Interview with Tristão da Cunha Sensei

When did you start learning aikido?

I started about 30 years ago, in Melbourne.

So you started in Australia, not Portugal?

Yes, I was living in Australia at the time I started. To Portugal I came much later, one year after graduation from the University.

How long were you studying aikido in Portugal?

When I came back in 1985, I joined several aikido clubs and I trained with them until I went to live in Japan in 1986.

That is much less time studying than in Australia.

Yes, I think it amounted to 10 months training in Portugal before I could finally go to Japan.

When did you visit Japan for the first time?

In 1986.

What were your impressions?

It was a totally different culture and society. I was lost for one day I Tokyo! Then I remembered about Aikinews, an Aikido magazine that, at that time, had its headquarters in Tokyo, phoned them and got some directions which helped me to go to Iwama. In the beginning it was very hard not because of the society itself, but because of the sub-culture of Budou at the Iwama dojo. It had nothing to do with the normal Japanese way of life….Sensei was very young, very severe and we uchideshi were always trembling…. except at nights. At night we were always having many parties with Sensei…that was always extremely hilarious.

Is it true that you needed a letter of recommendation to enter the dojo and become and uchideshi?

Not just before, now too you need letters of introduction to enter the dojo and study…. Back then I got two letters of recommendation: one from my teacher in Melbourne, Barry Night, and the other from Tamura Sensei.

From Tamura Sensei? But isn´t he an Aikikai member?

Yes. Back then Iwama and Aikikai were the same. Saito Sensei was one of the top members of Aikikai. We were his students. One year Sensei came to Europe to teach a seminar, and said that if anybody from Europe wished to go to Iwama as uchideshi, he should ask Tamura Sensei for a letter of recommendation. So that is what I did. The letter from Barry Sensei was enough, but just in case, I also asked one from Tamura Sensei…In Iwama, after the first night keiko, Sensei invited me to go to his daughter’s sushi bar for a welcome dinner. This bar still exists today and is excellent. Anyway, Stanley Pranin from Aikinews was there and he translated. Sensei said that I was the first foreigner that had brought two letters of introduction. This was not common. I remember that very well. Shibata Sensei from Sendai was there too.


How long did you stay there for?

I was uchideshi for 6 months.

Why did you not stay longer?

Longer? Have you ever been uchideshi? Even one month is long. Well, really I also had some extra money and I wanted to go to India and visit Asia. I thought after Iwama, that was what I would do….In the end, I spent so much money in Japan that I could not go as planned and had to return home.

Why aikido?

Yellow Pages.

Yellow pages?

Yes. When I was living I Melbourne, at a certain time there were some groups of organized crime that used to invade people’s houses and vandalize everything. I was living with some relatives at the time. Many times they would travel and I was always alone in the house. Since their house was in a distant suburb I felt uneasy and decided to learn some self defence system. The first thing I remembered was Kung Fu, for I had many Chinese friends at school that practiced this. I was also really found of Jacky Chan. So I went to the yellow pages and in the entry “kung fu” it said: “Look under Martial arts”, which I did. The first martial art in this section was Aikido. Then I remembered that my mother had an aikido book (I think it was Tomiki Aikido). My mother was a very active Judo practitioner then. So I decided to have a look. I was very lucky for one of the main dojos was right at my university.

You have an organization in Portugal, can you tell us about it?

Well, I can first tell you that it is not my organization. I founded it, it is correct, but it belongs to the associates. Before I came back from Japan, Sensei told me to create my own dojo. We were massaging Sensei before classes like we did everyday (it was very hard work) and Sensei said: Aikishuren Portugal. Then he said something else and finally said Portugal Aikishurendojo.. I looked at the Uchideshi Sempai who was also there and he said, “Sensei says this is the name of the group that you must make in Portugal.” I was perplexed….and stopped massaging Sensei, to which Sensei immediately screamed “stronger!!”(laugh). So, when I came back to Lisbon, I decided to form this group. However, because of the lack of money – I had spent most of my money in Iwama – I could only do it in 1989. That happened 20 years ago.

Do you practice any other martial arts? Or have your practiced in the past?

Yes, when I was young, I had to practice Judo. As I told you before, my mother was a very active Judo practitioner and she wanted her children, most of which were males, to also practice Judo in order to get strong physically and mentally. But I really did not like it so much. There was too much grappling and I hated to have to win over friends of mine and, what is worse, to lose. I made up so many excuses not to train, that I was finally allowed to stop it. Then in my twenties I practiced kickboxing and full-contact for about two years. One of the teachers of these arts wanted to learn aikido and so he asked me if we could interchange: he would teach me his art and I would teach him Aikido. So that is what we did. It was a lot of fun and hard work.

