Salvatore Mergé, the First Western Student of Morihei Ueshiba

At least 15 years before the French André Nocquet, another westerner had been accepted into Morihei Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo in Ushigome. He was the multifaceted and mysterious Salvatore Mergé, an esotericist, orientalist, painter and Italian diplomat on a mission as cultural attaché at the Embassy of Italy in Tokyo from 1937 to 1943. In all likelihood Mergé was also the first to teach Aikido outside of Japan starting from 1947, when he gave lessons of the art of Ueshiba, then completely unknown, to a select few in the city of Rome, making Italy the first foreign country ever to know Aikido


You cannot tell a melody: you can play it.
But to do this you need to have a tuned instrument.
And the most suitable accord to our nature is to be Pure, Initiates.

(Elis Eliah, aka Salvatore Mergé)

Kremmerzian Youth and the First World War

Salvatore Mergé was born in Rocca di Papa, not far from the capital, on June 16, 1899. Already as a teenager, he showed interest in the initiatory sciences, interest probably fueled by reading the monthly review Commentarium per le Accademie Ermetiche, published by Giuliano Kremmerz between 1910 and 1911. Kremmerz, at the registry office Ciro Formisano, was one of the main Italian scholars of alchemy and esotericism, whose work favoured the dissemination of the theories of hermeticism among a wider audience of scholars and sympathizers [1] [3].

The beginning of Mergé initiatory journey is described in these terms in his posthumous work L’Arte di Divenire Simili agli Dei, The Art of Becoming Similar to the Gods, (2002): “In April 1916 my inner awakening began: it was the voice of the higher ego, that pushed me to open myself to the Master that the Supreme had predestined me. I felt within me the perception of an important mission that I would accomplish after reaching maturity and the emergence of the ability to use some useful powers, not only for the spiritual and evolutionary growth of my whole being, but also for the awakening of others“[3].

In 1916, in the height of the First World War, Mergé was conscripted into the Italian royal army when he was only 17 years old. He was consequently sent to fight at the front, where he fulfilled his duty, despite his young age, also remaining wounded in action [1] [3].

At the end of the conflict, once released from duty, Mergé returned home and in 1920 made a connection that directed the rest of his life, that with Prof. Giovanni Bonabitacola. Bonabitacola was a surgeon who was taken care of Mergé’s mother, suffering from diabetes. He was also a member of Freemasonry (Loggia Romana Pitagora) [2] and, above all, a disciple of Giuliano Kremmerz [1]. It was Bonabitacola who introduced the 21-year-old Salvatore to master Kremmerz at the French resort of Beausoleil, where Kremmerz had moved since 1912 [1]. The master accepted him as a pupil, inviting Mergé to follow him [3].

Giuliano Kremmerz (1861–1930), was an Italian alchemist who moved within the tradition of hermeticism. In 1896 Kremmerz founded Confraternita Terapeutica Magica di Myriam, the Magical Therapeutic Confraternity of Myriam

Mergé had finally found the spiritual guide he had been looking for since he was a teenager. The following 9 years of his life were thus keenly devoted to esoteric studies under the guidance of Kremmerz [1], which was facilitated by the fact that Salvatore had been hired by the Italian State Railways, facilitating his frequent travel between Italy and France [1]. Mergé became accustomed to the Kremmerz house in Beausoleil, to the point that the master’s wife, whom he nicknamed Xanthippe (Socrates’ spiteful wife), faced his umpteenth visit and the request to see Kremmerz, replied that the Master was not in the house [1]; it was a joke which the lady often played with Kremmerz’s visitors. Mergé, who had travelled 700 km to see Kremmerz, was about to leave with the tail between his legs, when he heard the voice of his teacher who said to him from the living room: “Come on, Totò, I am at home!” [1].

A few years later, once the time was right, Kremmerz gave the initiate Salvatore Mergé the initiatory name of Elis Eliah. It should be noted that Elis is an acronym for the first four solar virtues of Christ [1]. Mergé developed particular skills, stimulated by the practice of Hermetic Theurgy within Miriam’s Therapeutic Magical Brotherhood [1]. The objectives of the Brotherhood had been declared by Giuliano Kremmerz in the Fundamental Pragmatics of 1909 and are expressed as follows: “The purpose of this school is:
1) The study of the sciences that deal with the not yet well-known powers of the human organism, animism, mental activity, clairvoyance, prediction, telepathy and all supernormal and spiritual phenomena.
2) Investigation of classical documents, works, memories, alchemical and magical sciences, religions, rites, popular traditions, mythologies of the truths hidden by the ancients either because of religious obstructionism or by sectarian rule.
3) The association of all scholars of goodwill and their training in practices to master possible activities of the mental and psychophysical organism such as to explain with their own control their effects and other uncommon phenomena.
4) The application of these forces to medicine, therapeutics and psychurgy and thaumaturgy”[4].
The numerous points of contact with Eastern traditional arts are very interesting.

