photo: Daniel Carvalho
* A versão em português dessa entrevista está nesse link
The first time I went to Japan, I was 21, there was no YouTube or blogs like this one. The information available then about the masters was from the Aikido Journal, some books and VHS, or short videos of seconds, which took years to download on the internet. Even so, I thought I knew who was who in Aikido, I had seen countless cassettes from the “All Japan Demonstration” and I had notion of who the masters, their uke’s and students were: I was very wrong! I love when I realize when I’m wrong.
I will never forget my first class at Hombu, it was a Yasuno sensei’s class. Like in any new experience, you look at everything and absorb every piece of information. We were all lined up for the start of training, when a man enters, with forearms the size of a thigh and the not so friendly face, who looked at the mat trying to find where to sit. I noticed the tension building in the air. He finds a space and, magically, a space opens up inside a crowded dojo. That day I did not train with him, nor do I remember noticing his practice. However, I remember that he was used as Yasuno sensei’s Uke often, which caught my attention. The next day, in Masuda sensei’s class, I saw the same scene, the instant he arrived the tension and respect were present. In the space that opened around him I went and sat down. I bowed, in a clear sign that we would be partners in that training. I noticed laughter and relief in many people around, but I didn’t understand why. Masuda sensei didn’t warm up, we started straight with Suwari Waza Shomen Uchi Irimi Nage. At the first minute of training I understood everyone’s reaction, now I had 59 minutes to try to survive. This is how I was introduced to what I call: “The destroyer of egos, Didier Boyet sensei”.
If you were training at Hombu Dojo in the period between 1978 and 2016 and did not train with him, I have my doubts about how seriously you trained there. Didier Boyet sensei is one of the best and most committed Aikidoka that we have. I once heard from an old member of the Hombu Dojo: “Yamashima is the alpha for morning training, Didier is for evening training”. Even though it sounded like a joke, it was true. Since Boyet Sensei was present daily in the evening classes, we all knew who was at the top of the tatami food chain in those training sessions. Of course, like any young man you look at that older lion and think, today I will “kick his ass”. I’ve been trying for almost twenty years! During this period, after being so crushed by him in training, I started to learn things far beyond what I imagined. Naturally, he became a huge reference in my Aikido, to the point that with much effort I managed to organize an international seminar with him in Brazil.
One of the reasons for the existence of this blog is to throw light and give voice to these gems that exist in Aikido that, unfortunately, few know. So it was a huge joy when he accepted this interview. I know that he is averse to the spotlight, so I find it even more gratifying to have this record of him here and thereby make it possible for more people to get to know him.
Before closing, I want to tell you an anecdote. We had finished a class in which I spent an hour without even moving him while he was thrown me like a rag doll. We were on the fire escape at Hombu, outside the mat on the third floor (it was summer and this was the only place with a light breeze to cool off between practices). He realizes that my ego was destroyed, that moment when you wonder if you have any talent for Aikido. In a rare act of niceness, he says:
– Your Aikido has improved!
– Only if you mean my ukemi is better! – I answer.
Ironically, I think, he says:
– No, you even took my balance a little.
At that moment, my testosterone goes up, I get up and look him in the face and say:
– I can’t wait for a day to hit you hard!
– In your dreams you can make it, until I die you can try. Now there’s another hour of training, sixty painful minutes for you to spend trying, shall we?
Of course I did! As the saying goes: “If you want to be a lion, walk with lions”.
Thank you very much, Dider Boyet sensei!
* In this interview, the names in Japanese appear in the traditional way, first the surname then the name.
** The photos here were taken from the Didier Boyet sensei website and from my personal file.
Could you tell us a little about your childhood? Did you have a practice or hobby that you liked?
I was born in September 1946, a little bit over a year after the Second World War ended. My father had been forcibly enrolled in the Nazi mandatory work system applied to all young able man in German occupied territories. He was freed and back home a few days before the war ended and married my mother within months.
Both of my parents were factory workers for a big French truck manufacturing company (Berliet Co.), my father as a simple worker, my mother as an office clerk. We lived in the suburbs of the city of Lyon where the factory was established. I went to grammar school in the neighborhood where we were living and I age 12 I entered junior high school down town Lyon.
I remember my childhood years as years of simple life: no TV, no phone, a lot of freedom. We were living in a small compound which was owned by the factory employing my parents and kids were spending most of their free time outside, playing in the open environment that suburban area was as that time.
