The Last Swordsman: The Yoshio Sugino Story, Part 3

Yoshio Sugino was a direct student of Morihei Ueshiba in the early 1930’s and opened an Aikikai-affiliated dojo by 1935. He as also a direct student of Jigoro Kano, founder of judo, and by the 1940’s was teaching kenjutsu, aikido, judo, and naginatajutsu full time. He was also a renowned action choreographer, providing sword instruction for Akira Kurosawa’s film, Seven Samurai. 

This is part 3 of the Yoshio Sugino Story. Part 1 is here and Part 2, here

World War Two and the Post-War Era

From 1937 Sugino had been extremely busy. He held the position of Instructor of Budo at Chiba Teachers’ College and taught Katori Shinto-ryu in various places in Chiba prefecture, as well at Fuji Elementary School in Asakusa. He also taught naginata (short curved sword with a pole handle) at Yokohama Girls’ Vocational and judo at Keio Secondary School. In 1941 he co-authored a work called “Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-Ryudo Hanshi” with another student of Shiina, further establishing his already well-known voice in the Japanese budo world.

December of the same year saw the outbreak of the war in the Pacific. The numbers of uchideshi training at the Sugino dojo began to dwindle as men were sent off to join the fighting. The turbulent tides of the day had begun to encroach even on Sugino’s small dojo.

Like most men his age, Sugino was eligible for military conscription, but despite top-level results on his conscription examination, he was never actually called up for active duty. Instead, he was assigned, at least officially, to be an “auxiliary transport soldier,” a position involving the procurement and transport of weapons, supplies and food to the front. At that time, such auxiliary soldiers received little respect compared to those in the regular army and they were often belittled with expressions like “calling them soldiers is like calling butterflies and dragonflies birds.” (Incidentally, there is a story that when he was young, Morihei Ueshiba was rejected for conscription after failing the eligibility examination and, when offered a position as an auxiliary transport soldier, indignantly refused saying, “You’re asking ME to join as an auxiliary transport soldier?!”) Sugino wistfully attributes his avoidance of active duty to sheer dumb luck: “I passed the eligibility exam with flying colors, but fortunately my number in the lottery just never came up.” Whatever behind-the-scenes reasons there may have been for his exemption will never be known, but in any case he says he is glad to have been able to pass the war years without having to kill a single soul.

The war grew worse as the tides turned against Japan. The windows of Sugino’s home and dojo were plastered inside with blackout paper in hopes of avoiding destruction from the nighttime Allied bombing raids. In the end it mattered little, however, for the city of Kawasaki became a sea of flames as American bombers continued their forays over the island. As the conflagration made its way toward his home and dojo, Sugino rushed outside, clutching to his breast a great bundle of yari (spears) and naginata that he was determined to save. He took his family to the countryside of Fukushima to stay with the family of one of his students, who had invited them to seek shelter there. “The trains were jammed to capacity and beyond with people fleeing the city,” he remembers. “All the way to Fukushima people were frowning and giving us dirty looks whenever I tried to squeeze into a train carriage with that awkward bundle of long weapons.”

Once in Fukushima, Sugino spent most of his time training or caring for the injured and gradually the family settled in. In fact, they even began to find Fukushima rather agreeable and were considering staying there. Then came the end of the war. Sugino was at Anahara hot springs when he heard the emperor’s broadcast announcing Japan’s unconditional surrender. He recalls feeling completely stunned, drained of all will and energy, as if everything he knew had suddenly been annulled. But he knew it would be best to return to Kawasaki and rebuild life there. As it happened, he was just in the process of treating an elderly man who had broken his arm, so he sent his family on ahead of him and stayed a while longer until the treatment was finished. Fortunately a certain individual was able to assist the Sugino family in securing a new place to live and start anew. Still, most of the men in the country had not yet returned from the war and for a while there was no way to even think about resuming training at the Sugino dojo as it had been before.

Time passed, however, and eventually the former soldiers began to be repatriated. Many people—soldiers and civilians alike—had remained with injuries and the Sugino Clinic became busier than ever.

The occupation forces regarded martial arts as a threat and placed an unconditional ban on them. Sugino dutifully surrendered two swords to the authorities (which were never returned, he says), but of course there was no way Sugino was going to “ban” himself from training. He plastered the windows with opaque paper and continued to practice in secret. The faint sound of swords drifting out of his new dojo near Kawasaki station became a harbinger of Sugino’s remarkable activities in the years that would follow.

After the war the Sugino family faced food shortages and other difficulties that made every day a hardship. Inflation sent the value of the yen plummeting to a fraction of what it had been. As the government seemed incapable of devising any effective relief, it fell to individual citizens to find ways to provide for their own families.

Although Sugino still operated his bone-setting clinic, the family could not escape the privations of the day. To make the household more self-sufficient they started a vegetable garden on some family land, but they still had to rely on rice from the black market. Sugino’s children remember those years vividly, in particular the way their father took care of his own father. Every day he would take the old man some white rice and sake, even if it meant going without himself.

