Interview with Suganuma Sensei

Interview with Morito Suganuma Shihan, 8th Dan

By Peter Bernath and David Halprin, Co-editors in chief, Aikido Online.

Translated by Masaru Kiyota. Additional editorial assistance by Joji Sawa.

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted during Suganuma Sensei’s visit to the USAF Eastern Region Summer Camp in August 2003. We thank Suganuma Sensei for agreeing to do the interview, and Suganuma Sensei’s student Masaru Kiyota, 2nd dan, Chief Instructor of Vancouver Shomonkai, in Vancouver, Canada who did the live translation of the interview, and also helped with the editing. Joji Sawa, 3rd dan of New England Aikikai, helped us with editing and language issues. The interview was conducted by Peter Bernath, 6th dan Shidoin, of Florida Aikikai, and David Halprin, 6th dan Shidoin, of New England Aikikai and Framingham Aikikai. Photos by Peter Bernath and the Shohei Juku web site.

How did you first hear about Aikido and how did you come to start practicing?

When I was twelve or thirteen years old, I saw a monthly magazine that contained an article about Aikido and O-Sensei. I found it very interesting. That was the first time I encountered Aikido. Ever since I was young I liked many kinds of sports, so I went to study at one of the sports universities. But I had a health problem then and had to quit the university after a year. I then attended another university in Tokyo called Asia University. There was a martial arts program including Aikido at the martial arts hall, and there I saw an Aikido class. I thought it was very interesting, so I joined so I started there.

How long did you practice at the university club before you started at Hombu Dojo?

As soon as I joined the university Aikido club, I started going to the university morning class once or twice a week, Classes were held at the university everyday day, but Tamura Sensei came to the university to teach once or twice a week at that time. I would go to his classes. So also, at the same time, I immediately started practicing every night at Hombu Dojo. I started going to Hombu every day almost as soon as I started practicing. I was about twenty years old.

Could you tell us about your impressions at Hombu Dojo when you first arrived there, and what the practice was like?

My first impression was that the whole atmosphere of the Hombu Dojo was really like a real dojo, a real dojo! I really liked it. Actually, my first visit to Hombu was when I was for kyu testing. I was a first year student at the university, and it was June*, and Tamura Sensei brought me to Hombu. Kisshomaru Doshu and Tamura Sensei conducted tests and gave me my 5 th kyu test. That was my first visit to Hombu Dojo . [* Note: in Japan schools start in April instead of September.]

Shortly later I rented a room a few minutes away from Hombu and started practicing more.

At that time, who were the main instructors at Hombu Dojo?

Yamaguchi Sensei, Arikawa Sensei, Okumura Sensei, Saito Sensei, and of course, Doshu who was Dojo-cho. And Osawa Sensei, and Tohei Koichi Sensei.

What was O-Sensei’s typical schedule? Was he at Hombu or Iwama or where?

Because I was still a student at the time, I didn’t know Hombu Dojo too well, but I believe O-Sensei spent most of his time there. I remember that O-Sensei was usually teaching morning classes and sometimes also afternoon classes.

Are there any special memories of O-Sensei you could share with us?

It was very hard for me to understand O-Sensei’s words. In my early days I found it almost impossible to understand what he was talking about. But in terms of techniques, I frequently had the thought, was that the real thing? or is this real? I was amazed by his technique! Most of the time the O-Sensei’s uke were the guys who today are the great Shihan: Tamura Sensei, Yamada Sensei, Chiba Sensei, Kanai Sensei, Sugano Sensei. They were much more advanced than me, much better and much stronger than me, but O-Sensei was even greater and he handled them easily, executed techniques easily, and could easily throw them. O-Sensei showed us he was at an entirely different level than anybody else. He was very strong and very great teacher!

Some of the other Shihan have also mentioned that it was hard to understand O-Sensei when he explained. In that connection, do you have your own view of the process that O-Sensei was engaged in as he created Aikido?

Sometimes O-Sensei would say Aikido is not my creation but rather it is something God created. I don’t really know, or could say what O-Sensei was doing with Aikido, so I would answer the question in this way, by telling you that O-Sensei said Aikido was created by God.

You were young when your heard O-Sensei explain Aikido. Are there some things he said that you found hard to understand at the time, but now as an older man, you understand better?

