Interview with Alan Ruddock, the first Irish Aikido practitioner
Alan Ruddock is one of the very few people who got the opportunity to train with O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba. He is the only Irishman to have done so, spending 3 years with the founder of Aikido. However, his martial art background goes well before that. Besides being the first Irish Aikido practitioner, his country also owes him the introduction of Karate on the island. I met with this kind gentleman and true budo master for a discussion about his past and what makes his Aikido so unique.
Guillaume Erard: How did you get into martial arts?
Alan Ruddock: When I was about thirteen I found a book on Judo in my brother’s book case. My interest grew from that discovery.
Guillaume Erard: You are credited as being the first Karate practitioner in Ireland and the importer of this art to your country, how did you learn about Karate?
Alan Ruddock: It was basically as a result of the discovery of that book. It was written by E.J. Harrison. When I went to a book shop to try to find more books on Judo, I discovered a book he had written on Karate.
Guillaume Erard: How did you manage training without any dojo or teacher around?
Ruddock and Murakami
Alan Ruddock: I just got on with learning as best I could with one or two friends from school. I also managed to get a wonderful book by Nishiyama and Brown. That book in particular was very helpful. I built a makiwara in the back garden and practiced on the concrete paths.
Guillaume Erard: You then became the representative in Ireland for the Japan Karate Association. Did you set up some kind of official organization?
Alan Ruddock: I actually contacted the British Karate Federation and initially joined up with them. Later I formed the Irish Karate-Do Society. The Japan Karate Association was not in Europe at that time. They arrived after I had joined the Merchant Navy. Tetsugi Murakami Sensei was the man we learned from. He had learned in Mochizuki’s school in Japan where they studied Judo, Aikido and Karate.
Guillaume Erard: How was your relationship with Murakami Sensei? What kind of man was he?
Alan Ruddock: Murakami, in those early days was an extremely tough man. We imagined that he must have been a trainee suicide torpedoist! He only spoke Japanese and French. Most of the dojo instructions I remember from that time are in French or Japanese. If you did not understand what he said, you would receive a slap across the face to help to focus your attention! I had almost no French, but I have never forgotten Murakami’s Karate commands in French or Japanese, as I received quite a few reminders! After class and outside the dojo he was a different man, very pleasant and good natured always smoking a Gitane cigarette.
Guillaume Erard: You first practiced Aikido in Ireland, who taught you?
Alan Ruddock: I actually discovered Aikido with Murakami Sensei on the initial Karate course that I traveled to in England. On that course I had my first Karate grading from Murakami. He graded me straight to 5th kyu which made me realize the value of my Nishiyama and Brown book, as that was the only ‘instruction’ I had been exposed to up to then. The Aikido class was just for one hour but it obviously sowed a seed in my brain. Just like Karate, there was no one to teach me Aikido in Ireland. I got Koichi Tohei’s book, and started to try to teach myself.
Guillaume Erard: Did you have any contact with the group led by Mr. Williams in the U.K.?
Ruddock (right) training in the early 60’s
Alan Ruddock: I joined the Merchant Navy as a Radio Officer and traveled all over the world. My last trip took me to Japan where I visited the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. O-Sensei wasn’t there that day but I made up my mind there and then, to return to learn Aikido. When I returned to Ireland to prepare, I took the opportunity to take the week long summer course run by Ken Williams in England. Nakazono Sensei was the instructor. That was the only instruction I had from any aikidoka prior to the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo.
Guillaume Erard: You then went back to Japan to learn Aikido didn’t you?
Alan Ruddock: I then traveled by sea back to Japan. I went the cheapest way possible, living under the fore-deck of the Messageries Maritimes ship ‘Viet Nam’ which sailed from Marseilles. The trip took about six weeks.
Guillaume Erard: What were your first impressions when you got into the Hombu dojo?
Alan Ruddock: It was the old dojo, very pleasant, it felt like home. There were only a few foreigners there at that time. Just a handful practiced every day.
Guillaume Erard: And when you finally saw O-Sensei, did you feel as many say, that some kind of magic was going on?
Alan Ruddock: I don’t have any time for those who talk of magic. O-Sensei was a wonderful old man. One who had something very special, something that we may all seek to get closer to, but it was not magic.
Guillaume Erard: I guess that as a Karate man, you were probably a bit harder to convince than others?
Alan Ruddock: When I first saw O-Sensei in action in the dojo, I paid very respectful attention to what was going on. I did not think it was supernatural or magical, it all seemed too easy. As a former judoka and karateka I was wondering what this man was doing that made things appear so simple. That was the focus of my attention.
