Interview with Christian Tissier Shihan: Aikido as an education system
Christian Tissier 7th dan explains his conception of Aikido, the specifics of his technique, and his role as a Shihan of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo.
I had been trying to conduct an interview with Christian Tissier Shihan (7th dan Aikikai, head of the French Aikido Federation FFAAA) for quite some time now. Eventually, thanks to his good will and his kindness, things became possible. There are very few interviews of him published in English so I thought that this would be a great way to introduce Sensei to the English-speaking Aikido practitioners. He answered our questions with great precision and a disarming honesty which made the interview all the more interesting and enjoyable. We mainly went through the specificity of his teaching as well as the general organization andChristian Tissier and Seigo Yamaguchi Sens functioning of Aikido.
Guillaume Erard: Rather than going through your youth and years in Japan over again let us investigate your practice a little more. When one sees you perform an Aikido technique, the amplitude and the gracefulness of your motions strike first. Is aesthetic an important part of your research?
Christian Tissier: No, in Aikido, we are trying to reach the purity through gestures in spite of a physical constraint represented by our partner/adversary. As a consequence, as soon as this conflict is going to be resolved, keeping in mind a research towards precision, placement and economy, the motion will be closer to purity. If it is pure, then it is natural and therefore, it is beautiful. As you see, the aesthetic is not an aim in itself. Aikido is a martial discipline but it is also an art and as soon as we use the body in from this perspective, we must work on the purity of the gesture. Aesthetic is the final out come of all this work.
Ivan Bel: When you practice, you seem totally relaxed. In fact, during the seminar you just gave, you showed that if we get blocked by uke, we can conserve this relaxed state by just changing to another movement.
Christian Tissier: That is not exactly true. My conception of a martial art is that if there is a block, we should not say “I can’t do that, therefore I have to do something else”. Actually, I try to do the opposite, if there is a difficulty, I do not try to avoid it but instead, I try to find an appropriate solution by changing angle or posture but not technique. That is what I was trying to show you during the seminar, in particular on kotegaeshi. Quite often on this technique, we feel that we cannot go any further for a whole variety of reasons. As soon as we cannot go further, no point trying, it means that we came to the end of that action, however, another action has to start as a result and we should not try to escape the contact.
Christian Tissier and Guillaume Erard
To answer your question about the relaxed state, one of the aims of Budo is the suppression of fears. Wanting to become stronger than everybody else has no meaning. We should just be working on trying to overcome our own apprehensions. This is why the educational system that we put in place during an Aikido class has as an objective to suppress situations of refusal, exclusion, and non-communication. The more we will suppress these fears, the more we will find easy to go towards the others but it does not mean at all that we will become invincible. In my opinion, a well mastered, purified technique will allow us to work on ourselves and trigger an easy way of communication through the movement. Relaxation arises from that.
Guillaume Erard: About communication, you put a particular emphasis on the relationship that must exist between Tori and Uke, where both must try their best to help the other improve. This is however often regarded as connivance.
Christian Tissier: Seeing things like that show a very poor interpretation of this relationship. There can be no teaching system without codes. If we decide to plays tennis together, I will not turn up with a baseball bat, otherwise we will find very difficult to play together. Whatever the system, we will define codes. We wear white keikogi, this is a code; we practice on a tatami, this is also a code. Then we will decide to do katatedori from a static position, this is a code too, there is no action. We don’t push or pull; we let the partner perform his technique. We establish codes at the beginning and from these codes, we will organize the structure the technique.
Of course, at the beginning, there will probably be almost no sensation. For example, we will talk about tenkan linked to the center but in the beginning, we will just see a pivot and perhaps the idea of both partners looking in the same direction but no connection really. However, if you work with a Uke who is better than you, he will put you in a situation where you can understand what you are looking for.
At the end of the day, what interests me most is being able to practice with people whose codes are different from mine and to make it work nonetheless! That is precisely why I like to practice with people I don’t know, beginners, tall people, big people, karateka, judoka and so on. I like practicing with everybody because it shows that the technique can work without codes: this is the application of the technique. But before getting there, the learning process has to rely on codes.
