Interview with Christian Tissier Shihan: 50 Years in Aikido
Christian Tissier Shihan is one of the most prominent Aikido instructors in the world and one of the highest ranked non-Japanese. I got the chance to go to Christian Tissier’s dojo during one of my trips to Europe and to conduct my second interview with him, more than eight years after the first one. Tissier Shihan has been doing Aikido for over 50 years and I though that it would be a good opportunity to review his rich career, talking about his beginnings in Paris, his seven years in Japan with the masters of Hombu Dojo, and his current actives as a teacher as well as his legacy.
Guillaume Erard: How did you start Aikido?
Christian Tissier: I started Aikido in France, in Paris with a teacher called Jean-Claude Tavernier. It was the Mochizuki style of Aikido taught by Hiroo Mochizuki, the son of Minoru Mochizuki. That lasted for about a year. Then we met Nakazono Sensei who came from Marseille. It was a revelation because his Aikido was very different. It was really Aikido. I followed Nakazono Sensei until I got my second Dan and when I turned 18, I decided to go to Japan to improve my Aikido. My plan was to go for a few months. I thought that six months of Aikido in Japan, or even just to set foot in Japan, would be sufficient but things turned out differently.
Guillaume Erard: How was life in Japan?
Christian Tissier: All those who have been there know the system, you are quickly caught in the Japanese rhythm, the ease of living there. It may be different now but at the time, even if it wasn’t that easy to find a job, in Japan, relationships are fairly simple for someone who is young and who does not have too many commitments. If someone is hungry to learn, it is quickly comfortable there.
Compared to Paris, Tokyo seemed to me like a big country village. Small streets, houses, no tall buildings… In the neighborhood of the Aikikai, the tallest building was the Aikikai itself. It was still pretty much like countryside. I liked that rhythm, training, but also the fact that it was easy to make contact with people.
Guillaume Erard: Which teacher did you follow at Hombu Dojo?
Christian Tissier: When I arrived, I used to go to all the classes from morning to evening because I did not have much to do then. It was interesting at the time because there were people like Saito Sensei teaching Sunday mornings, Tohei Koichi Sensei, and Tohei Akira who subsequently went to the US…
I went to all the classes even though I prefered some to others and even if I didn’t understand their Aikido. I didn’t understand Doshu’s Aikido. It was so different compared to what I had learnt that I even doubted his skills. It took me some time to realize that my views were incorrect. It did not look like what I had learnt so of course, in my eyes, it was no good.
Guillaume Erard: How did the Sensei deal with you when you arrived at Hombu Dojo?
Christian Tissier: It is interesting because they wondered who I was, especially Doshu. Yamaguchi Sensei knew because he got a letter from Nakazono Sensei. There weren’t many foreigners and Doshu wondered who was that 18-year-old kid so he observed me from afar. He was a shy man but one day he came to talk to me. I couldn’t speak Japanese so communication wasn’t easy but little by little, a relationship formed. I was the same age as his son, the current Doshu, who had a white belt and no hakama at the time, so we often practiced together. Little by little, he started to take me as uke and he truly became one of my Sensei. I have followed his classes every morning for years.
In addition to that, I mainly followed Yamaguchi Sensei at Hombu Dojo but also in his dojo of Shimokitasawa and at Meiji on Thursday mornings. These were more like father-and-son relationships he took me under his wing and I used to go to his place. The other Sensei with whom I was close were Saotome Sensei and Masuda Sensei with whom I used to go out.
Guillaume Erard: Were Saotome Sensei and Masuda Sensei already teaching at the time?
Christian Tissier: At the time, Endo Sensei had just gotten his 4th Dan, Suganuma too, they were starting to teach at the Aikikai but not upstairs. Saotome Sensei was already a 6th Dan and he was teaching for 3 h every Wednesday afternoon. I used to practice with everybody, including Watanabe Sensei and since people were used to see me, I was part of the dojo.
Guillaume Erard: Hombu Dojo students are often a little lost due to the large number (30) of instructors there. Did you face such a problem?
