Even though this interview was made last year in December, it is released now, in year of celebrations for Quaranta shihan. He was promoted 7.DAN Aikikai at Kagami biraki ceremony in January this year. It is also, the 20th anniversary since he began teaching in Serbia. He shared with us in this big interview many personal stories and lessons he received through life. We hope that you’ll enjoy reading it as much as we did making it.
Seishin Aikido: When did you start aikido, and how this happened?
Michele Quarnta: In the 1970s a lot of Bruce Lee films were released and I really like them. At that time I was training only football and I was looking for something to express my physicality. Bruce Lee practiced Jeet Kun Do so I wanted the same. I started looking for a place where kung fu was practiced, but there wasn’t such a place in Basel at the time. However, the idea about practicing a martial art was born.
At the time I worked in a bank, and we had 15-minute breaks every day. During one of the breaks, I got out of my office and took stairs to go to the first floor. While I was walking alone upstairs someone was coming towards me. After he said “Hello”, he added “You need to practice aikido”. This, of course, made me curious and I asked him” What is aikido?”. He told me that aikido is a martial art and gave me short explanation. Then he said “Look, I’m sure that you are a person who needs to practice aikido”. He practiced aikido in France and he knew there was an aikido dojo in Basel. He promised to find out about it and take me there and I said, “OK, why not?”.
We went to the dojo next evening and I watched the training. I said to myself “This is exactly what I want to do”. I liked the atmosphere and the type of movement I saw. A few weeks later I asked around the bank for him but he had quit his job a week after our encounter and he was not working in the bank any longer. I didn’t even know his name. I asked everyone about him and they all told me the same “I know him. He doesn’t work here anymore”. After several years of practice, I tried to find him, but I couldn’t. He was somebody who appeared in my life and changed it, because aikido changed my life. I am still wondering how this person knew that I need to practice aikido but I never had a chance to speak with him again
SA: That was in 1972 and you were 19 years old when you started to train…
MQ: I started to train in Aikikai Basel and the beginning was very hard. We didn’t know anything and people didn’t really care if beginners understood or not. They just asked to be attacked “Grab me” and then they threw you. They didn’t teach you how to roll (ukemi) and knowledge was quite limited. Others didn’t want to train with a beginner and two ladies who trained there “adopted” me. At first, I was learning from the women, they helped me understand the lessons and what I needed to do. It was a very good experience, we trained very hard.
I had trained other sports (football and athletics) before and my body intelligence was fully developed. That made me a fast learner. The other thing that helped me progress fast was my deep interest in aikido. However, Werner Hinterman was the person who helped me understand aikido in its essence. He was a teacher in Aikikai Basel dojo. Before he started to train aikido, he trained judo and jiu jitsu. He practiced for a very long time. I think he was 4th Dan in jiu jitsu. He possessed very deep knowledge about Eastern philosophy and I think he started to train aikido because it is more spiritual than other martial arts. I became his uke very quickly and his private student, as well.
I used to walk with him to his home after every training, which was a 20- or 30-minute walk. I was always very curious and I had numerous questions, but he always had the patience to answer all of them. I had 100 questions and he gave me 100 answers. Maybe I could say that I understood the aikido philosophy and its spirit before I knew how to practice aikido.
At the time Hinterman was ill. He had Parkinson’s disease, so when he walked, he made very short steps, maybe 10cm long. On the other hand, when he was on tatami, he moved like a healthy person, but the moment he stepped out of it, he moved like somebody with Parkinson’s. Nobody could explain it, it was like a kind of magic. At the time, there was a physician training in the dojo, who later became my personal physician, and who made many analyses of Hinterman’s condition, but he couldn’t explain it either. He said that the fact he was able to move as a healthy, powerful person on tatami while he walked as a sick one in daily life was a miracle that couldn’t be explained.
He was a big example in my life. As an invalid he functioned as a normal person and you have normal people who behave as invalids. And that contrast gave me another view of the world and humanity. He was most important person in my aikido life and also my mentor. As you know, I am a foreigner in Switzerland, speaking another language, having different habits and lifestyle. Foreigners are always put on the side, at least for a little bit. But Hinterman never treated me like that and it was also a big contrast.