We had basically no material needs and would just mingled together. After I entered high school, things changed somehow as I discovered the city life and other classes of people.
As a child I was not really interested into sports. My father was volunteering his free time to his factory basketball club and I joined the kids basketball program. I liked the game (I still do and today I follow closely the NBA championship) but unfortunately I was short (very short actually) and I was soon pushed out of the team. In high school and later on in college, I did not show any interest for activities outside the mandatory sport sessions set up within the schools curriculum.
So, was Aikido your first with martial arts? How and when did you meet Aikido?
At the beginning of the seventies after I fulfilled my military obligations I found a job in a small town called Tours, about 200 km south of Paris, on the Loire river. I was totally new to the city and of course did not know anyone there. One evening, just a couple of days after my arrival and out of boredom, I decided to go to the movies. Unfortunately, being new in town and not yet aware of the local rules, I found myself facing closed doors as movie theaters were off on that day (for some reason I remember the day as a Tuesday). So, here I am, looking at a closed movie theater, feeling a little bit stupid. Apparently I was not the only clueless one as another guy, just like me, was also staring at the theater blank facade. We looked at each other, started a conversation and after finding out that we were both new in town decided to sit in a nearby cafe for a drink. As we were relaxing there, I glanced at the screen of a wall mounted and muted TV set. The broadcast was a documentary on Japanese martial arts and the part I was watching was precisely about Aikido. I had never heard anything about Aikido, I was not interested in martial arts nor Japan, but nevertheless the images I was seeing impressed me immensely. I think that it was a Michel Random film untitled “Les Arts Martiaux du Japon” (Japan Martials Arts) made in 1971.
This film is a little bit over one hour long and introduces a number of Martial Arts but I was lucky enough to be watching at this TV set as the Aikido part was being broadcasted. The images of Kisshomaru Doshu and Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei demonstrating had a direct impact on me. I was mesmerized and the next day I called the City Hall to inquire about Aikido classes in the city. Even today I still find hard to believe that in 1971, the city hall operator of such a small town (with a population of no more than 150.000) was aware of Aikido classes being provided at the local sports center! With the information in hands, I visited the sports center and met the person in charge with the Aikido classes, Mr. Gérald Servat, at that time probably a 2nd or 3rd dan who had studied under Nakazono Mutsuro Sensei while he was living in France and who currently was practicing under Tamura Nobuyoshi Sensei.
I bought myself a keikogi and got ready for my first class. I honestly did not know anything about etiquette and proper behavior in a dojo, so as I stepped on the mat, I noticed that some people were sitting forming a line while another person was sitting alone, separately and facing them. I don’t know what I was thinking, may be that it was rude to leave that man sit by himself, but I steadily crossed the mat and went to sit by his side. He did not even bother to talk to me but just glanced at me and turned his eyes toward the row of students I now understood I was supposed to sit with.
I was very fortunate to have a great first teacher, someone who had grasped the real meaning of martial arts and whose only objective was to train and get better. He almost immediately took me to train with Tamura Sensei who at that time was traveling every week-end all over the country to teach seminars. (Here is a video of Tamura Sensei conducting a seminar in 1975 in Le Mans (France) in which I take ukemi for Tamura Sensei starting at 6:40). Unfortunately his life was cut short by a fatal sickness a few years later.
France was one of the first countries to receive Aikido masters and many O sensei disciples were teaching there. At that time, did you only have contact with Tamura sensei or did you also have contact with other instructors from Hombu Dojo? How was Tamura Sensei’s training at the time?
Well, things are way more complex than they look. First of all, it should be understood once and for all that neither O-Sensei nor Hombu Dojo ever dispatched anyone to specifically teach Aikido in Europe under the auspices of Hombu. Indeed, all these teachers asked for and were granted Hombu Dojo’s agreement in their endeavor and although they did not receive any financial support, they had the moral backing of Aikido Headquarters in Japan. Many of them have now passed away but their legacy is firmly established with a large number of Aikido players all over Europe.
The first Japanese martial artist to set foot in France and demonstrate Aikido techniques was Mochizuki Minoru (born in 1907 in Japan – died in 2003 in France) who was a judo instructor taught by Kano Jigoro Sensei, the Judo founder. He also trained in Aikido for one year at Ueshiba Morihei’s Kobukan Dojo. Mochizuki Sensei travelled to France from 1951 to 1953 to teach judo. He took the opportunity to demonstrate some Aikido, seduced a few judo and karate players and a few years later his son Hiroo established the French branch of the Yoseikan Aikido school founded by Minoru in Shizuoka, Japan.
