The Great Old Man – Interview with Danilo Chierchini


Danilo Chierchini is the great old man of martial arts in Italy. A Judo pioneer in Italy in the 1950s and a national team champion in 1954; the founder of the first permanent Aikido dojo in Italy and the signatory of the letter to the Aikikai Hombu Dojo that brought Hiroshi Tada to Italy in the 1960s; the first Aikikai Aikido shodan in Italy (together with 18 other pioneers) in 1969; the director of Italian Aikikai Central Dojo in Rome from 1970 to 1993; a founding member and then President of the Italian Aikikai for 12 years; and 5th Dan Aikikai since 1979, he is a pillar of Budo in our country, even if he has been retired for years and has not been heard from for a while. I tracked him down in his Tuscan retreat, and with the help of some good Vino Nobile di Montepulciano I loosened his tongue. Do not expect, however, the classic interview on Aikido

by SIMONE CHIERCHINI

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SIMONE
Let’s start from afar and then move on to what interests us the most. World War II is over and there is a generation of young Italians who have escaped the horrors of war. A world, the old one, has been destroyed and now everything is being redone from scratch, with the influence of thousands of external factors, mainly under the wing of American culture. What are your memories of the post-war period? What was the situation like in Italy at the end of the 1940s?

DANILO
After the crossing of the front by the allied troops of the Fifth Army, that had incorporated the French colonial army – routed by the Germans at the time and then taken over by the Americans – the Italians were shocked by the ‘exploits’ of these soldiers, who had distinguished themselves above all for their violence against the civilians and the raping of women. Our liberators, therefore, made a very bad first impression on us. Paradoxically, the Germans, who were occupying my village of Radicofani at the time, being strictly disciplined by their superiors, were under orders not to bother the civilian population in any way, unless of course they were armed or in collusion with the resistance. 

“Thus the enemy behaved better with us than the friend: I was 13 years old and I still have this burning memory of the impact with the liberators. We listened to Badoglian radio, broadcasting from a sector of Italy that had broken away from the Fascists and regrouped under the king, which portrayed the Americans to us as saviours, the positive energy of the world. On the contrary, on the ground we had the tremendous trauma of seeing that the Germans, that is the enemy, the bad guys, were gentlemen compared to the soldiers of the Fifth Army, who did absolutely all sorts of nasty stuff.

“I could cite a thousand episodes, but this is the reality. Even though I am 82 years old [in 2011], unfortunately I remember certain events as if they had happened yesterday, just as I remember perfectly the bitter disappointment that we all felt. Those who lived on the Adriatic side of Italy did not have to experience our pains, because that part of the front was entrusted to British and Commonwealth troops, whose discipline was perfect, while we who were on the Tyrrhenian side were left at the complete mercy of the liberators, to the point that most people immediately began to call them invaders.

Those were very hard times. If it had not been for the tangible help from the United States in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars, I don’t know if I would be here talking. The Americans first beat us, humiliated us and sent scum in uniforms to fight on our soil, then, once they had occupied and taken control of the nation, they realised how hungry Italy was: it was populated by legions of barefoot beggars. With the start of the Marshall Plan, an enormous amount of food, provisions and clothing began to fall from the sky. From there, we slowly began to work our way up. I remember I was in junior high school at the time and our school had been occupied by evacuees, so we took turns attending classes. The desks were planks on tripods, instead of notebooks we used sheets of newspaper where we wrote on the edge, the lighting was provided by a 25W bulb hanging from a cable on the ceiling. Those were really tough times.

The Americans have put us back on our feet and set us on the road to democracy after 20 years of fascist dictatorship, even if, mind you, it was Italian-style, i.e. watered down. In this, too, we Italians are special: first everyone licked the dictator’s backside for twenty years, then they hung him by his feet. The Piazzale Loreto episode is one of the darkest in our recent history, in my opinion.

