Sugasawa Sensei – a short biography

Sugasawa Fumio Sensei. © Copyright F. Sugasawa

Profile of F. Sugasawa Sensei.

Introduction and background.

Wado Ryu Karate has only been in existence as a discreet entity since 1938 when Ohtsuka Sensei registered it as a style with the Butokukai. Through the work of the late Grandmaster and his students it was only a matter of thirty years or so that Wado Ryu was able to stand on its own two feet and become sufficiently established and confident enough to risk transplantation across the globe.

Here in the UK in the 1960s a generation of pioneers started to arrive on these shores fresh from the Japanese Universities and were greeted by an eager audience. It took a while for this intrepid team of missionaries to coalesce and they came to their calling through different routes; some only stayed for a short time others decided to completely uproot and remain in the UK for many years without a thought of returning permanently to their homeland.

I am convinced that with the passage of time each member of this initial team will become icons in their own right, and more so with those who chose to stay in the UK. Their influence will reverberate through subsequent generations and the veneration of their ideas and initiatives is assured.

One such member of this group of trailblazers is Sugasawa Fumio Sensei.

Since his arrival in the late 1970’s he has been uniquely positioned to gain invaluable insight in to the various shades and approaches to Wado since its inception into the UK; although his main direction has always been to follow as closely as possible the strict teachings of the Grandmaster of Wado Ryu Karate-Do, Ohtsuka Hironori and to build upon this rich legacy.

In all his years as a UK resident and a key member of the Wado elite Sugasawa Sensei has always shied away from the limelight and out of modesty has generally refused interviews. (To my knowledge he has only agreed to three interviews, two in the UK back in the 1980s and a 2010 interview for the Dutch KBN). Sugasawa Sensei prefers to just concentrate on spreading the word through his teaching.

What follows issues from a recent series of conversations with Sugasawa Sensei as well as my knowledge and experience of working under him since the early 1980s. In this brief article I have concentrated on the early years which have obviously supplied the foundations for what we see today in terms of Sugasawa Sensei’s maturity of approach to Wado karate.

The beginnings.

Sugasawa Sensei was the youngest child in a family of seven children; he was brought up and educated in Sawara City Chiba Prefecture sixty miles east of Tokyo. Sawara City is steeped in history and is the location of the Katori Jingu, one of the most important shrines in Japan with a significant association to Japanese Budo and said to date back to the 7th century BCE.

Sensei describes his upbringing as idyllic and rural, not something you would associate with the Sawara City urban district you see today. The rivers, canal ways, forested hillsides and paddy fields of his youth provided a backdrop for an intensely outdoors lifestyle. This was post-war rural Japan and the Sugasawa family prided itself on home-grown produce and a make-do independence. As an example of this they had paddy fields out the back of their house and as children they were sent out to catch locusts; these were a delicacy and if prepared and cooked properly they were delicious.

As children, everything revolved around being outside, whether it was exploring the locality or engaging in endless games of baseball and other outdoor pursuits, the only time they came indoors was to do homework, eat and sleep, anything else was seen as abnormal, as these were the days of no home entertainment or television.

Sugasawa Sensei’s father was a fairly well-to-do sawmill owner, a self-made man who forested the hillsides and undulating green woodlands. In those days timber was moved along the trackways by cart and dray-horses and Sugasawa Sensei has fond memories of these horses which played such large part in his father’s business.

The physicality of this upbringing obviously had its benefits; the young Sugasawa often took part in Sumo tournaments organised at the local Shrines, and at the age of eleven or twelve became sufficiently skilled to secure his reputation by winning these contests even against boys he knew to be one or two years older than him. He remembers delighting his mother by proudly returning home with the first prize trophy which happened to be a 1.8 litre bottle of finest soy sauce! Certainly, a high-status item in those days.

Sumo was not the only exposure the young Sugasawa had to the indigenous fighting systems; other martial arts in the form of Judo and Kendo were taught as an important part of the school curriculum. Also there had been a growth in public awareness of Karate and Sensei’s second eldest brother had joined a local karate Dojo and, in his enthusiasm, had erected a homemade striking post (Makiwara) in the family garden. Even though at that time the young Sugasawa Sensei was engrossed by his passion for baseball he couldn’t resist the urge to try his fists and feet on his brother’s precious striking post. It is entirely possible that this early exposure coupled with the robustness of his upbringing may well have planted the seeds of what was to come.

