Our Master, The Late Seiichi Sugano Shihan

Dear All Aikidokas,

Here you will find interviews and article that will provide a glimpse of the vision that our master the late Siichi Sugano Shihan had regarding Aikido.

I hope that by sharing this we can keep his vision and principles alive in our own practice and preserving what he has passed down.

For now most of the articles have received permission from the author, and the rest of the articles is in the midst of getting approvals. If you are the author of any or the article we would appreciate if you could contact us if there is any enquiries.

If you have any questions or comments do let us know.


Showing posts 1 - 12 of 12. View more »

Sugano Commemorative 2010

posted Oct 8, 2014, 9:51 PM by Chum Joseph

Hi all,

Found a nice article from Aikikai Australia in commemorative of our Late Seiichi Sugano Shihan.

I particularly enjoyed reading page 12 and 13 the quotes from our master.

‘I think Aikido is unique because O Sensei broke with so-called traditional martial arts concepts. Generally in martial arts there is a system of fighting technique but O Sensei broke with that concept and that to me is the most important part. He made me more aware that Aikido was something I had to continue to search for. He didn’t provide any system; he had some system so that you’re always following up but he’s not providing it. The individual person had to search for himself.’ The biggest influence from him (O Sensei) is probably ‘to make each person free to search for something individually.’

Do enjoy the article added here

Sugano Sensei - 40 years of Aikido, and still finding something new... Interview by Mike Clarke

posted Mar 25, 2011, 2:36 AM by Chum Joseph

Editor's Note: This article was published in the magazine "Australasian Fighting Arts" around 1994. Our thanks go to Mike Clarke for providing the article to us and granting permission to republish it. Mike is, 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.

It has been 30 years since Sugano Sensei first arrived in Australia. In that time he has, with the help of his senior students, built a strong and truly national association for those who wish to discover the art of Aikido.

As an Uchi-deshi (live-in student) to O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, Sugano Sensei received his instruction from the very fountainhead of Aikido knowledge, and has spent the last three decades dispensing that knowledge to all who are prepared to walk the path and face the challenge of this fascinating art.

At 55 years old, he looks at least 20 years younger. His vigorous and enthusiastic approach to training, and his obvious delight when instructing, show he has lost none of his love for the art of peace.

As a guest of the Aiki Kai of Australia, I attended the six-day 1994 winter school, held in the Mountains (near Sydney). The location and organization was first class, even down to the weather, which delivered record-breaking warmth for July (in the mid-20s).

During my time there, I got to meet some really nice people and I was made to feel very welcome. There is a saying in the martial arts that goes: "If you want to know what the teacher is like, look at the students ". It came as no surprise to me, therefore, to find that in nature and attitude, both teacher and students were reflected in each other.

From his early days back in the mid-60s, until now, Sugano Sensei has used the maxim "Quality, Not Quantity". That mentality is evident not only in the Aikido techniques but in the people themselves.

Here, then, is an account of my conversations with Sugano Sensei, a man for whom I now have the greatest respect. He was last interviewed for AFA by my colleague Erie Montaigue, back in 1989, and at that time he had this to say about Sugano Sensei: "Shihan Sugano is one of the most unassuming, egoless characters I have met". I can only echo that sentiment...

Sensei, you said in a previous interview, you said that the training before World War Two was much rougher than today. How and why has it changed?

When I said rougher, I meant that today it is much more stylized than in those days. This is because Aikido has been exposed to many more people now. People's understanding of their body and the world has changed a lot also. You see, before, whoever was training was directly connected to O-Sensei. That was a relatively small number of people and their exposure to other things would not have been like it is for people now.

How has your own training changed over the 40 years since you began?

It has changed because as I have grown older and spent many more years doing Aikido, my understanding of it has evolved. That's why, for me at least, my Aikido has developed as it has. Other teachers will be teaching maybe in a different way, according to the way they are thinking and the different experiences they have.

So would you say you have it) change your training as you get 'older'.

Well... not really change in the sense that you plan to change something when you reach a certain age. O-Sensei said that before the age of 25 is better for training hard. You can concentrate on the physical technique at this time and train hard be-cause you are still growing and gelling stronger. By 30 you should be expanding your technical understanding through your experience, as well as the physical. By then you have stopped growing, physically anyway. But your Aikido has not stopped. So it is not like a planned change, but more like without even knowing your Aikido evolves.

This is only generally speaking, and for people who start training as a teenager. Again, the way you evolve also has a lot to do with who you are following. The teacher makes a big difference to your development. For me, I would say that my tech-nical understanding is different now than 10 or 20 years ago. Also, my experience grows as time goes by. So even if you look at my technique and see no change, this does not mean that inside I have not changed, because I may now have a better understanding of what I'm doing.

How does this evolution affect the way that you teach?

One of my students in Europe said that my way of teaching was more difficult than other teachers. Not that I do things more difficult than other teachers, but in the way I teach. They said I was difficult to copy. Some of the more stylized teachers are easy to copy by the students; they can imitate their physical form. With the way I teach that is a little more difficult because, you see, I don't like to direct people.

When I am teaching I like to give up the information and try to get people to move spontaneously. And even on the same day my movements might be quite different from one class to another. If you look at a teacher who has a strong style, most of their followers have the same style. With me this has not happened, as I don't have such a thing. As I said before, my understanding has changed a lot from 10 or 20 years ago, so my Aikido has also changed with my better understanding,

Is this what O-Sensei meant when he said that nothing is fixed in Aikido?

Yes that's right, not fixed. Also he gave us a big question mark about Aikido itself. Because it is never fixed, it therefore depends on how the individual studies it and pursues its message. This is why we have many styles of Aikido.

Today there are so many teachers. Some say that O-Sensei did this technique this way, or that way, so now we must always do it the same. O-Sensei used to explain his Aikido through his own personal religious concepts. Therefore if someone also made a study of his religion then it might be easier to understand Aikido concepts. To get any idea over to others you have to use words to convey your feelings. He used his religion to do this, but he never said you had to join his religion. He had attained a certain mental state through the religion he had. How he felt because of that, was how he felt about Aikido, That's why he used the terminology that he did. Because none of us joined his religion, we have to find other ways of trying to explain some of O-Sensei's teachings.

Some people have also studied Zen, some yoga, etc. And through these other studies they try to find a language that will describe Aikido. But it is hard to describe something to others, unless you have a common understanding to begin with.

Kano Sensei used scientific terminology to explain his ideas about Judo. This was better for the people to understand what he was thinking.

Getting back to your early days, I've heard that you used to use the makiwara to practice your atemi. Can you fell us a little about that?

In the old days, the Aikido Hombu dojo used to have a makiwara outside. I don't know if it helped me with my atemi or not, but in those days I was young and I would try many different things. As the makiwara was just outside the dojo, I used it. I think if you really want to have effective atemi you need to at least know the proper way to form a fist, otherwise you will probably hurt your hand.

I am asked many times about atemi within Aikido. It is very easy to say, "Yes, here I can use atemi", or "Here I can kick", but unless you train properly those techniques will not be effective. So if that is part of your interest in Aikido, then it is better that you practice properly at this. But in general training it is not necessary.

You see in the case of Aikido, atemi is used for other reasons than just finishing off your opponent. We use it to give a sense of the right direction, the right distance, and to prevent a second attack. This is how we see atemi. Because in Aikido we are trying to attain one continuous movement, atemi forms part of the move we are doing. It is not a separate thing that is put into a technique at certain places, it is part of the movement, and if you are not moving right you cannot use it properly.

You once said that you had to adapt your Aikido to show it to Western students. Why was that?

