8th Dan, Shihan
Senior Instructor -New York Aikikai; Technical Director - Australia & Belgium
An Interview with Seiichi Sugano Shihan, Part 1
By David Halprin, Editor-in-Chief, AikidoSphere
Editor's note: The interview was conducted during the New York Aikikai Christmas Seminar in December 2000. We would like to thank Sugano Sensei for giving this interview to Aikido Online. Thanks also to Douglas Firestone, Chief Instructor of Aikido of Westchester for his help during the interview, and Margo Ballou of the Brown University/Rhode Island School of Design dojo for her work transcribing it. David Halprin, 6th Dan is Chief Instructor of Framingham Aikikai.
To start, could you tell us a little bit about how you first heard about Aikido?
I saw it in one of the Japanese weekly magazines; they had an article about Aikido. That’s how I found Aikido.
Was the article about O-Sensei?
No, it was on Aikido generally. That’s how I started being interested; I went to see Kisshomaru Doshu. He at that time was at Hombu dojo.
You asked him if you could practice?
Had you practiced other martial arts?
I did judo over six years, I guess.
What did the article say that got you so interested?
I don’t recall exactly. It was mostly introducing what is Aikido and I thought technically it could be interesting. At that point, you could call it Aikido or you could call it jujutsu; it was not really known to the public, so I thought technically it could be interesting. Also it appeared there was some kind of philosophy behind it as well.
When did you first formally start to practice Aikido?
1957 or 1958, I think.
What was it like to practice at Hombu dojo at that time?
It was obviously quite different than judo training; it focused on repetition of patterns. In judo’s case you’re struggling, you're throwing someone, but Aikido's partner training is different.
Was that hard to adjust to?
It's not exactly a process of adjusting, but it takes some time to accept Aikido's way or system of training.
When did you first start to have teaching responsibilities?
(Laughs) It must have been in the early sixties. In the beginning of course you’re carrying Kisshomaru Doshu’s bag back and forth wherever he goes, and assisting him. At about that time Aikido started expanding, it started to be taught outside Hombu dojo. Although we were very young, we had to go to teach. In most cases the students were probably older than me.
Was there a point when you realized that Aikido was going to be your profession?
No, I started purely out of interest in the training, and that’s all. I never thought of planning to be teaching Aikido. I just wanted to practice.
Could you tell us a little bit about your memories about O-Sensei?
The first time I saw him, I saw him like a religious master or leader rather than martial artist. In his movement there was some energy moving but not visible, so you feel there’s nothing there, yet you feel this sort of strong core of steel. Yes, I thought of him very much more like a religious leader of a religious group or something like that. He expressed himself with the physical form, but it was a quite a different thing when he was throwing each of us.
What’s your view of the process by which O-Sensei was creating Aikido?
He started a traditional martial art, but then he went into the spiritual pursuit. I think probably that made the way of training change from the traditional idea of martial arts. Obviously his explanation of Aikido used ideas from his religious concepts.
Were those concepts from the Omoto religion?
Yes, Omoto. Omoto at that time was like a New Age movement or group. It related to Shinto but it was much more like a mystical Shinto. You can’t say it was a traditional or normal Shinto.
Was Deguchi Sensei still alive at that time?
No, I don’t think so, no. One good thing was that although O-Sensei explained Aikido as a religious concept, he never insisted that his students follow his religious vision. That probably was good for us. He talked about the spiritual aspect, but he never provided us with a system to study in that way.
His point of view was that Aikido was a physical form of training that he called misogi or kotodama movement, etc. His idea was that that’s the way to develop spirituality. Therefore, whoever was interested those aspects, individually they would have to study that, or yoga, zazen or other systems as needed.
It’s probably a similar way to the way he taught weapons, I guess. Obviously he had a great interest in weapons, so he expressed himself demonstrating with weapons, but he never provided a system to do so. So, obviously different teachers, having different experiences, expressed themselves in so many different ways of teaching.
Do you think he felt that simply doing the Aikido movements was sufficient in itself, or did he think that students would also have to study something else?
In most cases, unfortunately, the relationship of student to master is one direction; there are no questions and answers or anything like that. It's sort of a pity, we would have had a better understanding if we did that, but there was no such way, so we had to just presume what he wanted. Whatever he explained, or if he read a certain book or poem, etc., through such things we individually had to interpret what he meant.
So you wouldn’t have question and answer sessions with O-Sensei?
Do you think if he were around today, would such things happen?
No, I doubt it. [laughs]
He just wasn’t into that?
To start with, he wasn’t that interested in being a teacher. For the most part, in any art form, the masters demonstrate their abilities, but they are not necessarily good teachers. They don’t have any system for "teaching" in the way we think of it today.
That was a traditional way of transmitting knowledge?
Yes. It wasn’t just in Aikido, it was the same in any art form, be it music or painting, etc. If you wanted to follow the master, you just copied as much as you could.
O-Sensei was obviously a very remarkable man, and he had a strong influence on many people. What do you think were the qualities that made him so unique?
For one thing, he was a strong believer, so much into his religious and spiritual pursuits; I think that probably made something unique, even in Aikido’s case. For me technique is okay, but technically if you look at many different schools, you find they have similar techniques.
I think Aikido is so unique because O-Sensei broke with so-called traditional martial arts concepts. To me as I studied Aikido, I tried to always get back to that point. It's not just how you do techniques. Generally in the martial arts, there is a system of fighting technique, but he broke with that concept, and that to me is the most important part.
People often say that each of O-Sensei’s students took a different part of him into themselves. Do you think that’s true, and if so, what was the influence O-Sensei had on you personally?
Partly I think he made me more aware that Aikido was something I had to continue to search for. He didn’t provide any system; he had some system so that you’re always following up, but he’s not providing it. The individual person had to search for himself.
Maybe what one person wants, another doesn’t. For me that could be the influence I got from him. Even where we’re teaching technically no one is just like him, he’s just a unique person so no one could really copy him. So, perhaps the biggest influence from him is probably to make each person free to search for something individually.
You mentioned before that part of your duties were to carry second Doshu’s bag. How would you characterize the work of the second Doshu in developing Aikido?
I think he did a lot for how Aikido was accepted into the general public. I remember the first time I met him; his personality was more like a professor at a university or something like that. You would be surprised if you were expecting some martial artist who’s physically superior or has different attitudes. I think perhaps because of his personality, or the way he was promoting Aikido, it became something that normal society could easily accept, not something that is "different". Even now, generally the martial artist doesn’t contribute much to society, he's just someone strong enough to know some techniques to throw around or kill someone. [laughs] It's pretty low level. I think Doshu had a much better idea for Aikido to be much more generally acceptable to normal society, and that was how he promoted it.
Were there certain things that second Doshu taught you, a particular influence that he had on you?
I don’t think that much in general, but I do think probably in the way I look at Aikido technically, it is possible I have much more influence from him.
Technically his way of teaching was very moderate; it contained nothing extreme. Also, he gave more consideration to his idea that the general society should accept Aikido. His general approach to Aikido was a little bit more intellectual. That’s how I might have gotten an influence from his way of teaching. I don’t look at Aikido technically in an extreme way. In general he reminded us that it was better to act in a normal way.
[To be continued....]