Gradually Japan began the formidable task of rebuilding. The ban on practicing martial arts was lifted, allowing Sugino to swing his sword openly once again. He felt as if a new age had dawned, but grieved deeply for former students who died in the war. A new dojo was completed in 1950 and once Sugino had arranged for some of his students to take over the bone-setting clinic so that he could devote himself exclusively to budo. Friends said he had become more rounded (perhaps mellowed by the hardships of the war and postwar years) but his enthusiasm for the martial arts remained unchecked and training was as arduous as ever. New students had to perform hundreds of basic sword cuts by themselves and when their diminutive teacher did step into the dojo, they could look forward to uncompromising instruction. Those who did not meet the master’s exacting standards (and he never missed even the slightest error) would be admonished, “Do it again! No! That’s still wrong! Again!” until they finally made the grade.

Sumie Ishibashi, a distant relative of Sugino’s and one of the few female students in the dojo, recalls how she had to hide in the toilet and cry.

By the early 1950s Sugino was busy teaching at a number of schools in addition to his own dojo. One day a message arrived from the Society for the Promotion of Classical Japanese Martial Arts informing him that film director Akira Kurosawa would be making a new samurai drama and hoped Sugino would instruct the actors. The title of the film was to be the Seven Samurai.

Yoshio Sugino instructs Toshiro Mifune on the set of “Yojimbo” while Director Akira Kurosawa looks on

It was not the first time Sugino had been asked to work for the film industry. In 1937 he had provided instruction in the spear for Ogai Mori’s film, The Abe Family which featured famous kabuki actors. Since then he had also worked on a variety of theatrical productions to provide actors with authentic martial arts techniques. Kurosawa had already made a number of films including Drunken Angel, Rashomon, and To Live that were already regarded as masterpieces. His next project was to be a samurai drama in which the stiff martial arts choreography typically used in such films would be replaced by something closer to the real thing. He had contacted the Ministry of Education for an introduction to a suitable instructor. The Ministry relayed the request to the Society for the Promotion of Classical Japanese Martial Arts who suggested Yoshio Sugino of the Katori Shinto-ryu and Junzo Sasamori of the Ono-ha Itto-ryu.

Sugino and Sasamori met Kurosawa in May 1953, at a gathering held at an upscale restaurant in Shibuya and they were joined by many of the actors who were to play the samurai in the film. One by one they introduced themselves: “Takashi Shimura, at your service… I am Toshiro Mifune…Minoru Chiaki. I am only an actor, so please go easy on me!. . Seiji Miyaguchi… .Yoshio Inaba… Daisuke Kato… Isao Kimura…”

When the introductions were complete, Kurosawa outlined his vision for the film. “The plot is simple,” he said. “The residents of a small farming village hire seven samurai to protect them from marauding bandits. But I hope to make the film enjoyable in new ways, one of which will be to make the martial arts scenes more exciting and realistic. To help us achieve authenticity, I have enlisted the cooperation of these two masters.” With that he turned to Sugino and Sasamori, his face glowing with enthusiasm and anticipation, and they all began an animated discussion of the film and budo in general.

Preparations for the shooting began the very next day. The actors tried on their costumes while the rest of the staff busied themselves with other preparations. Sasamori appeared on the set one day looking glum: “The Ministry of Education has just asked me to go off to teach in Europe. I don’t know how long I will have to be away, but I doubt if I’ll be able to continue working on the film.” However he told Kurosawa, “Even though I have to bow out there’s really nothing to worry about since Sugino Sensei here can teach everything from spear to iai and even aikido. I leave you in good hands.”

When it came time to take commemorative photos of the cast and crew, Sasamori refused to join in since he was no longer part of the production. Sugino and the rest were impressed with his sense of honor and personal integrity. Kurosawa, though undoubtedly disappointed, took Sasamori’s words to heart and did not hire a replacement, leaving Sugino as the sole martial arts instructor on the set of what was to be one of the director’s most important films.

Mifune and Sugino

The filming was fraught with difficulties from the beginning. An unexpectedly long time had been spent finding suitable locations. The horses kept refusing to perform according to their riders’ commands. And poor weather began to throw much of the shooting off schedule. Spirits were low. But Sugino remained patient and bent his undivided attention to instructing the cast, beginning with basic Katori Shinto-ryu sword movements, correct posture and the proper handling of weapons.

Kurosawa asked Sugino to instruct the actors in techniques that were as authentic as possible from a martial arts perspective. Fight choreography in such dramas had previously been influenced by the largely decorative style of the kabuki theater, but in making Seven Samurai, Kurosawa intended to address the question, “What should a sword fight really look like on film?”

He had already begun exploring this question in one of his earlier films, Rashomon, notably in the fierce confrontation between the bandit played by Toshiro Mifune and the traveller played by Masayuki Mori. This scene featured some of the ugliest fighting the genre had ever seen, as Kurosawa sought a new filmic language that included combatants trembling violently with fear and leaping back in terror whenever their swords came even slightly in contact. It was an unusual piece of work for the period but earned high acclaim from critics and audiences around the world as the first realistic-looking sword battle ever to emerge from the Japanese cinema.

