The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Friday, August 31, 2007

The Last Swordsman


The following on excerpts from a long and fascinating article that appeared in the Aikido Journal about Yoshio Sugino, a famous 20th century Japanese martial artist. He knew everybody and did everything. An excerpt can't do the article justice. Click on the title of this post, and you'll be directed there to read the whole thing.

Yoshio Sugino, swordsman of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, is respected worldwide as one of the elder statesmen in the world of Japanese kobujutsu (classical martial arts). Born in 1904, his life has paralleled much of the development of modern Japan, and during that time he has been fortunate enough to know and study under many of this century’s legendary martial artists.

He has also provided martial arts instruction for many of Japan’s most popular historical movies, including Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, adding dynamism and reality to what had been staid and poorly stylized fight-scene choreography. He has also appeared frequently in the media as a representative of the world of Japanese kobujutsu. In such ways he has contributed much toward introducing the truly wonderful aspects of Japanese martial arts to the public. But despite Sugino’s tremendous service to the budo world, information on him has been limited to fragmented interviews and popular articles that do little toward painting a realistic portrait of the man himself, his origins and his history. In this series I look back on Sugino Sensei’s life and the paths he has taken, along the way presenting some of the thoughts on bujutsu he has developed during his 92 years.

Sugino was born in 1904, a year considered by classical Japanese astrology to engender good luck to those born in it. A look at a few of the details of his budo career will confirm that phenomenal good fortune has indeed been his throughout his journey. Doctors saved his arm. He got through the war without being called up. despite top examination results. Throughout a long career he has enjoyed close contact with many of the most prominent, most talented martial artists of our century, Jigoro Kano and Morihei Ueshiba among them, and he has managed to lead one of the fullest lives a martial artist could ever ask for. Of course, Sugino has had to overcome his share of hardship as well, but bujutsu has supported him through all such difficulties, serving him well as the core of his physical and spiritual being. These days he is regarded as one of the precious remaining living witnesses to the world of Japanese kobujutsu and is loved and respected as a teacher. And, despite his advanced age and long years of experience, behind his penetrating glare remains the same impish grin that as a youngster earned him a reputation as “that little rascal!” and that nowadays simply enchants and fascinates.

The boy grew up to have a good deal of fortitude and always kept a stiff upper lip, then, as now, quite imperturbable. Initiation into bujutsu Sugino first encountered the martial arts after entering Keio University in 1918, where he was enrolled in the Department of Commerce and Industry. Standing only 159 centimeters and weighing a slight 56 kilograms, what he lacked in build he has always made up for in energy. He threw himself diligently into many club activities including, of course, those related to martial arts. “I was in just about every club there was,” he recalls, “judo, kendo, kyudo, sumo and quite a few others. I’d join just about anything I was asked to.” (Students in most Japanese schools are required to take part in at least one club meeting per week and may join others if they wish. Such clubs are a significant part of Japanese school life in all grades.) He was particularly active in the boating club and in some clubs that would be inconceivable in Japan today, such as the pistol club. “I remember shooting at a pigeon in the school yard, but I missed,” he says. Unlike modern Japan with its strict gun control laws, back then, it seems, there was more freedom to own a pistol. Sugino remembers his university days fondly. He describes walking with a friend through the fashionable Ginza district, the atmosphere there alive with the cheerful optimism and freedom of Taisho-era democracy, the two of them swaggering through the crowd, surveying the scene with the confident delight and natural curiosity of youth.

Once there was a judo tournament between Keio University and the four-school alliance comprised of Kuramae Engineering University, Tokyo University of Agriculture, Rissho University and Tokyo University of Fisheries. The Keio team being short on members, Iizuka arranged for Sugino to participate despite the fact that he was still only a first kyu. His opponents were all huge black-belts. But Sugino stepped onto the mat wearing his brown belt and threw his way through six of them, with the seventh match ending in a draw. Afterward his teammates crowded around him congratulating him: “You’re so small, but you fought so well in there! Even Iizuka Sensei thought so.” He came away from the tournament with unprecedented new confidence.

At the end of that same year Sugino took his shodan exam at the Kodokan on Iizuka’s recommendation. This time he defeated six opponents in a row, earning for himself the rank of “shodan with honors”, a rank which existed at that time and indicated performance above and beyond that required for an ordinary shodan. From then until earning his 4th dan, Sugino remained undefeated. Even in elimination-type series he would inevitably wind up first or at least in a draw with the last opponent.

His friend Minoru Mochizuki (present head of the Yoseikan) once commented about his judo skills: “Sugino? That guy has the kami [divine] in him!” One of Sugino’s favorite judo techniques was utsurigoshi (hip shift), a somewhat acrobatic technique in which the opponent’s throwing power is taken advantage of to throw him instead. He was also fond of urawaza (rear techniques) and kaeshiwaza (reversals) and always exploited openings left by opponents who carelessly underestimated him because of his small size. But more than anything he had the confidence that his teacher Iizuka had planted in him.