I don’t know if this is the answer to your question, but one of my favorite things that O-Sensei told me was that Aikido was not a destructive martial art but rather it is a constructive martial art. Nowadays there are many wars and conflicts in the world, and I realize that O-Sensei had an insight into what was important for the world, what the world needed. This insight by O-Sensei is one I understand more now, because I am now more aware of the world situation.

Also, O-Sensei also would often say that Aikido is not a martial art to fix others but it is to fix oneself. In general, instead about thinking about what is wrong with others, you should be thinking what is wrong with yourself. This was another of my favorite things that O-Sensei said.

You mentioned the many senior instructors at Hombu at that time. How would they explain Aikido? The instructors would demonstrate the techniques, of course, but how would the instructors explain the principles of Aikido, or things to keep in mind about practice?

In general, probably the common principle in what the instructors would say was to follow nature, the natural way, and not to force some thing, to conflict. That’s what they explained with different expressions. Their point was to follow nature and not to force things. Aikido techniques are themselves designed to follow the flow of nature, so if you force your partner you might sometimes get injured or you might hurt your partner. More specifically, most techniques are designed to throw in the direction the body’s joints naturally bend.

Do you have an opinion on different ways of practicing? On one hand sometimes you train physically on the mat very hard; and on the other hand there are other people that teach with more emphasis on thoughts or ideas. How does one maintain a correct mix between different ways to practice?

It’s not really good to focus on only one aspect of Aikido. Kisshomaru Doshu used to say that Aikido is a martial art to realize the law of nature or the rule of nature. Through physical practice we can actually learn the philosophical aspect of Aikido. We can practice the movement only and you are still learning the philosophical aspect as well. Though just doing movement you are learning the philosophical aspect of Aikido.

Would it be possible to practice without using words at all and still understand Aikido’s principles very well?

If you just practice only the physical techniques maybe you can’t develop the ideas of Aikido, so it is very important to keep in mind we always should think as we practice Aikido. As we practice the physical techniques we should keep in mind that we should polish our ideas and our senses. As we practice physically we must cultivate or polish our ideas regarding Aikido’s philosophy. If you just practice techniques, that’s not good either. It’s up to each person to decide how to approach it, but in general it’s better to think about it as you train physically.

In Nikkyo practice, for example, sometimes people just resist to show how strong they are but if you do that it’s not really good practice. You might be able to resist a technique, but it may only mean you are senseless, it doesn’t really mean that you are strong, just that you are senseless. This is a good example of Aikido’s attitude: you shouldn’t be senseless. Unless you do that develop this attitude you can’t develop a good sense of Aikido in general.

When did you become an uchideshi? And who were the other uchideshi at that time?

Once I graduated from the university, I became an uchideshi. Seishiro Endo became uchideshi at exactly the same time I did, and the other uchideshi at the time included Mr. Shimizu and Mr. Imaizumi. Most of them are not at the Hombu Dojo now.

Had Tamura Sensei, Yamada Sensei, Kanai Sensei, and Chiba Sensei left Japan already?

Yes, they had already left Hombu Dojo and gone to North America and Europe.

Did you have a chance to practice with them before they left?

Yes. Tamura Sensei for example was the instructor at the university club I belonged to. He was the one that created the opportunity for me to become uchideshi. As for Yamada Sensei, I didn’t have a chance to directly practice with him, but I always thought he was really great, I loved him. As for memories of Chiba Sensei, I can only remember he just always would be throwing me around! That’s the only memory I have.

I had a very strong impression of Kanai Sensei. It’s a long story. I was attending Kisshomaru Doshu‘s class, maybe the three o’clock class, and it was sometime in September. We were practicing Morotedori Kokyuho. We were practicing, and at first Kanai Sensei was taking really soft ukemi. But then Kisshomaru Doshu came by and pointed at me and told Kanai Sensei “this man is going to be uchideshi next, year, so please train hard.

As soon as Kisshomaru Doshu said that, Kanai Sensei started grabbing my wrist really hard! After that I couldn’t move him at all. He was so heavy and so strong. When it was my turn, when I grabbed his arm hard, but his arm was so soft! Even in those days his arm was already very soft. I didn’t feel like resisting and actually I couldn’t resist at all. Kanai Sensei would throw me so easily and with such an effortless feeling. It was then I realized how strong the Hombu uchideshi were. That made a strong impression on me.

