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Interview with Yoshio Sugino

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #69 (November 1985)

Sensei, we understand that you used to practice at the Kobukan dojo (old Hombu Dojo) before the war. Would you tell us a little about the atmosphere of the old dojo and the type of training?

Yoshino Sugino Sensei demonstrating iaijutsu

Well, most of those who were training when I was there have already passed away. Mr. (Hajime) Iwata of Nagoya practiced there. He was really enthusiastic about training. There were also people like Dr. Kenzo Futaki, a specialist in the brown rice diet, and a son of Mr. Buyo (Takeaki) Enomoto. Takeaki Enomoto (1836-1908) was, as you know, a high-ranking personage of the Shogunate who secluded himself up in a place called Goryokaku. By this act he sided with the Shogunate. However, he ended up surrendering to Takamori Saigo. Then I believe he served in the newly established Meiji government and became a minister of the navy. It was his son who used to come to the dojo. There were also some doctors of engineering and medical science at that time. Another figure was Major General Makoto Miura. Sometimes Mr. Hidemaro Deguchi, the husband of Onisaburo Deguchi’s daughter, came to the dojo. Although we studied under Ueshiba Sensei after having practiced martial arts like Judo and Kendo, this was not the case for the people I just mentioned. Since they were amateurs, they seemed to be practicing lightly as if engaged in physical education. In our case we came to study under Ueshiba Sensei after already having established dojos of our own.

I started out studying Kodokan Judo. But I felt dissatisfied with Judo so I began to practice old style jujutsu around the beginning of the Showa period (about 1925). My teacher was named Genro Kanaya, a top instructor of the Butokukai, and the name of the school was Yoshin Koryu. He was a great teacher.

Around 1935, he gave a demonstration of Yoshin Koryu Jujutsu at the Saineikan Dojo in the Imperial Palace of the Imperial Household Office in front of the Crown Prince. I took falls for him then. This Yoshin Koryu style is more or less the same as the present Tenjin Shinyo-ryu or Kito-ryu Jujutsu.

In about 1932, I visited Ueshiba Sensei’s newly-built dojo in Wakamatsu-cho through an introduction of Konishi Sensei and saw O-Sensei’s technique. I felt that his technique was really great and became an ardent admirer.

I also studied Katori Shinto-ryu. The Founder of the Kodokan, Jigoro Kano, encouraged his high-ranking students to study other Japanese traditional martial arts because he thought that Judo alone was insufficient. So he sent a messenger to the Katori Shinto-ryu dojo. Katori Shinto-ryu is a dojo as well as a school which has a history going back about 600 years. It is different from Kashima-ryu. It is the origin of Kashima. Kashima Shinto-ryu is an offshoot of Katori Shinto-ryu. Kano Sensei invited the best disciple of Katori Shinto-ryu from Chiba Prefecture to teach. Since Kano Sensei thought that Katori Shinto-ryu should be preserved, I also began to study it together with Mr. Minoru Michizuki and Mr. Jiro Takeda. All arts such as Shuriken (throwing knife), naginata, spear, two swords, kodachi (short sword), sword, bojutsu (stick arts) and iai are included in Katori Shinto-ryu. Old-style martial arts, unlike the present martial arts such as Kendo and Judo, were not divided into individual areas. They are what we call “comprehensive” martial arts.

Kano Sensei, along with two or three others including Mr. Mifune, an instructor of the Kodokan, and Mr. Nagaoka went to Ueshiba Sensei’s dojo in Shinjuku to observe his training. It is said that Kano Sensei remarked after seeing the training: “This is true Judo.” Mr. Nagaoka then is supposed to have made a joke saying, “Sensei, then is what we are doing false judo?” Kano Sensei meant it in the broader sense. He praised aikido explaining that it was not just judo but judo in a wider sense. At that time the art was not called aikido. It was called “Kobu” or “Daito-ryu”. Kano Sensei asked Ueshiba Sensei to teach this art to some of his deshi and then he sent Mr. Mochizuki to Ueshiba Sensei since the former was a serious man and also practiced Katori Shinto-ryu. Mochizuki was the quick-tempered type. This was why Mr. Jiro Takeda was also sent along to look after him. I knew Mr. Takeda well. He was somewhat the slow type. He was not young either. I guess he must have been 50 years old at that time. I think Mochizuki was 25 or 26. Mr. Takeda was 5th dan in Judo then. He practiced aikido like he was doing calisthenics.

Excuse me for talking about myself too much, but I had been practicing Kendo and Judo at that time while a student of Keio University. I studied Judo under Iizuka Sensei of the Kodokan and Kendo under Mr. Saneatsu Shingai. In 1922 I received my shodan in Judo. It was what we called a “batsugun shodan” (distinguished shodan) awarded to those with excellent records. Probably you are not familiar with the term. In my day, military officers, Tokujiro Akagawa and Kunijiro Minagawa also became “batsugun shodan”. Mr. Akakawa threw about 12 or 13 people and Mr. Minagawa threw about 16. If you were a batsugun shodan you were treated differently from normal shodan. People tended to regard you as a cut above the others. After I became shodan I was never defeated in the “Kohaku jiai” (a contest or tourney between two groups) whose records are preserved in the Kodokan. I would always throw my opponents and in this way was elevated to 4th dan. The man who participated in the contests with me at that time was Mr. Minagawa. He was a Navy Sumo Club captain but had only a 1st kyu in Judo. I guess he was 27 or 28 at that time. We were still teenagers. Since he was practicing judo in the Navy and couldn’t go outside to compete, he wasn’t promoted. But he was really strong. I think that he was at the level of a 3rd dan. That’s why he could throw more than 10 people.

