The Politician – Interview with Karl Leisinger

This interview with Dr Karl Friedrich Leisingerthen president of the European Aikido Federation, was realised by Simone Chierchini in 1989. Leisinger’s words capture in a precise and almost prophetic way causes and effects of the imminent collapse of the system based on large national Aikikai organisations and the Aikikai Hombu Dojo support to resident Shihans 

by SIMONE CHIERCHINI

Following an exhaustive preamble on the political-organizational history of the European Aikido Federation, Dr Karl Leisinger, president of the EAF, presents us with an alarming picture of the near future of Aikido in Europe. The cause? The new [1989], in some ways senseless, Hombu Dojo regulations for the Japanese Shihans travelling outside Japan.

The International Seminar organized in Mantua by the Italian Aikikai in April [1989] to financially support the work of the European Aikido Federation, has given us the opportunity to approach the EAF President, Dr Karl Leisinger.

We wish to warn the reader right away that international Aikido issues, the relative manoeuvres and complicated connections, the story of certain events and some obscure facts, in other words, the complex balance of power that regulates the diffusion of Aikido throughout the world cannot be dealt with comprehensively in a single article; nor do we presume to reveal the “truth” to you. In this sense, however, Dr Leisinger was a valid exception. He talked and said things that everyone should think about. Let’s hear him.

CHIERCHINI
How was the European Federation of Aikido born, Mr President?

LEISINGER
Before the EAF was formed, there was another organization, the Association Culturelle Europeenne de Aikido, which brought together Belgium, France and sometime later also Switzerland. This organization, however, was characterized by the excessive power that France had within it, and in particular of Mr Chassang, who was its Secretary-General. It was a mutilated association and, in fact, it did not manage to group the rest of Europe around itself; in the eyes of other nations, it was evident that it was not a question of participating as equals, but of becoming French satellites. Therefore that organization failed.

CHIERCHINI
In what year are we?

LEISINGER
This happened in 1975. In Madrid, consequently, it was started another organization, the EAF, European Aikido Federation; the intent was to create at the same time a worldwide organization, to bring together all the countries in which Aikido was present: the IAF, International Aikido Federation. The initiative was not born under the best auspices, because those who had promoted it, Tamura Sensei and Mr Chassang, them again, had not invited to the Madrid meetings the representatives of some countries, such as Australia and the USA. Another meeting was needed, which took place with positive results this time, in Tokyo in 1976.

CHIERCHINI
Should the initiative for the establishment of this second European body, the EAF, be attributed to the same political group as the first, in other words to the French?

LEISINGER
It was promoted, as in the first case, by Tamura Sensei and Chassang. The basic designs were the same, the personnel the same, so the transition was almost painless. In any case, in the French group persisted the not so hidden idea of ​​controlling all European political games, thanks to the great popularity of Tamura sensei. The initiative, however, also had new objectives and presented interesting plans for everyone. Thus, it managed to advance and also to be numerically successful. The EAF came to cover all of Western Europe. The management team had remained the same as the previous one, but the declared objectives, and therefore the expectations of the various nations, were different and updated to the new times. However, these expectations were soon frustrated by the Pan-French.

CHIERCHINI
Who had the responsibility of changing this course? Why is it that today the EAF is no longer controlled by the French group and has rather taken on a political role more suited to its pro-European objectives?

LEISINGER
At one point Chassang, who was the Secretary, was sidelined and with him his pro-Tamura policy. The new President, who was Giorgio Veneri, abandoned the nationalist policy of the French and gave way to the equality line that we still follow today.

CHIERCHINI
What are the statutory objectives of the European Federation?

LEISINGER
The objectives are essentially two: first of all, the dissemination of news and information concerning Aikido; then, secondly, the diffusion of our Art in those countries improperly defined as “underdeveloped” in Aikido terms, that is, where Aikido is still in its infancy. The EAF takes care to send teachers to these countries so that they can divulge Aikido and assist the students in those areas by conducting seminars and supplementary courses, periodically organizing grading sessions, etc… One of the aims of the Federation is to finance these teachers who travel to countries where Aikido has been present for a short time, to support its enthusiasts.
An objective that is missing in the EAF statute – and which never can be included among the articles of the Federation Charter – is that of achieving an effective parification with the Hombu Dojo. So far, we have only managed to have a small say in the discussions on the major issues concerning Aikido policy. After all, the Japanese do not look favourably on the European Federation, because in the future it could become the pilot federation in the Aikido world, for example expanding to all continents. The Hombu Dojo sees nothing positive in this because it fears losing control of the situation.