Throughout his early teens and young adult life Sugasawa Sensei harboured dreams of becoming a baseball professional and had specifically honed his skills towards being a shortstop. In baseball, the shortstop is an infielder who is positioned between second and third base, he is critical to solid defence, he has to be fast, agile, have good range in both directions and have a terrific throwing arm. This position is also the hot spot for the action. In Japan training for the shortstop could be extreme. One example was a practice where the shortstop had to face up to a dozen team mates arrayed in a fan formation, evenly spaced about ten yards away from a lone shortstop positioned at the apex of the fan. The team mates took it in turns to pitch rapid-fire high-speed balls directly at the shortstop whose responsibility was to catch and return each ball with barely enough time to react to the next ball flying at him. This was indeed a high-pressure practice where a moment’s lapse could result in injury, and one that was dreaded by the shortstop. Sugasawa Sensei experienced these tough and demanding lessons and worked hard to make some kind of impact through his baseball training, but it was not to be. Despite all the hard work by his own admission he had to come to terms with the fact that he did not really have what was required to really make it as a professional sportsman in that particular field.

Sugasawa Sensei with his baseball team (kneeling extreme front right). © Copyright F. Sugasawa
Sugasawa Sensei in action. © Copyright F. Sugasawa

But in 1969 Sugasawa Sensei’s life took a different turn when he left Sawara City to begin life as an undergraduate at Meiji University Tokyo to study Commerce.

Meiji University.

Meiji University Tokyo (Meiji Daigaku) is one of the largest and most prestigious in Japan and currently has around 33,000 students. It boasts an impressive list of alumni including many significant politicians and heads of corporations.

As in most universities new students were encouraged to join the university sports clubs, it was here that Sugasawa Sensei was recruited to join the karate club. There was no hesitation and he eagerly lined up with a large group of new entrants. Little were they to know that out of around fifty freshmen only three would see the whole course through, and of the survivors, apart from Sugasawa Sensei, only one other is still actively training. The weak ones were winnowed away quite quickly, but Sugasawa Sensei thrived in this hothouse environment resulting in him being captain in his fourth and final year, something he is still incredibly proud of.

Sugasawa Sensei has always had a fine singing voice. Here he is, probably singing the Meiji University song. © Copyright F. Sugasawa

The prestige of the karate club depended upon its success in the Inter University championships; ninety percent of training was geared towards this end. Training was hardcore involving endless drilling in the fighting techniques of the day. Sugasawa Sensei says that these techniques were very limited in scope, they did what they did to score the points needed in the competition arena. The fight preparation was tough and the fighting was equally spirited and demanding.

University fight training. © Copyright F. Sugasawa

The juniors (Kohai) looked up to their seniors (Sempai), there was a certain level of obligation and responsibility between these two groups; this was a two-way street; respect was shown to the seniors and the juniors felt the benign but firm hand of the seniors. The captain in Sugasawa Sensei’s first year was Harada Kazuo. Sugasawa Sensei developed a great respect for Harada Sensei in this first year; he still maintains regular contact with him and holds him in great esteem.

University. Sugasawa Sensei 5th from the right. © Copyright F. Sugasawa

The regimented discipline was relentless but it could be said that it allowed space for some individuality; however, this was not always a positive thing. One senior student became the bane of everyone’s life; this was particularly the case with the Kohai; everyone dreaded fighting with him, he had shin kicks (sunegeri) and groin kicks which were unstoppable, he seemed to have a one-man mission to pull these techniques on everyone. Sugasawa Sensei harbours unhappy memories of this particular individual. His worst encounter occurred on one of the annual summer camps. During free fighting Sugasawa Sensei found himself on the receiving end of a deliberate and particularly nasty groin kick delivered by this same senior, he was instantly felled by this savage blow; as he lay there completely incapacitated his opponent was apparently not content with one devastating hit, he kept up his onslaught and delivered a further series of brutal kicks to Sugasawa Sensei’s body. This single experience taught Sugasawa Sensei a series of harsh lessons; even today he will be quick to reprimand a student who neglects to defend himself below the waist.

Kihon Gumite, university training. © Copyright F. Sugasawa

Ohtsuka Sensei at Meiji Daigaku.

At Meiji they were very fortunate; the son of founder Ohtsuka Hironori Sensei came once a month, often with his father, this was unprecedented, something that other university karate clubs could only dream of, some of the other university clubs were lucky to see him once a year. Sugasawa Sensei believes that the Meiji university students did not really appreciate how lucky they were to have Ohtsuka Sensei on tap; from their perspective they were unaware of Ohtsuka Sensei’s wider reputation and certainly had no knowledge of how he was regarded on the world stage.