I didn't mean I had to adapt Aikido itself, more the way I tried to explain things to the students. Traditionally there was no explanation. Maybe that has now changed, but before, such explanation was not necessary. I had to find ways to help western students understand the information. For example, I could not just say to them: "You must extend your Ki". Just saying that doesn't mean anything unless you have an understanding of Ki. So it was not the Aikido I had to adapt, but my way of teaching it.

Was it a big shock for you to come from Japan to Australia?

No, not really. I was young then and it was all like an adventure.

Can I talk a little about the use of pressure points in Aikido? Do you use any kind of Kyusho Jitsu?

Not really. It's not like we attack the points on the body that you think of as pressure points. We may bring pressure to bear during a technique, but I don't think this is the same as you mean.

You once expressed the opinion that training was probably, "Not hard enough for a student to be able to use it to its fullest effect if a self-defense situation arose". Do you still feel that way?

I was talking about somebody who was purely aiming at self-defense ability or combat. If that is what you want then you need to train much harder physically and mentally. You see, general Aikido training is not for the purpose of that. So from the beginning we are thinking differently. If you just want combat, then you have to train hard for that.

Can you tell us a little about your fights with the Nippon Kenpo people?

Yes, in my early days my friend had a friend who was training Nippon Kenpo. So one day we went to watch and it ended up with an exchange of techniques.

What was the outcome?

Well they had some interesting techniques, kicking and punching. Also some Jujitsu techniques. They wore quite a lot of pads and headgear, things like that. From a distance they had many techniques, but they were not developed to use against Aikido. We had to watch out for the distance between us. This was one of the main differences. But it was a good experience for all of us.

I’d like to talk about your time as an uchi-deshi if I may. What was it like?

The only thing I remember with any strong feeling was the fact that there was so much training every day, and so I was always hungry. I never had a plan to get a senior grade, or to become a teacher. I was just interested in training. It was very hard at times, but I was never frightened or worried about that. By the time I arrived at the Hombu dojo, I already knew most of the people I would be with.

What was your training schedule like?

Firstly we had to attend all of the five daily classes at the Hombu, plus any special training that O-Sensei might want us to do. As well as that we sometimes had to accompany O-Sensei when he went out, carry his bags etc. Really it was not like we got any secret information or anything, it was just that we were involved with Aikido 24 hours a day. So eventually you develop much more attentiveness to what it is you are doing.

Quite often people think we got special training or something, but it was not like that. We just had so much involvement, 24 hours a day, that we developed attentiveness to O-Sensei's teaching. If you compare this to the normal student who comes to the dojo a few times a week for one or two hours, you can see why we would appear to be different.

O-Sensei is credited by some with strange powers. Did you ever experience anything “strange” with him?

No, nothing like that. He was a very spiritual person, very religious. So maybe his lifestyle and the fact that he had a connection with another religious group make some people think that way. When you are young, as I was then, I had more than enough to do just being attentive to him and all the training I was doing. I never really became involved in anything else.

One thing I do remember, though, was that he always seemed to know what was going on in his house and the dojo. Even if he was not in the same room, he had a strong sense of what was happening in his home.

So the rumor that he could vaporize and appear elsewhere are not true?

No, I don't believe such things. He was a man.

Who else was an uchi-deshi at the same time us you, and did you all start at the same time?

No there were deshi who were senior to me, who started before me. The people who were uchi-deshi while I was, are all now well-known teachers who live around the world. They are Mr. Tamura, who is now in France, Mr. Yamada is in New York, Mr. Chiba, who spent many years in England but is now in San Diego, California. Also Mr. Kanai now lives in Boston. I, too, live in New York now.

Why do you think none of the uchi-deshi stayed in Japan?

Well there was no problem. It was just at that time that Aikido started to expand around the world. We as a group of people just happened to receive invitations to go abroad. For instance, I never had any idea of coming to Australia. At that time I was married to an Australian, and so my main reason to come here first was to meet my new family. Within about three years from 1964 to 1967, all the uchi-deshi had gone abroad. But as I said, this was because Aikido was expanding on an international level, and we just happened to be the ones who were ready to go.

Was that an on-going thing, to produce teachers to send abroad?

I believe we were the last group to go through the uchi-deshi type of training and go overseas. Mostly, now, people become teachers at the Hombu dojo. They have to graduate college, and I think they only have to live at the dojo for about one year. So things have changed a little from my time.

Can I quote you now. You have said in the past: "In Aikido to keep the obligation to the master is the main idea of training". What exactly is this obligation?

We have to teach in a way that helps people see what O-Sensei was trying to achieve. He was pursuing something. Therefore, students should follow the Master's desire to pursue knowledge, not just master technique. Therefore I can't see any importance in saying that O-Sensei used to do a particular technique this way at some point, so now we must always do it that way. I don't think this is following the Master.

He never fixed anything this way. He was searching for something and following his ideas. We should continue to search for that same thing he spent his life looking for. In that sense I don't see that we should see the physical form and say, because he did this a particular way, we have to do it like that forever.

To me the obligation to O-Sensei is to follow the development and try to find what you are looking for. At first you follow your teacher, but even here the teacher cannot say all the students must do something this way or you are wrong. As a teacher I am trying to help a person discover and develop feelings from within themselves.

What is Misogi?

Misogi is a Shinto term. It is relating to methods of purification of the body and the mind. There are many different types or ways of doing this. Normally, in traditional Aikido training we use some methods at the beginning of training. We do this without explanation and it is symbolic of what we are about to do. That is to clear our bodies to receive energy.

According to O-Sensei the whole of Aikido is a Misogi. His idea was that you should purify your body and mind in order to receive the universal energy. This is a concept like in Shinto, where you always purify yourself before receiving whatever comes into your body.

That sounds to me like the Catholic tradition of confession to cleanse the soul, before receiving the body of Christ in the communion...?

Yes, I guess most religions have similar lines of thought running through them.

Do you feel you get more benefits from Aikido now that you are older?

Hmmm... Well, after so many years of training I am still always finding something new, even in the way of teaching. It is still fascinating for me -- the whole idea of Aikido To me it is still like a big question mark. O-Sensei knew that it is important to keep looking.

Would you recognize this thing if you ever found it?

Probably not. But that's the fascinating part of Aikido. That's the difficult part. If anything was fixed, then once you have achieved that, it's over. With Aikido you are searching for some idea or feeling. Just when you find that, you realize that there is more and you have to go some more.

Some people fix their idea of Aikido. They say, "Oh, Aikido is a Martial Art". They train -- bang! bang! bang! But they have stopped. Even if your technique has stopped, you do not have to stop there yourself. Aikido is boundless -- a way of seeing life.

Sensei, thank you very much for your time.

20th Century Samurai - Part 2 by Mike Yates

posted Mar 25, 2011, 2:35 AM by Chum Joseph   [ updated Mar 25, 2011, 2:36 AM ]

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 (avaialble at www. Ryukyu.com)  Thanks also to John Litchen, John Watson and Andrew Dziedzic of Aiki-kai Australia for their help.

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.

20th Century Samurai - Part 1 by Mike Yates

posted Mar 25, 2011, 2:34 AM by Chum Joseph   [ updated Mar 25, 2011, 2:50 AM ]

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 (avaialble 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 (Hokaido, 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?

Second Dan.

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.

[to be continued...]

"A Good Challenge": A personal impression of a most important Winter School for Aiki-Kai Australia

posted Mar 25, 2011, 2:33 AM by Chum Joseph   [ updated Mar 25, 2011, 3:00 AM ]

[Editor's Note: we are happy to reprint this inspiring account of Sugano Sensei's return to teaching, which was first published on the Aiki-Kai Australia web site(www.aikido.org.au). We thank John Litchen (Editor of Aikido Australia) and Aiki-kai Australia for granting permission to reprint it, and John Watson and Andrew Dziedzic for their valuable assistance in setting up and supporting our communications.

