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An Interview with Antonino Certa Shihan

Certa ShihanAntonino Certa Shihan, President and Chief Instructor of European Daito-Ryu Daitokai — Milan, Italy.

Interview was conducted  by Michail Kusnetzov. Russian version was originally published by Michail Kuznetzov on the web-site of Satorikan dojo, April, 2013.

Permission for publishing of English version granted by Antonino Certa Shihan (English translation by Vladimir Soroka, Ohio branch of  the European Daito-Ryu Daitokai )

Pictures used in this publication of the English version of the Interview graciously provided by Antonino Certa Shihan.

Games for the boys

1.     Sensei, you are an expert in Martial Arts, with rich experience in different styles and schools. Prior to starting in Daito Ryu, you dedicated many years to Aikido.  Could you tell, how did you make a decision to start studying Aikido?

I was 15 years old, when I started in Martial Arts, being under big influence of the first movies about Kung-Fu. During those days “Kung-Fu movies” were swiping the West  (1965). I have chosen AIKIDO (By the way, those days it was hard to find Aikido Dojo, but thanks to my luck there was one of the first opened in Italy Aikido dojos in Milan.) because it appeared to be very elegant and effective system of self-defense. Two things attracted me: 1 – It was effective self –defense; 2 – beauty of the movements. In addition, I must say, I was at that time skinny teenager, but wanted to be better developed and better looking physically.

Also, must say, those years (1965-1970) Aikido was a little more “rough” in comparison with what is being practiced today. The moves were shorter, more rigid, immobilization’s, projections and throws were performed, what you would call “to the end”. All of that attracted me.

I was dreaming about becoming a samurai and interest in wearing hakama from first days was feeding my teenager dreams. Obviously I was fascinated with the “samurai’s world” and Japan as a whole. Next year I started also my training in Karate, so that to acquire additional skills and widen my horizons in Martial Arts.

2. When did you start feeling, that Aikido was not quite what you were looking for?

As I stated already, I was fascinated by the Aikido , as a Martial Art , but unfortunately I saw, that with the time, it is more and more moving away from its initial intention being strong Martial Art for self-defense, even though there still were Masters in world, who kept  and preserved “original Aikido”. Approximately during years of 1985 – 1990 “my Aikido” went through crisis. I attended many Seminars given by Japanese and non-Japanese Shihans, that took place in Europe, but though all of them highly spoke about philosophical component of Aikido, they left without proper attention the martial component of Aikido, that was no less important. Also I observed that if someone during the technique applied atemi, it did not look real, sort-off “non-orthodox”.  I saw that moves, especially taisabaki becoming more and more complex and there more and more “preparatory” moves and steps during one technique. During one technique shihan could make 5-6 taisabaki prior to finally throwing or immobilizing an opponent. I observed, that a lot of shihans show techniques only with their personal uke, who always were ready to “jump in the throw” with just about any indication of such throw, even when there was no physical contact. All of this was pushing me in a deep depression. Was it possible that all work and development accomplished by O’Sensei, all his long journey in Martial Arts degraded to such level. I could not then and I cannot now accept such interpretation of Aikido! Aikido still remained great Martial Art! But needed to make a step back and think about its own history. As a result of these thoughts I came to conclusion, that only return to its roots can bring back real Aikido. Only by finding and studying in depth original roots of Aikido, I could reconnect with my beloved Martial Art. The decision was made.

In 1991 I moved to Abashiri, Hokkaido, leaving behind everything. The rest you should know, if you read my book.

3.  What do you think, what are the main differences between Aikido and Daito-Ryu?

Sometime people identify Aikido as a perfect life Philosophy, that can be also Martial Art. At the same time, Daito–Ryu can be perfect Martial Art, which can also be life Philosophy

But I disagree with this. Let’s take a glance at complicated journey of O’Sensei Morihei Ueshiba in the development of martial art crossing through all his life. Everyone knows that there is a huge gap between the techniques of Aikido before World War II and after. For me Aikido remains beautiful Martial art, but following its evolution (from the position of martial component), aikido more and more distancing itself from practicality of the original foundation techniques (Aiki Jujutsu, Aikibudo) .Now-days Aikido gives its adepts “own vision of life” [DO]; at the same time Daito-Ryu was and remains extremely practical method of self-defense [Jutsu]. Person, who practicing Aikido, more often than not, sees uke as a class-mate without which his spiritual and technical development would be impossible For the Daito-Ryu practitioners uke is “an adversary”, who must be concurred in shortest possible time frame. Please NOTE: I don’t want to say, that during Daito-Ryu practice the friendly and cooperative atmosphere is absent, Quite contrary, during the execution of the techniques uke attacks with all seriousness and continues withstand attack in every given moment, as a result shite (tori) will work in the most adequate speed for himself and safe for himself manner! I want to stress again: during the training / classes we treat the uke’s body and safety of uke with utmost attention and respect! Which been proven by statistics: traumas and accidents during Daito-Ryu training are very rare.