Were there any weight divisions then?

Not at all. Weight divisions were introduced after the war. When I was 2nd dan Mr. Mochizuki became shodan. When I became 3rd dan he became 2nd dan. When I became 4th dan he became 3rd dan. So I was always ranked higher than Mr. Mochizuki. Although I was very small I was strong and was never defeated. There was a particular match I had when I was a 4th dan that I consider my best one. At that time those who were ranked 5th dan didn’t participate in matches any more. The highest rank for competition was 4th dan. Mr. Tokusanbo was ranked 5th dan. Among the well-known 4th dans were Kozo Sonezaki, Koichi Terayama and Seiichi Shirai. I was promoted at the same time and went undefeated. Since I was young then I was pretty conceited. I established a Kodokan Judo dojo in Kawasaki in 1927. Teachers today may not be aware of it, but at that time unless an instructor was a 3rd dan or higher he was not allowed to establish a branch dojo of the Kodokan. Also, we were obliged to report to the Kodokan the number of new students and total practitioners and the amount of fees we received every month. After that, I studied Yoshin-ryu Koryu and then started aikido. Therefore, I didn’t consider aikido to be just an ordinary art.

One time, at a tournament (kohaku jiai) for 4th dans, when my partner applied a technique on me suddenly I jumped up and then countered him with “Utsurigoshi”. If he had pulled more strongly I would have fallen down but as it was I managed to throw him with “Yorikiri”. So it was absolutely clear that I won. However, the judge didn’t say anything, perhaps he was looking away or was surprised, I don’t know. At that time, unlike the present, there weren’t 2 or 3 judges. Then, later, waza ari” was called. Although there was no doubt about it being “ippon”, they considered it “waza ari”. I felt ridiculous and that eventually led to my abandoning Kodokan Judo. I stopped going there after that incident. Starting around 1939 or 40, I became a Judo instructor at Keio university. It was during the war and Judo was a part of the regular curriculum.

I, of course, was still doing Judo but I had lost interest in Judo techniques, so I began to study aikido around 1932 or 33. This is how I came to meet Morihei Ueshiba Sensei. Sensei was a man of unusual ability or I might say a man capable of performing superhuman feats. Anyway, he was extraordinary. Those practicing aikido today say that Ueshiba Sensei was really amazing but also wonder if what he did was actually true or not. They say such a thing because they have never seen his technique directly. Those who are in their thirties or forties talk about the greatness of Musashi Miyamoto or Mataemon Araki but since they have never seen them they are unable to know what was really true. By comparison, I am lucky because I saw Ueshiba Sensei directly.

Ueshiba Sensei, unlike the present Honbu instructors, taught techniques by quickly showing the movement just one time. He didn’t teach by offering detailed explanations. Even when we asked him to show us the technque again he would say, “No. Next technique!”. Although he showed us three or four different techniques we had the feeling we wanted to see the same technique many times. We ended up trying to “steal” his techniques (by observing carefully).

Mr. Mochizuki had a very keen sense for budo. He would grasp Ueshiba Sensei’s techniques by watching. Sensei never took his hand to show him a technique. However, he would imitate Sensei. In other words, imitating is the same as learning. You watch the techniques of your Sensei through your spirit and mind. This is what I mean by “stealing” techniques from your sensei. People today are very slow to learn even when teachers explain. They are too casual about this type of thing. People in the old days were really serious.

When Jigoro Kano Sensei, Mochizuki Sensei or you saw the techniques of Ueshiba Sensei, what was it that attracted you?

It was the fact that his budo was alive, a living budo. Morihei Ueshiba Sensei often said, “Everything springs from the sword. The sword is the origin”. When someone attacks you with his weapon and your weapon is a kodachi (short sword), you can’t rely on it. It would be impossible to fight against a naginata with a kodachi, for example. Because such weapons are unreliable, arts like aikido or jujutsu, where you avoid the attack without a weapon when your opponent comes to strike you, become necessary. You don’t have a feeling that you are executing sword or jujutsu techniques. They are all combined in one. The sword and jo are one also. That’s my opinion. I really thought that what O-Sensei was saying was true. So if I may say so, I don’t like what I see today when I watch people practice. I get the impression they are training too lightly or too slowly. I wish they would put a bit more “ki” into what they are doing.

In the early days, I also met Sokaku Takeda Sensei who is said to have been one of Morihei Ueshiba Sensei’s teachers. When we gave a Katori Shinto-ryu demonstration Sokaku Sensei put on an exhibition of Daito-ryu. I think he was nearly 80 years old at that time. He was small and thin and only about 4 feet 11 inches (151.5 cm) tall. Even so, his techniques were remarkable. Ueshiba Sensei was also a man of unusual ability, but in his case, he had a powerful physique. I thought that was also great. Although Sokaku Takeda Sensei seemed to have the type of body which could be easily knocked over, his demonstration was extraordinary. He was capable of easily throwing 4th and 5th dan holders of the Kodokan.

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