Interview with Olivier Gaurin: A Journey on the Way of Disgrace
Olivier Gaurin is one of the most well-known French Aikido practitioners. His atypical path and his ease with words have made him one of the prominent voices of our martial art in France. Olivier Gaurin has been living in Japan for many years and he got the chance to practice with some of the greatest masters such as Seigo Yamaguchi and Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei. He speaks Japanese fluently and has a deep understanding of the Japanese culture, which he enthusiastically shares with other practitioners through a series of books that he wrote about the practice of Aikido. I met with Olivier Gaurin on a summer evening at his Tokyo apartment and we discussed during several hours about his martial journey and his views on Aikido while sharing a homemade pizza cooked by the “Captain” himself.
NOTE: The views expressed in this article reflect only those of the interviewee, they are independent from those of the curators of this website.
Guillaume Erard: How did you start Aikido?
Olivier Gaurin: I had been practicing fencing since the age of five but when I reached 14, I was advised to stop because of a bone deformation. I had to choose another sport that made equal use of both sides of my body. I wanted to continue practicing a martial art but Kendo was out of the question because one hand is above the other. My father was not convinced by Karate so I ended up registering at an Aikido dojo sometimes during 1975-1976; I was 15. The classes were taught by André Nocquet who had trained at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo Tokyo for three years at the end of the 50’s as the very first foreign uchi deshi of O Sensei Ueshiba Morihei. Unfortunately, master Nocquet left our dojo three months after I arrived and he was replaced by Jacques Matthieu.
Guillaume Erard: What do you remember of André Nocquet and why did he leave the dojo?
Olivier Gaurin:I think it has to do with the separation of Aikido from the Judo federation. It induced a split of Aikido in two groups and André Nocquet was amongst those who left. He showed me how to take my first ukemi. He was very imposing, like a big bear and everyone was looking at him in wonder. At the time, I did not know who he really was and it is much later that I learned about all what he had done for the diffusion of Aikido in France, Europe, and even Japan. Everything changed with the various structural reorganizations of Aikido at the time and I think that he suffered a lot from these political games.
André Nocquet practicing in Japan under Morihei Ueshiba. Nocquet’s training partner in this video is Nobuyoshi Tamura Senseï
Guillaume Erard: How did you get you interest for Japan?
Olivier Gaurin: Jacques Matthieu had been in Japan and he used to often show us some old films of O Sensei. I particularly remember one demonstration shot in colors. When I saw this film, I said: “This is what I want to do, exactly that!” and everybody laughed…
Guillaume Erard: You met Christian Tissier around that time didn’t you?
Olivier Gaurin: During his stay in Japan, Jacques Matthieu had met Christian Tissier and when Tissier came back to France, Jacques invited him to teach a weekly class at his dojo. I discovered something very different, very dynamic and beautiful, with a lot of panache. Compared to what I had learned until then with other Sensei, what Christian Tissier was doing was quite unbelievable. Once he opened his dojo in Vincennes, I registered and I was amongst the small group of students who first started to train there under his direction.
Guillaume Erard: How was the atmosphere in Vincennes at the time?
Olivier Gaurin: We were a very small group of students and Christian Tissier was very active. It was a very interesting dojo, full of energy and enthusiasm, everyone really wanted to learn and train. We were young, without great intelligence perhaps, but very motivated. This might actually have bothered Christian a bit on the long run because we were too idealistic. Still, I have wonderful memories of this dojo; Christian Tissier was very generous and very sharp technically. We did some extraordinary things with him; he introduced us many different teachers including those from other disciplines such as Muay Thai. I also remember a wonderful class with Terry Dobson in the small dojo in Vincennes. It is at this moment that I started to think that although Christian Tissier was fantastic, there were many other people to be discovered. Yamaguchi Sensei, whom he had introduced to us shortly after his return to France, was a good example of that. Each person we met was the expression of an entire world and I think that it is these worlds that interested me. Unfortunately, everything exploded in this dojo because of, once again, political reasons.
Guillaume Erard: What were those reasons?
Olivier Gaurin: Mainly due to struggles for power and money. Christian Tissier wanted to increase his teaching potential; he was very ambitious and intelligent. I think that when he got back from Japan, he decided to make his mark on French Aikido. Everything changed when Patrick Bénézi and a few others arrived, setting up new politics, right at the moment when the FFAAA and the FFAB became two distinct groups. This actually brought politics into Vincennes where there hadn’t been any until then. I find Christian Tissier’s career absolutely extraordinary but unfortunately, our little group had to be sacrificed for it. Such is life.
Guillaume Erard: How was the practice at the time? Were there such things as “styles” in Aikido ?
Olivier Gaurin: Christian Tissier quickly gave a lot of seminars all across France and we followed him as much as possible. That way, we could meet a lot of people and practice many types of Aikido. We also attended seminars given by other instructors such as Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei who was the main instructor in France and Europe at the time.
At that time, there was not a “Christian Tissier”-style such as what can be seen today with those legions of clones. We were the students of Christian Tissier but contrary to what has been happening for many years, we did not reproduce his Aikido. First of all, we were far from his technical level but also, he had the intelligence to leave us a lot of freedom. Practice in France was pretty shapeless at the time actually, there were no such things as styles. People did what they could with the teachers to which they had access. We just arrived with a slightly different approach because of the fact that Christian Tissier was still greatly influenced by masters such as Masuda Seijuro, Osawa Kisaburo, Yamaguchi Seigo, Ueshiba Kisshomaru in Aikido, and Inaba Minoru Sensei in kenjutsu. We were young so we assumed that what we did was a little better, because we were technically closer to the Aikikai source. It is normal I think, we were immature and we really loved what we were doing. We were not necessarily judgmental towards others but we treasured Christian Tissier’s teaching (smile).
