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The Last Swordsman: The Yoshio Sugino Story

by Tsukasa Matsuzaki

Aikido Journal #110 (1996)

Yoshio Sugino (1904-1998)
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.

In November 1995 Yoshio Sugino suddenly noticed a queer sensation in his left arm while reading a book at his home in Kawasaki, a feeling that told him something was very wrong. The arm had lost all feeling and his elbow, wrist and fingers had become as lifeless as a doll’s. As if the flesh was no longer his own, he could not put any strength at all into the arm. Staring down at his useless arm, he was shocked to see that the entire length of it, from the upper arm to the back of the hand and even the palm, had turned a deathly shade of white. He knew only too well that his physical condition was not the best. The previous summer he had fallen at his home and struck his head and the doctors had ordered him to forgo his beloved budo training. And now this! “Perhaps it’s the nerves,” he thought. “There must be something wrong with the nerves.”

He went to the hospital immediately, but the diagnosis came as a shock. The problem was not the nerves at all; rather, an artery had become blocked. It was a serious condition. But what the doctor suggested next came as an even greater shock: “Mr. Sugino, we feel it may be necessary to amputate the arm. If we don’t, your condition could worsen and put your life in jeopardy.” The loss of an arm, for Yoshio Sugino, a man who had spent almost all his life as a martial artist, was practically a death sentence! Three of the five doctors he consulted viewed amputation as the best solution. Left unattended, they said, the blood-starved cell tissue would begin to die and the condition would only worsen. They had serious doubts about the capacity of Sugino’s 92-year-old body to recover on its own.

Two doctors, however, urged that less extreme treatments should be tried first. Reluctantly, the others agreed and it was decided to trust the patient’s physical stamina and recuperative capacity. Shortly thereafter Sugino underwent surgery to sew together several of the blood vessels in his debilitated arm, a procedure that undoubtedly taxed his elderly body to the limit. As he woke from the anesthesia, in the hazy half-light of semi-consciousness, Sugino heard voices not just one but several. Voices that were somehow familiar. Opening his eyes, he was surprised to see his two surgeons and four nurses standing around the bed giving him three cheers. The operation had been a success. Sugino looked at his arm and knew that it could move again, perfectly freely, elbow, wrist, fingers, everything. Happy and amazed, he also noticed that the deathly pale of the flesh was gradually giving way to a pink hue as the rejuvenated blood flow began to resurrect the numbed tissue.

Sugino was elated; he would be able to pursue his beloved bujutsu after all. Despite his robust constitution, Sugino’s age has taken its inevitable toll in the form of various physical failings. He has been forced to enter the hospital many times and earlier this year he was ordered to rest after his doctors detected a mild stroke. But Sugino remains as tough and tenacious as ever. Although he now refrains from training himself, whenever he is at home he can still be found in the dojo among his students, bokuto in hand, flinging sharp critiques and guidance on this point or that. He still goes up and down stairs on his own, refusing assistance from family members. His posture is still as steady and straight as a rod. He still has most of his own teeth, and he still eats whatever he likes. In short, he is doing pretty well, all things considered.

Good Luck

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.

Early years Sugino was born on December 12, 1904 in the village of Naruto (a farming village just inland from Kujukurihama in Chiba Prefecture), the eldest son of Yutaro and Seki Sugino. Born slightly smaller than average, his determination to become strong undoubtedly began to surface at an early age. The Suginos were a farming family that for generations had served as the head household in the village. From the Edo period, the family had been permitted to use a surname and wear a sword. Their house was a sprawling affair with a cemetery in the rear where slept generations of Sugino family ancestors. Today the house is still maintained by one of Sugino’s cousins.