Christian Tissier: Frankly, I never had this problem. I never tried to mimic Yamaguchi Sensei at least in his excessive forms. His forms were not excessive, they were pure, but you saw excess in some of his students not Yasuno for example, but some, including some foreigners who were there and who mimicked the form. We often mimic the easiest part, if a teacher strokes his hair, we stroke ours too. They copied what looked like his casualness even though he was not, his way to play with the partner even though he didn’t like playing with the partner. He used to say “Waki ga nai” ; “there should be no opening”. What he liked in me was that I was genuine and did my own Aikido, even though when he taught, I tried my best to do what he showed because that’s what I wanted to do. But when I went to Osawa Sensei’s class whose Aikido was totally different, I tried to reproduce Osawa Sensei’s Aikido. So I think that I never had such problem of adaptation.
Now someone outside may have thought that I did but the Sensei all took me as uke, even Tada Sensei when he returned to Japan in 1974 or 75. He used to teach every Tuesday and I was very often his uke even though our Aikido were completely different. It is important in Aikido to have a basic formation, that’s why it was important to go to Doshu’s class. It’s not an official Aikido but something that can’t be argued with. If you want beginners to have a common language, it’s good to explain on shomenuchi how to get out of the line and come back in, etc. for ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo. And then according to one’s sensitivity, to add variations. If one wants to do a straight entry, or like Endo Sensei, to take the hand back a little, etc. But if one doesn’t have basics and a common language, one cannot be at ease anywhere. When one sees a new Sensei, it is important to see the overall picture, to remove what one knows, and to focus on what one find different. At the Aikikai, everybody has the same basics.
Guillaume Erard: Did you already master these basics when you arrive in Japan?
Christian Tissier: No, when I arrived in Japan, I didn’t know what was the difference between nikyo omote and ura. For us, nikyo was always like this because the ukemi level was low. When a Japanese Sensei came to introduce Aikido, the ukemi requirements for things like changing hands etc. were not there so they had to show applications. It was easier for them to show that nikyo was like that and “ouch, it hurts”, sankyo… There was not much omote and ura at the time.
When I arrived in Japan, I discovered the structure that Doshu had put in place. That codification was a great discovery. I’d say that at the time in France, we did more an Aikido of applications.
Guillaume Erard: Did the French want to focus on street applications?
Christian Tissier: No, it was because the level was insufficient. I travel all over the world, if you go to a dojo where they only do kokyunage, it means that the teacher is not good. Because projections and breakfalls are easy. If you really want to teach katatedori ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo, with the correct hand changes, it is purely technical and it takes time to learn, there is a logic. So teachers needed to know this logic, which wasn’t the case. It still isn’t now actually.
If you ask someone “Why do we do this” you’ll get “because that is how we do it”. Did anyone reflect upon this? Some did, Yamaguchi Sensei did. Whenever you asked a question, you got an answer. There were some things he didn’t want to do. He would never have shown haihanmi katatedori, maybe only for nikyo ura but for him it wasn’t a real grab. On hanmi handachi, apart from shihonage or direct kaitennage, he would never have showed shomenuchi iriminage. For him, it had no meaning. He might have asked it during examinations but in his teaching as an 8th or 9th Dan, he didn’t want to do it himself.
For me it’s the same, nowadays there are things that I don’t want to do anymore. I no longer want to teach tachidori because it seems very unlikely. I have some experience in other martial arts and in Ken. I don’t mind showing a few forms as educatives but I don’t believe in it. For the knife, it’s the same. Of course it’s a requirement for examinations, so it’s important that my assistants teach it. Weapons techniques aren’t here to teach how to defend oneself against a knife, they’re here to emphasize priorities. When there’s a knife, even in wood, different priorities arise in the technique. If you do shihonage without a knife, it’s better to have your hand come close to your body. but with the knife you can’t because there is another priority. There is a “spicy” aspect to it that emphasizes priorities in the action, but apart from that, it’s useless. As a self-defense, it doesn’t work. It’s a good thing that 3rd to 6th Dan teachers show it, but with the little time I have left to teach and live, relative to the message that I can bring… I’m not better than anyone, but if people are interested in what I do, better to show them what interest me now rather than things that I no longer believe in.