It was wonderful at the time to have someone as generous and as paternalist as Christian Tissier to guide ours steps in Aikido. Even at the time when he just came back from Japan at age 24, Christian was already very mature. I am sure that he already had in mind everything he wanted to do for Aikido in France and abroad. You know, Christian Tissier has impressive willpower and determination, he is a real tiger. For us, in addition to being our Sensei, he was the big brother, “aniki”, who brought us something luminous as well as a sense of direction.
Guillaume Erard: How did you decide to go to Japan?
Olivier Gaurin: Christian Tissier had introduced us to a brand new world and I wanted to discover that world. I wanted to know where he had learned all these fantastic things. After a few years training in Vincennes, I went to see him in his office and I said: “I want to go to Japan, what is the best way to proceed?” He looked at me with a smile and said: “That is great, how much money do you have?” I was 18; I had managed to gather 3 500 Francs [about 530 Euros] but he answered to me: “Come back when you have three times that”. His reaction totally discouraged me and I decided to wait before going. I eventually left when I was 27, after I had finished my master’s degree in Philosophy and saved enough money. I left for three months. Of course, I had a reasonable experience in Aikido, I was third Dan and I had met a lot of people. Also, at the time, Christian Tissier was fulfilling most of my expectations in Aikido.
Guillaume Erard: Were you going to Japan more for Aikido or more for Japan itself?
Olivier Gaurin: Both of course but mainly for Aikido. In addition to Muay Thai, I was also practicing Iaido and Kendo so Japan represented a sort of martial world that appealed to me. Following Christian’s advice, I had saved a good bit of money and my plan was to go there for three months, do all the things that I wanted to do, and spend all of my money if necessary. Once I got there, I did just that, I went to see the temples in Kyoto, the Kabuki shows in Tokyo, and I traveled across the whole country. Of course, I also trained a lot at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. After three months of cultural orgy, I was completely broke. I was happy and ready to go back; I had my plane ticket and a job waiting for me in Paris. Life was good and I thought: “I will come back”.
Two days before my flight, I contacted a Japanese friend whom I had not yet met and I told him that I was leaving soon. He was the manager of several bars and restaurants in Tokyo and he told me that he thought that it was a pity to leave so early given that I was coming for the practice of martial arts. He told me to meet him in his office and once I got there, he asked me if I wanted to stay in Japan. He gave me a job, a flat, a visa, and even lent me some money. He told me that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity and that I should take it or leave it. His secretary had brought me a small cup of green tea. When he asked me the question, I needed time so I took the cup and drank it straight. The tea was boiling hot and it completely burned the inside of my mouth. Thinking back, I reckon that it is that feeling that pushed me to say yes. It made me realize that if even a cup of tea could hurt me, I had a lot to learn in this country.
Contrary to what he had told me, the job did not start before three months and therefore, I had very little money at the beginning. At some point, I had to survive on crisps and bananas but at least, I could train a lot. I find a bit stupid to say that I trained five hours per day as sometimes I was injured, and other times I could not get up, but I trained a lot. So that is how Japan started for me, with some boiling tea and a lot of luck!
Olivier Gaurin training in Tokyo (uke: Guillaume Erard)
Guillaume Erard: When you started to work, what was your training regime?
Olivier Gaurin: I was working nights until four in the morning and after work, I used to head directly to the Aikikai in order to attend both morning classes. After that, I used to go back home to sleep and I returned to Hombu for the 3 o’clock class, and back at work after that. It was a very hard lifestyle but it is how it worked out for me. It was very methodical, almost mechanical, whether it rained or snowed.
Japan is always very difficult at the beginning and I know no one for whom it has been easy, even for Christian Tissier, although finding a job was a lot easier in his time. When I arrived in 1986, the economic bubble had not burst yet and quite a lot of money was going around but after that, it became a lot harder. By the time the bubble burst, I was running my own business but because of that I lost everything and I had to go back to work in catering. It is a job that I know well and love. I never wanted to teach French because even though I had all the necessary qualifications, I wanted to avoid contacts with the French community.
Guillaume Erard: Which instructors were teaching when you arrived in Japan?
Olivier Gaurin: All the old Sensei were there and amongst them, Kisshomaru Doshu and Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei made the biggest impression on me. There were also Osawa Kisaburo Sensei, the technical director and pillar of the Aikikai, Masuda Seijuro Sensei whom I like very much, and Watanabe Nobuyuki Sensei, the magician of Aiki. Arikawa Sadateru Sensei was there too and although his keiko was very painful, he had a wonderful technique. Shibata Ichiro Sensei was teaching on Thursday afternoons, he replaced Chiba Kazuo Sensei when he moved to the United States and his classes were very dynamic. Shibata Sensei became very important for me at that time. Endo Seichiro Sensei was already teaching and he was actually my mentor at the Aikikai since Christian had introduced me to him before I left for Japan. There was also Sasaki Masando Sensei, the shinto priest with the thousands word games whom I liked very much, even though I did not understand what he was saying at the time. He often made word games using different levels of speech, a bit like the Manzai storytellers of Osaka. In one of my books, I have translated his last three months of teaching at the Aikikai; I had a very hard time. Japanese is a multi-layered language and even though the pronunciation is similar, the choice of one character over another might make very significant differences.
Guillaume Erard: Even though you followed all these instructors, did you consider yourself as the student of one teacher in particular?
Olivier Gaurin: I did not want to be the student of one particular teacher but of all the teachers. Practicing at the Aikikai was very hard because each Sensei showed very different things and every one of them was wonderful. Most of the times, I liked what they showed but did not understand it. I was however the only one at the Aikikai who could mimic all the Sensei, a bit like a learned idiot; it was a game for me. I think that the question should be “which classes would I have not missed”. For me, these were the Doshu’s morning sessions and Yamaguchi Sensei’s classes on Tuesday mornings. They never told me that I was their student but they were models for me, my references, and my main reasons for staying in Japan.
Guillaume Erard: Was the fact that you liked these two teachers in particular due to Christian Tissier’s influence?