SA: I didn’t know this story. I have always thought that, as a sportsman, you were drown by martial part of aikido, not its spirituality?
MQ: When I started to train aikido, I was immediately confronted with situation that everything I do is always connected with a kind of philosophy. It was a new world for me. When somebody attacked me, I used to react immediately, and my intention was to hurt. I was looking for another way of handling confrontation. You know, when you create trauma to another person you create one to yourself, as well.
I started the martial art to protect myself. I think that people start training martial arts because they are afraid and not for any other reason. What could be another reason for starting martial arts? Consciously or not, people start doing martial arts because they want to lose the feeling of being scared. When you defend yourself, you react, but the reaction always comes from your frightened personality. Practicing martial arts changes this and you become more self-assured, more sensitive and more prepared for any situation.
SA: You trained football at the time you began training aikido, did it help you in aikido training?
MQ: I did train football at the same time. Football was my way of channeling my aggressivity and frustration. I was in great shape and that was a surprise to people who practiced aikido. It was more difficult to exhaust me than people who never practiced any sports. I was also very fast – not only that I could ran fast but I could also move fast.
On the other hand, it was very painful way of learning because nobody really understood aikido. Everybody had small book that Osensei wrote and everybody was fascinated by his philosophy, but it was very hard to live a philosophy in everyday life. Usually their philosophy went in one direction and their practice went in another one. They were never in accordance. I often thought “OK, I am 19 and as a 19-year-old, what can I do? I am strong now, I can withstand a lot of things, but what will happen when I turn 70? What happens then?” When you reach certain age, you start losing muscles every year. What happens then? You cannot answer with your strength anymore. That is the moment you begin to understand the aikido philosophy you’ve been listening about and the moment you understand you must practice in an efficient way. You must learn the way of practicing without using too much strength. You always have to use strength, but not too much. In order to be efficient, you really need to understand technology and the didactic theory of aikido, so I started researching aikido more deeply in this way.
At that time, we used to practice cutting for a whole hour during the winter. We gathered all the people who wanted the experience of doing suburies (cutting movement) for an hour on the first training every New year during season holidays. And an hour is a long (laugh) really long. We never counted, but at the end our hands were covered in blood. It was some kind of a purification ritual.
SA: When you compare the way you trained then to the way people train today, regarding all the differences in knowledge and effort put in training, do you think it is easier to train today?
MQ: Easy doesn’t exist. We all know that, but the awareness of that knowledge differs from person to person. There are difficulties at every age. We didn’t speak about the philosophy, we only practiced, practiced, practiced and maybe we discovered something during the practice. Practice was usually very painful since our techniques as ukes and tories were non-existed – they were just reactions. Take ukemies (rolling to the back and to the front), for example, when you do ukemi alone that is one expression, but wen you do it during a technique, in the movement, it’s completely another expression, they are not the same. That was something you learned while you did the movement itself, and in those days, we felt that after every training, after every lesson we were richer in knowledge. But these trainings were more opportunities for gaining experience, not real knowledge. This approach of getting everything from the training is not reserved only for Aikido but you need to understand that has to be an approach to everything else in life.
SA: Who were the first Japanese teachers you met?
MQ: The only Japanese master who was visiting us at the time was Tamura sensei, who lived in France. He visited our dojo once a year. For me, that felt like encountering the gods themselves. He knew how to throw me before I even moved and I couldn’t understand how he did that so easily because we were learned to grab a person as hard as we could. However, Tamura sensei throw me with easiness and softness. I understand that he knew a lot about biomechanics of human body and that he was a man of great experience. I liked him very much because he was always very gentle with people. He wasn’t the person who would say “You must.” He only proposed what he thought was a good to do. He was a very rare kind of people. He would answer to all of our questions. He moved a lot which was changed over the years, but in 1970s he was incredible.
SA: Did he explain a lot or he was the same as we imagine a Japanese teacher?
MQ: No, no, he was explaining, and not only on the tatami. He would also do the explaining off the tatami, after the training. You can’t ask everything on the tatami, but after the trainings, when we were sitting for dinner and drinks, he gave us some of his approach to life and aikido. All my memories of Tamura sensei are very pleasant.
SA: How many trainings did you have in a week, since you trained football and aikido simultaneously?
