The Great Old Man – Interview with Danilo Chierchini


Danilo Chierchini is the great old man of Martial Arts in Italy. Judo pioneer in Italy in the 1950s and national team champion in 1954, founder of the first regular Aikido dojo in Italy and signatory of the letter to the Hombu Dojo that brought Hiroshi Tada to Italy in the 1960s, first Shodan Aikikai in Italy (in the company of other 18 pioneers) in 1969, Danilo has been the director of the Central Dojo in Rome from 1970 to 1993, founding member and then President of the Italian Aikikai for 12 years and a 5th Dan Aikikai in 1979. He is a column of Italian Budo, even if he has retired for years and hasn’t given news of himself for a long time. I dug up him in his Tuscan retreat, and with the help of a little Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, I melted his tongue, but don’t expect the classic interview on Aikido…

by SIMONE CHIERCHINI

italian-button-60x60-1

SIMONE
Let’s start from afar and then gradually get closer to what interests us the most. The Second World War is over and there is a generation of young Italians who have escaped the horrors of war. One world, the old one, has ended up 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 post-war memories? How is the situation in Italy at the end of the 1940s?

DANILO
After the passage of the front by the allied troops of the Fifth Army, which had absorbed the French colonial army – defeated by the Germans at the time and then taken over by the Americans – the Italians were shocked by the “exploits” of these soldiers, who stood out above all for their violence against civilians and rapes of women. Our liberators, therefore, made a very bad impression on us. Paradoxically, the Germans, who at the time occupied my town, Radicofani, being strictly supervised by their superiors in terms of discipline, were ordered not to annoy the civilian population in any way, unless of course they were armed, or colluded with the resistance. Consequently, the enemy behaved with us better than our allies: I was 13 and I still have this burning memory of the impact with the liberators. We listened to the Badoglian radio, which was broadcasting from a sector of Italy that had detached itself from the fascists and reunited under the king, which presented the Americans as the saviours, the positive energy of the world. Instead, on the field, we had the terrible trauma of seeing that the Germans, that is the enemy, the bad guys, were gentlemen compared to the soldiers of the Fifth Army, who were responsible for all sorts of nasty stuff.
I could cite a thousand episodes, but this is the reality. Although I am 82 years old [in 2012 NdR], unfortunately I remember certain facts as if they had happened yesterday, as I perfectly remember the bitter disappointment that we all felt. Those who lived on Italy’s Adriatic side did not have to experience our pains, as that sector of the front was entrusted to the 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 of the people immediately started calling them invaders.

chierchini-danilo-01

Those were very hard times. If it weren’t for the concrete help in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States, I don’t know if I would be here talking. The Americans had first beaten us, humiliated us and sent scum in uniform to fight on our territory, then once they occupied and took control of the country, they realized the hunger that was raging in Italy, which was populated by legions of barefoot beggars. With the launch of the Marshall Plan, an enormous amount of food, supplies and clothing began to rain from the sky. From there on, slowly, we began to climb the slope. I remember that at the time I was in middle school and our school had been occupied by displaced people, so we took turns taking lessons. The desks were plank tables on tripods, instead of notebooks we used newspaper sheets on which we wrote on the edge, the lighting was a 25W bulb that hung from a cable on the ceiling. Those were really hard times.
The Americans 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 in the Italian style, that is, watered down. Italians were special: first, they had licked the dictator’s behind for twenty years, then they hung him by the feet. The Piazzale Loreto episode is one of the darkest in our recent history, in my opinion.
The recovery from the collapse of the war was incredible. Within a few years, we went from the rubble to the economic boom, accompanied by mass urbanization. I myself left the countryside of the lower Sienese area, where my family – which was a family of small landowners – had lived for generations and I moved to Rome. All social structures that were normal before the war collapsed. Those who worked the land stopped doing it, returned the key of the farm to the owner and went to live in the city. The countryside suddenly emptied, which is still visible today, over 60 years later. After hunger, fear, sacrifices, the Italians enthusiastically threw themselves to work. This was the basis of the rebirth.

SIMONE
When people had abandoned the old ways, in addition to American money, it is not wrong to say that also arrived American values and took the place of traditional ones: more so as the old ones had led to the horrors of war and the hardships that they had derived from it.

DANILO
It’s not like we even had a great deal of choice. That was the sentiment of the time: everything that was Italian, every Italian object was despised and considered inferior, while everyone ran after the novelties that came from the USA.