Guillaume Erard: Could you describe Morihei Ueshiba to us?
Alan Ruddock: When I saw him he was more than eighty years of age. At other times in his life he was no doubt different in many ways. I can only speak about what I experienced. He was outside of the normal Japanese strict formality. That is to say, he seemed to live life as he thought best not always adhering to the normal formalities. He was an enigma. A man who had something very special, but who never really tried to expose or pass on the secret of his art. If you saw him in the street you would think he was just another older Japanese gentleman dressed in traditional clothes.
Guillaume Erard: What is your take on the supposedly supernatural prowess of O-Sensei that we often hear about?
Alan Ruddock: As I said already, I don’t think magic or the supernatural came into it. If you meet someone from the Amazon rain forest and use your mobile phone to get something they want dropped to where you are by helicopter, they may think that is magic. However, once they get a mobile themselves, they will realize how easy it actually was for you. In terms of O-Sensei’s ability, if you begin to understand the real meaning of Ai Ki, his ‘mobile phone’ is within your grasp!
Guillaume Erard: How often did you train and how was training at that time?
Alan Ruddock: I trained every single day including Sunday. There were two lessons in the early morning, a three o’clock session and one last class. On Sunday there was just one session taken by Morihiro Saito Sensei from Iwama. I also had private lessons once a week at 10 o’clock in the morning. O-Sensei gave private lessons to one or two people during the week. These seemed to be older men; their uke was always one of the uchideshi.
The actual nature of practice varied from class to class. Some teachers were comparatively gentle, others quite severe. But within every session you would find considerable variation in how your partner executed the techniques. A Japanese girl actually threw Terry Dobson in one session and almost knocked him out! He was thinking ‘Oh no! I’ve got to practice all this session with a GIRL” Her first throw reminded him that things are not always what you think!
Guillaume Erard: Could you talk to us about the other foreigners that were there?
Alan Ruddock: I was the only Irishman and Ken Cottier was the only Englishman. There were five or six Americans including Terry Dobson. Henry Kono was the only Canadian. There was one Norwegian and also two Germans who practiced Judo who came occasionally. I was the only one I believe who traveled to Japan specifically to study Aikido. My initial one year visa stated ‘to study Aikido’.
O Sensei surrounded by the group of foreign students
From left to right: Alan Ruddock, Henry Kono, Per Winter, Joanne Willard, Joe Deisher, O Sensei, Joanne Shimamoto, Kenneth Cottier, Unknown, Norman Miles and Terry Dobson (photo taken by Georges Willard with Henry Kono’s camera)
Guillaume Erard: Was it tough to be foreigners?
Alan Ruddock: As an Irishman I had no problems, quite the reverse. There was some negativity directed towards America on account of the Vietnam War, but in the dojo, as long as you trained reasonably there were no difficulties. Financially, as the pound sterling was worth 1000 yen, and your monthly rent was about 8000 yen, two or three English conversation lessons a month would pay the rent! It was a very different world from what we know today.
Guillaume Erard: How about for women such as Mary Heiny, were there many women at Hombu?
Alan Ruddock: I never saw Mary Heiny and I do not think she trained at Hombu when O-Sensei was alive. There were a few Japanese women who trained and two foreigners, Joanne Shimamoto (who later married Akira Tohei Sensei) who was an American like Virginia Mayhew who was Nidan and set up the Hong Kong Aikikai prior to Kenneth Cottier.
Guillaume Erard: Was there a difference in the atmosphere during classes taught by O-Sensei and the ones taught by other teachers?
Alan Ruddock: When O-Sensei’s house had been knocked down to make way for the building of the new Hombu dojo, he took quite a few classes, very many of which I attended. Prior to that time he did not take classes but would always enter the dojo, demonstrate and then talk to some students before entering the small dojo office to watch the class through the glass panel. The atmosphere in all of the classes was pretty much the same no matter who the sensei was. Of course whenever O-Sensei took a class I tried to pay close attention to what he did, but it must be remembered, not one of any sensei’s class was a lesson as we might think of it. The sensei did a ‘technique’ and then everyone got up and tried to replicate what had been done. If they came to ‘help’ you it was merely a straightforward re-enactment of what they had done initially. The only one who ‘taught’ in our western understanding was Koichi Tohei who had been to Hawaii and parts of the United States.
Guillaume Erard: Do you have memories that particularly stick out from your time over there?
