I was still wearing shorts when, in 1965, I made my acquaintance with Aikido. This is also when I first met Hiroshi Tada sensei, who, in my eyes, continued to impersonate and embody it for many years to come
by PAOLO BOTTONI
In 1965, the sports club I was part of started what was boasted to be as the first European Aikido dojo. This is unquestionably not true but it was nice to dream… The place was given the immodest name of Ueshiba Morihei Dojo.
My initial contact with it began when I got asked to produce a promotional leaflet for the dojo. My initial contact with it began when I got asked to produce a promotional leaflet for the dojo. First of all, I had to ask to be shown what Aikido was and I was consequently subjected to a robust demonstration based on nikyo. In those days, this was the approach commonly utilised to respond to any unfortunate who dared to ask for information: “Grab my wrist” and down you got a great (so to speak, they were pioneering times as well as heroic…) nikyo.
With even more confused ideas than before, armed with rapidographs, ink and other tools of the trade, I got busy on the subject. After a while, I produced the abortion that you can see reproduced alongside. Strange to say, it met with the favour of many. I was told, however, that Tada sensei started laughing his heart out after seeing it…
Let’s clarify the mystery: the figure was taken from an encyclopedia that I had anxiously consulted and was in turn derived from a photograph probably taken by the photographer Felice Beato. He was active in Yokohama at the end of the 19th century and many of his studio portraits were artfully constructed, imaginatively assembling material from various sources worn by casual models.
This photo was no exception: the character depicted in my flyer wore an unlikely ensemble consisting of a battle helmet and armour, Kendo gloves and leg protections and a hakama. In his left hand, he was holding a handachi, although carried like a tachi: in the photo in question, it’s possible to notice that it actually was an efu no tachi; the chest protection also doesn’t correspond to the logo’s imaginative one and so on. In short, the samurai from my encyclopedia was presented through a Westerner distorting presumption: a creative but fundamentally ridiculous representation. At the time, though, it seemed nice to believe it was ok. The logo’s background graphics weren’t my own thing either – who knows if anyone can’t guess where it comes from…
I had successive close encounters with Aikido – again of the second type – at the S.S. Monopoli Judo dojo in Trastevere. Years ago, the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind got very popular. That movie talked about the physical encounter between earthlings and aliens, or rather Alien, the alien par excellence. Well, at the time, Japanese culture and its representatives were basically like aliens in Italy.
Back then, I was not aware that the first regular Aikido course in Italy was being held at the Monopoli premises, all thanks to Danilo Chierchini – a Judo teacher and the future president of the Italian Aikikai of Italy, of which I would become a close collaborator and friend in the years to come. In Chierchini’s dojo, I happened to see some rowdies in actions. The guys were wearing exotic clothes and enjoyed beating each other up on a round mat of the kind used for wrestling.
Here’s the full text of one of the promotional flyers that had been produced to advertise the Ueshiba Morihei Dojo – you can see the original on the left. It is interesting to notice how the perception of art has deeply transformed through all these years.
AI – KI – DO
SUPERIOR ART OF SELF-DEFENSE
AI-KI-DO, stemmed from the secular experience of the legendary Samurai thanks to the great Master UESHIBA MORIHEI, was originally reserved for its invincible power only for the high ranks of the Japanese army officers.
Disseminated all over the world after the last war, it was also appreciated because its elegant technique is the best exercise for harmonious physical development in young people.
Taken from the art of the sword (Kendo), it is remarkable in that it allows to knock down or immobilize not just one but more opponents at the same time. This energizes mental skills of attention, rapid reflexes and psychomotor coordination.
AI-KI-DO is now taught in Italy by Master HIROSHI TADA 7th Dan official representative of AIKIKAI of TOKIO, Instructor of the Italian and Japanese police.
At the «UESHIBA» dojo you will be able to see for yourself the effectiveness of an art considered incomparably superior where the agility of the Judo and the violence of Karate had also achieved interesting results.
I had not yet met Tada sensei, who I imagined, from how he was described to me, as a supernatural being: two or three meters tall and capable of killing with a look as well as willing to do so without too much bother. Some time later I was put in charge of looking after the Ueshiba Morihei Dojo for a day or two a week, and I finally saw him! I cannot say that I was disappointed: undoubtedly Tada sensei had something that hit anyone’s imagination, let alone mine which was already favourably predisposed in that sense. Nevertheless, I definitely expected something different, something more… I don’t know: that at least he would be walking around dressed as a samurai, with two swords at his belt, constantly looking for duels.
Who then, although threateningly promising in physical appearance, completely disappointed me, was a young Japanese man that we found one day sitting on the sidewalk outside the dojo, waiting for us to open. Evidently, there he had to have something to do with the dojo and with Tada sensei. He couldn’t explain it to us as he did not chew a word of Italian. This individual seemed to me to have an irritating bonhomie. He was always smiling and willing to try to exchange a word with someone in a botched attempt at overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers. He was curious and looking for adventures the whole time, but down to earth ones that did not seem to me to match the fate of a samurai. The next time I met him, again sitting on the edge of the sidewalk, he was trying to chat some of the students that, while waiting for me to arrive and open the dojo, were killing time by eating from packets of pickled lupini beans. He had been explained how to manage to eat those things and was diligently getting busy with it, littering the sidewalk with lupins husks. “What a character!”, I thought. “This guy will never be a real samurai!”.