When Sugino was still very young his family moved to Shirogane Sanko-cho in Tokyo’s Minato Ward. His parents, already well aware of the boy’s proclivity for mischief, arranged to enroll him in elementary school at the age of six, a year earlier than normal. The young Sugino created quite a stir at the traditional entrance ceremony by arriving dressed in western-style clothing highly unusual and perhaps a first for the school in an age when Japanese-style garb was considered normal and proper on such occasions. As mentioned earlier, Sugino was a little smaller than the other boys, but he had an abundance of energy and took something of a leadership role when it came to making mischief. He was not particularly fond of studying, preferring to stage mock sword fights and the like with his friends. Sugino’s father was extremely strict and the boy knew he could look forward to a cuffing should he fail to answer immediately when called. The elder Sugino valued hard work and despised anything that was not fair and above board, and taught his son accordingly.

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.

In his heavy Tokyo accent, Sugino describes the time he brought a friend from the country to a Tokyo coffee shop: “Having been raised in the country, my companion found coffee quite exotic. He also thought it was simply marvelous that you could put in as much sugar as you liked.” Sugino was and still is a keen observer of detail. While watching a Waseda-Keio baseball game, for example, he noticed that all the Waseda students had brought rice balls for lunch while all the Keio students had brought sandwiches. This talent for observation undoubtedly helped him a great deal in learning martial arts. Later, when teaching his own students, he became known for never missing even minor mistakes and pointing out each and every one in a distressingly loud voice.

Although he tried practically every sport available, Sugino’s real love was for budo, particularly judo and kendo. While at Keio, he began studying judo under Kunisaburo Iizuka, an 8th dan judoist who also taught at the Kodokan. Iizuka was even shorter than Sugino but he made up for his lack of height in his girth and exceptional skill. It was he who forged the young Sugino into a strong judo man. At first, Sugino was unable to win against any of his opponents because of his small size. “That was truly a difficult time for me,” he recalls. Sugino studied kendo for a time under a man named Tadatsu Shingai, who was employed in the Imperial Household Agency and was ranked “upper second kyu.” The dan system was not used at that time and practitioners were ranked instead from tenth kyu to first kyu, which ranks were further divided into upper, middle and lower levels. Given that a third kyu was roughly equivalent to a modern 4th dan, Shingai’s upper second kyu rank suggests he had considerable skill. Although Shingai urged Sugino to train seriously, Sugino seemed to show little aptitude for kendo (perhaps it did not quite fit his nature then) and he made little progress. After a while he decided to give it up.

Sugino’s real talent at the time was for judo. He trained every morning and evening, his desire to strengthen himself leading him to spend more time on the mat than anyone else. Iizuka’s training was strict and under him the Keio judo club (which had generally been considered too weak to amount to much) and Sugino grew steadily stronger. Sugino sometimes relates a story he once heard about his judo teacher: “Years ago in Kyushu, Iizuka defeated a certain classical jujutsu man using his judo. As he returned to his lodgings that evening, his opponent ambushed him, this time brandishing a blade and hurling abuse, but Iizuka took him down and pinned him beautifully.”

Iizuka was as strict when it came to etiquette as he was tough. Once Sugino was ordered by one of his seniors to referee a judo match, since there happened to be no one else in the dojo to do it just then. Hearing this, Iizuka roared, “Absolutely not! You don’t even have a hakama to wear today. We certainly can’t have someone with no hakama referee a judo match!” “Ordinarily Iizuka was a very gentle, very nice man,” says Sugino, “but in the dojo he was a tiger of a teacher. Even now I feel the highest respect and gratitude toward him.”

Undefeated in Judo

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.

Sugino began with the sword, but he also threw himself into the rest of Katori Shinto-ryu’s abundant curriculum, which includes the study of iai, bo, naginata, yari, shuriken and ryoto (two-sword) techniques. He had no particular favorite among these, but rather went about each and every one with full enthusiasm. When asked whether, given his judo background, he felt any resistance toward the kata-only training methods of such classical traditions, Sugino said, “Budo is kata. Kata training is everything in budo. Shiai is usually written with two characters meaning ‘to meet’ and ‘to test your skill’, but in budo the term is more properly understood as the two characters (also pronounced shiai) meaning ‘to meet with death’. If you were to engage in a serious match using bokuto, either you or your opponent would surely end up dead, don’t you think? In that sense, shiai are not something you can do thoroughly and completely. When you try to talk to people about kata these days they often seem a little disappointed or disinterested. ‘Ah yes, kata…’ they say. But treating kata so lightly is a great mistake.”