We are very happy to have made contact with the members of Aiki-Kai Australia, and to have taken a step toward closer relations among students of the Shihankai Senseis.]

 There was a large group of us sitting in seiza waiting to welcome Sugano Shihan — not with trepidation, but with concerned anticipation. This was to be Sensei’s first teaching seminar only three months after the life-saving operations that resulted in the amputation of his left foot, as well as part of the lower left leg in order to fit prosthesis.

Many of us were still coming to terms with the idea of Sensei being an amputee, and wondering what this would do to his Aikido. We had all followed his progress as reported on the New York Aikikai web site, but none of us had any real idea of how he would be.

All we knew was that it had taken enormous courage to come on such a long journey (New York to Sydney) so soon after the trauma of an amputation.

The word was that he would be taking the morning class each day, and there was a lot of excited speculation as how he would do this. We had naturally assumed that he would supervise while other senior Shidosha took the classes, but to actually teach — could this be true?

It was cold outside on Monday, the first day of training, but the sun was shining, promising a lovely day. Sensei arrived wearing a long black overcoat, which he took off and handed to one of the senior students who had accompanied him along the path to the dojo. They were there to offer assistance if it was needed but Sensei had used a walking stick and calmly walked along the uphill path and up the steps entirely on his own. He placed his walking stick against the wall beside the entrance and stepped backwards onto the mat leaving his sandals at the edge. He turned to face us and smiled.

Tony Smibert Sensei, who is Vice President of Aiki-Kai Australia and a Vice Chairman of the International Aikido Federation, stepped onto the mat to welcome us all to Sensei’s winter school and thanked Sensei for the enormous effort it took to get here. He finished his brief speech by saying: “At the end of the last summer school we thanked Sensei with a round of applause. I’d like to begin this school with a round of applause as a way of thanking Sensei in advance.”

The enthusiasm of the applause almost lifted the roof off.

Sensei walked slowly towards the centre with only the slightest wobble betraying the fact that he was still getting used to walking with his new prosthesis. He paused in front of the Kamiza and for a few seconds seemed pensive. Facing us he said: “I haven’t quite worked out how to sit down yet.”

Several senior students appeared ready to jump up and run over to assist him, but their help wasn’t needed.

Sensei put his right leg back behind as if preparing to do a backwards roll. He lowered himself slowly, and supporting himself with his right hand, he sat down with his left foot forward, and his right leg crossed beneath it. He could not bend the left leg more than 90 degrees, and of course the foot part of the prosthesis could not bend either. Still he seemed perfectly relaxed with his back straight and his arms extended so the backs of his hands rested on his knees.

After a few moments he turned around to face the Kamiza and we all took formal bows.

Beyond the etiquette of the beginning Sensei then told us about his operation. He considered it “very interesting” that the doctors asked him to sign papers allowing them to amputate his left big toe but went on to amputate his foot. When he woke up they explained that the infection was spreading extremely rapidly and they had had no choice. They also informed him he would need a further operation when he was ready for the prosthesis which would be designed especially for him.

He found this interesting!

He joked about how surprised he was and that his first thought was: “This is going to be a good challenge.” He went into some detail about the second operation needed for shaping the bones so they would fuse together to form a good base for fitting the prosthesis. It would take 6 months for them to fully fuse. He talked about the problems he had with loss of blood and high temperatures and other complications brought about by his diabetes. He asked us if we had any questions and was happy to answer them.

What was wonderful was the ease with which he spoke about what had happened. It made us all relax seeing how comfortable he was with his situation.

This went on for some 30 minutes or more when suddenly he told us to stand. While most people struggled to get up, shaking stiff legs to get the circulation flowing, he stood up with ease.

After the misogi breathing and the focus exercises he went on to start with Tai no henka from gyaku hanmi katatetori. As he moved offline to lead Uke into a back stretch he was obviously feeling his way, adjusting balance with the odd small step at the finish of the movement. Uke was cautious also, not attacking too fast. Once everyone was doing the exercise he moved about observing as he always does, correcting some, and just observing others.

Sensei then demonstrated kokyunage and iriminage which he managed with ease. The rest of that first class was built around exercises with bokken relating to and including his Ichi no ken pattern.

When the class was over and we had all bowed Sensei walked with ease to the edge of the mat. He told us who would be taking the next class, and also announced that a class would be taken by a surprise visitor, Phillip Lee of Aikido Shinju-Kai Singapore, who was on holiday in Sydney with his family. He had unexpectedly dropped in to pay his respects.

The next day (Tuesday) Sensei again surprised everyone. We thought all his classes would follow the same pattern as Monday’s, focusing on bokken, but right from the start he was more active, moving with more confidence. He had us doing iriminage and kokyunage and a number of variations. Only towards the end of the class did he call for bokken and we practiced his Ni no ken pattern.

On Wednesday Sensei entered the dojo without the slightest wobble, walking as well as he always did. This time he had us start by sitting cross-legged with our hands palm up resting on our knees index finger and thumb just touching. He asked us to imagine a triangle connecting the forehead with each point where our fingers touched. “This is an exercise to teach awareness,” he said, but he didn’t explain more than that. He then told us he is learning to extend through his knee so that the prosthesis acts the same as his normal leg. He said he can feel the ground as if his foot was a normal foot.

When we stood up he demonstrated Tai no henka 2 different ways. His Uke was moving with more confidence and Sensei responded with such ease and fluidity that it was impossible to think of him as an amputee.

He then explained before we started practicing that he was taking it easy because the two bones in his leg have not yet properly fused together. This will take a few more months, after which a new and better designed prosthesis will be fitted.

By then there will be no holding him back!

It was astonishing how well he was moving by the third day of the school. If you watched from the side of the mat he appeared to be moving as he always had, with impeccable timing and absolute precision. It was truly hard to imagine that part of one leg was a prosthesis.

At the end of the class he sat on the side of the mat and showed a small group what the prosthesis actually looked like, pulling up his gi trouser leg so we could see it clearly. He even offered to lend it to one of the girls because she had twisted her ankle and for a few moments was unable to walk properly.

On Thursday and Friday it was more of the same with each of those classes studying 1st 2nd and 3rd bokken patterns with variations. On Saturday morning we did the 4th and 5th of his bokken patterns to finish the complete set. After that, it was all over with Sensei thanking us for being attentive, and for maintaining the high standard exhibited during 1st 2nd and 3rd Dan grading tests on Friday afternoon.

I think everyone testing was determined to show Sensei their very best. In fact everyone throughout every day’s training performed at the highest level possible in an effort to show Sensei that if he could come all the way from New York so soon after having a foot amputated, they were going to make his trip worthwhile by doing the very best they could at every training session. I might also add that there were some wonderful classes taken by other senior instructors, especially the female instructors who Sensei asked to teach, and who are often not given the respect or credit due to them. All the instructors showed by their examples how inspired they are by Sugano Sensei.

A gift from everyone was presented to Sensei by the “newest student at the seminar” then it was all over — Mats to be taken back to their respective dojos, students to return far and wide across Australia. Sensei would stay in Sydney with his family for a while before returning to New York.

We would all go away thinking: “what a remarkable person Sugano Shihan is.”

He has rapidly transcended a difficulty that would flatten anyone else and is doing better Aikido than ever. It seems to me he has moved into a higher plane and by his example has shown us that nothing can stop you if you have the desire and capacity. This was a truly inspirational Winter School — an event Sensei has been conducting in Australia for forty years — and one that will be talked about in Australia for years to come.