Abe Tadashi (born in 1926 Japan – died in 1984 in Japan) was a pre-World War II student of O-Sensei. He moved to France in 1952 to study in Paris and lived there until 1959. He was related to the Imperial family and was Yamada Yoshimitsu’s uncle. He is credited as being the first Japanese to officially teach Aikido in the West. He befriended André Nocquet (born in 1914 in France – died in 1999 in France) whom he pushed to travel to Japan and sponsored the project. When Abe Tadashi moved back to Japan, he allegedly sold a license to teach Aikido to André Nocquet, a move that strongly irritated Hombu Dojo and resulted in legal action.
Abe Tadashi Sensei has taught many of the French Aikidoka who, a few years later, welcome Tamura Nobuyoshi Sensei on his arrival in France. Two other Japanese instructors have helped the development of Aikido in the 60s:
Nakazono Mutsuro (born in 1918 in Japan – died in 1994 in the USA) – Nakazono Sensei lived in France from 1961 to 1972 before being deported following his unwelcome comments on France nuclear testing. Close to O-Sensei, an authority on kotodama, acupuncture, and Chinese medicine, an expert in Judo and Aikido, he was highly regarded in the budo world. He traveled the world from Mongolia to Vietnam, India, France, the U.K. and the United States and played an important part in developing Aikido in France and Great Britain.
Murashige Aritomo (born in 1895 in Japan – died in 1964 in Belgium) – Murashige Sensei, a close friend of O-Sensei and an accomplished swordsman and budoka, started traveling Europe in 1962 to teach Judo and occasionally Aikido. He died in a car crash in 1964. He was the father of Murashige (Mark) Morihiko (1945 – 2013), a student of Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei who acted as Chiba Sensei’s assistant at San Diego Aikikai, and the grand-father to Murashige Teruaki who also studied under Chiba Sensei.
These instructors opened the door to two other young instructors, recently out of Kisshomaru Doshu’s uchideshi program, who relocated to France and undertook the development of Aikido at the European level.
Noro Masamichi (born in 1935 in Japan – died in 2013 in France) arrived in France in 1962. He had been an uchideshi at Hombu from 1955 to 1961. He started to establish himself as an Aikido teacher all over
Europe but was victim of a major car accident in 1966. A few years later (officially in 1979), having recovered but still plagued by serious aftereffects from his wounds, he came up with a transformed version of Aikido which he called Kinomichi. His son is still teaching it in Paris.
Tamura Nobuyoshi (born in 1933 in Japan – died in 2010 in France) – An uchideshi at Hombu Dojo from 1953, Tamura Sensei established himself in France in 1964, shortly after getting married. At first, he collaborated with Nakazono Sensei until he departed for the US, and with Noro Sensei until his car accident, as well as with the other Aikido instructors active in France and Europe such as Mochizuki Sensei and Nocquet Sensei. He succeeded in building a strong organization and became a major figure in the development of Aikido outside Japan.
I also must mention the various Japanese instructors who operated in other countries of Europe and contributed in their own way to the development of Aikido.
Abbe Kenshiro (born in 1915 in Japan – died in 1985 in Japan). He spent 10 years in the UK from 1955 to 1965 and founded the British Judo Council in collaboration with Harada Mitsusuke (Shotokan Karate) and Abe Tadashi (Aikido). After his return to Japan, he requested Hombu Dojo to dispatch an Aikido instructor to the UK to teach the British Aikido Council. Chiba Kazuo Sensei was chosen by Hombu. (For more details about Chiba Sensei’s years in Great Britain, see https://aikidodidierboyet.com/en/category/textes/a-life-in-aikido/ )
Tada Hiroshi (born in 1929 in Japan) – A member of Hombu Dojo since 1950, he started to teach in Italy from 1964 and established the Dojo Centrale in Rome in 1967. In 1971, Fujimoto Yoji, one of his students took over the teaching in Italy while Tada returned to Japan. He still conducts regular seminars in Italy to this day and he remains one of the most influential figures in Tokyo Aikido Headquarters.
