© 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved
Four years ago, we went out of province
to attend a seminar which featured Sugino Yukihiro Sensei. It was his
first visit to Canada in almost 2 decades so it was a special event.
The organizers were an aiki group and they had learned some Katori
Shinto Ryu decades ago but had not had contact with Sugino Dojo
since. It was their first time as well in a long while and so I think
the shock of what was to come hit them equally hard. I have known Sugino
Yukihiro Sensei since he was one of my teachers in Shinto Ryu when I
had trained in Japan. I had an idea what to expect. But they didn’t.
The seminar started off with the usual
perfunctory ritual and everyone was happy to see the headmaster in
his first visit to Canada since 1989. Then we were told to line up in
pairs to do basic cutting exercise. I must mention that our hosts
outdid themselves because there were in excess of 70 seminar
participants. And with my own small group of 2 students and a few
other visitors, we were about 75 or so in number. So, if you do the
math, that’s 37 pairs. Luckily we were in a collegiate gymnasium
that could easily house this number.
Once we started the cutting, it became
kind of funny. It was just practice of the basic overhead cut (shomen
uchi), named maki-uchi. My two students relished the chance to
practice this and they were doubly thrilled to do it in front of the
headmaster whom they had never met. They had heard me talk about him
for a decade but never had the chance to meet him until now. So they
were not about to pass the chance up to impress the headmaster. They
were enjoying every cut. He would come over and correct a minor point
but to them it was like the Holy Grail. They were laughing and having
a grand old time.
Mr. Tong demonstrating with Sugino Sensei at the
With the other students however, it
couldn’t have been more opposite. I was walking around helping
Sugino Sensei. With 37 pairs of practitioners, you can imagine it
would take a lot of time to correct each student and give them some
advice. As I was circulating around, I kept hearing complaints.
“Why are we doing this?”
“When is this going to be over?”
At this point, we must have done about
100 cuts. And with his corrections of various students and making
sure each student got some attention, 30 minutes must have passed
“I didn’t pay this much money to do
“What a waste of time…”
At about 150 cuts,
“When is this going to stop?”
“My arms are killing me!”
By this time, I had circulated back to
the original starting point where coincidentally our two hosts
(themselves teachers of aikido and judo) were doing their cutting and
they were situated two pairs over from where my own two students
It was funny. My students were saying
things like “Yeah, this is great!” and continuing to cut with
gusto, relishing each chance to work the technique with the subtle
corrections they had just received from the headmaster. They were not
tired. Maybe tired is the wrong word. They were not bored. Maybe
that’s a more appropriate word.
I walked past the two hosts, making a
show of going to help the pair of students (who were two pairs past
them) who seemed to be struggling. As I passed the hosts, I overheard
them say, “What in the world is he doing? Doesn’t he realize that
if he doesn’t do something more interesting, that no one will come
The other host replied to his
counterpart, “This is a disaster…”
I was appalled. What did they expect?
As I circulated around again, you could
see the enthusiasm flagging. Students were giving up. Many stopped
altogether. When Sugino Sensei approached, yes, they would pick up
their bokuto (bokken) and do some cuts. Once he left, they stopped
and started complaining to each other, commiserating about how
gruelling the practice was. It was sad to see.
When he looked over, they would resume
cutting. When his attention was turned elsewhere, they relaxed and
I hear more complaining.
“I didn’t pay $200 for this.”
“What a waste of money.”
Of course, Sugino Sensei took his time
examining each student. He probably felt it was his moral obligation
and duty to make sure each student got personalized attention and
received some advice to make their Shinto Ryu better.
You might ask, well, why would they
complain openly if they knew you were circulating around, helping
Sugino Sensei? They must have known that you might report it back to
Sugino Sensei. Well, the seminar was held in Quebec and they were
speaking French. We were les Anglophones
; we did not speak
French. We spoke to them in English. So they probably assumed that we
didn’t understand a bit of French. My two students didn’t
understand French, that is true. But I had the pleasure of taking
French Immersion in Grades 7 & 8 so my hearing and reading are
not so bad. Can’t speak it for the life of me though. How ironic.
That the French I learned decades before would someday come in
Well, suffice it to say that once he
announced break-time, you could not see people run out of there
faster. There was a lot of grumbling in the hallway during that
break-time. But my students were happy as clams. I think we were the
only happy ones there!
After the break, it was back to more
gruelling training. If the physical pain of continuous cutting and
movement of the arms and legs was bad, this next hour and a half was
worse. This next session was focused on kamae. Static pain. Like
Yoga, holding postures and stances forever, with musculature control,
is a different kind of excruciating pain. You really come to realize
how much core strength you really have or don’t have.
And Sugino Sensei felt it important, in
this first landmark seminar, to make sure everyone received good
training. So, now it was holding a posture like jodan for 20 minutes,
while he and I circulated around correcting all 74 people! The
groaning became worse.
After 20 minutes, he announced “back
to seigan”. Groans of relief. Finally, a chance to relax. Then he
Kogasumi is a posture where you hold
your sword horizontally above your head to block a cut, like a
two-handed parry 5 in sabre (for you Western fencing enthusiasts out
there). The newness took everyone by surprise, but 5 minutes in, the
groaning began anew.
It was kind of comical in a way. Sighs
of relief then groaning and moaning. Over and over again, in a
repeating cycle. And with each cycle, Sugino Sensei and I would start
again, up and down the lines, correcting each pair.
The complaining and muttering did not
“If it’s going to be like this
tomorrow, I’m not coming.”
“I hope he does something better
And of course, the minute his back was
turned, the students relaxed and took a break. They thought he
couldn’t see them or did not notice that they had relaxed.
At one point, Sugino Sensei and I
crossed paths down one of the lines. As he passed me, he stopped and
said to me, “You know, the ones who try hard and persevere to hold
the kamae are the ones who will progress…” Then he resumed his
walk to correct the next pair.
It was a really good piece of advice. I
have never forgotten that moment or that piece of philosophy.
what was going on. He
knew they relaxed and took a break once his back was turned or if he
was at the far end of the gym or seemingly engrossed in correcting a
But it was a test.
A test of character.
How tough are you? How strong are you?
Not physically. Oh, no. Mentally. Spiritually. Psychologically. Do
you break easily?
I have never forgotten that moment.
Sasamori Sensei, headmaster of Ono-ha
Itto Ryu, said a similar thing in my interview
with him. He mentioned that the key to success in budo was, in his
words, “steadiness” and “continuation”. Steadiness, like
steadfastness. Staying the course. In other words, perseverance.
The other interview
I had in Japan was with Kajitsuka Sensei of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu
(Ohtsubo branch) and he said, in a similar fashion, that a good rule
to live by in budo training is to “continue it, keep doing it, and
So the next time a student asks you why
we are doing kihon (fundamentals) over and over again, you can relate
this story to them. It is a true story and a good moral lesson. After
that, then you can tell them to keep practicing.
“The ones who try hard and persevere are the
ones who will progress…”
Mr. Tong has a Master’s
in Education in Curriculum Studies.