Antonino Certa spent 55 years of his life training and teaching some of the main Japanese martial arts. He was part of the pioneers’ era of Aikido in Italy and practised Aikido for over 30 years, until in 1991 his pursuit of martiality led him to Abashiri and to the discovery of the complex and fascinating world of Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu. Today Certa Shihan is a reference figure for Daito in Italy and the world, having taught in 11 countries and shared practice with hundreds of fellow tatami mates. His uncommon position as an expert in both Aikido and Daito-Ryu makes his experience particularly interesting
by SIMONE CHIERCHINI
Antonino Certa is a quiet man, who shuns the attention that a character of his level in the world of martial arts inevitably attracts. You won’t find hundreds of his self-celebratory photos or videos on the web. “Tonino”, as we Aikikai Milano tatami mates used to call him in the 1980s, has always preferred deeds to words. We are therefore pleased to present this interview, which represents a unicum after more than half a century of silent practice of one of the leading Italian martial artists.
You started practising martial arts as a very young lad. What brought you to the mat?
I was a teenager and, on top of that, I was a slim and shy guy. At that time a stream of new Chinese bad movies filled our cinemas and brought the knowledge of kung-fu to the West. I too was obviously fascinated by those films, even though I was more attracted to Japanese culture. So I started thinking about practising a Japanese martial art to improve and strengthen my character and body.
“Black Belt”, a monthly magazine specializing in martial arts had recently started coming out and in one issue it spoke about the mysterious Aikido. The article was accompanied by several images: it was love at first sight. The practitioners were dressed in a kind of black skirt and, in my young mind, they looked like samurai! So I enrolled in the only Aikido dojo existing in Milan at the time, the Jigoro Kano dojo . It was 1965.
The following year, in the same venue, I saw a Karate demonstration given by Hiroshi Shirai, assisted by his first students, and consequently I also enrolled in his Karate course. For a period of seven years, then, I practised the two martial arts together.
As a young budoka, therefore, you had the opportunity to train under the direct guidance of two martial arts teachers who left their mark in Italy, Hiroshi Shirai for Karate, and later Yoji Fujimoto for Aikido. What was it like to practice with them?
Their ways were different, but both had a common denominator: a martial art was being practised!
Hiroshi Shirai sensei taught in a hard and very strict way, he was very keen on his role as Sensei. The young Yoji Fujimoto sensei (in 1971 he was 23 years old) instead practised with us, he proposed himself as a “training companion”, even though over time he assumed the Sensei role.
Shirai sensei wanted to see that in each lesson you were giving all your physical energies 100%, you had to always be careful and the concentration had to be continuous. Each atemi had to be unique, he always told us that each blow had to knock down the opponent and that the spirit is superior to muscle power. That said, the final part of the lesson always included lots of sit-ups, push-ups and hops. After training, in the locker room, we often noticed that we all had beautiful purple marks on many parts of the body, at that time I was proud of it. I was young and excited then!
The lessons with Fujimoto sensei, on the other hand, were always very dynamic, very athletic, serious but not grave: sometimes we even laughed! But we were always aware of practising a martial art. Fujimoto gave only a few oral explanations, he demonstrated the technique and after that, he practised as well. His techniques were elegant, and we, following our Sensei’s example, practised them with the youthful ardour we possessed, performing short taisabaki. In short, enthusiasm led us to practise beautiful, athletic and effective Aikido. The lesson always ended with excellent and pleasant stretching exercises.
For almost three decades you have been one of the pillars of Aikido in Northern Italy. What do you remember with most pleasure about your journey within the Italian Aikikai, and what then prompted you to choose another path?
I lived on bread and Aikido for 30 years and loved it very much! I participated in many seminars with all the Japanese instructors who visited or resided in Europe – I don’t remember how many anymore… I had the pleasure of meeting many people, with some of whom I made sincere friendships that lasted for years. The atmosphere was always relaxed and we all knew each other as there were few of us in those pioneering times. Yes, there was also someone who posed as prima donna only because he was (or offered himself of his own free will in order to appear) called by Tada Sensei to be his uke; but it happened rarely. I remember with great pleasure the two annual seminars held by Tada Sensei in Rome, one in November, for All-Saints, and that at Easter. It was always a few intense days of training and at that time Tada was young, it was an unleashed fury. His techniques were direct, he didn’t emphasize Ki, and we practised strongly… full stop! We all had a sense of belonging to the dojo: we from Milan were “students of Maestro Fujimoto”.
I was and have always been a researcher, and for this reason, in addition to practising Aikido and Karate, I also studied Kendo for 5 years, and for a short time I explored Judo’s Koshiki-no-kata with Alfredo Vismara sensei. Eventually, by dint of research, I discovered Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu. I was studying the history and life of Morihei Ueshiba and in the well-known AikiNews magazine I found mention of Daito-ryu. Therefore, I decided to go to Abashiri in Hokkaido, where Tokimune Takeda, son of Sokaku Takeda, O-Sensei’s teacher, resided . It was a mandatory choice to research the roots of Aikido.
Tell us about the first time you saw Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu in action. Which were your expectations? Which impressions did you make as an expert aikidoka?