Waning Enthusiasm for Judo

Jigoro Kano had a nephew named Honda, a 6th dan who worked at the Kodokan as General Secretaryl. “He was one of those people who tended to make his influence felt,” Sugino recalls. One day Sugino, a 4th dan by then, boldly asked Honda whether judo had any secret principles (gokui), to which Honda replied that it did not. Sugino pressed the issue, asking again, “Really? None at all?” Honda reiterated his answer, saying no, none at all. Kodokan judo had no gokui nor any other secrets. “No gokui…” Sugino considered this deeply. Even games like go (a board game) and shogi (Japanese chess) had gokui; how could it possibly be that a bujutsu, an activity where one’s very life was at stake, had none? It didn’t make sense. “If judo has no gokui,” Sugino reflected, “is it really worth practicing?” Adding to his growing discontent with judo, Sugino had also noticed many instances in which clearly effective techniques went unnoticed or unrecognized by the referees. His enthusiasm for the art began to wane, gradually supplanted in his heart by a growing appreciation for Katori Shinto-ryu. These days judo is not taught at all in Sugino’s dojo. “Modern judo, with its weight categories and other modifications, has become nothing but a sport,” he laments. With his growing devotion to Katori Shinto-ryu, Sugino took his first steps down the path of the bujutsuka.

Sugino the Bank Employee

Sugino has often described his long life by saying, “I’ve done nothing but budo,” but in fact he did once hold a job completely unrelated to budo — as a bank employee. At the age of 20, soon after graduating from Keio University, Sugino accepted a position at the Taipei headquarters of Kanan Bank. His starting salary of 90 yen per month was exceptional considering the 30 yen normally offered to new college graduates at the time. Sugino confesses to having a bit of a secret agenda in accepting that particular position. As soon as he had the chance, he intended to transfer to the bank’s Singapore branch and enjoy life in the easy tropical climate of the Malay Peninsula.

During his sojourn in Taipei, Sugino by no means forgot about bujutsu. He trained every morning from 8:30 to 11, then put on his suit and went off to work at the bank as a deposit teller, a job connected with the detailed accounting of incoming funds. Frankly, Sugino made a poor bank employee, for he found that affairs at the bank inevitably took a back seat in his mind to his real love, martial arts. Of course, he more than compensated for his lack of enthusiasm for the work by his constant participation in local martial arts meets and competitions.

In May 1923 Sugino entered a judo competition in Taipei. He was selected as the first of five opponents to go against a third-dan judoka in a five-player elimination match. Judoka capable of making it through this sort of elimination competition are generally viewed as among the most skilled, with impressive strength and the ability to down at least five opponents in a match without too much difficulty. Perhaps deceived by Sugino’s small stature, the third-dan moved in to execute what he probably thought would be an easy inner-thigh reap, but at the last instant Sugino caught him with a lightning-fast utsurigoshi (hip shift), one of his favorite techniques. The throw had been nearly perfect, but it so surprised the referee that he became confused as to how to call it. He hesitated to stop the match since the player still had four opponents to go. Wondering why the referee had said nothing, Sugino continued the match and brought the third-dan to the mat in a strangle hold. Eventually his opponent tapped out in submission, but the referee ignored this as well. Having no other choice, Sugino continued to apply the technique until the poor fellow lost consciousness.

He was appalled at having been forced to take the match so far to be recognized as the winner. He also felt a nagging sense of having done something hateful and even disrespectful. After the match, a senior of Sugino’s judo teacher Kunisaburo Iizuka approached Sugino and said, “So, you’re Iizuka’s student, eh? I must say, the young ones at the Kodokan these days certainly don’t disappoint!” Though he accepted the praise with reserve, the young Sugino was secretly thrilled and spent the rest of the day pleased as punch, though he tried desperately not to show it.