Who was this guy? He was one of the greatest teachers I have ever met in my life (and I have known many) and certainly among those who had the most comprehensive and in-depth knowledge of samurai cultural heritage: Masatomi Ikeda sensei.
There are so many tales about Tada sensei, stories put around by distinguished big men of a certain age with beards and moustaches. At the time I believed in them all without distinction but now I have some doubts about it…
Once the sensei explained that it would be convenient for him to have a jo and he roughly described how it had to be: in no time at all, as a prototype, he was presented with something similar to Hercule’s club, which was, as usual, accepted without comment and with a thousand thanks. After a few movements, Sensei approached one of the columns that dominated menacingly in the middle of the approximately 20 m2 mat. Leveraging on the column, he began strange manoeuvres with the stick, which to me seemed to have the purpose of straightening the unhappy piece of wood, which in fact very straight was not. A delegation of students immediately went to ask the teacher respectfully what on earth he was doing: after a while the spokesman came back, reporting with the air of a conspirator: “He is pushing the stick against the column to shorten it because it is too long”. Naturalmente il giorno dopo la storia aveva fatto tre volte il giro di Roma. Obviously, the next day this story had already gone three times around Rome.
More anecdotes? During the organisational meetings we used to keep in the evening, there was always someone asked a report of what Tada sensei had done at the Dojo. Well, once it was described that he had found a new way to train: he threw sheets of paper in the air and cut them in two on the fly with the sword. “So what?”, someone commented in wonderment, “I would be able to do that too!”. “Cretin!”, he got retorted, “In two, yes, but in thickness! To make two A4 sheets instead of one! Can you to that?”
One fine day, on Sunday morning, while we were cleaning the dojo, I was told to put on any keikogi and get on the tatami (keikogi were kept in the dojo, Japanese style). As I hurried to get it done, I was told to be careful not to get it wrong: once a student had mistakenly put on Tada sensei’s keikogi, who at the time was not in Rome. As the story goes, upon his return, Sensei immediately discovered the crime. Not only that, but according to this urban legend, he went around the dojo sniffing like a truffle dog until he found the unfortunate disciple and gave him a first-rate straightening-out…
That was the first and only time I got on the Ueshiba Morihei Dojo mat: it would take 8 more years before I decided to enrol in an Aikido class. I haven’t stopped since then.
Back then the dojo was quite busy. Looking at the old photos, at the (so to speak) martial airs, at all the statuary poses that are difficult to reconcile with those tight keikogi, one gets enveloped in nostalgia. I don’t know why, but in those days the training uniform fashion favoured a tight-fitting style. They might have been fine enough to look at but presumably left a price to pay with their being awkward to use when training. It was customary not to wash them that often, the excuse given being that samurai did not do that. As a consequence, for a long time Aikido suits remained of the same yellowish colour that they had when just bought. Also, the dojo had a characteristic smell (as I said the uniforms were kept in the changing rooms) that I could already recognise when with my Vespa I went through the Porta San Giovanni arches, a couple of kilometres away.
All the students who passed through the Ueshiba Morihei Dojo have sooner or later returned to the fold. I met them all a few years later at Rome’s Dojo Centrale. They all asked about Tada sensei and all said they wanted to start practising again: someone even did it! After Via Eleniana’s Dojo Centrale nefariously closed down in 1994, these same people continued to flock to the Nozomi Dojo, which had received its legacy, having found out about it god knows how.
Many years have passed by and now there are only a few left who renew the eternal promise to start the practice again. Many, however, bring their children or grandchildren and this is great.
In the 1960s, all the practitioners were keen students and Tada sensei was happy about it. At that time he adopted the Japanese teaching system. Once, an unfortunate person who came to the dojo for the first time was briefly explained how to practice suwariwaza irimi tenkan. After that, Sensei continued his class, leaving the poor fellow eagerly pirouetting on his knees. A quarter of an hour later, the unlucky beginner, now flushed, signed to Tada sensei if he could stop. Sensei took on a very surprised expression and just nodded to him to continue. After another half hour, our hero approached Tada sensei and without making comments pulled up his bottoms, showing his now bleeding knees. The look the master gave him in return had an unequivocal meaning: “So what? What’s that got to do with it?”. All the guy could do was to sadly go back to his tenkan until the class was over. When he recalled this episode for me – over 20 years later – just talking about Tada sensei made his eyes shine.
Grading was also dealt with according to the Japanese custom, with appointments made on the field by Sensei, who was quite generous: in 5 or 6 months, almost everyone was third kyu. The techniques were rudimentary, due especially to a certain carelessness on the part of the students and their unfamiliarity with Aikido movements. Tada sensei’s classes – which I unfortunately attended stuck at the dojo office table – were extremely detailed. I was particularly fascinated by the way he explained how to take ukemi, which he demonstrated in slow motion: he seemed to be able to almost stop in mid-air as he pleased.
A little more than a year after these events, my sports club broke up and so ended the “first European Aikido Dojo”. I thought that the story was over but after a few months, in the spring of ’67, Stefano Serpieri, who had continued to follow Tada sensei’s teachings let me and some other friends know that Sensei had found a new dojo in Via Eleniana, not very far from the previous, and was looking for someone to give him a hand to fix it…
From there a new adventure began, which is still far from ending.
Copyright Paolo Bottoni ©1985-2021
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We thank Paolo Bottoni for authorizing the translation of this article
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