There are of course some education systems that are totally different from mine. Some are very strict and precise but sometimes so stuck within their own codes that they can’t free themselves from it. That is a shame…
Seminar in Dublin, June 2007
Ivan Bel: We are often told that Aikido is based onto two great principles: irimi and tenkan. Seeing you, it seems that you emphasize more on the latest with big spiral motions. Is it a choice of yours or simply a way that fits with your body?
Christian Tissier: Frankly, I have the feeling that I am practicing an aikido of irimi. The confusion might come from the fact that we do not have the same notion of irimi. Irimi is not about smacking the partner across the face each time he moves or leaves an opening. For me, irimi is about getting to the core of the movement. Ma sensitivity in terms of practice comes a lot from Kenjutsu (Kashima Shin Ryu) and this type of work is very direct. Then again, it depends of everybody’s definition of irimi and tenkan but I really think that physically and mentally, my Aikido is more irimi than it is tenkan.
Regarding the spiral, this is again an irimi motion. The spiral has a core; therefore, each time we will find the ideal position around which to turn, we will take up speed and get toward the center. In the end, we will enter towards the partner. At that particular moment, we are totally irimi!
Christian Tissier and Guillaume Erard
Guillaume Erard: You often say that Aikido is an education system based on a martial discipline. According to you, what do people develop through the practice of this discipline?
Christian Tissier: Well, that is very variable according to the individual but if we speak of Aikido in terms of education system, we must not forget the martial frame. This martial aspect has specifically been chosen. We could have chosen painting, sculpture, Zen are many other things. What sometimes pushes people towards martial arts is a taste for fighting or confrontation. In a martial discipline, there are intrinsic notions of constraint and sanction. Our education system which aim is to make us progress as human beings will rely on this martial context. Each mistake should be sanctioned, either by the teacher or by the impossibility to perform the technique but because we are on the mat, we get a new chance to start over. We must take advantage of this new chance, not to repeat the same mistake but to resume a motion in which that particular error is erased.
I don’t agree with people who say that to progress is to do better. For me, progression means making less and less mistakes, perfecting our movements and not presenting any opening. The essence of Budo is the absence of openings, waki ga nai, which means never leaving an opening, either through our actions or our words. In one of my books, I had copied the following citation from an etiquette school called Ogasawara. On the main gate of this school is written: “When you are correctly seated in the ideal position, even the rudest person cannot disturb you”.
It is our behavior that allows us not to leave any opening. The martial education offers what I call “constants of the Way” which will be attitude, management of distance and vision. These three constants work together. It is not very difficult to put into practice, we can already say that this is martial arts but nothing happens yet: we are not into the motion. In order to get into the motion, we will have to summon another natural principle, the technique. Why is it a natural principle? Because since the beginnings, people have tried to develop techniques in order to perform tasks more easily and efficiently. The notion of technique cannot disregard the other natural notions. This is therefore just something that adds itself up. A well performed technique creates an economy of movement and energy. The principle of economy is also natural. This is what we should try to reach.
On top of all that, you can add principles such as communication, research of purity etc. I really think that there are some Aikido principles that have not yet been discovered but that are nonetheless natural and that we will have to add to our education system in order to enrich it.
Ivan Bel: About natural principles, we often hear about Ki, the energy flow. You don’t speak much about it though…
Christian Tissier: No I don’t. The reason is that it is a very confusing notion. I have seen quite a bit in Aikido, I have met quite a few Sensei and I must say that the ones who speak of it the most are often the ones who have the poorest technique. Of course, this is not true for everybody but Ki is not tangible. Ki is within us. There is Ki everywhere, either we know how to use it or we don’t. The fundamental issue with Ki is its flow. In terms of Aikido vocabulary, we have Ki and Kokyu, which is the vehicle for Ki. The translation of Kokyu is “breathing” but to be more accurate, in reality, Kokyu is the exchange between the two.
The bottom line is that if you practice with your stiff shoulders up to your ears, the Ki won’t flow, any acupuncture practitioner will tell you. As a consequence, until the technique is perfect, there will be no Ki, no natural flow. To me, people who really have Ki don’t feel it because everything happens naturally within them.