On the other hand, while Sugino was keeping himself busy in the Taipei martial arts world, his career was not exactly taking the turns he had intended. Specifically, the transfer to Singapore that had been promised him was showing no sign of becoming a reality. Only after much discussion with his supervisor did he extract the reply that in fact the bank had no intention at all of sending him there. Knowing that it would be impossible to argue the point, he decided to quit and return to Japan immediately. The following year he opened his dojo in Kawasaki, which he named the Kodokan Judo Shugyojo (Kodokan Judo Training Hall).

Sugino’s Everyday Life

Shortly after turning 20, Sugino married a lovely young woman with whom he had fallen “head-over-heels” in love. She bore him a son, but sadly she passed away soon thereafter as a result of post-natal complications. Eventually he remarried, this time with a woman who was a distant relative, and the couple raised four more sons and two daughters. Sugino says he was a strict father, demanding that his children clean the dojo diligently when they were young and strengthen themselves through budo training when they became older. Unusually, even Sugino’s own siblings called him “Sensei,” for in many ways he seemed more like a senior instructor than an older brother. Only his younger sister Fusako, nearly 20 years his junior, has ever referred to him habitually as “elder brother.”

Sugino filled his days attending to patients at his bone setting clinic and training in the dojo. In those days, people with broken bones and other such injuries often sought treatment first at a specialist clinic like Sugino’s instead of at a regular hospital. Other doctors often referred their patients to Sugino for such treatment and the clinic prospered. Something that always surprised visitors to the Sugino household was the fact that everyone in the family spoke in an exceptionally loud voice. Of course, it was undoubtedly Sugino himself, with his own booming vocal chords, who was the cause. First-time visitors would often be led to the mistaken conclusion that the family members were arguing, when in fact this was simply their normal mode of conversation.

At any given time there were always five or six uchideshi training at the dojo morning and evening. With the addition of a second dojo in the Kawasaki area, Sugino came to have quite a few students. His approach to instruction was by no means rigid and he adjusted his instruction to the physique, strength, personality, temperament and other characteristics of each individual. He was strict, though, and not even the smallest mistake escaped his keen perception. He would scold any who made such mistakes with a roar that echoed off the dojo walls and put the fear into everyone present (not to mention the individual who had actually committed the error). At his present age of 91, Sugino is no longer quite as vociferous as he used to be, of course, but there are still occasions when that powerful voice returns. He has been known to startle whole roomfuls of people with his ear-shattering “KAMPAI!!!” toast that comes rumbling up from his hara (lower abdomen) so that even from several meters away it seems like he is shouting by your ear. People are often shocked to find that such a voice could belong to such a seemingly frail, gentle old man. But the importance of a strong voice to Sugino can be gathered from his constant admonitions to his students that their kiai (combative shouts) are not loud enough and his obvious pleasure when someone finally manages to muster the proper volume. In any case, from his teaching in the dojo to his own training to his work in the bone setting clinic, Sugino has always pursued everything he does with a “shouting” enthusiasm and earnestness that have been consistent aspects of his personality all his life.

In contrast (but hardly surprising), he is no slouch with the pen, either. Besides being a frequent writer of letters and faithful correspondent, he has always made a habit of keeping copious notes to admonish himself of “things to do and things to avoid” in his own life and training. Even with a few spare minutes while riding the train he could often be found writing admonishments and encouragement to himself in a notebook: “Strict with oneself, tolerant of others.” “Heaven helps those who help themselves.” “Life is falling down seven times and getting up eight.” Even now, before giving an interview he spends considerable time the previous day preparing notes on what he would like to say and he refers to these constantly as the interview progresses. Early to bed, early to rise is Sugino’s motto and he rises every day at five in the morning for training, a custom developed through the early-morning kendo training of his student days. His diet has always been simple and without luxury. “I always try to leave the table a bit hungry,” he says. “It’s healthier that way.” He has always been fond of sake, too. “When I was young we considered it nothing at all and quite normal to drink at least three sho!” [1 sho = 1.8 liters] Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but in any case there is no question of his fondness for spirits of whatever sort. While these days he obviously can’t “put them away” like he used to, he is known to indulge in a drop or two now and then when the opportunity presents itself.