Most of what Ohtsuka Sensei taught was not necessarily associated with their competition agenda. In the teaching of kata he was specifically detailed, but the students saw the training of kata and kihon gumite as a rest from the usual beastings of fight training. Kihon Gumite was given some focus because it was particularly important in the gradings the students needed to take to advance up the ranks, but again gradings played second fiddle to the demands of competition fighting.

Sugasawa Sensei seated far R. Otsuka Hironori II 2nd grandmaster of Wado Ryu, seated, far L. © Copyright F. Sugasawa

However, Ohtsuka Sensei’s teaching agenda did at times stray into the competition territory. He introduced ideas to the students which were directly applicable to the competition scenario. He encouraged the use of Uraken/Urauchi and showed the students how to mix this with a range of taisabaki strategies, many of which had never been seen in the all-styles university championships. This didn’t always work to their advantage as the referees from the other styles were not attuned to seeing these techniques, never mind scoring them. The competition scoring techniques of those days were not the same as they are today; for example both Maegeri and Mawashigeri had to be scored with the ball of the foot – a Mawashigeri scoring with the instep, as we do today, was simply a no-score, whatever its impact.

University training in keri waza. © Copyright F. Sugasawa

The termination of four years of hard training and a university degree at the end of it must have seemed like an abrupt end for Sugasawa Sensei. The responsibilities of the world of work beckoned and decisions had to be made. With a degree in commerce and an opening in sales Sugasawa Sensei found himself entering into another world, and for him this was a world of uncertainty and a time for questioning and wondering where his future lay.

But what about Sugasawa Sensei’s contemporaries from Meiji, what happened to them? Inevitably they stepped out of the university into full time employment and corporate Japan. The reality was that the salaryman had no space in his life for the activity he had dedicated four gruelling years to; he had enjoyed the camaraderie and testosterone fuelled atmosphere of Meiji, but his new lifestyle gave him no opportunity to pursue his old passion; the infrastructure was simply not there. He may have had the opportunity through his workplace to continue if he had been an adherent of the traditional established arts like Kendo or Judo, but karate was not that well established within corporate circles. Sugasawa Sensei’s opinion is that also many of them were simply burnt out and put it all behind them like a stage they had to go through. So, for these people, the golf course beckoned.

Sugasawa Sensei university training, barefoot running, 2nd from R. © Copyright F. Sugasawa

Post University Hiatus.

While training at Meiji Sugasawa Sensei had caught a glimpse of something. Through regular exposure to Ohtsuka Sensei there had been something about the content of his teachings, hints at technical approaches beyond the straight line kick/punch of the contest arena; techniques shown that would normally be forbidden in the developing sport karate arena, all of this hinted that there was more, and it was this urge to look beyond that prompted Sugasawa Sensei to again connect up with Ohtsuka Sensei.

Sugasawa Sensei also remained in contact with the university and even though in regular employment as a salesman he was kept on by the club as a coach. This lasted for about five years until he left for the UK.

Straight from university he sought out Ohtsuka Sensei and his son and endeavoured to train with them as often as possible; training at Tokyo City Hall and various other Dojos. It was here that his knowledge-base grew enormously; a whole new world had opened up to him. Outside of the university format Wado Ryu as taught by Master Ohtsuka was a much more sophisticated beast; considerable time was spent on aspects they’d merely skimmed over in university training. These were indeed very different classes than he’d experienced at Meiji.

Sugasawa Sensei describes the experience of directly training under the Wado Ryu grandmaster as inspirational, although the level of communication was not as verbally based as we are used to in the west. Instead, there was much emphasis on feeling the technique and also on ‘Mitori-geiko’, which means ‘to watch and to take’ (training by observing).

The senior students in these classes cut very impressive figures; these were people who were incredibly close to Ohtsuka Sensei and were in a position to absorb the complex ideas and physical principles espoused by the great man. Those who left the most inspirational impression upon the young Sugasawa were Ohtsuka Sensei’s son and also seniors Masuga and Hasegawa. He had previously seen Masuga Sensei when he came to Meiji during Sugasawa’s first year. Masuga Sensei had been part of a karate demonstration and had fought some of the Meiji fourth year students. Masuga Sensei had completely outclassed the senior Meiji competitors and the frustrated seniors couldn’t lay a hand upon him; instead, they felt the full range of what could be used in fighting, in the form of Sunegeri, Kinteki, Nukite, Furiuchi and Urauchi. These techniques were standard during fighting at the Hombu Dojo but not necessarily in the Meiji training regime. In the Hombu Dojo sparring sessions these same seniors were phenomenal in their deployment of Kekaeshi (double kicks off the same leg) and used an amazing range of techniques. It was through this contact that Sugasawa Sensei honed his infamous use of the shin kick; a technique he still encourages the present generation Shikukai Dan grades to work on in freeform sparring.