Christian Tissier and Guillaume Erard
We could of course develop exercises such as the ones proposed by Qigong in order to specifically work on breathing. We could also specifically work on flexibility or other things but to what end? I consider Aikido as a whole system that as been well thought. It is therefore useless to concentrate on only one aspect of the art, in particular if it is to the expense of practice time. If we have to specifically work on flexibility, we can go to a specialist, same for breathing but we should not mix everything up.
To get back to the Ki I prefer not to say too much about it as I think the discourses about this topic are often very misleading.
Ivan Bel: Your choice is therefore to focus solely on the technique.
Christian Tissier: That is right because the technique will unlock the body! Once you have unlocked your body and removed all fears, the gesture will be fluid and this will allow more kokyu. If you add an intention to this kokyu, the Ki will naturally occur.
Guillaume Erard: Everyone knows you had a very strong bond with Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei; however, you developed a style that is very different from his, in appearance at least.
Christian Tissier: In fact, there are two masters who had a great influence on my practice. The second Doshu (Kisshomaru Ueshiba) was an important model to me, in particular for the basic techniques. I also owe a lot to Yamaguchi Sensei technically of course but also for many other things such as freedom, applications and rigor. Him and I, we had a sort of father-son relationship to such extend that at the end of his life, he wanted to buy a house on the south coast of France in order to be living closer from me.
To answer your question, I don’t know whether I do things like him or not, this is not my purpose as a teacher. In fact, he did not want us to be the slaves of his technique and he would probably not have been happy if I had become his clone. I mostly integrated the principles he transmitted to me.
Christian Tissier and Guillaume Erard
Guillaume Erard: We sometimes hear about a pre- and post-war Aikido dichotomy. If at all, you have been one of the main actors for the evolution of Aikido in France and abroad. In your opinion, what has changed in Aikido?
Christian Tissier: I find this question rather amusing because when I returned from Japan, people said that what I was doing was different. The thing is that I was just back from seven years spent at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. From my perspective, it is the people who stayed in France that were doing something different. I was only repeating what I had learned at the Hombu Dojo, I did not invent the techniques. Moreover, I had been recognized by my peers at the age of 24, close student of the Doshu and much attached to Yamaguchi Sensei so I really don’t think that I have been the actor of a change in the practice of Aikido. One should not mistake what one thinks Aikido is and what is really being practiced at the Hombu Dojo.
When I arrived in Japan, I was a second Dan from Mutsuro Nakazono Sensei and I had been to all the summer courses of Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei so I thought I had a pretty good level. Once I got to the Hombu Dojo, as I saw the Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, I really wondered what he was doing. It was very different and all my certainties had to be challenged and corrected. I fact, I have to say that at first, I did not like what I saw when I met the Doshu, I thought he was stumbling. Of course I was wrong; I only knew what I was used to. These discrepancies between what we think we know and what is; are what leads us to think that there was an evolution.
Documentary on Christian Tissier by Guillaume Erard
There is however one sort of evolution going on, it is the evolution of a teacher during his lifetime. I remember Miyamoto Sensei, at the time, in Japan; he only practiced to destroy his partner. Nobody except the group I was in wanted to train with him. Nowadays, he is a charming man who takes care of his Ukes on the mat but of course, he is 60 now. He changed, as does everybody. What I mean is that when we are 20 years old, we must behave as a 20 years old on the mat too but we must also accept that we change in practice, status and age of course.
To finish, of course Aikido, as any other discipline, had an evolution. If we compare the Ukes of the beginnings with people today, the difference is significant. It is easy to explain because the Ukes from the beginnings were judoka. Today, practitioners move more freely, more spontaneously, faster so of course, the technique is not the same as in the beginning. I will try to explain to you what I mean. When I was a kid, when even a mediocre karateka was delivering a mawashi geri to the face of the opponent, it left us in admiration. Nowadays, kids are so used to video games and movies that they are used to see a guy doing six turns around himself before even kicking. Youngsters are therefore harder to impress, they live within a fantasy about martial arts that does not fit reality anymore. The imagination as changed as well as the conception of the techniques and their applications. This is normal and Aikido changes following this principle.
We cannot say that Aikido is fixed; it changes constantly, thanks goodness for that, otherwise, if students don’t become better than their teachers, in 50 years, there won’t be any Aikido anymore! What do not change are the principles.