Sugino continued training in judo rigorously, day after day, constantly thinking of ways to strengthen himself and his technique. Being of a highly assertive disposition to begin with, he never hesitated to express his own opinions, even to his superiors. He once even argued with Jigoro Kano regarding a point of judo technique. Kano said that koshiguruma (hip wheel) and ogoshi (large hip throw) were the same technique. Sugino insisted they were different; for koshiguruma, he said, you load your opponent on your hips, whereas for ogoshi you do not. It was practically unheard of and highly irregular for a judo practitioner to argue about such things with the very founder of the art! But Sugino was of a strongly progressive spirit and never allowed himself to be bound by tradition or authority. Even then, though still relatively young, he was already searching for an answer to the question, “What should modern judo really be like?”

Encountering Katori Shinto-ryu on September 15, 1927, while still just 22 years old, Sugino opened his own dojo (including a bone-setting clinic) in the city of Kawasaki, where he has based most of his activities ever since. Some time after earning his 4th dan in judo, Jigoro Kano told him that he should consider pursuing some sort of kobujutsu in addition to his judo training. Judo alone was not enough, Kano said, and one could not consider oneself a complete martial artist without studying the sword. The classical tradition to which he introduced Sugino was Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu.


Katori Shinto-ryu, founded by Iizasa Choisai Ienao (Iga no Kami), had been handed down through the generations for over 500 years in the Katori area of Shimousa (now Chiba Prefecture). Considered one of the fountainheads of Japanese martial tradition, Katori Shinto-ryu had never been taught outside the Chiba region. Kano, however, asked whether some arrangement could be made to have the style taught in Tokyo as well. This caused a great stir within the school and it was discussed at length whether or not the request should be accommodated. Eventually it was decided that, as the tradition was in danger of falling into obscurity, it should be actively disseminated in Tokyo to prevent this.

The school dispatched four shihan: Narimichi Tamai, Sozaemon Kuboki, Tanekichi Ito, and Ichizo Shiinato to teach the style at the Kodokan. It was arranged that these four should also stop in Kawasaki on their way home, training with Sugino there on Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings. Although Sugino had practiced with a shinai during his university kendo days, it was his first experience of wielding an actual sword. It was not long, however, before he had become completely engrossed in the new style of training. Katori Shinto-ryu kata tend to be longer and involve more movements than those of other classical traditions. When practicing the sword, for example, uchidachi and shidachi attack and defend back and forth in long, dynamic sets involving a whole spectrum of diverse techniques, each swordsman identifying and attacking openings in the opponent’s defenses. In this respect, Katori Shinto-ryu is somewhat distinctive among kobujutsu styles, many of which typically emphasize simpler, less elaborate movements.

When he was 24, Sugino learned Yoshin koryu jujutsu from a well-known teacher. Around 1937 or 1938 he was that teacher’s partner in a demonstration of held in the imperial palace. There, he also demonstrated Katori Shinto-ryu with his teacher Ichizo Shiina. This budo demonstration was sponsored by the Society for the Promotion of Classical Japanese Martial Arts, an organization established a few years earlier in 1935 at the initiative of the Minister of Justice, himself a high-ranking kyudo (archery) teacher, and with the cooperation of members of the House of Councilors. Along with his teachers, Sugino had joined the new organization as a representative of the Katori Shinto-ryu. In April of the same year, the Society marked its establishment with a budo demonstration held at the Hibiya Public Hall and from then until the end of the war in 1945 it sponsored “dedication” demonstrations of classical martial arts (kobudo) at the most important Shinto shrines around Japan. Sugino participated in many of these. Sugino continued his study of Yoshin koryu jujutsu until he had reached the kyoshi level (a rank between renshi and hanshi). In judo, however, he took no further rank, despite several recommendations for promotion. “Kodokan judo had become a sport,” he says, “and I was not interested in that.”

Sugino first met Morihei Ueshiba around 1931 or 1932, at the newly built Wakamatsu-cho dojo in Shinjuku. He was introduced to the founder of aikido through an acquaintance, which was the usual — and more or less essential — means in those days when it was difficult to even observe an aikido training without an introduction from a reputable individual. At the time Morihei Ueshiba was nearly 50 years old and already a well-known figure in the martial arts world.

Sugino recalls that upon their first meeting he was surprised to find before his eyes a smallish yet extremely robust man with a broad smile spanning his face. He wondered if this could really be the Ueshiba he had heard so much about. Some two years earlier, judo founder Jigoro Kano had paid a visit to the Ueshiba dojo, accompanied by some of his students, including renowned “judo genius” Nagaoka. Watching the training, Kano is said to have remarked in admiration, “Now that is true judo!” Nagaoka was apparently taken aback and upset by this unexpected comment and challenged his teacher by asking impulsively: “Then the judo we are practicing is not real? Is what we do at the Kodokan nothing but a lie?” Kano explained that he had not intended to imply such a thing and that he had simply meant that aikido was judo in a broad sense. He continued to praise Ueshiba and later asked him to teach some of his own students, including Minoru Mochizuki, who, in addition to having an earnest personality similar to Sugino’s, had also practiced Katori Shinto-ryu.