We’ve heard O-Sensei didn’t explain techniques by saying thing like “put your foot here, move like this, would you just watch him and try to copy what he was doing?

O-Sensei’s movement was so beautiful and so sophisticated! It made an overpowering impression on me. Just one single movement, a swing of the bokken or movement of the jo would be so beautiful.

Despite this, because I was lucky enough to take ukemi for O-Sensei for two years, and during that period O-Sensei would often saylearn by watching rather than listening to explanations. I believe that learning O-Sensei’s techniques through taking ukemi was very good; that was the way I learned the techniques. Somehow I felt really comfortable as O-Sensei’s student. [MK5] Perhaps this is because I was one of the O-Sensei’s ukes during last years of his life. By this time, his technique so smooth and so natural, that it allowed me to take ukemi very comfortably.

What was normal life as uchideshi, what was typical day like?

At that time Hombu dojo was in process of construction, and was moving from the old building to a new one So I wasn’t able to live in Hombu. Instead, I took an apartment nearby. I would change go there to sleep, change my clothes, have a cup of tea, wash my face, and then go at 6:30am to morning practice. That was the first class and it ended at 7:30am. Then the next one was 8:00am to 9:00am.

There were five regular classes each day, each of which was an hour long. I usually would attend these five classes, and then, if there were no classes outside the dojo, would stay at the dojo. If O-Sensei or Kisshomaru Sensei or some other instructor had to go out to teach a class somewhere else, I would go with them. As time passed, little by little, O-Sensei allowed me to teach outside Hombu Dojo, and so I started to teach outside.

We have heard from the other Shihan that when one was O- Sensei’s otomo it was quite a difficult job and doing it often led to funny experiences. Did you have any memories like that?

I have one memory, that I was otomo for O-Sensei, and we were going to Kamakura, which is near Tokyo. As we were walking up the stairs at the Tokyo train station, O-Sensei was holding onto the handrail with one hand and had a cane with the other hand. And the metal fitting attached to the tip of the cane slipped and O-Sensei’s cane fell down the stairs. I had to retrieve it and return it to O-Sensei. Because of that it was a special memory for me. After O-Sensei died I even asked Kisshomaru Doshu if I could have that stick, and I was supposed to get it, but no one realized it, so instead it was put on display at Hombu Dojo.

Where is Sensei’s dojo now?

The name of my dojo is Shoheijuku. The first part of the name “sho” is part of Kisshomaru Sensei’s name, and the second “hei” is part of Morihei, which is O-Sensei’s name,. Juku means people getting together to do something. Kisshomaru Doshu gave this name to me when I started in 1974. It is located in Fukuoka City on Kyushu Island. Actually, there are ninety-seven dojos in Shoheijuku.

That must be hard to manage.

Yes, That’s why it is hard for me to come to North America. (laughs)

Why were you sent to Kyushu?

When O-Sensei passed away on April 26, 1969 the Shihan that had been looking after the Kyushu area left Hombu dojo, and cut off his relationship with Hombu Dojo. Someone had to take over, so I was sent from Hombu to do that.

We participated in the All Japan Aikido Demonstration in 1987, and we remember seeing you demonstrate. You had three or four of your students with you. One was a woman and she took very good ukemi. We noticed that no other women were taking ukemi for the other Shihan. Were you aware of this?

Almost every year, I use at least one woman as uke. That is because I wants to show different kinds of movements in demonstrations, including stronger movements that men do, and more graceful movements that women do.

Are there woman instructors in your organization?

Yes, There are many female instructors.

Do you have any advice for us that could guide us in our Aikido practice, for example are there particularly important principles, whether physical, mental or spiritual?

What I try to keep in mind is to follow O-Sensei’s teachings and philosophy, at least my understanding and interpretation of his teachings. I want to convey what O-Sensei himself taught to Aikido students. The most important thing, as O-Sensei used to say, is don’t get injured, don’t do wrong things, and don’t force techniques. Rather than show how strong you are, cultivate each other, and work together to show Aikido’s good techniques. This is how we become good Aikidoists. This is what O-Sensei said.

O-Sensei also used to say something like all the people in the world should work, hand in hand, to create or develop a peaceful world. This is how we help society to work to achieve the idea of this kind of world. I try to do this through Aikido. When I have a chance, I always tell this to Aikido students.

Thank you very much Sensei.