Sugino, too, was interested in pursuing authenticity. Assisted by his student Sumie Ishibashi, he demonstrated the sword and iai of Katori Shinto-ryu in a way that gave both Kurosawa and his cast a strong sense of what bujutsu was about. Something that caught Kurosawa’s attention was Sugino’s solid, well-balanced personal deportment, and he ordered the actors to emulate this as best they could including the way he walked, the way he kneeled down and any other aspects of his everyday manner they might notice. Kurosawa saw that there was a significant difference in stability between ordinary people and the samurai of old who spent their days with heavy swords at their waists.

Seven Samurai broke new ground in several respects. Conventionally, specialists (called tateshi) would teach each actor the movements that had been choreographed for their fighting roles. In making Seven Samurai, however, these people were relegated to instructing extras during large-scale battle scenes. Sugino taught the main actors fighting in the foreground. Kurosawa would outline his vision for a scene and Sugino would then suggest choreography to match and demonstrate the key points. Sometimes Kurosawa would agree and say, “Yes, perfect! Let’s go with that.” But other times he would be unconvinced: “It doesn’t have quite the vigor I’m looking for. What if we do it this way instead?” To which Sugino might answer, “No, that won’t work, because no swordsman would ever be foolish enough to suddenly lift his sword that high and leave his belly wide open! To protect himself, you see, he would only move his sword this much.” To which Kurosawa might reply, “Ah, I see what you mean.”

For one important scene Kurosawa wanted a close-up of Mifune in the heat of battle. Sugino proposed a technique in which Mifune would swing his sword to cut at his opponent’s neck, but Kurosawa rejected it because the other actor’s shoulder would end up obscuring Mifune’s face. He then suggested an alternative movement that Sugino rejected because it was not in line with the principles of bujutsu.

And so it went on, the two of them bringing their creativity and skills together to gradually evolve the battle choreography in Seven Samurai, each developing a deeper understanding of the other’s art in the process. Kurosawa was interested in creating battle scenes that were effective from a cinematographic point of view. Sugino wanted the actors to perform techniques in agreement with martial arts principles. These different perspectives often became the source of disagreement, but the two men shared a creative vision and their dedication to authenticity was reflected in the stringent standards to which they held the cast.

This was the first time Sugino had been involved in such a big project and occasionally he found himself at a loss when confronted with the methods of the film industry. He was surprised, for example, at the ease with which the actors seemed to wield their swords until closer inspection revealed they were made of wood covered with silver paper which was standard-issue for prop swords at the time. Sumie Ishibashi remembers the wood-and-paper blades: “The biggest problem was that they were far too light and difficult to use convincingly.”

Designed to prevent actors from injuring one another, these stage swords had a frivolous feel that made it difficult for even the most talented actors to perform up to either Kurosawa’s or Sugino’s standards. When Sugino asked actor Bokuzen Hidari to swing the sword “in a way that actually looks like it would cut,” the frustrated actor sent the entire crew into fits of laughter by blurting out, “C’mon, how do you expect me to cut anything with this crappy sword?” Only actors in principle roles had been outfitted with steel blades.

Although Sugino was adamant about having the actors perform authentic techniques there were times when he accepted that choreography would differ from real fighting. Kurosawa sometimes criticized the techniques Sugino proposed: “That’s not interesting enough,” he might say. “We need something that will take the audience’s breath away, amaze them.” Sugino did his best to accommodate Kurosawa’s vision within an acceptable range and eventually came up with choreography that seemed to fit the bill. He was careful not to hamper the overall effectiveness of the film.

As the filming progressed, Sugino came to appreciate Kurosawa’s great enthusiasm and perfectionism. The director thought little of throwing whatever it took in terms of money and time into the project and demanded the utmost effort from every member of his cast and crew. He might insist a single scene be rehearsed up to 30 times until it was exactly how he wanted it. This produced the interesting effect that the actors, exhausted, disgusted and becoming increasingly apathetic, would hurl themselves into the performance like waves dashing against rocks, at which point Kurosawa would grin and say, “There, that’s more like it!” And so the filming crawled along, with scenes gradually taking shape.

Even when the director was satisfied Sugino would often run onto the set and, in his booming voice, halt the scene: “No, no no! Not like that! Cut! Cut! For goodness sake! No swordsman would ever stand pigeon-toed like that! You have to keep the tension in your legs by flexing your knees outward more.” Then he would physically adjust the unfortunate actor’s posture and demonstrate the proper way. He forced each actor to work hard to earn his approval. So strict was he that actor Daisuke Kato recalls, “It was practically like being in the army again!”

The filming began in May and was scheduled to take approximately three months. But the summer came and went and by autumn less than a third of the required footage had been completed. The staff began to joke that the film should be called Seven-Year Samurai. At one point Kurosawa became ill and had to be hospitalized, sending the production into a flurry of agitation as schedules and reservations had to be adjusted. There was some doubt that the film would ever be completed. Costs had already soared far beyond the JPY 70 million originally budgeted.

