Interview with Philippe Orban, 6th dan Aikikai

Meet Philippe Orban, 6th dan Aikikai and very close student of Christian Tissier for many years. Although he could have stayed in the comfort of teaching regular classes at the Cercle Tissier in Vincennes, Philippe decided to move abroad and open a dojo in Leipzig (Germany), almost ten years ago. In this interview, he kindly agreed to share his experience with us and to explain his conception of Aikido and how it fits in the way it is being practiced on the other side of the Rhine.

Guillaume Erard: How did you discover Aikido?

Philippe Orban: I discovered Aikido for the first time on TV with a very short demonstration; I must have been about 15 years old. It pushed me to try to learn more on the subject and I discovered the very famous documentary by Michel Random "L'Esprit des Budo", fantastic! Every Wednesday afternoon, I used to go to the library and watch it. I probably saw it over 30 times. I eventually started practicing Aikido when I was 18, in "Terminale" [final year of high school] and it led me to quit the boarding school.

Guillaume Erard: Why did you choose Aikido rather than any other martial art?

Philippe Orban: It is probably due to its beauty and its intelligence, its philosophy also that I had discovered in several books. The fact that there were no competitions appealed to me as well. I knew since the very first classes that it was what something I wanted to do in my life and little by little, it became something that I wanted to do with my life.

Guillaume Erard: Could you please tell us a bit more about your journey?

Philippe OrbanPhilippe Orban: I started in 1981 at St-Dié in the Vosges region with Jean-Pierre Fonmos and Gérard Masson (many thanks to them!) at the municipal club that was affiliated to the Judo federation. A year later, after the famous split that led to the creation of the two distinct federations, I ended up at the FFAB. I got my Shodan and Nidan grades in 1985 and 1987 within the federation headed by Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei. Frankly, at the time, I was already following Christian Tissier, whom I had met during my very first seminar (as a fresh 5th kyu), as much as possible. This was a decisive encounter for me. In 1988, I decided to go to live in Paris in order to train as an uchi deshi at the Cercle Tissier. It was a different world because although I had been training a lot before, I was now doing an average of 4-5 hours of intensive training per day which, added to my regular job, was extremely difficult. As one says, I suffered a lot! My opinion is that talented or not, it is the amount of work that makes the difference and to practice like that under the direction of a great Sensei built up my character for life. In 1989, I got my Sandan and in 1992, my Yondan. From 1993 on, I became Christian Tissier's assistant until 1996 when I left Vincennes in order to create my own dojo.

Guillaume Erard: Which master influenced most your practice?

Philippe Orban: Without the shadow of a doubt, Christian Tissier to whom I have remained loyal for over 25 years, even if I have seen many other teachers in the countless seminars I attended since my beginnings.

Guillaume Erard: It surely was a crazy idea to go abroad and expect to do Aikido full time wasn't it?

Philippe Orban: Yes, definitely, it was a crazy idea, but without craziness, life would be very empty (laughs)!

Guillaume Erard: Where the possibilities of living out of teaching Aikido more important than today?

Philippe Orban: The opportunities for living out of Aikido teaching were probably more numerous but the difficulties were different. Nowadays, there are probably too many teachers for the number practitioners but the problem has to be put into context since many teachers are at best frankly incompetent. On the long run, a lot of Aikidoka see the difference anyway, particularly now where it becomes harder to block information. We live in a world where living in autarky becomes complicated; this is one of the positive aspects of glottalization. Before, in the collective subconscious mind, there was the idea that only Japanese teachers could be good professionals. There was a sort of complex that might have been legitimate in the beginnings but was carefully maintained by the same Japanese. They were just defending their own subsistence and their monopoly... but anyway, at that time, I was only training.

Guillaume Erard: What did teaching at the Cercle Tissier teach to you?

Philippe Orban: I became more self confident facing an exigent public. Little by little, a natural pedagogic system took place within me. Of course, it helped me to make a name for myself.

Guillaume Erard: I suppose that the position was coveted, what led you to abandon all this and take the decision to go live abroad?

Philippe Orban: It was probably carelessness, and also the will to follow my own path. There was also the dream of opening my own Dojo. For a long time, I had had the desire of living in a foreign country and to feel what it was to gamble everything and start over by myself.

Guillaume Erard: How were the conditions of life and the practice over there?

Philippe Orban: Life was difficult in the beginning. I did not speak German and Leipzig, at the time, still carried the stigmata of the Russian influence, before the fall of the Berlin wall. It was truly something different to Paris! Andréa, my wife was still living in Frankfurt and honestly, I often got discouraged, feeling the blues in my soul. Aikido was almost non-existing and unknown.

Guillaume Erard: What was the political and federal situation at the time as far as Aikido was concerned?

Philippe Orban: The political and federal situation in Germany is pretty much the same as everywhere else; it is an imbroglio of human conflicts and school quarrels. In my mind this proves that Aikido is not adapted to the will of enclosing it into structures and that it is useless to believe in a perfect world. Anyway, such a world would be boring wouldn't it (laughs)?

Guillaume Erard: What differences can you see between French practitioners and their German colleagues?

Philippe Orban: I think that whatever the people, the Budo is addressed to the same kind of persons; people that won't be satisfied with a simple lust for pleasure and comfort or a social success. They place at the core of their life a philosophical and spiritual quest of which the central referential is the self. Budo is the way of the free man.

Philippe OrbanGuillaume Erard: I would have thought that it was harder to make a living out of Aikido over there than in France because it is less developed...

