Biography of André Nocquet, the First Foreign Live-in Student of Morihei Ueshiba
André Nocquet was a man of both sword and pen. A former resistance fighter and a pioneer of martial arts, he was one of the first foreign students of Ueshiba Morihei and the very first to have lived under the roof of the founder of Aikido. With this unequaled experience, he has greatly contributed to the development of Aikido, both in Japan and Europe. I translated some previously unpublished articles of Master Nocquet, edited some videos from his personal archives filmed during his stay in Japan, and recovered works for the promotion of Aikido and Budo in France. All of it is published on this website and therefore, it seemed necessary to supplement these documents with a full biography of the man, especially given the fact that his life before Japan is at least as extraordinary as his pioneering journey in the world of Aikido. Unfortunately, the sources documenting his early life are scarce and sometimes contradictory. This article introduces the elements that I thought were the most accurate. I would like to sincerely thank Mr. Michel Nocquet, the son of André Nocquet Sensei, who kindly accepted to review this article in order to prevent inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Many thanks also to Tada Hiroshi Shihan and Kobayashi Yasuo Shihan for providing me with a number of documents that had never been published before and for helping me add precision to some of the elements and events cited. Thank you to Mr Frank de Craene and Mr Claude Duchesnes for providing me with pictures for Noquet’s archives, as well as his personal diary.
Youth in France and discovery of martial arts
André Auguste Nocquet was a French Aikido pioneer born in Prahecq in the Deux-Sèvres department (30 July 1914 – 12 March 1999).
André Nocquet Sensei was raised in a family of farmers who taught him to appreciate the value of simple things. It is in Niort, a dozen miles from the family farm, that he began his studies, before moving on to the National School of Non-Commissioned Officiers (ENSOA) in Saint-Maixent. It is in 1929, while at Saint-Maxent, that he got the opportunity to learn a new and intriguing empty-handed defense system with Chief warrant officer Raffier. Raffier had indeed some knowledge of Ju-jitsu, a rather confidential martial art from Japan and only a handful of Westerners knew about it due to the fact that at the time, Japan was under a fairly strict isolationist policy. This experience left a strong impression on the young Nocquet and it gave him a strong desire to learn more about this remote country and its awesome warfare techniques.
The young André’s passion for effort and body culture is partly explained by a desire to compensate for his relatively small stature. Already naturally stocky, he pushed early on his own physical limits via the practice of Greco-Roman wrestling. However, what formally put him on the path of bodybuilding was the unexpected discovery of a bodybuilding manual belonging to his father, himself an accomplished athlete. The book was written by German pioneer and founder of modern bodybuilding, Eugen Sandow. Just as he did for most things throughout his life, Nocquet fully dedicated himself to this passion and he integrated just as much of Sandow’s performance principles as his aesthetic sensibility, eventually carving himself a remarkable body.
After some time, André Nocquet started to consider living off his passion and despite some initial reluctance from his father who wanted his son to take care of the family farm, Nocquet decided to study to become a gymnastics teacher. Having managed to convince his parents, he left for Paris in 1932 to enroll at the Desbonnet school located at 55 rue de Ponthieu, near the Champs Elysee. There he attended the classes of Dr. Boris Dolto, the pioneer of modern physiotherapy. It is interesting to note that Edmund Desbonnet had contributed to the introduction in France of Edward William Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu, an art strongly influenced by Japanese Ju-jutsu. Desbonnet had actually run formal Ju-jutsu classes for a while and although these had been discontinued by the time Nocquet arrived rue Ponthieu, it is not unreasonable to think that he might have received some degree of instruction in Ju-jutsu while he was there.
Now formally qualified as a gymnastics instructor and as a physiotherapist, Nocquet left the French capital in 1936 and opened his own fitness and therapy practice in the city of Angoulême. However, martial arts were soon to take the center stage in his life and in 1937, he began to make frequent trips to Paris to study Ju-jutsu under the direction of Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, the founder of the Jiu-jitsu Club de France. Two years earlier, Feldenkrais had invited the famous Kawaishi Mikonosuke to come and settle in France in order to teach Judo and Nocquet became the 17th student of Kawaishi Sensei in 1938. Nocquet proved a brilliant student and he distinguished himself on the tatami both during training and during competitions. Unfortunately, the breaking out of the Second World War was soon to put an end to this adventure.
Period of the Second World War
Nocquet was incorporated at the beginning of World War II in the 404th Regiment of defense against aircrafts, but he was soon taken prisoner on June 4, 1940, during the Battle of Dunkerque near Malo-les-Bains. He was transferred from prison to prison, suffering privations of all kinds, which seriously undermined his once glorious physical condition. After several failed escape attempts, he finally managed to flee from Cologne’s Stalag VI-G on October 11, 1943, and returned to France under the pseudonym Jean Hervé, where he joined the French Forces of the Resistance. Once the war ended, he was formally recognized for his heroism and awarded the “Médaille des Évadés” (Escapees’ Medal), as well as the Croix du combattant.
