Interview with Miyamoto Tsuruzo, Christian Tissier, and Okamoto Yoko Shihan
In June this year, just before heading to Europe for my series of summer seminars, I traveled to Kyoto to attend the 14th International Aikido Seminar organized by Aikido Kyoto. The organization celebrated its 15th year of existence and its founder, Okamoto Yoko Shihan, was the very first Sensei who agreed to let me shoot a video interview with her. Thanks to her trust, and the resulting video, many opportunities came up for further interviews. It therefore felt quite important to me to show my support and attend this milestone event. I had of course planned to do a report of the event [read it on Aikido Journal] but I the idea also came up to take advantage of the presence of Miyamoto Tsuruzo Shihan, Christian Tissier Shihan, and Okamoto Shihan under the same roof to conduct a joint interview, to which all of them kindly agreed. The prospect of filming such a complicated setup was a daunting one and I was lucky to be able to benefit form the support of my friend Jordy Delage, the founder of Seido Co. Ltd., who has been very active lately putting together high quality videos of his own. We prepared the questions, pooled our gear together, and sat down for about an hour with the three Sensei, who generously agreed to skip their lunch to accommodate the tight schedule. What results is a wonderful back and forth discussion regarding some essential points of practice, that anyone serious about Aikido, beyond any border or culture, should contemplate.
Guillaume Erard: You were all students of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo once. How did you all meet and how does this common experience at the Hombu Dojo unite you?
The term uchi deshi (内弟子) literally means “student of the inside”. In Aikido, this term refers only to students who lived in the dojo with Morihei Ueshiba and / or Ueshiba Kisshomaru. Strictly speaking, the last Aikido uchi deshi were therefore Chiba Kazuo, Kanai Mitsunari, Saotome Mitsugi, and Kurita Yutaka. With the construction of the new building, Doshu indeed no longer lived at the dojo, but in a house next door. From that time, the term sumikomi shidoin (住み込み指導員, live-in instructor) replaced the term uchi deshi.
Miyamoto Tsuruzo: I joined the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in April, 1975. There were a lot of French people like Tissier Sensei back then. I came from the Kyushu region, so I hadn’t seen many foreigners, and it was like: “wow, this is so different”. Also, I had only ever practiced with Japanese people and practice with the foreigners was really tough for me because they were taller and stronger then me.
I trained with Tissier Sensei at the Hombu Dojo under Ueshiba Kisshomaru Sensei for about a year, until he returned to France in 1976. Regarding Okamoto Sensei, I think she arrived when I was sumikomi shidoin (住み込み指導員, live-in instructor) She came from France…
Okamoto Yoko: It was in 1978.
Miyamoto Tsuruzo: 1978… So that’s definitely when I was living at Hombu.
Okamoto Yoko: Yes, I started at Hombu.
Miyamoto Tsuruzo: I remember seeing you during Yamaguchi Sensei’s class.
Okamoto Yoko: Yes, around that time. It’s only after that I went to France and came back.
Miyamoto Tsuruzo: Yes that’s right. I also remember that Tissier Sensei trained with a great variety of teachers, starting with Ueshiba Kisshomaru Sensei, from Monday to Sunday.
Christian Tissier: Yes, that’s correct. I don’t have much to add to what Miyamoto Sensei said but that’s it. Him and I met in 1975. When he arrived from Kyushu, he had already some ranks. He was very “lively” during practice. I had a lot of pleasure practicing with him. It was often a bit… intense… but those were the times. Miyamoto Sensei, Shibata Sensei, Seki Sensei, Iwagaki Sensei, were there. It was a very solid group. I had a lot of pleasure training with them. We had technique and we were young so there was a sort of emulation between us. For Yoko, it’s a little bit different because we met before she started Aikido. She was studying French so we had some friends in common. It is along story between us. She started Aikido after I left but we then met again in Paris. She attended my dojo for a few years.
That is how life is. In life, there are lots of opportunities to meet people. Some are more important than others. Some aren’t important at the time while others are. We can’t foresee how things will turn out but in the end, there is something that unites us, even though we don’t know what it is. At some point, it emerges again. I have had that experience with many people. We have something in common, but we can’t define it. For us, it could be our love for Aikido.
But with people like Miyamoto Sensei and Yoko, I think it is more of a heart connection. On my part, I like the man. I like what Yoko represents, especially in a Japanese environment. It must be difficult for her. Things are difficult for women in Europe too, but here, it is even harder. She’s someone who found her place and people give here that place because it’s hers. Miyamoto Sensei is very humble and very engaged in Aikido.
