Editor's Note: This article was published in the magazine "Australasian Fighting Arts" around 1974. Mike Yates is currently proprietor of Zen Imports in Sydney Australia. We received invaluable assistance from Mike Clarke, founder of the Shinseidokan Dojo in Tasmania, Australia and author of Budo Masters and Roaring Silence (available at www. Ryukyu.com) Thanks also to John Litchen, John Watson and Andrew Dziedzic of Aiki Kai Australia for their help.
Seiichi Sugano, 6th Dan chief instructor of Ueshiba Aikido in Australia, began his martial arts training at an early age when he was accepted by the founder of modern Aikido, the late Morehei Ueshiba, as one of five apprentices to study directly under him at the headquarters in Tokyo. With more than 20 years of martial arts training behind him, 35-year-old Mr. Sugano is now acknowledged as one of the world's foremost instructors of Aikido. Australian Aikido practitioners - and martial artists in general - are fortunate to have such an accomplished master in their midst.
How were you introduced to Aikido?
Well, I went from my birthplace (Hokkaido, Northern Japan) to Tokyo, intending to further my education but ended up studying judo for three years at the Kodokan. I had read a lot about Aikido and was very interested so I went directly to Mr. Ueshiba to see if I could be apprenticed to him to study Aikido. I was 15 at the time.
Although I hadn't completely lost interest in judo, I saw no point in the competitive aspect of this art. In judo they are much more interested in competing against someone else, rather than studying the art.
Mr. Ueshiba accepted me as an apprentice and I lived in the dojo. There were five of us living there. Actually, the headquarters could not afford to keep anyone but they gave us our food and board and taught us, in return for our helping them with different jobs around the headquarters.
Was it very hard to become an apprentice and how did you manage to get their approval?
First of all partly because I approached Mr. Ueshiba personally and also one of the senior assistant instructors also recommended me to be an apprentice. He was, in fact, the one who talked me into studying Aikido.
How quickly did you progress in Aikido when you started?
That is difficult to say. We used to train at least six hours every day starting at 6:30am. We slept in the dojo so we had to get up and clean up the dojo before the class began. At that stage in the Hombu, they had five regular classes. In the early part of training it was more concentrated around ukemi (breakfalls). Also when we used to train in outside dojos we used to carry Mr. Ueshiba's or Mr. Tohei's bags. Often we used to accompany them around to other schools in the Tokyo area, e.g. the universities.
When did you first train under Mr. Ueshiba?
Practically the same time that I star1ed. Mr. Ueshiba used to teach classes. At that stage he lived about two hours outside Tokyo. When he came into the headquarters we used to train under him. At that stage he was about 60 years old. He used to teach the morning class and occasionally ran some special training sessions during the day.
What was your first impression of him?
Very hard to describe. He seemed very much like a strongly religious man or philosophic type. Physically he was small but very solid. His appearance was not like someone who had been training hard in the martial arts, but more like a master or a teacher of a religious group.
Did your opinion through the years change at all?
No. Sometimes when he was in Tokyo, at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning before training he used to pray to his God. He was a very strongly religious person. In the beginning, studying any of the martial arts, including Aikido, we were more concerned with attaining physical accomplishment. Once you pass that stage you must believe in something - not necessarily a religious philosophy but you try to make one total being, both the physical and the spiritual. Mr. Ueshiba was very strong in this area.
Did he bring his influence into the dojo?
Yes he did. He didn't give you much meditation in the dojo but put more emphasis on integrating his spiritual philosophy into the way he explained and taught techniques. I think that is probably the whole attitude of Aikido.
Before the Second World War the training was a lot rougher than today because there was a much stronger emphasis towards personal combat. Although the technique is similar to what was practiced then, the main difference was in the mental and spiritual approach. This also explains the existence of some other groups of Aikido that look the same, but follow different mental approaches to it.
As martial arts are not used much for one's own personal protection these days, is the greater emphasis on technique and character building detrimental to the effectiveness of the technique?
Maybe this could happen. But when you look at the total martial art, one way of solving this particular problem is having competitions. Another way to develop is to practice techniques, and another method is to practice the essence of a martial art in everyday use as an alternative to wanting to fight all the time In the sporting aspect the aim is to win. But once you have accomplished this result, it becomes meaningless to fight. Aikido tries to eliminate this desire to win attention. This also benefits students who do not participate in competitions, where there must always be a loser. This way a student does not gain negative feelings about himself or the art because he was declared a loser.
In Aikido although you do not have strict competition, surely students try to compete against fellow students, even if subconsciously?
I guess in the beginning all students try to throw someone showing superiority, but through training they change their opinion. In most arts they train to try and take points -whether throwing in judo, punching in karate and striking in kendo. We are seeking more to harmonize with someone with any movement they do. This attitude is completely opposite to "point taking". Of course this does not mean that the throws and other techniques are done softly. People still can have accidents and be hurt.
How does the Kyu-Dan grading system work in Aikido?