Sugino remained patient, spending some of his time on location getting acquainted with the film crew and often sharing accommodations with them. While he conducted most of his instruction on location, it was not uncommon for actors to visit his dojo. On one occasion he was visited by Seiji Miyaguchi, who had initially refused his part in the film on the grounds that he did not feel up to playing the role of a strong, stalwart samurai. But Kurosawa talked him into it, telling him there was no need to worry since skillful camerawork could be relied upon to strengthen his image.

Miyaguchi came to Sugino to ask for instruction for the scene in which his character Kyuzo—one of the most famous in Seven Samurai—makes his first appearance. In this scene Kyuzo is forced into a duel with a swaggering local tough and in the end cuts him down. Miyaguchi had to convince the audience of Kyuzo’s utter mastery of the sword and his virtue as a samurai. The specific technique that Kyuzo employs uses a stance called wakigamae and it was this that Miyaguchi entreated Sugino to teach him.

“I’ve never done kendo or anything like it in my life,” he said. “I have no idea what to do!”

“Don’t worry about that,” Sugino replied. “It’s actually better that you have no experience. Actors who do are that much more difficult to teach because of their bad habits. Just let me see what you can do.”

Miyaguchi took a stance and asked hesitantly, “Maybe like this?”

“Yes, that’s not bad at all,” Sugino encouraged. “Try letting the blade drop just a bit more… yes, yes, just like that! The blade has to be completely hidden from the opponent in front of you so he can’t easily judge its length, which makes it much more frightening. Like this… see what I mean?”

Miyaguchi listened carefully to Sugino’s instructions and was soon managing beautifully despite his utter lack of experience. He spent two days practicing what he had learned and with a little extra coaching during the actual filming the scene became one of the most outstanding in Seven Samurai and in the history of the genre.

Sugino taught with great enthusiasm, avidly giving detailed instruction on the use of the hands, proper footwork and correct posture, always determined to have his actor-cum-samurai students understand budo more deeply. Occasionally actors and crew working on other stages would be drawn by Sugino’s booming voice. They found the presence of an individual like Sugino—who seemed the very embodiment of an old-style warrior—curious enough in itself. But when he began to lecture on the various principles and theories of swordsmanship, they couldn’t help but be deeply impressed. Many of these onlookers were undoubtedly actors interested in picking up a few tips to use in their own future roles. But there were also many who simply seemed to be fascinated by Sugino’s sharp kiai, subtle body movements and dauntless facial expressions.

The filming passed into the new year. Some began to whisper contemptuously that the title might have to be changed to Seven Old Men. But Kurosawa continued, ever the perfectionist, taking as long as he felt was necessary to get things right. Sugino also helped instruct the villager “army” in the use of bamboo spears. “Sink your hips and make the spear and your body become one,” he would say, picking up a spear himself to demonstrate. “When you thrust, thrust straight forward like this.” Thanks to Sugino’s enthusiastic instruction, the climactic scenes in which the villagers join the seven samurai to battle the marauding bandits were transformed into sharply executed, realistic battles.

The last bits of filming for Seven Samurai were finally wrapped up in March, 1954. It had taken an amount of time unprecedented in the Japanese film industry. The exhausted actors, the harried film crew and other staff including Sugino all sat back in relief. When it was released about a month later the film became an instant hit and quickly earned enough to more than cover the two billion yen production costs, a staggering amount by the standards of the day and enough to have made seven ordinary films.

Sugino was simply satisfied that the film had succeeded in portraying authentic Japanese martial arts. Sugino’s involvement in the production of Seven Samurai helped deepen his ties with the film industry and he continued to instruct actors. He worked with Kurosawa again, on Hidded Fortress and Yojimbo, in both of which films Mifune played the lead. This was the actor Sugino said was the most talented he had ever trained. Toshiro Mifune was the actor with whom Sugino enjoyed the deepest contact. “He was physically powerful,” says Sugino. “He kept his hips low and firmly rooted and had a true stability about him.” And Sumie Ishibashi recalls, “The instant Mifune picked up a sword, his hips would sink right down into a deep solidity quite marvelous to behold.”

Mifune was an actor among actors. He always researched his roles enthusiastically, voraciously taking in information and asking the same questions again and again until he felt he understood what he needed to know to lend his martial arts performances as much authenticity as possible. Sugino could not help but put every ounce of energy into teaching such an enthusiastic pupil. He challenged Mifune (who has been said to have moved so fast that much of the technique would get lost between the frames of film) to try moves that other actors would have found impossible. “This is a difficult one, Mifune, but I’m sure you can handle it,” he would say. And sure enough, Mifune would. Even if he couldn’t do it the first time, he would keep trying until he could. To such an individual, Sugino was delighted to offer greater and greater challenges and Mifune held nothing back to meet them.

In one startling early scene in Yojimbo, for example, Mifune’s samurai character provokes three local rogues into drawing their weapons, whereupon he explodes into action and cuts all three down, using movements so swift that the eye can barely follow. The technique Mifune used in this scene (called gyakunuki no tachi) is a particularly difficult one in which the blade is drawn with the right hand using a reverse grip, brought over the head, reversed and brought down again in another cutting motion. But Mifune carried it off with such explosive precision that even Sugino could not help but be impressed.

