“Life is Aikido; Aikido is life” – Jacques Payet, Founder & Master of Mugenjuku Aikido school, Kyoto
Jacques Payet, 7th Dan in Yoshinkan Aikido, founder of his own
dojo (Aikido school), and Kyoto resident for the last decade, is one of those foreigners who has clearly found his niche here in Japan. Yet his pathwas by no means a smooth one. He turned up in Tokyo in 1980, at the age of 22, with few savings, no Japanese and little English. He was looking for Gozo Shioda, an Aikido master whom he had seen in a video in his native France: “a little old Japanese man throwing these big guys around in a very elegant way, and laughing...” In an enterprising spirit, he went to the foreign languages department of Tokyo University and found a French-speaking student who was willing to help him, but in those pre-Internet days and without Shioda-sensei’s address, it took them several weeks of working through the phone book before they got through to his house and found out the address of his dojo.
However, Jacques’ quest did not end there. He joined the dojo as a regular student and found a room to share, way out in Saitama; but Shioda-sensei did not teach at the dojo on a regular basis. After a month, his savings had run out, and he had still not had an opportunity to meet the master so, with a heavy heart, he went to the dojo one last time to say goodbye, when he was greeted by a stranger in the car park. This turned out to be Shioda-sensei’s son, just back from a stint teaching Aikido abroad. He introduced Jacques to his father, who offered to let him stay on for three months for free, on condition that he help out with tasks such as cleaning the dojo each morning. This stay was extended repeatedly, until Jacques became a live-in disciple (uchi-deshi) of Shioda-sensei’s.
As in any country, Japan’s traditional arts can be insular, and as Jacques remembers, it took a long time for the other students to accept him. “It was a very closed world. They didn’t care if you didn’t like it. People were not welcoming, and almost rude. Having to teach someone who didn’t speak Japanese was a nuisance for them, and anyway, they thought that I would soon leave. After I had been there for about a year, training hard and doing the work at the dojo, they eventually realised that I was committed, and then they adopted me as family”. Moreover, Jacques was training hard physically for six hours a day, working at the dojo, and teaching French on his one day off a week. However, just as it had been Shioda-sensei’s personality that initially attracted Jacques, it wasalso what kept him going through this period. The Aikido master exuded a natural strength, confidence, energy, power, and love. This way of teaching heart to heart, based not on listening and analysing but on feeling and doing, was a total contrast to the education Jacques had received back in France. He considers himself to have been very lucky to have had this experience of the old Japan, despite all the initial difficulties.
Nevertheless, in establishing his own dojo,
Mugenjuku in Kyoto, and setting up an intensive course specifically for non-Japanese students, Jacques has had to strike a difficult balance, adapting his approach to today’s society without “compromising on the heart”. He explains, “Today, you cannot teach that way. You have to give students something to get them interested, but at the same time teach them that they need to give in order to receive. We have done this, but it takes about three months.”
Jacques is passionate about passing on everything he had the opportunity to learn, both at his dojo and around the world. There are around 100 adults and 50 children training at Mugenjuku dojo, the Kenshusei course for non-Japanese is in its fourth year, and Jacques travels regularly to give demonstrations and train instructors – he was off to Russia the day I met with him. He feels that Japan is losing its traditions and that the people who understand Aikido are aging, so his goal is to teach as many people as possible in the next ten years, in order to build up the base. When I ask him to explain what distinguishes Aikido from other martial arts, his face lights up. “The main difference is that there is no competition. The goal is not to defeat or kill, but to use your opponent’s strength to unbalance him: harmony in confrontation. As Shioda-sensei used to say, ‘the best Aikido is when you can make someone who came to kill you become your friend’ ”. He goes on to explain, “Aikido is not just what we do here in the dojo. Life is Aikido; Aikido is life. Whatever I do now is Aikido: never resist, never confront. Walking, sitting, thinking – it’s all Aikido. It’s a kind of moving Zen; a way to be peaceful and happy”.
Jacques’ advice to visitors to Japan is to “try not to do too much research, so that you arrive without preconceptions. Rent a bike, or walk, and explore the back streets. Don’t hesitate to talk to people, even in English: often they are shy, but happy to talk once you take the first step. And try something traditional for a day, like Zen, or Aikido...”
Mugenjuku offers a great opportunity for visitors to Japan to experience a traditional art in an approachable setting and in a short time. Daily taster sessions are offered, in which you can try on the training clothes and train with English-speaking teachers; or you can opt to experience a whole day at the dojo, beginning with cleaning at 7:00am.