Certa with partnerThe next important difference between the two is: the “static character” of Daito-Ryu techniques v.s. the “dynamic character” of Aikido techniques. The above described appearance is misleading. It is driven by the fact that in Daito-Ryu in order to efficiently and quickly execute technique we make minimum amount of steps / moves and moving trajectory is close to triangle as opposed to large taisabaki of now-days Aikido. There is a saying in our School ”one second, one tatami”, which means that reaction to attack and defense technique must be executed in one second and in area not exciding 2sq. meters.

Another, might be most visible difference is a use of the atemi., which unfortunately almost gone ion Aikido. Every our technique, the defensive as well as offensive starts with an atemi to the opponent’s body, continues then with  wrist locks, projections, pins, chocking, throws, etc…and ends a lot of times with finishing atemi.

During all training sessions in our school there is a segment of time dedicated to studying atemi [Aikikempo]. It is one of the most important components of training, right there with kuzushi, taisabaki, and aiki…

The spirit and intentions of these two Martial Arts are quite the opposite.  In very simplified terms: One is having tendency to neutralize attack in a peaceful way «Hey, you attacked me but now I will exterminate your aggression  in a peaceful way without any big harm to your body” Other: “Hey, you attacked me and I will defend myself with the quickest and most effective means, causing maximum damage to your body” . {It is not that simple in a real life. The application for use of both arts in a real life situations is quite more complex. V.S.}

In Kenjutsu terms, that received a spiritual and philosophical meaning, the Aikido is a “the life giving sword” (katsujinken); Daito-Ryu is a “life taking [killing] sword” (satsujinken). These obviously are just philosophical concepts.

4.     Sensei, could you offer couple of comments on Aiki principle in Daito-Ryu?

Sure. In Abashiri the Aiki principle was a search for method of unification, blending with the movements of the attacker / uke. Simplified example of aiki: when opponent is pushing – you move back and pull; when he is pulling – you move forward and push similar in cases with katate-dori, mune-dori, eri-dori….

This is why the concept of Aiki is most important for understanding Ju [in Japanese refers to pliancy and ability of body and mind to adapt to circumstances spontaneously] There is nothing mystical here, connected with a concept of spirit.

5. How difficult for you was the transition from Aikido to Daito-Ryu?

From the technical prospective there wasn’t much difficulty. I had a developed habit: every day, after the training sessions, write down techniques that were studied that day into my notebook (I still have this habit). When I was taught Ippondori , I wrote down ikkyo-omote followed by the description; when I was taught Gyaku-ude-dory, I wrote down “nikkyo-omote”, followed by the description, and so on…That’s why it was easier for me to memorize a lot of techniques. The difficulty was in changing my view on essentials of Martial Arts. I am talking now about the very decisive execution of techniques (Kime-waza). In Daito Ryu Atemi is being used constantly, on the normal basis. When I for the first time saw how a kick being executed in idori/ suwariwaza, I couldn’t help but exclaim:” Wow! That’s the real Martial Art!”

I had to completely change my way of execution of the techniques, starting with my reaction time to the speed of actual execution of the technique. I’ll give you an example of typical reaction of Aikidoka to attack – first is to get out of the line of the attack with taisabaki, initial move is performed with increasing speed, at the end of the move, on exit from taisabaki, speed of the technique is constant, the whole body (same goes for the uke) moving with constant speed, all the way till the end of the technique. In the real fight it is impossible, every action and counter action of opponents are inconsistent and asymmetrical. Every action is happening in uncontrolled moment, speed is changing from zero to max and back every second, every opponent moves in his / her own manner, in their own way.

That is why samurai in the ancient times were searching for the Ju [in Japanese refers to pliancy and ability of body and mind to adopt to circumstances spontaneously]

Based on the experience samurais established that this principal allows them to achieve maximum effectiveness with minimum applied energy and efforts. But at the same time it was the most complicated and difficult to learn the execution and proper implementation.

This was the most difficult from what I have encountered.

Certa #66. What do you think, is it possible to combine practicing in Aikido and Daito-Ryu?

Absolutely. Aikidoka through the training in Daito –Ryu will better understand the techniques that he /she practicing and their roots. As I stated before, if Aikidoka would make a “step back” from the historical prospective and look deeply into the roots of Aikido techniques, it would positively affect their techniques execution.

These two arts supplement each other and complete, both can be studied simultaneously by the true fans of Japanese Martial Arts.

7.  What were your first impressions after visit to Daitokan?

Certa #7Those days in order to be able to enter the Dojo it was necessary to have an invitation from someone who was training there. If you also wanted to train there too and take part in training sessions, you had to have a written invitation /recommendation from a respected person, who was personally known by Shihan. To my luck I did have such recommendation from my friend who was in charge of exporting electrical equipment from Japan.

