Aikido Journal Home » Articles » Shin'ichi Suzuki Sensei: Head Instructor, Maui Ki-Aikido Aiki News Japan

Shin’ichi Suzuki Sensei: Head Instructor, Maui Ki-Aikido

by Christopher Curtis

Published Online

Shin’ichi Suzuki, 8th dan
Shin’ichi Suzuki was born in 1917 in the small Central Maui town of Waikapu, the first in a family of ten children. He is a “nisei”, which means that he is of Japanese ancestry, but was born in Hawaii as the second generation. His father came directly from Japan to work in the sugar cane fields as a laborer. In the early part of the 20th century, the sugar cane workers of Maui were not well paid, and Suzuki Sensei often tells of the hardship of raising a family of ten children under such conditions. He and his brothers often used to catch small gold fish in the irrigation reservoirs and sell them to passing travelers for a few cents each.

He attended Lahainaluna Technical High School as a member of the class of 1934. Immediately after graduation from high school, young Suzuki had little choice but to begin work as a laborer in the sugar fields with Wailuku Sugar Company. He had wanted to take the college entrance exam, to be the first in his family to attend college, but the exam was too expensive for him to afford. The exam cost $1.00.

After about one year, Suzuki luckily found a job with the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association in soil analysis and field experimental work, where he stayed for six years. He excelled in this work, and his employers saw in this bright and hardworking young man much promise. However, Suzuki was looking for something with a little more action.

Suzuki loved Judo play, and studied for eight years with both Rev. Nishi and Rev. Kawashima of the Wailuku Hongwanji Mission on Maui. He exhibited a clear sense of leadership in the community, and when he was offered the opportunity to join the Maui Police Department, he jumped at it. When he took the police entrance exam, he received the highest score of any previous applicant. Through the years, by constantly applying himself, he worked his way up through the ranks from Foot Patrolman to Captain of Detectives in the Criminal Investigation Division, and eventually to Major of Police - Central Command. He retired as a Major, after a distinguished police career, in 1972.
Suzuki Sensei was legend as a police officer. The criminals even used to write letters to the department, and on one occasion even the local newspaper, praising him and thanking him for his sense of respect and fairness.

One evening Suzuki Sensei was Night Watch Lieutenant at the Maui Police Headquarters. He was quietly working in his office, when he heard a ruckus. Going to investigate, he found that several police officers had brought in a drunk and disorderly fellow, and they had received some beatings in the process. They had finally managed to cuff the hooligan, but were not able to get him down the stairs into a cell. He simply refused to budge. Seeing Suzuki Sensei, they were relieved, and asked if he couldn’t lend a hand, so to speak, as he had a reputation for being able to handle any unruly person. The scene was very tense. Suzuki Sensei immediately ordered the officer in charge to remove the handcuffs from the perpetrator. The officers present were shocked and severely warned against such a foolhardy course of action. “No”, Sensei said, “I will be responsible. Just remove the cuffs.” At this, the poor fellow looked at Suzuki Sensei with confused wonder. How could this man have such fearlessness and control, after seeing what he had done to the other police officers? Then something strange happened. The drunk came over to Suzuki Sensei and slipped his arm through his, laying his head on Sensei’s shoulder. He said, “I trust you. If you keep those others away from me, I will go down to the cell with you.” And with no more said than that, Suzuki Sensei marched the fellow down the stairs and into his cell to sleep it off for the night.

As much as this great man was able to bring to the Maui community through his police work, the real contribution of Shin’ichi Suzuki to his immediate community and to the world at large, emerged through his tireless dedication to the martial art of aikido. It had begun way back in 1953, when he met a charismatic young aikido instructor from Japan by the name of Koichi Tohei. Tohei Sensei had been invited to Maui by the Hawaii Nishi Kai organization, to teach aikido to the Police Department. Officer Suzuki had been serendipitously assigned to Tohei Sensei as his guide and assistant during his Maui stay. Sensing great potential in Mr. Suzuki, Tohei Sensei chose him for an intensive month of training during September of 1953. It was during this brief period of time that the Maui Aikido Club was organized, and Tohei Sensei appointed Mr. Suzuki as the Chief Instructor. Thus began, 50 years ago, an illustrative “second” career for Suzuki Sensei; a period of intense study, personal sacrifice, deep satisfaction, awards and honors, and teaching throughout the globe.