Sugino has worn his trademark long beard ever since he opened his first dojo. “I began growing it out of desperation,” he says. “Visitors to the dojo kept asking me to my apparently young-looking face to ‘please summon the master of the house.’ I guess people didn’t think I looked old enough or distinguished enough to be the head of a household or dojo. One of my students who lived with us as a boarder suggested I grow a beard, so I took his advice.” And with the application of a little hair-growth tonic around his mouth and chin, he says, he was able to pull off a successful image change from “handsome youth” (he had even been nicknamed “Prince Regent” at the bank because of his resemblance to Prince Regent Hirohito) to “warrior.”

Sugino and Aikido

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.

Sugino was already familiar with this story when he met Ueshiba. The founder began to give an impromptu demonstration of his art, which impressed Sugino with its very casualness and unpretentious manner. He watched Ueshiba’s movements intently, noting how his body seemed to be the personification of pure energy as he shifted airily about the room tossing his attackers this way and that, with the occasional pin thrown in for good measure. Back then, those lacking a deeper understanding of bujutsu tended to be deceived by the beauty and superb skill of Ueshiba’s aikido demonstrations, and would often assume they were merely prearranged. But Sugino had reached a point in his training where he was capable of easily distinguishing real martial technique from fake choreography, and he knew he was seeing the genuine article.

On this point he says: “If it isn’t so good that it makes people think it’s fake, then it’s not true aikido. Ueshiba’s techniques were truly alive, whether he was empty-handed or holding a staff or sword. You could almost ‘see’ the ki flowing from his hands.” He continues: “People like [former high-ranking sumo wrestler] Tenryu probably inwardly thought that Ueshiba Sensei’s techniques looked fake when they first saw them. But Ueshiba Sensei saw right through such doubts. To Tenryu he said, ‘Ah, Tenryu, you’re so very strong’ and slid his hand up to pat Tenryu on the shoulder. But with this simple, subtle movement he unbalanced the wrestler completely.” Impressed by Ueshiba’s demonstration, Sugino enrolled in the dojo immediately.

He recalls: “Ueshiba was always smiling or laughing cheerfully like some sort of playful god, but when it came to bujutsu he had an almost superhuman insight. “Whenever we were watching demonstrations of other martial arts he would provide his own running commentary - ‘That technique was like this… Did you see that movement he just did? It was actually this kind of movement here… .’ and so on. He understood everything that was being done, even if he was watching from a distance.” Unlike today, teachers back then did not take a particularly “student-oriented” approach and no one would have even dreamed of expecting detailed explanations of techniques. Ueshiba was no exception to this older approach. He would energetically throw out one crisp, clear technique after another without much explanation, and he never showed the same technique repeatedly. Even when his students would ask to see something again, he would simply say, “Next technique!” and do something completely different. According to Sugino, training in those days was always like that. The careful, parent-like teaching that is more or less the norm nowadays could not even have been hoped for back then and students had to be that much more earnest and work that much harder to understand.

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.

Exquisite, fearsome techniques

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?!”

Suginos friend Minoru Mochizuki told him a story about one of his own encounters with Sokaku: “Once I was minding Ueshiba Sensei’s home while he was out when Sokaku happened to come around. I served him tea, but he wouldn’t drink it. Instead, he filled another cup and ordered me to drink it first. I did and only after that did he finally drink some himself. It was the same with the cakes and everything else I served him; he wouldn’t touch any of it until I had tasted it for poison first!” Sugino reflects: “Sokaku certainly had wonderful techniques, of that there is no question. But his attitude, well, it was really something … .” Sugino is a veritable “living witness” to times past as he easily recalls stories about the most important martial arts figures with a clarity as if they had happened yesterday. Hearing him talk, it is easy to understand why he has come to be known as “the last swordsman.”

World War Two and the Post-War Era

From 1937 Sugino had been extremely busy. He held the position of Instructor of Budo at Chiba Teachers’ College and taught Katori Shinto-ryu in various places in Chiba prefecture, as well at Fuji Elementary School in Asakusa. He also taught naginata (short curved sword with a pole handle) at Yokohama Girls’ Vocational and judo at Keio Secondary School. In 1941 he co-authored a work called “Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-Ryudo Hanshi” with another student of Shiina, further establishing his already well-known voice in the Japanese budo world.

