The Initiator – Interview with Motokage Kawamukai


Motokage Kawamukai Sensei, 6th dan Aikikai, is considered by many to be the father of Italian Aikido. This interview reveals new aspects of the beginning of Aikido in Italy, addresses thorny issues such as the fragmentation of Italian Aikido and its causes, but also extra-tatami topics, such as Italian economy, the drama of the Japanese tsunami and the nuclear dilemma

by SIMONE CHIERCHINI

CHIERCHINI
Hi Sensei, I bring you the greetings of your oldest Italian students, Danilo Chierchini, Carla Simoncini and Artemisia Serafini. Unfortunately the fourth, Elvio Maccari has already passed away for some years.

KAWAMUKAI
A few years ago, Mr Elvio Maccari came to see me on the occasion of a seminar in Rome. He did not get changed to train and only came to greet me. It made me really happy.

CHIERCHINI
Maccari was my parents’ next-door neighbour and my father’s work colleague. When you began your first Aikido course in Italy at SS Monopoli Judo, the Chierchinis & Maccaris were your first four students on the mat, is that right?

Motokage Kawamukai, Mestre – 1967

KAWAMUKAI
Yes, that’s true, two friends and their wives, but you were there too, inside your mother’s belly!

CHIERCHINI
47 years ago [in 2011]!

KAWAMUKAI
Mamma mia! Time really flies!!

CHIERCHINI
How does it feel, sensei, when you go to teach a seminar like this one and so many people come and say to you: “Sensei, I did Aikido with you 35 years ago!

KAWAMUKAI
It makes me happy and sorry at the same time, because unfortunately I have a very short memory. Even in my profession many remember me, probably because I am an Oriental in an Italian context. On the other hand, I have a hard time remembering faces, also because over the years I have met thousands of people. Also, people have a certain appearance when wearing keikogi, while with a suit and tie they look completely different. In any case, I am delighted to have left a positive memory in them.

CHIERCHINI
Concerning the above, when I see this long line of people who trace their approach to Aikido back to you, it is fascinating to note how perfectly the role of initiator suits you: very young you went to the USA and helped in starting Aikido in Illinois and New York. Then you moved to Rome and commenced the first regular Aikido course in Italy. In Rome you were instrumental in bringing Tada sensei to Italy, thus helping to found the Italian Aikikai. After that, you moved to Milan and were essential in getting Fujimoto sensei to come and in establishing the connection between Kobayashi Sensei and Italian Aikido.

KAWAMUKAI
I only gave a hand to those who wanted to know. Aikido is not my profession, although many still think that I was or wanted to become a professional Aikido teacher. Even now many call me to teach, but I don’t feel like doing it. If I accepted to participate in this seminar today, it is an exceptional case, because I have known Guglielmo Masetti sensei for many years and we have been in the dojo together. My presence here in Coriano has absolutely nothing to do with the official aspect of the event, federations or Aikido policy, of which I do not care at all.

CHIERCHINI
In this respect, I believe that your position has always been clear and honest. You have never let anyone use you.

KAWAMUKAI
I think I’ve always behaved correctly, but the world is full of people who love to create friction. And when this leads to the creation of competitive situations, it becomes very difficult to continue collaborating. From here to developing a strong antagonism is a short step.

Motokage Kawamukai and Hiroshi Tada (1967)

CHIERCHINI
You have seen Italian Aikido students train for over forty years: how have they changed since the beginning? People have obviously changed, everything has changed, but how that reflects on the mat?

KAWAMUKAI
Aikido in Italy has become very personalized, both in terms of the spirit of it and the technical system. This is due to the influence of Tada sensei who is a unique character in the world, although there are many other sensei and technical perspectives worldwide. It was Maestro Tada who laid the foundations for a more dynamic, severe and difficult Aikido in Italy. In many other parts of the world Aikido is experienced in a more relaxed and relaxing way, or it is easier: the United States, or Hawaii, immediately come to mind. Tada sensei’s was different from a young age. He comes from Karate, his approach to the discipline has always been methodical, oriented towards creating a teaching system that employs the idea of ​​kata as in Karate. Tada Sensei organized the grades progression structure and the related program; he conferred duties and responsibilities. This system did not previously exist anywhere in the world. Everything was much freer and more improvised.

CHIERCHINI
At the beginning of the 60s, when you were still a teenager, you practiced at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. What do you remember of the great sensei who were there then and of those who later became famous all over the world? What was the atmosphere at the Hombu Dojo in those days?

KAWAMUKAI
In my day, the great sensei were characters of the caliber of Arikawa, Osawa, Tada and Tohei, masters to whom I, being 15, did not even allow myself to speak. Never. On the side of the students, then, there were people like Chiba Sensei, who had a bad temper. The one who acted as intermediary between the great masters and the students was Tamura Sensei. From Tamura down, on the side of the students there were people like Yamada, Saotome, Asai, Sugano. I was not part of their group because I was much younger; they were the middle level and the link between the old masters and us students. Tada was still young, but he was already in the elite: today he is one of the few of his generation to still be there and to be fully there, believing in his vision of Aikido.