I don’t want to take too much time but I think that what unites us even more among some Shihan is our loyalty to the Ueshiba family. I think that if Kisshomaru was still with us today, he would be happy. He would be happy to see that youngsters that he knew in their late teens are still doing things together well into their 60’s –67 for me– with respect, joy, and, I hope, quality.
Okamoto Yoko: I started in 1978, so that was about three years after Miyamoto Sensei came here. Christian was already gone by the time I started, but I went to his dojo to practice when I left for France to learn the language.
To go back to Guillaume’s question about what connects the three of us together, of course, it is definitely like Christian said: our passion for Aikido, but there is more. When I started, Miyamoto Sensei was an uchi deshi. Miyamoto Sensei, Yokota Sensei, and Osawa Sensei were all uchi deshi. They were considered the top three, the top three uchi deshi and we never dared to approach them. [laughs] They are the ones who taught me everything. And when I went to France, Christian taught me everything he learned at the Hombu Dojo.
We, the three generations including me, Christian, and Miyamoto Sensei, attended practice sessions from every teacher there was, and of course that of Doshu,
and it was completely different each day. We all learned Aikido by learning from all the different teachers and I think that is what connects us. Of course we all had our favorite teachers, as a human tendency, but we were all on the same boat called the Hombu. I think that learning from every different teacher was a definite strength.
Guillaume Erard: Your respective journeys through Aikido are very long and your backgrounds diverse. Despite your differences, you find yourselves reunited at events like this, whereas many people tend to part ways over time. How do you maintain a long-term relationship as you do?
Miyamoto Tsuruzo: Well, back in the 70’s, when Aikido wasn’t as prominent worldwide as today, there were only one or two people per year that went abroad from the Hombu Dojo. In the 90’s however, we started getting requests to send instructors over. And I think I started to come to France only in the past 15 years or so, I started in the city of Lyon. When I first came, Tissier Sensei came all the way to Lyon, and we ate together. And from that point it happened again afterwards. When I was at the Hombu, I was Kisshomaru Sensei’s student first and foremost, and I stayed there while he was promoting Aikido all over the world. I think it was 15 years ago that I eventually made it to France and was reunited with Tissier Sensei.
Okamoto Sensei also went to the US at some point to promote Aikido, before she returned to Japan and starting teaching at her dojo in Kyoto. There were some French people among us, but I had the honor of being approached by them. That led to this friendship. Hombu obviously has its own protocol and I couldn’t reach out to them myself. We sometimes talk about the old days, specifically our practice. I’m not going to drop names, but we were also attracted to the same Sensei. That’s how we formed this unique relationship, and
Christian Tissier: What’s important is that in spite of different practices, our basics and the principles are the same. It’s the way we express them and teach people that differs. What’s interesting is to see how our students react. I look at how my own students react. When Miyamoto Sensei is in Lyon, or now that he come closer to my home in Puget when he has a bit of time, my students want to attend. The young ones, those who do a lot of Aikido, all get in a car and go there. They are not concerned by our differences, for them, it is Aikido. I often get back to basics, including during this seminar. Yesterday I tried to do new things, even for me, while today, I showed basics, with an evolution. If the basics are solid, we can read someone else’s Aikido. We have the keys to understand it. That way we can see the more subtle aspects of the person. We don’t see it as “another style”. It’s the same thing but interpretations can be different.
For Yoko, it’s a little bit different because we have been in permanent contact for a long time. Every time she teaches in Scotland or in Germany, she comes to Paris if she has time. We see each other for a day or two, the ties that unite us are very strong. I know well her family, her children so it’s on a different level.
However, what pleases me is that when Miyamoto Sensei goes to Argentina, my Argentinian students go because that’s important for them. Same when Yoko goes to Brazil or Argentina. For people, after a point, it doesn’t not make any difference. We are happy to see everybody, we don’t have to go but we go if we want, and we all belong to the same group. People follow that group and I think it’s great.
Okamoto Yoko: Of course I might get to see Miyamoto Sensei or Christian once in a while if I get the chance, but obviously I don’t see them everyday. But when I practice, which happens everyday, I always see something that reminds me of them like: “Oh, I saw Christian do this, I saw Miyamoto Sensei do this, he was also doing that at Hombu, so was Yasuno Sensei, and Yamaguchi Sensei” and so on. I see those personalities come out, different shades of Aikido come out all the time. If I think about it, I might get to see Miyamoto Sensei only every two months, Christian once or twice a year, but they are always in my head, every day. So they are very close to me in that sense. That is one thing. Even if we are physically very distant, I can always feel their presence.
