“Everyone who trained under O-Sensei received something from him and made it his or her own; but very few, if any, actually resemble O-Sensei or do exactly what he did.”
Born in 1939 in Otaru, Hokkaido, Seichi Sugano entered the Aikikai in 1957, becoming an uchideshi a year later. He moved to Australia in 1965 to teach aikido, and was one of the pioneers in disseminating the art further abroad through travels to New Zealand, Belgium, and other European countries. Currently 8th dan, Sugano Shihan teaches with Yoshimitsu Yamada Shihan at the New York Aikikai.
AJ: Sugano Sensei, how did you first come to aikido?
Sugano: Before discovering aikido I was doing judo. I was interested in budo and happened to see an article on aikido in a magazine. I was around 18 at the time, so instead of going to the university I joined the dojo. About a year later I signed on as an uchideshi.
Do you have any particular memories of the old Wakamatsu-cho dojo?
The present Doshu (Kisshomaru Ueshiba) was one of the first people I met there. The place had the feel of an old-style dojo; quite different from the way it is today. Most of the time only O-Sensei and Doshu were there. Koichi Tohei was the head of the teaching staff. In the afternoon we were taught by people like Sadateru Arikawa, Hiroshi Tada and Shigenobu Okumura. A few years later Saito Sensei started coming down from Iwama to teach on Sundays.
Did you participate in Saito Sensei’s training?
Of course. Uchideshi went to all the classes. It never even occurred to us not to attend a class. Practically by definition, being an uchideshi meant that if there was practice you were there training.
Different from today, isn’t it?
I don’t think there are any real uchideshi these days! [laughs]
What teacher had the greatest influence on you?
To me O-Sensei was the zenith. My training was geared entirely to striving toward that peak.
Who else was in the dojo at that time?
Kazuo Chiba came about a year before I did. Nobuyoshi Tamura and Yoshimitsu Yamada were also my seniors. Mitsugi Saotome came in about a year after I did. Yutaka Kurita, who is now in Mexico, and Yasuo Kobayashi were both there. Katsuaki Asai lived diagonally opposite the dojo and there were several other non-uchideshi that were constantly at the dojo.
Do you have any particularly vivid memories of the individuals teaching in those days?
My mind was focused entirely on doing aikido, so I wasn’t really conscious of the high-level teachers around me, or of the interpersonal relationships in the dojo. I was too busy just trying to do aikido.
People who have now become teachers themselves often mention teachers like Koichi Tohei and Seigo Yamaguchi. What were your impressions of them?
Yamaguchi Sensei really loved to talk. Once he got hold of you it was pretty hard to escape! [laughs] Actually he had already gone off to Burma by the time I became an uchideshi, and he wasn’t back until a year or two later. He and Tohei Sensei were like oil and water. Yamaguchi Sensei had a very strong personality. It was difficult to grasp his techniques — they had quite a different feeling from those of the other teachers — or to capture the essence of what he was doing. Tohei Sensei’s teaching was influenced by the Tempukai, and it was easier to follow, probably because much of the Tempukai curriculum originated in yoga.
Why did you decide to become an uchideshi?
I wanted to be able to pursue aikido exclusively. I didn’t have any particular goal to become a teacher or anything like that. I just wanted to train.
You entered aikido so soon after graduating from high school. Have you ever had another vocation or profession?
No, I haven’t. Soon after I joined the Aikikai my parents cut my allowance, so I had a few part-time jobs but, other than those, I’ve done nothing but aikido.
So you found employment at the Aikikai, which you have continued until today?
Old Aikikai Hombu Dojo with Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Founder seated in center. Sugano is standing fourth from left, c. 1961
Well, I don’t know if you’d call it “employment” exactly! [laughs] They were just kind enough to feed me! I often ate with Doshu’s family. I think Doshu’s wife had a hard time feeding all the young uchideshi who were around then. She fed us and gave us a bit of pocket money and generally took good care of us.
What was life like as an uchideshi?
I spent the entire day in the dojo. Nothing but practice and more practice. Later they started sending me out to teach. Aikido was just starting to be taught at various places outside the main dojo, and I went out to teach at universities, at the Japanese Self-Defense Force headquarters and at some of the American military bases around Tokyo, where I had an interesting time.