Ivan Bel: About the fantasies with which kids who play video games deal with, do you feel that there is a gap with the new generations in terms of attitudes and values?
Christian Tissier: Frankly, I don’t know. Maybe this is the case but I think that young people who come to Aikido understand well the difference. To start with, they accept a whole lot of rules that they would not necessarily accept at home or elsewhere. Then, the respect etiquette, community life and come to train regularly. Maybe we seem to them like dinosaurs but what is most important is the behavior that we have ourselves and the example we give them. If, as teachers, we are able to detect a dedicated or talented kid, they are also able to make out if you are a model, if you have the natural authority or if you are just an old fart. In my opinion, the key to success is to be able to deliver messages to young people without having to act as youngsters ourselves.
We have to be honest and direct, that is all. In terms of practice, it is wrong to believe that kids are not willing to make efforts and sacrifices. A kid who practices seriously tektonik or break dancing will deliver as much effort as the one practicing Aikido. Both are just as difficult!
Christian Tissier and Marc Bachraty
Ivan Bel: Nowadays, there are more and more foreigners who receive the title of Shihan, but you were the very first non-Japanese to be awarded this distinction. What is your take on this?
Christian Tissier: Well, the truth is that for me, things were not so simple. When I was a 6th Dan, nothing was formalized, I was sometimes receiving letters, either from the Aikikai or from Endo Sensei where they referred to me as “Tissier Shihan” but it was not clear since this title was not being officially awarded at the times. After a while, a polemic started to appear, originating from and article published in Aikido Today magazine (American magazine edited by Susan Perry between 1983 and 2005, stopping after 100 issues) where Mitsugi Saotome Sensei and other Shihan were giving their opinion on the subject. From that, the Aikikai decided to make things clear by officially awarding the title.
The title of Shihan is either awarded to a country or to an individual. For an individual, it is kind of a thank you gesture for all he did for Aikido, as well as a way to make sure that everybody knows that he is the one in charge of the transmission of Aikido in his country. It doesn’t mean that he will be able to grade people around the world though. Others can do it however, each case is different. It is still a bit of a complicated business alright…
Guillaume Erard: As far as we know, there are only about 15 non-Japanese Shihan that have officially been awarded by the Aikikai, it is very little. Are the Japanese still quite protectionists?
Christian Tissier: Indeed this is very few. Of course they are doing protectionism, towards the Aikikai in the first place. Everybody knows that you have to wait for some time between Dan grades. This rule applies for the whole world except for the Japanese uchi-deshi [live in students] of the Hombu Dojo… These guys are from the house so as soon as they travel abroad, they quickly get promoted. Anyway, that is part of the game, and we know who is who so there is no real surprise with this system. Everybody knows what everyone is worth. They also know themselves what to expect from non-Japanese masters.
Christian Tissier and Philippe Gouttard
Ivan Bel: With the general level of skills increasing, will there be a time when we don’t need Japan anymore?
Christian Tissier: Yes, we now can do without Japan as much as Japan could do without us. However, I think it is very important not to underestimate the interaction that exists between the two. For example, Japan could not really do without us in terms of diffusion of Aikido with for example our national organizations and the international federation that give them credibility beyond of their own frontiers. It is also important to realize that a Sensei in Japan is only known within his dojo and the ones of his students. Don’t think that these guys teach seminars with 300 people, far from it. They have to come to Europe to see that happen. For q young teacher in his fifties, coming to Europe is a huge gain in credibility for him. On the technical level, we are as competent in Europe and in the US to teach Aikido but I think it is always interesting to go back to the origins because the teaching is different. What the Japanese lack is the systematic analysis of Aikido. Thankfully, not everybody is like that but in general, pedagogy is not their one of their strength! If you ask why a technique is like this or like that, they will just answer you “because it is”. This is the kind of typical answers you get in Japan. As a consequence, an 8th Dan Sensei from Japan would probably fail the Brevet d’Etat [French teaching qualification] here. I have often discussed about this with Seishiro Endo Sensei. Even though he is my Sempai, he sometimes asked me if such and such technique existed in the Ura version. Our pragmatic logic and our sense of analysis allowed us to de-construct very early on the techniques and to classify them. We bring a lot to the Japanese on that respect.