Later on another teacher of Ryukyu Kobujutsu came from South Africa. We had similar type of arrangement. He taught all of us some weapons of Okinawa Kobujutsu like Tonfa, Nunchaku, Tessen, Tanbo, Kon, Sai, etc. He was also an expert on Shaolin Sh’un Fa Kempo, a martial art he learned from a Sifu in Mozambique. He also taught that to us. This was also for about two years. Our group was quite big back then. The classes were full and sometimes one could scarcely make a correct movement. Nowadays I only live Aikido.


But don’t you think that a student of Aikido should learn more than just aikido? Isn’t it a bit limiting? Was it not Myamoto Musashi that said that one should study all arts?

Through my years of studying I came to look upon aikido as a true Budou. It is immense. You can study the same techniques over and over again and new things keep on appearing. It is like a tremendous infinite maze. In this sense, I cannot even say that it is a martial art....

By saying that Aikido is a Budou, you mean that it is not a martial art like the others? Or aren’t the others budou? For most people Aikido is just that, another Japanese martial art….

Not for me, Aikido is not to be looked at as a martial art. Rather it is a Martial Way, which deeply studies several martial paths using Aiki. For this reason it is not limiting. This Way is so big that it actually meets many other martial arts. The Founder of Aikido wrote two books: Budou Renshu and Budou. None of them even has the word Aiki on them. It is true that at the time he wrote them there was no “Aikido” word yet. But this really shows his thoughts. If you read his poems or Douka and other writings from before the war, and compare them with after the war – when Aikido already existed in an organized way - you see that his thought was very consistent. He was very consistent on his approach to Budou. Morihiro Saito Shihan also used to say of other people who were not specifically good students: “He does not understand Budou”, never, “He does not understand Aikido”.

Aikido has no frontiers so we cannot really consider it a martial art. We cannot say: here it starts, here it ends. In Iwama we learn this. Unfortunately this concept that the Founder had so much appreciation for, is not studied anywhere else. Many students of Iwama, too, have a modified idea of the Founder’s budou. They learned techniques from their teachers and even from both masters Saito, but were not taught the correct approach either because their teacher was not specifically good or because they themselves did not spend much time with either of the Saito Senseis. This is a pity. Still, one Saito Sensei is still alive and he studies from O’Sensei since he was a child, so these people still have a possibility to grasp some essence from him. But one has to go to Sensei to learn, that is the only way to evolve quickly and with quality.

What is your grade?

I am 7th Dan.

But you are just 49,,…..there are many comments about this grade and even before, with the 6th Dan...

Yes, I know. I did not ask for these or for any other grades. I have never asked for a grade for myself, they have all been given to me by my teachers and without least expecting it. For the 5th Dan, for example, I was living in Iwama as an uchideshi at the time. On the day I received it, I was working in the fields with Sensei. Sensei had some trouble with high blood pressure and I helped him go back to his house to rest. I went back to work watering Sensei’s vegetable gardens.


...this Sensei is Hitohiro Sensei?

No the old great master, Morihiro Saito Sensei Later Sensei rang the uchideshi bell and I ran to attend to him, cleaning myself on the way. I arrived at Sensei’s house and he handed me a certification rolled up which, as usual I looked up to see whose it was in order to place on the kamidana of the dojo and warn the person in question that he/she would receive the certification today. I saw my name written on it and kind of stopped a little not knowing what was happening…I looked at Sensei but he closed his huge fist and pointed it at me saying: “If you pay me I get very angry…”. I had refused many graduations before, for I never had money to pay for them. This time he just wouldn’t take a no and warned me right away. ….(laugh)

People get very jealous if they see other people getting Dan promotions. I get very happy: it means that those people are studying hard and contributing to the development of the art. It also means that their teachers are paying attention to their improvements. The relationship between student and teacher must be strong so that the teacher really knows the level of his student. I helped hundreds of people with their Dan examinations inside and outside Portugal, even people who did not follow Saito Sensei 100% but who wanted to have the honour to be examined by this great master. There were many friends of mine who kept on living in Japan as soto deshi for many years after I left and, as a result of studying directly with the master, were graded above me. It was wonderful to see this and we celebrated together when we met again.