MQ: From the day I started aikido, I trained every day. I trained football in an amateur club two times a week and I trained aikido seven days a week. It was quite the effort, of course. The worse technique you have, the better shape you have to be in so you could have any result. When you increase the quality of the technique, you are able to use less of your physical stamina.
In the weekends, if I didn’t have any matches, I would go to the woods to do suburi. It was my regime during seven years. We had a fixed car tyre between two trees, but when you cut (hit ) it you need to stop the bokken in position when the tyre is bent. This was the way of learning the proper stance with bokken. At this time, I didn’t have enough money for the real bokken or hakama, so I took shovel handle and used it as bokken. That is how much money I had in those days (laugh). A hakama was very expensive, so we made hakama from Tergal (material similar to nylon) which would break if you step on it, but it was a way of having a hakama.
SA: I suppose you didn’t travel much in the beginning?
MQ: No, we didn’t travel in the beginning. However, around 1974 we went to Marseille, France. There were also seminars on the Atlantic coast. We would take few cars full of people and travel there. We would train, party all night, without any sleep train again in the morning and afterwards go back home for nearly 1000 km straight back to work next morning. It was very hard, but when you live in the comfort zone you can’t learn anything.
SA: That means that you had a good company?
MQ: Yes, we were fanatics. But we were aikido pioneers in Basel, and when you are a pioneer you don’t have a road and you have to build one. Cutting through the jungle – that what it means to be a pioneer.
I remember, when somebody had money to go to a seminar, he would give the training and pass his experience to others, after he came back. In those days, we didn’t have any grades (kyu). Our teacher was maybe shodan, but the shodan knowledge at the time and the shodan knowledge today are at completely different level. When I compare the examinations took in those days to the examinations people take today, I notice incredible increase in quality. The only thing we had in those days was the will power to voluntarily do all this to train aikido.
SA: Does some people from that generation still train?
MQ: Yes, yes. Jean-Claude Aegerter sensei (7th Dan Aikikai) is somebody who practiced in the same dojo and who helped me develop my knowledge. Some people do still train but it’s rare. You know, I am 65 Jean-Claude Aegerter is nearly 70 (laugh).
SA: You trained and learned from many Japanese masters before Ikeda sensei came to Switzerland. Can you share with us your impressions on training with them?
MQ: I had chance to train under Chiba sensei in France in those years. He was also coming to Netherlands. He really impressed me. He was tough, extremely tough. If you try to block him he would break you. However, when you move in accordance with the tori’s movement there is not much chance of being punched or broken. At that time we were practicing static kind of aikido. We would start from a static position and we block a part of the tori and he had to find a solution. That was, in fact, a way of using plenty of strength and neglecting the aikido technique.
After founding the ACSA, Fujimoto sensei, and later Tada sensei began to visit Switzerland. I was very fond of Fujimoto sensei. He was of the similar age to mine and he was 2nd or 3rd DAN at the time, while I was shodan. He was Tada sensei’s uke (assistant) and we trained together very often during seminars. His task was to prepare us physically. He gave extremely hard trainings which only preceded Tada sensei’s lessons. During those lessons we trained together. I used to train with him and with Nomoto sensei as well as others who came with Tada sensei. We followed Tada sensei’s and Fujimoto sensei’s way of learning for many years. I remember training with Fujimoto sensei was very demanding.
I remember an event that almost made me quit aikido, but the same experience made me reconsider and change my mind after only two hours. I was the second kyu, I think, and Tada sensei took me as an uke. I stood up immediately to attack him. I didn’t know what he was doing, but he threw me. I wanted to stand up. When I tried to, he threw me again. He threw me for about 4 or 5 times without I really felt any violence, but, at my astonishment, I wasn’t able to see him at all. I really couldn’t see him. I was shocked a little bit as I was walking out of the tatami. I think this seminar was in Bern, so I took the train back to Basel. I remember myself crying all the way back and saying to myself “I can’t learn aikido! The thing Tada does, I will never be able to do!”. When I got calmer after an hour and closer to Basel I thought “The goal is not to become Tada, the goal is to become myself!” That was the result of meditation during the whole travel. At the end, I realized “I need to discover myself, not somebody else inside of myself!” That was the moment I became certain that I wanted to go that way. So, I did! I did aikido and Ki no Renma (system of special breathing techniques) as well as Kokyu soren and many other things. I included visualization and all the Tada sensei’s teachings from seminars. And then, one day Tada sensei came to one week summer camp with Hosokawa sensei, Fujimoto sensei and Ikeda sensei.