Thanks to the aforementioned therapeutic powers, in 1931 Mergé and Bonabitacola seem to have achieved the almost miraculous recovery of Rossana, Salvatore’s grandson (she was the daughter of his brother Ernesto), who at the age of just 8 days had contracted a severe form of bronchopneumonia and had been considered as a goner by official medicine [1].

Oriental Studies

Salvatore Mergé studied the Japanese language with the Count Pietro Silvio Rivetta, aka Toddi, a notable figure in Italian culture of the first half of the twentieth century; the relative chronology, however, is unclear. Toddi was a polyglot who knew 14 languages and had an endless culture that made him venture in different sectors such as journalism, cinematography, narrative and particularly in linguistics [7] [8].

Toddi was a multifaceted character and a prolific writer who produced numerous manuals of Japanese linguistics and a series of essays on Japanese culture

Toddi had a perfect knowledge of the Japanese language, thanks to which he obtained the chair of Japanese and Chinese Language and Culture professor at the Royal Oriental University Institute of Naples; he also held government posts at the Japanese Embassy in Rome [8].

Toddi was a multifaceted character and a prolific writer who produced numerous manuals of Japanese linguistics and a series of essays on Japanese culture, includingLa guerra europea e il Giappone (1915), Storia del Giappone, dalle Origini ai Giorni Nostri Secondo le Fonti Indigene (1920) e Il Paese dell’Eroica Felicità – Usi e Costumi Giapponesi (1941). His interests, incidentally, included esotericism and holistic culture as well [8].

On December 21, 1933, at the age of 34, Salvatore Mergé married in Rome Florence Strunsky, an American citizen, with whom he lived in Italy during the four years following their marriage. At the time Mergé was an employee of the Italian government and worked as a Japanese language interpreter and translator at the Ministry of Communications [9]. Although I have not been able to find documentary confirmations, the relationship between Mergé and Toddi seems to have been instrumental in the first achieving the role of interpreter in the ministry.

During this period, Mergé became the editor of the Japanese radio news that the E.I.A.R. (Italian Body for Radio Auditions) aired every Thursday. Salvatore was also responsible for compiling the Japanese press review for the Italian Institute for the Middle and the Far East (ISMEO) [7], an institution founded in 1933 by Giovanni Gentile and Giuseppe Tucci for the purpose of promoting cultural, political and economic relationships between Italy and Asian countries.

In Japan

In 1937 Mergé was posted by the government to the Italian Embassy in Tokyo as a translator and interpreter. Mrs Mergé accompanied her husband to Tokyo, travelling with an Italian passport issued on August 27, 1937 [9]. The arrival date of the Mergé couple in Japan should, therefore, be set in the autumn of 1937.

Once in Japan, the initiate Mergé soon set to work to make contacts with circles of common interest and sympathy. The status conferred on him by his job at the Tokyo Embassy and his vast culture opened up for him a series of doors to the Japanese cultural and political world of the time, doors otherwise firmly closed to a Westerner. To reinforce the point that Mergé’s position in Tokyo was not that of a mere employee, I found documentary evidence that on 30 December 1941 Salvatore Mergé had been nominated Knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy by King Vittorio Emanuele III of Savoia as proposed by Benito Mussolini [12].

Official communication of the appointment of Salvatore Mergé as Knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy

Salvatore engaged in regular studies of Eastern esoteric disciplines, and studied and practised Buddhism, Shintoism and Yoga, establishing an exchange relationship in which he contributed with his magical-initiatory knowledge acquired in Italian hermetic circles. Details on the nature of the above dealings are not currently available [1] [18].

An aspect associated to his Japanese period is however documented, and we are in enormous debt for the related information with Stefano Serpieri, senpai and roku-dan of the Italian Aikikai, today deceased, without whose testimony very little would be known of the Japanese adventures of Salvatore Mergé [19]. Mergé’s initiatory research led him to get closer to the world of Budo and it was then that he was told of the particular exploits of a famous master, who was called Morihei Ueshiba and who taught a new art, his Aiki-Budo (the future Aikido). Salvatore Mergé wanted to attend an enbukai, but he was unable to attend any demonstrations, since at the time Ueshiba did not demonstrate publicly [19]. His innate curiosity was inflamed by the numerous stories circulating about Ueshiba sensei’s prowess and powers and by the fame that surrounded this teacher [19].

