Interview with Philippe Gouttard – 35 Trips in Tokyo
My first interview with Philippe Gouttard dates back to 2007, almost eight years ago. At the time, I had just met him in Dublin and I had barely started getting interested in his practice. Eight years later , I now live in Japan and my practice has changed somewhat, but my link with Philippe remained. Besides aikido, what brings us together more particularly is our love for Tokyo and I took advantage of one of his annual trips to the Japanese capital try to make it express in a video that the city, its culture, its practice, accounted for how his practice developed. This interview is the full transcript of our discussion that day.
Guillaume Erard: When did you start practicing Aikido?
Philippe Gouttard: I started Aikido in France a long time ago, I was 16. It was in Saint-Etienne with a teacher who soon after quit teaching Aikido. Our group gathered to figure out who would take over the teaching. Most of the advanced students only wanted to train with him so they left. In the group of youngsters that remained, I was the only one willing to take over teaching. That is how I started teaching Aikido. It was more like gymnastics because I knew nothing about Aikido but I really liked sports. We did push ups, abs, falls, rolls, and so on. Every year, I went abroad to further my study.
A taste for sports that is still there
I met Asai Sensei, Noro Sensei, and Tada Sensei and all the Japanese masters who taught Aikido in Europe. Every time I met them I asked if I could go to Tokyo. They said sure, but I never found the opportunity to go. Towards the end of the 70’s, Mr Tissier came back from Japan and I liked his practice very much. I eventually made it to Tokyo thanks to his advice and with the knowledge that he had shared with us.
Guillaume Erard: How did you get to Japan?
Philippe Gouttard: The first time I arrived 3 days late because I took the Pakistan Airline and the second time I went by train via the transsiberian, which was a great experience too. The first time, no one was waiting for me at the station and I was supposed to meet some French friends. It was a nightmare because even though I had the address, I had no idea how to get there. I had landed in Narita and I was supposed to take the skyliner, I understood nothing. I remember arriving in Ueno but of course none of the signs were in English, it was all in Japanese.
Philippe Gouttard showing me around his favorite places in Ueno
Guillaume Erard: What were your first impressions of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo?
Philippe Gouttard: I arrived on a Saturday evening, and I was on the tatami of the Aikikai the following Monday at the 6:30 class led by Kisshomaru Doshu. I was so tired that I fell asleep I did not hear him enter, and it is only when people started to do Aiki-taiso that I got up. I thought that I was off on a bad start…
My first partner was someone called Sato. He is still at the Aikikai, he is a friend of the current Doshu. Very nice man. The second one was not as smooth, it was an uchi-deshi called Kasuiya who used to like beating up foreigners. I had heard about him because he had injured some French friends with some rough techniques. At the Aikikai, we do four techniques each, so he would do the first three very nicely and the fourth one much more rough. I was waiting impatiently for the fourth one to show him… But it went alright in the end and I made it through unharmed.
Philippe Gouttard at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo with Ito Makoto Shihan as partner
Guillaume Erard: What did you think of Japanese Aikido?
Philippe Gouttard: It was a total change of feeling and perception but thanks to what I had learned in Europe with Mr Tissier and the Japanese teachers, I managed to adapt quickly. I had done a lot of sports before and it helped me through the physical difficulties of training. I used to train at football for five hours so two or three hours of Aikido per day didn’t seem so tough physically. This allowed me to keep training and to take ukemi for all the Japanese.
This is something that I did early on, every time I saw someone who looked strong, I had to go and train with him. I often understood nothing, but the fact of being thrown and sustain strong pins gave me a lot of pleasure and confidence.
Guillaume Erard: What classes did you attend?
Philippe Gouttard: I did almost all classes. It was the time when Yamaguchi Sensei, Osawa Sensei, Ichiashi Sensei, Shibata Sensei, all those teachers who are either dead or gone to live abroad. What was pleasant is that there were far less people and less foreigners than today. I remember classes with Yamuguchi Sensei where we were 10 or 20 people on the tatami. Not all the time but during the 5:30 class on Mondays, we were very few as most people were still at work. We were very close to these teachers. Also, at the time, all the young uchi-deshi used to come. I got the chance to train with partners such as Yasuno, Seki, Osawa, Miyamoto, Yokota Sensei… also many hours with Doshu during his father’s morning class. It was very pleasant.
Philippe Gouttard having lunch with Doshu Ueshiba Moriteru (photo courtesy of Cyril Lagrasta)
I used to live in Yotsuya Sanchome I used to walk home from the Aikikai through small streets that I barely recognize today. There were small houses owned by locals. Now there are tall buildings, it feels a little less personal, a little colder. But it is still Tokyo, and I really love it because every district has its own personality. It is very pleasant to be there. I also love Japan for its bath houses and sauna. I often go there with my friends. Because life is so hard in Japan, the Japanese come up with many systems to make things more comfortable. I especially like the absence of aggressiveness. We see people wearing all kind of clothes, from salarymen wearing expensive suits to people with the weirdest clothes. Some very smart women, others with mini skirts and high heels. Everyone coexists peacefully. There isn’t this atmosphere of violence you often find in the West. I don’t know if Japan as we knew is bound to disappear but I hope that this Japanese spirit will not fade away. When you go shopping, nobody skips the queue, it is all a bit silly sometimes but it is wonderful not to have to worry about anything.
