Sensei Tatsuo Suzuki, who died on 12th July, 2011, aged 83, was one of the greatest Japanese martial artists of all time and was responsible for bringing his style of karate, Wado-Ryu, to Britain. Suzuki Sensei, 8th Dan Hanshi, from the early 1960s encouraged other Japanese instructors to spread the word throughout Europe.
I first met Suzuki Sensei when I enrolled at his Fulham dojo in London in the mid-1980s. He was then about 55 and yet his physical speed, strength and technique were astonishing.
I had previously trained in Taekwondo and had some knowledge of judo, kung fu and aikido. But Wado-Ryu from the outset appeared special; and that was because of the man who led the way.
During this time I was a sub-editor on The Daily Telegraph and would work nights so I could only attend the lunchtime classes. When the Fulham dojo closed I felt that perhaps my Wado adventure had come to an end. As it turned out it was only really beginning.
In those halcyon days of fitness and relative youth I was very active sportswise. I ran several times a week, played tennis, lawners and Royal, at Queen’s Club, was a regular swimmer and trained in Wado.
One day I was running through Hurlingham Park in Fulham and I saw Suzuki exercising with a West Indian guy called Trevor, who would become a friend and fellow Wado fanatic. I stopped to say hello and somehow I got exercising with them and, as I discovered later, all sessions ended in sparring.
I dubbed the area where we trained – near the rugby goalposts – as our “outside dojo”. In the five years or so that followed I would train outside with Suzuki, Trevor and another West Indian, John, who Suzuki considered very highly. John had a near magical sense of timing and his sparring was fluid and fast and nerveless. Suzuki recognized something in John that he himself possessed.
I, by comparison, was a far inferior martial artist but I reveled in sparring and training and chatting in this illustrious company. The star, of course, was Suzuki but he never gave himself airs and graces; he just loved to train and spar.
On one occasion, I was sparring with him and suddenly he disappeared from my sight; then bang! He caught me with a reverse back fist. I went down like the proverbial sack of spuds and momentarily lost consciousness. The next instance I saw Suzuki’s face starring down at me asking “you okay?” I was and as he pulled me up from the ground I said to him: “I thought Wado was meant to be good for you!” The great man laughed and I lived to fight another day.
Come rain or snow, we would train at our outside dojo; often I would be there seven days a week. One bitterly cold winter’s day I was training with Suzuki and Trevor and mentioned I was freezing and yet, hard men that they were, they didn’t seem to feel the cold. They both laughed and Suzuki peeled back his tracksuit bottoms to reveal thermal underwear! Of course. I was just in underpants and tracksuit. The next day I went to Marks and Spencer and bought some Long Johns. Another lesson learnt.
One Christmas Day morning I went for my usual run to Hurlingham Park from my flat in Whittingstall Road and discovered that the park was locked up for the holidays. “Sod that”, I thought, and managed to squeeze my way in through the fencing and jogged to our outside dojo. And there was Trevor who had done likewise. We trained, sparred and then I invited him back to my flat for a Christmas drink. My wife wasn’t fazed when I turned up with a friend.
Five years or so went past in a blur of outdoor training, sparring and chatting about the world in general. In 1992 I left London to live in Paris and I trained for a while with one of Suzuki’s top instructors Hiroji Fukazawa, 8th Dan black belt. (I was sad to discover just now as I googled Fukazawa that he passed away on 11th June 2010 after a long illness aged just 60; he was a lovely gentleman with a nice sense of humour and a great sense of Wado).
But in 1994 I became a dad for the first time and I trained less and less. I then secured a job at The International Herald Tribune (also working at night) and that put paid to going to classes. Excuses, of course, but my attention was elsewhere.
There was one last Wado story – almost. Trevor phoned me in November 1994 and said that Suzuki was giving a demonstration at a martial arts event in Paris and would like me to assist him. Crikey! What an honour although I was unworthy of such an invitation. As it was, the day of the demonstration was the same day as my son’s christening so I had to decline. Probably a good call!
For years afterwards, Suzuki and I exchanged Christmas cards but we lost contact some time ago as one does over long periods of time.
But I was always interested to follow his amazing career through the Internet. I might not be a Wado practitioner today but I’m still fascinated by it; it’s the same with tennis that I no longer play (damn my dodgy hip!): I still love watching the game. Excellence, whether Suzuki or Federer, is always a joy to behold.
So Suzuki Sensei: thank you for all your instruction, your company and for being an inspiration in life.
I’ll leave you with a comment made by his widow, Eleni Labiri-Suzuki, on a website announcing his death:
“Let us remember his life and not his passing.”