André Cognard was born in France in 1954. He was 17 years old when he started teaching aikido to adults, by opening five dojos in several cities in France. Four years later, he received the French state diploma for teaching judo, aikido, karate and kendo. In 1973 he met Hirokazu Kobayashi Sensei (1929-1998), a direct disciple of O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba. After twenty-five years of practice under Kobayashi Sensei, André Cognard was designated Kobayashi Sensei’s successor as head of the Kokusai Aikido Kenshukai Kobayashi Hirokazu Ryu Ha. In 1982 he founded the Académie Autonome d’Aikido, where aikido is taught by traditional means as well as with theoretical support from psychology, philosophy, and western and eastern medicine. In 2003, he opened in Bourg Argenal, France, the Kobayashi Hirokazu Kinen Aikidojo, traditional dojo devoted to his master and venue for the Instructors Training Courses. Cognard Sensei directs Aikido and Aikishintaiso seminars worldwide, and he is the author of several books on martial arts. He is also one of the highest-ranking representatives of the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai: the title of Hanshi was bestowed upon him in April 2012, at the Fourth World Butoku Sai held at the Butokuden in Kyoto, Japan.
Aikido Journal: Today is June 24, 2013 – We’re here in Las Vegas with André Cognard Sensei who is traveling and conducting seminars in Mexico and in the United States before returning to France. One of the purposes of our discussion today is to teach others about Hirokazu Kobayashi Sensei, who was one of the great post-war Japanese Shihan and who is not as well known as others outside mainstream aikido. I think the reason many aren’t familiar with Hirokazu Kobayashi Sensei stems from his politics and probably the fact that he lived in Osaka and not in Tokyo.
Let’s talk about your first meeting with Kobayashi Sensei, what impressed you most about him and how did this determine your career in aikido.
Cognard Sensei: I was a bit of a wild child. I wanted to do martial arts very young, very, very early. And my parents didn’t agree. It wasn’t the family at all. It was very complicated. There were no dojos, the first dojo was far, 50 km (31 miles) from the house. It just wasn’t possible. I had to insist terribly to get started.
I started aikido under the ACFA. The ACFA was the Association Culturelle Française d’Aikido (the French Cultural Organization of Aikido); it was Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei’s group in France. At the time, André Nocquet Sensei’s group was the official group in France. They were affiliated to the FFJDA. Tamura Sensei’s group, who represented the Aikikai, but was not officially recognized in France. I started in that group. And I met Tamura Sensei. I was lucky to be in a dojo where the teacher invited Tamura Sensei and Noro Sensei alternately. We saw them frequently at the dojo. That’s where I started. I also practiced with Masamichi Noro Sensei in Paris. As a teenager, I got into the habit of going to Paris. And thanks to Noro Sensei, I also met Katsuai Asai Sensei who came to Paris; they were good friends. Often there were the two of them. And there was training all day.
It’s hard not to criticize, but at that time the atmosphere in the groups wasn’t good, there was a lot of rivalry.
Because of politics?
Yes, essentially because of politics. In my group, we were told that the federation is the enemy, and not to go there. We were forced to choose between teachers. We had to choose, there and then. When you were a beginner, it was a little confusing.
My curiosity pushed me to go see Hiroo Mochizuki Sensei (son of Minoru Mochizuki Sensei). He was already there; I practiced a little. And then I got to a point where I was not satisfied. I was doing judo and karate, and I had seriously started doing kendo. But I wasn’t satisfied; there was something I just couldn’t understand. There was talk about harmony, etc., and I saw rivalry. So I almost decided to stop practicing. I was 19, and one day as I was looking at myself in the mirror, I decided, “Now you must find your master or stop.”
I didn’t know where I’d find this master so I thought about André Nocquet. I had never met him but I thought: “Maybe he has something since they all agree to criticize him. They don’t meet my expectations, but they all agree to attack him. So maybe that’s what I’m looking for.” I moved to Paris for two or three months and went to his dojo thinking l would see. At the time, his dojo was on Rue Servan in Boulogne-Billancourt, a commune in the western suburbs of Paris. It has burned down since. I started practicing with him. It was the same aikido I had been doing elsewhere. I couldn’t see a big difference and I wondered why there was so much criticism toward him. I couldn’t understand. After two months I thought that’s enough. It’s the same.
