Not long ago, I got the opportunity to have a chat with one of the most notorious female Aikido experts, Micheline Tissier, who holds the rank of 6th dan Aikikai. She was the amongst the first European women to get awarded such a high grade by Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba. She is also one of the too rare women that occupy a technical function within their federation. I was absolutely delighted when she accepted to answer my questions and discovered that she was of a very direct and honest character, never dodging a question and she often surprised me with the sharpness of the views she expressed on many subjects.
Guillaume Erard: You started practicing Aikido at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. What brought you to Tokyo and why did you switch to Aikido after years practicing dance?
Micheline Tissier: Some family problems led my parents to send me off to Tokyo where my brother was living. I was 15 and although dance was not my main activity, my teacher was however suggesting me to pursue this career. I was actually mainly into athletics and my specialty was the 1200m. I kept on jogging everyday until I was 40.
G. E.: We know quite well how classes are run in Tokyo but we know less how beginners are taught in the Aikido headquarters. How is the instruction compared to France where the pedagogic system is very elaborate?
M.T.: The practice of Aikido was in fact a requirement for my obtaining of a student visa. I spent two months of compulsory beginner’s classes that are run on the first floor. I can’t really say that it was a very enjoyable experience since during these classes; we used to learn mainly steps, ukemi and shiko (walk on the knees). It did not seem to bother the Sensei at all to have us walk around the dojo in suwari waza for an hour until they found it satisfactory. Obviously, at this rate, my knees and the top of my feet were very badly damaged and because I was practicing every day, healing was impossible.
It was particularly difficult for me to see the happy faces of the other French guys after the regular classes upstairs. I did not understand because I personally did not enjoy it at all.
G.E.: Does that practice in Japan bring something special to your Aikido?
M.T.: The Aikido that is taught in Japan is the same as the one we practice in France so I cannot see anything that my practice in Japan brought me that I could not have learnt or developed in France. Well, that being said, perhaps it has to be said that my time in Tokyo got me pretty proficient in suwari waza (laughs)!
G.E.: You were facing a multiple challenge, you were a beginner, a foreigner and a woman in a particularly men-driven society; did you have particular difficulties? What was the attitude of the other practitioners towards you?
M.T.: I never felt any peculiar sign of hostility, the Japanese were very kind and the fact that I was a woman did not change anything, but I was perhaps a bit too young to notice anything. It is true that at that time, there were not that many foreigners in Japan so a blond girl with long hair did not go unnoticed (laughs)! I was living with a Japanese family who had a son of about the same age as I was but I only managed to get him to talk to me a few times, sometimes under the pressure of his father who liked France very much (laughs).
G.E.: Which teachers did you particularly like in Japan?
M.T.: I was practicing mainly with Seijuro Masuda and Norihiko Ichihashi Sensei who were both a little bit more accessible towards beginners. It is only later on that I dared to go to Seigo Yamaguchi and Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei’s classes.
G.E.: You met Christian Tissier in Tokyo; did you expect to meet other French people at the Hombu Dojo?
M.T.: I was totally into the French community of Aikidoka in Japan. My very first class was with Christian Tissier (in Japan, we stay the whole hour with the same partner) who was the sempai of all the foreigners present at the time, including my brother and a few other French people.
G.E.: Being Christian Tissier’s kohai, did you get to practice Kashima Shin Ryu kenjutsu in Japan?
M.T.: No, I had never practiced weapons in Japan; I started in France with Christian.
G.E.: When you returned to France, you got married to Christian and you stayed together for 22 years. As an Aikido instructor, did you feel that you had to stay in the shadow of your husband?
M.T.: I started teaching Aikido 11 years after our return from Japan. It was in Vincennes in 1989, we had two classes running simultaneously (I think it is still the case), one for mixed levels and one for the beginners where they had to stay for about 3 months like in Japan. Christian gave me the beginner’s classes but I only earned his trust when the beginners, after three months with me refused to go to his class (laughs)!
The following year, we moved to the South of France because our son had serious asthma problems in Paris. I resumed teaching only in 1997 after we separated in the dojo we had opened on the port of Nice.
To answer the question, given the situation, staying in the shadow of Christian was never a problem but it is obvious that he has always been my Sensei whether or not I was a teacher myself and I think that the role of a Sensei’s wife is to stay away form the spotlight, particularly in the Japanese system.
G.E.: Do you travel back to Japan much?
M.T.: No, not since Yamaguchi Sensei passed away.
G.E.: You received your shodan from Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei; did you have to « adapt » your Aikido to what was being practiced in France at the time?
Your question will probably make a few people smile (laughs). No, once again, I believe that the Aikido being practiced in France and in Japan is the same. We were in the same organization as Tamura Sensei and obviously, we were attending his seminars. It is during one of them that I took my shodan test. Gradings always took place at the end of the courses. I had not been warned previously and Christian just called me and said “you are going for shodan today, right now”. I therefore went for it without any special preparation.
Regarding grades, I always trusted Christian completely; I never prepared any of the examinations I took. Whenever he reckoned that the time had come, I took the test. I think that is totally normal from a teacher.