The recovery from the devastation of the war was incredible. In the space of a few years we went from rubble to an economic boom, accompanied by mass urbanisation. I myself left the Siena countryside, in Tuscany, where my family – a family of small landowners – had lived for generations and moved to Rome. All the social structures that had been commonplace before the war collapsed. Those who worked the land stopped farming, returned the key to the farm to the landlord and went to live in the city. All of a sudden the countryside emptied out, something that is still visible today, more than 60 years later. After experiencing hunger, fear and hardship, the Italians enthusiastically threw themselves into work. This was the basis for our rebirth.

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SIMONE
In addition to American money, it is not incorrect to say that also came American values, and they replaced the traditional ones at a time when people abandoned everything old: not least because the old principles had resulted in the horrors of war and the misery that came with it.

DANILO
It’s not like we had much choice either. That was the feeling of the time: everything Italian, every Italian object was despised and considered inferior, while everyone was running after the novelties coming from the USA.

SIMONE
The change in perception was very rapid. In the space of a decade, we were faced with a whole new world, with the consequence that people threw the original furniture of the centuries-old Italian tradition out of the window and replaced it with plastic and Formica. The Italians threw out the bathwater and the baby in it.

DANILO
That’s right.

SIMONE
After every tragedy there is a season of rebirth and great energy. Your generation has been at the centre of this, in a time characterised by a desire to live, to have fun, to dream and to experiment. Your generation was the first to do things that were previously unheard of in the average population.

DANILO
The reconstruction generation accomplished miracles, working with tireless energy and enthusiasm. This was certainly not for purely patriotic reasons, but because the economy had suddenly changed and even the ordinary man could educate himself, work and earn a good living, something that in the past was precluded to most. 

The Italians were proud to have the power to produce and earn. In the short term, this meant being able to eat their fill and dress elegantly, and then being able to buy a flat in the city, a motorbike or a small car paying in instalments. Tens of thousands of Fiat Topolino were sold, people took to travelling and touring, to savouring the good side of life. Consider that until before the war, the vast majority had never set foot outside the Country and most didn’t know what the sea was! In the meantime I had gone to work as a chartered surveyor in Bari, so I bought a Lambretta and used it to make crazy journeys like Bari-Taranto…

The Great Old Man in his Tuscan retreat

Shortly afterwards I bought a small Rumi motorbike, a 125cc, which was much sought after because it made a strange noise, as if it were a racing car! For my group of Roman friends, the height of bliss was this: starting from the Roman walls at the top of Via Veneto with their unmuffled motorbikes making a hell of a racket and riding down Via Veneto at breakneck speed all the way to Piazza Barberini, risking killing pedestrians and passers-by. Those were other times, we felt and were without limits.

SIMONE
Tell us about your on-the-road Rome-Seville trip.

DANILO

In the mid-1950s, some friends and I rented a Fiat 1100 that was hilarious to look at and decided to go and visit Spain. At the time, the country was under Franco’s dictatorship and was starving. Spooked by what we were hearing about the conditions in Spain under Franco, we packed our 1100 with spare parts, because if it broke down we wouldn’t be able to find them in the Iberian peninsula. Spanish law at the time forbade the importation of luxury goods from abroad, and cars were considered to be such: Spain’s car fleet was made up of antediluvian vehicles. 

The Spain we saw was a wonderful, unspoilt, genuine country. Since we had some money in our pockets, we even took an aeroplane from Barcelona to Palma de Mallorca, which at the time was a very simple fishing village with a spectacular charm. With the fall of Franco and the advent of a new way of thinking and a lot of capital, some of these places became among the most famous spots in European tourism.”

SIMONE
How did a die-hard non-smoker end up working for the State Monopolies Tobacco Factory?

DANILO
After graduating as a surveyor I won a public competitive examination and on September 1, 1952 I was sent to the Manifattura dei Tabacchi in Bari as a maintenance surveys engineer. I lived in Bari Vecchia, in front of the Swabian Castle. The conditions in the neighbourhood were crazy, it was like being in a third world country… To give an enlightening example, since the houses did not have sanitary facilities, in the morning a small tanker truck would do the rounds of the alleyways, and outside the door of the basements a bucket of sewage would be waiting for the unfortunate workers. 

