View Full Version : It Had to Be Felt #34: Suganuma Morito: The Calligrapher

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02-05-2013, 01:51 PM
It's difficult to say for sure whether Suganuma Morito Sensei is a martial artist who enjoys calligraphy, or a calligrapher who happens to be a martial artist. One time during his annual seminar at our local dojo, he was using a very thick brush to draw the Japanese heart/spirit character kokoro: dot, dash, then dot, dot. Only in this case, he astonished us by writing: dot, dash and then dash, joining the last two dots into one short dash. I had never seen this before but the Japanese folks sitting in our midst burst into an audible sigh of pleasure and amazement at such exquisite aesthetics. How interesting! Because earlier in the day, a similar audible sound of amazement had erupted as Sensei, demonstrating an aikido technique from static katatetori, cleanly flipped his startled uke, who happened to be me.

Suganuma Sensei dipped his calligraphy brush into the Japanese ink well, then pondered for a few short seconds as he looked over another large sheet of white paper. He neatly wrote several Chinese characters. I felt drawn in as he brushed out the black ink. Perhaps a fleeting moment of emptiness flashed by. His brush strokes were fluid, but powerful, and they skated away on the wide open paper. It was astonishing how the same calligraphy brush could scrawl large fat characters alongside subtler, more nuanced ones. Also, it seemed ironic how Chinese characters looking so free needed to have been written in a certain order of brush stroke. My strongest feeling, however, was how Suganuma Sensei, after years of repetition, made the writing of these Chinese characters look fresh and new.

The first time I took ukemi from Suganuma Sensei was in 1985 during an aikido seminar at the Yen Chi Jie Dojo in Taipei. Back in those days, I kept serious notes about such events and as I look over them today, my notebook says things about Suganuma Sensei such as "bends knees" and "nice zanshin" and "great footwork." However, in retrospect it feels like we were both still imitating Osawa Kisaburo, the late Honbu Dojo-cho. Osawa Sensei's signature aikido movement was in full display and I was, as uke, tagging along in careful ukemi. At the time, I was grateful for his public gesture which showed my Chinese dojo mates that yes, white people can do aikido, even if they're not quite sure what all the waza are called in Taiwanese. Since then, Suganuma Sensei often visits our dojo here in Canada. He makes a point of practicing with as many aikidoka as possible, present company included. These days however, I no longer need to take notes as the feeling of getting thrown by Sensei lasts an entire year.

Suganuma Sensei's aikido technique always looks the same regardless of whether he is throwing around a rank beginner or one of his own black belt students. There's never any sense that he's holding back when applying the technique. At the same time, whenever he throws me around, he manages somehow to create a distinct feeling of improvisation. Sensei is very skillful at using the basic aikido principle of motareru/motaseru (being grasped/making someone grasp). Once when he was teaching a seminar in front of a group of aikidoka crowded around in seiza, I began to daydream about something like where I'd parked my car when I noticed he was standing right in front of me, thrusting out his arm and forcing me to grasp on. The next thing I knew, I was upside down in mid air. Thinking about this now, I'm surprised how unhurriedly he managed to draw me up then apply koshinage. Sensei threw me only about four times but I was so out of breath I could barely stand up.

During another seminar, Sensei walked up to me and extended his cross arm in kosatori offering me the opportunity to attempt ikkyo. With Sensei solidly grasping my wrist but also somehow keeping out of reach, I managed to crank on a powerful yet balanced attack which got me absolutely nowhere, my back foot bouncing back on the mat so forcefully that I jammed a couple of toes. "You're using too much strength," he said not unkindly as he patted my shoulder. Then, when it was his turn to apply kosatori ikkyo, he simply flipped me right over his outstretched arm as if I were a bath towel, and I bounced on the mat. I was still grasping and technically still attacking, but with no idea of how he had managed to throw me in such a physically connected manner without my feeling any point of contact.

When the calligraphy demonstration was finished, Suganuma Sensei put down his brush and looked around quizzically at everyone. With no more questions, he left and took the plane back to Fukuoka. The calligrapher martial artist. The brush and the sword. To his credit, Suganuma Morito Sensei, who is seventy years old, has been able to develop his own style of aikido, carefully assembled from the multitude of (often contradictory) styles from the old rough and tumble Honbu Dojo days, but which he has reduced to bare bones kindness and simplicity. He draws calligraphy of Bodhidharma and teaches us to meditate. He shows a natural and unaffected curiosity when answering our many questions. After the seminar, as I drove my Honda back across the Second Narrows Bridge, I felt like a reincarnation of the legendary Japanese martial artist Sugata Sanshiro, growing day by day as form became formless and weak became strong. I hope that other students who know Suganuma Morito sensei better or have known Sensei longer can add their observations to the text about this remarkable globe-trotting aikido master.