SA: When was it?
MQ: That was in 1974 or 1975. That was the first time we heard that there was a possibility Ikeda sensei would come to live in Switzerland because he was married to a Swiss lady and had a child with her. He was supposed to become the ACSA technical director. He used to be very robust, strong person before he got sick.
One day he came to Basel Aikikai to give a lesson. He spoke Italian, and, since I am an Italian, I translated. He spoke Italian but with heavy Japanese accent, so I couldn’t understand him very well. However, I recognized his movements which gave sense to his words making me able to interpret. After the training we sat near to each other and we spoke about Naples, because he lived there and we enjoyed the moment.
It was 1977 and I was thinking about quitting aikido, since the experience didn’t satisfy me any longer. The reason was the same – the practice didn’t follow the philosophy. It is said to use the energy of uke, but I always felt that I could resist and stop the partner while they were executing the technique. Because of my experience in fighting and because of my character I was reluctant to accepting this approach. Still, I did, saying to myself “OK, these are the rules of this practice and I will accept them”, but I didn’t believe it was as efficient as everyone said. This was the situation when Ikeda came and started to explain techniques, as a graduate at the Physical Education University, in the way I could understand. This changed our approach to aikido and I decided to continue once again. Whenever I was in doubt someone appeared and helped me decide to continue
SA: You told us that once you thought about never to be his uke?
MQ: That was in 1984 or 1983. I am not quite sure about the year, but I do remember that there was an embukai in Milano. Ikeda sensei was doing embukai and Francesco (Marella 7.Dan) and Fritz (Heuscher 6.Dan) were his ukes. When I saw what he was doing with those two guys, I said “No, no, he doesn’t respect his ukes. This is too dangerous and I don’t want to be his uke, ever”. I had the respect for his movement but he didn’t wait for the uke to attack. He was just throwing them aside and I didn’t like the way it looked.
SA: You still trained in Basel Aikikia at the time?
MQ: Of course, I continued to train in Basel Aikikai and later i opened my dojo but I wasn’t his uke at the time. I think I wasn’t his personal uke until 1985 on Embukai in Milano, but I had experience from attending his trainings and I got used to it. His aikido was changed over the years. Later, when I became his uke, I understood that his expression had nothing to do with violence but with the lack of uke’s attack. When the uke is static, the tori can only throw them, and the two of them get into accordance only during the movement. Aikido that is taught and practiced is changed at that moment. The uke has been becoming more and more important. The reason we practice this kind of aikido today is not because tori can throw you the way he wants but because of the attack that gives the tori the potential to execute the technique.
In other martial arts, things are different – we close the distance, exchange several punches or kicks, then we go back and repeat everything. The essence of other martial arts is based on different values – you win some, you lose some. In aikido you never lose or make someone winner or loser. The tori never loses, the uke never loses, so there can’t be any winners, either. It’s very hard for most people to understand the lack of this duality in Aikido.
We need to understand that attack of the uke is also his defense. You can’t understand an attack only as an attack – it represents the uke’s skill to protect themselves in many ways. Uke protects themselves with proper posture, proper tai sabaki, and proper kokyu. Uke uses these skills for protection. You have to be in your center all the time to be able to properly answer to the tori. It is the moment when aikido stops being a miracle, when someone falls because the tori is so powerful and becomes science. It is the moment when aikido becomes something you can feel and touch, not magic.
When I understood this, my collaboration with Ikeda sensei became really intensive. I was learning a lot by being his uke only. The greatest pleasure in my practice is to be the uke, not the tori. Because I understood how much I can learn by being one.
SA: Your trained football at the same time and your football career took you to First league club?
MQ: I was 25 years old. I continued training football along with aikido when I received a proposition to take a three-week trail for the first division (Nationalliga, at that time) club – FC Nordstern Basel.I was preparing myself for it the whole winter. I frantically trained 8 or 9 hours a day and I didn’t have time to train aikido. I was running for kilometers and doing the sprints and I thought I was ready to take the trail. However, on the first day of the trial I thought I would die. The difference in the game between the fifth and the first division wasn’t large, but the rhythm was completely, completely different. It was much faster. I was crossing days in a calendar during the three weeks of the trial and for every day I wrote “I survived”.