On the other hand, my rented room was in a wonderful location, with a dream view and the luxury of a proper bathroom and running water. The Bari experience was a turning point for me: I was 20 years old and had some money in my pockets: life was smiling at me. Sometimes at midnight with other friends we would take a boat and go out to sea from the old port. Here we would drop anchor and enjoy swimming and seeing the lights of the famous Bari seafront, pride of the people of Bari. I can still remember them saying in dialect: ‘If Paris had the sea, it would be a small Bari’.

Danilo Chierchini teaching in the Dojo Centrale in Rome (1985)

SIMONE
In all this time did you ever do any active sport?

DANILO
Never.

SIMONE
In the meantime you’ve arrived in Rome. How did you end up doing Judo? How did you get the itch to take up martial arts? What made you interested?

DANILO
I didn’t know anything about martial arts, like the vast majority of people at the time. There were rumours of lethal blows, secret techniques and stuff like that. There was even an advertisement in the newspapers promising, ‘The helpless will overcome’ and we all laughed like crazy… There were also a lot of charlatans around who had promoted themselves to black belt 30th Dan!

SIMONE
They’re still there… At least in this respect things haven’t changed.

DANILO
One evening I followed some friends to a Judo club. It was the Kodokan Judo Club in Rome. I stayed to watch and I liked it a lot, because in a world where charlatans ruled, the organiser of this club, which was located near Via Veneto, therefore in a prestigious area, Maurizio Genolini sensei, was a true and sincere Judo enthusiast. I enrolled and started practising with enthusiasm. 

After two or three years it almost became a problem for me, because practising a competitive martial art at the age of twenty plus was not easy: I was already ‘too old’. It was at that time that I happened to see a TV documentary shown on the Italian state broadcaster about a strange art called Aikido. This programme was based on the exploits of the art’s founder, O-sensei Ueshiba. It proceeded to explain that his family had inherited particular techniques, dating back to the samurai era, which were passed down from father to son and not taught to anyone. What I saw struck me deeply and aroused my curiosity. However, I could not find anyone who could teach me this discipline.

SIMONE
Was there nobody teaching it in Rome?

DANILO
There was no one to teach it in Europe, with the exception of France. Around the same time, I learned that a Japanese student had arrived in Rome, a young man who had won a sculpture scholarship from Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts. His name was Ken Otani and he was an amateur Judo graduate. Genolini immediately appointed Otani as technical director of our Judo dojo. This was the beginning of a training relationship that lasted for several years, but the most remarkable and satisfying thing for me was that under Otani sensei’s guidance – despite the fact that I had started Judo late and my body wasn’t really suited to the discipline – after three years of training we managed to win the Italian team championships. In this team I was the lightweight. That was in 1954: it was one of the greatest joys I had from practising martial arts.

The 1954 Team Judo Champions: Otani in the center, D. Chierchini on the far right

SIMONE
After practising for several years at the Kodokan Judo Club with Otani, through your work you had the opportunity to open your own Judo dojo as part of the State Monopolies recreational club in Rome.

DANILO
Over the years I had the opportunity to advance in rank and I felt like teaching. Given that the State Monopolies had some premises that were closed and practically abandoned, which I was aware of, as I was part of the Maintenance Office, by dint of insistence we managed to convince the management to turn them into a martial arts hall. We carried out the restoration works and opened a beautiful dojo in the heart of Rome, in Trastevere. This dojo, which began as a Judo school, would later host the first organised and permanent Aikido class in the history of the discipline in Italy. Until then, the development of Aikido in Italy had been limited to the sporadic appearance of a few Japanese teachers for seminars of a day or two as guests of other martial art clubs. The students that attended those seminars were judoka and karateka curious to try a new discipline, but with no plans to establish the art and teach it on a regular and consistent basis. Our classes, on the other hand, were permanent and established with the idea of spreading Aikido in Rome.

SIMONE
Did you meet Haru Onoda, one of these pre-Monopoli pioneers, before or after you met your first Aikido teacher, Motokage Kawamukai?