There was this one teacher from France who was 5th Dan at the time and visiting Iwama for a week. Together with him was one of his students who would be staying longer as uchideshi. This student wanted to be examined by Sensei for Bukiwaza Dan. I told him I would ask Sensei to examine him but first I asked his teacher “Why don’t you examine him instead of disturbing Sensei with such work?” I think the student wanted to do shoudan or nidan…a very low level. The teacher said “...because Sensei never gave me any mokuroku I cannot examine any of my students for Bukiwaza Dan.” So I went to Sensei and told him that such teacher did not have permission to test but was a long time teacher of Iwama Ryu. Sensei was very surprised. Really? He said. Sensei had thousands of students and was hard to keep in memory all of them. Anyway, he checked on his book and saw that the teacher only had taijutsu teaching licenses. So he gave all 5 certifications at once to the teacher with a special discount and an apology for having forgotten him. This teacher latter abandoned Sensei’s successor, but he is still teaching actively. I was very glad I participated in the high teacher’s promotions.

About Dan…the teachers are usually the ones who should honestly and systematically promote with or without examination (according to each case), their own students. Students who ask for Dan usually are not very humble, however it does not mean that they may not change in the future, as they become older. There are many teachers in all martial arts organizations who have reached a high level very fast. But pay attention that I am not speaking about Iwama Ryu. This has many reasons: many trained daily and never took holidays, whereas their colleagues only trained once or twice a week and took holidays and sometimes long rests from Aikido for all kinds of reasons. As a result the first ones went up the levels faster than their friends. Sometimes - and this happened in many cases - teachers were sent away from the main dojo into other countries for teaching and as such were given more than one grade at once so that they could get more support in the new countries. Other times, they were people who did not train as much, or trained normally, but gave lots of economical and political support to the organization. Others, however, are simply formidable, they are exceptional and fantastic. For all these reasons and more, many went up the levels very fast.


Yes, there are many cases like these...

Tohei Sensei, one of the oldest, or maybe the oldest student of O’Sensei still alive, started to practice with the founder in 1939 – at that time it was not Aikido but aikibudou - and in 1942 left for the war. Until 1946 when he came back to Japan and contacted O’Sensei again, he did not train. In 1952, he was promoted to 8th Dan, 10 years after starting to practice. Again, 10 years later, in1960, he was awarded the 9th Dan and the 10th Dan in 1970 (actually O’Sensei gave him in 1969 just before he died). Of course Tohei Sensei is truly exceptional, but it happened like this, very rapidly. There are many cases like this.

You asked about me: Well, I train ever day, I do not take holidays. But by “every day I mean everyday. No Sundays off. Those who train with me know this. I spend a lot of time running the organization and helping with International matters (which takes most of my time). But I also spend many hours teaching inside and outside Portugal and take part in many activities linked to our traditional practice. This is the way I see the Way. Because I am not very smart, I have to train more than most people to understand simple stuff. Sensei taught me to study slowly and deeply technique by technique. He told all of us never to stray away from basics. But basics are very hard to study. On top of all I get older by the minute and my physical strength changes. However, new and stronger students keep on appearing to train. If I do not train everyday…I would not know how to teach or apply a technique on each….Anybody who follows this way of intensive and continuous training, will definitely go up the ranks much faster, I think. Also, when I go to Iwama, I always go to study for one full month. Never 10 or 15 days as many teachers do. This greatly improves my technique. No doubt about that.

But you are a Shihan….

Yes, Shihan is an authorised senior instructor. It is a big rank but people make too much of it. It is not a divine position. Many people are jealous but it is just a senior rank that is all. Shihan-dai, just before Shihan is a designated or assistant instructor. There is nothing exceptional about it except the amount of effort, study and particular work that one has put into his Way. As the members studying a certain art increase, it is necessary to get more teachers, with the right character, which do have some deep understanding of the art and give them responsibilities. Isn’t it so? These will help to instruct the new members. If a certain person, according to the Sensei’s eyes has these characteristics, he may receive the title Shihan, or any other. Morihiro Sensei was still alive and healthy when his son gave me the title of Shihan of the Tanrenkan. I was 5th Dan back then. But to his son’s mind, my work for him had such responsibilities that he decided to give me this position. It was not a Dan; it was a responsibility. Later on, on the same say, I was eating with the venerable old master and he said “Omedetou (congratulations). You are now a Shihan!” I thought only Waka Sensei knew of this,…but it looks like he told his father everything.

So you think it is important to go up the ranks?

