The Iaido Journal  Feb 2004
Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies, click here

Tatsuo Suzuki

by James Sidney copyright © 2004 all rights reserved

Somewhere between Boundsgreen and East Croydon stations I misread the “London A-Z” I kept in the top of my camera bag and exited the train at the wrong platform. I was late. Under normal circumstances I’d be worried enough, but this was no ordinary class I was overdue for. Professor Tatsuo Suzuki, Chief Instructor of the Wado International Karate Do Federation was expecting me at his winter training course. He was a friend of my own sensei, my own teacher, a fact I had hoped would relieve some of the tension of this first interview, but now only contributed to my growing sense of panic. I slid my tripod across the floor of the cab, slung my bag beside me and leaned forward on the seat edge, “Trinity College.”

I tried spotting him through the windows of the gymnasium doors first. No luck. A confusing monotone of seventy karate students obscured the view with the hurried movements of their white uniforms. I suddenly felt outnumbered. Although my long voyage across the Atlantic had ended, this unnerving moment signalled the start of a larger journey. After a few breaths to ensure my composure I undid my shoes, opened the doors and slowly bowed.

“Mr. Sidney?” a woman presumed from a table to my right. It was Suzuki sensei’s wife, Eleni, wearing a broad smile. Thank goodness for the little things. I was welcomed in and assured I could photograph freely from the edges of the room, which I quickly did to fend the return of my nervousness, using the camera as a final intermediary between Suzuki sensei and myself. He was picking his way through the class, singling out students, asking for demonstrations, appearing duly unimpressed and severe.

I took a moment during a break to introduce myself properly and forward greetings from my teacher. “Oh, you’re the one who’s come all the way from Canada to take my picture,” he said with a laugh. “I think you’re crazy.” His wiry build and bald head reminded me of the pictures I had seen of his legendary teacher, the founder of Wado Ryu Karate, Horonori Ohtsuka.

“I thought of him as a father, and he treated me like his son,” Suzuki sensei said from a relaxed position in his reading chair. We were in the tight confines of his London apartment two days after the training course, by which time I’d learned enough of my subject to bring a bottle of Grappa to the interview. He considered his responses at length, which I mistook several times for poor hearing, causing me almost to repeat myself. Catching me in mid-breath he continued with his memories of his teacher.

I met Ohtsuka Sensei after the last World War at the Wado headquarters in Tokyo—he was about fifty. At that time Ohtsuka Sensei was not only teaching, but training with us. During kata (forms) he would be right there among us. His speech was very gentle, but his spirit was very strong, like a real samurai, so I respected him very much.

As Suzuki sensei spoke he gesticulated only slightly, perhaps, I thought, because of the injury to his left hand which was still healing under a wrapping of bandages. It was a month before his seventy-third birthday and Suzuki sensei—like his teacher before him—was not only training daily, but was on occasion, apparently, over-doing it.

I would train with Ohtsuka everyday. Once, when he was about 60 years old, and I had just graduated university I came to class in very bad weather. I was the only student there. O-Sensei always told me to relax, because my shoulders were too tense. My karate was very powerful, but not relaxed—which he didn’t like—Wado is a mixture of relaxation and sharpness. He would say to me, “Your shoulders are too hard, too stiff. Relax.” I knew it mentally, but physically I just couldn’t do it. So on the day when just the two of us were in the dojo he taught me a basic jodan tsuki (high punch) and I did it again and again, up and down and up and down the floor for two hours. Just that one technique. I began very tense, and punched as hard as I could. But soon I got tired and, naturally, relaxed. After that I understood a little better than before how to relax my shoulders.

We weren’t alone in the apartment. Over a Thai dinner two nights previous, I had asked Suzuki sensei about other martial artists in the area. “Kanetsuka,” he said authoritatively. “I’ve met martial artists from around world, but of them all, Kanetsuka is my favourite, his spirit is very strong…” he repeated himself “…very strong.” He went on to tell me about the throat cancer that Kanetsuka sensei, an eighth dan (degree) aikido practitioner and Britain’s official representative of the Aikikai World Headquarters, had overcome. “If it was me, I don’t think I would have made it,” he said. “Kanetsuka’s spirit impresses me very much.” So, with Suzuki sensei’s help I contacted Kanetsuka sensei and told him about my project. He agreed to meet, but would feel more comfortable with Suzuki sensei present, and so decided to sit in on our interview. As the two families were friends, his wife and young child came also, providing a small audience for the proceedings. Throughout the interview Kanetsuka sensei, seated on the floor, nodded and hummed in agreement with much of what Suzuki sensei said. On several occasions the two held long exchanges in Japanese, usually ending with an apologetic laugh to my direction, as I couldn’t understand them. Happily, Kanetsuka sensei’s wife helped translate.