DANILO
I met these two pioneers more or less at the same time, between the end of 1963 and the beginning of 1964. At that time Kawamukai was an 18 year old lad who had already had some experience of teaching Aikido in the United States. He had been responsible for starting Aikido in New York in collaboration with an Italian-American and an American, Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, who would later become famous for the book they wrote, Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere. At a certain point their relationship fell apart and Kawamukai decided to move to Rome, where he had the contact of an old martial arts enthusiast, Tommaso Betti Berutto, the author of a manual on martial arts that was very popular back then.

Haru Onoda in Torino (1968)

“Betti, contacted by Kawamukai, advised him to get in touch with me, since we had one of the most beautiful dojos in Rome, and Kawamukai phoned me. It was very late at night and he spoke in English, which we both knew but not too well, nevertheless we managed to understand each other and arranged an appointment for the following days. When I met Kawamukai, I was faced with a young man with great willpower and determination. He wanted to practice Aikido in Rome, and offered me on a silver platter the opportunity to practice that discipline which I had only seen in that TV documentary, but which had really fascinated me. Within a few days we decided to include an Aikido class directed by him within the activities of the Monopoli dojo in Trastevere, and from there the Aikido movement in Italy took off.

SIMONE
Have you ever hosted Haru Onoda at the State Monopolies? This pioneer of Aikido in Italy was living in Rome at the time, after having been O-sensei’s secretary.

Onoda didn’t teach but she often came to train. She was a young and frail lady who lived in Rome for the same reasons as Ken Otani: she was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts after winning a scholarship. Onoda probably had wanted to teach too, which brought her into conflict with Kawamukai, so we ended up not seeing her any more.

From among my teachers over many decades in Budo, the one I remember the most fondly and respectfully remains Ken Otani, with whom I developed a true friendship. Otani was a rather peculiar guy, at least in the eyes of the ordinary Italian person of the time, and the anecdotes he told me were truly fascinating. For example, like all his classmates at Meiji University in Tokyo, at the outbreak of World War II he enlisted in the air forces and was therefore a pilot. He used to tell me that for them the use of a parachute was inconceivable. The very idea of going into battle with a device that would allow them to jump and abandon the fight was simply an abomination, a disgrace. Each of them was ready to sacrifice his life for his country, this concept was commonplace, unquestioned and comfortably embraced. Their plane was equipped with a parachute, but they would pull it out of its container and sit on it like a pillow, because it was soft and comfortable… “Otani was on the list of pilots assigned to suicide missions, and he had trained as a kamikaze. He was only saved because the Japanese nation collapsed a few days before his turn came. My friendship with Ken Otani was something I will never forget, as well as his compassion and kindness: he never made me feel that he was the teacher and I was the student. It was through Otani that I came to know and appreciate the Japanese mentality of the time, which was characterised by a number of principles that for me were and have remained essential: keeping one’s word, being honest, following the rules one has set for oneself… in a nutshell, the exact opposite of what we see in the behaviour typical of so many Italians. Otani was the teacher who paved the way for me to understand Bushido through his personal behaviour.

SIMONE
How did it happen that you and Kawamukai wrote to the Aikikai Hombu Dojo requesting a resident teacher and they sent you Hiroshi Tada?

H. Tada e D. Chierchini: Salesiani Demonstration in Rome (1968)

DANILO
At that time Kawamukai had neither the age nor the science to become the driving force behind the diffusion of Aikido in Italy, and moreover he had other personal projects in mind besides martial arts. It was he who told me that it was necessary to bring in a professional teacher from Tokyo, and he worked through the contacts he had with Hirokazu Kobayashi – whom we had hosted in 1964 for a seminar at the dojo – to try and accomplish this ambitious project. Oddly enough, he got it right, because Tada sensei had wanted to come and teach in the West, as Tamura and Yamada had done that very same year. He therefore accepted our invitation and arrived in Italy on October 26, 1964. Who knows why he did such a thing? Perhaps he was looking for a change in his lifestyle, to test and prove himself in a country completely different from his own in terms of both mindset and culture. Tada sensei’s decision to come, this act of courage, has always given me pause. There is no doubt that the Japanese of that time were truly people to be reckoned with.

SIMONE
Tada sensei therefore began teaching Aikido in Italy in your dojo in Trastevere.