When  shoji (sliding Japanese doors ) of Daitokan were open in front of me for the first time I thought to myself:” Here I am, walking into the very heart of Japanese Budo, the place where was concentrated over 1000 years of samurai history”.

Certa #7aThe atmosphere of history and cloud of rigor were dominating inside. The parts of wide School curriculum were hanging on the walls inside the building: two large posters , one on each side (shimoseki and joseki)  with the names of the techniques from Hiden Mokuroku, that allowed students to see and read the sequence of the techniques during the training sessions. On one of the walls also was a poster with descriptions of the Ono-ha Itto-Ryu Kenjutsu. In the far back in the same fashion was positioned poster with Aikikempo program.

Funny story: obviously everything was written in Japanese characters, that I didn’t know how to read yet. However, because I was writing the names and sequences of the techniques into my notebook according to the Ikkajo list, during the training sessions I was able to show-off with my ability to  “read hieroglyphs”, precisely naming technique, that we were supposed to perform. But in reality I just knew the  location of the hieroglyph on the poster relative to the actual exercise description. Point 1 – Ippondori, Point 2 – Gyaku Ude dori , something like that…My classmates were admiring the fact , that someone could learn to read  in  Japanese this quick.
On a same side with Kamiza there stood a Shinto Altar, covered with the flag, made from the purple color cloth (color of the samurai and emperor) with embroidered on it mon of Takeda clan..

Certa #7bOn the structure supporting the altar was hanging a sheet of paper with written on it philosophical sayings, that sheet was replaced by new one every month.  The cost of the 1 month course of training in 1991 was equivalent current 5 Euro!!! There was an open box in the lobby, filled with little purple bags with written on them names of all students. Everyone placed the money in these bags, and secretary collected them from there every month and noted down the payment after which the empty bags were returned to the box. Later I found out that this was traditional for all old Japanese schools (koryu).). After all, it was my dream to be a member of such traditional Japanese Dojo, and it was an honor to be a student at such place. I started studying  there and pretty soon felt very comfortable.

Certa #88. What was it like to train at Daitokan?

It was hard and the tatami was just as hard! As you know old Japanese tatami is made from the rice straws In the winter time the moisture inside tatami would freeze, which in turn would make tatami hard as a stone plates; during summer multitude of falls was raising clouds of straw dust, that we had to inhale. General classes were held only at night, during the day classes were led only by yudansha.

Certa #8aI was starting training in the morning and was taught by yudansha, who was one of the best teachers, especially for the foreigner, it was Kato Shihan. During the day the teaching was done by Arisawa Shihan, who worked not so far at the renown local prison museum of Abashiri. When none of the teachers was around I was training with Mr. Kobayashi, who lived at the Dojo and performed the duties of a Secretary. Then Kato Shihan or Arisawa Shihan would come and teach both of us. Sometimes during the weekends we would take a train and go to Kitami, where the Dojo of Sano Shihan was located.

Certa #8bSometimes, on Fridays, Sano Shihan would also be present at Daitokan. From Sano Shihan I was able to learn Aiki–no-jutsu, these were his favorite techniques, just like also the kasa-dori techniques with traditional Japanese umbrella (he used those quite often in demonstrations).From Arisawa Shihan I took a lot of Jujutsu techniques and later also Ono-ha Itto-Ryu Kenjutsu , he was favorite shidachi  of Takeda Soke.


9.  You were uchideshi of late Tokimune Takeda Sensei. Please tell us about him.

Certa #9Unfortunately, There is very little that I can tell. In 1991 he didn’t feel well and rarely appeared at the Dojo, accompanied by his wife, or somebody from his shihans. Same year he was admitted to the hospital. Though, I can tell, that according to the stories from his loyal students, who were with him over 40 years, he was extremely serious, demanding teacher , but not by any means obnoxious, nor evil. He [T.T] always said that the most important thing during technique execution is determination and decisiveness, rather than technique itself. Martial spirit was above everything else. Sorry I got to know him so late.

Certa #9a

10. How did you become an uchideshi? How, not being Japanese, you managed to become an uchideshi at the Japanese Dojo?

I became an uchideshi during the summer of 1991. As I mentioned just few minutes ago, my friend was an important person in Italian-Japanese venture business, so, he managed, don’t know how, to establish a relationship with Daitokan  in Abashiri and to send there the letter with recommendations for me, where also were  mentioned  my thirty years of training in Japanese Martial Arts. This probably appeared enough to accept me at the Dojo as a guest and a student.

Certa #10

11. How was the daily life of uchideshi?

There still a custom in Japan after the classes clean and put everything back in order at the dojo. “Inside students “, uchideshi had assignments, during their free time clean the washrooms, toilets, kitchen, eating room, take proper care of fireplace, organize the office and take care of the area around Daitokan building.

