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It Had to Be Felt #34: Suganuma Morito: The Calligrapher
It Had to Be Felt #34: Suganuma Morito: The Calligrapher
by Maurice Gauthier
It Had to Be Felt #34: Suganuma Morito: The Calligrapher

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 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).
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Old 02-05-2013, 05:37 PM   #2
Robert Cowham
Dojo: East Sheen Aikido and Kashima No Tachi
Location: London, UK
Join Date: Jul 2000
Posts: 245
Re: It Had to Be Felt #34: Suganuma Morito: The Calligrapher

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.
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Old 02-05-2013, 06:19 PM   #3
Russ Q
Dojo: Shohei Juku Aikido Gibsons
Location: Gibsons BC
Join Date: Dec 2008
Posts: 193
Re: It Had to Be Felt #34: Suganuma Morito: The Calligrapher

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.
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Old 02-08-2013, 03:28 PM   #4
jamie yugawa
jamie yugawa's Avatar
Location: Hilo
Join Date: Apr 2009
Posts: 182
Re: It Had to Be Felt #34: Suganuma Morito: The Calligrapher

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.

One little candle can light 10,000 candles- Koichi Tohei Sensei
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Old 03-29-2013, 04:23 PM   #5
Dojo: Ima Juku
Location: Amersfoort
Join Date: May 2004
Posts: 102
Re: It Had to Be Felt #34: Suganuma Morito: The Calligrapher

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.
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