 When I was a University student, fifth dan was the highest grade. I was third dan already, and thought that was enough. But many other students pushed me to test for fourth. “If you cannot take your fourth dan, we cannot take any dan,” they would say. I said “no, no” but finally I decided to test for fourth dan. I remember that grading at Tokyo University—it’s one of the top schools. When it was finished O-Sensei told me I was a fifth dan not fourth dan. Only two or three other students were fifth dan and they were forty or fifty years old, I was a university student. So I said, “No, this is too much. Please, give me a fourth dan.” But he said, “All the examiners agree you are a fifth dan, so you must accept it.” So I did, but nervously.
O-Sensei was always very good to me. For example, he used to belong to the International Budo Federation. He was the top man for the Karate section. One day he said to me, “I want you to consider receiving  hanshi (master) title from the Federation.” Again I told him, “No, it’s too much for me.” Because at that time nobody—only O-Sensei—nobody in Japan, no Japanese instructors were hanshi. So I said no. But one day he gave me a certificate and silver cup from the president of the Federation. Ohtsuka sensei paid for everything, so I couldn’t refuse.

I looked up to see the certificate that conferred the honourary title of hanshi, signed by Higashi Kuni no Miya, the uncle of the late Emperor of Japan, hanging on the wall over his chair. It stood in stark counterpoint to the rest of his apartment which appeared cluttered and chaotic, like a quickly packed suitcase. But then, Suzuki sensei spent almost more time out of his apartment than in it, travelling to over forty countries a year to teach the members of his federation. “I must do it,” he said, “because I respect O-Sensei.”

  I just wanted to train hard. I don’t even remember when I took first dan or second dan, even third dan. Because I wasn’t interested, I just trained. I never thought about dan grades. Only my fifth dan test I remember because of what happened. So now I tell students, you must train hard. Dan grading is not so important. But Westerners always think about what dan they are. This is wrong. I want to tell them-—I want to show them. I am still training. Somebody asks me, “When will you retire?” When will I retire? When I am dead.

They ask me why I keep training? They think I am good enough—perfect. This is a stupid question. I must do many things. I must continue to practice all the time. Of course I have not practiced enough. Even if I practiced only one punch all my life it would not be enough.

Kanetsuka sensei wheeled towards me “Oh, that’s good,” as though Suzuki sensei had just performed a spectacular kick. “Don’t you think that’s good?” He turned to look back at Suzuki sensei, “Very true,” allowing him to continue.

  People think after twenty, twenty-five, thirty years of age their training is finished. This is not martial arts. Martial arts are a life-long pursuit. People say, “Oh, I’m too old, I can’t train,” but this is wrong. It doesn’t matter if you are forty, fifty because karate is not only physical training. If you train with spirit, you can start at any age. One of my students in England started at fifty-five years old. He died about five years ago at seventy-four or seventy-five. He became fifth dan and taught everyday at five clubs. And just before he died—his wife told me—he stood up and performed kata. He did four or five kata then passed away. His spirit was very strong.
 About ten years ago I went to China to watch Chinese martial artists. Everyday for two weeks, morning and afternoon we would talk and share techniques. They all agreed that fighting is just one side of martial arts training, not all. But nowadays, in many countries karate is only practiced for the fighting. This is wrong. People want just to fight in contests; they’re all about thirty years old. Before thirty years of age a human being has lots of stamina. But after thirty, every year stamina goes down, even with hard training stamina goes down. But if mental training is included with physical training—if there is spirit training—any age can improve. This is important. But it’s not done and it is absolutely wrong. Karate is a martial art, not a sport. This is important. Nowadays people only think of sport karate—I don’t want to be a part of that. What is important is the spirit, not the technique.
 For example, when I was a University student I often went to meditation, Zen meditation with Genpo Yamamoto and Soyen Nakagawa. The training was very hard. At that time I was training karate ten hours a day—everybody said Mr. Suzuki is crazy. And after karate I would go to Zen training. Occasionally there were special courses called seishin that lasted a full week. All day, we would just sit down and meditate. One hour Seisa (meditation), five minutes kein (walk). Then again. From 4:00 in the morning until 12:00—all day. It was very, very hard—harder than karate. I never knew anything could be so hard. This, though, is very useful for martial arts. It’s like the idea of dachi. Dachi means to always remain calm, never say anything. Then even if a great rock comes down from the sky and crushes your body, it cannot crush your spirit. This is called dachi.