Philippe Orban: I think that it is in fact easier to make a living out of Aikido over here in Germany but the constraints are elsewhere. Not necessarily financially but in terms of culture, language etc. The essential difference is that Aikido is much less developed in terms of municipal structures and therefore, people find normal to be dealing with the prices of tuitions charged by professional (like in Paris for example). Also, there are many more important cities than in France which helps.

Guillaume Erard: How does the grading take place for your students?

Philippe Orban: I am a 6th Aikikai and therefore, I have the authority to deliver the grades to my students. Moreover, I have the trust and the support of my Shihan so everything is going fine. I do realize that it is rare to have such freedom but don't be fooled, it is not always easy to be a "pro" and a free lancer without federal support but that is the price to pay for freedom.

Guillaume Erard: Do you have any contact with the German students of Christian Tissier such as Hans-Jürgen Klages and Bodo Roedel?

Philippe Orban: I have no real contact with Christian's students in Germany (or those who define themselves as such), they don't invite me and don't visit me either...

Guillaume Erard: You have a full time dojo in Leipzig but you also teach a lot abroad. Where do you teach?

Philippe Orban: For the moment, I mainly teach in Poland, Norway and Ukraine. Things evolve slowly, naturally, this is essential for Budo.

Guillaume Erard: Did you keep contacts with the Aikido scene in France?

Philippe Orban: My links with the French practitioners are unfortunately quite loose and even my former students haven't visited me in 10 years. Leaving Paris was not the easy solution, I knew it.

Guillaume Erard: What is you opinion, as an « outsider » on the current administrative situation of Aikido in France?

Philippe Orban: As I said earlier, structures and Budo don't go too well together. Wanting to unify or standardize the Aikido proposed in both federations is not only a challenge; it is a mistake, unless we let each different sensitivity express itself freely. Besides the power struggles, the main problem resides in the common grading sessions (enforced by the State despotism) with judges of such very different backgrounds and points of view that it becomes very difficult to sort anything out. Everybody ends up confused, candidates, teachers and also the public! This paradoxical situation is impossible to overcome and the solution can only come from the disappearing of the paradox itself. The question is: by what and in which measure is the situation provoked, is it the situation itself or the incapacity to "see better"?

Guillaume Erard: Do you still follow Christian Tissier's teaching?

Philippe Orban: Of course! I go back to Vincennes from time to time in order to put myself back into a student position even though words like practice, intensity and Sensei have now a different meaning for me than what they had 25 years ago. What Christian Tissier taught me, as well as the efforts I have provided to my own development; give me today the freedom to follow my own path. This freedom gives me the possibility to get inspiration from everywhere, I just have to keep my eyes open.

Guillaume Erard: Each year, you direct a summer seminar in France, who are the students that follow you there?

Philippe Orban: I have been organizing a summer camp in Gap for about 10 years. The region and the conditions of practice are fantastic; this is why I keep returning there even though there are no French practitioners. who come anymore From next year on, I will start organizing a seminar in Pontremoli in Tuscany (Italy). This is also a magnificent place for holidays, to fill up the batteries and practice Aikido in exceptional conditions.

Guillaume Erard: You practice Kenjutsu intensively. Do you see it as a major complement to the practice of Aikido or rather more like a side discipline?

Philippe Orban: Yes, I practice the Kenjutsu of the Kashima Shin Ryu a lot. It is a style that I love and that which I have practiced extensively with Christian. In my opinion, Kenjutsu can be very beneficial to Aikido practice, whichever the style, even though sometimes, like in Kendo, the placements are quite different. This is less a question of style than how much work and time we wish to dedicate to it. For a majority of practitioners, the best is perhaps not to get too dispersed. Since last year, we are lucky enough to have Minoru Inaba Sensei coming to Europe and instruct two Kenjutsu summer seminars.

Guillaume Erard: When you take a look at the journey behind you, what do you think these years abroad provided to you that you would not have gotten if you had stayed in France?

Philippe Orban: Living in a foreign country brings a unique experience. The words tolerance, respect, humility, communication or relativity get a much deeper meaning. We also learn that differences of mentalities and culture are absolutely real and that we cannot arbitrarily ignore them.

Philippe OrbanGuillaume Erard: Have you ever regretted to have chosen the path of full time Aikido?

Philippe Orban: Yes of course! Practicing Aikido full time has obviously some negative sides. It is important to stay on the Way and never forget that this choice was in itself a will to fully concentrate on it.

Guillaume Erard: What makes you still step on the tatami after 27 years of practice?

Philippe Orban: The beginner's enthusiasm and the sensations that a more advanced practitioner can feel. Also, there is the will of always wanting to perfect my craft and to share it with others.

Guillaume Erard: Can you sum up to us your current research in terms of Aikido?

Philippe Orban: Picasso used to say "I don't search, I find..." This might sound pretentious but in fact, it isn't. Creativity is like Ki, it is just a matter of letting it flow freely. Of course, it requires a lot of work and this is the reason why it is necessary to get a lot of pleasure out of practice. Regarding the research, it is important to "let go" and trust our own intuition.

Guillaume Erard: Thank you very much Philippe for the time that you dedicated for us.

Philippe Orban: Many thanks to you for your interest.

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Guillaume Erard
Author: Guillaume Erard
A resident of Japan for nearly a decade, Guillaume Erard trains at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo and he received the 5th Dan from Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. He is also 3rd Dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, the secretive art that Morihei Ueshiba learned from Sokaku Takeda. Erard is the Information Director of the International Aikido Federation and the Deputy Secretary of International Affairs of the Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu Shikoku Headquarters. He is also passionate about science and education and holds a PhD in Molecular Biology.
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