Wandering through the small streets of Tokyo
I remember the first times we took the subway, we did not buy tickets of course, so the station master used to stare severely at us without saying anything, and after two weeks, we started buying our tickets, even without being punished. This is something that Japan has taught me. Punishment does not work. That is why I don’t like to shout at people. With time, people change, we just have to be patient and kind to them.
The safety of Tokyo
Guillaume Erard: After so many years, isn’t there a sort of routine settling in, even at Hombu Dojo?
Philippe Gouttard: I love training, but there is always a little bit of fear in me. Every time I step on the tatami of the Aikikai, I am nervous. I am anxious about not being well, injuring myself, not being responsive enough. When I leave the dojo, I feel good, but when I return in the afternoon, the anxiety is back because of the hard tatami, the wet keikogi, etc. There is no serenity for me. When I ask people if they feel the same, I am always surprised when they don’t. Am I the only one to be afraid? There must be something wrong. Maybe people don’t train as hard as me, I don’t now. All I know is that I must return to the Aikikai because it is my home. It is the place where I learnt a lot, just like the seminars of the people I like. Maybe it is a bit presumptuous to say this but Yamaguchi Sensei never left the Aikikai. He was offered many opportunities to go abroad but he used to say: “no, Aikikai is my home”. Me too, I am happy to return to the Aikikai.
Mental and physical preparation before practice
I will never teach at the Aikikai, I will never be a Shihan but it’s alright, all I want is to enjoy myself there. I’m happy when the Sensei come talk to me on the tatami. They know that I am a foreigner and that I haven’t been uchi-deshi, but it doesn’t matter because Aikido is a pyramidal system, there is only one boss, not two, but there can be two number 2, three number 3, I am just a number among others with my qualities and my flaws.
I am convinced that when I practice on the tatami, some like it, but others don’t. Sometimes I have fun, I change the technique… Sometimes I play with the Japanese, I go and grab a different partner, they say: “but you are not my partner!” I say: “Sorry” and I go back. I try to bring a bit of freedom. This has disappeared somewhat from the Aikikai.
Guillaume Erard: How different was the Aikikai when you first came?
Philippe Gouttard: I think it is a bit too serious now. During the time of Kisshomaru Doshu, Osawa Sensei, or Yamaguchi Sensei, it was less tense. There were less foreigners, there was less professionalism in Aikido. Training was professional but there were not so many seminars and careers, On the tatami there used to be one sixth Dan and the rest were mostly first or second Dan. Now everyone is a fourth or fifth Dan. People are not 20 years-old anymore so we can’t have fun like before.
Philippe Gouttard and Guillaume Erard
For me, Aikido is a game for adults, we have fun, there is nothing to prove. At the Aikikai there is one master, the Doshu, but all the teachers who stem from that trunk do different things. They follow more or less the same principles. but according to the body, the mind, and the individual’s life, each teacher is different. But there is no surprise, when we see shihonage, we know what it is. So teachers should not say “look at what I am doing”, because I can see it. They should tell us instead what they are feeling when they do it.
This leads us to the topic of examinations. In Europe especially, when we judge, we don’t know how to tell someone that we did not like what they have done. We find conventional justifications and say things such as: “You failed but it was not too bad”, or “You passed but you really need to work on this”. If it’s bad, it’s bad, and if it’s good, it’s good. Because we are many judges with as many different visions, those who are taught by others approaches are necessarily frustrated. We can’t see someone’s qualities, but we see the defaults straight away. If we format everyone according to one vision, we will not succeed. I am not sure that today we are doing the Aikido that O Sensei was doing but he allowed people to develop Aikido as we do it today. We must understand that while a common technical basis has to remain, just like in languages, over time, as a society evolves, words do not have the exact same meaning as before. In Aikido, I am not sure that O Sensei would recognize his kotegaeshi in the one that the youngsters at the Aikikai do today. All we could tell him is that since he is no longer here, we do what we feel is right for ourselves and for our students.
Philippe Gouttard and Guillaume Erard
A teacher should aim at making his own students better and stronger than himself at an equivalent age and grade, and who have developped an Aikido that is more pertinent than what it is now. If we can’t develop Aikido further than what t is now, we will have failed in our teaching. On kotegaeshi there is no need to destroy the wrist or the partner or throw like crazy just for the sake of it. Whether we throw hard or not, the partner will get up to attack again, so better make sure that he gets up well so that he is able to keep his engagement. If on the first technique, we destroy him, he will never come back. If we do this, he will become malicious, but that is not the goal of Aikido. The aim is to make people free and happy to practice. That is how we progress and one day, we live happily.
Guillaume Erard: You have developed quite a specific teaching system.