Hirokazu Kobayashi ready to attack Ueshiba sensei

CHIERCHINI
What was your relationship with Kobayashi Sensei like?

KAWAMUKAI
Kobayashi Sensei was part of that group of teachers that I mentioned earlier, but he was the Neapolitan of the situation: he arrived at the dojo with his rumbling motorcycle, a Harley Davidson. He had a more modern take on things and was looking for companions to share it with. I had a lot of confidence with Kobayashi Sensei, as it was him who allowed us to get close. The strange cases of life made us meet again in Rome and then we decided to launch a summer seminar. It was the summer of 1964, your father Danilo helped us and Kobayashi Sensei directed the first summer course in the history of Aikido in Italy at the Monopoli Judo in Rome. Kobayashi Sensei was such a man, he traveled the world on his own, seizing the opportunities that eventually presented to him. When he came to Rome he had nothing organized, he was enjoying the city as a tourist. With Kobayashi Sensei we discussed the need to find a technical Aikido guide fitting for Italy, where the number of people interested in Aikido was constantly growing. That was how the name of Tada Sensei came out: we knew he was a great teacher and we thought it would be great if he agreed to come. When Kobayashi Sensei returned to Japan, he went to speak with Tada Sensei, to try and convince him to accept the post. He had to ask several times, but in the end Tada sensei said yes. I had just watched the 1964 Olympics in Rome and at the end of October he left. At the same time Tamura Sensei also left, destination France, a much better organized trip, because in France Pierre Chassang, who was is referent, had perfectly prepared his situation in terms of visa, work permit and administration – Chassang had founded the Association Culturelle Européenne Aikido. Tamura Sensei actually worked within this federation for many years. Some time later I met him and convinced him to come to Italy at least once a year, and this then lasted for almost twenty years.

Motokage Kawamukai is chief engineer at Soleko, a leading intraocular lenses manufacturer

CHIERCHINI
You have chosen not to teach professionally: have you ever regretted this decision or are you happy to have made it?

KAWAMUKAI
There was never even a choice, because that would have involved having doubts. My ideas were clear from the beginning, for me it was not a matter of deciding whether to take the path of professionalism in Aikido or not: my purpose was immediately defined. Standing there thinking “if I had done this” or “if I had decided this” are not part of my way of being.

CHIERCHINI
In Italy at the moment [2011] there are three main groups: the Tada-led Italian Aikikai, Corallini’s Takemusu Aiki Association and the Ado-UISP group that follows Tissier. Outside of them, there is a large number of smaller groups: nobody talks to nobody, an evident proof of the lack of harmonization within the Italian Aikido community. This in itself is no small failure for Italian Aikido. Why this fragmentation? How did it happen, where did it originate?

KAWAMUKAI
This is due to Tada sensei’s policy. Tada sensei did not want to accept those who did not want to follow his path within Aikikai d’Italia; otherwise we could have hosted everyone inside this mother organisation. Already from the start, his attitude was that of a samurai, rigid: even if I have only one student left, I will continue determined on my way. This decision, this attitude were strongly strengthened by the contact and the exchange with Ken Otani sensei, the historical master of Italian Judo, and with the lawyer Giacomo Paudice, aikidoka of the first era who helped him enormously in establishing the Association of Traditional Japanese Culture – Italian Aikikai. The input that came from them was that joining a federation within CONI (Italian National Olympic Committee) was to be avoided at all costs. Tada sensei got used to seeing CONI and its emanations like smoke in the eyes, to the point that he never even agreed to have an exploratory meeting with the executives of their martial arts sector, who were instead very interested in Aikido.
One day I was having lunch at a Japanese restaurant with Tamura Sensei and Tada Sensei. I proposed to Tada Sensei to take on the task of working with CONI to bring together all those who had remained outside the Italian Aikikai. Once the project had taken hold, I suggested that the new group be absorbed by the Italian Aikikai, or that a confederation be organized to manage the movement in Italy.
It was as if his food had gone wrong. The fact is that I don’t even know if he understood what I was proposing to him, but Tada Sensei got up, said goodbye and went away. I haven’t seen or heard of him since.

Hiroshi Tada (1973)

CHIERCHINI
Results: 47 years later in Italy there is no national Aikido confederation recognized by the state and no national legal certification for Italian Aikido instructors, such as in France. The politics of the exclusivity by the Italian Aikikai has failed miserably.