Chiba Kazuo (born in 1940 in Japan – died in 2015 in the USA) – After training at Hombu Dojo as an uchideshi from 1958 to 1966 he moved to England and established the British Aikikai before moving back to Japan in 1976, then to the US in 1981 where he founded a group with international ramifications under the name Birankai. Close to Tamura Sensei, he frequently traveled to France to teach during his tenure in the UK.
Ikeda Masatomi (born in 1940 in Japan) – A student of Tada Sensei, he first spent some time in Italy before returning to Japan and finally moved to Switzerland in 1977 where he started teaching Aikido.
Sugano Seichi (born in 1939 in Japan – died in 2010 in the USA) – A Hombu Dojo uchideshi, he started to teach Aikido in 1967 in Australia before moving to Belgium on the request of Tamura Sensei in 1982. He relocated to New York in 1988 to assist Yamada Yoshimitsu Sensei.
Kitaura Yasunari (born in 1937 in Japan) – A member of the Waseda University Aikido Club during his student years, he moved to Spain in 1967 to study at the University of Madrid. He is an art scholar specializing in El Greco’s works.
Asai Katsuaki (born in 1937 in Japan) – He started to study Aikido as a child in Japan and moved to Germany in 1965 where he started to teach Aikido.
The above sort of summarizes the impact and the influence of Japanese instructors in the development and the spreading of Aikido in Europe. The majority if not all these instructors acted individually and did not have to report to Hombu Dojo or any other authority for that matter. They came to Europe for personal reason or because they saw an opportunity. They worked extremely hard as it was not easy for any of them. Making a living in the martial business outside Japan was and remains harsh. Most of them had to face language problems, at least on their arrival, not to mention other cultural and social problems (British people were quite upset by the way the Japanese treated their prisoners during WWII and did not welcome Japanese people on their soil for a while). But they did a great job and succeeded in their endeavor.
By the time I started training in Aikido in the early 70s, all the early instructors had left France and were back to Japan or had move somewhere else. A few months after his car accident, Noro Sensei was active again, but he was in Paris and I was living in the provinces with very few opportunities to come up to the big city. Moreover, Tamura Sensei, who did not operate a dojo was traveling the country and teaching seminars every weekend, very often not far from where I was living. Then I soon discovered Chiba Sensei and I tried to catch up with him whenever he was visiting the country. As a result, my training during my first years (until I left for Japan in 1977) was done mainly according to Tamura Sensei teaching and to a lesser degree to the teaching of Chiba Sensei.
In 1974, you met Chiba sensei at a seminar organized by Tamura sensei, how did this meeting with him change your Aikido and, in a way, your life?
I do not recall the exact date. I remember that it was my first Summer Camp and it might have been 1973 or 74. Anyway, I was a beginner and I had not been much exposed to Aikido yet since I started in the fall of 1971. I had thus been training for less than 2 years and whether I had already met Tamura Sensei, I do not remember either. This Summer camp lasted for 2 weeks and was held in the small city of Villefranche-de-Rouergue, in the center part of France. Most of the participants were camping and so were Tamura Sensei and his family as well as Chiba Sensei. Classes were all conducted by the two Japanese instructors, Tamura Sensei and Chiba Sensei. Probably 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon. I do remember clearly my astonishment when Chiba Sensei started to teach. I had the same reaction that I had when I first saw Aikido on television a couple of years earlier. At the end of the seminar, a demonstration was given by both instructors. At one point, Chiba Sensei was demonstrating against 3 or 4 opponents who managed to corner him at one end of the mat. They froze for a second and Chiba Sensei let go of a huge “kiai” that made them step back immediately. He took instant advantage of the situation to regain control of the operations.
After seeing that demonstration, I started to understand that Aikido was much more than what I had first thought. After 2 years in the small dojo where I was training twice a week, I had the feeling that I knew everything about Aikido. In a way, Chiba Sensei opened for me a door to a world I did not know existed. I got more involved in training and started to travel here and there on weekends to attend classes conducted by Tamura Sensei and Chiba Sensei.