Philippe Gouttard: I started to reflect upon Aikido, to figure out why people got hurt or injured easily. And I have developed my current practice, that is to practice as strongly as possible without any frustration for either uke or tori. By strong, I do not mean strong physically, but with an intimate contact, pleasure, and clemency. If we practice like this, all will be well in our life. There is nothing to prove in Aikido. I don’t see how a 20 years-old can fight with someone who is 60. Either there is someone with 40 years of experience and the young one who won’t be able to do anything, or there is a physically strong young one versus a frail old man who can no longer do anything, and in both cases, no one will be happy.
When I arrived in Japan, I always refused to train with old people, I thought that it was a waste of time, but now I want to train with old people to understand their touch and their frustrations. For me, Aikido is about getting a new experience by working with different people, men, women, old, young. It will not change my practice, but the more I work with them and mix with others, the more they will provide me with sensations, and maybe one day, I will do a completely different Aikido, but without knowing why. You, for example, you stated with a teacher, then you took years to change, you moved to Tokyo and changed again, but in an intelligent way. I see only good things from people like that.
Guillaume Erard teaching
People often get stuck in referring to the past, saying things like: “before, Philippe was violent and brutal”, I did not feel violent, but I felt like an athlete, something that those who did Aikido with me were not. Before, I always wanted to impose myself physically and often, teachers told me: “Philippe, you need to become old”. I used to answer: “Old like who? Like you?”. In the end, to be old is to accept that the young do things differently from us. I should let the young do his technique so that he can express himself. Afterwards, if he needs it, I will show him mine. But if I crush him straight away, he will close himself and think that I am an old git. He will be right about that, and he will leave. We need to make it so that the young want to train with the elders but for this, the elder needs a body that can accept the young’s technique. Even if my partner throws hard, I need to be able to take a good fall for him but if as soon as he starts to put some power, I lock to show him that it doesn’t work, he will take it on board and he is going to do it too.
Philippe Gouttard and Guillaume Erard
Aikido is an art of principles and contact where we have to move with an unknown partner who very often does not have the same level as ours and who come to Aikido just as a hobby because it’s fun. Aikido is the only sport where professionals can practice with newbies. It constitutes both the good and the bad aspect of Aikido. Everyone on the tatami feels competent, because everyone does their best but often, the maximum of one is the minimum of another. So the one who is senior must pull the other one upwards without going beyond the limits that the other person’s body can accept. If I hurt a beginner, it means that I lack control. Aikido is about resolving that sort of conflicts.
Guillaume Erard: How can a teacher put that sort of environment in place?
Philippe Gouttard: The only thing to do to get there is to train very hard without hurting anyone. It doesn’t mean that when I intend to throw softly, my partner won’t feel pain, that is why I never ask the question, I just wait for the answer to come. I am ready to accept that what I did not correspond to what he expected from me.
Guillaume Erard: Is it what some call “harmony” in Aikido?
Philippe Gouttard: I don’t think so, I can’t be in harmony with someone I don’t know. However, I have to be intellectually in harmony with myself so I can translate my thoughts with my hands. If when I decide to do a beautiful attack, my hand does exactly what my spirit had envisioned, I will be in harmony in my head, and in my hands. This is why I don’t understand how people ca say : “Sorry, I did not mean to do this”. What goes on in their head? You didn’t want to do it but your hands did it? How can an Aikido teacher not master distance and placement? This is something that I don’t understand. We need to be very focused. For uke, everything should be easy, and for tori, everything should be almost impossible. Tori must be in tune with uke through what goes on in his eyes or the way he takes ukemi.
Improving one’s perception
This is something that I learned from osteopathy. I studied osteopathy to understand how the body worked. The hands have to reach a very sensitive level of perception of the slightest change of direction or sensation in uke. When you hold strongly, you need to feel immediately if the body stiffens or relaxes. Aikido is the same, mistakes can happen, but before throwing, we must look around. During practice, we often switch position to throw the partner safely towards the outside of the mat but I don’t want to be thrown safely, I want to be thrown intelligently. If my partner sees that someone is in the way, he should stop or change direction. He doesn’t have to throw right away. That is intelligence. Aikido should make people more intelligent, not intellectually, but physically. In the street, you don’t bump into people and say “sorry I didn’t see you”, you just change direction. But in Aikido, teachers often throw and say “sorry I didn’t mean to do that”. There shouldn’t be such thing as “I didn’t mean to” on the tatami. Instead we should say “sorry, I still lack technique”. I don’t believe in the “I didn’t mean to”. We shouldn’t make mistakes. Mistakes are still possible, but we shouldn’t make any.
Martial arts are meant for stupid people… who wish to become more intelligent. I often say: “Uke is an idiot who, after an hour with me, should understand my technique.” “If he doesn’t get my technique, I am the idiot”. After working with me, uke is less stupid, but as soon as we change partner, he becomes stupid again. If he is too confident about himself, he will never understand that of others. The goal of Aikido is to have a perfect technique that allows us to understand the technique of others, and not to impose our technique upon others. The goal is not to impose our technique. It took me a long time to understand that. Aikido is about understanding others, not trying to find “miraculous” solutions.