Then, like Christian just said, I feel happy for my students to go to Miyamoto Sensei’s or Christian’s class. I just want them to get the best training possible, including going to the Hombu.
Christian also mentioned this but I believe our role is to show them a variety of Aikido and also teach them the basic skills so they can adapt to those different styles quickly. Sorry I guess that was off topic. [laughs]
Jordy Delage: It actually leads to the next question.
Okamoto Yoko: Oh the next question, really?
Miyamoto Tsuruzo: When I go to France, to Lyon, I can see Tissier Sensei’s students. They take ukemi for me and it is a very good one. Also, I see Yoko Sensei’s students at the Hombu, and they have a very good ukemi as well. That assures me that they are receiving really good instruction. I can tell by their ukemi without seeing their technique.
Christian Tissier: There are two ways to understand what “good ukemi” means. Is is someone who know how to take break-falls? Or is it someone who understand the connection during the movement? It’s important to highlight because who read this interview might misunderstand. Our students who do “good ukemi” are not acrobats. We want them to be present, fluid, but also compressed when they have to… At same time, this connection must be felt. I hope that the people who listen to this interview understand that what we mean by “good ukemi” is not only doing break falls but it’s how to establish a relationship with the person doing the technique…
Guillaume Erard: To develop a sort of perception?
Christian Tissier: Absolutely, yes.
The term shuhari (守破離) describes the three stages in the Japanese learning process. Literally, obey (守), digress (破), and separate (離). It is therefore a question of following the rules, to be able to understand the rules, and finally to be able to transcend the rules, while always respecting the fundamentals.
Guillaume Erard: You are the students of Kisshomaru and teachers of Aikikai, but your Aikido are different from each other, and different from that of your teachers. Should we regard those differences as emanations of the Shuhari? What meaning do you ascribe to the term Shuhari, and is it important to you?
Miyamoto Tsuruzo: Well, this Shuhari is a complicated thing. Ukemi is a crucial part of practice. It is the foundation of the technique, and it allows you to learn how to use your body. Both Tissier and Okamoto Sensei are doing a great job of teaching them that important aspect. Hombu teachers like me can’t take direct students, they are all Ueshiba Doshu’s students.
Christian Tissier: Of course there is Shuhari but the teacher who wants to instruct students has to navigate between those three states. He might have achieved “Ri”, the destructuring, because he has internalized the principles, but he must constantly go back to show the kata to the students. Otherwise, they couldn’t go further, so he must constantly go back to the “Shu” of the construction of the kata. We have no choice even though sometimes we might want to do something else. It’s a bit of a trap for the teacher. Sometimes, I don’t teach the Aikido I’d like to do myself. I teach the Aikido that you people need. So we navigate between those states. Sometimes, we no longer know where we are. Sometimes we’re a bit confused. I think it’s very important to understand those three states. I define them as the kata, the form, then, the kneading of the body, and then getting back to the kata, and when all of this is done, the hips are made, the hands position is right, the body can express itself, but we need limits, that’s why we need models.
It happened to me in my life as an Aikidoka. I used to see Yamaguchi Sensei often but he also used to write to me for New Year. One day, he wrote something to that effect: “Happy New Year. Be careful, by doing too much sword, you risk to lose the principles.” I didn’t think I was doing that much sword to I wondered why he was saying that. Then I thought that perhaps, my sword work was either too, or not rigid enough, or perhaps too much based on form, or speed. So I started to question myself and I decided to leave the sword as a side thing. I’m not a kenjutsu teacher, I’m an Aikido teacher. By doing too much kata, perhaps he feared that my Aikido would become too rigid, I don’t know.
So what’s interesting is that we can be 6th, 7th, or even 8th Dan, but someone who was our model can still guide us and tell us: “It’s OK to go there a bit, but stop, come back a little.” We need that guidance. We too give guidance to others. That’s our responsibility. That also our legitimacy to say those things. We have the legitimacy to say: “This is OK, but only until today”. “You do it well until today, but from tomorrow, it must be something else”. “You are going too much in that direction, be careful”. That’s why the term “Shihan” has a lot of meaning to me because you are a model to others, but also to yourself. A teacher navigates between all those things. I don’t know if you see things that way but I do.
Okamoto Yoko: Yes, yes. To the question “why is everyone still different even if they all receive the same instruction at Hombu?”, that’s because everyone has their own personality. In the context of Japanese tea lessons, we learn how to position our hands and it must not be different, even by a little. however, no matter how much you try to mold students into this, they will always show their personality. Same with Aikido, regardless of how long we do the same practice, you will see that person’s character and experiences. So for me, we are all trying to achieve the same thing, but in different ways.