Nidai Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Giorgio Veneri and Masatake Fujita – World Games 1989, Karlsrue, Germania

CHIERCHINI
Going back to the first two objectives set by the EAF, Dr Leisinger, do you think that your work in recent years has been satisfactory in pursuing them?

LEISINGER
Regarding the dissemination of information, I would say that we should never be satisfied. In any case, we got a lot closer to people, we have covered a vast territory, informing a little about everything, but especially about the summer seminars. A lot of people, especially in Germany and northern Europe, in the summer have got into the habit of going to Spain or Italy to follow their summer school, thus combining technical improvement with their holidays. A small part of the credit for this is also the EAF News Bulletins.
Concerning the dissemination of Aikido, the EAF has managed to make Aikido take hold in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. A big contribution in this sense came from the President of the IAF, Giorgio Veneri.

CHIERCHINI
Among the objectives of the EAF, you mentioned the quest to find capital to be allocated to subsidise the instructors dispatched to the so-called underdeveloped Aikido countries. Is there a financial problem for the EAF? Are there sufficient funds to cover the Aikido dissemination

LEISINGER
Funds are never enough.

CHIERCHINI
What are the funding sources of the European Federation?

LEISINGER
Most of the funding comes from each member state, which pays its annual fee. Besides, funds flow through seminars, such as the one we have organized here in Mantua with the collaboration of the Italian Aikikai and the technical direction of Yoji Fujimoto sensei. The investments that the Federation makes in the activities it pursues are decided annually based on its revenues. When we send teachers to some country, the EAF covers the travel expenses, which are the highest; the teachers’ stay, instead, is borne by the receiving countries.

Standing: Moriteru Ueshiba, Seshiro Endo, Kazuo Chiba. In seiza: Karl Leisinger, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Katsuaki Asai (Copyright Culturele Aikido Bond Nederland)

CHIERCHINI
Does the Hombu Dojo not cooperate, even financially I mean, in this Aikido dissemination effort?

LEISINGER
The Hombu Dojo never makes any financial contributions. In a way, it resembles the Vatican State, which always takes and never offers.

CHIERCHINI
What are Karl Leisinger’s personal programs as President of the European Federation?

LEISINGER
My main desire is to attain again the union with the French pro-Tamura group and their supporters. Since 1980, in Europe has regrettably occurred that split we were talking about earlier, a rift which still does not show signs of being healed. Tamura sensei and Chassang have since created endless problems for the EAF, forming competing national associations where recognized Aikikai already existed and hindering our growth by any means.
We have been trying for two whole years to meet their needs; from 1980 – when Chassang was excluded from the management – to 1982, the EAF was left without official management, with the hope that problems would be solved and common sense would prevail. We wanted to keep the doors open to the Tamura group; we tried not to exclude them, even if we had disavowed their political line: in a democratic body, however, everyone should have the decency to know how to accept it.
In the end, in 1982, we made up our minds and elected the new Presidency and relative Executive, we revised the Statute and reorganized the EAF. I always aspire to be able to bring this Federation back to its origins, even if I am aware that it is very difficult, and I do not know which way to take to reach this goal.

Ueshiba Morihei - Tamura Nobuyoshi
Nobuyoshi Tamura with the founder Morihei Ueshiba

CHIERCHINI
Is the separatist position chosen by the Tamura group due exclusively to a question of power control, or are there different reasons?

LEISINGER
I don’t think it’s a question of power. After all, what power are we talking about? I presume it is just a matter of prestige, of name, a matter of etiquette, which stubbornly pushed that group to choose another path. Although, after all, it is also a problem of money.

CHIERCHINI
Let’s talk about Karl Leisinger on the mat: in what context does your Aikido experience fit?