Although Chiba Sensei was very impressive, in the 70s he was in his thirties, full of energy, extremely dynamic, and not very conducive to smiling and joking on the mat, he was very friendly off the mat despite our communication difficulties: he did not speak French of course and his English was basic and sometimes unintelligible to me. He was more impressive and imposing than scary. This feeling changed some time later when Chiba Sensei used me for Uke during one of his classes and almost knock me down on an irimi-nage move. He hit me pretty badly in the face and I realized then how far beyond I was and how much I had to train and learn. A year after Chiba Sensei was called back to Japan to help the Aikido Headquarters deal with the new AIF, Mitsuzuka Takeshi Sensei was invited by Tamura Sensei to teach Iaido during the Summer training camps. This was the sign I was waiting for and I decided to move to Japan to train for a couple of years with Chiba and Mitsuzuka as my mentors. In the end, I spent almost 40 years in Japan, trained in Iaido under Mitsuzuka Sensei until his death, and remained close to Chiba Sensei even after he left Japan to relocate to San Diego in California until his passing in 2015.
How was your preparation to move to Japan? In addition to Chiba sensei, in Aikido, and Mitsuzuka sensei, in Iaido, were you aware of any other masters you would like to train, whether at Hombu Dojo or outside?
I actually did not prepare much. I talked to Tamura Sensei to get his agreement and he, in turn, asked me to inform Chiba Sensei. Chiba Sensei was scheduled to teach at the San Sebastian September seminar organized by Kitaura Sensei in the Basque country. During that seminar, Tamura arranged a lunch meeting during which I inform Chiba Sensei of my project. refused immediately to support it and instead asked me to renounce to it arguing that there was already way too many foreigners at Hombu (especially French) and that this was nothing but headaches for him! I think that Tamura Sensei talked to him because when I mentioned that I had already purchased my plane ticket, Chiba Sensei did not raise any other objection.
My plans were very vague. I knew only a couple of people in Tokyo: a woman called Margaret Marcano who was one of Chiba Sensei’s students. She was from Venezuela and I think from a well-off family as she was attending a private school in Switzerland. She was a very hard-working student of Aikido and she followed Chiba Sensei wherever he was teaching in Europe. As soon as he moved back to Japan, she followed on his steps. She picked me up at the airport on my arrival and she even put me up for a few days in her very tiny apartment, in the same street that the Hombu Dojo.
I had no idea how I was going to make a living. I had managed to obtain a one year cultural visa to study Aikido and the plan was to spend a couple of years in Tokyo before heading back to France. I collected all my savings, a very small amount indeed, no more than a couple of thousand dollars and off I went.
I landed at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on October 4th 1977. I lived in Japan there after until June 9th 2016.
What was the Hombu Dojo like when it arrived? Who were the instructors and who were the sumikomi?
Before arriving in Japan I had very little information about Hombu. A few months before leaving France, I had met a guy called Daniel Boubault who was training in Aikido and studying the Japanese language, and who lived in Tokyo. He had given me precious advice on how to apply for an Aikido Cultural Visa, basic information on how Hombu was operating and he turned out to be a great help during my first weeks in Tokyo.
My idea was to defer to Chiba Sensei’s guidance. Since he sponsored my application to Hombu and introduced me personally to Doshu, I was ready to follow his advice and his precept. As members of Hombu Dojo, Chiba Sensei treated all trainees as Doshu’s students. Although he was pleased that trainees would want to take private group lessons with him, he treated us as Hombu’s members. He just saw himself as a part of this organization. Thus, he strongly prompted every one of us to attend and train in all the classes taught in Hombu Dojo.
At the time of my arrival, Kisshomaru Doshu was teaching every 6:30 am class, Osawa Kisaburo Dojo-cho had one class a week, Yamaguchi Shigeo Sensei 3 classes a week, as well as Masuda Sensei; if I recall properly Tada Sensei, Watanabe Sensei, Arikawa Sensei, Sasaki Sensei had 2 classes each, and other instructors (Ichihashi, Endo, Shibata, Yasuno) one class a week. Sumikomi were Seki Shoji, Miyamoto Tsuruzo, Osawa Hayato, Yokota Yoshiaki. The training was rough and challenging. At that time, the home trainees (sumikomi or uchideshi) were not too busy outside Hombu and basically attend all of Doshu’s classes and most of the evening classes. A typical 6:30 am class would see Waka Sensei (Moriteru), Fujita, Endo, Shibata, Yasuno, Miyamoto, Osawa, Yokota, and other sempai line up and practice hard. One had to carefully pick his or her partner since you were paired for the length of the class. When Miyamoto Tsuruzo would enter the dojo, you could see a wave of trainees move away from him, but soon after Shibata Ichiro would in turn arrive just before Doshu’s entrance. One could then notice the panic spreading among the trainees who made the mistake to sit at the wrong place: away from Miyamoto, but suddenly too close to Shibata to hope for escape! Training with either of them was demanding as they would refuse to acknowledge submission, holding their ground and their rank at any cost. But this was specific to Doshu’s class. Other classes were not always challenging, except of course Chiba Sensei and Shibata Sensei classes where the tension was always high due to the instructor’s character.
