At an early age you moved to Belgium with your family. During this time you had your beginnings in Aikido. Can you tell us about this time and its impact on you and your future in Aikido? What relationships did you develop there?
Jorge Rojo: Truthfully, I first started my Aikido training not just to learn a martial art, but because I also wanted to protect my family. Between 1970 and 1972 in Chile, there was a strong climate of social and political instability. There was violence everywhere in the streets. During those years there were a multitude of demonstrations against or in favor of the president Salvador Allende. There were people who would intimidate others who didn’t think like them. I was greatly affected by one episode where I had to see my mother defending herself using a chair.
Motivated by the political situation in Chile, and taking advantage of the possibility that my father, a noted mathematician, could finish his doctoral thesis in Belgium, we moved to the Louvain La Neuve. At that time, I continued my basic education at the College du Biéreau.
My father, who always supported me in my studies and joined me in all my activities, looked for a martial art that would suit me, because the only one that we found in Chile was Karate, and we were not particularly attracted to it. In College du Biereau, there was a teacher who was leading an Aikido workshop for kids; she was the mother of one of my classmates Marc Gonze. Madame Nicole Gonze had the rank of 2nd Dan in Aikido, her husband, Monsieur André Gonze was the treasurer of the European Aikido Federation, and he was a close friend of Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei.
It was in Marc’s house where I had my first contact with the Japanese culture. At breakfast time I used to see Tamura Sensei, dressed with his “yukata”, and he always said to me in French (with a Japanese accent) “Bonjour, bien dormi?” (Hello, did you sleep well?). On other occasions when I stayed in the Gonze family’s house, I had the chance to meet Kazuo Chiba Sensei and other family friends. In my opinion, Marc was very lucky to have all those important guests!
Madame Nicole Gonze, in her eagerness to promote Aikido amongst the children, used to take five of the most committed kids to international seminars during the weekends. The “stages” were in different countries in Europe, and we always traveled with her in her car. We trained with teachers such as Katsuaki Asai, Nobuyoshi Tamura, Kazuo Chiba, Minoru Kanetsuka, Dedobbeleer, and many others.
In 1976 when you returned to Chile, how did you continue your Aikido practice? Please tell us about your travels and how you founded Aikikai Chile in 1978.
Before I returned to Chile, my father was concerned that I would continue my Aikido training. He knew that in my country probably no one would know anything about Aikido. He spoke with Madame Nicole Gonze, and she suggested that she could train me, at only 12 years old, to lead the Aikido classes in Chile. In that way, we assumed as a family the challenge of developing and promoting this beautiful discipline in our country. My father, studying and exposing the attributes and benefits of this wonderful art, and me, training and teaching, and also my mother, who was in charge of making the keiko gis and hakamas. (Madame Nicole was the one who taught my mom how to make them.)
When we finally did return to Chile, we realized, in fact, that Aikido was not known, so we decided to establish the “Chilean Cultural Center of Aikido Aikikai.” Among the members, there were my father’s friends and their children, my friends, my cousins and other relatives (we were a huge family). They were all very motivated by what I was teaching, and since I was a little kid, many adults supported me with a lot of enthusiasm.
In 1978, with help of the Gonze family and Tamura Sensei, we founded Aikikai Chile, and we were authorized by the current legislation in our country. At this time, we made contact with Chiba Sensei, who in those days had a role within the IAF (International Aikido Federation), who in turn put me in contact with Monsieur Guy Bonnefond, who was president of the IAF. In 1979, our organization was a direct member of the International Aikido Federation, with the recognition of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo.
The founding members of Aikikai Chile lived the most courageous, altruistic, and rewarding time of Aikido in Chile. To be a pioneer demanded a big sacrifice; we had to make everything on our own. The mats were made of canvas and sawdust. We had to train in a shed, and when we didn’t have a place to train, we just did it outside. We did ukemi on floors that were not necessarily optimal. All of these things made us feel that the dojo was our second home. I remember how my mother used to spoil us after our training with a Chilean style dinner (which we call “onces”) and sometimes with waffles and crêpes in the European tradition.
At that time, we made strong ties of friendship which last until today, and created the gravitational force that allowed Aikido to bloom in Chile.
You also developed a close relationship with Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei. What was your relationship like and what was your experience studying with him?