After those three weeks I was offered a contract. There were twenty people who took the trial, but only three were offered contracts. We were all accepted in the first division team. That was a challenge for me. I practiced a martial art and I had the spirit of a martial artist. I was relying on it to help me survive in the first division and I succeeded.
However, my knowledge of the game or my technique weren’t at the first division level, but I had determination to succeed. I knew the challenge would break my body, since I started late. 25 years of age is late to make such a jump, but I had do it, though I felt knees pain as well as through the whole of my body. The usual way to get to the first division is to continually train from the childhood so your skills and knowledge can grow to the first division level, not the way I did it. Still, it was a beautiful experience and I’m not sorry about it.
There was a player named Miloš Radaković. He was from Serbia and he was an incredible person. When you play in the first division everything is faster, you must think faster, you must react faster, you must know to position yourself properly on the pitch. It’s incredible how you can make extraordinary progress in short time when you are put in such a situation. Radaković played the last man, libero (sweeper), and he directed all the people in front of him and he was telling me “Michele, move here, Michele, move there”. Sometimes I couldn’t understand why, since the ball was on other side of the pitch, but the ball used to always come to the place where he told me to be. He read the game perfectly and he knew where everyone needed to be so I learned from him how to position myself. He “adopted” me, so to say, and once again in my life there was a person who gave me the knowledge, the kind I never really had. This was similar to martial arts and he really was the master.
SA: How long did you play in the first league and did you score any goals?
MQ: I played for three years as central midfielder and defensive midfielder and I scored goals but that was not important. The important thing was the extraordinary experience I gained. Later, I was sold to another team, FC Laufen, and we won the championship (FC Laufen won the first league, in the season 1981/1982) That was another great experience. Afterwards, I became a football couch. That was the moment I stopped playing in the first division and started practicing aikido again.
These three years were the only break in aikido training that I’ve ever had. When you train professionally you train 2 times a day, but you also need to rest. If you know how to schedule the rest you can endure the next training. As a professional athlete you cannot eat whatever you like and you can’t drink any alcohol. All in all, you must really live the life of a monk.
SA: Very soon you opened your own dojo?
MQ: I opened my dojo in 1983. I worked in a bank and I decided to quit because I didn’t agree with the philosophy of the bank. For me, bank is the greatest legal robbery institution. There was a 6-day war between Israel and Palestine and I saw people opening bottles of champagne because they made speculation on gold market and made money. It was the moment when I thought “This doesn’t agree with my philosophy of life”. I was really ashamed because of their behavior, so I told them “I’m sorry, but you are crazy. While people are dying, you throw a party and celebrate earning money because of a war.” That was when I quit the job in the bank and opened my own dojo.
My first dojo was very small, approximately 54 m2. It was my house’s basement where there were only several small windows. I built it myself, I bought the tatami and I started with only one student. I invited Ikeda sensei to come and look at my dojo. I also invited Jean Claude but he was not very pleased about it because he was running Aikikai Basel dojo. I told him “My philosophy is different. You train aikido from the tori’s point of view and I want to train from the uke’s. I believe that when the uke’s point of view is not right, there’s nothing a tori can do. So, the uke needs to have the knowledge to protect themselves, but you don’t care about it.” This is the essence of my teachings.
I didn’t have very nice experience with the club (opposite to school, where there is the teacher), either. There were people in the club who held certain administrative positions and thought they had the power over everyone else, which I didn’t agree with, and I still don’t. I only respect the knowledge, not the title or the position or the administration. So, I told them “It is very clear that I am opening my own school. When you come here, you’re my student, so I’ll give you all of my knowledge.” The survival in the first division and my other experiences before aikido gave me a different approach, unique knowledge of movement in space and ways to get in positions where you can’t get broken. That was another reason for opening my own dojo, since too many people were injured during training and had broken joints because they didn’t know how to move properly. My first student, Theres Uhr, who also became Ikeda sensei’s student, still practices today and possesses 6th DAN. There are others who started with me and still train today. It is important for me that they have avoid serious injuries and still training. So, the education is important and by that, I mean the physical education, not only theoretical.
