The Iaido Journal  Oct 2008
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One on One with Såzen Larsen Kusano Sensei
(Sugino branch, Katori Shinto Ryu)
Part Two: About Katori Shinto Ryu, Zen, and Training

copyright © 2008 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

The following article is the second part of an interview with Såzen Larsen Kusano Sensei (5th dan) of the Sugino branch of Katori Shinto Ryu. In this part, Såzen Sensei talks a little about Katori Shinto Ryu, Zen, and teaching and learning. Those interested in learning more about Såzen Sensei can consult his group’s website:

Author’s note: This interview was conducted on August 6, 2008 in Toronto, Canada. Såzen (pronounced “Sozen”) Sensei came over to Canada to conduct a special seminar in Katori Shinto Ryu.

Question: In Katori Shinto Ryu, there is an importance placed on kamae. Why is kamae important?
Sensei: Actually, any point where you are holding a sword can be considered a position (i.e., kamae). Katori Shinto Ryu teaches us to be able and to be ready to move, attack, and defend from any position. Your body needs to be ready. Your mind needs to be ready.

Question: Katori Shinto Ryu involves study in many different types of weapons. Other than the sword, what is your next favourite weapon?
Sensei: Personally, I like the bo* (6 foot wooden staff).

Sozen with Bo

Question: Why is that?
Sensei: It’s such a primitive weapon. Just a long stick with two blunt ends. There are more elaborate weapons with blades on them like the naginata and the spear, which you can cut and stab with. But the bo is so primitive. It’s just a stick… but yet….wow.

(*Såzen Sensei can be seen performing bojutsu on the only official video of Sugino-style Katori Shinto Ryu, filmed when the late Yoshio Sugino Sensei was alive: )


Question: You are a Zen Buddhist priest*. Are there concepts in Zen that you apply, consciously or unconsciously, to swordsmanship?
Sensei: Actually, Zen only means that you are aware. That you are conscious of something. So if you are practicing something and are not aware of it, you’re in trouble! (Laughs)
Unless, of course, you are a master of it, then that is something else entirely.

Moment by moment, you are “present”. That is Zen. So to bring that back to swordsmanship, you must “look”… and “look” again, as O-Sensei said…

(* Såzen Sensei is also a Zen Buddhist priest in Norway. Those interested in learning more about Reverend Såzen and his Order can visit his Order’s website: )

Question: As a teacher, what do you try to teach your students, apart from just technique?
Sensei: Martial arts training is not about winning a war. Training in budo is about communication, in my opinion. Words are exchanged with swords or other weapons. It is an exchange between two people.

You need to respect the other person, their ability. In old budo, because there is no competition, unlike sports, the idea is to help your partner become better. And it goes both ways. You help them improve, they help you improve. The goal is to improve, by respect and by tolerance.

Tolerance is important. Even if you don’t have a chemistry with this person, you shouldn’t say, “I don’t want to practice with this person.” Because training in budo is not a solo thing, we need to appreciate our partners.

Even for teachers, if you want to teach it, you need students, you need partners. So, tolerance and respect are very important in budo in many ways.

Sozen in the snow

Question: As a teacher, what do you believe is most important for students to remember when studying kenjutsu (or budo)?
Sensei: First, thinking is not good.* Do what you’re told. Follow that. Just do it.

(* possibly Sensei means from a Zen perspective. In other words, over-intellectualizing things, over-thinking, instead of “being in the moment”. Those who are familiar with Takuan Soho’s treatise Fudōchi Shinmyō Roku (Divine Record of Immovable Wisdom) will recall his discussion about the attached mind and the mind that tarries.)

Second, persevere. Perseverance is interesting. It is not only about the body but also about the mind. There is a Japanese proverb: “Keizoku wa chikaru nari”. It basically means, ”Only by endless repetition, do you master it.” So don’t be afraid of doing a kata one more time…

Finally, don’t get caught up in thinking, “When do I master it?” Just practice and enjoy it. Eventually you will master it. So the key thing is: Just do it…

Question: Thank you Sensei. Those are great words to remember. Thank you for this interview.
Sensei: My pleasure.

Sozen, Doug, Sugino Yoshio

Douglas Tong began his studies of Katori Shinto Ryu with the late Yoshio Sugino Sensei in Kawasaki in 1990. Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at:

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TIN Oct 2008