SIMONE
The change in taste was very rapid. Within a decade we are faced with a whole other world, with the consequence that people have also thrown the original furniture of the centuries-old Italian tradition out of the window to replace them with plastic and Formica ones. The Italians threw away the dirty water from the bath and the baby that was in it.

DANILO
It is so.

SIMONE
After every tragedy, there is a moment of rebirth and great energy. Your generation has been at the centre of it, characterized by the desire to live life, have fun, dream and experiment. Your generation was the first to do things that were previously unheard of among the average population.

The Great Old Man in his Tuscan retreat

DANILO
The postwar generation worked wonders, working with tireless energy and enthusiasm. This was certainly not for purely patriotic reasons, but because the economy had suddenly changed and anyone could get educated, work and earn well, which in the past was denied to most. Italians were proud to be able to do things, and to be able to earn. This meant in the short term being able to eat their fill and dress elegantly, then being able to buy through the bank a city apartment, a motorcycle, a small car. Tens of thousands of Fiat Topolino were sold, people started travelling and touring, enjoying the good side of life. Consider that until before the war the vast majority had never set foot outside the country and most did not know what the sea was! I, who in the meantime had gone to work as a land surveyor in Bari, bought a Lambretta and made crazy trips with it like Bari-Taranto…
Soon after, I bought a small Rumi motorcycle, a 125cc that was highly coveted because it made a strange noise, like a racing car! For my clique of Roman friends, the height of bliss was this: starting from the Roman walls at the top of Via Veneto with exhaust-less motorbikes that made a hellish noise, and making the whole Via Veneto at breakneck speed down to Piazza Barberini, risking to kill pedestrians and passers-by. Other times, we felt and were limitless.

SIMONE
Tell us about your Rome-Seville on-the-Road.

DANILO
In the mid-fifties, we rented a Fiat 1100 that was funny just to see it, and we decided to go and visit Spain. At the time, the country was under Franco’s dictatorship and was starving. Frightened by what was being heard about the conditions in Spain under Franco, we filled our 1100 with spare parts, because in the event of a breakdown we would not be able to find them on the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, Spanish laws at the time prohibited the importation of luxury goods from abroad, and cars were considered as such: the Spanish fleet consisted of antediluvian vehicles. The Spain we saw was a wonderful, unspoiled, genuine country. Since we had some money in our pockets, we also took a plane 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 arrival of new ideas and a lot of capital, some of these places became among the most famous for European tourism.

SIMONE
How did an inveterate non-smoker end up working for the Tobacco Factory of the State Monopolies?

DANILO
After graduating as a land surveyor, I obtained a public job and on 1 September 1952 as the first destination I was sent to the Tobacco Factory in Bari as an engineer in charge of maintenance. I lived in Bari Vecchia, in front of the Swabian Castle; the conditions of the neighbourhood were crazy, it felt like being in a third world country… To provide an illuminating example, since the houses did not have hygienic facilities, in the morning a small tanker went around the alleys, and outside the door of many old dwellings there was a bucket of sewage ready to wait for the poor workers. On the other hand, my rented room was in a wonderful location, with a dream view and the luxury of a bathroom and running water. The Bari experience was a turning point for me: I was 20 and had two pennies in my wallet, life was smiling at me. Sometimes at midnight, with other friends we took a boat and headed out to sea from the old port; here we dropped anchor and enjoyed swimming and seeing the lights of the famous seafront of Bari, the pride of the people of Bari. I still remember that speaking in their dialect they said: “Se Parigi teniv ‘u mareiev ‘na piccola Bari” (If Paris had the sea, it would be a small Bari).

Danilo Chierchini teaching on the Dojo Centrale’s mats in Rome (1985)

SIMONE
Have you ever played active sports in all this period?

DANILO
Never.

SIMONE
In the meantime, you arrived in Rome. How did you meet with Judo? Why did you decide to get involved with martial arts? What was your interest?

DANILO
I didn’t know anything about martial arts, like the vast majority of people at the time. There were tales of deadly blows, secret techniques and stuff like that. There was even an advertisement in the newspapers that promised “The Helpless Wins”, which got everyone laughing like crazy… Several charlatans around had even self-promoted themselves to black belt 30th Dan!

SIMONE
This kind of people is still around… In this, at least, things have not changed.