Guillaume Erard: I suspect that with the seminars, they don’t have as much access to you as would be necessary…
Christian Tissier: Yes, it’s an ensemble of things. In the life of an Aikidoka, there are stages. You’re an Aikidoka too, you’re younger than me and at some point, you want to do something different. For me it was boxing, it started with Saotome Sensei, we were using protections and I served as a punching ball. It gives you some experience and after, you have to sort through all that.
The problem of Aikido is that it’s very vast and yet, it boils down to one single thing. We always do the same movement in Aikido, it’s always the same sensation, whatever the technique. Technique is like a fan, you open it and learn all the forms. It’s a bit like in kenjutsu or karate kata. You learn all the probabilities… All the technique that may happen one day but that will probably never happen… You learn everything but there is only one base, and after a while, you need to close your fan and there’s only one technique left.
At the beginning you’ll work on yokomenuchi ikkyo, you’re a little static because you’re learning so you go on the side and then come back After that, you have a movement that leads the partner a bit by joining both hands. Subsequently, you go towards the application, on the point that is behind. Then you do ikkyo in the same way and after a while, you realize that if you do it properly, whether it is yokomen or shomen, you can do exactly the same movement because the important part is not the hand, it’s the point that’s behind and with some anticipation you’re already onto it. You realize that you needed all these techniques to get to one single thing. For example, right now, I’m working on ryotedori koyuho. I realized that it took me 50 years to understand that it was easier to do it like that. The reason is that it’s the same principle, because natural principles are so simple.
Guillaume Erard: the techniques are only tools to develop the principles…
Christian Tissier: You’re absolutely right but there is also something else. People practice Aikido for a few years, 10 years or more, and they do it for a particular reason, whatever it is, but in fact, they are often mislead into it because the real reasons reveal themselves afterwards. You realize after a while that you’re doing it but that it’s miles away from what you initially felt or wanted to be, in my case at least.
Guillaume Erard: Does your goal change?
Christian Tissier: Yes, because after a while you realize that you keep opening doors that keep getting either wider or narrower. When they are wider, you keep becoming interested in new things, and when they get narrower, you realize that you’re onto the right thing and that you shouldn’t let it go. These are all different perspectives. That’s what practice is about, otherwise, you get bored. If someone reaches 4th of 5th Dan with a good technical level (ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, yonkyo,) and no injury, but does the same thing 30 years later, it means that he missed the train somehow. He can always do his thing and reproduce the same technical catalogue, assuming that he can still kneel down… If someone asks me to reproduce the same basic techniques as those done by the uchi deshi of the Aikikai, I can do it just like them but that’s what I used to do 40 years ago, and today other sensations come into play. Sometimes you get temporarily misdirected though.
For example, I play golf now, I’m not good but I found a great similarity with what I do in Aikido. Sometimes, if I cheat a bit, I can throw the ball better, but the teacher tells me “no, your movement isn’t correct, putting your hand like might will help for a couple of months, but it will eventually slow down your progression” because it is something that is outside of the principles.
Guillaume Erard: These are mistakes that you have to go through though…
Christian Tissier: Of course you make them but you need to be honest about it. Any Aikidoka knows that he can pass his movement with strength but if he is honest with himself, he knows it.
When you cheat you know it.
Guillaume Erard: The real problem is when you don’t know that you are cheating.
Christian Tissier: Yamaguchi Sensei’s Aikido was very sharp. His movements and hand positions were based on cuts. He studied several schools of weapons. He had a keen interest in weapons even though he did not teach them. There are no weapons class at the Aikikai because O Sensei opposed it so it was very fuzzy and it led many people to study various weapons systems. At the time, we only knew about Katori, Musoshinden-ryu, various schools of Iai. Now people study Kashima but at the time, it was unknown.
I discovered Kashima one night at Yamaguchi Sensei’s house. He showed me a video of Inaba Sensei who at the time was not known as Inaba Sensei but as Inaba-kun (for Yamaguchi Sensei). I watched this demonstration and found it interesting so he offered to introduce me to him. Inaba was an Aikido student of Yamaguchi Sensei. He introduced me to Inaba Sensei and Inaba asked if I wanted to learn but Inaba did not teach at the time, he was a student. He learned very little from Kuni Sensei.