In addition to the regular classes at the Hombu Dojo, you were also a member of the private group of Chiba sensei. How were these private lessons? Did any instructor from Hombu or sumikomi also participate?
I joined the group taking private lessons with Chiba Sensei shortly after my arrival in Tokyo. This group was made of foreigners who were all attending Chiba Sensei Friday evening class. It included several Americans, Paul Sylvain, Lorraine Sylvain-DiAnne, Meik Scoss, Bruce Bookman and Jay Dunkelman, an English woman (Dee Chen, Chiba Sensei’s secretary in Great Britain who followed him to Japan), a Venezuelan woman (Margaret Marcano, a student of Chiba Sensei back in Europe who followed him to Japan as well but who left the group soon after), and a couple from Scotland (Murray and Sheila Walker, former students of Chiba Sensei back in the UK). The group had requested permission from Hombu to organize a special class conducted by Chiba Sensei. The classes were hold twice a week in the 4th floor small dojo on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 1:00pm to 3:00pm (and often later). Shibata Sensei was a frequent guest to these private classes.
I remember vividly the intensity of these training sessions. Although I do not recall any physical fear, I still can remember how my knees started to shake wildly while getting changed before class. Many years later, while I was informally talking of various topics with Chiba Sensei, I mentioned that tangible tension building up before and during the classes. He said that he remembered feeling it as soon as he stepped in the dojo. Nevertheless, during all the time we trained in these private classes, I do not remember any accidents, though fights and spilled blood were not unknown. It was obvious to all of us that these sessions were important. Many years later, and because I was lucky enough to have witnessed Chiba Sensei’s transformation and evolution, I understood that for him too these were important moments. At that time, he was only teaching one hour a week and occasionally a few hours a month in Nagoya. The group lessons at Hombu became a laboratory, a testing ground for Chiba Sensei, a place where to pursue what he had started developing during the 10 years he spent in the UK (especially the last 8 years of that period in London): a study always renewed of the fundamentals (kihon-waza). He used to bring with him the famous hand drawn book called “Budo Renshu” compiled by Ms. Takako Kunigoshi under the supervision of O-sensei in the years 1933-34. We went through the complete 166 techniques introduced in this book. We also trained in weapons; mostly bokken, working on the kumitachi as devised by Saito Sensei in Iwama. Later, while Chiba Sensei had already moved to the US, he gave up teaching and practicing the kumitachi which, he said, were not exactly representative of O-Sensei weapon work. He returned to it later on but with a different approach.
In addition to Chiba sensei, in these four decades in Japan you have approached countless masters. Could you talk about these other influences on your Aikido?
As you well know, Hombu Dojo offers 5 classes a day on week days and 2 classes on Sundays. Members can attend each and every class but Sunday classes require an additional fee. When I arrived in Tokyo, the teachers panel was quite remarquable and besides Kisshomaru Doshu included Osawa Kisaburo, Yamaguchi Seigo, Arikawa Sadateru, Chiba Kazuo, Watanabe Nobuyuki, Sasaki Masando, Masuda Seijuro, Ichihashi Norihiko, Endo Seishiro, Shibata Ichiro.
I tried to train in as many classes as I could and I did train with every teacher available, at least in the beginning, but I limited my Aikido training to Hombu Dojo and I did not attend classes out of Hombu (since I was also studying Iaido, I did not have much time available). Then little by little, I became more attached to a reduced number of teachers. Chiba Sensei has always been the teacher I felt a closer relation with. Then Yamaguchi Sensei. I learned from all and every teacher who were teaching at Hombu but Chiba and Yamaguchi had something the others did not have: they were changing all the time. They were not teaching, they were practicing and if you wanted too, they would let you on board and let you travel with them. They mostly taught me that Aikido cannot be taught. Aikido is training, Aikido is life and there is no written book or guide for it.