DANILO
One night I followed some friends to a Judo place. It was the Judo Kodokan Club in Rome. I stayed to watch and I liked it a lot, because in a world dominated precisely by charlatans, the organizer 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 signed up and started practising with passion. After two or three years it became almost a problem for me, because practising a competitive martial art at 20 was not easy: I was already old, so to say. Just around the same time, I happened to watch a documentary broadcast by RAI on a strange art, which was called Aikido. This documentary focused on the exploits of the Founder O’Sensei Ueshiba, and it was explained that his family had inherited particular techniques, dating back to the time of the samurai, passed down from father to son and not taught to anyone. What I observed struck me deeply and piqued my curiosity. However, I could not find anyone that could teach me this discipline.

SIMONE
Was there no one in Rome?

DANILO
There was no one in Europe, except for France. In that same period, I learned that a Japanese student had arrived in Rome who had won a scholarship as a sculptor at the Academy of Fine Arts. His name was Ken Otani and he was an amateur Judo graduate; Genolini immediately appointed Otani technical director of our Judo dojo. Thus began a didactic relationship that lasted for several years, and the most interesting and pleasant thing for me was that under the guidance of Otani Sensei – despite having started Judo late and not having the right physique for the discipline – after 3 years of training we managed to win the Italian team championships. In this team I was the lightweight. It was 1954. It was one of the greatest satisfactions I received from practising martial arts.

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

SIMONE
After having practised for several years at the Judo Kodokan Club under Otani sensei, through work you had the opportunity to open your personal Judo dojo within the Dopolavoro dei Monopoli di Stato in Rome.

DANILO
Over the years, I had the opportunity to advance in rank and I felt like teaching. Since the State Monopolies had unused facilities – essentially abandoned – of which I was aware, being part of the Maintenance Office, by keeping at it we managed to convince the management to assign them to a martial arts dojo. We carried out the restorations and opened a beautiful dojo in the heart of Rome, in Trastevere. This dojo, which started out as a Judo school, would later host the first Aikido course held in an organized and continuous way in the history of the discipline in Italy. Until then, the history of Aikido in Italy had been limited to the sporadic appearance of some Japanese sensei for seminars of a day or two in some other martial arts club. The students in these seminars were judokas and karateka keen to try a new discipline, but with no plans to establish the art and teach it regularly and consistently. Our course instead was stable and established with the idea of ​​spreading Aikido in Rome.

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

DANILO
I met these two pioneers more or less around the same time, between the end of 1963 and the beginning of 1964. Kawamukai at the time was an 18-year-old lad who had already some experience of teaching Aikido in the United States. He helped in starting Aikido in New York in collaboration with an Italian American and an American, Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook, who would later become very famous for the book they wrote, Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere. At a certain point, their relationship went into crisis 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 at the time was very well known.

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 late at night and he spoke broken English, more or less like me; nevertheless, we managed to understand each other and arranged an appointment for the following days. When I met Kawamukai, I discovered a lad full of willpower and determination. He wanted to teach Aikido in Rome, and he offered me on a silver platter the opportunity to practice that discipline that I had only seen in the RAI documentary, but which had really fascinated me. Within a few days, we decided to include an Aikido course he was to direct within the activities of the State Monopoly dojo in Trastevere, and from there the Italian Aikido journey got started.

SIMONE
Have you ever hosted Haru Onoda at the Monopoly Dojo? This Aikido pioneer lived in Rome at that time, after having been O’Sensei’s secretary.

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

Among my teachers, in many decades of practice, the one I remember with the most affection and respect remains Ken Otani sensei, with whom I developed a true friendship. Otani was a strange type, at least in the eyes of the average contemporary Italian person, and the anecdotes he told me were truly fascinating. For one thing, like all the students of his course at Meiji University in Tokyo, at the outbreak of the Second World War Otani enlisted in aviation, and was, therefore, a pilot. He told me how for them the idea of using a parachute was inconceivable: the very notion of ​​going into battle with an instrument that would allow them to jump and abandon the fight was an abomination, a true dishonour. Each of them was ready to sacrifice their lives for their country, this concept was commonplace, undisputed and lived without question. Their plane was equipped with a parachute, but they took it out of its container and sat on it like a pillow, because it was soft and comfortable… Otani was on the list of pilots destined for suicide missions, and he had prepared to sacrifice himself as a kamikaze. He was saved just in time, because the Japanese nation collapsed before his turn came. My friendship with Ken Otani was something I will never forget, as well as his humanity and sympathy: it never made me weigh the fact that he was the teacher and I was the student. It was through Otani that I met and came to appreciate the Japanese mentality of the time, which was characterized by certain virtues that for me were and have remained fundamental: respecting the word given, being honest, following the rules we have given ourselves… in short, the exact opposite of what one sees in the behaviour a lot of Italians. Otani was the teacher who opened the way for me to understand Bushido through his personal behaviour.