SA: How did you become Ikeda sensei’s student?
MQ: Two years after I opened my dojo, Ikeda sensei phoned me and said “Please Michele, join the ACSA, I need your help.”. I didn’t want to join since the people in the organization weren’t very pleasant to me and had an approach to foreigners that I didn’t like. I had to listen to many jokes about gastarbeiters (foreigners), even though I am one. If telling bad jokes was the part of the integration, I didn’t want to have anything with it. I never wanted contact with people who looked down on foreigners. But Ikeda insisted “Please, accept and come. I really need your help.”
At the end I accepted but only because of Ikeda sensei, which I wrote in the entrance letter “I want to join the ACSA only because I want to work and develop under Ikeda sensei’s mentorship and not because I need the association.” This was, of course, an attack but it was also a clear message saying that I didn’t need the association, and that Ikeda sensei’s knowledge was the only reason for joining. My dojo was working very well, it was very successful, there were many members. Later, when I was leaving the ACSA I wrote “Since Ikeda sensei is no longer the technical director of the ACSA, and he was my only reason to join, I have no further need to be the part of this association.”
When I became his uke I asked Ikeda to be his private student as well. That meant that I was there when he needed me and when I came, he taught me. I didn’t ask for private sessions, but only to be taught. That was my condition to join the ACSA. This agreement wasn’t made in front of the other people and I don’t care if anyone believes it or not. Still, that’s exactly how it was.
In that moment I seriously started the Way of Aikido. Ikeda was saying to everyone then “You do know the techniques and their movements, but you lack the basics. When you don’t have the basics, your movement is loose. Please, learn the basics and don’t forget what you have learned and your technique will get more efficient.” Some people accepted the new concept, others didn’t. Some of them were masters and they didn’t think they should change anything. So, they started politically fighting Ikeda and, consequently, a separation happened. By the time the separation ended, many people had accepted Ikeda sensei’s teachings. The people with such an expression of their egos, who didn’t want to train with Ikeda sensei don’t even train any longer. We continued and he gave us great, great knowledge and unique experience.
SA: What was the training with Ikeda sensei like? Was it any similar to his teacher’s Tada sensei trainings?
MQ: It was very hard and completely different from Tada sensei’s trainings because we always started with continuous attacks of the uke and not from the static position. In that moment uke’s work became very demanding. The uke needed to be present at all times in order to attack if given a chance, they couldn’t simply follow tori’s movement. That situation was a whole new experience because you needed to push yourself to continue attacking since you didn’t do it before and you weren’t used to it. That is something you do in a fight, but not in the training. Before we started practicing aikido under Ikeda sensei, we always looked for the way to fulfill tori’s expectations in the training by falling or rolling. When you train in this way you feel that the movement is not true, you cannot explain it but you feel it is not true At the time, playing football was more true than aikido and that was terrible. When you go in a football match you have the feeling of going into a fight, but I never had that feeling in aikido.
When I started practicing with Ikeda, wow I felt that movement was true. That motivated me to continue. The longer I was his uke, the more I realized I was heading the right way.
SA: Did Ikeda sensei start teaching Hojo and Genki kai from the very beginning?
MQ: No, he first taught us the basics. The basics were ikkyo, nikkyo, sankyo and yonkyo. He also explained the reason he practiced in the way that he did. There were, of course, always people to criticize saying “But, we have always done aikido in this way. Why do we need to change now?”. You know, when you start asking “why do I need to change” it is exactly when you stop progressing. Evolution doesn’t care about you. Evolution exists because it is always in the state of movement and not because of the continuity of the same state. Everybody likes to say “My time was the best”. No! The best time is the exact moment you’re living. The past is never better. Now! Now is the best time. There isn’t any other moment than the one we’re experiencing right now. Ikeda would always ask of us to be present. People usually show presence in practice, but teaching it is the real science.
Ikeda sensei is a Faculty of sport graduate. He studied the human body and the way to approach it from the physical aspect. He also has the knowledge extensive enough, as well as capability to explain the essence of being present in the moment. He also created many exercises to help people understand the explanations. He didn’t only show an exercise and ask people to repeat what they saw. He understood that everyone needed to discover the movement for themselves and not to copy what was shown.