It should be noted that by that time Morihei Ueshiba had reached a significant level of popularity with the political-cultural elite of the contemporary Japanese society. Ueshiba commonly frequented leading figures in the military, political, economic and religious circles of the time, and many of them were or had been his students. Several of the aforementioned would shortly have influenced or made those decisions that would have brought Japan into the Second World Conflict [23]. It is not difficult to imagine how Salvatore Mergé, then cultural attaché at the Italian Embassy, in a historical moment in which Italy lived the fascist experience and expressed an imperial policy in some ways similar to that of Japan, had access to some frequentations in common with Ueshiba.

Salvatore Mergé intent on portraying Tōyama Mitsuru, founder of the political organization Kokuryukai (Black Dragon Society)

Proof of the above is offered by a photo in the aforementioned L’Arte di Divenire Simili agli Dei. The photo in question shows Salvatore Mergé, who was a talented painter, intent on producing the portrait of an elderly Japanese gentleman. In the background of the painting, the silhouette of a black dragon can be noted. The character in question was, without a shadow of a doubt, Toyama Mitsuru (頭山 満), a preeminent leader of the ultra-nationalist and pan-Asian right and the founder of Genyosha (Black Ocean Society) and Kokuryukai (Black Dragon Society) [13].

Toyama had been a disciple of Saigo Takamori (西鄕 隆盛), The Last Samurai of Hollywood memory, one of the most influential samurai in Japanese history and one of the great nobles who led the Meiji Restoration. Like Saigo, Toyama was born into an impoverished samurai family but had developed his influence nationally not as a military-man or an elected politician. Toyama had progressively gained considerable prestige and strong personal power through the formation of the aforementioned nationalist organizations. These structures were dedicated to the promulgation of an ideology based on the reverence for the emperor and Pan-Asian designs that provided for expansion into China and Korea, justified with the program to free the Asian people from western domination. Genyosha and Kokuryukai attracted ex-samurai, individuals antagonistic with the political developments of contemporary Japan and later on members of organized crime as well. It is rumoured that they also organized violence and even sanctioned the murder of foreigners and liberal politicians [14].

Although with obviously different nuances, this approach closely resembles what Morihei Ueshiba explained to the journalist Kondo Hidezo in an interview made in 1956 for the weekly supplement of the Yomiuri newspaper [15]: “The Emperor is the center, regardless of the social classes; military, agricultural, industrial, and mercantile. In Japan, the Emperor is the center and his extensions divide the administration of state affairs among themselves. (…) I am fine with being called a fool. This fool thinks in his own way, and doesn’t belong to any group. Those who are making a scene are the ones who want to show how great they are. There is nothing to be gained by participating in such a group. “The beautiful form of Heaven and Earth is a manifestation of a single family created by the kami…”. Although I am an ignorant fool, it is my opinion that if there is no center in a family, it is the same as several different families living in a single household. Such a conglomeration of families doesn’t work. Everybody insists on expressing his own opinion and a leader cannot be chosen”

Tempu Nakamura (right) with his mentor Mitsuru Toyama (1924). Toyama was an influential political leader of the nationalist right and the founder of the nationalist secret societies Genyosha (Black Ocean Society) and Kokuryukai (Black Dragon Society). Morihei Ueshiba was linked to Toyama through Onisaburo Deguchi, while Tempu Nakamura mentored Koichi Tohei and Hiroshi Tada (Copyright Aikido Sangenkai)
Morihei Ueshiba’s spiritual master Onisaburo Deguchi (left), pictured with Mitsuru Toyama (center) and Ryohei Uchida, ultra-nationalist political theorist and founder of the Black Dragon Society together with Toyama (right) (Copyright Aikido Sangenkai)
1934: Onisaburo Deguchi (right) with Mitsuru Toyama (left) and Seiji Noma (center), founder of Kodansha publishing house and owner of the Noma Dojo, where the photos of the legendary “Budo” by Morihei Ueshiba were taken (Copyright Aikido Sangenkai)

Onisaburo Deguchi, the spiritual guide of Morihei Ueshiba, was another of the leaders involved in the above manoeuvres. Deguchi’s connection with Mitsuru Toyama and Ryohei Uchida, both key characters of the Black Dragon Society, is a proven fact. Toyama and Uchida were very active in Manchuria and Mongolia, the scene of the political-militaristic adventures of Ueshiba and Deguchi of 1924 [16].