Guillaume Erard: Was he still a member of the Kashima Shin-ryu when you met him?
Christian Tissier: Yes he was, although I don’t remember whether Kuni Sensei was still alive then. It’s much later that Inaba told me that he never taught me. He taught me in a way, but through training together.
Guillaume Erard: It was informal…
Christian Tissier: Yes it was informal, we were four. We used to go three times during week plus four or five hours on Sunday mornings. Sometimes, we’d do kesagiri for four hours without a break and after he’d serve as uke for the techniques. I was just a kid so he was like my teacher but he isn’t much older than me. It’s when we met a few years ago that he told me “We just trained together”. But in effect, he was teaching me.
I learned in Kashima something that fit my character: the direct quality. What I don’t like in certain forms of ken practiced by Aikidoka is the negative aspect. For example, going back while cutting like in a taisabaki. I prefer to cut, and then go back. It doesn’t matter, it’s only a form, if people like doing that it’s fine. In my mind, that direct approach of certain Kashima forms where you get directly under the attack is very important. I found that in kickboxing too afterwards. That’s it, it moves and you are already there. In Aikido, it’s the meaning of irimi too, there is no need to move but something goes off. I loved the blinding speed of Kashima so I studied the kata. I had done a bit of iai and kendo.
Guillaume Erard: Did you only practice the kenjutsu of the Kashima Shin-ryu koryu?
Christian Tissier: No, we also did the yari and the jo, but very little. A little yari awase, jo against ken, and batto-jutsu too.
I did a lot of batto-jutsu but not anymore. Since I got elbow surgery, I lost the extension so I would have to rework all the gestures I had acquired. Quite frankly, I am not that interested in it anymore.
Guillaume Erard: Did you study the empty-handed techniques of Kashima Sin-ryu?
Christian Tissier: At that time, Inaba Sensei did not teach them but from time to time, I went to Tanaka Sensei’s class when Inaba was absent. Tanaka Sensei came from the Yoshinkan. His empty-handed techniques were different so I did it too.
Guillaume Erard: But these were not techniques of Kashima Shin-ryu right?
Christian Tissier: No, it was slightly different Aikido but it was Aikido. I saw Inaba Sensei’s Aikido and it is very relaxed and fluid but it is not at all my research. It’s something else.
Guillaume Erard: How does a koryu like Kashima Shin-ryu related to a budo modern like Aikido?
Christian Tissier: I need to clarify something, I don’t teach Kashima Shin-ryu. I have no authority to teach it even though when I came back from Japan, I thought I could. According to rumors, Inaba Sensei no longer teaches Kashima Shin-ryu either. I decided a long time ago that I would only keep in my ken the kata that are useful for my Aikido. There are probably other very interesting kata but they bring nothing to my Aikido. The other day, I was watching a video of the soke of Kashima Shin-ryu, on men tachi zuke for example, they block the hands very close to the tsuba, which I can understand as it is probably more powerful, but it doesn’t interest me because it’s not how I do ikkyo. I prefer to do it nearer the tip of the blade.
I don’t transform that school, I just start from that base and keep only the forms that are useful for my Aikidoka. So things like the open foot are typical Aikido postures. I teach ken only once per week here in Vincennes but it’s at 11 a.m. so there aren’t many people because people are at work and the level isn’t high. I teach ken and jo during long seminars. If it’s a one-week seminar, I do it for one hour per day, it relaxes people, they like it, and they are less tired than if they did only Aikido.
Regarding the jo, I worked a lot with Saotome Sensei. He taught me everything. The jo forms that I learned with Inaba Sensei are exactly the same as that of ken, but with a jo. In Saotome Sensei’s and Saito Sensei’s jo forms, there are a lot of hasso gaeshi so it’s interesting. There’s a whole body of work and a playful aspect to it that people enjoy, but I’m by no means a master-at-arms.