I think Tamura Sensei had a lot of expectations for me, because he knew me since I was a young child. He opened the doors of his home, treating me like another member of the family. He taught me and he saw how Aikido was growing in me, year after year. And through me, Tamura Sensei could understand my country, the political situation, the culture, and all the challenges that we had to go through to keep Aikido alive. He became very close to my family, especially my father, with whom he had the opportunity to exchange ideas of Japanese culture in parallel with the mathematical physical science vision that my father had. For me, it represented the union of two worlds that I was constantly studying: Aikido and Science.
While training in Europe, you received your Shodan at the age of sixteen, your Nidan at eighteen, and by the time you were nineteen you were appointed associate professor of the French Federation of Aikido and the European Federation of Aikido. Who were your main teachers at this time and what was the training like for you?
Concerned with my progress and technical improvement, my father and Madame Gonze agreed that I had to continue training with her and other teachers. So during my summer vacation in Belgium, I lived in the city of Rixensart in her home. At this point, she gave me the rank of 1st Kyu. Then in 1977, Madame Gonze sent me to the home of a good friend of hers, Sensei Jean Marie Castillón, who was the Regional Technical Delegate of Tamura Sensei’s federation, and one of his closest assistant teachers. Sensei Jean Marie Castillón was a close neighbor of Sensei Claude Pellerin, in the town of Saint Maximin la Sainte Baûme.
The first time, I stayed with Sensei Jean Marie Castillón for 15 days, where I had classes with him and had the chance to meet his family: Madame Marie Jose, his daughter Elodie, and his son Jean Christophe. All of them practiced Aikido. Elodie introduced me to her whole group of friends as well as Pellerin Sensei’s children, and Tamura Sensei’s children: Nobumichi, Yoshimichi, and Masamichi Tamura (and of course Madame Tamura). I developed a close friendship with Nobumichi, due in part to Aikido, and also our common interests in collecting fossils and shells. Tamura Sensei always saw our friendship as a very positive thing, and he invited me to train Aikido in the University of Aix en Provênce, and thus, little by little I started to train directly with Tamura Sensei.
The next year, Madame Gonze, Sensei Jean Marie Castillón and my father decided that I should go directly to Saint Maxîmin and stay at Sensei Castillón’s house. There I had many opportunities to train directly with Sensei Tamura in different dojos and seminars. I remember the many times I travelled as copilot to one of the dojos that Tamura Sensei used to go the most, Sensei Jeannot’s dojo in Marseille Marignane.
I remember fondly in 1979, while I was travelling with Sensei Castillón to the many seminars he was teaching in the South of France, he would always introduce me saying that I would probably pass my first dan test in front of Tamura Sensei before going back to my country. Therefore for me this seemed to be a fact, so I sent a letter to my family and told them about Sensei Castillón’s enthusiasm. At the end of my stay there, Tamura Shihan found that I was too young to be first dan, so he did not promote me. (I was only 15 years old.) Again I sent a letter to my family explaining the new situation, but unfortunately I arrived back in Chile before my letter did! To my big surprise, I saw all family and friends at the airport, where they were waiting for me with banners saying: “Welcome, First Shodan of Aikido in Chile!” I still remember that, with a bit of shame I said in my father’s ear “…take away those banners, I’m not yet a first dan.” My father gave me a big hug, and said it doesn’t matter because it would happen the next year. After explaining to everyone else what happened, we started working hard and united in our daily training. Although my level was much improved, it was not enough in the eyes of Tamura Shihan. The next year, in my first training with Tamura Shihan at the Aix Dojo in Provence, he took me as uke and after a while, with a gesture of approval and joy he said “Very good, first dan!” This time, I made sure I phoned Chile to communicate Tamura Sensei’s decision to my family.
Another important milestone of this era was Jean Marie Castillón Sensei’s visit to Chile in 1980, in which he led a ten-day seminar in Santiago. On that occasion, we had the great opportunity to share with him many parts of our country. His visit left us with a great foundation for our development as aikidokas. From his hands I received my Shodan, 1st Dan Aikikai.
Generally, my training in France lasted two months at a time. Tamura Sensei and my other teachers provided me with classes and seminars every week of my stay and even private lessons. Every day I had training in either Brignoles, Aix en Provence, Marseille Marignane, Orange, Toulon, and other locations. During weekdays, I usually practiced between 4 and 5 hours a day. On occasion I had the chance to have classes with many important teachers from the FFAB, like Jean Paul Avy, Claude Noble, Paul Müller, to name a few. Day after day I took notes of what was learned in each class, this offered me a written guide of my experiences when working with students in Chile.