Olivier Gaurin: Certainly, his influence was obvious because he was the one who introduced me to Yamaguchi Sensei and because his own Aikido was an expression of that of Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei. For me, Yamaguchi Sensei was the most profound expression of the type of Aikido that we call nagare. Nagare, “the dynamic utilization of the aggressor’s intentions” is the typical form of Aikido that developed after the death of the founder; this is the particularity of what we call modern Aikido. The Aikikai quickly emphasized this aspect of the practice and today, we can clearly see both the positive and negative effects of this approach.
Kisshomaru Ueshiba embodied a very mysterious phenomenon for me. During his morning class, he very quickly took me as uke, after the uchi deshi of course, but before a lot of Japanese people nonetheless. Something clicked very quickly between us. He was not my Sensei as I don’t think that one can say that Doshu is his or her Sensei, but he often came to correct me personally and show me things that he was not showing to others. He was extremely kind in spite of his severity. Also, when I was attacking him, I felt lost. At the time I was very fit, I was practicing boxing and other things but each time, I felt like attacking a ghost. He was already old and weak and I was in great shape and weighted over 75 kilos. I was really intrigued because each time I was attacking him, I encountered a void. I also realized that the uchi deshi were falling in a very peculiar way with him and it made me want to learn because it was beautiful and seemed justified. I took quite a few hits from Kisshomaru Sensei and I never saw them coming. At some point I told myself “OK, I am not going to get hit like that forever so I need to learn ukemi”. I learned like that, looking at people like Osawa Hayato [the son of Osawa Kisaburo Sensei], Yokota Yoshiaki, or even the uchi deshi of the time such as Kuribayashi Takanori Sensei and Horii Etsuji Sensei. It was very gratifying for me because in addition to my will to learn, I felt that Ueshiba Kisshomaru Sensei wanted to teach me. It is a bit similar to what happened with Yamaguchi Sensei, a mutual interest and a certain connection. Without it, we “steal” the technique but knowledge remains very superficial since there is no exchange from heart to heart.
Guillaume Erard: Do you feel privileged to have had that sort of a relationship with these instructors?
Olivier Gaurin: A lot of other people have had access to this sort of things; I don’t want to imply that I was the only one. People such as Christian Tissier, Alain Verdier, Bernard Palmier, Bruno Zanotti, Philippe Granger, and a lot of others were close to these Sensei.
Guillaume Erard: If all of these people have these common references, how come their Aikido is so different?
Olivier Gaurin: Having common references does not mean that we should all do the same thing. This is the depth of Japanese Aikido: people are not taught to do the same thing as everyone else, instead, they are taught to find the possibilities available to themselves. I think that it is something that we don’t find outside of Japan, it is a made to measure Aikido. In contrast, in France for example, people are doing ready-to-wear Aikido, catalog techniques, a sort of industrialized version of Aikido while in Japan, past the apprenticeship of the basics, it quickly becomes a very personal and refined craft. In Japan, Aikido should fit the practitioner impeccably as opposed to the practitioner trying to fit in an Aikido which is not adapted. It is often the case abroad with people stubbornly copying the forms of such and such Sensei.
We can therefore say that the common points are the basics but that the ideal of Japanese martial arts should be adapted and specific to every practitioner. This is what I learnt from Ueshiba Kisshomaru and Yamaguchi Seigo Sensei: to always try to do haute couture in Aiki, that is, an Aiki that looks and feels good in every circumstance.
Guillaume Erard: I am sure that a lot of people will be offended by what you said, could you explain what is the point of the differentiation that you make between what you call “made to measure” as opposed to the “ready-to-wear” Aikido?
Olivier Gaurin: Those who do not understand that difference tend to think that they are the representative of Aikido as a whole rather than of one form of Aikido. They miss something crucial, perhaps essential: the fact that one’s Aikido is only the representation of oneself, not a style, a school, or a teacher. A person who is aware of the haute couture is not fooled by the Aikido displayed by others. The flaws, deviances, fake stories, technical inventions etc. appear under their true nature: ignorance which believes and presents itself as mastery. However, true mastery is a lot more humble than that.
Guillaume Erard: So you owe your views on Aikido to Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei and Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei don’t you?
Olivier Gaurin: These two Sensei were indeed my humble basis of work but I tried to follow every teacher, particularly Osawa Kisaburo Sensei. Like many old Sensei, I think that very few people understood what he was doing. It was an interesting Aikido, very flexible, but in a rigid mentality, all of that behind a very sympathetic mask, as is often the case here in Japan. Osawa Kisaburo Sensei was a bit like a peach with a big stone in it (laughs)! Of course I also particularly liked the classes of Arikawa, Watanabe and Endo Sensei and I think that their influence on me is still visible today.
Basically, there are three ways to learn in Japan. The first one is to follow one particular Sensei and to become a sort of doppelganger. The second one, also called here the “way of disgrace” [“Fuhyô no Michi” (不評の道) : “the way of impopularity”] is about learning from everyone, without particular affiliation or allegiance, and of course without recognition. This is the way that I have chosen but it is a quite tedious and thankless task, you have to build yourself using all the conflicting information that you are exposed to. The third way is a mix of both, one choses a Sensei as main mentor but goes to put his knowledge into practice at other people’s classes.
For me, the “way of disgrace” is the most interesting, both in ethical and technical terms, because one has to follow contradictory teachings and therefore, it keeps one on the tangent of what I call the flow of appropriation. It prevents discourses that are in essence “I am right and the others are wrong”.
Guillaume Erard: But how can one find his way in this multitude of teachings?
Olivier Gaurin: After a while, one should stop seeking differences but instead, start to look for the common points in all these teachings. It is at that point that things start to become interesting. I think that people should congratulate each other and acknowledge the fact that everyone is fabulous in their own medium and in their own world. Does it mean that one should appropriate himself Yamaguchi Sensei’s world? Or be appropriated by it? Should one become a clone of such and such Sensei? Personally I prefer to stay free. The bottom line should be: take the qualities of all these people and leave their flaws aside.