No. I did not say that. Actually I do not like ranks at all. I prefer, and I have talked about this on several occasions, the old system of giving teaching licenses only to those who follow 100% the teacher and who apply themselves 100% to learn the Way. Most people, anyway, will never teach. So it is unnecessary to go up the ranks, really. As a teacher, however, I want of course, my students to never stop studying this wonderful way. So I am always insisting for them to study and study. As soon as they get a degree I always tell them “Start studying for the next one”. The next degree might come in two or three years, but only if they really study. To those students who do not come to practice, never come to seminars and never join the others for all types of events and activities I do not say anything. Obviously, by their attitude, or their life style, they do not want to be disturbed…so I do not disturb them (laugh).

Some people, even if their teacher goes to their dojo and teaches them and then goes back again and again, they are not willing to come to the main dojo and learn from the main teachers. These types of students will not go up the ranks. They do not have the will to search for knowledge. They want it all served on a plate, on their house. There is no “take-away” dish for Budou!! (laugh). Usually, in the traditional martial arts, it is the students that search for the teacher, not the other way around (laugh). I have made this mistake many times (pity the students and go to their dojo to teach) and....I guess I keep on doing it (laugh).


So what is a good student?

Well, that is a very hard one. (smiling). If a person is dedicated, honest, polite, quick learner, it is not enough to become a good student. One also needs loyalty and sacrifice. I especially like quite students who come a long time before keiko clean the dojo and train before class, do the class, and then stay after keiko, train more, clean everything again and then return home. These types of students are trustworthy. They do not need to be bright and genius. If they sacrifice much of their time in order to do aikido, then they are worthy to teach.

But in this way one will have no personal life outside aikido…

He will have a good personal life inside Aikido. Aikido is much bigger and goes beyond the training hours. In Iwama Ryu we admire Discipline, Etiquette and Acknowledgement - or thankfulness, or the opposite of ingratitude. It is truly difficult to do the correct thing and act correctly all the time. If, inside this Way, we all try to act in this way…is it not better than to live outside it where no can find no more values and proper way of living?

Anyway, Aikido is not a closed budou, as I talked before. On the contrary, it is a very open one. The dedication to one’s family and friends is also part of Aikido. Living badly such as taking drugs, spending money on gambling, on discotheques, and so forth, are not really part of the world of Budou, so it is not a good choice for a “personal life.”

Do you have any preferences for aikido techniques?

I should say “no”, and I should say that all is the same for me…it is the ideal answer. However this is not true. I like aikiken techniques very much. If you do not learn this art of Aiki of the founder, you will never learn aikido. It is the foundation of Aikido.

What do you mean this “art of Aiki”? It is a different art from Aikido?

No, as I said before, I see Aikido as a Way of Aiki, an all encompassing Budou. Aikiken is an art inside this Way.

But if you only learn Aikiken you will not know all the taijustu techniques, right?

Of course. But if you are a teacher, you have to know Aikiken deeply in order to teach correctly for when you teach you use the terms and principles of the sword of Aiki. Otherwise it will revert back to a simple jujutsu.

But there are many styles of Aikiken nowadays...

So it seems. O’Sensei’s Aikiken is what is taught in Iwama by Hitohira Sensei and before him, by his father. Some old masters saw O’Sensei using a ken, but never learned the amount and precision of techniques and principles that my master Saito learned. This is a well known and proven historical fact. Shirata Shihan, an old student of O’Sensei, now deceased, had a different way of using the ken than Saito Sensei, for he learned from O’Sensei before the War and was many years away while O’Sensei kept on studying, changing and improving his technique.

After O’Sensei passed away, he used to ask many questions to Saito Sensei about O’Sensei’s techniques. Many teachers also did this. However, maybe because they did not have as much contact with the Founder as Sensei had, they did felt that their art was incomplete and mixed it up with other martial arts, and also made up their own techniques sometimes based on Saito Sensei’s knowledge, other times based on other schools of kenjutsu. However, there is only true Aikiken and that one is the one taught in Iwama by Hitohira Saito Sensei. This is a fact, not something that is said lightly.


About two years ago, you were involved in a long discussion on aikido and martial arts forums. Many people were offended by your attitude. Can you explain this?

No. I was not involved in any forums! (Please underline that statement). Certainly not in Portuguese forums! A few years ago some of my international friends asked me to write something on a forum of a world aikido journal. So I wrote two or three times for this…but still….most of the people involved in forums, obviously, do not train enough to understand even what to ask, so it is illogical to actually participate in these types of activities. Once I was searching information for an article on agriculture and found a budou forum that was fantastic. The people involved were of high moral standards and high level in their art. I think it was a Japanese traditional martial arts forum…I could never get back to it, though. In Portugal there is not such forum, unfortunately.