I believe that few in the world have had access to so many masters and trained as intensely as you. That said, what does training mean to you? And what is the importance of having a master?
I first entered the Aikido world not knowing what it was at all. But after a few years of daily practice I realized that Aikido and training was always to come first It is not until recently that I have started thinking about it. Especially after the death of Chiba Sensei whom I considered as my master. Although I practiced and trained under many teachers (basically all of the instructors acting at Hombu dojo during the 80s and the 90s) and although I never was a “kenshusei” or an “uchideshi” under Chiba Sensei (in Japan, I was considered as a Doshu’s student, a member of Hombu dojo where Chiba Sensei happened to teach) I always related to Chiba Sensei as if he was the master I needed as a guide on the path of Aikido. Yet he was not perfect. Nobody is. But he had what made me want to emulate him. He was looking for something and if did not know what it was, it was obvious that it was worth it.
In Chiba Sensei’s view there are various steps in your study of Aikido. He defined and named these as Shu Ha Ri:
At first, because you don’t really know why you practice Aikido, everything is going to be physical. This is your “Shu” phase: you learn the physical aspect of Aikido, the forms and their variations by copying what is taught to you.
In the second phase, “Ha”, you try to develop what you have learned in the first phase and to apply it in a free way.
In the third phase, “Ri”, you have to forget every part of the physical aspect of your training and develop a more spiritual form of practice to produce your own Aikido.
This being said, one has to regularly go back to phase one and train on the basic forms because these are the elements that allow you to create your world of Aikido.
The ‘master’ is the guide and at the same time a mark that you want to pass and surpass. At one point you won’t need the master anymore. You are the master.
In Aikido there is a correlation between body movements and the use of the sword. You, in addition to Aikido, are a specialist in Japanese sword. How do you see the use of the sword in most Aikido dojo’s? And what is the importance of training with sword in Aikido?
In Aikido, the sword is everything. There is no Aikido without the sword. Strangely enough, the sword was not the weapon of choice of the first Samourai. The Samurai weapon of choice was the bow (Read “Legends of the Samurai” by Hiroaki Sato). The “katana” was the weapon used by the foot soldiers. The noble on horses used bows. But when the sword became “the weapon”, it also came to represent the soul of the samourai. An the relationship between the Katana and the Samourai developed over the centuries until the system ruling Japan was dismissed in 1867 and the Samurai class was abolished. For me, the Samourai philosophy is fully contained in the sword. The sword is a weapon that kills both ways: it can kill you opponent and it can kill you. It is thus of major importance to domesticate and to dominate the sword. And this can only be done through practice.
In my opinion, the most important move in Aikido is Ikkyo. And Ikkyo is a cut with the sword. Every else derives from Ikkyo. But to do a proper ikkyo, one has to know how to cut with a sword. O-Sensei was clear on that point: Aikido is sword, he said. The problem is that you cannot teach sword. You can show what you do with it, you can show a form, but that’s it. One has to become one’s sword to master it.
In practice, one has to study bokken moves and encounters, as if handling a live blade. Then transfer this moves into Aikido where the material sword has disappeared but remains in spirit. But one also has to practice with a real blade in its scabbard and learn to draw the sword.
I was lucky enough to study under a very powerful sword teacher (Mitsuzuka Takeshi Sensei) and to have other instructors such as Yamaguchi Sensei and Chiba Sensei who always emphasized the importance of the sword on Aikido practice.So very few people actually study bokken and sword while they pretend to teach Aikido.
In addition to the sword, Jo is another weapon used in Aikido. Chiba sensei developed a very consistent method in Jo’s practice. However, it does not appear that Jo in Aikido has anything to do with Jodo. For you, where did Jo practice in Aikido come from and what is the importance of training with this weapon in addition to the sword?
Of course O-Sensei can be seen in various videos handling the jo. Sometimes he uses it against a partner but most of the time he uses it as a mean of prayer to the gods.
The practice of weapons (bokken, sword, jo) should be integral part of Aikido training. Chiba Sensei was not satisfied with the various “kata” of bokken and Jo devised by Saito Sensei so he made up his own, inspired, for the jo, by the work of Nakayama Hakudo Sensei, the founder of Muso Shiden Ryu.
I think that practicing jo helps understanding the concept of maai, of timing and the concept of awase. Receiving, absorbing, countering one’s opponent blow. Jo against sword or wood versus steel teaches you the power and the possibilities of these concepts that are essential to Aikido.