I was happily surprised! It was what I had been looking for for the past ten years. I saw a complete art in its technical background, an art with a clear and profound history and genealogy, an all-round art. What impressed me the most, however, was the use of atemi and kiai in the training method. Training evolved utilizing pure kata, movements were a bit static, but they were produced with power and decision. Pure kata is impersonal, in the sense that you don’t have to copy the style of this or that Shihan, you don’t have to become a photocopy of your master. You have to practice what the Sensei shows you and not add or subtract anything, as your teacher had done in his time.
Another aspect that fascinated me was the study of kenjutsu in a traditional and classic school, a famous ko-ryu . It was an integral part of daily training. All of this met my expectations as an aikidoka, certainly a bit bored at that point.
Shortly after meeting Daito-ryu, you stopped practising and teaching Aikido. Can you explain to us what prompted you to take such a strong decision?
Back from Abashiri in September 1991, I taught both arts for about three years. At that time I also had an experience with Gozo Shioda’s Yoshinkan Aikido, through the participation in two seminars directed by a Japanese 8th Dan invited to Italy by Ivano Zintu sensei from Rome. However, even that experience did not satisfy me much. By then I had decided to assimilate and deepen the numerous techniques of Aikijujutsu, so it seemed consistent to devote myself solely to this art.
Another reason that supported my decision was that I started giving Daito seminars in Italy and, a few years later, after the release of my book on Daito-ryu, I was also invited to teach abroad (the first time was in Russia). I was already considered an instructor of Daito-ryu Aikibudo.
Since that first time in Abashiri in 1991, you have regularly attended the dojo. What figures were central in your Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu training?
For a long time, I was lucky enough to be the only foreigner to train in the Abashiri dojo, hence almost all the yudansha wanted to teach me something extra outside the official programs and they followed me with care; thanks to them, my technical background has increased considerably. However, there were three Sensei who really taught me a lot: first of all Matsuo Sano Sensei, then Kato Shigemitsu Sensei and Arisawa Gumpachi Sensei. In practical terms, my technical background is a miscellany, in different parts, of the knowledge of these three Sensei. They were simple people, unknown here in the West; they taught in order to pass on the art to new generations, this was their only goal. Sadly, over the last ten years they have all passed away.
From the point of view of an aikidoka, Daito-ryu’s technical program seems endless. Can you help us understand its didactic progression and the logic that accompanies it?
It is true, it is said that the number of techniques in this art is 2884, but this is an exaggeration. Officially 768 are classified (which is always a huge amount), but in reality no one knows how many there are. This is because Sokaku Takeda taught “the old way”, that is, he taught each person the techniques that were most suitable for him. As a good samurai, he did not have a specific program, he taught extemporaneously according to the class he found in front of him. It was his son Tokimune who structured an actual rational technical program.
The didactic progression, like in any ko-ryu, is very rigid: it starts with the Hiden mokuroku, continues with Aikinojutsu, then with Hiden Ogi and finally with Goshin’yo-no-te techniques. Also, other Shihans, including my Abashiri masters, added the Chuden-no-maki and Okuden-no maki scrolls, which include an unknown number of other jujutsu techniques. A student cannot jump from one mokuroku to another, or from one kajo series to another.
The first criterion used in the didactic progression, however, was that at the beginning were shown omote techniques , that is, those series of techniques that were taught and demonstrated to all members of the School. These techniques were, in part, also shown in the public demonstrations directed by the Soke which were organized in Abashiri every year, in the first days of August.
Next, the ura (裏) techniques were taught – they are variants and complementary to the omote techniques. For these series of techniques, however, public demonstration was prohibited; they were studied only by the Shihans at separate times and behind closed doors, usually on Sunday mornings. Only the techniques included in Hiden mokuroku have specific names, while in all other mokuroku the techniques are classified as Dai-ichi-jo, Dai-ni-jo, etc. This is because Tokimune Takeda decided, to facilitate memorization, to divide the techniques into 5 series (kajo) and give them names, following the example of what Jigoro Kano had done years earlier for Judo.
The logical and didactic choice lies in the progression of the ease of physical execution of each technique to which it belongs. Another parameter of didactic progression would be in classifying the techniques in the execution according to the three sen (mitsu-no-sen), the three times of attack/defence initiative that tori implements in a fight. Therefore, we start from the ikkajo series where all 30 techniques are performed in go-no-sen (in pure defence), up to the fifth series, gokajo, where the jujutsu techniques are performed in sen-no-sen mode (in pure attack).
Let’s talk about Aiki, a subject that is particularly popular today. How would you define Aiki? Is this something you have directly experienced, a legend, a Holy Grail that every martial artist should aspire to? Or was it better when it was kept as a jealous secret for true initiates?
Answering this question is difficult. In Abashiri, an Aiki technique was considered, on a physical level, one in which no grip was made in any part of the body (keikogi) of uke. In these techniques, you would not give atemi, use leverage on the upper limbs, nor strangle. This concept was considered similar to the concept of Ju (柔), or gentleness, mental flexibility. Except that it was necessary to add “timing”, the correct and timely choice of time slightly in advance of uke’s attack.