In some way, everybody knew the effort, human and economic, that my family made for the development of Aikido in Chile. Training every day was a big challenge, technically and physically, because Sensei chose me as uke very often.
Regarding my second dan at age 18, I remember that Tamura Shihan decided to grant this recognition, I believe due to my perseverance in the art and my subsequent improvement from shodan. Being named Fukushidoin, associated teacher of the European Aikido Federation, was just the official certification of a very personal decision that was made a long time before to develop and commit myself as a teacher and a transmitter of the art of Aikido in my country. In this regard, I remember having completed at least on two occasions the specific courses of Brevet d’Etat Francais of Aikido. I think the level of excellence of the federations of Aikido in France, for technical and teacher training, was certainly a point of reference and a role model for our own country. However, I must make it clear that during this time my main teacher was Tamura Shihan, who opened the doors of his home, where I was part of his family and I was fortunate to learn about their lifestyle.
Who awarded you your sandan and yondan?
I tested for my sandan in in 1985 in Lesneven, France, when I was 21 years old. My test was in front a commission with Nobuyoshi Tamura and Seiichi Sugano. I tested for Yondan in New York alongside Donovan Waite. Shihan Yoshimitsu Yamada gave the test, and I was under the authorization of Shihan Tamura, who introduced me to Sensei Yamada in 1985.
Next you studied under Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei and spent some time in New York. How was the experience and was the Aikido very different from what you experienced in Europe?
I sincerely believe that the foundation of Aikido that I had learned with Tamura Sensei was very good, however it was necessary to apply certain adaptations because of the different sizes of people who practice Aikido in the United States. I would say that one of the differences between the Aikido we practiced in France under the teaching of Tamura Shihan versus in the U.S. at the New York Aikikai is that in France we used a more vertical concept, meaning spontaneous changes in height which resulted in empty spaces, and we also had a notorious foundation in the weapons system, while in New York there was a very visible development of rotating techniques with less emphasis on the use of weapons (bokken and jo), except for classes of Sugano Sensei integrating the use of weapons.
From 1985 to 1988 you lived in Panama. Please tell us what brought you there and how you ended up bringing Aikido to Panama.
I lived in Panama City, Republic of Panama from April 1981 to March 1987. The reason for the relocation of my family was that my father was hired by UNIPANBID in a joint agreement between the InterAmerican Development Bank IDB with the National University of Panama, to develop the Master in Mathematics in Central America and the Caribbean.
Discovering that Aikido did not exist in Panama was a major inconvenience for my training. Therefore, I knew I must also train and motivate new students. Our family began the process of diffusion of the discipline, first in the Department of Physical Education at the National University of Panama. From that initial group we began to get many people interested in the practice of Aikido. In 1982, we founded the Cultural Center of Panama Aikikai Aikido. We ended up having numerous practice sites. We held many demonstrations throughout the country, and in 1985 founded the Cultural Association Aikikai Aikido and Budo of Panama. My practice of Aikido was strongly linked to the National University of Panama, because during this time I was studying mathematics. After six years in Panama, in 1986, we invited Yoshimitsu Yamada Shihan to dictate an international seminar, in which he examined and successfully graduated to Shodan seven students I had prepared.
Upon your return to Chile from Panama, you have organized and technically supervised numerous dojos all over the country, in addition to regularly offering seminars in different regions. Please describe your current network in Chile, and can you estimate how many dojos have opened under your guidance?
That’s right, when we returned from Panama, my family consolidated the organization of the “Cultural Center Aikido Aikikai Chile” and we made our headquarters in Santiago City. The teaching of Aikido was not limited to the city; we began to spread out to other regions of the country.
With all of those dojos, it was possible to create different clubs, and in 1998, the clubs together created the Chilean Aikido Association (ACHA). This organization made it possible that in 2001 Aikido was recognized by the Chilean government through the National Institute of Chilean Sport. Thus Aikido had the support of the government in every sporting project.
Now our organization has grown as FEDENACHAA (Chilean National Sport Federation of Aikido Aikikai). It consists of more than fifteen clubs throughout the whole country, many training centers, in 8 different regions of Chile.