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

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

DANILO
Kawamukai at the time had neither the age nor the science to become the driving force of the diffusion of Aikido in Italy, and also had other personal projects in mind besides martial arts. It was he who told me that it was necessary to call a professional teacher from Tokyo and got busy through the contacts he had with Hirokazu Kobayashi – who in 1964 we had hosted for a seminar at the dojo – to try to carry out this ambitious project. A strange case, he guessed right, because Tada sensei wanted to come and teach in the West, as Tamura and Yamada had done in the same year. Thus, he accepted our invitation and arrived in Italy on October 26, 1964. Who knows why he did it? Perhaps he wanted to change his life, challenge and try himself in a country completely different from his own in terms of mentality and education. Maestro Tada’s choice to come to Italy, his act of courage has always made me ponder. There is no doubt that the Japanese of the time were truly people to be held in the highest regard.

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

DANILO
Yes, he did. I went to pick him up by car from the accommodation I had found for him and escorted him around Rome for a while. At the time we were training for 2 hours 3 times a week. I used my contacts in the Judo federation and we organized demonstrations, including one in 1965 that made history: the demonstration at the Police School in Nettuno. We took the tatami mats to a square inside the barracks and around us we had a few hundred aspiring policemen as spectators. Tada made an impressive demonstration with Kawamukai and me taking ukemi and attained great success among those present.

SIMONE
Who do you remember of the aikidoka of the time?

DANILO
The first group of enthusiasts was forming, and I remember it including 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, Italian Aikido took its initial steps, to the point that we were able to invite a second Japanese sensei to take care of the south, Masatomi Ikeda.

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

DANILO

The first group of Italian Aikido students to receive Aikikai Hombu Dojo certification was quite numerous. The exams were held by Tada sensei during the 1968-69 training year and qualified the first 19 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 ( Mantua), Macaluso Marisa (Mantua), Peduzzi Alessandro (Milan), Pipitone Claudio (Turin), Ravieli Alfredo (Rome), Sabatino Nunzio (Salerno), Sciarelli Guglielmo (Naples), Veneri Giorgio (Mantua).
At the time the exams were very hard, or at least it seemed so to us. I personally remember it as a massacre, Tada did things really seriously and didn’t do any favours to anyone.

Tada signing autographs (Roma, 1968)

SIMONE
There is an urban legend according to which in those early years Tada sensei was very hard in practice. Do you agree?

DANILO
I utterly disagree. On the contrary, the hard ones were the Italians, hard as stones, because they believed they had already become some sort of Aikido champions… Tada sensei was truly gifted with remarkable energy and if he wanted to play the bad guy he could have broken two or three beginners each evening, but obviously, he was careful, as he was trying to build his school amidst extreme hardship.

SIMONE
In this initial phase, when you received the first approaches from CONI (Italian National Olympic Committee) in order to integrate Aikido among the disciplines regulated at a national level, and form a specific national federation recognized by the state, why it was decided to keep the Italian Aikikai outside of CONI? This decision turned out to be epochal, in the long term, because there it is the seed of what we still see to this day: after almost 50 years there is no national Aikido diploma in Italy, there is no federation recognized by the state, etc. etc. How did it happen? For which reasons?

DANILO
Attempts were made in that direction, which also led to a discussion table to carry out the project. However, every attempt at an agreement clashed with the fact that the management of the entire movement would have to pass to CONI through the then Italian Heavy Athletics Federation, which for Tada sensei was simply inconceivable. The idea was that the Ueshiba family owned a kind of patent, invention. The shihan sent to spread the teachings of the Ueshiba family were not willing to compromise. Things like federations, democratic associations, elections of representatives were – at the time – totally alien in relation to the culture and way of acting of the Japanese masters sent to the West by the Hombu Dojo. Zero, they would not even talk about it. Under Italian law, however, this state of affairs was also not possible. We, therefore, ran aground on the impossibility of combining the democratic system, provided for by law and proposed by CONI, with the pyramidal management system typical of traditional martial arts. Accordingly, it was decided to proceed autonomously with respect to CONI, with the objective of protecting Tada sensei’s work and at the same time to give our association a legal form acceptable for the Italian legislator. This was the immense work of a friend who has left us many years ago, Giacomo Paudice, a lawyer who devoted years of efforts to carry out this project. With my modest contribution, we devised a trick which consisted in establishing ourselves as an Association of Traditional Japanese Culture, of which the Italian Aikikai was to be a section. As a cultural discipline, we were able to detach ourselves from CONI and went out of their sphere of influence, which is limited to sports disciplines. In fact, in 1978 we received recognition as a non-profit organization on the proposal of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage.