While the characters Mifune portrays on the screen are often haughty, overbearing and arrogant, Sugino says the real Mifune was an attentive, sensitive individual who was modest and considerate. When he and Sugino shared accommodations he always went to great lengths to offer his teacher every kindness. This included making his bed, doing his dishes and even washing his back in the bath. His attitude was always one of deep appreciation for being taught “something new, something good that I do not inherently possess, that I must work hard to learn.”

When poor weather cancelled the filming Mifune often practiced with Sugino at their inn. “Throughout the filming,” recalls Shigeo Sugino, “Mifune questioned my father endlessly: ‘Sensei, is this stance okay? Sensei, is this the way I should use the sword in this situation?’”

Once Shigeo caught a glimpse of Mifune arguing with a chambermaid who was attempting to set out fellow actor Shimura’s bedding. Mifune was insisting that he would do it. Despite their relative positions in the cast hierarchy (Mifune as lead and Shimura in a supporting role) Mifune still deferred to Shimura as his senior in the film industry and treated him with the utmost respect. While some actors are temperamental, Mifune was consistently a gentleman and a pleasure to work with. Perhaps it was because of such personal qualities that Sugino said Mifune would make a first-rate martial artist if he were to pursue that instead of acting. Shigeo Sugino says “Mifune stole Katori Shinto-ryu and made it his own,” which is probably why the samurai dramas Mifune made later, after he had established his own production company, all featured swordwork with a distinctly Katori Shinto-ryu flavor. Sugino and Mifune kept in contact even after they no longer worked together on films. One day Mifune dropped in unexpectedly at Sugino’s Kawasaki dojo, surprising a number of foreign students who were excited to find the famous actor appearing suddenly in their midst.

Sugino continued teaching martial arts for various film and television productions including Hiroshi Inagaki’s Miyamoto Musashi and NHK’s epic drama Ryoma ga Yuku. He complains that most of the swordsmanship in samurai dramas today is far too showy. “I wish they’d stop trying to show off with flashy techniques and handle their swords in a way that might actually cut,” he says.

The fact that Sugino taught martial arts in the film industry did much to boost enrollment at his dojo. His student and assistant Sumie Ishibashi, then in her early 20s and with the looks of an actress, was featured in several popular magazines, contributing to a jump in the number of women enrolling. Most, however, found it difficult to stick with the strict and (to them) monotonous training and eventually dropped out.

Although Sugino pursued his training as usual, day in and day out, he was becoming recognized as a martial artist of some distinction and as a straightforward, scrupulously trustworthy individual. His sincerity earned him such a reputation that he was often called upon to mediate in disputes. He also found time to pursue civic duties as chairman of the local town council, vice-chairman of a Meiji Shrine worshipper’s group, leader of a religious association at Yasukuni Shrine and board member of the PTA of the school his daughter Hiroko attended.

But there were also those who sought to take advantage of his good nature and he occasionally placed his trust unthinkingly in those undeserving of it, or provided recommendations for individuals with questionable motives. Once a smooth-talking salesman persuaded him to purchase a very expensive and completely unnecessary vacuum cleaner, much to the disgust of the rest of the family.

But even when he realized he had been deceived Sugino tended not to bear grudges. Instead, he chided himself for having been so naive and resolved to be more careful next time. Then, as if to help renew his spirit and forget about whatever it was, he would go into the dojo and train furiously. No matter what happened Sugino always returned to his training.

While he was leading this unassuming life, he little realized that in the world at large his contributions to Seven Samurai had begun to make him internationally famous.

During his 70 years in the martial arts, Yoshio Sugino has met many of the most illustrious martial artists of this century, including Jigoro Kano, Morihei Ueshiba, Zenya Kunii, Takuma Hisa, Hakudo Nakayama and Gozo Shioda.

One of the most interesting, however, Tesshinsai Yasuji Kuroda. Born in 1897 in Toyama Prefecture, this unparalleled martial artist was seven years Sugino’s senior. By age 15 he had already received mokuroku in jujutsu and kenjutsu. At 18 he received menkyo in bujutsu, sakkatsu jutsu and jujutsu, and at 20 he established the Shimbukan Kuroda Dojo in the town of Omiya.

Kuroda’s devotion to the martial arts was exhaustive, particularly his contirubtion to their postwar restoration, following the comprehensive ban on their practice by the occupying Allied Forces on the grounds they contributed to Japanese aggression. Kuroda ignored the ban outright and continued running his dojo right in front of Omiya station. As a result, he was often harassed by the occupying authorities, and soldiers sometimes even walked straight onto the dojo floor with their shoes on.

Although the Daito-ryu aikijujutsu Nihon Butokukai dissolved in 1946, Kuroda began a new organization in Omiya, called the Sword Friendship Society and, as its chairman, worked to reinstate budo. He went to the occupation authorities in Saitama to negotiate a lifting of the ban, and even to the General Headquarters in Tokyo to bring his cause to the attention of General MacArthur himself. As a result of his earnest labors, kendo was eventually recognized as “a health-promoting sport” and re-allowed.

