Tominaga Sensei: In Memory of a Great Man

Yesterday I attended the viewing and memorial services for Suenori Tominaga, 8th degree black belt in Shotokan Karate, the finest teacher I’ve ever studied under, and one of the greatest men I have known.

We had had a celebration of his life a month ago, in full realization that our time with him was dwindling. My thoughts went to all the ways in which he had taught me many things.  So, when I received the following message informing me of his death, my first thought was that, in the end, he even taught us how to die:

It is with a heavy heart that I have to tell you that Tominaga Sensei passed away peacefully about 3 hours ago. Just prior to that, his eyes were closed listening to Japanese music in his room and, at one point,  he was waving his arm to the beat of the music”

My photos from the November celebration are archived here. And Tominaga Sensei’s final words to his assembled students of more than four decades are available here:


As has now become something of a sick joke, 2016 will be remembered as the year that took from us so many iconic public figures, David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, and Carrie Fisher among them. And as I wrote in my obituary of Bowie, each of these legendary individuals taught us something about life and our place in it.

And so I feel it is important that I take a moment to reflect on what Tominaga Sensei taught me, in hopes that I might return to these words in coming years, as the need arises.

I have written frequently about how the martial arts framed my life. I often tell my own students that the best decision I ever made was, at the age of 19, finding the courage to step into a dojo and ask to be trained. That decision set me on a lifelong path of discipline, compassion, confidence, and, I like to think, strength and courage.

Martial arts competition is a special crucible of character. Once you have repeatedly stood in a ring in front of a man or woman who wishes to do you intense physical harm (even in limited contact scenarios), and endured, then how can a mere confrontation of words possibly unnerve you? The constructed challenges of normal society are quickly revealed to be the unimportant charades that they truly are. A wise person once said that the martial arts hone your mind at the expense of your body.

Over the next two decades, I would immerse myself fully in karate, muay thai, jiujitsu, judo, aikido, kun-tao, and a smattering other fighting arts. To be clear, I was never particularly good in any of those practices –not even close! But what I quickly discovered was that, although my initial motivation was to learn how to fight (at which I repeatedly failed), what I was actually learning was how to live.

And so whatever passes for wisdom in my current aged psyche can be directly linked to the travails, struggles, and philosophies extracted from years of toil within various dojos.

The dojo I had joined at 19 was not the one I would eventually commit my loyalties. That school was run by an individual who, I feel, did not embrace or reflect the philosophies of lifelong personal development that I now think define the ethos of martial arts for me.

In that school, we feared the instructor. When his gaze was not upon us, we slacked off to conserve our energy. So when he did look at us, we would be at our best. We were motivated by our fear of his anger, and this was not how I wished to live.

So I took the somewhat bold step, after many years of training at an unfriendly place, of visiting the University of Toronto dojo, which at the time was housed at Hart House on the university campus, one of my favourite places in Toronto. I believe that this was 1989 or 1990.

I introduced myself to Tominaga Sensei and told him my rank, which at the the time was fairly high. So he had me train with his students of the same rank. It quickly became clear that I was not up the standard of his students, each of whom was immensely warm and welcoming to me.

At the end of that session, Tominaga Sensei said to me, “You must choose. Here or there. Not both.” It was an easy choice, and I made it on the spot. I would joyously be stripped to a white belt (beginner) and start afresh under Tominaga Sensei’s tutelage.

Now, my previous teacher had demanded obeisance and endless physical deference. To him, we would bow repeatedly. So I did the same to Tominaga Sensei as we were having this conversation. But this was an entirely different man, a joyous friendly man. As I was bowing, he was punching me on the shoulder to welcome me to the family. In mid-bow, his friendly little punch connected to my head and knocked me to the floor.

My most vivid memory of that first day was looking up from the floor as the cobwebs cleared my head, seeing a smirking little Japanese man look down on me, saying, “Oh, so sorry.” This was quickly followed with, “Ray, only bow one time. One time good.”

In those early years (well, early for me), many times after class, I would join Tominaga Sensei for beers. He smoked like a chimney and drank like a world champion –two things my previous teacher would have lectured us endlessly about. But this was one of the important teachings that Tominaga Sensei offered: that discipline and hard work were important, but ultimately life was meant to be lived. If your life had no joy, then what was the point?