Thank you Sensei!

An Interview with Seiichi Sugano Shihan, Part 4 By David Halprin, 6th Dan, Shidoin, Co-editor in Chief, Aikido Online

posted Mar 25, 2011, 2:32 AM by Chum Joseph

[Editor's note: The interview was conducted during the New York Aikikai Christmas Seminar in December 2000. We would like to thank Sugano Sensei for giving this interview to Aikido Online. Thanks also to Douglas Firestone, Chief Instructor of Aikido of Westchester for his help during the interview, and Margo Ballou of the Brown University/Rhode Island School of Design dojo for her work transcribing it.

David Halprin, 6th Dan is Chief Instructor of Framingham Aikikai and Instructor at New England Aikikai. He is Co-Editor in Chief of Aikido Online.

Photos courtesy of Bill Bresnihan]

When you left Japan you first went to Australia. How did that come about?

It wasn't planned. It just happened. My wife was an Australian living in Japan, so I needed to go see her family.

Was that the first time you were outside of Japan?


So when you first got to Australia, what did you think?

When I went there, only a few judo people knew about Aikido. Some judo teacher was teaching so-called Aikido from a book. That was their style. I got the most students from a yoga group. I think Tohei Sensei's book was out, and I think his idea was "let's talk about ki", that is what his Aikido was like. Some yoga people had an interest. My first students were more yoga people than from judo or karate.

What was it like to suddenly be in a foreign country?

Culturally, I didn't have much shock. When I moved to Belgium, it probably took me more time to adjust. Of course the first time in Australia, I was much younger, so I think it may have been easier to adjust, but culturally, I didn't have much trouble. I think part of it was that in Japan I was much more exposed to Americans through teaching at US army bases, so already I had a feel for the Americans My wife was Australian, and she had lived in Canada before, and we had lots of friends among the foreign Aikidoka living in Japan. Culturally, in Europe and Belgium there was more, you can't say shock, but all the habits were different. It took some time to, not adjust, but get used to.

Did you enjoy living in Australia?

It was good.

You were there for over ten years, right?

Yeah. And I am still going back.

Then you went to Belgium, and that was harder to adjust to?

Not harder, it just took time. I think the main difference is between Teutonics and Latins, whose attitudes or ideas were different. Other than that, in a way maybe I'm not totally Japanese, that probably made some difference too. You know, even after I was in Australia for three or four years, even food-wise I didn't miss anything. Most Japanese miss miso soup. (laughs) In Japan I didn't drink miso soup.

In Belgium nothing's the same, the religious habits are different, and the lifestyle is different. In Belgium I remember first, in one of the buildings I was waiting in an elevator and I was expecting the door to open. No, you have to open it yourself! (laughs) Unlike Australia, in most small elevators in Europe you have to open them yourself, so I kept waiting for it to open, and it never opened. [general laughter] They also have a habit of shaking hands. When you meet, and when you say goodbye, everybody shakes hands individually, so you better shake hands with everyone!

It's like when we go to Japan, it's hard to get used to not opening the taxi cab door ourselves. [laughter]

Also, in Europe, counting the floors in a building is different. Second floor is first floor. It's easy to pass your floor. [more laughter]

Sometimes people say that each country has its own personality. Do you see that in Aikido?

Yes and no. Maybe it is just that country and personality are obvious differences. When you move from northern to southern Europe, things change. Generally speaking, English speaking or Germanistic language speaking people are very similar. When you go south, to France and Italy, all that changes. It also changes the way I was thinking. When you think you have to use language. When you're thinking in a Germanistic language and change to a Latin language, your thinking changes.

I have some questions about Aikido practice. What are the key principles that students should observe in their practice?

Ki? Key?

Key as in most important.

Ah, key.

Yes, k-e-y. [laughter] What are the most important technical, mental and spiritual principles that students should observe in their practice?

The question is how to study the important things. Obviously it is very important to carefully observe what the teacher is showing, how the teacher is applying technical points, so that's how one learns to carefully study what they're teaching. The basic principles are distance and direction. With any technique, you need to know the clear distance and direction. Those you can apply to any technique in your training. Without those, there are no techniques.

In general training, we are not really teaching or including the spiritual aspect, so the only thing you can do is just point out how to study, how to carefully observe. Sometimes you describe your eyes, the gateway to your mind. The mind guides your body, so you should carefully observe.

During general training we are not providing teaching of the spiritual aspect at all. Aikido training is based on the idea of a unique harmony, so the system is supposed to be teaching that way.

It comes down to the point that it depends on how you practice: how you approach practice makes a difference. The technique itself is one thing, obviously, you practice to kill someone or control someone, or defend yourself. That's a result, it's there, and it is a result of your training. However, the only way to make something different is to change how you approach these objectives through your training.

You're aiming at applying the concept of harmony et cetera. Then the process of practice changes into sort of contemplation of your moral spirit, it changes the direction of practice. The technical result won't change, but just how you approach the practice makes a difference, so you can approach the practice as if you are just as martial artist, and learn to kill someone or defend yourself, or you can apply the principle of harmony, etc.

Those processes cultivate your spirit and the moral sense, and so they have some kind of value in daily life. Then you're not just training in the context that technique equals the use of these arts for killing, instead you're approaching it in different ways which cultivate different things.

Technically the result won't change, but by following this way, probably you can evolve to a different purpose, I suppose. That's why you don't overly concern yourself about the result of how you apply the technique. In that case you're just training in using a fighting technique, you're only concerned with the result in terms of how strong you are, how to defend or kill, so you're training that way to start with. But this way eventually contradicts O-Sensei's ideas. So when you're starting in Aikido, what makes a difference to how you approach the practice.

General training is not really encouraging the spiritual aspect, but therefore it makes more important how you view your training, how you approach the training, really, how you come to training every day. If you are just always thinking about how to throw someone, or how to defend yourself, obviously you develop a certain attitude, or a certain mental process.

But if you're just purely coming to training to learn about harmonizing with others, obviously you develop good coordination of your body. You have good coordination of your body even if you're not looking for it, and a technical efficiency is there. The way you are coming to training depends very much on what you want to get out of Aikido, rather than the Aikido giving you something.

Again, it's difficult to say, but a high percentage students come to training very much for recreational purposes, ...that's as far as it goes. If someone wants to study more deeply, that's another thing, but generally, people are coming to train just to have fun.

To understand how to approach the training, individuals have to find what they want to get out of Aikido. If you are looking at the strictly martial aspect, that's the way you want to train, that's the way you train.

In most cases, in any technique or system, as long as you keep moving, it probably becomes technically more effective, rather than becoming formalized or a kata.

If you continue, part of the training is not fixed. That's the way of training like O-Sensei, who made a break with the traditional idea of martial arts. Most traditional ideas pretty much fix the kata forms. Even now people tend to think that this is martial, so training tends to become more formalized or static rather than moving. O-Sensei broke with that idea by spontaneously moving, that's why he never fixed them.

Ikkyo is there, but each time you do ikkyo it is not exactly the same, as opposed to the kata form which requires the technique to be this particular way, with precision. A part of Aikido training is that each time it repeats not quite the same.

Individual students have to find what they want. That's why, probably, more students tend to see teaching as primarily the teacher giving out information, rather then the student having to take information out. Then there is the issue that some teachers will say it has to be a certain way, you must do it that way. Again, students are probably the same way; some students need to have clear, strict guidance in order to follow; other students need to have more room.