KAWAMUKAI
At the time I was not especially close to Tada sensei, but I thought that my proposal was based on fair and reasonable criteria, and that it had a very good chance of success. I don’t know what he understood, but he didn’t ask for an explanation, just walked away. Later I began to hear rumors that I was a bad guy, a climber, a schemer. However, several Italian aikidoka, for example Giorgio Veneri, Francesco Lusvardi, Franz De Compadri continued to practice regularly with me; I went to teach in Mantua on Saturdays and Sundays and they became passionate about the discipline, becoming very dedicated Aikido students. They had tried to bring Tada Sensei to their dojo and had not succeeded for a long time. Tada sensei at the time was not very open, or communicative. Then time passed, things changed and so did the relationships. The Mantuans approached Tada Sensei and I also ended up on their list of bad guys. When I proposed to meet and have a good sweat together somewhere, like in the old days, they replied: “We’ll see… if it’s possible… maybe…”. A distance had grown between us, partly due to their growth and the changes everyone makes in life, but also to other external factors.
Today all these minor Aikido groupings that there are in Italy, that the Italian Aikikai have not been able or wanted to filter out, have no faults, are not the cause of the fragmentation of the local Aikido community. Their students believe in Aikido like everyone else, and they cannot be blamed for not being enrolled in the Italian Aikikai.

Kawamukai teaching a seminar in Coriano (2011)

CHIERCHINI
Beginners are only interested in Aikido, not in the federations, or brand names.

KAWAMUKAI
Absolutely! The students just want to do Aikido, they are not interested in the politics of Aikido at all, and when they hear about it they don’t understand the reason for any discord. People want to do Aikido because they need it, and if anyone feels this need, I think it’s a very human thing to give them a hand. It is a bit like being stopped by someone on the street asking us for directions: it is kind to show the way to those who ask.

CHIERCHINI
Kawamukai Sensei, you have lived for 47 years in Italy. Can we therefore say that you are Italian a little?

KAWAMUKAI
No, no, I’m more Italian than Japanese! In the past there have also been those who wrote that my opinions for being a Japanese are sometimes strange and that I have eaten spaghetti for too many years…

CHIERCHINI
Let’s change the subject, there are other important things in life besides Aikido: what do you think of the situation in Italy in recent times? You are a businessman: how do you see this period?

KAWAMUKAI
It’s going great for me, I deal with contact lenses and my business is thriving. Italy has never been an economic power, but everything works anyway. There are many micro-businesses, small and medium-sized companies, artisans who have enormous knowledge and skills and contribute to the world of industry to a considerable extent. This does not exist in Japan: in Japan there are only large companies based on the use and development of very high technology. These companies are always in the balance with each other, as soon as one develops something new and puts it on the market, it gets copied by the others and they are back to square one. Instead Armani is Armani, his product cannot be copied and like his many others, small and large who bear the name of Italy in the world, creating money and interest for the country, its history, landscape architectural beauties and foods.

Kawamukai Motokage - Chierchini Simone
Motokage Kawamukai and Simone Chierchini smiling together on the mat (Coriano – 2011)

CHIERCHINI
There is another thing that I would like to ask you, but is not a pleasant one: March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami and atomic crisis, a triple disaster. Two months ago, when you turned on the television and learnt what happened in Japan, what did you think, which were your feelings?

KAWAMUKAI
I went: “Oh my God…”.
Earthquake and Tsunami are natural phenomena: Japan is a seismic zone, so it was known that the risk was high. In that area of ​​Japan these devastating natural phenomena have occurred repeatedly over the centuries. The extent of the devastation caused by a tsunami, however, is today potentially amplified, because those areas are now much, much more densely populated than in the past. Therefore the victims and the damage produced by the 2011 tsunami are enormously higher than those of the previous ones. Furthermore, compared to the past, we now have highly efficient means of information that spread and amplify events in real time, giving everything a powerful emotional factor. Be that as it may, these are natural phenomena, we cannot hate nature for them, we know that they exist and that they will happen again. It happened in March, unfortunately, and we can only take it with bad luck.
For what concerns the atomic crisis, on the other hand, we cannot blame nature, but our choices. Opinions on this matter are mixed. There are those in Japan, as well as in Italy, who are completely against nuclear power. However, everyone indiscriminately wants to enjoy the comforts of a society dominated by electricity. In Italy energy is imported from France, which is atomised, so the Italian anti-nuclear choice means and is worth little. If there is an atomic crisis there, we who are their neighbors will be the first to pay the consequences anyway. In 1986, the Italians said no to nuclear power, recently the government tried to reintroduce it, and soon there will be another referendum to block it.
Regardless of locations, the atom is currently the cheapest way to produce energy and it will not stop.

CHIERCHINI
Perhaps it would be time to focus decisively on new technologies for the production of clean energy, especially in a country like ours, which enjoys sun and wind for most of the year and which has in common with Japan the fact that it is a very high risk seismic area.

KAWAMUKAI
This is very true, but it must be understood that the world is governed by economic processes: these technologies still need to be developed and perfected, while the world of economics needs more and more energy and needs it now. They are in charge and say there is no time to wait for other systems; and the answer of the economic world to the need for more energy is the construction of new nuclear power plants: at the moment about sixty are being built in various parts of the world, especially in newly developed areas. How can the West tell them not to build if the westerners are the first to have hundreds of them?

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2011
All rights are reserved
Many thanks to Guglielmo Masetti for arranging this interview


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