Day 29. Sugano Sensei: Japan has changed

Brian Ericksen
Aug 30, 2017 · 6 min read

It was 7 years ago today that Sensei passed and 10 since I recorded this conversation. Originally I was not sure what to do with it. I knew at the time it was important though. I was accompanying Sensei to Europe and was trying to record as much of the experience as I could. We were taking the taxi ride to the airport when he started to speak spontaneously. As he spoke I wrote the conversation below word for word. He saw me writing what he was saying and later I asked him if I had been correct on some of points below.

I held this conversation for many years, showing it to no one due to the controversial nature of the remarks I had recorded here. I only released it when I was in Afghanistan and I was certain I was going to die. I had nearly been killed in combat there and fearing I would die and what Sensei had said be lost I posted it. When returned from my mission to look at my posting, I was greeted by an outpouring of anger over the post. I imagine I will again.

It is time that this is posted for public record though. This is the record of Sensei’s feelings at a moment and time about Hombu Dojo and Aikido. I had no idea if he felt the same way a week later but at that moment this is exactly what he said. He saw me recording what he wrote and he said everything in a time and cadence that I could record it. It was almost as if he was dictating his thoughts. I have to believe he wanted it passed on.

I will also be frank in saying I disagree with Sensei’s feelings now as I did then. However, it is correct and right these words are remembered and not lost.

We bring our honesty and intention to the mat. If Hombu does not, if Hombu or any organization is about legacy, about money, about prestige, we must question the relationship as Sensei does here. The world has changed. Sugano Sensei, Yamada Sensei, Chiba Sensei, Tamura Sensei, Kanai Sensei, Tohei Sensei and others, dedicated their lives to passing Aikido to the world outside of Japan. Sugano Sensei and Yamada Sensei recognized their students as Shihans to carry forward Aikido. Today by all indications I see that we have a vital, strong connection to O’Sensei’s teaching through Hombu and the present Doshu and Waka Sensei. For that reason we should keep a connection with Hombu but also do as Sensei says: practice what our teachers taught us and pass it on. We have become our own legacy of O’Sensei’s tradition. If we are bound to Hombu it should be out of fidelity and faternity to his teaching, his ideas. And as Sensei’s Moral Code say- there is Obligation and Commitment. Respect goes both up and down.

Whatever else this conversation is it is a light on the enigma that was Sugano Sensei. He questioned everything about Hombu here. Yet he remained loyal till his last moment. An enigma. I cannot claim to understand. I am simply grateful.

Thank you Sensei.


Brian Ericksen

Heaven and Earth Aikido

2007 Global Inner Aikido Seminar. (Discussion from accompanying Sugano Sensei to airport for Inner Aikido seminar in Belgium.)

Sugano Sensei. “Aikido is a business in Japan now. Hombu is only a business. Everything is about schools affiliating themselves with Hombu for testing. Testing is where the money is. Doshu is not a master and cannot be a master. He is a businessman who teaches Aikido.”

Brian Ericksen. “Why? I have seen demonstrations (of Doshu’s Aikido) and it seems vital and strong. It seems like clear strong Aikido.”

Sugano Sensei.“This is the family business. Who knows if Doshu likes Aikido? He was told he must do this and so he does. It is only business.”

BE. “How are we outside Japan supposed to survive and continue if we don’t have a strong connection back to Japan ? As it is a Japanese art there must be some connection or we will just be a bunch of white people dancing around in skirts.”

Sugano Sensei. “You should connect back to Japan as an organization. You can learn things but you should be independent. You have received instruction and you should make your own way. Look at sword, flower arranging and tea- they have local organizations. Everything in Japan has changed. If you want to make something good make something here. They have taken the philosophy out of Aikido to make it available to everyone. Hombu has no soul.”

BE. “If this is your critique of Hombu, you are in New York . People say the same of Yamada Sensei. He wants people to believe what they want to and doesn’t press them with philosophy or spiritual idea. He leaves things open for the student. You criticize Hombu for losing its soul but if teaching a neutral style of Aikido that does not conflict with the many diverse styles of Aikido is wrong, some criticize Yamada Sensei’s Aikido for the same reason.”

He sat silently and said nothing. I continued.

“Why are you in New York then? You don’t teach in New York the same you teach in other places. In New York you don’t teach weapons or discuss deeper aspects of the philosophy of Aikido openly. You keep the instruction closer to Yamada Sensei’s Aikido stressing just body arts. This is the reason we must go to seminars outside of the dojo to learn. What you teach is changed for NY to be closer to Yamada Sensei. Why do you stay here?”

He continued sitting silently, looking down at first.

Finally, he said, “I stay here because I like NY. I like Yamada. He is my friend.”

BE- “But if this is the case and you compromise your Aikido why are you critical of Hombu? They must make compromises to continue Aikido around the world. This does not necessarily mean that what they are doing is not strong.”

Sugano Sensei. “What it does mean is that it is not with the philosophy of Aikido. Life is not always as one wants exactly. In order to have one thing we must most times give up something. But that is not what has happened with Hombu. The teachers are young and perhaps are not practicing as long as outside students. What do they have to teach others?

Japan has changed also. Everything is only business. Hombu is only as a business. I travel to Japan and even the senior teachers there now did not spend a long time with O Sensei.

Japan’s respect is only inside. There is no respect from those who are outside or exchange. If a relationship is going to last it must be an exchange.”

(In airport. Sugano despite prosthetic, moves easily through the long walk. He easily hefts his heavy bag, carrying it despite my request to take it.)

BE- Sensei, how old are you?

Sugano Sensei. 68.

BE- “Sensei, that means you were over 55 when you climbed the side of the dojo to get in. You climbed the sheer wall to the second floor. I saw you do during a snow storm in winter once as well.”

Sugano Sensei. “Yes. I did this till I lost my leg.”

BE- “How do you feel now?”

Sugano Sensei.- “I feel like I am 20! (Laughing.) Loosing leg was… not good but there are good things because of it. It has made life interesting. Life is sometimes an adventure.”

(Sugano Sensei goes into fast coffee shop and orders coffee.)

BE- “You drink coffee???”

Sugano Sensei.- “Yes. De-caf.”

BE- “During the years I have seen you Sensei and I have never, ever seen you drink coffee. Ever. (Notices that Sensei’s teeth are darker than the bright white he remembered.) You started drinking coffee now?”

Sugano Sensei.- ““Yes. Change is good. If no change how does one grow, learn. How do you know you are alive?

BE- “Is this part of what you mean when you talked about with Hombu dojo?”

Sugano Sensei.- “Make your own organization. Make your own system. Practice what we have taught you but make it yours. Keep it living and growing.”

Heaven and Earth Aikido

USAF aikido dojo located in Herdon, VA, USA

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