It depends on how you do it, on both sides. In Aikido there are so many different things, that's why technically I very much more focus on the study of distance and direction. As far as the details of the technique, how to do the technique, everybody has a preference or someone does it this way, someone else does it a little bit differently. But no matter how you do a technique but you must have a concept of distance and direction.

Can you say something about ukemi?

Ukemi at present is also affected by developing an idea of teaching something or developing a system to teach, as well as the student also expecting to have instruction. That all has affected the idea of ukemi, and of how to do ukemi.

Originally there was no such system, just you attack, you get thrown, so you gradually develop the perception of how to do it, and you have to be receptive. Ideally, if you start younger, you don't have to worry about it, it takes care of itself automatically whatever situations come up. In that case there isn't a system or way to develop ukemi, it's just naturally there. But now some people are thinking more about how to do ukemi in what situation. Already it is influenced by the idea or notion of teaching and getting instruction. Particularly with ukemi you have to be receptive.

So again, ideally you're supposed to be younger so it's physically possible to take care of yourself if someone throws you or something. If someone just starts training it's probably not the same as for the young ones. You're just training, so automatically your body becomes more receptive to the movements. There's no need to have uke have to move this way or that way.

I think that's the way we first learned ukemi, if I can remember back that far.

Now, I don't know, people start talking about how to do ukemi. Even in Europe, in some groups they teach people to jump. They teach the uke, for iriminage, jump forward. Ideally it should be you just train, and it just automatically takes care of itself. Ukemi is basically a heightened perception and reaction of your body. Once you formalize it, it's already artificial.

One thing is that obviously you have to be able to roll backward and forward. The main idea for backward and forward rolling is to condition your muscles because you're not used to such training. It gives you a certain exercise, and that gives the conditioning for muscles, so forever you need to roll to maintain that conditioning, but that's the only reason you teach rolling backward and forward. That's how your muscles get to know how to react, and your body is not used to moving in that way. Once you establish that into the body, you roll forward or whatever, it's physically easy to take ukemi.

Hitting the mat isn't necessary, unless you really need it. Without knowing exactly why, people get the idea from judo. In judo they have reason to slap the mat, that way they reduce the shock. But in Aikido's case, we use rotary movement to reduce the shock, so the two approaches are different. But once you make habits, it's difficult to stop.

I have one last question. For forty years our teachers, now the Shihankai senseis, have had close relationships with Hombu Dojo and the Ueshiba family and also each other. You are all in the West now, and still you work together. What is it that led you to have that kind of loyalty and connection for so long?

That's part of Aikido.

An Interview with Seiichi Sugano Shihan, Part 3 By David Halprin, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Aikido Online

posted Mar 25, 2011, 2:31 AM by Chum Joseph

Editor's note: The interview was conducted during the New York Aikikai Christmas Seminar in December 2000. We would like to thank Sugano Sensei for giving this interview to Aikido Online. Thanks also to Douglas Firestone, Chief Instructor of Aikido of Westchester for his help during the interview, and Margo Ballou of the Brown University/Rhode Island School of Design dojo for her work transcribing it.

David Halprin, 6th Dan is Chief Instructor of Framingham Aikikai and Instructor at New England Aikikai. He is Co-Editor in Chief of Aikido Online.]

I've heard that O-Sensei was not interested in Aikido becoming popular or spreading throughout society.

He had, obviously, an idea for how to create peace for the whole world, and that was the same concept as Deguchi. He also had a very extreme nationalistic view, again also he had the attitude or idea of international relationships. That's why they were associating with one religious group in China, called the Red Cross society or something. Then also they were associating with B'hai. I think at one stage they tried promoting the Esperanto language. On the other hand, he had a very strong nationalistic idea of Japan; the core of the Shinto religion itself is very much Japan as the center. It was likely the influence of Deguchi again, as he had an idea towards international viewpoints, they tried to create international associations, and I think that's probably how O-Sensei was influenced to develop an idea for creating peace for the world.

Did O-Sensei also have a more traditional martial arts idea?

They're both very much based on the same cosmology, or creation idea, that is, Japan as the center, the Shinto. Also the idea that God created so many different aspects, including martial, so therefore the martial is the protection of the god of creation. It is therefore not fighting for the sake of fighting; rather they had the idea of a protector, not just fighting with someone. That's the basic idea, so therefore they never had an idea or concept of the way we think that martial arts equals fighting or combat. From that concept, Aikido is never to be a fighting art, but rather a protecting art.

In the same way, as in Shinto, they don't have the concept of good or bad, instead they have only pure or impure. That explains the importance of the misogi, the purification of the body and mind. The concept is different from today's ideas, which tend to see contradictions or opposites. They didn't have such an idea of for fighting with other people using the martial art, but instead to be protecting the creation.

In a way we tried interpreting Aikido, which makes lots of contradictions. That's a contradiction. O-Sensei never fixed the concept of technique, but the spiritual aspect, he created and fixed Aikido to be harmony, love and peace, et cetera. Therefore, generally, most people are fascinated with the techniques, the technical system of fighting. If it's just fighting, the contradiction is always there.

The idea of harmony or peace or love that O-Sensei mostly talked about was very much in relation to his god. However, technically the way we were training was not in the relation of person to god, but person to person. So people to try to apply the same idea of the relationship of person to god, but in the person to person obviously the contradiction is there. O-Sensei's idea goes through the god to make peaceful harmony together, and doesn't deal so much with the person to person. I see a lot of people looking at the person-to-person relationship, so obviously they find a contradiction.

I think in the martial aspect, technically O-Sensei was much more linear; the circular motion is a result of linear movement, or a continuation of linear movement. The essence is just straightforward. There is a lot of explanation of circular motion, but that's a result of a continuation of the linear movement. His technical ideas are very much straightforward.

There's something else: Aikido without competition made some progress towards his idea of everyone coming together, united. When you had a competition, only elites could go to interstate or international gatherings. With Aikido, there were no competitions, so even a beginner, wherever he or she goes, in any part of the world, can just to training there. But in sports obviously they have a system of competition so only the elite can go to any interstate or international event. In Aikido's case, anyone can go to any seminar, they're open seminars.

What memories do you have of the uchi deshi days, of you and Tamura Sensei, Yamada Sensei, Chiba Sensei, Kanai Sensei, Kurita Sensei?

Well, we trained together. Then and now we're still very much individuals, and independent people. We get together for training, but there are few social occasions that arise to get together.

You went through a lot together just training?

Yeah, just training. Besides training, each of us were so independent, as I said, and besides training, there were few occasions, few social events, just to go out to drink or go see a movie or such. I used to go to Yamada Sensei's house very often. We would gather there, an hour and a half from Tokyo, near the beach. I spent more time with Yamada Sensei probably, I went to his house quite often, also he was teaching in the US army bases, and we used to go traveling and drinking inside the base.

Did the uchi deshi practice a lot with each other, or did you have to practice mostly with other people?

Mostly other people. Occasionally we trained together; in most cases, like at morning class, we had to attend to the beginners. In some special classes we'd only take ukemi. Sometimes, like at any large demonstration, we'd show up with Doshu all together and then we'd have dinner together afterwards,. There simply wasn't so much opportunity for person-to-person contact, I suppose. It was different. In one way it was very much independent. Of course most of the time we would stay in the dojo eating with the Ueshiba family, and in the evening we would go out with Kisshomaru Doshu or Tohei Sensei or whoever. After teaching, normally people would take you out to dinner, so you'd be eating together.

Has that group changed a lot since those days?

Personalities never change; they're very much the same. No, I don't think they've changed much.

There have been several generations of uchi deshi since your group. Do you think the uchi deshi system has changed much?