Another connection between Toyama and Ueshiba can be found in the figure of Yoshida Kotaro, a direct pupil of Sokaku Takeda, who in 1915 was responsible for introducing Morihei Ueshiba to Takeda at Engaru’s Hisada Inn in Hokkaido [14] [17]. It has been suggested that Yoshida was a member of Kokuryukai, although his name does not appear on the list of members in our possession.

The First Westerner to the Ueshiba Court

It seems quite evident that Mergé was part of this socio-cultural environment. Once heard of Ueshiba sensei in that context, Salvatore decided that he would meet him and practice Aiki, where he sensed a significant point of contact between the hermetic tradition of the West and the spiritual one of the Eastern martial arts. [1]. At the current state of knowledge, we know that until that time no westerner had ever attended Morihei Ueshiba’s classes. André Nocquet, universally celebrated as the “first Westerner” to become a pupil of Morihei, arrived in Japan only in 1955 [5], about 18 years after Mergé. Later we will talk again about Nocquet, comparing the results of his sojourn in Japan with those of Mergé.

Unable to find other ways to approach Aikido, Salvatore Mergé decided that the only thing to do was to go to Ueshiba’s dojo, find a way to introduce himself and be admitted to Aikido lessons [19]. Since April 1931, Morihei had opened his private dojo in the Ushigome area (today Shinjuku), which he called Kobukan. The dojo was frequented by senior students of other Budo arts and the training was so energetic and the atmosphere so intense that at the time the Kobukan had been nicknamed “Hell Dojo of Ushigome” [6]. The residence of Ueshiba sensei and his family was attached to the dojo. In the 1940s, the dojo location was on the outskirts of Tokyo and about an hour away by train from the Italian Embassy, where Mergè spent most of his time [19].

Image of the Kobukan dojo after the war

One day, therefore, he got up early and before going to the embassy he went to the Kobukan, introducing himself as メルヂェ・サルバトーレ, cultural attaché at the Embassy of Italy and admirer of traditional Japanese arts, and requested to be received by Morihei Ueshiba sensei. He was left to wait in the courtyard of the Ueshiba residence, after which he was told that the master was busy and that he would have to return on another occasion. The same scene repeated several times successively, always with the same negative result [19] [20].

After eight or nine unsuccessful attempts, finally, they admitted him to the house and told him that soon they would reply if sensei could receive him. In the room in which he was directed sat a no longer young man intent on reading a book, who did not even deign him a glance, while remaining focused on his book. It wasn’t long before the man got up and left, always in silence. Mergè remained alone in the room until Hatsu, Ueshiba’s wife, arrived, and brought him the master’s apology and asked him to come over another time [19] [20].

The story kept repeating itself, but Mergè did not give up, continuing to return, refusal after refusal. In the end, his perseverance won and he managed to speak with Morihei Ueshiba, who recognized in the person that that time had not deigned to have a look at him or to tell him a word [19] [20].

The fact is that the outcome of this long-awaited meeting was that Salvatore Mergè was allowed what no foreigner had ever obtained: he had been accepted as a student [19] [20].

The version reported above, which refers to the story related by Mergè to Serpieri, and that was repeated to me in similar terms during some private conversations by Renato De Angelis, a nephew of Mergé, is also confirmed by a congruent testimony provided by Hiroshi Tada: “There was a professor named Mergé (…) During the war Mergé was attached to the Italian Embassy in Japan. After the war he returned to Italy and became an instructor in a school for Eastern languages. While Mergé Sensei was in Japan he heard of Aikido and went to visit Ueshiba Dojo. However, he was told that he would not be allowed to enter the Dojo. At that time two introductions were required in order to enter Ueshiba Dojo, and no foreigners were allowed. In spite of that, Mr. Mergé sat outside the dojo every day until he was allowed to enter. He gave great thanks and respect to O-Sensei” [21].

There is another account, according to which this first meeting between Mergé and Ueshiba would have taken place during a train journey, when Ueshiba’s otomo would have invited Mergé on behalf of the master, telling him to go meet him at home and giving him a visiting card. The situation seems very unlikely, considering the character and cultural formation of Ueshiba, and the typical attitude of suspicion and reluctance towards foreigners common in the Japanese of the time [24].

The beginning of Mergé’s Aikido apprenticeship was not as an active practitioner. We must remember that at the time teaching transmission still closely resembled that of traditional Koryu, and was characterized by secrecy, severity and teaching methods that were completely unusual in comparison to those experienced by modern Budo students. Initially, Ueshiba brought Salvatore inside the dojo and made him sit on one side, allowing him only to assist to the lessons (mitori geiko) [20].