LEISINGER
Until the 1960s, I practised Judo. In his lessons, my Judo teacher used to show Aikido movements. At the time, what intrigued me and my friends the most was specifically the self-defence aspect of Aikido. While I continued to practice Judo, my instructor took care of organizing exchanges with French Aikido teachers, therefore our interest in Aikido built up: until one day we took the initiative to write directly to the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo and request the intervention of a Japanese sensei in Germany.
After some time, they sent a teacher, who however had problems and had to return to his homeland; finally, Asai sensei arrived and with his skills he was able to involve not only us individually, but also to find enthusiastic followers in all German larger cities, where, in a short time dojos were started.
Even today, I consider Katsuaki Asai sensei coming to be a miracle, because for me there are no other Masters but him. Only with him, I discovered Aikido, however much I appreciated Noro and Tada sensei

CHIERCHINI
In these long years of practice, what was the stimulus that made you continue?

LEISINGER
Currently, Aikido has almost become a job for me. Over the years I have been entrusted with a large number of positions, especially after the Aikikai Deutschland foundation, which took place in 1967. I have been the President of this organisation ever since and it has been no small task. I was driven to continue by the desire to better organise this association.

Karl Leisinger and Katsuaki Asai at the dawn of Aikido in Germany

CHIERCHINI
What do you expect from Aikido today? To be able to go back to the basics? To the pure taste of practice, abandoning politics?

LEISINGER
I certainly wouldn’t mind. I would be very happy to find a successor to relieve me of this post. Unluckily, I have not yet found anyone and I do not wish in any way to abandon Asai Sensei, who is the Technical Director but needs political and organisational support.

CHIERCHINI
Do you think that ultimately Aikido has changed the course of your life?

LEISINGER
It has certainly become a significant part of my life. Consequently, it has changed its course for sure, not the least due to the amount of work I had to carry out. I am almost busier working for Aikido than for my 8-hours day job!

CHIERCHINI
If you don’t mind, Dr Leisinger, I would like to play a little game with you: if I suddenly say: “Asai”, what image comes to your mind?

LEISINGER
Authority, on the one hand, love on the other.

CHIERCHINI
A sentence to explain Asai sensei to the Italian students who had no opportunity yet to get to know him well.

LEISINGER
A great Teacher and a real Shihan.

CHIERCHINI
Credi che ci sia una caratteristica che è peculiare dello studente tedesco di Aikido?

LEISINGER
Each population and therefore each nation has its typical mindset, a typical basic behaviour, which unites to some extent the whole country. In my opinion, for Germany the main characteristic is that Aikido is a little harder.

Katsuaki Asai during his seminar in Milan in 1989

CHIERCHINI
Do you see a worry-free future for the development of Aikido in Germany and Europe?

LEISINGER
Sadly, soon will begin to arise big problems. The Hombu Dojo has dissociated itself from the political line of the International Federation, in the sense that it has set up a device with which are appointed “provisional members”, not fully entitled. In Europe, there are now representatives of the Hombu Dojo who are not 100% recognized. The fact is that this half recognition that they have obtained is a great success for them, since it ends up legitimizing, albeit halfway, those national pirate associations that these teachers have created in many European countries in competition with the legitimate ones – associations already recognised by the Hombu Dojo. The whole game is being run again by Tamura’s French group, that already has branches in Spain, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland and it is beginning to try something in Germany and Italy as well.
The Hombu Dojo has completed its “work” by issuing regulations that enable the following: if one of these Japanese Shihan, during a seminar held in any European nation, organises Dan grade exams and there are promotions, even if the seminar and the exams take place without the authorization of the National Association legitimately recognized by the Aikikai for that country, or perhaps in opposition to the programs and the development of it, the Hombu Dojo fully recognises the validity of the exams and the resulting promotions.
The two innovations mentioned above completely upset the practice followed to date by all and advocated by the IAF since its foundation: a single national association recognized for each country, and exams held in each country by the representative of the Hombu Dojo accredited for that country. Tamura Sensei and associates will be happy, even though at the time of the establishment of the International Federation – when they hoped to have control over it – they were advocates, indeed the inventors of the two principles formulated above. However, as soon as they lost control and were excluded from it, they started to found competing associations everywhere and to give Dan degrees to anyone who requests them.

CHIERCHINI
What are the reasons behind such a suicidal position by the Aikikai Hombu Dojo?