For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column (http://www.aikiweb.com/forums/showthread.php?t=20638) before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:

Only people who have actually taken ukemi the teacher who is the subject of this thread, may post
Simply post your direct experience of taking ukemi. This can include the nature of your relationship with them, as ukemi is more than merely taking falls.
Do not engage in back-and-forth with other posters, disputing their experience, or trying to prove why yours is more real. Just post your own experience. Trust your readers to take in each writer's account on its own merits.
If, for any reason, you find something to praise or condemn in anyone's description or wish to amplify your insights and perceptions, do so elsewhere. Start a thread about that subject in the appropriate section of Aikiweb.
Follow-up posts should be substantive, striving to equal the depth of the original essay. Simply agreeing with the writer, or a brief comment that, yes, the teacher in question was really powerful or had a wonderful shihonage or the like, are not congruent with the purpose of this archive.Maurice Gauthier (3rd Dan) began aikido in 1976 in Tokyo at Aikikai Honbu Dojo, where he studied under Shihan Okumura Shigenobu, Ichihashi Norihiko, Masuda Seijuro, Seki Shoji, Yamaguchi Seigo and Endo Seishiro. Moved to Taipei, ROC in 1983 where he studied aikido under Shihan Paul Lee and Yang style tai chi under Wang Yen Nien. Moved to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1990 where he studied aikido under Sensei Nakashimada Tamami and qigong under Peng Jiu Ling. Currently, Maurice practices aikido at the Trout Lake Community Centre (Shohei Juku Canada) as well as contact improvisation under the direction of students of Peter Bingham (EDAM Dance Company) at the Western Front. Maurice lives in North Vancouver with his wife and son. See Maurice's essays about Ueshiba Kisshomaru Nidai Doshu (IHTBF#1) and Ichihashi Norihiko Shihan (IHTBF#16).

Robert Cowham
02-05-2013, 04:37 PM
I have so far experienced seminars with Suganuma sensei several times in Norway (where he was hosted by Bjorn Eirik Olsen sensei who spent a couple of years at his dojo in the '80s). Taking ukemi from Suganuma sensei was about smoothness and inevitability. There was nothing obviously flashy in what he taught - and my second seminar I was almost disappointed that not much was different to the previous seminar. And yet I then started to really appreciate his qualities as a person, as well as an exceptional aikido teacher.

He usually has a question and answer session in seminars, and in my first seminar mine was "what is the most important thing in Aikido?". His answer: "The connection between you and uke". I asked the same question a couple of years later - not trying to catch him out, but genuinely interested to see if he answered the same, or not - either response would be of interest. As it happens, he gave the same answer - he was also much amused when I admitted to my repeat question over dinner!

My resounding memories are of his personality on and off the mat. I was fascinated to feel his forearms (after encouragement by Olsen sensei) - how soft his muscles are when relaxed - somewhat different when taking ukemi! He manifests an intense yet encouraging focus as he moves around the mat, watching people, answering questions, showing techniques. The raptness of his gaze inspires people to do better - his zen experience training manifests itself effortlessly.

More than just an inspiring teacher on the mat, he is an inspiring man.

Russ Q
02-05-2013, 05:19 PM
Great observations Maurice and Robert! My experience with Suganuma Sensei has been at seminars over the previous fifteen years and a short but memorable trip to Japan in 2000. I have had the chance to be uke for Sensei on many occasions over that time and the feeling is always the same...tactilely, when grabbing him, you feel his flesh is soft and giving but underneath is a solidness that I liken to brick or iron.... when attacking with a strike one feels their intent and ability to be successful in the attack is gone as soon as you are committed (as it should be, but I've never felt anyone actually do it so successfully). His footwork is fantastic...I've never seen him in a vulnerable position during his demonstrations...he is always in the shikaku (safe zone) at just the right moment. Most importantly there is no fear generated from his technique....you get swallowed up and thrown or pinned, (many times without consciously experiencing the moment between attacking and tapping/rolling), and you have this sense that he is watching out for your well-being the entire time. As mentioned he always makes time for everyone on the mat and goes out of his way to practice and help beginners. We often have many visitors at the seminars from different affiliations and all walk away, I'll bet, refreshed by their experience with him. The Q&A sessions after training are illuminating (although I often think much is lost in the translation). You never quite get the response you are expecting but it is always interesting. "be the kind of uke everyone wants to train with" "It's okay to drink booze but don't let the booze drink you" etc.