December of the same year saw the outbreak of the war in the Pacific. The numbers of uchideshi training at the Sugino dojo began to dwindle as men were sent off to join the fighting. The turbulent tides of the day had begun to encroach even on Sugino’s small dojo. Like most men his age, Sugino was eligible for military conscription, but despite top-level results on his conscription examination, he was never actually called up for active duty. Instead, he was assigned, at least officially, to be an “auxiliary transport soldier,” a position involving the procurement and transport of weapons, supplies and food to the front. At that time, such auxiliary soldiers received little respect compared to those in the regular army and they were often belittled with expressions like “calling them soldiers is like calling butterflies and dragonflies birds.” (Incidentally, there is a story that when he was young, Morihei Ueshiba was rejected for conscription after failing the eligibility examination and, when offered a position as an auxiliary transport soldier, indignantly refused saying, “You’re asking ME to join as an auxiliary transport soldier?!”) Sugino wistfully attributes his avoidance of active duty to sheer dumb luck: “I passed the eligibility exam with flying colors, but fortunately my number in the lottery just never came up.” Whatever behind-the-scenes reasons there may have been for his exemption will never be known, but in any case he says he is glad to have been able to pass the war years without having to kill a single soul.

The war grew worse as the tides turned against Japan. The windows of Sugino’s home and dojo were plastered inside with blackout paper in hopes of avoiding destruction from the nighttime Allied bombing raids. In the end it mattered little, however, for the city of Kawasaki became a sea of flames as American bombers continued their forays over the island. As the conflagration made its way toward his home and dojo, Sugino rushed outside, clutching to his breast a great bundle of yari (spears) and naginata that he was determined to save. He took his family to the countryside of Fukushima to stay with the family of one of his students, who had invited them to seek shelter there. “The trains were jammed to capacity and beyond with people fleeing the city,” he remembers. “All the way to Fukushima people were frowning and giving us dirty looks whenever I tried to squeeze into a train carriage with that awkward bundle of long weapons.”

Once in Fukushima, Sugino spent most of his time training or caring for the injured and gradually the family settled in. In fact, they even began to find Fukushima rather agreeable and were considering staying there. Then came the end of the war. Sugino was at Anahara hot springs when he heard the emperor’s broadcast announcing Japan’s unconditional surrender. He recalls feeling completely stunned, drained of all will and energy, as if everything he knew had suddenly been annulled. But he knew it would be best to return to Kawasaki and rebuild life there. As it happened, he was just in the process of treating an elderly man who had broken his arm, so he sent his family on ahead of him and stayed a while longer until the treatment was finished. Fortunately a certain individual was able to assist the Sugino family in securing a new place to live and start anew. Still, most of the men in the country had not yet returned from the war and for a while there was no way to even think about resuming training at the Sugino dojo as it had been before.

Time passed, however, and eventually the former soldiers began to be repatriated. Many people — soldiers and civilians alike — had remained with injuries and the Sugino Clinic became busier than ever. The occupation forces regarded martial arts as a threat and placed an unconditional ban on them. Sugino dutifully surrendered two swords to the authorities (which were never returned, he says), but of course there was no way Sugino was going to “ban” himself from training. He plastered the windows with opaque paper and continued to practice in secret. The faint sound of swords drifting out of his new dojo near Kawasaki station became a harbinger of Sugino’s remarkable activities in the years that would follow.

After the war the Sugino family faced food shortages and other difficulties that made every day a hardship. Inflation sent the value of the yen plummeting to a fraction of what it had been. As the government seemed incapable of devising any effective relief, it fell to individual citizens to find ways to provide for their own families.

Although Sugino still operated his bone-setting clinic, the family could not escape the privations of the day. To make the household more self-sufficient they started a vegetable garden on some family land, but they still had to rely on rice from the black market. Sugino’s children remember those years vividly, in particular the way their father took care of his own father. Every day he would take the old man some white rice and sake, even if it meant going without himself.