I’m not Miyamoto Sensei, Christian, Yamaguchi Sensei, Yasuno Sensei or anyone else, so it’s impossible to do the same. But how to achieve the same thing with the body that I have? That’s the question that I have to think about and solve. We are all different, origin, gender, body structure, etc. I think that’s why, that’s my answer to the first question.
And also, we talked about uke earlier. Well Christian said that we have to explain in a way that’s easier for the audience to understand, and you may think : “What is a good uke? A good uke is not about taking ukemi. I think if you expect to take an ukemi, it’s not going to be a good ukemi. There is tori and uke, and rather than just taking an ukemi, you have to be able to instantly sense what is going on in the dynamic of the tori and uke through the the technique. I think that’s what a good uke is. Anyone can take an ukemi, especially if they’ve been doing Aikido for years, but for both uke and tori to learn, you have to go beyond that.
Christian Tissier: That’s right.
Miyamoto Tsuruzo: That’s so true. As an instructor, whether you can express what you want, whether it be your experiences, age, physical strength, and also how you interpret Aikido,
that depends on a good ukemi. We really get the help of ukemi to express what we want to express.
Guillaume Erard: We see from your answers that terminology is very important. Do you think that one can really learn Aikido by the body alone, without the word. On the contrary, should one know the Japanese to tackle Aikido in depth? How about Japanese culture? What role does it play?
Miyamoto Tsuruzo: It doesn’t matter for the technique, but when there is a cultural element involved, it’s better if you can speak the language. And from what I heard from my seniors who’d always been at Hombu, the instructors didn’t explain the techniques at all. You learned by watching, by taking ukemi. Your ability to watch, and to copy without words is important regardless of your role. So the language itself is not that important, but learning a language is essential in learning about that country’s culture. You may be able to learn the techniques, but may not go beyond that.
Christian Tissier: It’s always interesting to bring another culture to one’s own culture. I think that people who do Aikido and aren’t Japanese are interested in Japanese culture. They read books and show an interest. I’m sometimes surprised by how much knowledge people have even though they don’t speak Japanese. When I look here, most people make efforts to speak a bit of Japanese. “Hello”, “goodbye”, and so on. It’s complicated when you teach because there are many elements. Tamura Sensei used to say: “You must steal my techniques”. He meant that you must pay attention. It’s important and one can teach without talking, but it’s important to realize that when you are dealing with people from Japan, Italy, or Sweden, it’s not the same thing. In Sweden, they don’t react the same way as in North Africa in Algeria. They have their own culture too so as a teacher you can say: “I’m the boss, you must adapt to my culture”, or you can adapt to what every of them needs. I don’t have the same vocabulary in Serbia for example. In Serbia, Aikido is quite new, people are strong, so I don’t use the same vocabulary than in Stokholm where the Aikido is softer and more fluid. Words aren’t the same and sometimes, a word can unblock a situation. To get back to culture, people are very interested in culture, because Aikido is aimed at people who are already well educated.
Okamoto Yoko: But also knowing the language doesn’t necessarily mean that you know Aikido. Language is not everything. I also think it helps to some extent like Christian said. For example, we didn’t use any translations for this seminar. And we didn’t for a reason, even though were initially going to. There was a sound issue, and also inserting translations really affects the rhythm. The way the Sensei feel would be different, and the results would be different. So we decided not to do that half way through. And if you really wanted to listen to Miyamoto Sensei and Christian, you really had to go in front of them. Or if you missed a really good point, you could ask them later what they’d said. We can work around that.
And like Miyamoto Sensei said, the Sensei at Hombu Dojo back then never explained anything. They said: “Stop, this is not good”, but never explained why. All they said was “No good”. [laughs] So the question was: “Do you have to learn the language?”
Jordy Delage: And the culture too.
Okamoto Yoko: Well knowing it somewhat helps. The example I like to use is how Yamaguchi Sensei would always say “Get on”. And that “Get on” (乗る, noru) can be really difficult to translate in French or English. If you know that noru in Japanese means “to ride the wave”, “let it do what it wants”, it might make more sense to you. But then again, being able to picture it helps, but that doesn’t mean you can actually do it. So that’s my take on language.
Guillaume Erard: Thank you very much.
Miyamoto Tsuruzo: You’re welcome, thank you very much.
Christian Tissier: Thank you very much.
Okamoto Yoko: Thank you very much.