Finally, I decided to stop practicing aikido. That’s why I had come to Paris, so I took everything I had, put it in my car and left. On the highway, I thought, it’s not fair, you’re not being honest with Nocquet Sensei; you’re not telling him. So I turned around, went to the dojo and waited until the course ended. I told him, “Nocquet Sensei, I’ve decided to stop aikido.” I said, “I came to you because I didn’t know you, and I was unsatisfied.” His hair was very short at the time. He looked very concerned. That’s how he was. He rubbed his head. Then he said, “Listen, there’s a dojo at the swimming pool in Boulogne; tomorrow there’ll be a teacher. He’s called Kobayashi, he’s 8th dan. You should go and look, you should like him.”
I had never heard the name Kobayashi. Eighth dan was a very high rank at the time. Tamura Sensei and Noro Sensei were not 8th dan; they were 6th dan. And we were constantly being told Tamura Sensei was the only one. O-Sensei has only one disciple, his spiritual son, you go through him or you don’t get anywhere in aikido. We heard it all the time, and so I thought it was strange. I thought, there are two options, either Kobayashi is an impostor, or I’ve been lied to for years. So I wanted to know. I went there and when I arrived it happened very simply. The masters I had met meditated facing us. When Sensei came onto the mat he meditated facing the kamiza. And just to see him walk, move, I started sweating and my heartbeat accelerated;, it was a strong emotion. It didn’t look like he was walking but sliding. It felt like he was on wheels. As if he didn’t have to move his feet. As if he were a gliding statue. He sat at the kamiza, started the meditation, turned to us, and bowed. When he stood up and I saw his face, I thought I knew him. His face seemed so familiar. My first reaction was: “He’s not Japanese!” I reasoned with myself: “Of course he’s Japanese”. He stood up and did the misogi. It was the first time we saw it. I will show you later what he did, I still do it. Nobody knew what he was doing. We were all lost. Then he stopped. He told me to come, and gave me a signal, immediately, directly.
At the time, people were afraid of him because he had this look, crew cut, a sleek mustache. He was very nice but people were afraid of him because of his look. He’d show techniques, but a little like O-Sensei. He’d do nikyo, irimi, shihonage, yoko irimi, etc. Then he’d stand in a corner, work by himself, and correct very little. Lots of people were quite scared. After a while, he changed a lot. He smiled a lot, his hair grew and everybody thought he was very nice. But he was both. He was very nice to people in general, in public etc., but as a master, in a close relationship, he was very demanding.
Who had invited him for this seminar?
André Nocquet invited him. André Nocquet invited him the first times. The first seminars were in 1971, 1972, in La Baule and André Nocquet was behind them.
I wonder how master Nocquet knew Kobayashi Sensei?
I think they met in Japan. I’m even sure. In Tokyo, and Nocquet Sensei went to Osaka to see Kobayashi Sensei. That’s what I heard.
You had found the master?
Yes, it was immediately obvious to me.
From a practicing and training point of view how did your life change?
By the end of the seminar I was thrilled, for several reasons. First, because he called me even though there were a hundred people. It seemed so amazing. It seemed like the answer to my dream, my search for my master… so I was thrilled. But there was also something that surprised me. When you were uke you usually fell because it was painful, because you were forced to fall. He immediately did a nikyo and an irimi. That’s the first thing he did to me. PAM! PAM! And I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t understand, I was on the ground and then suspended horizontally in the air, a meter above the ground. I felt no pain; I felt nothing. That was his aikido. It was typical of what he did. And it surprised me a lot. It was incredible! It was another kind of aikido.
I went to see him at the end of the class, there was an interpreter and I asked him to translate. I was enthusiastic, “It’s amazing, wonderful, tell me what I must do and I’ll do it.” He listened, looked at me and went “pfff” and then left.
And that was the beginning of something very hard. I had set my mind to be everywhere he would be in Europe. And I did. But he never saw me except when I was uke, because I was uke. But outside the mat, I didn’t exist. Until the day he signalled me at the end of a class. He made a sign, hop, and I followed him. Then he took me to a restaurant, we sat down and he started speaking in Japanese that I absolutely didn’t understand.
How old were you?