DANILO
Yes, that’s right. I used to pick him up in my car from the accommodation I had found for him and escort him around Rome. In those days we trained for two hours three times a week. I used my contacts in the Judo Federation and we organised demonstrations, including one in 1965 that went down in the annals: the demo at the Police Academy in Nettuno. We took the mats to a forecourt within the barracks and had several hundred would-be police officers around as spectators. Tada made an impressive demonstration with Kawamukai and me as uke and was a great success among those present.

SIMONE
Who do you remember among the aikidoists of the day?

DANILO
A first group of enthusiasts was forming. Among them I remember Brunello Esposito from Naples, Nunzio Sabatino from Salerno, Fausto De Compadri, Francesco Lusvardi and Giorgio Veneri in Mantua, Claudio Bosello in Milan, and Claudio Pipitone in Turin. Thanks to this first group, Aikido took its first steps, to the point that we were able to invite a second Japanese instructor to take care of the south of Italy, Masatomi Ikeda.

SIMONE
What memories do you have of the first Aikikai Dan grading session held in Italy?

DANILO

The first group of Italian aikidoists to receive Aikikai Hombu Dojo certification was quite large. The exams were held by Tada sensei at various venues during the 1968-69 training year and qualified the first nineteen Italian Aikido yudansha: Bosello Claudio (Milan), Burkhard Bea (Naples), Chierchini Carla (Rome), Chierchini Danilo (Rome), Cesaratto Gianni (Rome), De Compadri Fausto (Mantua), De Giorgio Sergio (Rome), Della Rocca Vito (Salerno), Esposito Brunello (Naples), Immormino Ladislao (Turin), Infranzi Attilio (Cava dei Tirreni), Lusvardi Francesco (Mantova), Macaluso Marisa (Mantova), Peduzzi Alessandro (Milano), Pipitone Claudio (Torino), Ravieli Alfredo (Roma), Sabatino Nunzio (Napoli), Sciarelli Guglielmo (Napoli), Veneri Giorgio (Mantova).

At the time, the exams were very tough, or at least we thought so. I personally remember it as a massacre: Tada was really serious about it and didn’t make exceptions for anyone.

Tada signing autographs (Roma, 1968)

SIMONE
There is an urban legend around that in those early years Tada sensei was very rough in his practice. Is that true?

DANILO
Absolutely not. On the contrary, it was the Italians who were hard, as hard as rocks, because they thought they had already become some sort of Aikido champions… Tada sensei was truly gifted with remarkable energy and if he had wanted to play the bad guy he could have broken two or three beginners every night, but obviously he was careful not to do that, since he was trying with extreme hard work to build up his school.

SIMONE
In this initial stage, you received the first approaches from the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) with regard to integrating Aikido among the disciplines governed at national level, by forming a national federation recognised by the state. Why was it decided to keep the Italian Aikikai out of CONI? This decision turned out to be a momentous one, in the long run, because there lies the seed of what we see today: after almost 50 years there is no national Aikido diploma in Italy, no federation recognised by the state, etc. How did this happen and why?

DANILO
Attempts were made in that direction, which also led to a discussion table to take the project forward. However, every attempt to reach an agreement came up against the fact that the management of the entire movement would have to pass to CONI through the then Italian Federation of Heavy Athletics. For Tada sensei this solution was simply inconceivable. The idea was that the Ueshiba family owned a kind of patent, an invention. The shihans sent to spread the teachings of the Ueshiba family were not prepared to make any compromises. Things like federations, democratic associations, elections of representatives were – at the time – totally alien in relation to the culture and the way of acting of the Japanese instructors dispatched to the West from the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Zero, not even something to speak of. 

According to Italian law, a state of affairs managed the Japanese way was precluded. We were therefore caught between the inability to combine the democratic system, prescribed by law and proposed by CONI, with the pyramidal management system typical of traditional martial arts. Thus it was decided to proceed autonomously from CONI, in order to protect Tada sensei’s work and, at the same time, give our association a legal form that would be acceptable under Italian law. This was the immense work of a long-dead friend, Giacomo Paudice, a lawyer who dedicated years of effort to this project. With my modest contribution we devised a ploy which consisted in setting ourselves up as an association for the promotion of traditional Japanese culture, of which the Italian Aikikai was a section. As a cultural discipline, and not a sport, we broke away from CONI and left their sphere of influence, which is limited to sporting activities. In fact, in 1978 we received recognition as a Moral Body on the proposal of the Ministry of Culture.