This approach to aikido training was completely new. He didn’t say “I take the responsibility for your development”. On the contrary, he asked us to take responsibility for our own development. That was new for me, and that gave me completely new view of life. That meant “I am important. I am not there just to be a part of someone else’s movement. Oh, I am important. I have something to say. I have a mark to leave”. That’s why I continued working with Ikeda. There wasn’t a single training, let alone a seminar that I hadn’t learned something new. I was always shocked after revising ” Wow! Why haven’t I understood this before? How haven’t I seen this?”. These discoveries were sometimes small details and exactly the details that were changing my approach to aikido. This was happening during 20 years after every training. So, he took his job of being my teacher very seriously.
So, why do I need to explain who Ikeda is? There’s really no need for such an explanation. To train under him was an everyday challenge.
I trained in his dojo every week, on Wednesdays or Fridays. In the beginning, the dojo in Zurich was in a garage, so he had to make a big construction for the new dojo. And I was coordinating all the things with the bank and with the landlord. Whenever he needed me, he would call me and I would come from Basel to Zurich. When we needed to have a meeting in the bank – I came. When we needed to have the meeting in the renting agency – I came. When we needed to discuss the plans – I came. At that time Ikeda didn’t have any students but when you listen to his students who came later, they all say “We built the dojo”. That was the teacher-student bond we shared, I was his student and I took care of him. I knew the language and at that time he didn’t speak German, only Italian, and I did my best to help him. In return he gave me great deal of knowledge and boosted my potential. What I do now is very small amount in comparison to what he gave me.
Hinterman, Radaković and Ikeda, they changed my life and my approach to life. They gave me plenty. Tada sensei also influenced me, as well as Fujimoto sensei with his friendship and big heart. I have met many masters. Hosokawa sensei is an incredible person. He and Ikeda sensei were very close. They shared the same spirit. All these people have influenced my practice, but in technical and didactic way Ikeda, of course, was the most important. In philosophical way that was my first teacher Werner Hinterman.
SA: When did Ikeda sensei start doing hojo?
MQ: Later. You know, we don’t practice hojo because we need to know hojo, we practice hojo because it corrects our body structure. Many people need the exercises that could help them correct their postures. It’s the same with dancing and ballet – when you dance against a barre (handrails in the ballet schools) you do the structure training every time you dance. Hojo, also, helps us lose the shame of screaming (kiai), during the kata. It also helps us be certain about the things we want. It is also for boosting our concentration. People are used to have concentration for a minute or two. Hojo demands 15 minutes of concentration. When you begin the practice together, you face each other, you need to be together to the end, all the way through spring, summer, autumn and winter (4 parts of hojo kata), and you need to maintain your concentration. In the beginning you lose your concentration after a minute and a half after the first kiai. However, during the hojo practice, our concentration grows. So, the next time you do aikido with this concentration boost you realize your aikido is changed. It feels changed because of your different approach to it, not because of the technical change. That was a big discovery for me, because I didn’t like to practice hojo in the beginning. I thought “What are these screaming people doing? Why do I need to scream in this way?” That was not natural for me, but I was starting to understand it slowly and I began to appreciate it.
There is a saying in Hojo “You get born and you die many times during the seasons”. I think it’s beautiful. Even though you don’t want to die in the beginning, you learn to accept it in time.
SA: He also started teaching Genki kai?
MQ: I didn’t practice Genki kai as much. I had done it on several seminars with him and sometimes after or before the aikido lessons in his dojo. Ikeda sensei gave scheduled lessons in his dojo, a class of hojo and a class of genkikai every week. At the time I was giving 12 lessons or so in my dojo and I was exhausted. Many times, you’re not only the teacher, but you need to be an uke as well. As the teacher, you always create the energy and sometimes students give you the energy back and sometimes they don’t, that is very demanding.
SA: Tada sensei has taught Ki no renma for years and Ikeda sensei taught Hojo and Genkei kai, so these two generations of teachers has given a lot of emphasis to other aspects of the teaching as well, not only to the techniques.