After we left, I don't think they've had an uchi deshi system. Even before, I think probably we are the only type of uchi deshi. I don't know if O-Sensei ever had uchi deshi, if he did they had to pay to stay there training. We didn't have to pay, so I think our group was probably in a most unique situation. I'm not sure, but I think O-Sensei had many uchi deshi. But I think in most cases now they pay there to stay. None of them became professionals regardless of how long they stayed.

How was it that that happened at that time with your group?

I think it was timed just as Aikido started expanding. Probably Kisshomaru Doshu thought he needed some uchi deshi to help. The first time I went to Hombu, after I saw the magazine, the person who came to the entrance and who I talked to happened to be Kisshomaru Doshu, He was the one who would interview persons for uchi deshi. To start with it was financially not possible to have uchi deshi, but he suggested maybe come in and begin training, and after a while maybe the situation would change. So in the beginning we slept there, and they fed us.

They were at that time they starting to expand Aikido, so outside Hombu dojo various places opened up, universities started Aikido clubs, as well as some companies, that's how they were just beginning the expansion. So, then gradually we starting going outside Hombu to teach. Around 1964 to 1966 everybody began to have different specific reasons arose that gave us a chance to go out of Japan, but it wasn't anything planned.

[To be continued.]

An Interview with Seiichi Sugano Shihan, Part 2 By David Halprin, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Aikido Online

posted Mar 25, 2011, 2:30 AM by Chum Joseph   [ updated May 5, 2011, 12:27 AM ]

Editor's note: The interview was conducted during the New York Aikikai Christmas Seminar in December 2000. We would like to thank Sugano Sensei for giving this interview to Aikido Online. Thanks also to Douglas Firestone, Chief Instructor of Aikido of Westchester for his help during the interview, and Margo Ballou of the Brown University/Rhode Island School of Design dojo for her work transcribing it.

David Halprin, 6th Dan is Chief Instructor of Framingham Aikikai and Instructor at New England Aikikai. He is Co-Editor in Chief of Aikido Online.

Part one of this interview can be found in our archives.]

Could you share with us memories you have of the older generation of instructors at Hombu dojo, for example, Osawa Sensei Senior, Tada Sensei, Arikawa Sensei, and Yamaguchi Sensei?

Those are all very strong individuals. Again, we were all together at Hombu, but again our relationship is very similar to the student/master relationship. Not that there was anything difficult in our relationship but there was not much personal contact, I suppose. The barrier is not exactly is the same, although in a different way, the relationship is similar.

Between the teachers and the students?

Or even the senior person...

Was it like learning from O-Sensei: you would take their classes and try to figure out what they were doing?

Yes, yes.

Were there special things that you got from any of those guys?

Koichi Tohei Sensei was the chief instructor, he was much more strong, characteristically strong and technically strong. He was the only one able to give clear explanation of why and how a technique works. That was to me pretty unique. [laughs]

What were his classes like?

Normally he’d give an explanation of the technique first of all. He would use the terminology of ki more than anyone else. He could be the only person who used that term! Without knowing it, probably I got lots of influence from the way he explained.

How would he explain ki, now that you mention it? [laughs]

Like unbendable arm? [laughs]

How do you explain ki to people, or how did he explain it to you?

At that time, thirty or forty years ago his explanation was good. I think today the same explanation is maybe not as good. His explanation was almost the equivalent of a "one plus one equals two" formula, based on coordination of body and mind. So using your mind, thinking in a positive way, is a way of creating energy that can be described as ki movement.

He studied Japanese yoga, and I think that’s how his explanation came about. He was a member of the Tempukai, as were quite a few others as well. Tada Sensei was in the same organization. I think even now Tada Sensei does some ki exercises or awareness exercises, that sort of thing.

Is that organization still around?

I suppose so. The key persons passed away. I met them a couple of times. Tohei Sensei had a lot of influence from that. I think probably similar to O-Sensei's borrowing concepts from Omoto-kyo, Tohei Sensei took concepts from the Tempukai. He would try to explain something, and to explain something you must use concepts.

Most sports, like judo, use a scientific concept, for example, the principle of balance. In O-Sensei’s case, because he was so involved with the Omoto-kyo, he used that to express his ideas, and therefore he got much more into spiritual aspects. The expression of his body movement obviously started in martial arts, it’s there, but probably his way of expressing ideas was much more involved in the spiritual aspect. Then those other people started Zazen or yoga, which involve a type of knowledge that can be used to express the idea of what is Aikido, or develop an explanation of Aikido.

Did you do Zazen?

I did Zazen. I did it three years intensively. The most intensive time was three months when I followed a Chinese Zen master. That was okay. Other than that I like some yoga sutras. They have a very clear interaction and logic that I like.

In the yoga system?

Yes, some. Not all. Patanjali sutra is good. You get more different knowledge, and your understanding of Aikido evolves. But they are never to be mixed. Some people intend to convert Aikido to yoga or yoga to Aikido or whatever, so they start mixing two completely different things.

So it’s good to study other disciplines, but it is important not to mix them up, and you must keep them distinct?

Yes. Some things that you experience through the Aikido training, you need some tool to recognize them. Knowledge is just like another language. There may be something you experience physically but if you don’t have language, you can’t express or recognize it. The physical form and the intellectual thing come together.

In O-Sensei’s case, obviously, he expressed his feeling of training by explaining it with the Omoto religion, but he didn’t follow that side exclusively in how he did things, although maybe it is the most developed. Judo is obviously Kano Sensei’s scientific way to explain. Almost any of the classic martial arts, one way or another, borrows some type of religious concept to express its style or technique. Unfortunately, when they start borrowing the other terminology, any terminology, the meaning changes. Similarly, I think translating into English changes the nuances of the Japanese terminology a little bit.

Terminology itself gives something kind of mystical; it gives some special impression to other people, even in something like the name of a technique. Aikido's way of naming techniques, like ikkyo, nikyo, is very much a numbering system. In many other martial arts, like Daito-ryu, each technique has an "extreme" name. The idea seems to be to impress the "outside people". Even judo has certain techniques where the terminology itself expresses the feeling of the technique but also the name itself gives expression to the character of the technique. There’s one called ganseki otoshi, meaning "dropping rock" or something similar. Terminology can be a common language that helps very much the ease of understanding, but there are a lot of people who like to use extreme terminology.

Because it sounds good?

It sounds good, and it’s a property of the Japanese language, giving a certain feeling or meaning.

So it does actually express something important?

Using a common language to describe things allows much easier understanding. In Aikido, "use your ki" is a key. You say "ki" and even when people are talking about it without clearly understanding it, something feels special. [laughs] It is borrowed from some other system, like a religion, which typically has many terminologies.

The origin of the term obviously comes from Taoism, but in China everything is set up logically, including ki itself. But when it came to Japan, they started using it in different ways. They started identifying ki as the cause of anything unexplainable. But in China, they have every meaning of ki fixed; each one is defined exactly.

In China it is a very logical system, there are three or four different kinds of ki, at least three: kuki, uchiki, uanchi. Mostly you when they say chi or ki, they’re describing a sexual power. Another one, kuki involves the intake of food and air, it starts from the lungs. Another type of ki starts from the source of the body. They have three different kinds of ki, with exactly logical meanings.

But when the term moved to Japan, they started using so many forms of ki, including weather, which they called tenki. Or, for example, Genki-desuka. The main thing here is that it’s not like modern days; in older times there were so many phenomena that were impossible to describe scientifically. So, obviously, describing ki as the cause of things was the only way available, and people started using it.

I don’t know now, even in Japan, if anyone is describing or using ki terminology to explain things in training. I think that Tohei Sensei mostly promoted and used the terminology of ki. O-Sensei, I don’t think ever used it. There was kunoki, O-Sensei used ki in kunoki for explanation but that’s the only way he used it.