Guillaume Erard: Do you feel obliged or entitled to change the things that you have learned?
Christian Tissier: I’m 64 years-old, I respect more and more people, a lot more than when I was younger, because I have more understanding and clemency for many things. I don’t feel that I usurp or steal anything. If I was introducing something different or new principles in my Aikido, I would call it something else or I would create a new discipline, but that’s not at all what I want to do.
Some people say that they do Tissier-style Aikido, but I don’t have a style. My style is that of the Aikikai. My Aikido is not more different than that of Yasuno, Miyamoto, Kanazawa or Endo. You may say that there is a Tissier line, to define it, just like you would say Birankai or something else. My Aikido is the Aikido of the Aikikai. It’s just my form. I don’t think I’m betraying what I learned, or they would tell me.
Of course, some people were mildly annoyed… Fujita Sensei, with whom I got on very well used to say that I was a showman. It’s probably because I did Bercy but someone had to do it and there would have been someone anyway. I don’t enjoy Bercy, I haven’t been for the past 4 or 5 years. I send my students such as Bruno Gonzales because I have no interest for it anymore. It’s not what I want to do. What I like to do is more in the line of what I did at the Combat Games. I was recovering from illness and I wanted to do it slowly but I also got criticized for that too. People said: “He is stopping midway”. I wanted to show steps but people complained about it. On the other hand, Ito, from the Aikikai called me and said it was great but of course, if you do that in Bercy, you’ll get booed because there are things like krav maga and kyokushin. However, I have hundreds of people who said to me that they started Aikido because they saw me. Perhaps I’m a showman, but I have to.
Christian Tissier demonstrating at the SportAccord World Combat Games 2013.
Guillaume Erard: Does your participation to the Combat Games stem, like for Bercy, from the will to not leave the chair empty?
Christian Tissier: The International Aikido Federation is a complex issue. The Aikikai needs some recognition. I don’t know why but it seems very important to them. Doshu wants to be recognized by the Olympic Committee and be part of international organizations. They have this desire but at same time, don’t really want to go for it. It’s a bit complicated. The International Aikido Federation is getting organized, it’s worth what it’s worth. A lot of people complained that there would be competitions but there was never a question of competing or giving points. The goal, which I liked, was to stop presenting old farts but people under 35 and at a maximum of 4th Dan, men, women, and youngsters, to show that Aikido was also that.
I was asked to supervise with Miyamoto Sensei last time. People come, they show us what they do and we some give advice. Some come with great technique, other not so good, it depends of the country and of the experience, but we try to do something. The first Games were mediocre but the quality was pretty good in St. Petersburg. Beautiful images of Aikido. But of course, there are always people to complain and say that it’s not Aikido. I’d like those people to show me their Aikido, to have the courage to do it and to accept criticism too. I go there because I’m asked to, but it could be anyone else. Frankly, I’m not that keen on going but I’m on duty.
The last International Aikido Federation meeting was held in Cluj last September. Waka Sensei was there with some uchi-deshi but I was not supposed to go. I had not been asked and I had another seminar planned that day. The Aikikai got a little worried and Tani Sensei sent a letter to request my presence.
Guillaume Erard: You are a very competent communicator and you are quite ubiquitous. When did you work out your career plan?
Christian Tissier: There was no plan at all, seriously, never. Things fell into place by themselves. I never planned anything, it happened little by little. Some people say that I am highly mediatized but I never seeked it. I taught French at the Franco-Japonais institute, it went well because I am pretty good in French. I did some TV in Japan, I was a model. The first interviews in France went well because I don’t stammer. Some people from TV told me that it was quite a change compared to other athletes. I never called a TV or a journal. Ask Karate Bushido, it’s them who keep asking me.
Christian Tissier demonstrating the Bercy Martial Arts Festival 2004.
Guillaume Erard: If you could go back in time, would you change anything?
Christian Tissier: I don’t think I would change anything. Nothing is perfect.
Guillaume Erard: Perhaps you did some things that were misunderstood?