Fortunately, Kuroda was not alone, and his efforts, combined with those of others like Atsutaro Kimura (later the first director-general of the Japanese Defense Agency) and Junzo Sasamori (already active as a politician) led to the gradual dissolution of the ban, starting in Saitama. Sugino visited Kuroda for the first time at his dojo in Omiya towards the end of the the war with a number of other martial artists from the Society for the Promotion of Classical Japanese Martial Arts.

He found Kuroda a powerful and dignified martial artist. Larger than most Japanese of his generation, his solid, well-balanced physique was such that when he drew his sword it seemed “as if he would be able to cut through rocks.” His hands in particular were quite large, and he had muscular, well-defined forearms that seemed to flex almost with a life of their own. Sugino was also impressed by the breadth of Kuroda’s technical knowledge. Although the Katori shinto-ryu that he himself practiced had its own rich curriculum of sword, iai, spear, naginata, short-sword, staff and grappling, Kuroda had mastered a number of completely different styles including Komagawakaishin-ryu kenjutsu, Min’ya-ryu iaijutsu, Shishintakuma-ryu jujutsu, and Tsubakikotengu-ryu bojutsu, giving him an easy command of nearly any weapon, not to mention a diverse arsenal of jujutsu techniques. Sugino knew from personal experience the difficulty of mastering even one tradition, let alone several, and admired Kuroda greatly for his accomplisments.

When the confusion of the early postwar period had cleared, the two men would meet at annual demonstrations at the Butokuden in Kyoto and gradually they became friends. It was at the Butokuden one year that Kuroda introduced his grandson. Then in his early 20s, Tetsuzan Kuroda was a tall, thin young man, with sharp eyes. Around 1970, he had been written up in newspaper articles with headlines like “Twenty-year old college student becomes 8th-dan kobudo instructor.” Sugino saw in him both a fresh-faced youth and a budding swordsman. The days and months he had spent assiduously training were clear to one of Sugino’s experience, and it was also plain to him the degree to which the elder Kuroda pinned his hopes and expectations on this cherished grandson.

Tetsuzan, for his part, recalls that his first impression of Sugino was of “a good-natured, likable old man.” With his small body and sloped shoulders, Sugino nodded a soft, almost feminine greeting. His long beard was already beginning to show strands of gray, and all traces of the stern demeanor he had maintained in his younger days had faded away, leaving his gace gentle and his eyes filled with pure, mild light. The elder Kuroda introduced him and said with a laugh, “Mr. Sugino here is something of a special attraction at these Buokuden demonstrations.” Indeed, taking the unique Katori shinto-ryu stance and giving sharp shouts of “IYAAA” and “TOWWW” as he executed deft movements, Sugino invariably brought the venue to a boil with his talented demonstrations.

At that time, the young Tetsuzan had not yet developed his trademark “Disappearing movements,” and performed within a more standard repertoire of technique. But Sugino’s trained eye could discern his potential. He said to Kuroda, “He is quite talented for his age; he will be quite good once he settles into himself a bit.” Even after his grandfather’s death, Tetsuzan continued to visit and demonstrate at the Sugino dojo on special occasions, most recently at the dojo’s 60th anniversary, at which he and several of his students performed a beautiful set of iai forms.

Many of the other great martial artists Sugino had contact with are, unfortunately, no longer with us. Still-active individuals include Minoru Mochizuki and Seirin Tsumaki. Mochizuki played a significant role in helping Sugino’s name become well-known abroad, particularly in France where Sugino made his first visit in 1983, on a demonstration and seminar tour which included Holland and Belgium. He was accompanied by his student of nearly 40 years, Yoshi Torigai, and Minoru Mochizuki.

Sugino’s friendship with Mochizuki, a truly rare breed of budo man, stretches back over more than half a century. While Sugino is slightly older than Mochizuki and his senior in judo at the Kodokan, Mochizuki is the senior in Katori shinto-ryu and aikido. During the European tour Mochizuki suggested that he would handle the aikido portions of the seminars if Sugino would handle the Katori shinto-ryu. The seminar participants, most of whom were Mochizuki’s foreign students, approached the training very seriously and enthusiastically.

In Holland the party was introduced to Olympic judo champion Anton Geesink, and they received every courtesy throughout their travels. During the seminars, Mochizuki would introduce Sugino by explaining, “Since the sword is the basis of aikido, I have brought along a master sword teacher.” When the information spread that this was the martial artist which had choreographed the fighting in Seven Samurai, polite appreciation changed to genuine respect and enthusiasm soared. Sugino went to France again in 1984. Although unaccompanied by Mochizuki, the trip was arranged by Alain Floquet, one of Mochizuki’s students.