The range of techniques deployed by the Wado Ryu seniors was extremely effective; however, not everyone was convinced. It is said that a particularly well-known fighter from another style voiced his scepticism to one of the very senior members of Ohtsuka Sensei entourage regarding the effectiveness and power of Urauchi, until of course this same senior member knocked him out with the technique.

Sugasawa Sensei university sparring. © Copyright F. Sugasawa

Sugasawa Sensei trained with the two Ohtsuka Sensei’s until he left for England in 1978. These years supplied him with a considerable foundation technically, but also, crucially, he gained valuable insights into the true essence of Budo; or more accurately, Ohtsuka Sensei vision of Budo.

New Horizons.

There are few things more certain in a person’s life than change. With Sugasawa Sensei this change came via a personal urge to travel. In addition, an interest in languages, particularly the English language, fuelled the compulsion. And then, as chance would have it, an opportunity opened up through contact with a Meiji senior, Mr Y. Shinohara, who was then living in London. This was the beginning of a new adventure.

His arrival in London in 1978 was inauspicious, finding himself in a bedsit in Walthamstow on the edge of the old East End. But contacts developed and his first significant opportunity to show what he could do occurred when he was asked by Mr Shinohara to do a demonstration at the UKKW National Championships at Crystal Palace. This was his first meeting with the established head of Wado Ryu in the UK, Suzuki Tatsuo Sensei, who had been informed of Sugasawa Sensei’s presence in the UK by Ohtsuka Sensei.

When Sugasawa Sensei arrived in the UK the Kung Fu craze had just reached its zenith and martial art training was de rigour for a young (predominantly) male audience; these were the boom years for martial arts in this country. Wado Ryu courses across the country were packed with eager participants and in some areas kyu gradings involved over one hundred students at a time and up to three examiners running side by side. The Japanese instructors of that time were in demand over the length and breadth of the UK. This was undoubtedly a spike in the popularity of all things concerned with Asian fighting arts. My personal opinion is that the martial arts very quickly colonised a niche vacated by the pre and post war boxing clubs, an outlet for young working-class males (it took a long time for women to get involved to the level that they do today). The competitions of the 70s and early 80s were showcases for high levels of testosterone and the numbers of willing combatants eager to engage in heated bouts of fistic action attest to this. It was in this climate that Sugasawa Sensei was able to follow his passion and flourish. Now, over forty-four years later and chief instructor of his own independent association Sugasawa Sensei is clearly ensconced in the wider Wado community.

Having earned his place in the diaspora of senior Japanese instructors Sugasawa Sensei has a wealth of knowledge to share and sees it as a personal challenge to transmit the complexities and subtle nuances of Japanese Budo through his teaching.

On the teaching and transmitting of Wado karate.

Having introduced the general reader to Sugasawa Sensei’s origins, background and the unique experiences which underline his credentials, I think it is only fair to present a sample or cross-section of his ideas and personal philosophy as related to Budo, or more specifically Wado.

Throughout his teachings Sugasawa Sensei is keen to underline the concept of the understanding of principles; this emphasis features across all of his seminars and workshops. In a teaching environment it is far too easy for instructors to fall back on a catalogue of unrelated techniques and mesmerize students by skipping around from theme to theme; although some value can be gleaned from this, all too often the big picture is lost. Sugasawa Sensei is keen to encourage the student to examine exactly what is going on technically, whether it is in Kihon, Kumite or Kata. This is Principle with a capital ‘P’. There is always a logic lurking behind the technique and Sugasawa Sensei encourages students to look beyond the surface and not to see practicing of technique as a mere copying of form for form’s sake; simply parroting technique with no engagement of our mental faculties is a vacuous enterprise.