MQ: You know there are different ways of discovering things. On one hand, no one explains anything. You have to train very intensively and then you have to discover the breathing system (how to breathe properly) on your own so you can endure the training. It’s very simple – it is either you change your breathing system or you get broken. On the other hand, you are taught about the breathing system and how and why to use it, making your training experience different. Your brain functions better, your assimilation functions better, your vision functions better, as well as all your other senses because your breathing is right. It’s a very simple thing, not magic.
SA: You started to travel with Ikeda sensei in the 1990s?
MQ: I started traveling to Slovakia, Croatia, Russia, Czech Republic together with Ikeda sensei. And he sent me to go to Slovakia in 1995 after Slovak people had asked him for a seminar with me. It was after seminar with him in Prague where I was his uke. They asked Ikeda if I could come to Slovakia to teach, and he agreed. I took responsibility for a new association and we began adventure with Slovak association.
Ikeda sensei was the Slovak technical director, I was only his assistant, but he couldn’t visit Slovakia more than once a year. I could visit Slovakia many times in a year then, and most of the time I did it at my own cost because they were a small association, with maybe 75 members (now, the association numbers 600 members) and 75 people couldn’t pay for plane tickets (laugh). So, we weren’t able to fly there and we usually went by car. It took 12 hours. We came, trained for the weekend and came back. All the money from seminar fees was just enough for paying the hall. I wanted for this people to discover aikido, so I paid my expenses.
In 1999, I came to Serbia, as well. Ikeda sensei sent me here, I didn’t initiate it myself. I met Saša Dejanović (Aleksandar Dejanović 4.Dan) as he came to Summer school in Nove Zamky, Slovakia. At the time Summer schools with me were very difficult to endure, but he thought he understood what aikido was, so he proudly walked in. I asked three of my assistants, very strong guys, to work with him. After half an hour he had to go off the tatami. He was absolutely exhausted and shocked. I was professional athlete and my students are in a very good physical condition. Some people who came to these Summer schools for the first time said that was too demanding. However, Dejanović accepted this challenging experience and he invited me to Novi Sad, after he had asked Ikeda for the permission. I came to Novi Sad before I took the responsibility for the association.
SA: You came to Serbia in 1999. Before that Ikeda sensei succeeded Fujimoto sensei as the technical director of Yugoslav aikikai.
MQ: When I came, the war was over, but the people in aikido were still in war with each other. That was a shock for me, so I asked them “Didn’t you have enough war? Enjoy the peace”. I knew it would be very hard job because people thought I wanted a position. If they wanted Ikeda as the Technical Director and to learn his technology, I was the only one who could teach them. They only wanted a person to come and give DAN examinations. So, I told them “I’ll give you the DAN when you get to the level.” If you know enough, you receive the DAN, if you don’t know, you don’t. I lost many students in the past because of this attitude. There were many people who were regularly coming to seminars and expected to receive the DAN only because the time had passed. It’s just the matter of respect – there is no other way for me. Even though you were my best friend – when you stop, you stopped.
SA: 2002 was very sad year, Ikeda sensei got ill and stopped teaching…
MQ: I was still Ikeda sensei’s uke at 49 years of age. I taught in my dojo and in all those countries and I was his uke at all of his seminars throughout a year, approximately 18 a year. I was his uke on all of his seminars and Embukais in Spain and Russia from 1985 to 2002. I was with him when he gave lessons in Switzerland.
When the crisis began in 2002 we were near Geneva, Ikeda got an attack during the training. He just said “Michele will show you this this and this”. After this episode, he went to Zurich, I went to Basel, but I felt that something was finished. It was a very sad situation. I was giving seminar in Czech when the news came that he wasn’t well, so I stopped the seminar, took a flight to Zurich and I went directly to hospital to visit him. At that time, I was visiting no more than 5 countries (Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, Check and Russia). The last seminar he gave was Winter stage in Zurich, when people from Poland asked for me to come there. After Ikeda got retired, all the countries ask me to proceed with the teaching. I never asked that of them. Later more countries approached (Macedonia, England, Ireland, the USA). Everything that was done afterwards was because of my effort, but that wouldn’t be possible without potential that Ikeda sensei gave to me.
SA: Thank you for your time and your answers. Would you like to add anything else?
MQ: Everybody needs something to help them develop themselves in life. For me, it was aikido. Simple as that.