I sincerely believe that everybody should develop their own Aikido. It has to be built upon common bases and pertinent work hypothesis but it should at same time be the expression of something personal. In Japan, this part of the work often starts when a Sensei passes away. In my case, since Yamaguchi Sensei and Kisshomaru Sensei are dead, I have been left alone, trying to follow their trail, but I am also freer in my Aikido. My Aikido now matures like a good wine, slowly, freely but at same time well framed by its gasket. Please note that by “framed”, I mean something which is very different to “stylised” or “formatted”.
Guillaume Erard: Since you are talking about framing, I have the feeling that if we follow regularly the classes of a Japanese Sensei, we are a bit restrained within that teacher’s perspective of study, which is interesting of course, but where it is expected from us to just reproduce what we see.
Olivier Gaurin: Yes, this is the first degree of analysis which concerns a level that one might qualify as basic. Although it is true in the sense that in Japan, what is expected is imitation, it is only relevant at the first level of understanding of the art. There are other levels.
In fact, the Sensei does not expect us to reproduce exactly what he shows. What he expects is that through imitation of the techniques, the student understands their meaning. That is the second level. I remember for example Yamaguchi Sensei; the only two times when he got really mad at me were both after I had been mimicking his techniques and his attitudes. As I told you before, I was very good at imitating the various Sensei’s techniques and even though everybody thought it was great fun, it was not really what the Sensei expected. In fact, they really don’t care whether or not you practice like they do. Besides, they know perfectly well that you, a 6 ft. guy, can’t reproduce what they do. What they expect from you however is that you understand their Aikido, how they do the things they do.
So at the beginning, Japanese Aikido is indeed about imitation, but it is not an end in itself, it is just a way to understand what we are mimicking. Now the problem is that if people get stuck in the mimicking, although a few things will come out, nothing very profound or coherent will develop. This is exactly what happens with most of the people trying to do Christian Tissier’s Aikido. If one wants to do Christian’s Aikido, one can only achieve these wonderful things through an understanding of the meaning of what he does and of how he got there. If not, one is just a good mime who performs a shallow form of someone else’s Aikido.
Aikido technique is a shell and at the core is the person. The shell contains important points of comprehension of the movements, these are the points that the Sensei are seeking (since they have been lost through time) and pass on. The forms, the styles, are like in music, everyone has their own. We can have the same music sheet but interpret it differently; this is not an issue, it is actually a good thing.
Guillaume Erard : Were you in Tokyo when Yamaguchi Sensei passed away ?
Olivier Gaurin: Yes I was there at his last class on a Monday night. The following day at eight a.m., everybody was waiting for him but he never came back. He had never missed a class before that. It is a sad story; we wish he had lived longer. When he died, I stopped Aikido for three months; I was in shock and did not want to go back to the Aikikai. I felt a great void, a kind of black hole. I did not feel like doing Aikido anymore… until the day when I saw him in a dream. He was giving out to me for the third time. He said that I was a fool to be stopping after 12 years spent training with him, in his shadow. I felt like telling him that he should not have died but before I could utter a word, he told me that I should resume my practice, that I should enhance and perpetrate what he had taught me. It was a dream so it can mean anything or nothing but it helped me. The following morning, I went back to the Hombu Dojo, Kisshomaru Ueshiba was teaching his morning class as usual, as if nothing had happened. Nobody was talking about it, I was shocked and this is then that I thought that I should not let the little I had learnt from Yamaguchi Sensei disappear.
Guillaume Erard: This reminds me a bit of the passing of Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei and Seiichi Sugano Sensei. I heard a good few people from Europe saying that they were surprised that the Aikikai had not organised an official event or a ceremony for these people.
Olivier Gaurin: This has to do with Japanese culture. In Japan, there are ceremonies, funerals for example, where things are said and done by officials, but there is also the rear of the scene that we can’t see, where the most important things occur. The officials express what is formal, but the emotions are never put forward. The only demonstration of affection for Yamaguchi Sensei that we saw came under the form of the touching article written by Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba.
Regarding Tamura Sensei’s passing, I was not in France and therefore, I do not know to what extend the Aikikai was involved. However, In Japan, death is not seen the same way as it is in Europe. It was obvious that Tamura Sensei was not going to live much longer, he had been ill for a long time, and the last time he came in Tokyo, he seemed to know that it might be his last trip. During that stay, many things happened, not through words, but through attitudes, looks, things that carry much deeper meaning in Japan.
One should not be paranoid; the absence of signs is not an issue of recognition or appreciation. It is not upon someone’s passing that recognition should occur anyway, we are not soldiers and we don’t get posthumous titles. Aikido is much bigger than that. In the cosmic aspect of Aikido, the death of Tamura Sensei just takes its place within the great scheme of things, just like the death of Tohei Sensei and others. Death is neither seen as an end, nor as a beginning. This is what happened for me when Yamaguchi Sensei passed away and I wish that all Tamura Sensei’s students do the same; that they build upon what he gave them. In the end, the most important thing is not when and how he died but whether he played his role in this universal machinery. It is very important to understand and accept that things happen in Japan in a very different way from what we might expect. In Japan, the appearance is almost always different from the substance.
Guillaume Erard: It reminds me of what happened after the Great Tohoku Earthquake. We did not see any large ceremony organised. Instead, most yearly celebrations were either tuned down or simply cancelled. At the Aikikai, the 80 years celebration of the Hombu Dojo were rescheduled and the Shinobukai social was cancelled. Instead of cries and tears, Japanese people seem to prefer respectful silence.