On the opposite, we don’t have the same culture and we don’t have the same way to deal with problems. The Japanese often allow you to question yourself on very subtle notions and this is a great way to progress. Japanese will make you doubt because it obliges you to reconsider what you know.
To sum up, yes, we could do without Japan but both would lose a lot.
Christian Tissier demonstration on French TV
Guillaume Erard: Let’s talk now about the FFAAA (French Aikido Federation). People don’t really know what your position in this organization is. Some people often call you the boss of the federation. What exactly is your role?
Christian Tissier: To be absolutely clear, I am at the origin of the FFAAA. I even chose its name. Without me, it would not exist. That being said, I did not really intend to create it and I am not that proud of it either. It happened mainly because of the circumstances at the time. At that time, Aikido was part of the Judo federation (FFJDA). I had a meeting at my house with Tamura Sensei and as we were eating, he asked me: “If we leave the FFJDA, would you follow me?” At the beginning, I was all for it but I soon realized that it was in fact a political maneuver with some very disputable positions. Eventually, I did not follow the movement but it was not to be against anybody. It is just the way that it happened that disturbed me. I think the separation from the FFJDA was a mistake. We had many advantages to be with them in terms of installations and we would have had our independence eventually, like the Karate with the FFKAMA [French Karate federation] or later, the Taekwondo with the FFKAMA. We would just have had to grow with serenity to take our independence naturally.
After the separation, I ended up more or less on my own. The young teachers around me such as Philippe Gouttard were only 2nd or 3rd Dan. We really were a federation of children (laughs). That was in 1982, and even though I was a bit better off technically, I was only 31. A few people who did not like the way it was done either stayed with me like Paul Muller or Louis Clériot amongst others. We then called Jacques Abel and we structured the federation. Pierre Guichard, who was the national technical director of the Judo and the successor of Courtine, came to ask me if I wanted to become national technical director for Aikido. This was quite a huge offer, it was a ministerial appointment. Out of respect for the other people who stayed with me, I decided not to take it, perhaps I was wrong.I am the head of the federation only because almost all of the regional technical directors except 7 or 8 are from my dojo. I am therefore the leader but only because of this fact. I have never wanted to claim an official status. In fact, some people are blaming me for this because as a consequence, there is no real hierarchy within the federation. That is just the way it is, perhaps it will change one day. This system doesn’t disturb me at all. My true role is to represent the federation on the international level. I have no official post on that either however. Oh yes, sorry I have one, I am a member of the technical college but I never go (laughs). I am probably seen as some sort of a renegade, not very easy to handle.
Bercy Embukai 2003
Ivan Bel: That is really surprising to hear that from you!
Christian Tissier: But that is the truth! If I really wanted to take the power it would be very simple, I would just have to go to the direction of the FFAAA and ask to become the boss or else I leave. This would of course create a big problem.
Guillaume Erard: Let us finish by the traditional question; do you have a message for the readers?
Christian Tissier: In fact I do. We just talked about the two federations. In my opinion, it is a real shame that there are two federations in France, in particular two federations that do not get along very well. However, we should consider ourselves lucky, there are only two! In some countries, there are 7 or 8. I will go soon to Israel and I have been told that here were 27 different groups over there for a very small amount of practitioners. As you see, it could be a lot worse.
I would like things to be very clear, I have always had the greatest respect for Tamura Sensei and I think he knows it. He is a great master who fully deserves the recognition he has. In the future, would like more connections between the groups. Even if the techniques and the conception of the grading are different, we must remember that we are all doing Aikido and that we share the same principles. We must learn to get along.
Personally, I sometimes feel closer to some people from the FFAB [the other French federation of Aikido] than from my own. For the moment, things are as they are and we do our best to run the dual headed system. If I was running the FFAAA, I would probably run things a bit differently but I don’t plan to do it in a near future. We must therefore show some good will in order to make communication easier and allow practitioners to appreciate each other.
Guillaume Erard: Thank you very much Sensei, enjoy your flight and see you soon on the mat.
Christian Tissier: It was my pleasure.