G.E.: All the people who I have talked to and have practiced with Christian Tissier at the time point out his extremely demanding attitude, even his severity. Was it the same for you?
I think that my current level is the direct consequence of that. Christian was very hard at the time, hard on himself and of course hard on others. He was totally into the Japanese system and did not let the students get away with anything. Unlike many other Sensei’s wives, I did not choose to practice Aikido casually and therefore, I underwent the same treatment as the other students, it was my choice. The seminars were much longer at the time, 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the afternoon, 12 hours on a weekend. This added to the regular training of 2 hours per day minimum, it was pretty intense.
I must credit myself with the fact that in addition to his strictness I also did what was necessary to achieve my goals.
In fact, Aikido kind of united us on some levels but took us apart on others aspects. It was not always easy to be severely reprimanded on the tatami and then go home and pretend that everything was fine.
G.E.: You said earlier that you started Aikido as an obligation for getting a visa, when did you actually decide to dedicate your life to this discipline?
M.T.: I never really decided to dedicate myself to Aikido, my temper is such that when I decide to undertake something, I do it 100%, it was the same for athletics and dance which I practiced to a professional level since I was replacing the club’s teacher when necessary.
G.E.: As the wife of a Sensei, did you have to work harder to be considered as the equal of the other practitioners? How did you deal with the hierarchical relationship?
I never perceived the things like that. It was hard for me and it was hard for them on the mat, there was actually a lot of solidarity between us. All the people who stayed with Christian until now are really appreciative of what he gave them for their Aikido, in spite of his harshness. It is the same for me, the exigency he had towards me gave obvious results, perhaps at the expense of our couple, but I did not have to accept.
About the hierarchy, it was not always easy but I accepted it as long as it did not escape the dojo. We have a lot of respect for each other and beside this strict aspect of his personality, he is a very kind man, and particularly honest.
G.E.: Let’s now focus on Aikido practice. I remember an advert from your federation, the FFAAA where it was written: “Any Aikido technique can be performed by a woman but she will not necessarily do it the same way as a man”. Do you agree? Do women have to undertake an adaptation work to perform a technique demonstrated by a man?
I don’t really see why a woman could not execute a movement in the same manner as a man. Is it because we are more fragile? Have less muscle? Perhaps this has to be taken into account but what about a 50kg man facing a 90kg opponent? Is it really the gender that affects the technique?
If you take the issue the other way, what would my male students have to do (laughs)? No, obviously, women can practice the same Aikido as men and no adaptation is necessary when a male Sensei shows a technique. It has to be that way; otherwise it would mean that there is one Aikido for men and one for women.
During all my study of Aikido the question never aroused. Man or woman, the best practitioners are the on who understand the quickest, the ones who have the most precise techniques, the fastest moves etc.
G.E.: In this same booklet, it was written that women showed more perseverance than men at the same level. What do you think this means?
M.T.: All I know is that the practitioners I knew at the time became professional teachers or respected technicians so I don’t think that I had more perseverance than them, we all achieved the same result.
G.E.: Henry Kono once said to me that O Sensei often said that « only women are doing Aikido » because they seem to understand quicker the non-opposing nature of Aikido. What is your take on that?
M.T.: Perhaps the only advantage that women have is that they can’t put as much strength in a technique and therefore have to do more natural motions but after a few years, I am not even convinced that it stays true. I frankly think that once again, it is not down to the gender. Everybody understands the non-opposition nature of Aikido but eventually, it is those who are the most dedicated who get the best results.
G.E.: When abroad it is question of women practicing Aikido, names such as Virginia Mayhew (recently passed away); Mary Heiny and Patricia Hendricks come most often. Have you ever met any one of them and got the change to share your approaches?
M.T.: I did meet Patricia Hendricks in Canada about 15 years ago when she came to interview Christian during a course he was giving. He actually gave a joint course very recently in San Francisco and Patricia Hendricks was amongst the teachers. I have never met Virginia Mayhew or Mary Heiny so we never got the chance to share our views unfortunately.
G.E.: Your celebrity in France means that people probably don’t come to your dojo randomly. Do you have more women in you dojo than in the dojos where a man is teaching?
M.T.: When we opened the dojo in Nice, it is what we assumed would happen but in the end, I have to say that my dojo is really not unlike any the other dojo, I have are more men than women, practicing with me.
G.E.: You received the 6th dan Aikikai from the Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba in January 2007. You are the first woman to receive such a high grade. Do you consider yourself as a model for women who wish to practice a martial art?
M.T.: Yes of course, for the ones who wish to start as well as for the ones who already practice. In fact, during seminars, the proportion of women is much more important than in regular classes. They often say to me that they are glad to have a high ranked female; they ask me a lot of questions and often encourage me which is really nice.
G.E.: You often teach kids classes and it seems to me that you have developed quite an elaborate pedagogic system relying on cards and mental images. What are, according to you, the benefits of the practice of Aikido at such a young age?
I think that you are referring to an article I did for Aikido Magazine where I explained how I was teaching kids and made sure they learned the techniques but to be honest with you, children’s classes have never been my priority and I greatly prefer adult’s classes. However, when you are in charge of a dojo, you have to take the students as an ensemble.