In the headquarters they have five kyu grades before black belt. In Australia we have eight. Usually in the Hombu it takes about two years to get your black belt and to pass each grading you have to pass tests of basic techniques. In Australia we have a little more emphasis for gradings on how often you train and how hard you train and the circumstances pertaining to each individual - old age, for example.
Why are there more Kyu grades in western countries than in Japan?
In Western countries the students take much more interest in the gradings. Therefore if you only have five kyu grades there is a much longer time between gradings and the western student will often feel discouraged. They tend to respond more to incentives and to encouragement. Also at the headquarters we don't have any colored belts, just all white belts up to black
What is the difference in the student/instructor relationship in Australia as compared with Japan?
I don't think there is much difference, but possibly in Japan students tend to follow what their instructor says more in blind 1aith, whereas the western student wants to know why with practically everything he does. The western instructor participates more during training than some of his Japanese counterparts, who tend to run a class without any active participation, just based on their seniority in rank. Unless the instructor tries to improve himself his standard becomes very bad.
What are the highest graded students that you have?
Do you have any trouble coping with them during training sessions?
No trouble at all. Most of the students of Aikido, even when they get to black belt, just keep training rather than showing off they have their black belts. I have been very lucky with the types of students I have training with me.
How many students do you have in New South Wales?
There would be several hundred registered students but of course these are not all active. There are many students in other states that I visit, especially in Melbourne.
How long did it take to get first Dan?
Just over one year.
Did your Judo experience help you?
No, it was primarily the concentrated training that we had to do. Most of the gradings that I did I did not actually do the exam. As we were there all the time we were recommended for the grades only when our instructors thought we had reached the standards required. In those days most people were not particularly interested in doing the tests, which were about two or three times a year. In fact most would not even turn up for the tests and they were hardly worth holding. Then they became rather meaningless.
Has that changed now?
Now everyone takes tests for all grades. When I left Japan there would be sometimes over 200 doing tests on a particular day. Now there are standardized requirements to fulfill for each grading exam.
What is the basic principle of Aikido?
The basic principle relates to its literal translation -- "the way of harmony with spirits or universe" or just "harmony".
What is Ki?
Ki is a force, a life force, using your body and mind together e.g. when you extend your arm you are extending your Ki. You are trying to use your mental strength.
How can Ki be demonstrated?
There are three main methods of demonstration which were developed by Mr. Tohei to try and demonstrate Ki. These are:
- (1) Resisting body lifting - body control.
- (2) Unbendable arm - mind and body control.
- (3) Stopping a walking person - mind control.
I don't think all instructors use the same methods of demonstration. These demonstrations are not actually showing Ki; they only try to help a person to understand the principles involved.
Talking of Aikido demonstrations - you always see the person who is defending being attacked by people rushing in rather than just standing there executing some type of technique. Is this realistic?
Any demonstration, according to Mr. Ueshiba, is a fake because after throwing someone they should not be able to get up. But to show what we do in Aikido training, we try to demonstrate what we do in class, i.e. with a person on constant attack. We do this to create movement but in reality one would in fact create the movement oneself by moving in on an attacker rather than standing static. There are three ways of training in any martial art. One is form practice. Two: free-style, where either party can initiate an attack. Three: one defends and the other keeps up a non-stop, continuous attack.
What emphasis is placed on breath control and breathing?
We don't take that much notice. It is more or less natural. We do use a breathing method during meditation training which is used as a concentration method. We also don't have anything much like a kiai. Kiai is not used very much in Aikido unless it is created naturally. It is not brought on specifically as in karate. When you kiai you are usually concentrating your body at a particular instant. Aikido movements are not expressed in one instant but take more time. For example, a strong fighting dog does not bark when it attacks, it just uses its own natural breathing, e.g. growling.
What type of special training did you do to become an instructor of Aikido?
The main thing was that your whole life and training was Aikido, with no outside diversions.
We did no actual weight training, but we practiced with items like the Bokken (wooden sword) and Suburi which in fact gave a similar result. Also we did a bit of running and from time to time we even had a makiware (punching board) on which we practiced atemi (striking) techniques. Mr. Ueshiba never suggested that we do these things but we were young and experimented with some of these methods. We even practiced with the throwing knife or shuriken and various other things. Also we used to watch other martial arts demonstrations to gain a wider knowledge of the arts. We used to do training at the university dojos, which generally had much harder training. Also, we participated in 10-day summer camps which started off early in the day with running, push-ups and jumping as extra training apart from the normal Aikido techniques.
Your wife has a 1st Dan in Aikido and is an Australian. How did you meet her?
She just came along to training. She was at the headquarters in Japan. Apart from the class for overseas students she used to come along to the regular classes. Originally she came over to practice Kodokan judo.
When did you decide to come to Australia?
We were married in 1964 and came to Australia the following year. This was for a couple of reasons: My wife's family was in Australia and at that stage there was no Aikido here at all.
Where was your first class in Australia?
The first class was held in part of a gymnasium at West Ryde in Sydney. The class was made up of about 20 students and half of these had come from a yoga class. At this stage there are two students still training from those very early days.