Post-war practice and discovery of Aikido
Back in the Southwest in 1945, Nocquet resumed his professional activities in Angoulême. On September 12th of that year, he became the 56th Judo black belt of the country upon promotion by Kawaishi Sensei, who also issued him a self-defense certificate. Nocquet also created the first judo club in the region where he promoted nearly 40 black belts of his own. The police in Bordeaux quickly took an interest in this exceptional individual and they requested him to teach their instructors in Judo and Ju-jutsu.
It is in 1949, during his Judo study, that Nocquet discovered a new discipline called Aikido. He saw it being demonstrated by Mochizuki Minoru Sensei who had been invited by Kawaishi Sensei. The circularity, elegance, and refinement of Aikido techniques made a strong impression on Nocquet. Most importantly, the lack of grabs and pre-arranged positions made him realize that to defend himself in the street, a knowledge of the techniques of Aikido could be very complementary to his skills in Judo. He immediately decided to devote himself to learning this new discipline and he became a student of Master Mochizuki, effectively enrolling on the spot. The rather Cartesian approach of Mochizuki Sensei, which was the fruit of his adaptation efforts to turn traditional Japanese teaching into something more adapted to the Western audience, appealed very much to Nocquet and he studied with him with great dedication until Mochizuki left France in 1952.
Budo demonstration performed during the first edition of the European Judo Championship (1951) in front of more than 10,000 spectators. Demonstrators include Kawaishi Mikonosuke, Shozo Awazu, Mochizuki Minoru, and André Nocquet. This is probably the first ever demonstration of Aikido in the West.
The charge of coordinating Aikido in continental Europe was then assigned to Abe Tadashi Sensei. His Aikido seemed even more impressive to Nocquet, albeit a little edgier, and perhaps violent. Nocquet continued his study of Aikido under Abe Sensei, who promoted him to the rank of first Dan in 1954. Nocquet now 4th Dan in Judo and an Aikido 1st Dan, founded clubs in the cities of Bordeaux and Biarritz, where he taught until 1955, ensuring the promotion of over 200 black belts.
Seeing his unusual enthusiasm and aware of his abilities, Abe Sensei advised Nocquet to go to Japan to learn Aikido at the source, from O Sensei Ueshiba Morihei. Nocquet, who was then running a dojo in Bordeaux with over 300 students, took some time to be convinced, but after a few months, he finally agreed to make the trip. Under the supervision of the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the advice of the French academician Georges Duhamel, who was also a friend of the Nocquet family he was put commissioned to travel to Japan in order to strengthen the bilateral relations established by the Franco-Japanese Cultural Agreement.
Duhamel, who had repeatedly traveled to Japan and who had been instrumental in the signing of the agreement, assumed the role of a mentor for Nocquet before his departure, warning him about the culture shock that was to come, and advising him to reach its destination by boat, since according to him, one had to earn Asia in small steps. Nocquet’s mission was to study Aikido as the first foreign student to live at the home (uchi deshi) of the founder, Ueshiba Morihei. He was also mandated to learn little-known healing methods such as physical therapy, shiatsu, and seitaijutsu, under the direction of masters such as Nishi Katsuo, the founder of the Nishi Health System, who was also an instructor at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo and whose “fish” exercise (kingyo undo) is still widely practiced during Aikido warm-ups. The French newspaper “Sud-Ouest” also asked Nocquet to serve as a correspondent in Japan.
Departure for Japan
Nocquet left for Japan in June 1955, at the age of 40. Following the advice of Duhamel, he took the boat, travelling in fourth class on the maritime mail ship “Le Laos”. He killed time during the crossing by teaching Ju-jutsu to the ship’s officers, who in turn, gave him access to a first class cabin when it got too hot. Nocquet arrived in Japan after about a month of crossing.
Upon his arrival, he was invited at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he was officially welcomed by Mr. Kuni Matsuo, the deputy editor of the Yomuri newspaper. Nocquet did not speak any Japanese, but he had relatively good command of English, which allowed him to find his feet quickly. He was very surprised to learn that his hosts knew nothing about Aikido, which was understandable since O Sensei only taught to a small number of students from the upper classes of Nippon society. After this meeting, he immediately went to the Tokyo headquarters of the Aikikai to meet Ueshiba Morihei.
The daily routine at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo
Ueshiba Morihei did not speak any other language than Japanese so communication was a little difficult, but fortunately, the Francophone philosopher Tsuda Itsuo had been mandated by Duhamel to translate for Nocquet. This contact with Ueshiba actually triggered Tsuda’s interest and he himself began to study of Aikido soon after the departure of Nocquet, circa 1961.