Gradually Japan began the formidable task of rebuilding. The ban on practicing martial arts was lifted, allowing Sugino to swing his sword openly once again. He felt as if a new age had dawned, but grieved deeply for former students who died in the war. A new dojo was completed in 1950 and once Sugino had arranged for some of his students to take over the bone-setting clinic so that he could devote himself exclusively to budo. Friends said he had become more rounded (perhaps mellowed by the hardships of the war and postwar years) but his enthusiasm for the martial arts remained unchecked and training was as arduous as ever. New students had to perform hundreds of basic sword cuts by themselves and when their diminutive teacher did step into the dojo, they could look forward to uncompromising instruction. Those who did not meet the master’s exacting standards (and he never missed even the slightest error) would be admonished, “Do it again! No! That’s still wrong! Again!” until they finally made the grade.

Sumie Ishibashi, a distant relative of Sugino’s and one of the few female students in the dojo, recalls how she had to hide in the toilet and cry.

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.

Sugino on set with famed actor Toshiro Mifune
It was not the first time Sugino had been asked to work for the film industry. In 1937 he had provided instruction in the spear for Ogai Mori’s film, The Abe Family which featured famous kabuki actors. Since then he had also worked on a variety of theatrical productions to provide actors with authentic martial arts techniques. Kurosawa had already made a number of films including Drunken Angel, Rashomon, and To Live that were already regarded as masterpieces. His next project was to be a samurai drama in which the stiff martial arts choreography typically used in such films would be replaced by something closer to the real thing. He had contacted the Ministry of Education for an introduction to a suitable instructor. The Ministry relayed the request to the Society for the Promotion of Classical Japanese Martial Arts who suggested Yoshio Sugino of the Katori Shinto-ryu and Junzo Sasamori of the Ono-ha Itto-ryu.

Sugino and Sasamori met Kurosawa in May 1953, at a gathering held at an upscale restaurant in Shibuya and they were joined by many of the actors who were to play the samurai in the film. One by one they introduced themselves: “Takashi Shimura, at your service… I am Toshiro Mifune…Minoru Chiaki. I am only an actor, so please go easy on me!. . Seiji Miyaguchi… .Yoshio Inaba… Daisuke Kato… Isao Kimura…”

When the introductions were complete, Kurosawa outlined his vision for the film. “The plot is simple,” he said. “The residents of a small farming village hire seven samurai to protect them from marauding bandits. But I hope to make the film enjoyable in new ways, one of which will be to make the martial arts scenes more exciting and realistic. To help us achieve authenticity, I have enlisted the cooperation of these two masters.” With that he turned to Sugino and Sasamori, his face glowing with enthusiasm and anticipation, and they all began an animated discussion of the film and budo in general.

Preparations for the shooting began the very next day. The actors tried on their costumes while the rest of the staff busied themselves with other preparations. Sasamori appeared on the set one day looking glum: “The Ministry of Education has just asked me to go off to teach in Europe. I don’t know how long I will have to be away, but I doubt if I’ll be able to continue working on the film.” However he told Kurosawa, “Even though I have to bow out there’s really nothing to worry about since Sugino Sensei here can teach everything from spear to iai and even aikido. I leave you in good hands.”

When it came time to take commemorative photos of the cast and crew, Sasamori refused to join in since he was no longer part of the production. Sugino and the rest were impressed with his sense of honor and personal integrity. Kurosawa, though undoubtedly disappointed, took Sasamori’s words to heart and did not hire a replacement, leaving Sugino as the sole martial arts instructor on the set of what was to be one of the director’s most important films.

Sugino instructs Mifune in sword technique
as Akira Kurosawa watches
The filming was fraught with difficulties from the beginning. An unexpectedly long time had been spent finding suitable locations. The horses kept refusing to perform according to their riders’ commands. And poor weather began to throw much of the shooting off schedule. Spirits were low. But Sugino remained patient and bent his undivided attention to instructing the cast, beginning with basic Katori Shinto-ryu sword movements, correct posture and the proper handling of weapons.

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.

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