Also due to my long involvement of Aikido in Chile, it was inevitable that I contributed in the growth of other Aikido organizations, because many of those teachers have also been former students of mine. I think Chile has a good representation of several lines of Aikido, and really good international quality teachers. That pleases me greatly because you can see that what we started one day is not going to stop.
In addition to your 6th Dan and title of Hombu Shihan, you were also given 3rd Dan in Iwama Ryu Aikido from Morihiro Saito Sensei and you have some practice in Daito Ryu. How has your training influenced your technical execution and teaching? How do you impart this on to your students?
I have been examined at the level of 3rd Dan in weapons by the Iwama system, directly from Morihiro Saito Sensei. He awarded me the diploma, and additionally Saito Sensei named me Shidosha in Aikido Iwama Ryu style. I make the observation that I have no degree in relation to Daito Ryu, I’ve only had the opportunity to share a few weeks of training at the dojo of Sensei Katsuyuki Kondo.
I think having practiced in the traditions of Iwama Ryu Aikido and Daito Ryu has allowed me to understand more about the essential principles of “Aiki.” This information has allowed me to develop a training program to understand from an experiential perspective, the differences and similarities in all the elements and milestones that probably were part of the genesis of what we know today as modern aikido.
You often say in your dojo you are researching Aikido. Please explain.
For me, Aikido is a living entity that is constantly evolving. This is only possible through study, experimentation and active pursuit of development, both individual and collective, of all those interested in this art. I consider it particularly relevant to promote research among teachers. As transmitters of Aikido, they should be enthusiastic explorers who inculcate this principle within their students, inside a framework of respect, tolerance and harmony. In this regard, my invitation is open to the exchange of experiences and training as a facilitator for mutual growth.
What does receiving the title of Shihan signify for you?
For me, to have received the title of Shihan means two things: a great honor and a great responsibility. It was the Doshu of Aikido who gave me this recognition, and I must live up to the expectation … I think if there is anything that I could transmit into the role of “a model teacher” is that, as teachers we must never lose the spirit of the beginning student, who marvels and loves training every day; to feel in our own body the renewed essence of movement.
What is your vision regarding Aikido in Chile?
My vision is that in the future all Aikido organizations in the country will have much contact with each other.
The first step is in the relationships between the teachers, because they are the ones who will transmit the culture, cultivate social relationships, and Budo maintaining the message of this big family of Aiki that O’Sensei created.
My deepest wish with the Chilean Aikido is that all of us can work together in harmony and that we can one day bring Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba or Waka Sensei Mitsuteru Ueshiba and enjoy their presence in our country as a great Aikido family.
For about the last decade, your studies and technical concerns have been guided by Christian Tissier Shihan. You are also considered one of his close teachers of the “Cercle Tissier. ” Can you please tell us how your Aikido has evolved under his guidance, and what his friendship means to you.
I met Sensei Christian Tissier for the first time at the Congress of the IAF in Katsuura, in 1996, and have cultivated a friendship with him since 2002. In that year, Sensei Tissier visited Chile for the first time, and since then he has been visiting and teaching seminars for virtually 14 uninterrupted years. This is proof of his level of commitment to the Aikido in Chile, as well as his unconditional friendship and impeccable professionalism.
In my point of view and from a technical perspective, he is someone who is constantly evolving and researching, and he expresses technical excellence in every gesture. Sensei Tissier is very cordial makes those who come into contact with him feel welcome. For me, it is an honor to be his student and even more to be considered a teacher of his inner circle.
I think Sensei Tissier is very generous to those who have a genuine interest in his vision of Aikido, especially if he perceives their level of professionalism and commitment to what he is teaching. Also, he is the kind of teacher who provides freedom that many of us (students) need to grow, respecting the free will of our decisions. This, in someway, allows us to grow and become adults in Aikido. Additionally, through his friendship he will provide you with very assertive and wise reflections. Shihan Tissier shares with us the way of “personal growth.”
In light of the above I think my Aikido, has begun to evolve positively, with more refined and clean movements, less confrontational, more harmonious, or rather more empowered in harmony. Personally, I think one assumes a more methodical and consistent approach with the purpose of achieving purity of gesture in the movement .
6th National Encounter of Chilean Aikido : https://youtu.be/Qs4wa14Kkp0
Demonsration in Tanabe, Japan (2008): https://youtu.be/XAbZoxvRJsA