12. You dedicated all your life to studying of Daito Ryu. Did you ever have to use your skills in reality, outside of dojo?

Well, yes,…few broken hands, knocked with few heads onto the ground, few rough atemi…I also used aikido techniques… But really, … I don’t want to talk much about these experiences…

13. Did your vision of Daito-Ryu changed with the time?

Certa #13Sure, it did, but only in details. Because one has to always keep fresh view , the one of the beginner, never stop reviewing what’s been learned before, but, overall,…as a whole picture… no, nothing changed. At the end, to summarize, Daito-Ryu is a Martial Art, deeply connected to Japanese History thru the Aizu clan, Takeda and Minamoto families.  Exquisite Japanese Martial Art, it survived and was preserved pretty much unchanged. Daito Ryu has detailed descriptions of the techniques and, what is no less important, description of the methods of training, such as oyo waza, henka waza, renzoku waza and shime waza. One more specific characteristic: part of the study includes training and understanding of the most important elements of traditional Japanese Budo: kiai, enzo-no-metsuke, ma-ai, kamae, zanshin, kime. Not too many schools now days use teaching of these old traditionally important elements. For me this is no less important than teaching of actual techniques.

14. Sensei, you are teaching in a lot of different countries. Is there difference between countries?

Practicing of different Martial arts in any given country reflects the people of this country and condition of economy in a subject country. Every nation has its own fundamental historic and cultural specifics and this in turn reflects on practicing of Martial arts. If the nation’s history contains a lot of wars, this fact inevitably reflects on people of this country. Take for an example Japanese. Also, I think, level of economic welfare of the country, cost of living, obviously also has an influence. It cannot be otherwise, it is almost direct relationship. I give you an example, that comes to mind: if country ‘s economy for an extended period of time in a bad condition, then practicing of Martial Arts will be rough, rigorous; how else could it be if , for a chance, there is no air conditioner in a dojo, no washing room, no shower, no tatami only hard floors at best…and throws executed right there… on a wooden floor. Techniques very powerful, with overemphasizing of physical force…Martial Arts becoming almost a social revenge for the practitioner. At the same time, in the well developed countries, same Martial Arts becoming “softer”, less regimented, the dojo becoming more like a sport facility….with air conditioners, showers and other attributes of an additional comfort. All of this slowly weakening spirit of Martial Art.  The connection between Sensei and students becoming merely commercial connection and student becoming a client! The essence of a Martial Art is lost. The type of a relation between Teacher and student, which has to be in place to study Budo is lost. The proper relationship between the Sensei and his students is when: respect and complete trust from student to Sensei on a way to high level of studying art are in place; with that –  student never demands high level of promotion (Dan level), because he/ she knows, that when they are truly ready, the Teacher will give a deserved recognition, possibly even without exams.

If Sensei using every method, every possible way to raise the technical level of his deshi, this is the only way to continue school development; at the same time in case of commercial relationship, sensei trying to make sure that “client” always on same level and always needs him…

15. How you see the future of Daito-Ryu in Russia?

I hope my humble participation will help the development of the Daito-Ryu in Russia. You are proud and powerful nation, that is used to going thru all kinds of turmoil and overcome the difficulties historical, as well as economical. You have a strong fighting spirit and the technical skills level that I saw, is also very high. I believe that Moskow has all chances to become the capital of Japanese Martial arts in the near future. This city is already hosting large amount of seminars under instruction of different shihans from multitude of different schools and styles, from Karate to Kenjutsu, a lot of them koryu schools. I also believe in development of our School in your country, I think in a little bit of time there will be many Dojos spread around in a different areas of your country, where Daito-Ryu, strong, powerful and effective , with high technical level will be studied.

Certa #15
16. Sensei, it appears that there no videos with your participation on You-tube. A lot of people are curious –  why?

I am a conservative teacher and believe that Martial Arts should be transmitted from Sensei instead of with help of DVDs, You-tube, etc. For example, You-tube is like a stick with two ends; on one hand there is a feeling that if you present there, then the whole world will get to know you, but on the other hand, speaking of those who will be watching you, is it possible that in a few moments, or minutes of the clip, they will be able to really understand / comprehend how technique works and the essence of it, most likely not! Many years of tough training and hard work will be judged by few moments of the video-clip and … judged by who? There always will be somebody, not even always qualified, who will be criticizing your techniques. So, no, I cannot accept such thing. If someone really wants to get to know me and find out how good I am, they are welcome to visit me in Italy and get personally convinced, and get a chance to work with my students, those who been studying under my tutelage for many years. I believe this is the best advertisement! I always advise my students not to put anything on You-tube, but rather train diligently, seriously and hard, the rest will follow, and that includes popularity, recognition and world fame!

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