Christian Tissier: There are always things that are misunderstood, I agree but it happens every day. Sure, there are some relationships that I shouldn’t have had, that I regret, but that’s not very important. I sometimes took pretty radical positions towards someone and didn’t realize that it affected them personally to the point that they stopped doing Aikido. It’s not right of me, I was not receptive enough, but then, him too probably didn’t realize what I was about. That sort of things happens every day. If I had done something really bad perhaps, but that’s not the case.
Guillaume Erard: you mentioned your knee injury earlier, did it force you to change your Aikido?
Christian Tissier: I’m ok with it, and it won’t get any better with time. I regret the mistakes I made when my knee started to break. It was a time when we were quite competitive with Shibata and Miyamoto. My meniscus was broken but I came anyway and stayed for an hour in seiza on the wooden floor, suffering. It’s really stupid but I pretended to be a little samurai. Years later I got surgery and the evening after, I was on the mat, and the the next, day at a seminar in Dijon. That was stupid.
It did change me in the sense that when I see someone with bad knees I tell them that their body is the priority. It reminds me what Endo Sensei often talks about. When I met Endo, he was pretty rough and violent. One day he broke his shoulder during a demonstration with Doshu and Yamaguchi Sensei told him “do you want to continue like this with broken shoulders at your age? If that’s Aikido, you’d better stop because you are useless”. So he started to think and he changed his Aikido. In my case, it didn’t change my Aikido, I’d like to be able to practice on my knees. It’s very frustrating to explain something you can’t do. That’s bad so I ask someone to do it and I give advice but that bothers me. It bothers me because I can’t go down, the knee doesn’t bend anymore. I tend to do ikkyo and nikyo techniques on the same side to be able to put the proper knee down.
Apart from that, my Aikido career is behind me. I have a lot of pleasure in practice. I still can do what I want when I’m standing but on the day I no longer can, I will stop showing it. I find ridiculous to show people who are young and fit how to it do when you aren’t.
Guillaume Erard: When you look at your students today, do you see in them what you wanted to pass on?
Christian Tissier: It’s interesting because it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. I’ve had several generations of students. I taught most of the teachers from the French Federation, as well as some in the rest of the world. The first generation like Gérard Dumont are a bit outside of this now. Then there was Patrick Bénézi and Bernard Palmier, then Philippe Gouttard, then those like Pascal Norbelly who are a little less known in Japan. The two last generations were Bachraty, Gonzales, Pascal Guillemin who have great careers. Now I have Fabrice Croizé who became 5th Dan with Hélène [Doué], and some young people that you might see later, some 3rd Dan who really want to work.
Guillaume Erard: What do you expect from your students as a teacher?
Christian Tissier: I’m not demanding, I teach people who want to learn. As long as they are here, I’ll make efforts to be here and teach as much as possible. I ask nothing in return, I don’t play the Sensei, I don’t ask that they carry my bag. I never ask anything. The reason is that my life is beautiful, it can’t be better, my family, my kids, I love what I do, I don’t have any problem. I don’t see why I should ask anything. If I can help people for anything, I try to do it but I ask nothing in return.
I noticed that some Aikido teachers had a strong hold on their students that makes the students stay, perhaps out of interest or due to a domination etc. I’m not like that. Therefore, I have a lot of former students with whom I’m still in contact but whom I see very little. They started their own dojo, they’re 50, 55 years old, they have children, so they come from time to time. What they do is great, but it’s not what I do now.
Guillaume Erard: They didn’t follow your evolution…
Christian Tissier: They didn’t follow but they have their own evolution. I have nothing against that. However, if they come at a class now, they feel a little disconnected, they feel that they can’t do it. Sometimes it drives them away, so we see each other less. This is why when I returned from Japan in 1976 or 77, I still went back to Japan twice per year, about four months per year, for 10 years in order to stay connected with Yamaguchi Sensei. He was coming to France twice per year and I spent two months in winter, two months in summer in Japan for 10 years. After that, my son was born in 82 and when you’re 5th or 6th Dan, you don’t go to Japan in the same manner as before. It was important to keep that connection because Yamaguchi Sensei’s Aikido changed every three months. The principles stayed the same but it was different, so it was important to keep that connection.