I was 19 years old when I met him. He’d speak Japanese for hours and hours and hours. Gradually, I understood and gradually I began to speak. I never studied Japanese. I never studied a word because I never had time. I was so caught up working with him that I didn’t even have time to learn. He said, “Now you have to come to Japan.” So I went to Japan. The first time I stayed three months. When I came back he said he had no further need for an interpreter: “You translate.” “But Sensei, I’m not capable of translating.” “Intuition. If you don’t understand intuitively, you’ll never understand anything. Or you understand intuitively and even if you’re wrong they’ll understand. Or you don’t understand intuitively, and you can translate as well as you want, they won’t understand.”
It was always his thing. You need to feel, intuit, feel, intuit. That was really his point of view on transmission.
And in Japan you started studying Japanese seriously.
I never studied Japanese.
Never. He spoke to me, just like that, like my mother spoke to me in French. He spoke to me, and that’s it.
You never studied spelling?
Nothing. I never studied… a little katakana and hiragana and a few kanji. He spoke to me; that’s it. In the beginning, he used a lot of Osaka-ben, the Osaka dialect, but I didn’t know. When I was with people from other areas, I didn’t understand what they wanted. They’d laugh and they’d say, “No, that’s Osaka-ben.” After, I sorted it out, but it took me some time.
Were there other Europeans in the dojo?
Not at that time no.
Was it the Buikukai?
Yes, it was the Buikukai. There was the Budo Center, and the Showacho dojo but most of the trainings took place in the universities.
When you went to Japan you already had several dojos in France and Italy?
When I started going to Japan I had started teaching in Italy, but I didn’t have a dojo, I didn’t have a group in Italy yet. I taught in the dojos of other organizations. In France, though, yes, I had opened several dojos. I had a strong character and so I was quite hyperactive; I did a lot.
He started going to the dojos of your group, exclusively, or did he go elsewhere?
No. He didn’t only go to my dojos, thank goodness. In 1977, one day when we were together he asked me something, he said, “Do you really want to do aikido?” I felt like that’s all I was doing so I was surprised by his question. I replied, “Of course, Sensei, I really want to do aikido.” “From now on, you will become a professional.” That was his point of view. If it’s your livelihood, you really work and you commit yourself. He also had another point of view: to be a good professional you need to be “hungry.” In France, at that time, he knew it would be impossible, it was terrible, there were no professionals. I think he knew I’d do it anyway. It really was an ordeal.
In 1981, he told me, “Listen, if you really want to develop my aikido, I think you have to leave the federal system. It won’t be possible within the federal system. They have a sports vision and you need to adopt a traditional view: a dojo, a teacher and disciples. People don’t need to talk among themselves to know what to do.” He said, “If you want, I’ll give you some guidelines, but you need to create something independent.” Then in 1981, I said okay. I had 5 dojos that I constantly took care of, including a very large one in Lyon where there were about 180 people. So I said yes, I’ll create it, but beforehand I need qualified teachers – so first I created a teacher-training school that still exists. I took the older students and we worked what we needed to work on to efficiently train teachers. In 1982, we officially registered the Académie Autonome d’Aikido (Independent Aikido Academy) known as 3A. That makes us the oldest organization of aikido in France today.
This interview will be published in English so could you explain the dynamics of French organizations? At that time was aikido in the judo federation? When you became independent, independent of what?
Until 1972, I think the official federation was FFJDA. Perhaps a little longer, I can’t exactly remember. Then there was the UNA, the Union Nationale d’Aikido (National Aikido Union). There was an attempt to unify Tamura Sensei, Nocquet Sensei, and Mochizuchi Sensei’s schools which failed after a few months. It was 1975; I remember well, it resulted in a very quick breakup. Meanwhile, Tamura Sensei’s group was officially endorsed. That was one development.
Nocquet Sensei’s group went underground, into illegitimacy. As for Mochizuki Sensei, I think he had given up all hope regarding the world of aikido and had moved ahead on his own way. I don’t know what the name of the federation was at the time.
So I left the official federation to create 3A. It was not easy. My intentions were misunderstood and I was criticized and attacked. But I was following my path, the one Kobayashi Sensei showed me. I didn’t care what others thought of it at that time. I wasn’t interested in their point of view. I was only interested in his.
I know that after that there were state diplomas. Was that before…
I already had a state diploma. I was a certified instructor since 1975. At the time there were three levels, I had the third level as a teacher of judo, aikido, karate, with an aikido option. I got it in September 1975.
You had the right to teach aikido professionally.
Is it for life?
Yes. It’s a state diploma, a professional degree.
So you created the Independent Aikido Academy following your master’s suggestion.
