less because of the MMA. Like Shihan Mits, he welcomed everybody with open arms, and this is a great influence on everyone to be open minded and train in different martial arts.

Bernardo Mares: Sensei Mits would keep on going and whoever wants to learn aikido he would be there for them to learn.

MAYTT: How did Yoshinkan’s lack of mainstream popularity compared to that of the Aikikai’s affect Yamashita’s outlook on teaching, or did not worry about such things and only focused on what he wanted to do?

Johann Hellmansberger: Sensei Mits wouldn’t care about the popularity of one art to another.  This is why Sensei Mits studied so many different martial arts and styles.

Pete Paredes: Sensei Mits was in his own world.

Toru Hashinokuchi: Shihan Mits just wanted to create and perfect his own style of Yoshinkan Aikido.

MAYTT: If you were to describe Yamashita in one word, with no other explanation, what would that one word be?

Gilbert Rodriguez: Genuine

Johann Hellmansberger: Optimistic

Larry Jones: Good Dude

“Big Mike” Troscan: Sincere

Mike Jackson: Humility

Gary Abrajano: True

Pete Paredes: Loving

Toru Hashinokuchi: Open-minded

Bernardo Mares: Great Master

Cindy Johnson: Joy

MAYTT: Final question. What do you feel the Yamashita’s legacy will be in the California area in the years to come?

Johann Hellmansberger: Sensei Mits made a lasting impression on all his students and his influence.

Gary Abrajano: Sensei Mits’ influence is in all his students. In all of us, Sensei Mits, his teachings, and lasting characteristics live within us and effect how we live our lives.

“Big Mike” Troscan: Shihan Mits’ biggest influence was the life stories that he told to all his students throughout his time at his dojo, El Camino College, and Harbor Colleges. These students numbered into the thousands.

Pete Paredes: Because of Sensei Mits teaching at El Camino College, Harbor College, and at his own dojo, Sensei Mits left an indelible impression on the hearts of each individual student. All his students speak well of their experiences with Sensei Mits.

Toru Hashinokuchi: Shihan Mits’ fifty-five years of teaching with only twenty-six black belts in his style of Yoshinkan Aikido speaks so much of the quality and heart of Shihan Mits’ class requirements and testing standards. These numbers also speak of Shihan Mits’ maverick style of Yoshinkan Aikido and the creative quality and thought that he put into creating such a high testing and class standard. Shihan Mits’ legacy lives through his black belts and all his students. 

Bernardo Mares: Sensei Mits’ influence is with all his black belts.

MAYTT: Thank you all for reflection on Yamashita’s life and his legacy!

From left to right: Stephanie DeLange, Jeremy Johnston, Pete Paredes, Mike Jackson, Hashinokuchi, Johann Hellminsburger, Yamashita, Larry Jones, Bill Shank, Bernardo Mares, and Gary Abrajano

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