Olivier Gaurin: Yes I think that this is something specific to Japan. In France, we are Latin and a lot of emotions have to get out. In Japan, it is the opposite; people are specialists of hiding their emotions, hurt or even joys, unless they are drunk and have an excuse. For everything which is important, officials put on a communication screen, they hide information because one should not talk about the misery and despair of others. For example, it is terrible to live with the pressure of purchasing food that might be radioactive [see the article on the subject of food radioactive contamination in Japan written by Guillaume Erard], but for the Japanese, dignity forces them to say “that’s alright, such is life”. They try to go beyond the urge to show when one feels anger or sadness. I respect that very much.
Regarding the Aikikai, it is the same thing. It seems to be an austere and cold machine but behind that, a lot of things are done, and even after 25 years, there are things that I don’t know. The retention of information is enormous in Japan. Anything that does not concern you directly should not be given to you. If you are on an Aikido visa for example, you only get the information that is necessary for practice and the rest does not concern you. “Let us take care of it”.
It is a system that works well as long as there is no major problem. Regarding Fukushima, where it is a case of life and death on a more or less long term, the government tells the locals “let us deal with the situation, don’t worry, we are taking care of things”. These people are probably being sacrificed but this is also a part of the system. Actually, when one speaks to Japanese people about Budo, the first thing that they say is that it is about learning to die. They say it only if we know them well but it is really what they think.
It reminds me of my first book, I had written a chapter on death but it was pulled out at the second edition because in France, apparently, we should not talk about death. In Japan, death is very ubiquitous historically, as much for the noble casts as for the more modest ones. Samurai had to go to get killed on the battlefield and peasants could be killed at any time for no reason. It is a system that I don’t like and it is why I quit practicing Iaido a long time ago, because of the idea of drawing the sword and killing instantly. I don’t see where the Do is in this system. If we were using bokuto in Iaido I would understand, I would feel reassured in the knowledge that I might not kill. This is the Do.
Guillaume Erard: Going back to Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei, he had a peculiar approach to teaching, could you describe it to us?
Olivier Gaurin: Yamaguchi Sensei was special in that he did not have a court like other Sensei. All the Sensei in Japan, in France, or in the rest of the world have a sort of court that gravitates around them. Yamaguchi Sensei did not encourage this at all, quite the opposite in fact. He did not recognise the courtesans who wanted to be near him and access his knowledge. In that sense, he was someone pure, someone who wanted to keep Aikido intact. His teaching was at same time very close to his students but also very cold. I have the feeling that he did not like the people who considered themselves as his students. Someone who claims to be the student of Yamaguchi Sensei is probably a liar, unless they are people like William Gleason or Bruno Zanotti. Of course, a lot of other people have learnt and propagate what he taught but they don’t brag about it. One has to be very careful when one hear someone claiming that they are the student of Yamaguchi Sensei.
Don’t forget that Yamaguchi Sensei, like Arikawa Sensei, had very solid bases issuing from Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, he also had very strong sword work, and he was proficient in other disciplines. So yes, it kind of looks similar but Yamaguchi Sensei was complete in his art and it will always be very difficult to try to emulate what he did. I understood this only when I started to practice Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu and this is when I started to understand where Yamaguchi Sensei’s techniques came from, why he was doing them a certain way. There were true historical bases that made his Aikido. He was not the only one like that at the Aikikai at the time but very few people know this, even those who claim to be the students of these Sensei.
Guillaume Erard: What is the place of Daito-ryu relatively to Aikido? Is it just an ancestor or should it be considered as a technical basis?
Olivier Gaurin: Many people have trouble accepting it but technically speaking, Ueshiba Morihei, throughout his life, never ceased to practice Daito-ryu. Even today, Daito-ryu practitioners often say that they practice Aikido [they in fact use the word as a synonym for Daito-ryu as can be heard in the video documentary about Takumakai Aiki-jujutsu published herein]. A perfectly executed Daito-ryu technique does not allow for ukemi and therefore, the techniques had to be modified in order to allow a continuous training and avoid practitioners to end up in the hospital. Even hard core Daito-ryu practitioners acknowledge the fact that within the context of study, they actually do Aikido. Traditional Daito-ryu techniques are very destructive and they have little to do with current practice. There is a very well-known notion in Daito-ryu that says “one second, one tatami”, which means that the techniques only lasts for a second after contact and that the space of only one tatami is required for its execution. There is no great projection in Daito-ryu, it is not a showy art and the opponent is either dead, or reduced to a total incapacity to fight.
Ueshiba Sensei’s students therefore know very well these techniques that their master learnt before the war, before Daito-ryu got softer. As I said before, I understood all of this when I started to practice Dai-ryu Aiki-jujutsu and this is something that the students of Yamaguchi Sensei cannot understand since they have not studied Daito-ryu. I would even go on to say that one who is not familiar with Daito-ryu cannot understand Yamaguchi Sensei’s Aikido. Some Sensei tend to rediscover some of these fundamental points through teaching and refining something that they do not understand. They cannot however identify the important points, they accentuate them too much as if they were true, then they tend to forget them or mix them up with less important points. As a result, all of this is a bit messy. This is precisely the problem of nowadays’ Aikido, there are no basis of Aiki. Everyone cooks up their own little recipe.
Documentary on Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu presented by Olivier Gaurin and directed by Guillaume Erard
Guillaume Erard: How then do you propose to find true Aikido?
Olivier Gaurin: I have asked myself that very question for decades and the only way I have found to rediscover these points is to go looking for them in the historical source of each movement, through the study of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu. Once one starts to understand Daito-ryu, one can grasp the magic of what O Sensei was doing.
Guillaume Erard: What is the cause of this loss of basics within modern Aikido?
Olivier Gaurin: Kisshomaru Sensei is the one who operated this historical split with Daito-ryu and even though I understand why he did that, I think that it was a bit awkward on his part to do this. The reason is that if you separate anything from its history, it becomes an orphan, and an orphan always looks for its identity. As a result, since O Sensei’s passing, Aikido is trying to find itself. When O Sensei died, people lost their “god”, their framework and therefore, they started to seek new totems. Aikido started to wander like an orphan lost in the woods. Students are then obliged to follow teachers who are blind. Tamura Sensei, in a very important interview, confessed this fact some time ago. It was at same time very lucid and very courageous on his part. I think that we should reintroduce Daito-ryu in the history of Aikido.