Add to this his personality and you have a true Shihan....someone WORTH emulating and modelling. He is open, humble, generally happy (it seems) and he suffers the "cult of personality" without having it go to his head.....(he is essentially treated like royalty whenever I see him - whether in Fukuoka or abroad:) I consider myself very lucky to have stumbled into a dojo with one of his students as dojo cho and falling into, not only a clear lineage to O'sensei but also, a connection to a wonderful person.

jamie yugawa
02-08-2013, 02:28 PM
Suganuma Shihan came to our dojo for our fall seminar in Sep 2011. I remember distinctly that he would come over to every person and show them the technique to understand how it feels. I specifically remember two instances of working with him.

The first being Katatori Ikkyo omote hantai. When he did it to me me it occurred to me that his body felt different. When he had me as uke I could feel his whole body was transmitted through contact on his hands. I felt how connected his whole body felt and could not resist him at all. It really didnt feel like he was muscling into me either. Upon his turn being uke, even though I "had" him in ikkyo it felt as if he was still in complete control and could reverse me at anytime. I am sure his 2 hours of Yoga every morning has helped him acquire this body as well as Aikido.

The second was (I think this is what its called) suwari waza ryotetori yonkyo. I was having trouble with technique with my partner and Suganuma Shihan come by to show us. He grabbed me by both my wrists and applied yonkyo. The shock ran up my arms and locked my elbows, I made my best "Popeye" face in agony and fell over backwards. I am one of the people who yonkyo is difficult to apply and Suganuma shihan nailed me as soon as he grabbed me.

The power Suganuma Shihan was able to generate was quite amazing especially since I out weighed him by at least 100lbs. When he applied the techniques you had to comply there was no alternative. There definitely no "Tanking" , "Aiki bunny" or "Ki balls" stuff here. It reminded me of a wave washing over you you cant fight the power of the wave, you can only go where the wave wants you to go.

Suganuma shihan taught basics the whole weekend and emphasized how important learning basics is integral to Aikido. I hope to have some other great experiences with Suganuma Shihan this fall at our fall seminar in 2013.

03-29-2013, 03:23 PM
I have known Sensei for more then 15 years and followed seminars here in Holland and Israel. I went twice to Japan to practise in his dojo's.
Sensei is a very wise man offering advise using zen many times. I took ukemi many times. He is allways gentle. Font memories are sitting in the taxi in fukuoka together to the restaurant trying to have a conversation together. Drinking tea after practise I could not open a cookie, he took it from me, opened it in a split second and smiled at me (I felt very little..) I also have several calligraphy he made for me oersonally and he made my name in Kanji. He is very special to me and hope to practise under his guidance for many years. (Next year in Japan again). He is also an inspiration to me how to run my dojo with a smile.

12-31-2014, 12:54 AM
After a number of years of absence, including a move from Australia to Japan, I finally plucked up the courage to return to Aikido. I had read positive comments about Suganuma Sensei and wished to head to one of his dojos, but like many English teachers in Japan, work schedules got in my way, and it wasn’t until this year that I managed to eliminate all my evening work, freeing me up to train.

I started Aikido back in 1993 or so when I was a high school student with John Turnbull Sensei, who himself had started under Sugano Sensei in 1963 after having practiced judo, predating even Suganuma Sensei in that regard. For various reasons after I left Canberra in 2001 I didn’t continue Aikido, but after watching enough videos of high-level Aikido on Youtube, I just had to return. So I made my way to a class at one of the local dojos to watch a class of one of Suganuma Sensei’s senior students and was encouraged by the warm welcome from everyone. So after a somewhat rough trial lesson at another of the main dojos where my rustiness showed considerably, I packed my gi and hakama and made my way to the local Hombu Dojo.

My entry through the front door couldn’t have had better, or more surprising timing, being at the very moment that Suganuma Sensei came out of his office into the entranceway, so he was the first person to greet me as I entered. I introduced myself, explained my Aikido history and that I wished to start immediately. Suganuma Sensei listened intently, his whole focus on what I was saying. He corrected my pronunciation of the name of the teacher I’d had the trial lesson with without interrupting then in a very straight-forward and friendly manner pointed me to the change room and said I was welcome to start right away.