A martial arts teacher to the French police, Floquet had studied under Mochizuki for nearly 20 years. In addition to judo and kendo, he was a 7th dan aikidoka. He says, “Mochizuki Sensei is my Japanese father! In fact, my love for Japanese budo is so strong that I think some of my ancestors must have been Japanese!” In 1983, Floquet arrived at the Kawasaki dojo with 15 of his students, requesting instruction in Katori shinto-ryu. Sugino graciously accepted their request, and the group stayed for a week. Floquet then invited Sugino to France, and the following year Sugino taught there for three weeks, to a group consisting mainly of Floquet’s or Mochizuki’s students.

Floquet taught aikido in the mornings, and Sugino taught Katori shinto-ryu in the afternoons. The venue was a well-equipped gymnasium some distance outside Paris. There were 75 participants of different skill levels at the first week of the seminar, 110 for the second, and 100 for the third Sugino’s student and assistant, Eri Miyauchi, kept things running smoothly, with her keen attention and conscientiousness. She worked with the beginners, teaching them basics like makiuchi, while Sugino taught the more advanced students. While the training focused primarily on kenjutsu, Sugino also taught iai, naginata, and other weapons.

He spent a good deal of time working personally with as many people as possible, even acting as uke for many of the beginners. The participants were delighted to receive such personal attention. With each passing week there would be slight changes in the lineup of participants as people were obliged to return to their everyday affairs. But many had such a meaningful and interesting experience that they left only with great reluctance, being photographed with Sugino and asking for his autograph. Sugino’s weariness from the days of hard training evaporated as each departing participant expressed his or her deep appreciation.

Sundays Sugino spent touring the region with some of the students, including visits to old castles and limestone caves, and a lively festival in Paris. Age in no way dimmed Sugino’s intense curiosity as he took in everything with extreme interest. With Floquet and his students, he also enjoyed the local wines and cuisine. The seminar concluded with examinations and rankings, with Sugino personally handing out the certificates. Sugino admired the enthusiasm of the French for budo, and wondered whether so many people would gather for such a Katori shinto-ryu seminar in Japan.

Minoru Mochizuki first planted the seeds of Katori shinto-ryu in France when he introduced the tradition along with judo and aikido 30 years earlier, and even now Sugino is the first to suggest that the spread of Katori shinto-ryu in France is largely due to Mochizuki’s influence. The Katori shinto-ryu seminar in France was so well received that Sugino would go there accompanied by his students on several more occasions.

In addition to demonstrations and seminars, he was frequently asked to demonstrate for magazines and television. During interviews he was asked questions like, “What is the secret of long life?” and “What is the difference between sport and budo?” In addition to seminars for general students, Sugino made several trips to police dojos to observe the training to which Katori shinto-ryu had been added through Floquet’s efforts. Sugino gradually began to become better known abroad particularly in Europe, than he was in Japan. In April 1985, a branch of the Sugino dojo was established in France, with Floquet acting as branch director. In June that year, a seminar was held in Los Angeles and a video of this sold well in Europe. A third seminar in France was held in July 1986, with participants from all over Europe, and between 1987 and 1992 Sugino taught at seminars in France, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada. These activities abroad stimulated enough interest in Katori shinto-ryu that increasing numbers of foreign students began to appear at the Kawasaki dojo, instilling it with a cosmopolitan atmosphere.

These foreign students all proved enthusiastic beyond expectation as they overcame the language barrier and labored diligently at the training.

In 1996, Sugino suffered a mild stroke, but fortunately, his innate physical toughness and strong will-power allowed him to recover and return once again to the dojo. Not long after his stroke there was a meeting of the board of directors of the International Budo Federation of which Sugino was chairman. He was determined to attend and left his home for the first time since his illness, supporting himself with a cane and accompanied by his student Kazumasa Iwata, a University of Tokyo professor.

He hadn’t walked more than a few minutes before he heard his name being called from one of the neighborhood shops: “Hey there, Sugino Sensei… How are you doing these days? I heard you haven’t been feeling so well.” To which Sugino replied: “Thank you, but it was nothing, really; I’m feeling much better now and as you can see I’m getting around just fine again.” The scene was repeated, every two or three minutes: “Ah, Sugino Sensei, you’re looking much better these days,” and “Sensei, I’m happy to see you looking so well!” and so on down the block. Walking with the aid of his cane, there remained a slight unsteadiness in his gait, but his posture was straight as a rod, as always, and his eyes focused and unwavering as he turned to smile a greeting at each well-wisher in turn and stopped to talk with one or another of the local shopkeepers.

Sugino has always been popular in the city of Kawasaki, even beyond his activities in the dojo, and until just recently he chaired his local town block association. Even now he rarely misses a training session, and may usually be found sitting on a chair in the corner of the dojo, carefully watching everything that goes on. These days he does not seem inclined to scold his students sternly in the booming voice he once used. Instead, he simply sits quietly and watches, occasionally calling individuals to his side to offer corrections and advice, teaching both beginners and more advanced practitioners with equal sincerity. While instructing one student, he continues to observe and call out pointers to the others. In his younger days, this ability to perceive the movements of any number of people all at once earned him the nickname “Prince Shotoku.” (a famous statesman of the Asuka period noted for his great wisdom and discernment).