Guillaume Erard: Why did Kisshomaru Sensei decide to cut the ties with Daito-ryu?
Olivier Gaurin: It is incorrect to assume that it is Kisshomaru who decided that. I believe that it all started even before the passing of O Sensei. First of all, Ueshiba Sensei had issues with Takeda Sokaku, monetary and other. In particular, O Sensei could not teach Daito-ryu since he did not possess the authorisation to teach. He was qualified technically but Takeda Sensei did not want to give him the Menkyo-sho. The only person who received the Menkyo-kaiden when Takeda Sokaku was alive is Takuma Hisa, the founder of the Takumakai and subsequently, other people only received their Menkyo-kaiden from the son, Takeda Tokimune.
So Ueshiba Sensei could not teach Daito-ryu and after the war, he went to the Japanese Education Ministry to register the name of Aikido and started to call his teaching like that. This is very similar to what happened in Judo since Kano Jigoro and O Sensei actually knew each other very well. In both cases, the split was not necessarily technical, at least at the beginning. A few differences have emerged through time, while O Sensei was refining the conceptual aspect of his art.
Later, when O Sensei died, an issue concerning the stabilisation and transmission of Aikido as an autonomous art came up. One way to ensure this was to cut the historical ties with Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu. Obviously, from that point, they could present Aikido as a new concept and they freed themselves from having to report or give credit to anyone. This ancient split was just formalised at that time. Friendship bounds remained but technically, philosophically, and businesswise, they could start upon new bases.
The challenge that Kisshomaru Ueshiba faced was to ensure the recognition of Aikido as an autonomous art and of the Aikikai as the source of this Aikido. He therefore had to elaborate a discrete entity that was identifiable and applicable by anyone; something universal. He developed a method, a syllabus, and a technical catalogue and diffused as can be seen in his publications. After that, all the other Sensei of the Aikikai participated in this effort of definition of Aikido, aiming to make it the norm. This definition still occurs today with each Sensei throughout the world trying to define a norm according to their own way, using the elements of understanding that they have… or have not.
Documentary on Chiba Tsugutaka, the Daito-ryu master of Olivier Gaurin
Guillaume Erard: One can therefore assume that this change leading to what we call modern Aikido which is commonly thought to be Kisshomaru Sensei’s own idea was in fact the extension of what his father had started long before. Should we also assume that the most advanced students of O Sensei such as Tohei or Hikitsuchi Sensei accepted this change?
Olivier Gaurin: Absolutely. What people should try to understand is that Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu is a Jutsu, a very clear technique in its definitions and also a very ancient art although it was updated by Takeda Sokaku in a very personal way. The difference is clear. Aikido is different in that it has technical bases that are common to Daito-ryu (the Aiki), but the Do is not much more than a way to teach Aiki, just like the Judo is just a way to teach the Ju.
O Sensei defined his art according to these Daito-ryu bases but not only, he knew weapons as well as some Chinese forms, and he added cultural and philosophical bases of the Omoto-Kyo as well as political and moral concerns developed through his interactions with high ranked politicians and officers. Aikido was a sort of melting pot that only O Sensei understood fully. This complexity is the reason why his students were unable to understand what he was doing. Aikido developed a bit like the snow ball that rolls off the hill. This is also the reason why it is a bit dangerous to fix it within a given period of time. We often hear that Saito Sensei received more than most, I agree, but it was very limited in time.
When O Sensei passed away, there was a sort of black hole, this complexity baffled everybody and they started to wonder what to do with all that. Even on a purely technical level, O Sensei continued to do Daito-ryu-like Aikido. After the war, he was no longer teaching the basics of Daito-ryu, even to people like Yamaguchi or Watanabe Sensei even though these people subsequently displayed a deep understanding of Daito-ryu thanks to the fact that they were indirectly taught these bases by their teacher.
Guillaume Erard: So was the Aikikai aimed at gathering the various interpretations under the same banner?
Olivier Gaurin: Yes, there were of course a lot of arguments and struggles but everybody agreed upon the fact that what O Sensei had taught should be passed on. This occurred within the Aikikai but also outside. The Aikikai got formed through the efforts that Kisshomaru Sensei made to gather all those who were lost. Of course, the fact that the Aikikai was run by the son of O Sensei was very important in Japanese minds.
The main problem in martial arts always lies in the succession. It is typically Japanese to try to pass on an art and usually, it is done through teaching almost everything to a maximum of two to three people, only one of which is authorised to transmit the way. In Aikido, this person was Kisshomaru Sensei. The Aikikai became more important than the other currents thanks to its internationalisation. But for this to happen, a package that was easy to export had to be developed. Kisshomaru Ueshiba is the one who set up the bases that lead to everybody knowing what is Irimi-nage, Sankyo etc.
Guillaume Erard: What is the pertinence of Daito-ryu within a study of Aikido?
Olivier Gaurin: There is a huge gap between what O Sensei was doing and his students were doing but in spite of that, they all became teachers. The art of the founder formed through the massive body of knowledge that he had gathered but near the end of his life, he refined it so much that not many techniques were left. In fact, he had synthesised and integrated everything. He could do it because he had the bases to do so. The students that learnt with him at the end of his life only saw the emerging part of that and they only judged and learnt it based on that limited knowledge.
Some people did try to walk back in the steps of the founder in order to understand what he was doing but although some things are visible in old videos, they have never been explained properly. As I said before, everyone knows what Irimi-nage is but no one knows how to do it. This is the paradox of learning through a syllabus, everyone knows what it is but no one knows why we should do this way instead of or that way. As an example, who knows why we do Kokyu-ho on our knees? Why do we attack with Shomen-uchi? Where does the Hanmi position, which is so characteristic to Aikido compared to Daito-ryu, come from?