Sugasawa Sensei constantly asks us to look for ‘depth of movement’. For example; when we are practicing Kihon Gumite or Kumite Gata we are encouraged to learn the sequence of movements, but this alone is an entirely superficial understanding; there is so much beyond this. The next step is to perform these sequences in Wado terms and to introduce the practical concepts of, for example; Waza no san aku 技の三悪, San Mi Ittai Dosa  三位一体動作, consisting of Ten I, Ten Tai, Ten Gi, as well as Inasu, Noru, Nagasu and Soru; this is where the real depth resides, but sadly, all too often these concepts are either misunderstood, mis-performed or entirely absent.

Sugasawa Sensei’s priority in teaching is to help the student to understand exactly what each movement is supposed to achieve, and then bring in the above-mentioned processes.

For him even the most fundamental of movements, those taught to absolute beginners, contain pitfalls and potential errors which can contaminate the entirety of the students catalogue of movements. A typical example of this contamination can be found in the basic Junzuki, where it is far too easy for the student to be so wrapped up in the idea of forward momentum, focussed on the act of punching with speed and power, that all other potential directions for movement are pushed right to the bottom of the agenda, or even totally absent. Sugasawa Sensei says that it is so easy to tell when the mental intention is misdirected in this way, because the body gives it away.

The underlying principle of this apparently simple movement is governed by the displacement of the body’s centre – it is vital that you understand where your centre is and be in command of it; you must not lose or throw away your body’s centre. With Junzuki; in your eagerness to implement the forward movement striking action it is too easy to lose sight of the real priority which is to correctly utilize the rotary action of the hips and torso around the centre as an integrated whole, to make it a truly balanced harmonious dynamic. This is about working towards creating a fine balance within the body, i.e. the body working as a coordinated whole (Tsuki no san youso 突きの三要素)

The profundity of this is that it is not about aesthetics, and neither is it solely about producing a strong punch; things are working on a much higher platform. Aesthetics and power may well come out of this, but the personal challenge of fine tuning the movements has potentially a much more significant payback for the serious martial artist.

By the time the student is proficient enough to move on to Naihanchi kata the subtleties of generating energy step up to a whole new level. In this kata we deliberately inhibit our rotary action and are forced to generate our energy from self imposed limitations; this germinates within the student the ability to create impetus within very tight constraints and has significant implications in terms of economic movement and how the body is used efficiently; (Waza no san aku).

Regarding attack and defence; Sugasawa Sensei emphasises that these two should work in tandem with each other; neither one mode nor the other should take president. Naturally this is also governed by issues of developing a harmoniously balanced centre, where you can easily slip from offensive mode to defensive mode. Sugasawa Sensei draws parallels between this and the age-old concept of Yin and Yang. As a practising acupuncturist Sensei is well placed to make this comparison, and inevitably subscribes to the holistic view that all things in the natural world both within and without have to contain a positive and a negative. And within a healthy organism neither one should assume the dominant position unless of course that natural forces decree it so.

In Sugasawa Sensei’s attitude towards kata training he does not subscribe to a simplistic ‘Bunkai’ model; preferring instead to use the word ‘Kaisetsu’ meaning ‘commentary’. For him the Bunkai model is too limited; it only supplies one minor aspect of what is potentially a rich area of study. When he teaches, he specifically puts emphasis on the movement as a whole but also highlights a particular focus on what he refers to as “Waza no Okori Taru Tokoro’, this means ‘the initial stage of each movement’. This is important in the generating of energy, i.e. where the movement originates from but also regarding how you engage with a live opponent. Obviously, at the beginning of any attacking movement there should be no hint of your intentions revealed to your opponent, the movement should just happen like it came out of nowhere and nothing should give it away. In a way this makes the movement natural and unforced, much like the flailing limb of a newborn infant. Sensei links this spontaneity with the martial arts concept of Mushin (literally ‘No Mind’). However, this is not solely about physically telegraphing your techniques, but also in a combat situation your emotions can reveal to your opponent your mental mindset; he can gain an advantage from this which may inevitably lead to your undoing. The tools for working on avoiding these problems comes from Kata and other formal training methods; the information is there if the student has eyes to see it.

Sugasawa Sensei holds a firm belief that that tuning in to this level of subtlety will over time reap surprising benefits, and that the experienced practitioner will develop a kind of sensitivity born out of both engagement with an opponent and refined formal practice which supplies him with the wisdom to read situations accurately and respond appropriately, as well retaining dignity, composure and poise; (Kurai dori; 取り。).

Tim Shaw

© Copyright Shikukai Karate-Do International

A version of this mini-biography first appeared in Frank Johnson’s Koshiki no Te magazine (issue No.2) in 2012.