In the Omoto religion, in mystic Shinto, they used basically three methods or principles in the kotodama system, tumoni, kuzitama, etc. So they have three or four different principles. Most of the kotodama system is not really logical. It’s illogical. You can really only practice it in the Japanese language.

Do you think, on balance, ki is a good way to explain things or does it just make people confused?

Right there you're dividing ki into positive and negative. I don’t know nowadays if anyone uses it to describe anything for training. In the kotodama system I think they have a couple different systems, but I think none of them are used, not really.

So you can follow up certain points, but then mostly it comes from O-Sensei's talking about vibrating in the body. You can get the idea with the Japanese terminology. For example the kami, meaning the god, they divide into the ka and the mi. The ka sound was equivalent to the fire, and mi sound is equivalent to water. The ka-mi is both together, the fire is vertical, water is horizontal, the symbols make a cross and you are there, that’s the way to use the kotodama.

It’s not necessary maybe to believe in it as a total religion. It is much easier to follow a religion, because you start with your emotional attachment so you don’t need to be logical. But if someone wants to study it as a system, he looks at it in intellectual and logical ways and it’s sometimes difficult to follow. It’s the same thing with Zazen. Even practicing Zazen is not necessarily following the religious order, but just extracting the system of sitting.

Using it as an exercise.

Yeah, exercise. O-Sensei probably didn’t completely finish developing Aikido. He left lots of writing or poems, but in most cases you just have to guess what he was trying to say.

(to be continued)

An Interview with Seiichi Sugano Shihan, Part 1 By David Halprin, Co-Editor-in-Chief, Aikido Online

posted Mar 25, 2011, 2:29 AM by Chum Joseph

{Editor's note: The interview was conducted during the New York Aikikai Christmas Seminar in December 2000. We would like to thank Sugano Sensei for giving this interview to Aikido Online. Thanks also to Douglas Firestone, Chief Instructor of Aikido of Westchester for his help during the interview, and Margo Ballou of the Brown University/Rhode Island School of Design dojo for her work transcribing it.

David Halprin, 6th Dan is Chief Instructor of Framingham Aikikai and Instructor at New England Aikikai. He is Co-Editor in Chief of Aikido Online.]


To start, could you tell us a little bit about how you first heard about Aikido?

I saw it in one of the Japanese weekly magazines; they had an article about Aikido. That’s how I found Aikido.

Was the article about O-Sensei?

No, it was on Aikido generally. That’s how I started being interested; I went to see Kisshomaru Doshu. He at that time was at Hombu dojo.

You asked him if you could practice?


Had you practiced other martial arts?

I did judo over six years, I guess.

What did the article say that got you so interested?

I don’t recall exactly. It was mostly introducing what is Aikido and I thought technically it could be interesting. At that point, you could call it Aikido or you could call it jujutsu; it was not really known to the public, so I thought technically it could be interesting. Also it appeared there was some kind of philosophy behind it as well.

When did you first formally start to practice Aikido?

1957 or 1958, I think.

What was it like to practice at Hombu dojo at that time?

It was obviously quite different than judo training; it focused on repetition of patterns. In judo’s case you’re struggling, you're throwing someone, but Aikido's partner training is different.

Was that hard to adjust to?

It's not exactly a process of adjusting, but it takes some time to accept Aikido's way or system of training.

When did you first start to have teaching responsibilities?

(Laughs) It must have been in the early sixties. In the beginning of course you’re carrying Kisshomaru Doshu’s bag back and forth wherever he goes, and assisting him. At about that time Aikido started expanding, it started to be taught outside Hombu dojo. Although we were very young, we had to go to teach. In most cases the students were probably older than me.

Was there a point when you realized that Aikido was going to be your profession?

No, I started purely out of interest in the training, and that’s all. I never thought of planning to be teaching Aikido. I just wanted to practice.

Could you tell us a little bit about your memories about O-Sensei?

The first time I saw him, I saw him like a religious master or leader rather than martial artist. In his movement there was some energy moving but not visible, so you feel there’s nothing there, yet you feel this sort of strong core of steel. Yes, I thought of him very much more like a religious leader of a religious group or something like that. He expressed himself with the physical form, but it was a quite a different thing when he was throwing each of us.

What’s your view of the process by which O-Sensei was creating Aikido?

He started a traditional martial art, but then he went into the spiritual pursuit. I think probably that made the way of training change from the traditional idea of martial arts. Obviously his explanation of Aikido used ideas from his religious concepts.

Were those concepts from the Omoto religion?

Yes, Omoto. Omoto at that time was like a New Age movement or group. It related to Shinto but it was much more like a mystical Shinto. You can’t say it was a traditional or normal Shinto.

Was Deguchi Sensei still alive at that time?

No, I don’t think so, no. One good thing was that although O-Sensei explained Aikido as a religious concept, he never insisted that his students follow his religious vision. That probably was good for us. He talked about the spiritual aspect, but he never provided us with a system to study in that way.

His point of view was that Aikido was a physical form of training that he called misogi or kotodama movement, etc. His idea was that that’s the way to develop spirituality. Therefore, whoever was interested those aspects, individually they would have to study that, or yoga, zazen or other systems as needed.

It’s probably a similar way to the way he taught weapons, I guess. Obviously he had a great interest in weapons, so he expressed himself demonstrating with weapons, but he never provided a system to do so. So, obviously different teachers, having different experiences, expressed themselves in so many different ways of teaching.

Do you think he felt that simply doing the Aikido movements was sufficient in itself, or did he think that students would also have to study something else?

In most cases, unfortunately, the relationship of student to master is one direction; there are no questions and answers or anything like that. It's sort of a pity, we would have had a better understanding if we did that, but there was no such way, so we had to just presume what he wanted. Whatever he explained, or if he read a certain book or poem, etc., through such things we individually had to interpret what he meant.

So you wouldn’t have question and answer sessions with O-Sensei?

[laughter] No.

Do you think if he were around today, would such things happen?

No, I doubt it. [laughs]

He just wasn’t into that?

To start with, he wasn’t that interested in being a teacher. For the most part, in any art form, the masters demonstrate their abilities, but they are not necessarily good teachers. They don’t have any system for "teaching" in the way we think of it today.

That was a traditional way of transmitting knowledge?

Yes. It wasn’t just in Aikido, it was the same in any art form, be it music or painting, etc. If you wanted to follow the master, you just copied as much as you could.

O-Sensei was obviously a very remarkable man, and he had a strong influence on many people. What do you think were the qualities that made him so unique?

For one thing, he was a strong believer, so much into his religious and spiritual pursuits; I think that probably made something unique, even in Aikido’s case. For me technique is okay, but technically if you look at many different schools, you find they have similar techniques.

I think Aikido is so unique because O-Sensei broke with so-called traditional martial arts concepts. To me as I studied Aikido, I tried to always get back to that point. It's not just how you do techniques. Generally in the martial arts, there is a system of fighting technique, but he broke with that concept, and that to me is the most important part.

People often say that each of O-Sensei’s students took a different part of him into themselves. Do you think that’s true, and if so, what was the influence O-Sensei had on you personally?

Partly I think he made me more aware that Aikido was something I had to continue to search for. He didn’t provide any system; he had some system so that you’re always following up, but he’s not providing it. The individual person had to search for himself.

Maybe what one person wants, another doesn’t. For me that could be the influence I got from him. Even where we’re teaching technically no one is just like him, he’s just a unique person so no one could really copy him. So, perhaps the biggest influence from him is probably to make each person free to search for something individually.