Tsuda Itsuo training at the Hombu Dojo (1968)
Living and training conditions were very difficult for Nocquet, he slept on on the floor of a small three-tatami room (approximatively three square meters) and trained every day for 5 hours with the 20 or so other regular students. The teaching was very different from what he was used to. According to Nocquet, O Sensei would say “It is difficult to make André Nocquet understand Aikido, therefore, I will teach him during his sleep, when he can not talk back”.
While Mochizuki Sensei and Abe Sensei took a very systematic and pedagogical approach to teaching, at Hombu Dojo, he was told to repeat the same movement over and over again, without explanation, until exhaustion.
André Nocquet practicing with Tamura Nobuyoshi at the Aikikai under the direction of Ueshiba Morihei
They both quickly became the favorite partners of Nocquet although the practice was sometimes quite physical. The few other foreigners who took classes at the Ueshiba Dojo were mostly Americans who did not live at the dojo and who only came sporadically. By the time Nocquet arrived, the dojo had just resumed its activities, after the ban on martial arts established by General MacArthur had been removed in 1951 via the Treaty of San Francisco.
Every day the same routine applied, Nocquet rose at 5 am and started cleaning the dojo for an hour. The first training session took place at 6:15, usually led by then Dojo-cho Ueshiba Kisshomaru, followed by a half an hour break before the morning second class. Breakfast only came after that second session. Even if the need for food was intense, Nocquet admitted that he never really got used to eating pickled fish for breakfast, and he even contracted giant urticaria repeatedly in response to that unusual diet. The morning snack was followed by free practice until lunch time, when the wives of O Sensei and his son would take charge of feeding the deshi. The dojo was usually used after lunch for free practice.
At 4 pm, the formal training resumed under the direction of one of he dojo’s instructors such as Tohei Koichi, the technical director of the Aikikai, Okumura Shigenobu, Osawa Kisaburo or Tada Hiroshi. The class was followed by a pause of 30 minutes until 5 pm, and finally, one last hour of keiko concluded the day.
It can be argued that of all instructors, Nocquet received the most instruction from Tohei Koichi. Tohei’s classes indeed constitute the largest number of entries in Nocquet’s personnal journal. In the absence of Tsuda, it is indeed likely that Tohei Sensei, who was regularly teaching in English during his many trips to Hawaii ever since 1953, was one of the only people at Hombu whoudl could effectively communicate with Nocquet.
The beginnings of the international recognition of Aikido
The Ueshiba family was not as weatlthy as it once was Aikido was taught mainly to members of the upper classes of Japanese society. Therefore, outside support would be required if the organization was to survive. According to Okumura Shigenobu, the arrival of Nocquet really marked a media upturn in the dojo with domestic and international journalists taking much interest in the extraordinary adventures of this middle-aged man.
Nocquet’s contacts were also put to use to set up an official event to introduce Aikido to the foreign dignitaries present in Japan. It took place at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo on September 28, 1955 and cultural representatives of several foreign embassies were invited. During this event, O Sensei gave a lecture on the spiritual ideals of Aikido, followed by a demonstration, to which Nocquet took part.
The event was a great success and it ended up having a reach that went well beyond Tokyo and Japan. It in fact formally kick-started the incredible spread of Aikido in the world. Other demonstrations followed, notably on the roofs of several of Tokyo’s department stores. Note that Nocquet was indeed in Japan when the very first public display of Aikido took place on the roof of the Takashimaya Department Store in October 1955 but the extent of his involvement is uncertain.
According to an entry in Nocquet’s personal journal, some work to shoot a promotional video had been initiated, including a section shot in the garden of the Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo (ホテル椿山荘東京). This excertps was actually found in Nocquet’s 8 mm film archives, but it is unclear whether the project ever got into full fruiton.
The founder of Aikido Ueshiba Morihei is seen taking a walk with his son, the second Doshu Ueshiba Kisshomaru, André Nocquet, and a number of unidentified persons. The woman on the right of O Sensei at 2:10 is Sunadomari Fukiko, the elder sister of Sunadomari Kanshu, and a close personal confidante of the founder until his death. She was also a high ranking practitioner of aikido.
Other martial experiences and official recognitions
In his spare time, Nocquet studied self-defense with Kenji Tomiki Sensei, the founder of the Tomiki Aikido style, and chief instructor at the Kodokan Judo headquarters. He also studied briefly Kyokushin Karate with Masutatsu Oyama Sensei, but was soon reminded by O Sensei that he had come to focus on Aikido. So he stopped his training with Oyama Sensei, the latter understanding well that simultaneous practice of two such demanding disciplines was not feasible.
In 1957, Nocquet was officially promoted to the rank of Shidoin (instructor) of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo and he also received a diploma in self-defense from Tomiki Sensei.