Danilo Chierchini e Yoji Fujimoto have a laugh in a not-so-harmonious kokyunage (Rome, 1984)

SIMONE
Since we are already rummaging through the family’s dirty laundry, let’s try to shed some light on another extremely controversial point in the history of Italian Aikido. How did it happen that all the Aikido seniors who did not conform with the Tada line were excluded from the Italian Aikikai or prevented from participating with equal dignity in the life of the association? This is another of the seeds of the troubles that still plague our dysfunctional community decades later. How is it that this association, which managed to establish itself through its own resources and enjoyed the charisma of one of the world’s greatest Aikido teachers, was unable to manage the Italian Aikido movement in its entirety? From the very beginning, the Italian Aikikai’s policy was to exclude those who did not conform, a policy which was then made clear and consolidated with the periodical purge of all those elements which disturbed this conformity. Where does this attitude come from?

DANILO
It’s not that I like what you said, but I think it’s almost inevitable. Where there are great leaders, there are great interests. Even on a smaller scale, this phenomenon occurs exactly the same, with jealousies and envies that are all the greater the smaller the technical and moral understanding of the discipline may be. Honestly, as president and administrator of the Italian Aikikai I have not been able to remedy all that has happened, and even now I cannot imagine what I could have done to avoid it. I had the misfortune to be the president of the Italian Aikikai for several years, and I lost friends, time and money because of these problems. Managing the association’s meetings has put me at risk of a heart attack on more than one occasion.

SIMONE
Is it therefore accurate to say that gradually the handling of Aikido management and its politics have killed your enjoyment of practising Aikido?

DANILO
Perhaps. However, I want to make it clear that I have never cared at all about being president, about managing, about all that paperwork. Those who know me are aware that I’m an elusive individual who hates being in the front row. However, with modesty, at a certain point in the history of the Italian Aikido community, I was one of the few who had the human and cultural qualities to bear the burden of management, and this burden was imposed on me by others, starting with my teachers. So it turned out that I had to deal on a daily basis with the bureaucracy needed to run an association of several thousand members in a country like Italy. I did this for years, neglecting my family, and without receiving many thanks, neither from the colleagues nor from my teachers. I even had to listen to people talking behind my back, suggesting that I benefited financially from running the organisation, when on more than one occasion I plugged its holes using my bank account. Then one day I had enough, and I broke with Aikido politics as much as with Aikido.

SIMONE
After 25 years without martial arts, at the age of 82, are you better or worse off?

DANILO
I think there is a season for everything. There is a time when you do certain things and you enjoy doing them, and times – as the years go by – that this perspective changes. Goals change, perceptions change. I have never liked chatting. As a judoka I was a competitor, not a Judo historian. In Aikido I was part of the pioneer generation, with all the enthusiasm and energy that this entailed. I have been in Aikido for almost 30 years, and it is normal that my perception has changed. One day, when I realised that I didn’t like what I was doing any more, I simply said no more. My greatest satisfaction remains the fact that even today, wherever I go, I meet former students who show me their affection and gratitude for what we shared. I am proud of my reputation in the community, as in other activities of my life. Reputation is something we shine by our actions on a daily basis; after that we can safely go our separate ways, ignoring the squeaking rats that infest all things human.

SIMONE
Would you step on the mat again?

DANILO
Never.

SIMONE
Never say never?

DANILO
If I stepped onto the mat today, I’d only do it to say or listen to a lot of talk. Instead, one should step onto the tatami the way Ken Otani told me the old Japanese used to do: they would arrive, throw their clothes on the ground in a corner, put on their keikogi, jump onto the mat, bow to the first person who came along, give each other a good thrashing, get dressed and leave. That’s how I see it, the rest is all chatter.

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2011
All rights reserved. Any reproduction not expressly authorised is strictly prohibited.


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