Being used to the situation in Australia, where Sugano Sensei and visiting shihan were kept at arms’ length from everyone and were never to be spoken to without permission, the casual and relaxed atmosphere of the Shoheijuku dojos was a pleasant surprise, especially that of Suganuma Sensei. What is most apparent, even more so than in his Aikido, is how centred he is as a person. He is always relaxed, friendly, aware and never unsure or hesitant in his actions. He always makes sure everyone is looked after and this attitude extends through his students, who are always kind, helpful and friendly on and off the mat.

It is not uncommon for his oldest students, many 6th and 7th dan, to join his classes and train with and help others. It has been invaluable to be able to ask them about individual techniques both during and after class, many coming purely to help others. After an hour’s training, Suganuma Sensei will usually have tea in one corner of the mat where if one doesn’t have to leave, one may either sit and talk and ask him questions, or do free training with other students. He will often bring up books from his vast library to quote from or show us, mention weddings or other significant events that have happened involving students, give advice, watch embukai demonstration practice if asked and will listen to and answer with complete and undivided attention to any questions asked of him.

His approach and kindness extends right through all his dojos, their teachers and students. He regularly goes out to the larger dojos to conduct gradings (where the students can’t make the regular gradings at Tenjin Dojo) and will grade everyone all the way from kids doing their 10th kyu up to the dan grades. At one such grading I recall a child who had forgotten one technique. I immediately wondered what would happen, as the child would fail his grading. The group of three children, all grading simultaneously, finished and he asked one of the teachers to take the child aside and practice the forgotten technique with him. Once the next group of children had finished, he made the child do the grading again with just that one technique (where the child promptly demonstrated it to a degree of proficiency well above his level) allowing him to pass his grading. It was this kindness, expressed through his students, that meant I could pass my 2nd dan test earlier than I had imagined, as alongside my own efforts (to which I have to credit Stanley Pranin and his fantastic collection of videos which I took good advantage to aid my training) my seniors enthusiastically helped me get back into form and make sure I could do everything that was required.

Suganuma Sensei’s Aikido in class is very straight-forward and not fancy, just like his Aikido demonstrations. If anything his technique almost looks over-deliberate, but what is most apparent taking ukemi for him is how perfected it is. If he calls me up for demonstration, he will first, if required, ask if my knees are OK if he wishes to demonstrate suwariwaza. If a katatetori or morotetori technique, taking his arm there is zero tension in it, a sense of him not being there at all, simply the feeling of moving as a result of being slightly imbalanced. From the unhurried beginning to end the feeling is completely consistent and even — one goes where he wishes you to and he is complete control, without seeming to be attempting to control you at all, yet one is moved in just the right amount to be just off-balance at all times. Even his nikkyo, which in class he will not, in demonstration, always apply painfully, but still send you to the ground (not unlike the Renshinkai-style* “painless” nikkajyou) with only the most gentle grasp and a perfectly co-ordinated movement. There is no fear of being hurt taking ukemi, no sudden surprises or movements, allowing one to focus on, and absorb the feeling of his perfect timing and what he is actually doing. It is as if he is doing the technique you have always done, simply half a century more practice better. This has served to inspire me that what he does is something achievable, rather than mysterious or scary. Noticeable is how it has inspired his students to emulate this smoothness and consistency in their own practice.

One the techniques that I most remember is shihonage. One particular time that Suganuma Sensei demonstrated it with me I can recall the way he completely and evenly locked up my arm with consistent, but not excess application through the whole movement from the moment he had my hand until I was on the ground. Similarly, when training one day, my partner was having trouble maintaining kuzushi throughout the movement. I wasn’t sure exactly where he was going wrong, but as if having read my thoughts Suganuma Sensei came over immediately and took my hand, then placed it in the exact position behind my head that was required for me to simply fall. Even though there had been no initial movement from an attack, he effortlessly set me up in a position that I fell from where I was standing, an educational moment for me as well as my partner.

At the end of the last day of end-of-year training, Suganuma Sensei told a couple of amusing anecdotes about training with O’Sensei, then told us to take care and said, “If you drive, don’t drink and if you drink, get a lift with someone.” Like every other moment of his unceasing devotion to his Aikido and his students, it will be remembered, and his students will continue to aspire to dedicate themselves to Aikido and their peers as he has.

*Renshinkai is an offshoot of Yoshinkan Aikido, started by Chida Shihan. I briefly trained with a Renshinkai instructor.

03-15-2020, 02:31 AM
Since I wrote my IHTBF column about Suganuma Sensei, after many more experiences and personal investigations of internal power, I have observed and sensed much, leading me to consider, at various times, re-writing my column based upon those things. However, every time I approached the task, I could never quite capture what it was I wanted to express. It was as if something elusive was missing. The other day, that thing became apparent to me, as the result of an unexpected question.