Aikido is an education system and based on this, children learn respect towards others (comrades and teacher), respect of the dojo, of the material, ethics etc. They learn to share and it is a really beneficial physical activity on the condition to pay a lot of attention in doing things right. In my own dojo, I only accept children from 9 years old on. I think that 9 is the minimum age to start practicing Aikido, the ideal being 11 in my opinion.
G.E.: Some experts say that a child benefits more of a collective and competitive practice in the early stages of its development and that only under the light of these experiences he should make the choice to apprehend an individual, non-competitive practice. What is you opinion?
M.T.: Obviously, the most mature a child is, the better it is because Aikido is a very difficult and exigent art. In fact, I don’t think that it is adapted to small children, some teachers might tell you otherwise but that is currently quote a hot debate (laughs).
G.E.: You are one of the very few women to occupy a technical position within one of the two state recognized federations. Could you explain to us your role within the FFAAA?
M.T.: We are indeed only three women. We are part of the technical staff of the federation and it means that we can be chosen for the exams juries. The different regional leagues can also summon us to teach seminars etc. We can also be appointed technical directors of a given region.
G.E.: With such an important number of female practitioners within the federations, how come you are so few at a technical post?
M.T.: Perhaps this comes from the fact that we have no competitions. In judo or karate for example, women have been recognized and given technical responsibilities because earlier they were champions. In Aikido, we had to fight a little bit more and I think that our merit is even greater. As far as I am concerned, I know that some league presidents have made the demand to the federation to appoint me for seminars.
G.E.: More than a year after your appointment by the Doshu to the rank of 6th dan, I am surprised to see that you are still ranked as a 5th dan by the GSDGE (French grade commission). Could you explain to us how this system works and why one grade does not automatically follow the other? [Note that Micheline Tissier was finally awarded the 6th dan from the GSDGE in the second semester 2008].
M.T.: In theory, there is a protocol with Japan that says that no Japanese grade can be awarded if the person does not hold the French grade first. There are however a few exceptions, in particular for people who lived in Japan and got their grades directly from the Doshu. In my case, the Doshu awarded me the yondan in 1990, France then recognized this grade several months after. For the fifth and sixth dan, it was the same. I am therefore waiting on the federal commission to regularize my situation. That being said, my relation with the Doshu goes back to 1976 so I was really happy to receive this grade from him.
G.E.: Your dojo in Puget sur Argens welcomes many practitioners from different organizations. Is this open mindedness from the practitioners, who constitute the “base” of the pyramids that are the federation, an example to follow?
M.T.: Yes of course. Penalizing the practitioners does not resolve anything in the conflicts. I welcome everybody in my dojo, whatever federation they are from because I think that Aikidoka don’t have to suffer from the political issues that don’t concern them at all. Yes I think it is an example to follow but I don’t think that it will help to go beyond the federal conflict.
G.E.: Let’s talk now about your personal practice. What are the specificities of what you are proposing to the practitioners?
M.T.: I have absolutely no pretensions on that level, I just teach them what I have been taught, while putting in it a good atmosphere, good humor, my personality, a lot of basics and a few applications.
G.E.: From a personal point of view, what are the principles that you are trying to develop or perfect at the moment?
M.T.: To practice Aikido when you are a woman is not always easy. I have been “tested” many times, particularly during seminars because I was Christian’s wife and then in my own seminars. Nowadays, I just want to practice for myself, I don’t have to prove anything to anybody except myself. I try to make my practice fluid and just and I always find new applications to share with my students. My greatest concern now is to make everybody feel well on my tatami and I think that it is the case. As I said before, there is a lot of joy and good humor in my dojo.
G.E.: After more than 30 years practicing Aikido, what pushes you to still step on the mat, is it the teaching or is it your personal practice?
M.T.: Both, teaching is the outcome of so many years of practice and research. I like to share and give what I have found and that people are searching for. Personal research is to constantly look for new applications or combinations while saying to oneself that it is never finished. On that respect, Aikido is pretty exceptional I think.
A seminar in Turin in 2014
G.E.: We were talking earlier about the fact that you regularly welcome practitioners from the FFAB, the other ministry recognized federation. Do you think that there are fundamental differences in the practice that both of these groups are proposing?
M.T.: I have always practiced Aikido for pleasure, whichever the group, Aikido stays Aikido and I think that there are sometimes as many fundamental differences between what teachers from a same group than teachers from different organizations.
G.E.: People come to Aikido for many different reasons, but what, in your opinion, makes them stay for many years?
M.T.: Probably the fact that there are no competitions as such, the only competition being with oneself: always better, always more but for oneself. They also probably stay because of the balance that Aikido brings to everyday life. Finally, I am sure that what I was describing earlier: good atmosphere, good humor and the sense of family have something to do with it (laughs)!
G.E.: To finish, is there a message that you would like to address to the readers?
M.T.: I wish the very best to all Aikidoka on the long journey that is in front of them; don’t loose confidence because the road requires a lot of commitment.
Pictures by Bruno Mathis
Article by Guillaume Erard originally published in English on GuillaumeErard.com
Micheline Tissier’s Official website
Interview with Christian Tissier