Memories of Sugano Sensei

The news that Sugano Sensei has passed away has hit me harder than I expected. Sensei’s teaching is very important to my understanding of Aikido and I am very grateful for his attention and efforts.

Sugano Sensei awarded me my sankyu rank. He was teaching a seminar in Atlanta where dan grade tests were planned but there was a last minute change and several of us found out in the morning that we would be testing that afternoon. We only had a few minutes between classes to prepare. Chris Rozzet and I tested together and Sensei made us go through all gokyu and yonkyu requirements first, so the test was extra long. Sensei emphasized understanding omote and ura directions and attention to details of pins. I remember doing sankyo ura starting with an omote movement. Sensei made me do it again and again calling out “ura! ura!” repeatedly until I understood. It was a difficult and memorable test and I appreciated his attention. I liked the feeling that I earned that rank.

This experience endeared Sugano Sensei to me and I paid special attention to his teaching after this. I appreciated Sensei’s direct teaching methods. It was always clear what he thought was important. There was also a sense of spiritual seriousness in his manner that appealed to me. When I decided to become a live-in student in NY Aikikai, I was excited that I would have the chance to train more with him.

Sensei teaching schedule in NY Aikikai at that time was five days a week, two hours a day. This made him the most frequent instructor. He did often travel to teach, but he preferred going for weeks at a time instead of almost every weekend the way Yanada Sensei does. Because of this frequent contact, he was very influential for me. His teaching manner was different in daily training from seminars; he focused on very basic techniques and rarely stopped to explain details. His classes felt almost like religious ceremonies, starting with misogi, wordlessly demonstrating very basic techniques that we practiced by rote, closing with a moment of meditation before bowing out. I appreciated this teaching method because it gave it a chance for mastery. A much more typical way to teach is to try to constantly give new information to the students for fear they might get bored with the basics. I remember a week were Sensei began every class with several minutes of tai-no-henko. I gained insights from this repetition that no amount of explanation could have given me. I don’t remember being bored by the repetition even when I could predict what he would do next. Sensei’s presentation gave a feeling of spontaneity and excitement that kept me engaged.

I remember the first time that Sensei used me for ukemi. He had such complete control of the situation that I was constantly off balance trying to keep up with his movement. When it was over people were laughing because of my obvious confusion. Later I learned more of what was expected of me when taking falls, but I never lost that sense of his command over me.

Sensei’s teaching emphasized timing and distance and he didn’t often talk about kokyu. However I was always greatly impressed with his power and his conditioning. When he was teaching kaeshiwaza (he didn’t only teach basics), I had to attempt to apply ikkyo on him so that he could counter. It felt like I was trying to move a log! His arm was so strong and his balance was so firm that it seemed hopeless to attempt the technique (he clearly let me apply for the sake of the demonstration). His movements were flowing but vigorous and became a model for what I have tried to achieve in my own practice. He rarely showed static technique and would explain that static training was to learn what to do but left out when to do it.

Those of us living in the dojo would frequently go to lunch with Sensei Sunday afternoons after training. We would go to Souen, his favorite macrobiotic restaurant. Sensei was often quiet at these lunches, but clearly enjoyed listening to our conversation. We would try to draw him out with questions and discovered that he liked to talk about the foods and cultures of the various places that he lived. We could sometimes get him to discuss his time in Hombu and his impressions of the teachers at that time and training with O Sensei. These occasions had a family atmosphere where Sensei played the role of the quiet father enjoying the antics of the young people.

Occasionally we would go to a movie after lunch. We saw The Rock together and he praised it as having all the elements of a great movie. He enjoyed action movies with a classic style. The Wild Bunch was a favorite. Brian once suggested a movie playing at the Angelika which turned out to be The Addiction an arty vampire movie staring Christopher Walken and Lili Taylor. This was not Sensei’s kind of movie (I can’t say it was mine either).

After I left New York, my busy life kept me from visiting much and I saw Sensei only at seminars where it is difficult to maintain the natural closeness that I felt while living in the dojo. Sensei’s methods of teaching became very important to me when I started teaching in Atlanta and I have consistently opened class with a warm up based on the way Sensei would start class when I was in New York. I don’t try to mimic his movements, but I do try to keep the sense of seriousness that he brought to training. I don’t fear boring my students with basics as I know that I still feel challenged by them knowing that I still fail to have the degree of control and power that Sensei modeled for us.

Now Sugano Sensei is gone. There are many other people with closer student/teacher relationships with him than I and no one is looking to me to carry on his teachings. Others are in a better position to do that. I can only carry on with my training and hope that people will find some small reflection of his efforts in my actions. I hope that this brings good memories to others that knew and loved Sensei as I did.


One Response to “Memories of Sugano Sensei”

  1. Yee Says:

    The moment I heard about the news that Sugano Sensei pass away, my body hair stands up as if, an invisible magnetic force was attracting me. It really had an impact on my aikido way of learning the budo.

    Even though I am not a direct student of Sugano Sensei, but he was our teaching committee in here Malaysia ( Malaysia Aikido Association ). I enjoy his charisma whenever I attend his seminar held here. His “Aikidoka” way of attitude imprints mostly on each and every student here, including myself. The thing about him that impresses me most, is his determination of going into dojo, stepping on the mat, after his health condition due to his amputated leg.

    So to speak, I respect him and salute him with all my might. His humbleness will forever be my inspiration, in my journey towards Aikido.

    P.S. Rest In Peace, Sensei.

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