Please don’t comment on my atrocious kokutsu-dachi

In those drinking sessions, he told me many good stories… very few of which are suitable for permanent and public display on this blog, though I am sorely tempted to share them. But at his memorial, many students reminisced about their favourite Tominaga memories and sayings, each of which carried its own country wisdom. In lieu of alcohol-fueled tales, here are some of Sensei’s sayings that resonated with me:

“Better to lose by disqualification than to win by disqualification.” He was referring specifically to hard contact during tournaments. Hard contact to the face would disqualify the attacker. But Sensei’s argument was that if you got hit in the face, it was your own damn fault for allowing your face to be hit. Yes, the attacker was in the wrong, but ultimately it’s your responsibility to look after yourself, rather than to expect other people to look after you. If you extend this lesson to your life, then you are on a genuine path to independence.

“Best defence for a punch to the face is a punch to the face.” Again, the specific context was how to defend a punch coming at your head. You could block it or move out of the way. But Sensei’s philosophy was that you should have faith in your ability to deliver a responding punch before the initial one even landed.  What I took from this was an overall disdain for passivity, which is applicable to all aspects of life. And I have certainly run with this lesson.

I would see this philosophy again when he often said, “When moving backward, your mind must move forward.” The immediate context was literally how to step backwards in a fight, to be prepared to lunge forward at any given instant. But how many times as this bit of advice served me well? There is no such thing in life as retreat, failure, or going backwards, if the intent is to move forward again.

Tominaga Sensei was a working class man, a machinist. His work ethic was astounding, as was his positive attitude around everything he put his mind to. What formal, classical karate teaches us is that we can and should strive for perfection in form, and that to achieve such perfection we must work constantly and regularly, and focus obsessively on the fundamentals. This critical bit of wisdom has been largely lost in Western education, in my opinion, and we ignore its absence at our peril.

Perhaps this aspect of his persona, along with his consistent joyful and positive persona, is what meant the most to me. I am an educator —an award-winning educator, no less!– yet I was never taught how to teach. I have a degree in teaching, but was never actually shown how to do it. Amazing, no? Everything I purport to know about how to impart knowledge and skill to others was stolen from the example of Tominaga Sensei.

During a workout in the dojo so many years ago, a young woman took me aside and pointed out (and I paraphrase), “Look at some of these students. Some of them are CEOs and professors. When they try to show others what to do, they suck at it. But this little Japanese man commands respect naturally.” Indeed he did, and he imparted knowledge effortlessly, despite his broken English.

How did he do it?

I wrote above that my first instructor, the one from the unnamed dojo, ruled with anger and intimidation. We fell in line out of fear. With Tominaga Sensei, we were motivated by love, plain and simple. When Tominaga’s gaze was not upon us, even when he was not in the room, we all tried our hardest regardless, because we wanted him to be proud of us. He was a loving father figure. And that was the secret. I never cared about my belt colour. I just wanted him to be proud of whatever skill I had learned from him. When I practiced on my own, there were two thoughts foremost in my mind: I want to be perfect, and I want Sensei to be proud of me.

Everything about human life is ultimately about relationships. We seek relationships, we are drawn to those relationships that sustain and feed us, and we are repelled by those that harm us.  A teacher, a mentor, a guru, a parent, nurtures us through genuine concern. We can sense when there is no genuineness, and we are repelled by it.

With Tominaga Sensei, his concern for his students’ progress and health was apparent in his words, his body language, and his actions. There was no artifice or inconsistency.

He sought to bring out the best in us, not merely to teach us a technique. So he would celebrate improvement more than actual ability. If you were naturally gifted, that was great. But if you worked hard to overcome an impediment and managed to achieve adequacy, that was fantastic. And that is how you knew the teaching grew out of love, not some kind of militaristic aggression.

So a dojo, at its best, can be a place of love. Sensei once said to me that karate friendships are lifelong friendships. A shared quest for both perfection and self-improvement necessarily bares the truth of one’s self; and truth, real truth, renders the purest of personal connections.

I will end this memorial with one final recollection. I was competing in a tournament in Windsor, Ontario, and Tominaga Sensei was one of the many referees working at the event. In my match, I took a stiff side kick to the midsection, which compressed my lower ribs and knocked the wind out of me. At the time, there was some passing concern that I had broken ribs, so I was taken off on a stretcher to recover in the stands with the audience.

Tominaga Sensei, dressed in his little referee suit, walked past, looked at me and shook his head in disappointment. “Ray Ray Ray Ray.” I had to laugh (painfully). He had walked by out of  concern; he saw that I was fine, and then expressed his disappointment in my performance. Affection, responsibility, standards, and no coddling. That is how a great man teaches.

Goodbye, my teacher.


Sensei Suenori Tominaga In Memoriam: