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Philosopher Coralie Camilli and Her Aikido Journey in Japan

Coralie Camilli is a French philosopher, a black belt in aikido, and a practitioner of Thai boxing. In late 2019, she decided to go to Japan to study aikido and Japanese sword fighting right in their country of origin. Resulting from this experience, in 2020, she published “L’art du combat” [“The Art of Fighting”], a book in which she deals with martial arts from a philosophical point of view. In this interview, she tells us about the basic principles of aikido, the differences between learning martial arts in France and Japan, and the philosophy behind the art of fighting.

What Makes Aikido Special

Aikido is an art without competition.

When did you start practicing aikido, and why did you choose this martial art?

I started practicing aikido four and a half years ago after I defended a doctorate in philosophy. I have always wanted to try a martial art. Aikido appealed to me because there was no difference between men and women, no weight categories, and beginners and more advanced students join the same lessons. We were all dressed the same, in the same classroom, doing the same thing. I was also attracted by the beauty of the moves and the use of weapons. 

For you, what makes aikido different from other martial arts?

It cannot really be considered a sport because it is an art without competition. That is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It is an advantage because you can concentrate on the search for making the perfect, graceful move. Still, it is also a disadvantage because the competition happens in a hidden way. For example, practitioners want to be chosen to perform the demonstration with the teacher or have the best spot near the teacher. Newcomers are not always well integrated. In more competitive sports, there are winners and losers. It is clear who needs to train more, and it is not a bad aspect.

Did you witness the same rivalry for the teacher’s attention in Japan as well? 

Not at all. That is one of the main differences I saw between France and Japan. In the Japanese dojo, I saw a kind of reciprocity and anonymity among all participants. It was a wonderful surprise for me.

Can you tell me about the concept of ukemi, which can be found in aikido and judo?

In aikido, we practice with a partner, not an opponent. The ukemi is when we let our partner react to an attack: an immobilization or a projection. That is when we let them “take an ukemi,” in other words, fall. In Japanese, “ukeru” means to receive, so the uke is the person who “receives” the immobilization or the projection. After the ukemi, we let them have a chance to attack. That leads to the concept of repetition. The exercise is interesting for both people: the one who receives and the other one who must do the same technique again to improve it.

Differences Between France and Japan

By coming to Japan, I was looking to not be Coralie Camilli anymore.

In 2019, you decided to come to Japan to study aikido. What has led you to this decision, and did you have any specific hopes and worries?

I wanted to be in total immersion where the roots of aikido are. I was also searching for the ultimate way to become anonymous again. 

In France, I have a small presence in the local media. Of course, as a philosopher, I am not as famous as if I were a singer. However, it happens that people recognize me when I walk in the street. 

Most of the time, it is gratifying, especially because many women thank me. They tell me that seeing a tiny woman like me, only 1 meter 54 tall, practicing aikido has encouraged them to start practicing, too. That is what makes me the happiest. It gives meaning to having a small media notoriety. 

But there is also a negative side. As a woman, whatever I do or say, I often get the usual remarks about my appearance such as “She is blonde,” “She wears makeup,” “She wears no makeup,” “How old is she?” When you are a woman and appear in the public sphere, you usually have to justify your physical image much more than men do.

So, by coming to Japan, I was looking to not be Coralie Camilli anymore. I was looking to just be no one. Because of this, I did not worry. I only had adrenaline and curiosity towards all the things I did not know yet. I hoped to practice a lot with many different people, and also to discover Thai boxing that I had just approached a little bit when I was in France. 

人, 屋内, 女の子, 座る が含まれている画像

Seeing a tiny woman like me, only 1 meter 54 tall, practicing aikido has encouraged some women to start practicing, too.

You just mentioned rivalry, but did you notice other differences in the way aikido is taught and learned in France and Japan? 

In Japan, there is less talk and much more silence. 

For example, when you arrive at an aikido class in Japan, students are sat down in silence, sitting in seiza on the tatami. Everything is neatly aligned and regular. You can be a philosophy teacher or a taxi driver; nobody knows. In France, people arrive at their rhythm, talk, and greet each other with kisses [laughs]. Also, the teacher talks more to some students. Your social status and the status you have in the dojo are more visible. 

During the class, in France, the teacher gives many more technical indications, such as “Put your feet more this way,” “Start that move again; I am watching you.” In Japan, the teacher will not come to correct you each time. The teacher shows his gesture, takes us all as uke, and it is our job to be attentive to what he is showing. 

In Japan, it happens that the teacher will let you train the whole time without ever correcting you.

Do the Japanese teachers make corrections sometimes?

Yes. As a Westerner, I sometimes clumsily asked if what I was doing was correct. But it happens that the teacher will let you train the whole time without ever correcting you. It may be easier to ask more experienced students or training partners. In such a context, the will to do things right and being attentive make all the difference. In comparison, in France, teaching is more hierarchical and didactic.

In your book, you talk about the importance of the vital stakes when you studied in Japan. Were they already there in France?

In Japan, I practiced two martial arts I had not experienced in France: the art of the katana, the Japanese sword, and Thai boxing. In these two arts, the vital stakes are much more present than in aikido. Especially regarding the sword, in which everything you learn revolves around a matter of life and death. If your opponent can reach your neck, you do not get a second chance. In Thai boxing, you may get knocked out, and most of the time, there is a winner and a loser.

屋外, 人, スポーツ, 草 が含まれている画像

“Regarding the sword, everything you learn revolves around a matter of life and death.”

During your stay in Japan, did you notice things that seemed to come from a typical Japanese spirit or way of thinking?

Yes. As a Westerner coming to Japan, I felt there were two faces to Japanese people. One face for which you can feel people are very friendly and social with you, but at the same time, you can feel that there is another face. That other face is more distant and not easily accessible; you cannot easily create intimacy with Japanese people. 

Because of this, as a Westerner, it isn’t easy to judge who really likes you or not, who you really have affinities with. This is a difficulty, but it also has its good sides because there is a kind of respect. Even though I am a Western woman, I was treated like the other students. Nobody was disrespectful to me.

Writing “The Art of Fighting”

For me, writing the book was a way to keep a link with my practice of martial arts while looking back at it.

Were you already thinking of writing a book about martial arts before your stay, or did the idea come to you later?

I had already started to take notes after the classes I was taking with Christian Tissier [one of the best aikido teachers in Europe]. They were mostly notes about the techniques. After arriving in Japan, I found myself completely alone, and I found myself writing a lot during the night because I have insomnia. I had lots of time! [laughs]

That is why my book has taken a literary form, because I was also taking notes about what I was seeing in real time, and about the atmospheres that were impacting me. I came back to France in 2020 when it was in the middle of a lockdown, so I had time to develop the philosophical concepts of the things I had noticed.

I wrote the book in a few months.

The original French cover for Coralie’s book

In your book, you mention that words are not enough to teach the techniques, which must be learned using the body. Was it not difficult to put the martial arts’ spirit into words for your book?

Not really. Firstly, because in philosophy, we have the habit of putting words and concepts on external objects. Secondly, I wrote most of it during a lockdown, so I was stuck at home and only had to write. For me, it was a way to keep a link with my practice of martial arts while looking back at it. It was a way to reappropriate the things I had seen and experimented with but did not take the time to think about. I hope the book can make people who do not practice martial arts feel what it is about.

How are the comments from people who have read your book?

Some philosophers have told me they found it very interesting conceptually to think about the body in general. And the last chapter is about death. These are concepts often talked of in philosophy.

I also had comments from young women who were too shy to try martial arts. They were moved by the beginning of my chapters in which I describe pieces of life in Japan, and it made them want to start learning martial arts and go to Japan, too.

I also got comments from people in the aikido world. Teachers and very experienced people have expressed interest. I even got praised for putting words on what they are doing. My teacher Christian Tissier, an 8th dan black belt, said that my book was very good during a class, which is the best feedback I can get. It confirms that what I say in the book is not entirely wrong [laughs].

However, I also received less enthusiastic comments from other practitioners who are not used to reading philosophy and found the contents hard to grasp.

And Now, Some Philosophy

What is essential is to build bridges, not walls, between the various ways of thinking.

In your book “The Art of Fighting,” you talk about many different philosophical concepts regarding martial arts, such as the difference between a gesture and a movement.

Both gestures and movements are made with the body and happen in space and time. Both can be broken down into phases. In a movement, phases are separate from each other; you do it while still conscious and attentive to what you are trying to do. But the pure gesture that great masters do, whatever the martial art they practice, happens instantly. It transcends space and time. It’s beautifully pure. It goes further than the categories you have in your head when you are learning the techniques. The distinction between the two seemed very important to me.

Around concepts such as this one or the difference between strength and power, you mix Eastern martial arts, Western philosophy, and your reflections. What is considered “Western philosophies” and “Eastern philosophies” are often put in opposition. Do you think they have more in common than usually perceived?

Actually, my starting point in philosophy was Jewish philosophy, which was not considered philosophy in itself and is based on a religious corpus from the Middle East. So, I was already coming from a philosophical background outside of the usual Western philosophy. So, it came naturally to me to put in parallel another way, an Asian way, to apprehend the world, the body, the gesture.

There are differences. Western philosophers tend to consider things in a more rational, Cartesian, conceptual way. The Middle Eastern and Asian ways are more poetic, more literary, more relaxed, and intuitive. What is essential is to build bridges, not walls, between the various ways of thinking.

テキスト, 手紙

Coralie’s upcoming book

What are your projects for the future? 

I will publish my new book soon, and it is titled “Jours de grâce et de violence” [“Days of Grace and Violence”]. It is like a series of vignettes from my stay in Japan: slices of life, encounters, portraits of people I met, and various anecdotes. It is both autobiographical and literary. 

As a philosopher, I am preparing for the agrégation [a competitive examination in France that one needs to pass to be able to teach at high schools and universities]. Translations in German and in English of “L’art du combat” are also planned, but I cannot give any details right now.

As soon as the situation improves, I hope to go back to Japan as quickly as possible to train with everybody that I miss so much!

Do you have a philosophical message for our readers?

Do not define yourself by what you are but by what you do. Define yourself with your accomplishments, and do not let others define you by your appearance. 

屋外, 建物, 道路, 人 が含まれている画像


An Inspiring Presence

I got to know Coralie when she started taking classes at the same Thai boxing gym I was going to. We met in the locker room, and she asked me if I could translate the question that she wanted to ask the boss. We talked a little, and she asked me about a few Japanese words she kept hearing during classes but did not know what they meant. The next week, I made her a list of useful vocabulary that was often used in class. That is how we became friends. When I asked why she was taking Thai boxing, she just answered, “I am in Japan to study aikido, and I spend hours practicing it every day. So I wanted to do something different to relax.” Needless to say, you do not hear that often.

Even though I am French myself, since I had been living in Japan for many years, I had no idea who Coralie was. I did not know that in France, she often appeared in newspapers, magazines, and sometimes television; to me, she was the “nobody” she was aiming for. It was only later, connecting through social media, that I learned that she was a philosopher and had many followers for her works and her aikido skills. I was stunned at the elegance of her aikido videos, and I promised myself to talk more in-depth about it someday. 

What struck me about Coralie was her openness and friendliness, as well as her humbleness and her will to do things right. When we were training together, she would often say, “Do not hesitate to tell me what I am doing wrong.” 

Coralie’s story has the power to inspire people to go one step further out of their comfort zone. She shows that a tiny woman can practice aikido with men twice her size and get good at it. She shows you can go to Japan without speaking the language and still learn a lot, providing that you are willing to. She shows that it is possible to go to a completely different place to be someone new. If there is something you have always wanted to try but never dared to, I hope reading this interview inspires you.

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.