Kobukan Dojo’s Kamiza

At the time, two morning and three evening sessions were held at Kobukan, while the uchi-deshi had the tatami at their disposal to train as much as they wanted at any other time of the day [6]. Ueshiba, noting Mergé’s perseverance and interest, assigned him the task of cleaning the dojo before the start of the morning training, a duty that Salvatore carried out with integrity and humility, getting up at antelucan hours to reach the dojo in time [19]. Mergé would later recount to his Italian students at the ISMEO that some times, while he was concentrating on cleaning, Ueshiba sensei had slipped silently behind him and hit him with his bokken. Salvatore had been caught unprepared a couple of times, after which he had learned to be alert during the cleaning of the dojo, expecting the attack of the founder, and then perceiving his furtive approach. However unusual and politically incorrect Ueshiba’s didactic approach was, the result had been the desired one: Salvatore realized that he had to come out from within himself (rational concentration) and always remain present and receptive [19].

There is another anecdote about Mergé’s Kobukan times, also reported years later by Mergé’s students, according to which Salvatore said that Ueshiba sensei had engaged some of his disciples in a special type of training aimed at controlling their internal emotions. The students would have been brought into contact with furious dogs and wild horses, in order to test their ability to maintain a calm disposition in a stressful situation and transmit peace to the animals in question, placating them. It should be noted that there are no other direct or indirect testimonies of this practice in Aikido [19].

Salvatore Mergè’s formation at the Kobukan had to begin sometime after his arrival in Japan (1937) and lasted until the autumn of 1943. It seems logical to assume that Mergè, in addition to being the first Westerner to practice Aikido, also had to be the first non-Japanese to receive an Aikido rank from Morihei Ueshiba. According to Giacomo Paudice, a leading figure of the era of the pioneers of the Italian Aikikai, Salvatore Mergè would have achieved the initial degree of shodan [25].

Other sources make him the holder of the “highest degrees of this discipline” [1] [3]. This would seem highly unlikely, considering how Salvatore was a foreigner in a traditional Japanese pre-war dojo, with all that ensues. It should also be remembered that he had the opportunity to practice for a period not exceeding 6 years. His nephew, Renato, reports a colourful anecdote on the subject: “Tenth Dan, Tenth Dan”, I often heard smiling aunt address him with a mocking air, referring to his martial past on Japanese soil. I don’t know if he was ever actually a tenth dan, but what is certain is that it was he who first brought martial arts to Italy, way back in 1945” [1].

Mergé told De Angelis that Ueshiba sensei was extremely severe and did not allow the slightest infringement of the unwritten rules of conduct that governed the life of the dojo. The slightest lack was enough to be ousted. The persistence and sincerity in the commitment shown by Mergé towards training had therefore helped him to gain the attention, respect and, as far as possible given the cultural limits, the friendship of Morihei Ueshiba [20]. De Angelis reports that Salvatore had told him that he had eaten a few times at the Ueshiba home [20], which we know has also happened to other Japanese characters of the time, for example Junichi Haga [26]. As a good Italian, according to De Angelis, during one of these gastronomic meetings, Mergé would have presented himself with a packet of flour and would have taught Ueshiba sensei the art of preparing fettuccine, which they would then eat together [20].

During his stay in Japan, Mergé continued his work as an orientalist and a translator. In January 1939 he produced the essay Demonologia Nipponica – L’Oni (Japanese Demonology – The Oni) for Monumenta Nipponica magazine, proving how his orientalists and esoteric interests were often joined [27].

Ciurei – Le Anime Fedeli (The Faithful Souls), Noh work translated by Mergé, for which he also produced a series of out of text plates

In 1942, on behalf of the Embassy of Italy in Tokyo, he completed the translation into Italian of Noh drama Ciurei – Le Anime Fedeli (The Faithful Souls), for which he also produced a series of out of text plates [28].

Also in 1942, Mergé seems to have edited the work La Dinastia Imperiale del Giappone e Cronologia Nipponica Comparata a Quella Occidentale: Appendice agli Appunti di Storia del Giappone (The Imperial Dynasty of Japan and Comparative Japanese Chronology to the Western Chronology: Appendix to the Notes of History of Japan), of which we found mention in the archives of the Central National Library of Florence [29].

His wife Florence also devoted herself to traditional Japanese cultural activities, studying and practising Ikebana, of which, on returning to Italy, she would later become a pioneer, teaching in courses organized by the ISMEO [30].