We have Aikido, a container, but no content. The content has disappeared so the Sensei have to fill the container with made-up content in order to feel more credible, or marketable.
Guillaume Erard: You mentioned Saito Sensei earlier on. Some of his students say that he learnt more than other Sensei, that his Aikido was truer. What is your opinion?
Olivier Gaurin: Behind O Sensei’s Aikido, there is a vast world which is like a puzzle that remains to be completed. We are still in the middle-ages of Aikido. Just like when people used to think that the earth was flat, they wasted their time guessing how far its border was, rather than figuring out its true shape. In Aikido, people fight over what period did O Sensei’s Aikido start or stop. I prefer to be like Giordano Bruno and say: “Beware of the fact that your navel is the centre of the cosmos for yourself only”.
I admire the work of Saito Sensei for Aikido and it is with all the respect of a small kohai that I think that the idea that he learnt more than anyone else is too abstract to be constructive. How can you judge? Besides, tell me your criteria and you will be judged upon the same criteria that you apply. Moreover, “being truer” does not matter much if it is only about being “truer than someone”. Saito Sensei’s Aikido was very true but not more than anyone else’s.
There is nothing that allows to a priori assess what someone has learnt, except in terms of human qualities. Take Abe Seseki Sensei as an example. O Sensei verbally gave him the 10th Dan and very few people understood why he did that since Abe Sensei did not know much about Aikido. Yet, on another plan, it seemed entirely justified and indispensable to Aikido. It is rather interesting to notice that Abe Sensei called his first dojo “Ameno Takemusu Juku Dojo”, yes you heard right, “Takemusu”!
We should therefore avoid appropriation. However, saying that we can’t judge what he has learnt or not does not take anything from Saito Sensei’s Aikido which was wonderful… in his own way. O Sensei did not want to teach the Daito-ryu anymore after the war. Therefore, none of the post-war students directly learnt the techniques of Daito-ryu taught by Takeda Sokaku, yet, Saito Sensei started in 1946. There is nothing to add, and whether he learnt in Iwama, Tokyo or elsewhere does not make any difference.
Guillaume Erard: Still, I cannot help but think about the detailed technical comparisons that Philippe Voarino regularly publishes on his website [comparing point per point, via photographic documents, the techniques of O Sensei and his son Kisshomaru Ueshiba]. The missing bases of Aikido aren’t they identifiable through this method?
Olivier Gaurin: Voarino Sensei is probably a very good teacher who loves Aikido but for me, as much as for the people who know Daito-ryu, Voarino Sensei is just like any other Aikido instructor, he knows nothing of the original bases of Aiki. Someone who is familiar with these bases can see straight away whether a practitioner knows them or not. The opposite of course is not true and even by looking very carefully at what the skilled practitioner of Aiki is doing, the ignorant will not be able to recognise these bases, let alone assess what that person knows. If we are not familiar with the motor of Aiki, the meaning of what is happening remains invisible. This is precisely why O Sensei’s art has remained so mysterious to his students and to all the practitioners of Aikido. On the other hand, there was never any mystery for those advanced enough in Daito-ryu. This is very paradoxical.
Voarino Sensei allows himself to judge Aikido by comparing pictures of O Sensei and his son while executing the same techniques. It is his little hobby, his vengeance against the Aikikai. It is all good fun but it is also useless because of the way Kisshomaru Ueshiba has developed his Aikido, which I have explained earlier. Both waza are different by nature and therefore, comparing them in the way Voarino Sensei does cannot satisfy a study of veracity, it is just an intellectual fool’s game that only serves to divide the world of Aikido. This is really not a noble enterprise in my eyes. I have actually tried several times to contact Voarino Sensei in order to lead him on better paths of study but he answered to me with such disdain and arrogance that I gave up the idea to offer a helping hand. Remember, he is still wondering how far away is the earth’s border (laughs)!
Guillaume Erard: then what do you think about the discourse on the role of weapons in Aikido? How come the Aikikai teaches almost no weapons while Saito Sensei’s group considers that it should make two third of the practice?
Olivier Gaurin: I could agree if Saito Sensei had, like O Sensei, studied the Ono-Ha weapons but he only reproduced the pedagogic use that O Sensei made of them. We should thank him for reproducing faithfully what he learnt but some no less prestigious Sensei such as Tohei Sensei did the same without most of the weapons. In a nutshell, the place of weapons in Aikido has nothing to do with “truth”.
To me, the Aikikai is more coherent, it does not directly teach anything else than a mean to develop one’s own Aikido. The place of weapons is therefore reduced to its strict minimum and it is logical. Besides, if one wants to learn weapons in Japan, there are many schools to choose from, including the original Ono-Ha school as well others such as Kashima which also teaches a whole Jyo syllabus. The Aikikai is focused on the body but they do not prevent anyone from studying weapons. This is why I really liked Kisshomaru Sensei and why I really like his son, the current Doshu, because as a practitioner, they keep you free. They do not impose a style of Aikido, they just pass on the vital part of Aikido through a neutral form; they propose but do not impose. This attitude is very noble and constructive and anyone can find their own way within the same house, far from any dogmatism.
Weapons are just a pedagogic tool to teach the basic keys of Aiki. On the other hand, for those who like waving sticks like cheerleaders while screaming like gladiators or like the warriors of the Genkoku era (1329-1331), let’s just call it for what it is: a bad temper. Those people who try to impose their choices as dogmatic truths just manage to lose and divide Aikido instead of pulling it together.
Guillaume Erard: A question that would really like to ask you is why, even after this reflexion, do you still practice at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo instead of training full time in Daito-ryu?
