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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Welcome to a special interview with Nicklaus Suino. Suino Sensei has been kind enough to share some of his story with us and offer up great insights into the world of iaido, kenjutsu, and budo.
Iaido is the ancient Japanese art of sword drawing and is renowned for its high level of difficulty. Kenjutsu, iaido’s sister art, is the actual use of the sword for cutting and striking. Both are critical components of what is known as Japanese Budo.
Suino Sensei Demonstrating Eishin Ryu Iai:
Suino Sensei’s experience and skill have allowed him to become one of the most influential sword practitioners in North America. He has created several important books on the subject, including “The Art of Japanese Swordsmanship” and “Budo: Mind and Body“. He also heads up the Japanese Martial Arts Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan – a well respected home for arts such as judo, jujutsu, and Japanese swordsmanship.
Suino Sensei Holds the rank of 7th Dan Iaido (Shudokan Martial Arts Association), 6th Dan Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, and 5th Dan Iaido (International Martial Arts Federation – IMAF).
Here now is the Q&A where we discover more about Suino Sensei’s trips to Japan, experiences in budo, and ideas on how best to follow the martial way.
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MA: Suino Sensei, could you describe your early experiences with martial arts in Ann Arbor? Did you fall in love with the study right away or was it gradual, and what caused you to sample different styles initially?
NS: When I was eight years old, my parents took me to watch a judo demonstration at the Ann Arbor Y. I was enthralled. Over 40 years later, I remember the demonstration as if it happened yesterday. I started attending classes and, after some minor success in shiai, I was hooked.
We had terrific instructors at the Y – they worked hard to teach us quality skills while keeping the practice fun. Nobody talked about the character development aspects of judo in those days, however. We just trained hard, hung out with our friends, and competed whenever possible.
I had one seminal experience in 1969 or 1970. Ito Kazuo Sensei, one of Mifune Kyuzo’s contemporaries, was traveling the world to introduce judo, and came to give a demonstration at the Y. For some reason, Ito-Sensei picked me out of 100 young judoka and showed the crowd that an 80-pound kid could throw “a fat old bastard like me” (his exact words!). He had with him a young Sato Shizuya, who later became Chief Director of Kokusai Budoin, IMAF. Sato-Sensei was my jujutsu and judo instructor at the American Embassy Judo Club in Tokyo between 1988 and 1992. I didn’t remember that Sato-Sensei was Ito-Sensei’s assistant until he and I discussed the tour in 1989. Sato Sensei remembered the tour, but didn’t remember me throwing Ito-Sensei.
In 1979, influenced by Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris movies, I became interested in the striking arts, and began taking Shorin-Ryu Karate classes at the Asian Martial Arts Studio in Ann Arbor. I later dabbled in Hung Gar Kung Fu and aikido before heading to Tokyo in 1988. In Tokyo I studied Kyudo, Nihon Jujutsu, Judo, and Iaido, and attended seminars in various other Japanese martial arts.
MA: What inspired you to move to Japan? What is it about Japanese culture that ultimately captured your imagination and heart?
NS: Two things inspired me to move to Japan. One was my romantic idea that Japanese people looked and acted like the characters in old samurai films. I loved the idea of living with people who dressed in kimonos and lived by a code of honor. The other motivation was my intense desire to get better at martial arts. I believed that, if even half of the hype were true, there had to be some really extraordinary martial artists in Japan, and I wanted to study with them.
Bushido attracted me for the same reasons it attracts lots of young people. There’s a lot of uncertainty and unfairness in life. Bushido seems to provide a lot of answers, and I liked the idea of a moral code driven by honor. Of course, I was to find out that modern Japan is very unlike the Japan of Kurosawa movies, and that very few Japanese live by the code of Bushido, but those were my thoughts as I set out for Tokyo.
MA: Could you talk a bit about Yamaguchi Katsuo Sensei (your main iai instructor) and what led you to train under him? What was your training regiment like?
NS: My plan upon reaching Japan was to study kyudo. Karl Scott Sensei, my karate teacher up until 1988, suggested that I look into iaido. I didn’t think I’d like iaido as much as kyudo, but I attended a seminar in Las Vegas in 1988 in which iaido was taught by Yamaguchi-Sensei. Other than being impressed with his demeanor (he was extremely centered and radiated energy), I can’t say I fell in love with iaido at that point.
After reaching Tokyo, however, I pursued a meeting with Yamaguchi-Sensei. The first time I asked Sato-Sensei if he would introduce me, he turned me down. But I trained very hard, and when he saw that I was serious he agreed to arrange a meeting.
My first training session with Yamaguchi-Sensei was a remarkable experience. Sensei and his wife welcomed me warmly into their home, and we hit it off right away. We trained for 3 hours the first day, and iaido become the first and only martial art that felt almost completely natural the first time I tried it.
Yamaguchi Sensei performing Iai Waza:
The training was simple. We’d put on our iaido gear, Yamaguchi-Sensei would demonstrate a form, and I would try to repeat it. If I did reasonably well, he’d demonstrate another. If not, he’d make a single correction and I would repeat the move until he was satisfied. After a year or so, he began to talk a bit about power sources, movement theory, the relationship betweenkendo and iaido, and the tactical and strategic aspects of the forms. But 90% of each session was silent, concentrated repetition.
MA: That’s very interesting! His methods seem to have payed off – you placed very well in the All-Kanto tournaments during your stay in Japan. Could you talk about that experience a bit?
NS: Compared to demonstrating solo in front of Yamaguchi-Sensei, gradings and competitions were easy. I was much more concerned about pleasing my teacher than I was with winning, and he emphasized that testing and competing were simply aspects of training – whether I won or lost was of little consequence.
Still, we used a good formula to prepare. We picked a set of forms that I was able to perform without major mistakes. Starting about six weeks before an event, I would practice the set as many as 100 times a day. Sensei would review every detail of every form and make careful corrections. By the time of the event, I could perform the sets in my sleep (in fact I often dreamed them). The proof of this method is that I was double promoted in my first shodan shinsa (from mudansha to nidan), and won the All-Kanto Tournament every time I entered.
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Hey all, I just wanted to mention that I have a special post coming out tomorrow. I’m pretty excited about it (and hopefully you’ll find it enjoyable!).
Check back in with me.
In the meantime, here is your ‘karate ouch’ for the day. Please cringe where necessary.
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