Nocquet also received a diploma in Shiatsu by Namikoshi Tokujiro, the president of the International School of Shiatsu in Tokyo, and was requested by Nishi Katsuo to teach the principles of Japanese health systems to French officials.
Departure from Japan and return to France
Nocquet left Japan in October 1957 via the port of Yokohama on a boat bound to San Francisco via Hawaii. On his way back, he stopped in the United States of America and taught Aikido to the Fresno Police Department. Missing his homeland, he finally returned to France during the summer of 1958.
On his return to France, Nocquet immediately began to teach. He was also asked to write an extensive report for the Ministry of Education, putting in parallel what he had learned in Japan with traditional European martial techniques developed since the 15th century.
Official duties as a representative of the Aikikai and management of Aikido in France and Europe
Nocquet, now a 4th Dan in Aikido, was appointed by Abe Tadashi Sensei as his successor when he returned to Japan in 1960. On April 16, 1962, this responsibility was made offical by Ueshiba Morihei himself when he sent a formal request to Nocquet to become the general representative of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in France. The 5th Dan Aikikai was awarded to Nocquet by Murashige Aritomo Sensei, along with a certificate signed by Morihei Ueshiba.
Nocquet welcomed the arrival in France of two former training partners, Masamichi Noro in 1961, and Nobuyoshi Tamura in 1964. Both men were sent to help develop Aikido in France and in the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, the presence on the territory of two high-level instructors exacerbated tensions within an already heterogeneous community of Aikidoka and led to splits and disagreements which are still alive today.
Documentary from the French TV featuring André Nocquet and Tamura Nobuyoshi
With the help of teachers in Belgium, Italy, Germany and Switzerland, Nocquet founded the European Federation of Aikido. On July 6th, 1973, Kobayashi Hirokazu awarded the 7th Dan from the his own organisation, the Aikido Osaka Hombu (therefore unrecognized by the Aikikai) to Nocquet during and International Seminar that they taught jointly in La Baule (France). The same year, he worked with Mochizuki Hiroo (son of Mochizuki Minoru) and Nobuyoshi Tamura on the formalization of an Aikido curriculum, which is still in place today. He also helped establishing a state-recognized diploma of Aikido instructor.
Nocquet taught most of the current senior Aikido instructors in Europe, as well as soldiers from the National Paratrooper Union, and officials from the National Police. Nocquet continued to teach Aikido and to work for the spread of Aikido’s pacifist ideals through courses and lectures that he gave throughout Europe.
From 1975, Nocquet began writing his first book on Aikido, recounting his experience in Japan. In it, he added a collection of previously unpublished photos that he took of Ueshiba Morihei. He also particpated in a number of large events such as the annual martial arts festival of Paris-Bercy.
André Nocquet demonstrating in Bercy (1990)
Nocquet was involved in the creation of the International Federation of Aikido in 1976. Professors Lucien Israel, Georges Mathé, Leon Schwarzenberg, and Maurice Tubiana awarded him the diploma of the Association for the Development of Cancer Research to thank him for his support of their initiative. He received the title of Knight of the National Order of Merit in July 10, 1982. He was promoted by his federation to 8th Dan Aikido in 1985 and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor April 2, 1994. Despite the fragmentation of Aikido in France, Nocquet spared no efforts in the aim to unify all practitioners, in partnership with Tamura Nobuyoshi Sensei. Nocquet returned to Japan in 1990 for the first time in 33 years in order to present Aikido Doshu Ueshiba Kisshomaru with a gold medal from the French Ministry of Sports.
Death and legacy
André Nocquet died on March 12, 1999 at the age of 84 and he was buried in Prahecq, his hometown. His closest students continue to perpetuate the teaching of Aikido within the Groupe Historique Aikido André Nocquet founded in 1988 as part of the French Federation of Aikido and Budo (FFAB) led by Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei.
Note: Most of the archive pictures in this article were kindly provided to me by Tada Hiroshi Shihan, Kobayashi Yasuo Shihan, as well Mr Frank de Craene and Mr Claude Duchesne, the stewards of André Nocquet’s archives.
- Nocquet, André – Maître Morihei Uyeshiba, présence et message. Guy Trédaniel Éditeur. May 2007. ISBN : 978-2-84445-762-2 (in French)
- Article about André Nocquet from the 70’s (in French)
- Interview with André Nocquet for France Culture
- Douche, Jean François – O Sensei, évocation et Témoignages (in French)
- André Nocquet Returns to Japan (in English)
- Erard, Guillaume – The history of Japanese martial arts in Europe
- Homepage of the Bartitsu Society
- Pranin, Stanley – Interview with Shigenobu Okumura (1983)
- Erard, Guillaume – The promotion of Christian Tissier to the 8th Dan put on hold
- Nocquet, André – Personal letter to Daniel André Brun (January 1, 1972)
- Nocquet, André – Personal journal (redacted between August 1956 and November 1957)