Olivier Gaurin: It is a very good question because actually, in my mind, there is no fundamental difference between the two. What O Sensei was doing after the war was the highest form of Daito-ryu. In Daito-ryu, we start by the basic jutsu, primary techniques that allow the understanding of Aiki. This is done practically and statically. Studying Daito-ryu is very frustrating for an Aikidoka because it is very static at the beginning and because the partner grabs us with maximum strength and hurts us. It creates a necessity to understand why what we do does not work. In Aikido, this never happens as when one resists, he is told to “follow” the movement or grab differently. The advanced Daito-ryu techniques are nevertheless the dynamic and confrontation-less techniques of Nagare but very few westerners know this since they have not studied Daito-ryu enough to get there. I know a few Japanese Sensei however that can do it very well. This is what O Sensei was doing even though his students were just reduced to witness this advanced form of Daito-ryu without being able to learn the more fundamental bases and hence, understand it.
As an example, you know how to play the guitar and I don’t. I can ask you to teach me “La Comparcita” on the guitar and if I work on it for a while, I could probably manage to play it. On the other hand, if you give me a music sheet or ask me to improvise a piece, I might not be unable to do it in spite of my newly acquired skills since you did not teach me the basics of musicology. It is pretty much the same in Aikido, the students of O Sensei learnt the motions that he was showing to them but they did not go through the basics that make a movement work in any situation. In the end, all we have are techniques that work only in one particular situation.
This is what creates the fundamental problem in what we call “modern” Aikido; it is a Nagare Aikido that does not work when we stop. As a consequence, we have to invent new tricks to make it work but it is very unlikely that we will rediscover the true basics that way. When we look at the great “masters” of Aikido, they all perform an Aikido that works very well… but which is devoid of Aiki. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, a good Aiki is an Aiki that can be performed by someone small on someone bigger and secondly, it has to work on someone who is not moving. None of these conditions are present in nowadays’ Aikido, where essential notions such as speed and timing, strength and power, softness and weakness are mixed up.
In the current situation, how can a 40 kg woman perform a technique on an 80 kg man if the latter does not make himself lighter, accepting what she is doing? Of course one might say that it is part of the learning process but how long is this supposed to last? Besides, in the street, weight is just one of many parameters and it will not magically disappear. Then of course, you will hear people say “but Aikido is not for confrontation” which makes me laugh when I see our great Aikido teachers in the west showing off their skills and how much stronger they are! Aiki was specifically invented for people who are not fighters, those weak or untrained who were living within the castle walls. Unless the weak cannot do a technique on a strong, there is no Aiki.
Guillaume Erard: Is there any point at all in studying a technical syllabus?
Olivier Gaurin: Yes, until Shodan but after that, one has to go deeper in order to reach efficacy while not inflicting pain. One who inflicts pain or injures someone has not understood anything about Aikido. Either way, if we learn syllabus only, we never get the deeper aspect and all we do is doing syllabus all our life. Once the syllabus is known, what is next? Once the catalogue is known, people just make up a new one, say, on mae-geri applications etc. Aiki is an art of principle, not catalogue. A 14 years old child should be able to perform a technique on an adult who attacks for real.
Guillaume Erard: I understand. Forgive me but, considering your answers, I have to ask my question again, why do you still practice at the Aikikai?
Olivier Gaurin: Indeed (laughs)… I am still practicing at the Aikikai because there, I can put Daito-ryu in application and reciprocally, I can put some Aikido in my Daito-ryu while preserving the respective syllabus of each art. More than friends, these arts are siblings and there is no contradiction between them, only limits that have to be respected. I still go to the Aikikai because I like this historical relationship. That way, I also feel closer to what O Sensei was doing, which is my purpose in Aikido ever since I first watch videos of him so many years ago. Moreover, in Daito-ryu, there are a lot of details to be put into action so it can be a bit fastidious at the beginning. In Aikido on the other hand, we move a lot without thinking much. Both are very complementary, the combination of both pleases me; it creates a “rhythm” difficult to explain.
The problem in Aikido is that without fundamentals, we move a lot, gambolling link lambs with no consciousness of the wolf lurking. In Daito-ryu, we do not learn how to fall, we fall as a last resort, to save our skin; there is no choice. The first aim of true Aiki is purely for survival: how to manipulate a body so that it moves and that its balance becomes unstructured. If we start by the opposite, the dynamic techniques, all becomes very artificial, particularly because of the ego that goes with it.
Guillaume Erard: Thank you for these explanations; do you have a last word?
Olivier Gaurin: Perhaps Aiki is difficult to integrate and perhaps the principles of Aikido are not easy to perceive and master but it would be even harder to reinvent them. It is all the more difficult to find as we go further from the historical bases. The only difference between Daito-ryu and Aikido is that in the latter, we voluntarily “preserve” the partner through allowing the falls, hence avoiding potentially lethal damages. We send off the partner to fall so that he can get up while his aggressiveness stays on the ground. This is ideal isn’t it? The technical syllabus, although restricted in Aikido, should be totally similar to that of Daito-ryu even though the goal is different. The beauty of the Aikido gesture comes from the fact that contrary to Daito-ryu, we leave the option of fall, opening the way to the bettering of the opponent. We let him pass with no harm, no injury. This is truly O Sensei’s Aikido but we should not forget that it works and has always worked through the principles and details of Daito-ryu.
The current issue is that we are heading towards a very egoistical Aikido: we throw people to look good and strong [魅力, Miryoku: “the force of fascination”]. It is really a low level Aikido, a circus display. I am certain that we will soon attribute marks to the practitioners, similarly to what can be seen in ice skating. But of course, the great Sensei, will be above all this while the flock will be judged. Just look at what they did at the Beijing Combat Games, it was absolutely ridiculous; instead of trying to compete with themselves, it looked like these people were trying to beat or look better than others. This is the worst possible Aikido.
We should try to become better relative to our own potential, physically, mentally and emotionally. We should always try to deepen our knowledge of the art and become better persons but never relative to others. This is what is necessary for a world of peace and happiness.
Colour photos by Fukuda Megumi
Black and white photos from Olivier Gaurin’s personal archive
To go further
- Olivier Gaurin’s article: Understanding Aikido