There is still much I don’t know, most of it might be better answered by someone more familiar with Koichi Tohei who has had a clear influence (see the video of Suganuma taking ukemi for him) as well as Osawa senior, from whom his technique is based. When I hold an image of Suganuma Sensei in my mind, however, it is always of him sitting on the mat while we drink tea after training, thinking of something to discuss, looking down and at an angle, in the midst of that uncomfortable, but familiar silence as we watch him contemplating.

To begin with, allow me a transgression. After returning from one of Dan Harden’s seminars, having spent 4 days watching a man who has developed uncanny skill, I was shocked that I couldn’t watch anyone demonstrate Aikido any more — the “can’t unsee” factor was so strong. Yet, a few days later, having been sent to the mat by Suganuma Sensei with that sensation of him having done almost nothing at all, sucking out my energy and sending me slamming into the mat, I realised that he does have something magical that I still wished to understand.

To answer the how, I have to go back to the day, at post-training tea, I asked him what feeling he has when he performs a technique on someone. His response was to go downstairs to his library and pull out a book by or about Ralph Waldo Emerson, where he had highlighted a passage. In it (going from memory) Emerson describes staying at a farm, whereby he is asked to help take a horse out of a stable. Unable to do so (the horse just pulls back against his efforts) he is surprised by the ability of a child to lead the horse out easily.

This stuck with me for a long while. I know, in simple terms, if you keep just ahead of someone moving to grab your arm, for example, you can easily lead them into a technique. We do this all the time in training. But what once you have made contact? That, I had since thought, requires well-developed Aiki/Internal Power skills, and left it at that in my mind.

More recently, his son, Katsuhiko Suganuma, demonstrated a concept whereby you extend a fist out in front of you and lock your elbow in to your centre. Even preventing movement if someone grabs that fist, it is possible to perform shihonage lightly and effortlessly, much to the surprise of the person making the fist. In experimenting and discussion afterwards, I had trouble understanding the mechanics of this, and went home contemplating it, whereupon it became obvious. I had known the answer all along. Consequently, I realised why Suganuma Sensei had shown me a description of a child leading a horse.

To understand the answer (and thus what Suganuma Sensei does) we have to ask the question: How do we perform kuzushi (destabilisation) in Aikido? What is going on in the body? Consider someone performing a standing aiki age on their partner, who ends up raised up on their toes, unable to control their own body, let alone their own balance. We see that while nage is maintaining physical structure internally, they are bringing uke very slightly out of balance. Consequently, uke reflexively attempts to correct for this through their hold on nage’s hands, and nage turns this power back against them, destabilising them more, resulting in a feedback loop in uke.

The key aspect of this is: The initial destabilisation is only very slight. Consider for a moment a person standing in a stable posture. If, without their feet moving, they move one of their limbs away from their body, or one is moved away, they will be brought into instability. Naturally, our body reflexively corrects for this by moving our feet to bring ourselves back into stability. We do this, in essence, when we walk. We extend a foot forward, taking ourselves off balance, then shift our weight forward to bring ourselves back.

Back to the exercise we did with Katsuhiko Sensei, if you hold a fist out in front of you without moving it, and turn left or right on the spot, your fist will draw an arc. If we consider just the horizontal plane for simplicity, shihonage takes uke’s hand in a straight line across their body. If you touch an arc and a line together, from that point they diverge, first only a slight amount, then a great deal more.

Going back to my description of how a person is destabilised if they extend, or have a limb extended away from their body, a technique like shihonage takes them out of stability starting with a very slight instability into a large one (the divergence of the line from the arc). This is the key.

The reason it has to be slight for it to work has to do with how our body reflexively reacts to being destabilised. If you pull or push on someone forcefully, they will, in turn, pull or push back in the OPPOSITE direction. But, if you draw someone very slightly out of stability, they will, reflexively, correct for it by moving their body in the SAME direction. Thus, leading the horse. In essence, along with an aiki age-like feedback loop, it is tricking uke’s body into leading itself into great destabilisation. The combination of this with decades of well-developed internal structure, technical skill and timing, has resulted in this seemingly magical ability to perform the techniques without any effort.

Of course, this doesn’t always work perfectly. I have both seen and felt Suganuma Sensei resort to powerful and more forceful technique when he is unable to execute technique in this manner, such as when uke is too stiff. However, the image that will be forever cemented in my mind is that of him, with every person, intently focussed on executing a technique with great smoothness and precision, and me being sent into the mat as if by almost nothing.