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

SIMONE
While we have stirred in the family’s dirty clothes, let’s try to shed some light on another remarkably controversial point in the history of Italian Aikido. How did it happen that all the aikidoka who did not conform to the Tada line were excluded from the Aikikai or prevented from participating with equal dignity in the life of the association? This is another seed of the problems that still plague our dysfunctional community decades later. How come this association, which managed to form itself with all the trappings of its own strength, and which enjoyed the charisma of one of the greatest world aikidoka, was then unable to manage the Italian Aikido movement in its entirety? From the beginning, the policy of the Italian Aikikai was to exclude those who did not conform, a policy that was later expressed and consolidated with the periodic purge of all disturbing elements of this conformity. Where does this attitude come from?

DANILO
What you said doesn’t give me any pleasure, but I think it’s almost inevitable. Where there are great masters, there are great interests. Even on a small scale, the phenomenon is repeated exactly the same, with jealousies and envy the greater the smaller the technical and moral understanding of the discipline. Honestly, as president and manager of the Italian Aikikai, I have not been able to heal all that has happened, and even now I am unable to imagine how I could have done to avoid it. I have had the misfortune of being the president of Aikikai d’Italia for several years, and I have lost friends, time and money behind these problems. Managing the association’s meetings has put me at risk of having a heart attack on more than one occasion.

SIMONE
Is it therefore correct to say that gradually the management of Aikido, the politics of Aikido have killed in you the pleasure of practising Aikido?

DANILO
That could be. Although I want to make it clear that I never cared at all about being president and having to deal with paperwork. Anyone who knows me understands that I’m shy and I hate being in the front row. However, with modesty, in a certain historical moment 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 given to me by others, starting with my teachers. So it turned out that every day I had to take care of the bureaucracy necessary to run an association with several thousand members in a country like Italy. I have done it for years, neglecting my family, and without receiving too many thanks, neither from colleagues nor from teachers. I even had to hear people talking behind my back, suggesting the idea that I derived economic benefits from the management of the association, when on more than one occasion I have plugged its budget holes from my bank account. Then one day I decided I had enough, and I cut all ties with both Aikido administration and Aikido itself.

SIMONE
After 25 years without martial arts, at 82 years of age [in 2012, NdR], are you better or worse?

DANILO
I think there is a right time for everything. There is a time when certain things are to be done and there is pleasure in doing them, and times – as years go by – when this perspective changes. Goals change, perceptions change. I never liked the small talk. As a judoka, I was an agonist, 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 reasonable that my perception had to change. One day, when I realized that I no longer enjoyed what I was doing, I simply said enough. My greatest satisfaction remains the fact that even today, wherever I go, I meet students that show me their affection and gratitude for what we shared. I am proud of my reputation in the martial arts circles, as in the other circumstances in my life. Reputation is something that we polish every day with our actions; after which we can safely go our own way, ignoring the squeaks of rats that infest every aspect of human affairs.

SIMONE
Would you get on the tatami again?

DANILO
Never.

SIMONE
Never say never?

DANILO
If I got on the mat today, I would do it just to say or hear a lot of chatter. Instead, on the tatami you should go as Ken Otani told me the old Japanese did: they arrived, threw their clothes on the ground in a corner, wore the keikogi, jumped on the tatami, made a bow to the first one who happened to be, gave each other a volley of blows, dressed and left. I see it like this, the rest is all talk.

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2011
All rights are reserved


DONATE € 1.00

Aikido Italia Network is one of the main Aikido and Budo sites in Italy and beyond. Researching and creating content for this virtual Aiki temple of ours requires a lot of time and resources. If you can, when you are finished reading one of our articles, donate € 1.00 to Aikido Italia Network. It is a very small contribution, but we would accept it with gratitude. If you don't want to do it, it's okay. Aikido Italia Network is and will always remain free and we will always be delighted to have you here. Thanks! Simone Chierchini, Founder of Aikido Italia Network

€1,00