Sugino has always been the kind of teacher who returns enthusiastic effort with enthusiastic teaching. During our meeting the telephone rings. Sugino answers. “Yes, this is he. Yes, yes, I see. How old did you say? Ah, well, in that case I think we’d better wait about five years… Yes, I really think that would be best. Yes, thank you for calling. Goodbye.” turing with a grin he says: “That was a parent wanting to enroll her five-year-old in the aikido class. I had to tell her that I thought five was a little too young.” Pointing into the dojo at a young girl practicing there he says, “She’d end up like that.”

The girl falters her way through the movements of Katori shinto-ryu using the characteristic almost-straight wooden sword. Perhaps because of the sword’s weight, or perhaps because she just isn’t motivated, even her makiuchi strikes are dull and lifeless. Sugino calls her over: “When you’re practicing, you have to try your very best,” he urges. “When Yoshinkan swing the sword, see if you can get the tip— this part right here—to stop nice and crisply, okay?” She seems to understand, more or less, what is expected, and returns to the dojo floor. Encouraged, her makiuchi strikes are a little better and don’t waver so much. Sugino tells her that’s more like it, she’s doing it very well.

The years have indeed made him something of a grandfatherly type, with not a trace of the fearsome severity and demeanor of his earlier days.

The official name of the Sugino dojo is Yuishinkan. Like many such local dojos its presence is so subdued that you might even miss it if you passed by without paying attention.

Among Sugino’s four sons, one runs the bone-setting clinic, while another continues to practice. It is, for Sugino, a rather comfortable retirement, although if a call from an injured individual does come he is known to pick up his kit and set out to make the occasional house call. He defends himself saying, “When my son is busy and someone is in need, then I have no choice but to go.” But these words belie the deeper truth that it simply is not his nature to enjoy sitting around doing nothing, comfortable though it may be.

In 1966, Sugino was awarded the title kobudo hanshi by the Dai Nippon Butokukai, and in 1982 the rank kobudo judan by the Kokusai Budoin. As chairman of the Budo Kokusai Renmei, he is also the linchpin responsible for holding together an extremely diverse group of budo practitioners of all types and propensities. He receives many invitations to participate in various budo demonstrations around Japan, and participate he does, wherever he pleases, shrugging off those around him who urge him anxiously to “take it easy.”

Once while hospitalized with pulmonary tuberculosis, he tossed the medicine he was given into the wastebasket and went up to roof to practice makiuchi in secret, breaking a good sweat, and eventually forcing the infection from his body. Amazed at his continuing health, people have begun to wonder if he doesn’t actually have a bit of the superhuman in him. “My work,” says Sugino, “is to pass on Katori shinto-ryu, as I learned it rom my teacher, to the next generation.” Despite this heavy responsibility, he seems to have remained satisfied with what is really an exceedingly plain lot in life. Indeed, it strikes one as odd that the martial artist who choreographed Seven Samurai is satsified simply to continue running a small local dojo.

Some of those around him have even been known to say “If only he was a little better at improving his station in life.” Indeed, had he chosen at any time to appeal to the mass media, he certainly could have carved a nice niche for himself and become quite famous. It goes without saying, of course, that such self-promotion simply does not appeal to a martial artist like Sugino. Pinned artlessly in a corner of the dojo one notices a bunch of clippings from Japanese and foreign newspapers and magazines that have featured Sugino over the years, and it might be only by reading these that new students realize the greatness of the teacher under whom they have signed on.

Some in the budo world have suggested that Sugino go into politics, but he has always simply laughed and firmly declined such notions. While some have seen him as a potentially powerful intermediary between the worlds of budo and politics, the man himself has always known that such work simply is not his true calling. These days Sugino completely lacks strain or bluster. He lives with no particular attachments, spending each day like flowing water, simply attending to training, writing letters, and so on, more or less above it all.  

The fierce gleam that once characterized his gaze has given way to a gentle, affectionate light as he watches over his young charges in the dojo. People have taken to describing him as “free of worldly desires and cares,” neither flattering others nor being swayed by their evaluations. At the age of 93, he is comfortable with himself to the point that his every movement and gesture is picture-perfect. His sword is filled with a graceful, elegant energy, his smile with an irresistible attraction.

He used to advise nervous students before a demonstration: “Demonstrate not before your fellow men, but rather as an offering to the gods.” His own demonstrations today are just this, replete with a spirit of dedication and offering, and far removed from worldly affairs.

As the Sugino dojo draws near its 70th anniversary, the work of “the last swordsman” shows no sign of ending.

[Editor’s postscript: Yoshio Sugino Sensei died on June 13, 1998 at the age of 94 shortly after the publication of this series of articles]

See Yoshio Sugino Sensei’s performance at the 2nd Aikido Friendship Demonstration on Aikido Journal TV

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  • A wonderful series of articles. I am so glad to have learned more behind the work of Seven Samurai and the relationship between Sugino Sensei & Toshiro Mifune. Does anyone happen to know what was behind the choreography for the film Ame Agaru (After the Rain)? It was a film that Kurosawa was working on before he passed away. The sword choreography in it is very Aikido-like. Would love to know where it comes from. Thank you.