You train for many years, like every process, as we have mistakes and successes. What advice would you give to those who are beginning their walk in Aikido? What should they emphasize in practice and what mistakes should they avoid?
All I can do is to show that the answer is in the training. One has to persevere until doors open. And there are many doors to open. So failures and mistakes are OK. Training will make them right. What I discovered training in Aikido is that one never knows. There is always more to discover.
After so many years of practice, what motivates you to train? Do you feel you still have discoveries to make, that training still brings you relevant things?
Stopping practicing or studying would mean that I found the answer, that I know and that there is no point in pursuing the quest. But it is not the case.The greatness of Aikido is that it allows me to go on with my life, to understand the direction where it is going and to get satisfaction from it. Aging is a very depressing process. When life is ending or nearing its end, many changes happen in one’s body and one’s mind. The body ages, organs fail, the mind becomes less vivacious, and sometimes memory fails you. Aikido helps me to deal with all these problems. Practicing helps me to stay fit and to deal with the (slow and progressive) decay of the body; it also stimulates the mind and helps me to remind alert.
On top of it, I enjoy practicing and challenging myself. Practice opens doors and access to fresh and new fields. A never ending process.
Since you mentioned the challenge, we are facing a great challenge that is this pandemic. How has it been for you this challenge of not being able to train with partners on the mat? Also, do you travel a lot giving seminars around the globe, have you received reports of how the dojos are doing around the world?
The lockdown started around mid-March in France and was strictly enforced: one could not travel further than 1 km away from one’s home and outing were only allowed for shopping, walking a dog or go to work if home working was not possible. All public activities were prohibited and all public places closed (Bars, restaurants, concert halls, movie theaters and of course sport centers and other training grounds). I basically did not train in Aikido physically from mid-March to mid-August when some activity was allowed again under special conditions.
In a way, I enjoyed that time of isolation (not quite since internet gave me access to information, entertainment and communication with friends and acquaintances. But overall the lockdown dealt a severe blow to our activity. Dojo that had to close for several months had to remain closed or suffered greatly. Whether they can recover and survive remains in question.
Some professional teachers in fear of losing most of their students, started to conduct lessons on the Internet, in order to keep somehow contact. How can you conduct a class if you cannot interact with the student and “feel”. Weapon classes became suddenly the thing to do (what I have seen on the Internet was sometimes close to insufferable).
I thought that this forced isolation was a good opportunity to reflect on one’s doing but I understand that it was a bit of a disaster for people who rely on their teaching to make a living.
Things are getting a little bit better here in Europe and hopefully we should get back to normal by the end of the year if the continent is not hit by a second wave of the pandemic.
Another challenge that we see in society and also in Aikido is the access of more women in leadership positions, whether with dojos, giving seminars and leading organizations. I may be mistaken, but I have the impression that Chiba sensei achieved this equality with his students. How can we prevent the universe of Aikido from replicating the prejudices and barriers we see in society?
Although they were women practicing Aikido in Japan under O-Sensei (Takako Kunigoshi might the most famous), then under Kisshomaru Doshu (Mrs. Tamura for instance) it was not quite common. I think that Chiba Sensei was first faced with having to teach bunch of women in the UK, then of course in the US where his dojo was always had a large number of women attending. He always treated everyone equally in adapting his actions to whatever was in front of him. I think that this is essential in Aikido training and teaching: everybody is equal but at the same time everyone is unique and must dealt with accordingly. The perfect Aikido response to an attack is a response in accordance with the attack. Aikido does not know competition the way boxing, tennis or any other sport knows it. The purpose is not to destroy the opponent for a win, it is to control him/her by using his/her energy. Thus sex, age or shape is irrelevant. An Aikidoka will adjust to his/her opponent according to his/her level of aggression and strength. It is essential to understand that and that this behavior can only be learned through tough training. Human societies, in my opinion, are wrong because they are based on domination and elimination and not on equality and sharing. Unfortunately this is also true for too many would be Aikidoka who misunderstood what Aikido is and misuse it.
Learning and training in the dojo should be directed toward learning to control oneself in order to be able to control aggressions.
Thank you very much, would you like to leave a message or final consideration?
In one word: perseverance. Never give up, a door will open to new spaces and new possibilities because Aikido is a discovery of oneself.