September 8th and the End of the Japanese Experience

The armistice proclamation signed on September 8, 1943, by Marshal Pietro Badoglio in Cassibile (Syracuse) before the American general Dwight Eisenhower, marked the end of Mergè’s Japanese dream. Italians in Japan, from allies, became enemies and traitors. It was the end of esoteric exchanges, of martial studies, of Mergè’s professional life in Japan: Salvatore was locked for about a year in a concentration camp in a Japanese location unknown to us [1].

As a consequence of this traumatic event, in addition to his social and professional life, Mergè also lost all his earthly possessions, and this helps to understand why little or nothing has come to posterity of the Japanese period of Salvatore. Before being taken away, like a true hermeticist, Mergè managed to replace the belt of his trousers with the “ritual cord” of red silk, which was necessary for him to carry out his initiatory rituals [1] [20]. He was also able to save his precious personal diary, which contained explanations and methods concerning the rituals he had learned from Giuliano Kremmerz, as well as indications on his “personal practices”. This hermetic diary survived and was entrusted on his deathbed by Salvatore Mergé to his nephew Renato de Angelis, his designated successor [1] [20].

Salvatore Mergè’s hermetic diary, which survived the prison camp in Japan

The content of the diary, which was initially yielded during that difficult period of Mergè’s life, would later form the core of his work L’Arte di Divenire Simile agli Dei. The work remained in gestation and unfinished for a long time and was published by Edizioni Mediterranee only in 2002, thanks to the efforts, patient research and transcription work carried out by De Angelis [1] [20].

Mergè was released from the prison camp in 1944 [1]. In light of a legal document available online and consulted by me, the subsequent reconstruction of Salvatore’s movements currently in circulation seems to be incorrect. To begin with, Mergè did not leave Japan until the end of 1946 and not in 1945 as published more or less everywhere. On December 10, 1946, in fact, the American consulate in Yokohama issued an American passport for Florence Strunsky Mergè, Salvatore’s wife, valid only for the United States, with whom she went to New York with her husband [9].

The Argus, Melbourne newspaper where Salvatore and Florence Mergè are mentioned

Previously the Mergè resided, at least for a certain period of time, at the Hotel Fujiya, south-east of Tokyo, as reported by an article published on 11 September 1945 by the Australian newspaper The Argus, in which direct reference is made to the Mergè and the kind of luxurious life that Axis diplomats lived in anticipation of knowing their post-war fate: “In a luxurious paradise south-west of Tokyo, and only 22 miles from the massive symmetrical beauty of Japan’s holy mountain Fujiyama, I found 150 high-ranking Axis diplomats under the leadership of suave, polished Heinrich Stahmer, Hitler’s Ambassador to Tokyo, living a life as exotic as the orchids with which their tables were decorated. They included representatives of Germany, Italy, Siam, and French Indo-China. They were living, without guards, at the sophisticated gilded Hotel Fujiya, where they sat gazing at the magnificent views of Fujiyama, and at two vast decorative pools with fountains in which trained schools of huge two-foot long goldfish waited for crumbs that the diplomats would toss them with graceful gestures. (…) Sometimes they thought about the end of the war and the future. (…) One Westerner in the collection of motley intriguers is a New York woman, Mrs Florence Mergè, who is married to Salvatore Mergè, of the Italian Legation. She is bored but pleasant, and asked for news from home, for American cigarettes, and any copies of Vogue, and for chocolates. She said the Scotch whisky had run out long ago. (…) Mrs Mergè said that the Japanese treated the Italians better than any other nationalities after Italy’s surrender, and when Italy became a cobelligerent with the United Nations.. (…) All residents in the perfumed palace who had received throughout the war a double ration of 20 cigarettes a day and a ration of white bread when all others in Japan got only heavy brown bread, were reluctant to say anything at all against the Japanese” [10].

After leaving Japan from Yokohama in December 1946, the couple remained in the United States for nine months, until September 1947. On July 31, 1947, the Italian Consulate in New York granted Mrs Mergè a visa for Italy. Florence arrived in Italy on 19 September 1947, where she has since resided with her husband [9]. If Salvatore travelled from the United States with her on that occasion, his return to Italy should be set for September 1947.

Activities on Return to Italy

Once back in Italy, Mergè temporarily resided in Grottaferrata, and then settled in Rome, in Corso Trieste, in 1950 [1]. We have direct evidence of Salvatore’s return to the family, offered by Renato De Angelis, then a 9-year-old boy: “I lived with my paternal grandfather and my family in a beautiful villa located in the Roman countryside, surrounded by a large park. The entrance avenue ended with a staircase that led to the main door of the house. It was precisely on that staircase that I saw him for the first time (…). The news of the arrival of my uncle had already made us nervous for days. It was a long time since my family saw him, having been an interpreter at the embassy in Tokyo for many years, and such an assignment inevitably meant a separation. He came up the stairs, took me in his arms, gave me a kiss and whispered in my ear: “You were born already learned my child”, a phrase that I understood only many years later. (…) One thing intrigued me about him: he used to lock himself in a room in the house, to perform “secret” practices, which to any child of my age would have inferred a sense of mystery and fantasy. Little by little curiosity took hold of me, more and more often I went near that closed door, silent as a feline, to look through the keyhole; but the light coming from the opposite window showed only moving shadows and little more. One day, while I was intent on my stealth, the inevitable happened: the door swung open and I found myself in front of the overwhelming figure of my uncle, who with a severe and intimidating air took me by the ear and made me enter the room, closing the door behind him. More than seventy years have passed since that day, and I have never left that room…

Schola Philosophica di Teurgia Ermetica

Upon his return, Mergè promptly resumed contacts and exchanges with Italian esoteric circles and around 1950 founded his Schola Philosophica di Teurgia Ermetica. [1] Theurgy draws its origins from the Cabballah and proposes to “operate by means of the Divine” (θεουργία, theos = god, ergon = work). It is the highest, purest and most wise aspect of what the ordinary man would call Magic. Theurgy works through secret rituals, makes use of prayer and works the pentacles to get in touch with the powers of heaven. It seeks to purify the world, and this purification is manifested in the physical sphere by achieving or restoring health, and in the spiritual sphere by fostering elevation and inner growth [11].

Mergè shared his esoteric research with famous personalities from the Italian cultural world of the time such as Massimo Scaligero and Giuseppe Tucci. It was Tucci, president of ISMEO since 1947, who called him to the institute as a Japanese language teacher [1].

Aikido Lands in Italy

When Mergè began teaching at the ISMEO, his home in the Nomentano district of Rome became the first sui generis dojo of Aikido and Japanese sword outside of Japan. Placido Procesi, a friend of the aforementioned Toddi and a frequent visitor to the ISMEO, should be numbered among the very first disciples. Procesi was Julius Evola’s physician and one of the leading figures of Italian traditionalism [7]. A tale on the type of training performed at the Mergè home-dojo refers to “exhausting singular exercises for the development of the hara and ukemi on cushions on the floor” [24].

Mergè began to narrate anecdotes about Morihei Ueshiba and Aikido to his Japanese language students, arousing their interest. To the young Italians of the time, Mergè appeared to be eccentric and different from the ordinary, mysterious and reserved, as he probably must have been, following his experiences in the land of the Orient. Stefano Serpieri masterfully describes him to us: “The Japanese language teacher for my course was Prof. Salvatore Mergé and it was the year 1957. The thing that struck me most of all when I met him first was that although Prof. Mergé was Italian, he had the presence of a Japanese, due to his ways of doing things, because of the way he smiled and mainly for those glasses that he wore and that gave his face a somewhat oriental look. In fact, Prof. Mergé, a distinguished scholar of language, literature, history and customs of Japan, had resided for a long time in that country during the Second World War, as an employee of the Italian embassy in Tokyo. That sojourn on Japanese soil had, perhaps, slightly transformed him, having assimilated much of Japanese customs and culture. It was through the stories and anecdotes that Prof. Mergé told us during his Japanese classes that I got to know about Master Morihei Ueshiba and the art he created” [19].

Professor Salvatore Mergé

Hiroshi Tada sensei also recognizes Salvatore Mergé’s proselytizing effort within the ISMEO, a commitment that would later facilitate Tada sensei’s work as the official representative for the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Italy (1964): “At that time lived in Rome Prof. Mergé, who had attended the “Ueshiba Dojo” during the period in which he worked at the Italian Embassy in Tokyo during the war. Some of his students from the ISMEO in Rome, who had heard of Master Ueshiba Morihei from the professor, immediately enrolled [to Tada’s classes]. Thanks to the help of one of these students, Mr Stefano Serpieri, later on it was later possible to move the headquarters of the Dojo into a building owned by the State

Again Tada confirms the above during his interview in 1994: “(Mergé) was the first person to speak about O-Sensei in Italy. The students in his Japanese language school who heard about him were the first to enrol” [21].

Mergé, however, never took any step in the direction of opening his own official and public personal dojo. The professor loved to tell of his experiences with the founder, but he never seemed prone to demonstrate the art he learned in public. Once again, Serpieri’s biographical account is very useful to clarify the above: “All these stories about Master Ueshiba had aroused more than just a curiosity in me. I saw in Aikido the way that I should have taken to start a path of inner knowledge, and in Master Ueshiba the spiritual guide I was looking for. I talked about it with Prof. Mergè, who listened to me with attention and curiosity, but the only thing I got out of him was that one evening he came to the Judo dojo that then I attended and he showed me, or rather he explained me some Aikido techniques while he explained to me about ki blending and other things that at that time I didn’t understand” [19].

Archive photo from 1964: in seiza Hiroshi Tada (in the center), Haru Onoda (third from left): second from left, standing, is Stefano Serpieri (Photo reproduced courtesy of Paolo Bottoni)

From a certain point on, the professor preferred to direct those who he did not choose for a form of private and limited-scale teaching towards Haru Onoda, a Japanese sculpture student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome. Onoda had practised Aikido at the Hombu Dojo, achieving shodan, and had also done secretary duties for Morihei Ueshiba [31].

Haru Onoda’s presence in Rome and the local Aikido activities of “an Italian who practices Aikido”, to be identified in Mergè, are confirmed by Kisshomaru Ueshiba in the famous interview he gave together with his father Morihei in 1957: “Also, there is a lady named Onoda Haru who went to Rome to study sculpting. She has been coming to the dojo since the time she was a student at the Tokyo School of Fine Arts. I just recently received a letter from her where she says she happened to meet an Italian who practices Aikido, and he treated her very well” [32].

Mergè and Nocquet, the Hermeticist and the Budoka

Although Salvatore Mergè was the first westerner ever to teach Aikido outside of Japan, after having resided there for about 6 years, his name has in all respects remained unknown both in his native country and abroad. Only one Aikido dojo in the world, located in Rome, bears his name [33], there are no “Salvatore Mergè” scholarships, and there is not even a Wikipedia entry dedicated to the great professor. In contrast, everyone knows Andrè Nocquet and his history. How did it happen?

Nocquet takes ukemi from the founder Ueshiba

Precisely the figure of Nocquet is useful for understanding what Mergè was not. From a young age, and throughout his life until his death in 1999, Nocquet was primarily a budoka. His existential focus was always martial arts intended as combat systems. When he left for Japan to study as an uchideshi at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in 1955, he was already 4th Dan of Judo and 1st Dan of Aikido, that he had studied with Minoru Mochizuki first and Tadashi Abe then [5]. Even at that time, Nocquet was a martial arts master as we intend in a modern sense: he was interested in opening classes, looking for students, teaching publicly, competing, taking exams, presiding over exams, etc. According to Erard, in 1955 Nocquet had already trained over 250 yudansha [5]. His exposure to Aikido in Japan was also based on the new modernized setting of the Hombu Dojo, promulgated by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and based on the progressive opening of art to the outside world [34].

Salvatore Mergè was profoundly different from Andrè Nocquet and his cultural approach in some ways almost opposite. Mergè was not a martialist, but an esotericist with deep connections to the secret world of alchemy and hermeticism. Where Nocquet was looking for students, Mergè sent them away; one was for the manifest world, the other for the hidden one. Mergè had been chosen by his teacher, Giuliano Kremmerz, and his had been an initiatory and individual path. When Mergè arrived in Japan, he found that Ueshiba’s approach to the world outside his dojo and his circle in relation to what Ueshiba taught was not unlike that of the esoteric world: secrecy and confidentiality were essential. Furthermore, Mergè was never and never became a martial artist in the contemporary sense of the word, that is, a professional master of Budo, interested in everything that Nocquet, for example, had put in place before and after his experience in Japan. For Mergè, Budo was interesting and useful as a means of enriching and completing one’s personal and initiatory development. He never saw himself as a master of Aikido and, on the other hand, he did not even need it, neither to acquire status nor much less for economic reasons, given that his social position was already widely affirmed both in orientalism and in esotericism.

Salvatore Mergè ended his earthly existence on January 22, 1965. It is my hope that this work of mine, which comes after an inexplicable 55 years delay, will help to relocate his figure in the appropriate Olympus of the great Aikido in Italy and beyond.

The burial place of Salvatore Mergè at the cemetery of Frascati (Rome)

Copyright Simone Chierchini – ©2020
All rights reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited


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Un pensiero riguardo “Salvatore Mergé, the First Western Student of Morihei Ueshiba”

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