How is Aikido progressing in Australia now?
Slowly but now we have schools in most states. Although we do not have as big a number of students as some of the other martial arts, we certainly have the quality.
Have the Kung-Fu movies made any difference to your enrolments in recent days?
No I don't think so. Quite often we have telephone enquiries wanting to know if we teach karate and Kung Fu because a lot of people do not know what Aikido is.
Do you teach full time?
No, not yet, although I will be very shortly. I will be leaving my present job in the next few days to go to Darwin for two weeks of teaching and then off to Japan.
In Darwin they have a Northern Territories Martial Arts Association which includes an Aikido club, run by one of my old brown belt students. They have been wanting me to come up for about the last year but I have been unable to do so due to prior commitments. Previously they had a judo instructor up from Sydney to teach them.
After that I will be going to Japan for three or four weeks but before going to Japan I will be spending two weeks in India. There I will be staying mostly in the temples in the Himalayas, primarily to improve my knowledge of and devote time to meditation.
What personal influence have you introduced into your teaching?
I think the main point is that I try to explain and show Aikido in a manner that is more adaptable to Western students.
Do you have any women training?
Yes we do, although we have fewer training now than we used to. But they are starting to show more interest in this art now.
Do women make as good students as men? Do they work as hard?
I think movement is nicer by women because in Aikido you don't use much physical strength. Sometimes they work very hard. Just the same as some men work very hard if they take their art seriously.
How does Aikido differ from Judo, e.g. in the break falls?
We just roll, whereas in judo they use their arm to stop their fall In Aikido we don't really break our fall; we do more tumbling and rolling to come back on our feet Also, in judo someone usually has to obtain a hold on the opponent in order to use leverage to throw him, whereas in Aikido one aims to redirect the opponent's movement so as to stop his attack.
Do you do kata?
No. Although we do have some sword and stick techniques that we practice in a pre-arranged fashion, but still not kata in the accepted sense.
If someone came in to learn and was skinny or exceptionally weak would you recommend that he does some weight training?
No, we feel that training is the best method in which to improve in this area. What weapons do Aikido students practice with? As we mentioned before they are the Bokken (wooden sword) and the Jo (short staff). The weapons that we teach are ones that, if you are caught without or lose your weapon, the movements that the Aikido person does are exactly the same whether armed or unarmed. The students are able to learn these at any grade level whenever the instructor teaches these weapons. One does not have to be a black belt or senior grade before you start to practice with these weapons.
Why teach weapons in this day and age?
It is one way of keeping more interest among the students. The main thing in it is to realize the importance and similarity between the method of moving and executing techniques with weapons as compared to without weapons. Sometimes when executing just hand techniques. you are unable to see the full meaning behind the hand positioning. But when executing the same techniques with these weapons, yare able to more fully understand the applications.
The weapons style that we practice involves a more flowing circular movement with more follow through with each technique than in some other systems.
Is there any point in going to Japan to train in Aikido?
The only people who would gain an benefit from going to Japan are those people who are very serious about their training and who would wish to train all day, every day. This facility is not yet available in Australia. For the casual trainee it would be preferable to stay at home as the quality of training is just as good and in some aspects better. For example, there is no language problem and one is more likely to obtain answers to any problem that the student has.
Do you teach any katsu or resuscitation?
No. We don't use it, although we do practice finger pressure techniques which are related.
What weaknesses are there in Aikido in relation to self-defense?
Probably the training is not hard enough that they would be able to use it to its fullest effect if a self-defense situation arose. This is because most students do not take Aikido as professional, full-time fighting.
Have you ever used Aikido in self-defense?
No. Not in the street. But in the early days we used to have matches against students of some other arts. e.g. Nippon Kempo. Although they use some techniques similar to Aikido, most of their training is based on striking techniques. They wore full contact head and chest guards etc. but at very close quarters more throws were employed
What sort of training program do you have for yourself?
Due to my time limitations, up to now I did not have much spare time interest for extra training. I make the most of the classes by actually trying to participate as much as I can in the class. About two or three times a year we have mountain training but this concentrates more on meditation and practice with the use of the Jo and the sword.
Do you teach the students how to meditate?
It is very difficult to teach meditation. First of all the student should try to experience meditation by doing it rather than just talking about what is meditation and how does it work. Actual participation brings much more worthwhile results. This is one of the main reasons for the mountain training.
Do you think the martial arts have reached a peak?
They are still growing. With Aikido we seem to cater to a different type of person, mostly those who are more interested in the mental side.
Would you like to see Aikido reach other martial arts have experienced the same boom proportions that the during different periods?
Only if the quality of instruction and the quality of the students could be maintained at the present level. But I don't think it will reach these proportions, mostly because of the type of student we attract. Also, Aikido does not have competition, therefore this limits the amount of publicity and interest in it.
What are your plans for the future?
I very much want to widen the established Aikido organization here. I don't necessarily wish to have many students but would like to spread the art more, while keeping a very high standard amongst them.