Yes. It wasn’t an order. He was always very careful not to constrain us. But he would encourage us. He actually helped me a lot. For example, creating worksheets for rank exams. Listing the techniques for the different kyu levels. He was involved in our development…
He was from Osaka.
They’re adept at business, aren’t they? It’s a city of merchants. Maybe he had some knowledge…
Possibly, but on a personal level he was never interested in money. If we organized an exam, we charged a small fee, but he never took a share. The money stayed in the group. He never took anything. He was very special, different. When he came to give a seminar, we’d try to determine a fee, but he never decided anything. He’d say, “It’s up to you, do as you want.” Whether I’d given him 500 Euros or 5000… he’d say thank you, thank you very much. It was not his problem, really. In that respect he was very free. It was very surprising.
In France, from the Japanese perspective, there was Tamura Sensei, Noro Sensei in Paris, and Tada Sensei in Italy. You created an independent organization that a Japanese teacher went to, and without saying anything to the Hombu Dojo? Did it create problems?
Yes, it created problems with the Hombu Dojo, not for me, but for Kobayashi Sensei.
His position was that people were free to teach where they wanted. He said, “The Hombu Dojo was not O-Sensei’s will. The Hombu Dojo was independent of O-Sensei’s will. O-Sensei did not oppose it because it was his son. But O-Sensei didn’t really agree. And O-Sensei always considered that one was free to teach. So as I am foremost a student of O-Sensei, I’m not interested in what the Hombu Dojo thinks.”
In Japan, out of loyalty towards the Ueshiba family, to Japan and Japanese principles, he would conduct exams for the Aikikai. But he had very little contact, real contact. He’d say: “That’s the expression of my indirect loyalty toward O-Sensei and the Ueshiba family. But apart from that, I don’t answer to anyone. I do what I do because O-Sensei would have done it this way, would have thought this way.” And he encouraged me to do the same. This is why, especially in France, actually only in France, I don’t have a good reputation. People think that because I’m not inside the system I’m not serious. But it’s the French system that’s not serious.
I’ve trained teachers in different organizations, in Italy, in Switzerland, in Germany. I’ve trained people in India, Indonesia, and elsewhere, everywhere, but in France they argue, that’s France. France and the French.
I’ve heard that.
More than Japan, more than the United States. But officially the government controls everything. So as an American, I couldn’t teach aikido in France.
No, not without a French state diploma.
Though there’s this restriction, a medium-sized country has more practitioners! What’s your opinion on this subject?
First of all, I think the French statistics are exaggerated. I think they are very exaggerated.
Frankly, I think so. A few years ago they announced 20 or 25 thousand practitioners. All of a sudden it climbed to 30, 40, 60,000. I think it’s very exaggerated. I don’t know what the sources are, but I would really like to know where the information comes from. I’d really like to know, I don’t believe them. If we had developed classes for children and day-care like judo, then I would understand. Statistically, judo numbers increased dramatically because parents who didn’t know what to do with their children registered them. But this is not the case for aikido. So I do not see how, or else I missed part of the story, that core number could have doubled or tripled. I question the statistics. I’m not saying I’m right, I’m just saying I have my doubts. That’s my first point.
The second point is why France? I think there are many more judoka in France than in the rest of Europe and the United States, karateka too, and there are more kendoka in France than elsewhere. I believe there is something a little special in the French spirit that is consistent with martial arts. I gave a lecture in Japan as part of the 150th anniversary of the Franco-Japanese friendship. The French Embassy had invited me to give a conference on budo and the French spirit. I gave the conference in French with an interpreter. Maybe there is something in the French spirit, I don’t know, I can’t detect it. I’m French so it’s difficult for me to know. I know that in general the French are quarrelsome, generally pretentious, and arrogant… (laughs). But it’s true! I’m telling you this because whenever I meet them abroad they bother me. I’m ashamed, particularly in Japan where I’m ashamed to say that I am French. They don’t respect anything. Does this encourage them? It is a little ambiguous. Maybe they know they are so unruly that they need Japanese discipline? That was my case. I was so disorderly that I really needed a strict framework. Perhaps that’s why I was drawn to him and why the French are drawn to Japanese martial arts. I don’t know. Or else it’s the opposite; they’re so full of fight, so impulsive that in the end it suits them. I do not know.
We would like to acknowledge the assistance of Andrea Debiasi for his role in organizing and editing this interview for publication on Aikido Journal.