Suzuki sensei nodded to himself, keeping his eyes fixed across the apartment somewhere in the middle distance, as he had for most of the interview. I waited a few moments at the end of each of his thoughts before referring to my notes, allowing his ideas full possession of the room. What in other situations might have been described as an awkward silence, here seemed properly respectful. Soon, Suzuki sensei was reminded of a story of the famous swordsman of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the author of The Book of Five Rings, Musashi Miyamoto. He turned towards me.

  One day Musashi Miyamoto met a general and told him he had seen in his ranks a true samurai. The general asked who it was and Miyamoto Sensei described him. So the general called the samurai into the room. Musashi Miyamoto told him, “Your general wants you to commit seppuku (ritual suicide), right now.” His face didn’t change, he just said, “Yes, yes sir” and prepared. Musashi Miyamoto said, “Stop. I must ask you. What special training have you done?” “No special training,” the samurai replied, “but one thing. Every evening when I’m in bed a katana (sword) hangs on a tiny string from the ceiling just above my throat.” In the beginning the samurai couldn’t sleep, because he was afraid. But soon he accepted the katana above him and he slept very well. Musashi Miyamoto nodded and said, “Yes, that’s why you’re never afraid.”
 There is another story about a famous martial artist called Yagyu Sekishusai. He taught that the most important thing in the martial arts was to have a brave heart. For example in kendo, bamboo is used for training. If you are hit nothing happens. But with a real sword, just a touch will cut, so the feeling is different. With a real sword one mistake means you might die. It’s life or death, so there’s real fear.

It was a point Suzuki sensei had also wanted to make clear at his training course. I watched, sympathetically, as he interrupted partners by suddenly rifling his bandaged fist towards one of them. After it invariably landed with a dull thud on the chest of the hapless student he would glare with a look that both admonished and provoked—then would punch again, only harder, and screw his face up some more as though he were impatiently picking a fight. It was intensity he was after. “If you develop a brave heart, dojo training and a real fight have the same feeling. This is very important.”

  When students come to my dojo, we shout or sometimes hit their hips or something like this. So when they come to train, their mannerism is absolutely different—changed. Parents are very surprised by it. If students practice for a long time they are changed, slowly, slowly. This is important. In the beginning, they don’t like the severity. But if they stay a long time they will change slowly. Then many things, walking, personality, will also change. When the spirit is trained and made strong, it affects all of their person. This is good for human life.
 Partners must respect each other. If an opponent hits me I always think, “Oh, he’s warning me. My block is weak or my body movement is too small, so that’s why he hit me. Thank you.” This is important, respect is important. Nowadays people get upset and hit back.

 Part of our dojo kun (maxims) is, Jojitsu Ni Oberezu. It means that instructors and students are not the same. Even if you are friends outside the dojo, inside the dojo is different. There is a manner to keep. You must train seriously. I tell my students “Ichigo Ichi E” This term comes from the Japanese tea ceremony, but is important in the martial arts also. It means that just now you are with your instructor. The instructor may die tomorrow, or the student may have to move on. So always think, this may be the last time you receive instruction. Watch carefully, train hard because this may be the last time, these may be the final instructions.

 It was late in the afternoon now. Suzuki sensei organized a ride for me with Kanetsuka sensei back to the underground station. Sitting in the back seat, watching the streets of London pass by, I thought of the Thai dinner I had with Suzuki sensei and his students. I had noticed his glass of wine was low and leaned across to fill it for him. He smiled, and filling my glass in return said, “You know, I’m glad you came all this way.” I was too, I thought as I reached for my “A-Z”, Kanetsuka’s car pulling to a stop. I was too.


Book Review :  “The Warrior's Path" Trade Paperback, 176 pages
Author : James Sidney
Canadian Publisher: Key Porter 2003 $29.95 ISBN : 1-55263-478-7
USA Publisher: Shambhala 2003  $18.95 ISBN: 1-59030-074-2

Australian-born, JAMES SIDNEY grew up in southern Ontario. He is a professional photographer whose first book of nature photographs, Images of Our Inheritance, was published in 1999. His landscape images have been published widely in national and international publications. For the last four years he has collaborated with, offering outdoor photography workshops throughout Ontario. James has studied karate since the age of eight and is presently a black-belt fourth degree. He currently runs a non-profit dojo, the Milton Tsuruoka Karate school, in Milton, Ontario.

TIN Feb 2004