I doubt if many people in the American military had ever seen aikido back then. Did they ever try to test out your aikido to see if it really worked?
Sure, all the time. They used to attack me from behind during practice and ambush me as I walked down the street. But there wasn’t any truly malicious intent to this. Going into one of those military bases was a lot of fun because it was like suddenly walking into the U.S. It was hard to believe you were still in Japan. Yoshimitsu Yamada and I used to go to the bases often.
What kind of practice did you do there?
Pretty much the same sort of thing I do now.
Really? I’ve heard that things sometimes got pretty rough and wild.
I don’t really remember all the details. [laughs] Some people like to bring up the past and talk about how hard we trained then, but personally I don’t feel particularly interested in talking about those times. I feel that many students outside Japan right now are training with just as much if not more enthusiasm and diligence. But then, I myself have been living abroad, so I don’t really know how things are in Japan now.
Looking at the spectrum of teachers active in the aikido world today, there seem to be qualitative differences between those who spent time as uchideshi under the founder and those who came later, after he had passed away.
I agree. Whenever I go to Japan now I feel as though I am amongst a completely different race of people whose ways of thinking seem entirely different. Or maybe I am the one who has changed.
What do you find so different?
Many of those doing aikido in the old days skipped higher education to immerse themselves in aikido. These days many of the teachers seem to have waited until they finished college then entered the dojo almost like entering a professional career. The feeling is completely different. Naturally there are generation differences, too, so it’s probably inevitable that the present is different from the past. These days there are a lot of different aikido groups and a lot of different ways of thinking about aikido, but at that time aikido equaled O-Sensei. That’s one difference between now and then. Those who went abroad to teach went with the intention of teaching O-Sensei’s aikido. Even now outside Japan you can still find a sense that aikido and Morihei Ueshiba are one and the same, although it’s probably inevitable that this feeling will gradually become diluted.
I’ve often heard that many of the uchideshi came up with their own unique training methods; Mitsunari Kanai, for example, used to secretly punch and kick at a makiwara (packed-straw or rope-wound target used in karate training).
Yes, there happened to be one behind the dojo.
What about finding opportunities downtown to test out the techniques?
One hears stories like that, but they tend to change with the telling, don’t they? [laughs] Like that children’s game where someone whispers a sentence to someone else who whispers it to the next person, and by the time you get to the 10th person what’s being said is completely different from the original. There are stories about O-Sensei that have appeared in various books and magazines, which are rather hard to believe.
Did you come up with any unusual training methods of your own?
No, just the regular training, although for a long time I also used to practice target shooting and marksmanship. There was a rifle range that I used to frequent near Korakuen amusement park.
Did you start shooting before or after you began aikido?
Around the same time. I practiced pistol shooting for a long time at the American military base in Tachikawa. Target shooting in Japan is limited to rifles and ordinary people don’t get the opportunity to practice with pistols. It was a very good experience. One of my aikido students happened to be a marksmanship instructor, so I used to head off to Tachikawa early to get in some pistol shooting practice before aikido training.
You seem to have been dispatched relatively early to teach aikido outside the Aikikai headquarters?
Yes, people were sent out to teach in gradually increasing numbers from around 1957. Nobody was really teaching on a professional basis at that time, so there were quite a few opportunities to teach in various places. There was the Japanese Self-Defense Force and there were aikido clubs at various universities. I taught at Kokugakuin University for a long time.
How was it that you came to live and teach abroad?
In Australia, 1970
I left Japan in 1965. I happened to be married to a non-Japanese woman, so that was one motivation. I went to Australia first and after a while Nobuyoshi Tamura asked me to come to Europe, so I went to Belgium and stayed there for quite a while. In fact, the reason I’m in New York now is because someone asked me to come. I guess I’m just a sort of wanderer who keeps showing up in different places. [laughs]
That was rather early to be going abroad, wasn’t it?
Yes, I suppose so. Tamura, Yamada, Chiba, Kanai and I all went abroad around the same time. We didn’t plan it that way; it just happened to work out like that. We all had our own reasons for going, and opportunities just happened to present themselves. It was a time when aikido was starting to expand and grow abroad, but we were not specifically invited to teach in the places where we ended up, so we all had various difficulties.
How did you approach your teaching in the beginning?
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