What I practised in Abashiri were mainly jujutsu techniques, although later they also taught me Aikinojutsu mokuroku, which contains an unspecified number of techniques (who says 53, who says 60) which in Aikido are classified as kokyu-nage. I have never been given mystical or spiritual teachings, the techniques were learned simply by practising them daily, it was the body that assimilated the movements and the right choice of time. It was known that the Shihans had writings on esoteric subjects that Tokimune had inherited from their father Sokaku, but these were not revealed.
It is not unusual to hear that Aikido and Daito are essentially the same thing. You have practised each of the two disciplines for 30 years, your opinion on it seems very relevant.
Outwardly it looks like this, in reality they are opposites. First of all, the inner attitude on the purpose of the techniques: in Daito every technique must be devastating; in the end, by means of a symbolic atemi, it is necessary to “finish the opponent”. This is because the partner is seen as an opponent to be defeated, to be killed. Obviously, the partner is a friend of ours and, afterwards, we will go for a beer together, but during the practice he is seen as an aggressor; there is no mutual collaboration to improve a technique like in Aikido: the practice is individualistic.
Second, the way to carry a technique is different. There is a motto that says: “Three steps, two seconds, one tatami”. This motto summarizes the whole spirit of a Daito-ryu technique: it is necessary to take a maximum of three steps (taisabaki), the reaction to the attack must be within two seconds and to finish the space used during a technique must be 2 square meters (approximately). It can be said that the art of Daito-ryu is minimalist.
Finally, but the discussion would be much longer, the number of techniques (syllabus) is vast, as I said before. In addition to the osae-waza, kansetsu-waza and nage-waza, also present in Aikido, in Daito you have atemi-waza, kyusho-waza and shime-waza. Atemi techniques are primary and each atemi is carried with a precise and sharp kiai. Unfortunately, in Aikido the use of kiai has almost been lost, while in the practice of Daito-ryu it is an intense practice. Each technique, regardless of whether it is a kansetsu or a nage, has two or three atemi of different type (zuki, keri, hiji ate and others). These are the essential points that differentiate the two arts.
“The goal of Daito-ryu is the spread of “harmony and love”. Keeping this to heart helps maintain and achieve social justice. This is the desire of Takeda Sokaku” . I am reporting this quote by Tokimune Takeda to show that even the philosophy that is central to Aikido and unique to it, would seem to come from Daito. Can you elaborate on this?
No! I don’t think that’s the case. I have my own hypothesis: in the context of the post-war period and with the failure of extreme militarism perpetrated by the Japanese military elites and the consequent defeat, all martial arts teachers began to present Budo in the form of spiritual development. Budo arts were no longer defined as martial forms, but as peaceful methods whose practice would improve one’s character, one’s self. By doing this, they tried to ensure that martial arts could continue to be accepted and practised by the Japanese people, which would otherwise be difficult if they were presented as military arts. The result of the war defeat had translated into a rejection of any form of conflict by Japanese survivors and by the consequent distaste of the ancient philosophy of Bushido.
I think, therefore, that Tokimune Takeda also conformed to this trend in order to attract practitioners to his art. But in the dojo, when I was training, I was taught that my partner was an opponent to be overcome. No philosophy of “harmony and love” therefore!
Morihei Ueshiba: an excellent practitioner of Daito-ryu, a genius who shines alone in the dark, or an icon fabricated afterwards?
An assortment of all this. On the one hand, Tokimune Takeda is said to have reported that his father admired Ueshiba’s techniques and regarded him as one of his best pupils. On the other hand, we Westerners and Aikido practitioners have almost deified him (how many of the anecdotes related to him are true?), but this has not happened with the Japanese practitioners. At the same time, there was another genius called Jigoro Kano who created a modern method, Judo, in order to educate young people and to advance all men towards a peaceful world. Jigoro Kano, as we all know, was not deified by us Westerners.
In relation to the above, how do you see the future of Daito-ryu, a discipline rich in history and values, but with a niche past and tradition: will it survive the inevitable commercialization that is already underway?
Daito-ryu is a strange art today, many are talking about it, many claim to be instructors/masters of it… in reality, few actually practice it.
When I returned to Italy in 1991, I taught the techniques hard, the way it was done in Abashiri. For over ten years I continued that way, however, as a result, I had few students. Today I have softened my practice, times have changed, or perhaps I have aged. However, on the international scene, the practice of Daito-ryu is balanced, I would not call it hard or gentle. In this way, slowly, very slowly, Daito-ryu is coming out of its niche state. It will develop slowly, as the program is too vast, the teaching method is rigid and, finally, today, in the third millennium, both in the West and the East martial arts are no longer fashionable!
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 At that time there were only two other dojos where Aikido was practised in Italy: one in Turin and the other in Rome.
 By now we all know that O-Sensei studied with Takeda Sokaku for over 20 years, before creating his art.
 Ono-ha Itto-ryu School transmitted in Hokkaido by Takeda Sokaku
 Here we see how the concepts of omote and ura are completely different from those of Aikido.