LEISINGER
I believe without any of doubt whatsoever that the Hombu Dojo has made a colossal mistake. In the whole world, there were only two cases that constituted a real problem for the correct functioning of the above rules. Only two were the Shihans with whom it was not possible to sit down at the table to find an agreement: Tamura and Chiba Sensei. It would have been better, instead of introducing such rules, which from now on authorize anyone to try anything, if they had summoned the directly interested parties and had forced them to talk, which was never possible. Tamura Sensei has never attended the meetings in person, and at all the IAF conferences we organized from 1980 onwards he always sent other people. In these meetings, we always and only quarrelled with them.
If these people had been available for dialogue, a clarification would have been reached.

CHIERCHINI
Where is this free movement of Shihan and the “trading” of grades going to lead to, President?

LEISINGER
The effect of the new Shihan Regulations will have to be analyzed above all in the medium and long term. Probably certain characters will take advantage of the situation, they will go to any country they want, they will open their own school, independent, parallel and possibly opposed to those already existing and with decades of life and work, and they will make their exams. For the next generations, this will lead to a great deal of confusion; I fear that, in the long run, the force of attraction and cohesion that the Hombu Dojo currently possesses will be mortified.
These Masters, only half recognized by Japan, will actually now be able to develop throughout Europe with the protection of the Hombu Dojo behind them. But with their way of doing, they are digging their grave with their own hands, because it will happen that the same organizations that are born on their initiative, do not want to follow a specific shihan, but a year this, a year that, who caresses them the most. The value and credibility of the Japanese Masters who will lend themselves to these games will be lost. The trend is already underway today, and it shows how counterproductive it is for those who have promoted such irregular initiatives.

CHIERCHINI
In the end, therefore, although the Hombu Dojo has taken a wrong approach, can we imagine a positive solution to this predicament, perhaps by reinforcing the historical national associations and just going ahead as before?

Aikikai Hombu Dojo

LEISINGER
In my opinion, even the shihan who have been specially sent by the Hombu Dojo to certain countries to disseminate Aikido, such as Fujimoto sensei, with whom we organised this seminar here in Mantua, will be involved in this traffic. Let’s say right away that is better to get rid of the definition of “Temporary Members”, or in short half-shihan. They are shihan recognised like everyone else. The result? In Germany there is already a group that says that Asai sensei is very good, yes, but now we also want the others; and they go so far as to say that Asai Sensei can receive all the honours he wants, but as far as Dan grades are concerned, there is someone out there who can manage them better than him.
Evidently, Asai sensei’s 20-year long efforts are likely to collapse overnight. Asai sensei has struggled for years, built an organisation, created a following for Aikido, trained dozens of students, teachers, dojos; and if this kind of politics takes hold, everything will fall apart. If this is going to happen it is because there are people behind it who see the opportunity to make big profits.

CHIERCHINI
It is not just a matter of prestige, therefore…

LEISINGER
It’s mostly about money! I would also find it fair if the Hombu Dojo dictated rules to control the travels of such shihan in different countries; however, on the other hand, these problems stem from the fact that these senior teachers are not disciplined. That is, we are the only ones respecting the rules.

CHIERCHINI
Faced with a myriad of problems such as this, Dr Leisinger, it never occurred to you that after all the main message of Aikido, that is love, respect for others and so on, is nothing but a great utopia, the greatest utopia in the world?

LEISINGER
Some of the shihan, who are supposed to have reached a certain level, should respect the basic rules of behaviour among humans. However, it happens that a particular sensei, who has worked hard for years building something for Aikido in a certain country, is mocked not only as a teacher but also as a man. Principles like harmony, respect for the person, etc. I might see upheld and implemented on the mat. When you leave the mat and maybe take part in a meeting, however, everyone shows up with weapons and unmistakably uses them. The principles dictated by Ueshiba himself vanish into thin air.

CHIERCHINI
It is a realistic picture, but a little disheartening. If you suddenly had the top job in the Aikido world now, how do you think you would deal with this issue?

LEISINGER
To talk in hypothetical terms of such an explosive matter is unacceptable.

Doctor Leisinger presents a gift to Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. Aikikai Hombu Dojo, Tokyo, 2004 (Copyright Culturele Aikido Bond Nederland )

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©1989
All rights reserved. Any unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited

Source: Chierchini Simone, Le Organizzazioni Europee Aikikai Sono in Pericolo?, Aikido XIX-2, Aikikai d’Italia, 1989


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