In 1935 Sugino received a teaching license from Ueshiba and after the war Sugino’s dojo became the second Aikikai branch dojo in Japan. Ueshiba’s son Kisshomaru (the present Doshu) and occasionally Ueshiba himself would go there once a month to teach. Ueshiba even asked Sugino if he would consider devoting himself professionally to aikido, but after considering his family responsibilities, Sugino reluctantly gave up the idea. Still, the close relationship between the Sugino dojo and aikido continued even after Ueshiba’s death and even today Sugino’s students are known to do skillful aikido demonstrations.

While Sugino had been somewhat surprised by Ueshiba’s smallish stature, he had still been impressed by his powerful build, but the martial arts master he encountered at an Asahi News-sponsored demonstration in Osaka in 1942 was altogether different. Sugino was watching the other demonstrators as he waited his turn to take the floor. A small man standing less than 150 centimeters stepped into the demonstration area. He seemed so frail and small as to have little more strength than a child. But his gaze! … His eyes swept the crowd with a piercing glare. Sokaku Takeda.

The elderly Sokaku stood squarely in the center of the floor, glaring fiercely like one of those statues of fierce-looking, muscular guardian deities that flanking the gates of many Japanese temples. Scowling at him from across the way were his opponents, a group of powerfully built Kodokan judoka. After a hasty introduction, Sokaku began his demonstration. One of the judoka stepped forward and suddenly launched a full-power right-handed chop directed at Sokaku’s head. Sokaku met the blow with his left hand and shifted his body. He grasped the judoka’s right hand and threw him down. “Well now! How about that?!” he shouted.

The next man moved in with another furious strike to Sokaku’s brow. This time Sokaku met the attack with his right hand, shifting and opening his posture again, seizing the attacker’s arm and pinning him easily on his back — on top of the first attacker! “Next! Come on, quickly, quickly!” The remaining judoka rushed in with similar attacks. Shifting this way and that, Sokaku avoided their strikes and put them down one by one, eventually heaping them into a pile resembling a giant cushion. All wore pained expressions as they tried to wriggle free, but Sokaku pinned them completely by holding their tangled arms lightly in a bundle with one hand.

Sugino felt a shiver up his spine — part in awe, part fear — as he watched the elderly Sokaku calmly twist his robust, high-spirited young opponents on to the ground and pin them almost effortlessly. Sokaku’s techniques clearly had nothing to do with physical power. They were, Sugino recognized, high-level applications of certain important principles and represented nothing less than the quintessence of Japanese martial arts.

By that time, Sokaku Takeda had long been a well-known figure in the Japanese martial arts world and his techniques echoed among the martial artists of the day. Sugino knew of him, of course, particularly as the Daito-ryu teacher of Morihei Ueshiba. While he never actually spoke with Sokaku directly and had seen Sokaku demonstrate on this one occasion alone, the diminutive Daito-ryu master left a vivid impression on Sugino that has remained to this day, an impression that is strangely two-fold: While he has only the highest regard for the level and quality of Sokaku’s aiki techniques, he frankly admits that he found his attitude somewhat poor, particularly in the way he would shower his opponents with taunts and jeers during his demonstration: “Well, look what happened to you!…. Hey you, get up off the ground, hey?! ” And while he immobilized them with a pin from which they struggled to free themselves, he would slap them on the buttocks and say, “What a wimp, you call yourself a man?!”

By the early 1950s Sugino was busy teaching at a number of schools in addition to his own dojo. One day a message arrived from the Society for the Promotion of Classical Japanese Martial Arts informing him that film director Akira Kurosawa would be making a new samurai drama and hoped Sugino would instruct the actors. The title of the film was to be the Seven Samurai.

Kurosawa asked Sugino to instruct the actors in techniques that were as authentic as possible from a martial arts perspective. Fight choreography in such dramas had previously been influenced by the largely decorative style of the kabuki theater, but in making Seven Samurai, Kurosawa intended to address the question, “What should a sword fight really look like on film?”

He had already begun exploring this question in one of his earlier films, Rashomon, notably in the fierce confrontation between the bandit played by Toshiro Mifune and the traveller played by Masayuki Mori. This scene featured some of the ugliest fighting the genre had ever seen, as Kurosawa sought a new filmic language that included combatants trembling violently with fear and leaping back in terror whenever their swords came even slightly in contact. It was an unusual piece of work for the period but earned high acclaim from critics and audiences around the world as the first realistic-looking sword battle ever to emerge from the Japanese cinema.

Sugino, too, was interested in pursuing authenticity. Assisted by his student Sumie Ishibashi, he demonstrated the sword and iai of Katori Shinto-ryu in a way that gave both Kurosawa and his cast a strong sense of what bujutsu was about. Something that caught Kurosawa’s attention was Sugino’s solid, well-balanced personal deportment, and he ordered the actors to emulate this as best they could including the way he walked, the way he kneeled down and any other aspects of his everyday manner they might notice. Kurosawa saw that there was a significant difference in stability between ordinary people and the samurai of old who spent their days with heavy swords at their waists.


No comments: