Miki Suetsugu – Women of Shotokan
Miki Suetsugu is a real powerhouse. As karateka she prefers kumite and has won the kumite title at the All Japan Championship 2001. She likes shobu Ippon because it comes close to self-defense. On the other hand, Miki-san has an incredible intellectual and academic record. She holds a position as associate professor at the sports and health department at Komazawa University.
However, although her successes suggest that she never faced any difficulties in her life, Miki Suetsugu experienced challenges. As a child she was “introvert and never succeed[ed]”. She first had to learn to “not give up, good things would come.” Later in her karate career and after she became a mother she suffered an injury. The outlook to never practice karate like before caused a mental depression. But she overcome all setbacks and has grown stronger than before.
Today, she fights for equal rights of men and women in karate. To do so she uses her academic skills to conduct a survey about the “Current Situation of Women Involved in Karate”. The results shall shed light on the difficulties women face who practice karate during different life-stages. Miki Suetsugu is currently looking for international participants in the survey. The Shotokan Times supports the study.
We invite you to let yourself become inspired by this very personal and enriching portrait of Miki Suetsugu. She is not just a champion and great academic, she is also a very humble, thoughtful, and dedicated role model for karate men and women alike.
Portrait of Miki Suetsugu
- Name: Miki SUETSUGU (Miki INOKOSHI)
- Age: 40
- Karate since: 1985
- Origin and residence: Saga/Japan
- (Kyu/Dan) Rank:
- 6th Dan certified by JAPAN KARATEDO FEDERATION
- 4th Dan by JAPAN KARATE ASSOCIATION
- Dojo: KOMAZAWA UNIVERSITY & SEIKUJUKU (My husband’s dojo)
Additional information (member of a national team, coach, board member of a Dojo, highest achievements, etc.):
- Associate Professor, Department of Sport and Health Science of KOMAZAWA UNIVERSITY
- A member of Japan Society of Physical Education, Health and Sport Sciences
- Member of Japanese Academy of Budo
- Member of Japan Society for Sport and Gender Studies
- Director of KANTO UNIVERSITY KARATE DO FEDERATION
- Representative of JAPAN KARATE ASSOCIATION (Representative of a head office direct control group)
- KOMAZAWA UNIVERSITY Karate Do Club Coach
- Triple 1st place Kumite Women, Team Kata, and Team Kumite at the 44th National Championship Tournament 2001
- 5th place Kumite Women, 45th National Championship Tournament 2002
- 7th place Kata Women, 45th National Championship Tournament 2002
- 2nd place Team Kumite, 47th National Championship Tournament 2007
What was the reason that you started Shotokan Karate?
Miki Suetsugu: When I was six years old, a friend of my mother visited our home with her child. They wore dogi uniforms and showed me Heian Shodan. This was the impetus through which my older sister and I began karate at a nearby dojo. The dojo was of a high caliber, with many national champions among its members. For this reason, I was able to start my life as a karate practitioner in an excellent environment. The sensei of the dojo emphasized kihon. The fact that I was taught the kihon at that time still serves me well today.
What do you like about Shotokan Karate?
Miki Suetsugu: I like the emphasis on shobu ippon in kumite matches. The rules at the WKF were amended when karate-do was adopted as an Olympic sport. Together with this, the concept of ippon was greatly altered. Within the present kumite match rules at the WKF, points are added based on the variety of the waza instead of the strength of the waza:
- jodan geri, etc. are three points – ippon,
- chudan geri, etc. are two points – waza ari, and a
- tsuki waza is one point – yuko.
As the Olympics take into account the interest of the audience, it might be said that these rules were devised to be understood more easily by amateurs (easy in terms of determining the basis for superiority and inferiority). But for me as an experienced practitioner of karate, the current WKF matches are not very interesting. I feel that the ippon concept that emerged from budo has changed, and the strength and maneuvering of the waza, the zanshin, the beauty of the form, etc., has weakened. The rules of judo have changed in a number of ways, but not in the same way as karate-do where the points change based on the type of waza.
The ippon judgement standard, which is based on the strength of the waza, has not changed. One can say the system of point alteration based on waza is a unique feature of the WKF. Thus, karate-do became a sport. The important rei aspect in budo has become a shell of its former self. I will speak more on this later. While I think the WKF decision to turn karate into into a sport is fantastic for the future of the discipline, I am more intrigued by the shobu ippon of the JKA, an organization that places importance on tradition.
In addition, I support the fact the JKA has not introduced weight divisions. From a self-defense perspective, I think the shobu ippon of the JKA is more practical. The fact that it places emphasis on shobu ippon matches in the same manner as other martial arts (kendo and judo), based on a comprehensive evaluation of considerations such as the strength of the waza, balance and zanshin, is to me interesting and appealing.
Is there something you do not like? What is it?
Miki Suetsugu: This is not limited to Shotokan. Limited activity on the part of women and limited activity spaces for women are a problems across karate-do. I am engaged in child-rearing and experience mental conflict every day. I cannot be as active as I was when I was single. My husband, Yusuke Inokoshi, and my parents-in-law have an understanding of karate. Therefore, I am blessed with an environment where I can be active. Nevertheless, I have a limited amount of time to be active. I wondered if other women experienced even greater difficulties, so I conducted a survey targeting women involved in karate-do.*
Recently, we created spaces where women play a central role, such as seminars and other events. But we have made very few appointments of women to decision-making bodies. Upon analyzing my own experiences and the results of the survey I felt the karate-do system as a whole to be male-centric. Women, who cannot coordinate their time in the same way as men, face significant difficulties. While one might say that the number of female competitors is increasing, the overall environment is not improving. We still need to address issues in fostering female executives, instructors, referees, etc.
* I have included a copy of the “Summary of Results for the Questionnaire Targeting Japanese Respondents” for your reference.
What has been your greatest and your worst experience so far related to Shotokan Karate?
Miki Suetsugu: My best experience was in 2001. In my fourth year at university, I won the individual kumite and team kata and kumite events at the National Championship Tournament. In particular, at the finals held at Nippon Budokan many people supported me. I was very happy to see those people celebrating my victory. When I was in elementary school, I was an introvert and never succeed. However, this was also the time in which I taught myself that if I did not give up, good things would come. Most of the national level group I learned karate with at the dojo quit. But I continued steadily training, all the while thinking, “Am I not suited for karate?”. I attribute my success to this.
My worst experience came three years after I became a mother. When I restarted my keiko (training) and injured myself. I constantly trained six years old until I became pregnant. However, I could not conceptualize the deterioration of my physical strength following the period without training. This was the cause of my injury. I was impatient with the difference between my personal ideal and my actual performance. In my all-out drive I tore a muscle performing a mae geri.
While I had experienced injuries before, this injury was due to the reality that my physical strength had deteriorated. Realizing this I fell into a mental depression as well. However, I learned many things as a result of this injury. I realized I was no longer at an age at which I could achieve the impossible, that there were levels to things, and that my physical strength and endurance had deteriorated. As a result of this injury I was able to once again come face-to-face with myself.
What do you do when the training becomes challenging? Where do you get motivation from?
Miki Suetsugu: I was planning to participate in competitions and undergo a rank promotion examination in 2019. But I had to abandon this plan due to an injury. Since then I have been preparing myself a little at a time. When I was injured, my husband said, “While you won’t return to normal immediately after the time off, you resolutely practiced the kihon for many years. You won’t just all of a sudden get bad at it.” While my body did not move as I envisioned, and I came close to faltering many times, these words allowed me to regain my confidence.
My old teacher, Takeshi Oishi, is now more than 70 years old. But he still hits the makiwara and kicks the sandbag. I learned the importance of this, not through words, but with my own eyes. Shihan Oishi taught me the importance of continuing keiko without saying a word. This has become my motivation when I engage in karate-do.
How has Shotokan Karate changed you as a person?
Miki Suetsugu: From an early age, I was an introverted person, who did not continue educational activities for long. The exception to this was karate, which I have continued learning non-stop for over 30 years. I cannot explain why this was the case. If one were to ask me if I like karate, I would not have an answer. However, there must be some reason why I have continued until now. I suppose almost everyone at the dojo where I began karate thought I lacked talent in this area. And I was aware of this more than anyone.
As a result of my decision to practice karate, I continued without a break. I learned what it means to not quit, to not answer immediately, to continue, and to believe in myself. Because of this I believe I have achieved considerable growth as a person. In addition, I was able to come to understand the fun of keiko with my fellow practitioners. Keiko also taught me to overcome difficulties. Those experiences serve me well today. And I also still have many personal relationships in and through karate.
How has Shotokan Karate influenced your life? Has it helped you overcome or deal with difficult situations in your life? Is it helping you on a daily basis with the challenges of life?
Miki Suetsugu: One thing I learned in karate is “Rei.” When I first started learning karate, rei was mandatory in the dojo. I always performed rei (the bowing motion) as part of my conduct. At graduate school I conducted research about rei in order to answer why it has been so important in budo.
From the Confucian text Book of Rites: “The rei was established in ancient China, and it possesses a lubricating effect that harmonizes human relationships. People have used the rei from days long past to rectify order within society.” The format of the rei is not only an outward expression of bowing. It also possesses a meaning of placing importance on wa, the concept of joining personal demeanor in a space occupied by multiple persons.
In budo there is a maxim, “Do not be prideful of winning, or resentful of losing; always maintain a moderate attitude.” Within karate-do we have many instances where people come into contact. Without rei, personal feelings would throw the space into disorder. In some matches, the tsuki and keri can become violent. I learned that the rei is the strict observance of the standards, rules and manners that exist within the one-to-one personal relationship of “opponent and self,” and the practical application of the mental strength to continually preserve a feeling of respect for one’s opponent.
While it is difficult to remain in the same state regardless of losing or winning (to not express one’s emotions outwardly), I was able to learn this attitude through karate-do. My personal interpretation of the reason that so tradition places importance on rei in budo and karate-do has helped me in building personal relationships in my daily life. Rei places importance on the wa of human relationships. Putting the rei to practical use has helped me in a wide range of circumstances. But I am still lacking in my training. In particular it is difficult to practice the rei toward my husband and son. In this I am quite self-reflective. As communication skills are necessary in life, I hope to further develop the rei I learned in karate-do and enable myself to develop as a person.
How has your Shotokan Karate changed over time?
About 20 years ago, I studied tai chi on the recommendation of Shihan Oishi. In my keiko training to that time I was cognizant of how to move my upper body with speed and strength. But in encountering tai chi I became cognizant of my lower body. Tai chi is very slow-paced and has no kime. The unique body movements in tai chi are very difficult, and if your lower body in particular is not balanced you will quickly totter when trying to adjust your weight.
When I first began learning tai chi I understood it to be a discipline separate from karate. When I performed a kata with the kiko of the slow tai chi manner it was quite difficult, and I discovered I could not perform as I had to that point. When moving from zenkutsu to zenkutsu, moving slowly results in my upper body faltering and I cannot perform the finer parts that were being tricked by the speed. As a repeated the keiko training in which I was cognizant of my lower body I realized my upper body, especially my posture, was in balance. In kumite keiko training as well, I am constantly cognizant of my lower body. Especially during kumite the strain in my upper body has disappeared. The initial motions have lessened considerably, and I sense increased sturdiness in my body trunk.
I can perform the quick motions with relative ease, but now that I can slowly move my upper body without wavering, I have even come to think I may have mastered a waza.
Through my experiences in tai chi I have come to gain an awareness of the importance of the lower body and the difficulty of moving slowly. The scope of my keiko training has broadened considerably and I have rediscovered the deep complexity of karate.
What are your personal Shotokan Karate short- and long-term goals?
Miki Suetsugu: As I am currently on parental leave, I cannot attend keiko at Komazawa University. My short-term goal is to return to teaching and keiko as soon as possible. I also want to get myself back into a condition that allows me to train together with the students. It will become increasingly important to consider how to make time for my physical strength, conditioning, and keiko in daily life. Consulting with my husband and family, I would like to block time for this and get back to work quickly.
My long-term goal is to continue keiko throughout my entire life like Shihan Oishi. Shihan Oishi taught us not only with words, but also through actual movements. Now that I am in a teaching position, I can tell how difficult this was. In Shotokan, we have many elderly sensei who instruct through movement. Moving forward I would like to train my body to be able to move together with the students, with the goal being “lifelong keiko.”
How should Shotokan Karate evolve in the future?
Miki Suetsugu: JKA has many members, even those only within Japan, and even more globally. This is proof of Shotokan Karate’s attractiveness as a method for personal refinement. Karate-do has been selected as an Olympic event, which has created a great deal of enthusiasm. My expectation is that after the Olympics there will be a growth in interest in karate-do as it relates to tradition.
I hope we will have an increase in the number of enthusiasts involved in karate-do who view it not as “sport karate,” but rather as a lifelong pursuit that conveys knowledge built up by our predecessors. At the same time, I am hopeful for the construction of a keiko and match system that can accommodate people in a wide variety of environments.
Would you recommend Shotokan Karate to your female friends? Why?
Miki Suetsugu: Of course I would recommend it. Shotokan Karate is dynamic and symmetric in its approach to teaching tsuki, keri, and other aspects. For that reason, it is ideal as a training method for improving leg, back, and torso strength, as well as one’s posture.
I know of a recent public university course called, “Karate Classroom for Women.” Some of the women that first encountered karate-do through that course continue keiko today. Some women began after turning 40. Some women continue keiko even after getting their black belt. Their comments included the following:
“I can participate without overexerting myself.”
“Karate releases stress.”
“I don’t have any goal in mind.”
While we have a tendency to think of karate as an activity performed alone, we have opportunities to interact with people we train with at the dojo, as well as people you meet at competitions and other events. These interactions are some of life’s treasures. I also think it is nice that you can return after a off-period. I have many acquaintances who left karate after having a child. But we promised each other to start keiko together again after things settled down. Shotokan is like a home, and you can always come.