Suzuki Sensei was the very first person from Hawaii to actually train at the World Headquarters of aikido in Japan. In 1959, at the invitation of Tohei Sensei, he spent three months at the Tokyo Aikido Headquarters, training with Tohei Sensei, and his teacher, the Founder of Aikido, Master Morihei Uyeshiba, respectfully referred to as O-Sensei. During this stay, O-Sensei treated Suzuki Sensei as a special guest. Suzuki Sensei tells a humorous story about this period of time. It seems that every morning before class, O-Sensei would invite Suzuki Sensei to come into his private quarters behind the training hall, where he would lecture for over an hour while Suzuki Sensei sat seiza in polite appreciation. And even though he had almost no idea what O-Sensei was talking about, Suzuki Sensei would very courteously reply “Hai, Sensei” each time O-Sensei paused to take a breath. One morning, after the private lecture had ended and all were assembled in the dojo for training, O-Sensei faced his Japanese students with a scowl. “I have lectured and lectured you students, and not one of you understands my teaching. Whereas this fine student from Hawaii listens to me and understands everything I have to say!” After O-Sensei left the dojo, the students all pounced on Suzuki Sensei, demanding to know what O-Sensei was talking about. All poor Suzuki Sensei could do was laugh and apologize, because indeed, he too had no idea of the real meaning of O-Sensei’s obscure teaching.

After his retirement from the Maui Police Department in 1972, Suzuki Sensei returned to Japan again, this time for 15 months of training directly under Tohei Sensei. It was during this time that Tohei Sensei appointed him Head of Foreign Affairs for the Aikido-Ki Society, a position he held for 8 years.

Through the years, Suzuki Sensei has not ceased in his unfailing commitment to his personal training. He follows a rigorous schedule. Rising each morning long before the sun, he sits alone at home for several hours a day, performing Ki Breathing and Ki Meditation. As he says, if he ever has to miss a day of personal training, due to illness or travel, he is very careful to make it up, doubling his regimen on another day. Early on in his training, Tohei Sensei had told Suzuki Sensei that if he really wanted to develop in aikido, then he would have to breathe at least one hour per day. And he had never failed to follow that advice.

When traveling, Sensei carries a small spiral notebook in his shirt pocket. As his otomo, and as such, his constant companion, I often saw him referring to this small notebook, and sometimes writing in it. So one day I summoned up the courage to ask about this. He smiled and opened the book for me to see. Inside it, in perfectly neat little rows, were the dates, followed by a number. These numbers were always a 1, 2, 3, or a 4. When I asked what this represented, he replied that it was his record of his morning Ki Breathing sessions. At times, there were blanks after certain dates, but then the next day there was always at least a 2 or a 3. Suzuki Sensei was always a stickler for discipline, and would follow Tohei Sensei’s teachings to the letter, or beyond.

On one occasion, Tohei Sensei showed Suzuki Sensei a certain finger mudra, known as toitsu no in. Tohei Sensei’s instruction was that he should hold his hands in this position above his head for one hour per day for a period of one month. When Suzuki Sensei first tried this exercise, he found it impossible to perform for more than a few minutes. The position caused excruciating pain in his hands, arms, and back muscles. So he resolved to practice until he could perform comfortably for one hour. This process took him eighteen months before he could complete the one hour as directed by his teacher. Then, since it took him so long to prepare for this ordeal, he decided to go ahead and sit one year like this, instead of the one month that Tohei Sensei had originally requested.

This kind of dedication has naturally led to an unusual level of personal development, and of course, ready recognition and respect from others, including his long-time teacher Tohei Sensei. In 1993, Tohei Sensei awarded Suzuki Sensei the rank of hachidan (8th degree black belt), making him the highest ranking Ki-Aikido Instructor in the world, outside of Japan. Of course, through the years, Suzuki Sensei has received many honors, some of which are the following:

*1962 - At the 2nd State Instructors Seminar held on Maui, he received a commendation from Hawaii State Governor William Quinn.
*1963 - Received the first Maui Jay Cees Good Citizen award.
*1970 - Received the Black Belt Magazine Aikido Instructor Hall of Fame award.
*1993 - Received commendation from Hawaii State Governor John Waihee and the Hawaii State House of Representatives.
*1996 - Received the “Living Treasure” designation by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.
*1997 - Received first Senior “Tradi” award from the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii for contribution to the traditional Japanese culture in Hawaii.

Suzuki Sensei is not only recognized by the people of Hawaii for his many contributions, but by the people of the world. Besides teaching regular seminars in the State of Hawaii, he has traveled extensively, teaching throughout the United States, as well as Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Brazil, New Zealand and Japan.

Aikido, as it is passed on to us by Suzuki Sensei, is an inspiration in daily life. Suzuki has found that many aspiring aikidoists are merely interested in fancy techniques to impress others, and tend to ignore the basics of fundamental training which lay the groundwork for the techniques, and more importantly for daily life. He believes in the principle of teaching to others only that which he has actually experienced and, thus, is a strong proponent of self-discipline. At the age of 86, Shin’ichi Suzuki Sensei continues to be the dynamic guiding light for Maui Ki-Aikido. We are very proud and grateful to have such a dedicated and selfless human being as our leader.

Christopher Curtis
Maui - 2002
Maui Ki-Aikido