But your name appears…

Yes it seems that it appears. Somebody who maybe does not love me so much (laugh) was using my name in these forums. They also used the name of some of my students. We asked the authorities to stop this for this is a crime punishable with prison. Still they keep on doing this here and there. I have no idea who uses my name and why they do it. I do not mix with other aikido styles for I have more than enough to study by myself. Our way of studying is totally different from everybody else…so I still do not understand their hatred.

Recently you have been restructuring your organization. Why are you doing this? Wasn’t your organization one of the biggest in Portugal?

Yes. It was one of the biggest. We had hundreds of practitioners all over the country. At one point we got close to 700. For an aikido organization that is quite a lot. Now I think it is the smallest (laugh). This restructuring started by itself. Some students who were not happy left and an immediate change - for the better - was felt in all the dojos. So we took this as a sign that we really needed to clean up and solidify our foundations again.

Our Aikido organization must strictly follow traditional methods of practice and living, so all the associates who do not fit up with this type of organization, simply cannot stay. So what we did is: we started applying the Internal Regulations strictly - these regulations have existed since the birth of our organization - and this in turn forced profound changes. Then, we also changed some of these regulations during a General Assembly. Sensei says that small organizations are better for the quality is better and they are easier to run. This is the truth. We are now feeling this. I think we still have about one more year of changes coming up.

Does any member of your family practice aikido?

My family is sacred; I do not involve them in conversations that expose to the public any members of my family.

But one of your cousins used to practice aikido for some time, was it about 10 years ago?

I do not answer any questions that have to do with my family. In traditional budou we protect our families and help them. When I was taking care of Sensei and was called back to Portugal for a member of my family was gravely ill, Sensei said, “Go back. Family comes first. It always came first for me. I’ll be here waiting for your return”. Sensei passed away, but this message is very clear. You too should protect your family and place it before all else.


Your organization still does not belong to the FPA? Why is it?

Politics, I knew this question would come up, eventually.

First, in our general assemblies, we always discuss this topic. Federations are useful if there is a real purpose for them. Federations that include many styles of one art, are made up of many organizations. This is good. However, if these federations need public money, tax-payers money in order to survive, then the country does not need those. It is immoral. Each organization should learn to survive freely with no tax-payers money. We have done so for many years. If this national Federation would be devoted to the development of aikido through actions which they themselves would foment, and only that, maybe we would already be inside it. But they are together because of money, really. This is wrong. Even though all this is the result of European laws and laws passed by the successive Portuguese government, I do not agree with it.

Second, I always ask our associates who wants to make the real liaison with the federation? Who will go to the meetings? I certainly do not want to go. But it seems that no one is also willing to go too (laugh).

In this time of grave crisis, spending tax-payers’ money on federations, especially on those that are not directly involved on competitions at an international level which represent our country, is a waste of money. We are, however under a lot of pressure to enter into the FPA. This type of pressure is illegal, for the constitution of the Portuguese Republic on its 46th Article, states that no one may be forced to belong to an association. However, this tends to be forgotten by some Aikido practitioners and by many official entities.

What is the first thing you teach a student?

Well, first we always ask the newcomers to watch a Taijutsu and a Bukiwaza class. Then, of course we show the newcomer the prices (laugh). There is no need to go much further if the person does not agree with the prices. There is no shame in admitting this. If this person agrees and comes to train, first we teach him how to dress his keikogi, then, at the dojo, how to bow and how to clean.

Do your students clean the dojo?

Of course! There is no Aikido without cleaning. If teachers are teaching Aikido without teaching their students how to clean the dojo, they are either incompetent or liars. We learn Aikido in order to forge our bodies, minds and spirits into a jewel of a human being. Forging is cleaning and molding. We begin and finish every class with cleaning. We have always done so. In O’Sensei’s time it was so, as it was before him. As it was in Morihiro Saito Sensei’s time, too. The student prepares the class, purifies it for the arrival of the teacher. When the class is finished, the teacher leaves and the student should also clean the dojo before he goes away. The dojo is a sacred place, it must be kept clean.

What if somebody does not want to clean?

Well, this person will be invited to leave and not come back. Those who also do not oppose cleaning but, nevertheless, do not participate in cleaning, are also warned to mend their ways or leave the dojo for good.


(End of part I)