Interview: Nicklaus Suino, Author and 7th Dan Iaido (Part 2)

Continuing from Part 1 of the Nicklaus Suino Interview:

MA: When you visit Japan these days, do you return to Yamaguchi Sensei’s old dojo, or do you travel around to different locations (or perhaps both)?

NS: Yamaguchi-Sensei passed away in 2006 and his dojo is actually no more. When I visit Japan, I train in iaido with a few of his contemporaries and/or students. I also try to visit other instructors with whom I have trained over the years, either socially or for training. Luckily, I have good martial arts contacts in Tokyo, so I’m able to visit a variety of instructors.

MA: It’s quite sad to hear that Yamaguchi Sensei’s dojo has closed its doors. It’s a bit like losing a second home, no doubt. Could you talk a little bit about those contemporaries who have helped shape your martial arts training? Who would you say have been your main influences?

NS: I try to pick up something from every martial arts teacher I meet, and many, many people have helped me along the way. A few of the most notable figures have been the following:

Mike Kroll, Ed Fronczak, and Tony Springfield at the Ann Arbor Y Judo Club in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, who taught me to have fun with training and to have confidence in my abilities.

Karl W. Scott III of the Asian Martial Arts Studio, who taught me how to analyze martial arts techniques.

The late Walter Todd, one of the early pioneers of martial arts in North America, for his irreverent attitude and deep understanding of the principles of judo.

Sato-Shiyuza, Chief Director of Kokusai Budoin, IMAF, for his undying devotion to the ideals of his martial arts forefathers, and his enormous patience.

Tabata-Sensei, former President of the Fuji Judokai at the Kanagawa Kenritsu Budokan, who could tell you which technique he was about to throw you with and then do it, every time (I threw him 3 times in 4 years).

John Gage, highest-ranking Nihon Jujutsu deshi of Sato-Shizuya, training partner of many decades, who I have thrown and by whom I have been thrown as many times as we have hoisted beers together.

MA: What made you decide to become an author, and has the process of writing books been a large challenge?

NS: I wrote THE ART OF JAPANESE SWORDSMANSHIP mainly to help me remember the major checkpoints of the techniques of Eishin-Ryu Iaido. Three major publishing houses expressed interest in it, so it was fairly easy to get the book out. It turned out that AJS became a hot seller, so Weatherhill approached me about writing a practice drills book (which became PRACTICE DRILLS IN JAPANESE SWORDSMANSHIP).

When that book also did well, it was easy to convince them to publish BUDO MIND AND BODY and STRATEGY IN JAPANESE SWORDSMANSHIP. I’ve been lucky that a lot of martial artists have taken an interest in my writing. With all the positive feedback and support, it’s easy to get motivated to write. Of course, you have to be prepared to put in a few hours every day for a year or more to get a book written.

MA: I’d like to switch gears just a bit and ask you some concept questions. We have a lot of budo and sword practitioners out there and I’m sure they’d love to hear your take on these issues. First – Do you believe swordsmanship should be studied as a combative art, an art of character perfection, or some mixture of the two? (The focus on jutsu vs do).

NS: I believe the best benefits of martial arts training come from training very hard over an extended period of years with the combative aspects informing your practice. When an art is practiced as a pure movement art, without the implicit goal of defeating an opponent, it becomes decadent.

At the same time, when one has reached a fairly high level of expertise, only careful reflection about the relationship between character and practice can help one further improve. In other words, there is no “do” without “jutsu” and “jutsu” cannot be fully realized without “do.”

Iai demonstration where both killing strokes and mental stillness are exhibited:

MA: You stress great importance on duty and selflessness in budo. Are there any guidelines or rules that you constantly remind yourself in order to stay true to the way?

1. Every person is a manifestation of the universal spirit. Therefore, treat others well.
2. Nothing in martial arts (or in life) is possible without the help of many other people.
3. Being a “Sensei” is a privilege that must be earned every day, not a right.
4. Extraordinary skill requires extraordinary effort.
5. Avoid self-deception; truth is the best teacher.

MA: Although swordsmanship doesn’t bear directly on modern day self defense needs, have you found it useful in increasing your day-to-day martial abilities?

NS: Absolutely. Effective martial arts requires a clear understanding of how the human body generates force. Iaido is a highly systematic method for applying force with a sword through proper alignment of the body. The principles learned in iaido can be directly applied in every other martial art I have learned, including karate, jujutsu, and judo. Likewise, practice of those martial arts has helped me become a better swordsman.

MA: In your mind, what can Americans do to better follow the original intent of budo and the study of martial arts?

NS: There are some really extraordinary Americans in the martial arts. In general, however, we don’t seem to have the patience to get really good. While martial arts training can be a lot of fun, the most profound benefits of training come only through years of concentrated hard work and selflessness.

The old rules still hold true: find a really great teacher and practice ceaselessly your whole life!

MA: Suino Sensei, thank you again for taking time out for us! This peek into the world of budo is extremely valuable for those of us trying to follow the way!

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