You mentioned before that part of your duties were to carry second Doshu’s bag. How would you characterize the work of the second Doshu in developing Aikido?

I think he did a lot for how Aikido was accepted into the general public. I remember the first time I met him; his personality was more like a professor at a university or something like that. You would be surprised if you were expecting some martial artist who’s physically superior or has different attitudes. I think perhaps because of his personality, or the way he was promoting Aikido, it became something that normal society could easily accept, not something that is "different". Even now, generally the martial artist doesn’t contribute much to society, he's just someone strong enough to know some techniques to throw around or kill someone. [laughs] It's pretty low level. I think Doshu had a much better idea for Aikido to be much more generally acceptable to normal society, and that was how he promoted it.

Were there certain things that second Doshu taught you, a particular influence that he had on you?

I don’t think that much in general, but I do think probably in the way I look at Aikido technically, it is possible I have much more influence from him.

Technically his way of teaching was very moderate; it contained nothing extreme. Also, he gave more consideration to his idea that the general society should accept Aikido. His general approach to Aikido was a little bit more intellectual. That’s how I might have gotten an influence from his way of teaching. I don’t look at Aikido technically in an extreme way. In general he reminded us that it was better to act in a normal way.

[To be continued....]

Sugano Sensei and Arms Training by Skip Short, New York Aikikai

posted Mar 25, 2011, 2:28 AM by Chum Joseph   [ updated Apr 26, 2011, 9:25 PM ]

Editor's Note: One of our objectives at Aikido Online is to transmit information directly from our Shihan. Because their instruction is most frequently delivered on the mat, rather than through writings, this is often difficult. We're happy that Skip Short of New York Aikikai has attempted to capture the comments of Sugano Sensei during his weapons classes. Part of the mission of Aikido Online is to make this type of information available to a wider audience. It is reprinted from Aikido East, the Journal of the United States Aikido Federation Eastern region, Volume 1, Issue 4, Spring/Summer 1999

"There are so many different types of knowledge in the world. Aikido is only one of them. It is unrealistic to consider Aikido as the end of our search for knowledge. And in Aikido we should still be searching for what Aikido is and why we are practicing."

So said Seiichi Sugano as we started our discussions. I was surprised and intrigued. I had expected from his demeanor in the dojo and on the mat that Sugano Sensei would portray Aikido as a discipline with spiritual aspects and the potential for serving as a catalyst for learning in one's own life. Aikido certainly may have such a potential for each of us. And Sugano Sensei has clearly chosen to consider Aikido as an opportunity for continual growth and learning rather than a way to display superiority over others. He has apparently not succumbed to the temptation to equate his own phenomenal proficiency in this art as the equivalent of spiritual mastery in any aspect of his life or the lives his students.

As those who have trained with Sugano Sensei are aware, he has an affinity for arms training both in suburi classes and in regular classes. This article sets forth some of his principles. Sensei cautions that arms training is something that should only be attempted with a qualified teacher. It cannot be learned merely through articles. This piece is intended as a supplement to those training with Sensei.

Arms Training and Aikido

Aikido to Sugano Sensei represents an art created to permit spontaneous movement and continued growth. Sensei considers the use of weapons within this context and does not emphasize any weapons kata or form. Weapons training is a tool to intensify focus and to "confirm open hand technique."

While there can be a relationship between weapons and Aikido, for Sugano Sensei the arms system must itself be functional. It is not merely an adjunct to demonstrate Aikido techniques. During the six years Sugano Sensei spent with O-Sensei, weapons were only taught by O-Sensei to a private group that included Sugano Sensei.

Perhaps the greatest value weapons offers in its confirmation of open hand technique is in learning about maai and timing. The distance between partners with weapons and the moment at which nage must move is of the greatest significance.

According to Sugano Sensei, "Aikido has no set weapons training. A difficulty in using weapons in Aikido is in having sufficient training for an instructor to know enough about weapons and their relationship to Aikido to have the knowledge to properly teach weapons. My idea in teaching weapons is that weapons training should be functional. There must be a point to it."

Safety and Weapons

Traditionally, Sensei notes, one practiced bokken strikes for a year before being permitted to work with a partner. Today, in the United States, it is common for some Aikido students to begin working with weapons with a partner without any prior training. In this context, safety becomes of great importance. The more experienced student should receive the strikes and no student should strike faster than their ability to control the weapons.

Strikes should not be near the partner's eyes, where the danger of a slip of even a light strike is serious.

Constant repetition of the basic forms not only develops precision in weapons proficiency, it also promotes safety.

Basic Forms

Sensei does not utilize katas in arms training. Sensei explains that katas traditionally were used to pass technique down from one generation to another. Because of the spontaneous nature of Aikido, there is no such lengthy tradition and kata are not needed. Kata can become so fixed that the movements are no longer functional in actual training.

Sensei uses repetition of basic cuts to develop weapons precision. With the bokken the basic strikes are shomen to the hand and the wrist from both the right and left sides, yokomen to the knees and tsuki to the center (not right and left) at both high and low positions.

One starts in hanmi (see picture 1) with the bokken protecting nage from any possible strike. The bokken forms a triangle with the center and the shoulder. Sensei recommends using a light weapon, which permits greater speed.

The basic strike for Sensei involves raising the bokken, bringing it down and then completing the strike moving forward. This type of strike is more difficult than merely raising and striking. Its purpose, consistent with Sensei's belief that arms training must be functional, is that the lowering of the bokken before moving within uke's strike range, protects nage. Picture 2 shows the first step and picture 3 the difficult part of bringing down the bokken before moving forward.

In moving with a partner, remaining in proper maai while one's partner is moving, is a very important challenge. Proper hanmi with a partner is illustrated in picture 4. The tips of the weapons are almost touching and each person holds the weapon in position to protect against any strike. There should be no opening. One should learn proper hanmi before proceeding. Maai and hanmi without an opening must be developed as a foundation for the other techniques.

Ukemi and Weapons

Traditionally, given the dangers of a sword, there was no ukemi with a sword. As an exercise Sensei does utilize ukemi but whether it is with a bokken or a jo, the ukemi must arise out of a practical situation. Sensei uses a forward roll, since it is most likely to arise out of a reaction by nage to a forward strike by uke. Uke begins with a strike forward and then rolls. The weapon starts moving forward and as uke rolls the weapon must be moved to be perpendicular to the body. See picture 5.

Disarming Techniques

Utilizing Aikido techniques presents an opportunity to practice with an increased focus and to study the refinement of maai. Sensei uses a variety of techniques with shomen strikes, including kotegaeshi, udekimenage, shihonage, gokkyu, and a kokyu projection. Koshinage is not included. An illustration of udekimenage is set forth in pictures 6 and 7. Uke begins with a shomen strike. Nage moves in with atemi to the face and then grabs uke's weapon between uke's hands. See picture 6. Nage tenkans which brings uke around, making sure to keep the weapon pointing up and away from both uke and nage's heads. Nage then completes udekimenage as in picture 7.

This article is an introduction to Sensei's weapons training. As those who have studied with Sensei know, he is always seeking to learn and teach something new. Thus, his classes are unpredictable. One never knows if he will turn off the lights in the midst of class, introduce weapons in a regular class or announce that everyone in class should roam the room randomly attacking everyone else. He is not afraid to try new things himself: About eight years ago, he took up fencing, starting as a complete beginner.

His arms training has the same purpose: to attain proficiency and precision through constant repetition and then to use spontaneity to continue to grow and to enjoy.

Thus for Sensei, the answer to the question of what Aikido means remains both fluid and individual. "We must all continue to search and develop our own answers to that question", he says.

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