Alan Ruddock: There are many, many memories of the old dojo in particular. I am trying to finish writing a short book and have put some in the text. The one thing in particular that stands out in my recollection was the normal atmosphere in the dojo. No stupid formality, just friendly, no-nonsense practice.
Guillaume Erard: Could you describe these teachers in a few words?
Alan Ruddock: Koichi Tohei was the only sensei who gave lessons or spoke to foreigners in English. His style was very free…. Now he is known for Ki Aikido. I attended all of the lessons he gave in a small dojo in Iidabashi.
Alan Rudodck and Koichi Tohei
Kisshomaru Ueshiba was much more formal, as the Master’s son trying to keep what he understood as Aikido on the straight and narrow.
Shoji Nishio Sensei was very interesting, he taught Iaido prior to Aikido classes. I attended many of his classes in a small dojo in the north of Tokyo. He would do a Karate or sword movement at the beginning of a class, then would show multiple Aikido moves which came from that initial point.
Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei did just a small collection of moves throughout the year. He was quite interesting. He had brought Aikido to Malaysia and thought highly of Virginia Mayhew teaching Aikido in Hong Kong.
Kisaburo Osawa Sensei was a wonderful character. He seemed so gentle and quiet in his technique but you soon realized the effectiveness of it when he executed a move on you.
Nobuyoshi Tamura and Kazuo Chiba were not around when I joined the dojo.
Morihiro Saito Sensei always gave the Sunday morning class. He would sometimes not wear hakama. He was a very powerful man. Now he is known for ‘Iwama’ style. Of course when I trained, there were really umpteen ‘styles’ under the roof of the Hombu Dojo. Just go to a different class and get a different ‘style’.
I attended quite a few of Mitsugi Saotome Sensei’s classes. He was very straightforward and ordered. I had private lessons from Ichihashi Sensei and Irozaku Kobayashi Sensei who had completely different styles of ‘instruction’, Norihiko Ichihashi just throwing me continuously, Kobayashi taking much more ukemi than me and trying to show me precisely what I should be doing.
Guillaume Erard: It is admitted that there were no weapons classes in Tokyo at the time but there were some at the Iwama dojo. Have you got any idea why O-Sensei was opposed to the practice of weapons in Tokyo?
Alan Ruddock: Tohei did give some weapons instruction in Iidabashi and I attended one single class in Hombu where weapons were used. O-Sensei’s point was that one should learn to move your body before you use a weapon. The important aspect should be what is happening in your head, not your hands.
Guillaume Erard: So what do you think about the concept that Aikido is, 1/3 Taijutsu, 1/3 Aikiken and 1/3 Aikijo?
Alan Ruddock: I think that that is much too formal a position. If you try to move in the ‘usual’ manner in these arts you will not truly understand the open nature of O-Sensei’s Aikido. A weapon, whether it is an AK47 or a frying pan should merely be an extension of the body’s movement, not an art in itself. Practitioners of Ken and Jo schools often smile at Aiki-Ken and Jo moves. However, the reason for these moves lies in Ai Ki not in the weapon.
Guillaume Erard: Some people argue that O-Sensei was very rarely in Tokyo at that time, how often did you see him on the mat?
Alan Ruddock: I saw him on a couple of hundred occasions. His house was initially attached to the dojo. Every day he was in Tokyo he would always enter the dojo, demonstrate and watch what was going on from the very small dojo office. When the ‘new’ dojo was being built he often came in keikogi and would take a class. I attended very many of these. He later had some severe bouts of illness. I remember one morning when we were all told to leave the dojo and as I left, O-Sensei was on his futon (Japanese bedding) which was right in the center of the mat just in front of the shomen. On other occasions he actually slept on the floor of the tiny dojo office which was entered directly from the mat in the dojo. I actually went to see him lying on his futon on the floor of the office. Joanne Shimamoto (who lived just across the road and came to look after Sensei) and an English aikidoka who wanted to see O-Sensei, came with me. The Englishman lay on the floor beside O-Sensei, while I and Joanne sat in seiza. O-Sensei said, “He doesn’t have any manners”. This man who was from London and had a strong Cockney accent (I had to ‘translate’ for him so the Americans could understand!) decided that Hombu was not doing real Aikido and got me to put him on the train to Iwama. That didn’t please him either. He told me that they had a party after the practice and each time he entered the room they threw him right out through another door into the rock garden! He soon left Japan and returned home.
Guillaume Erard: In a previous interview, Henry Kono told us that from day one, he knew that O-Sensei was doing something different from all the other teachers. Did you have the same feeling?
Alan Ruddock: It was obvious to the intelligent observer that what O-Sensei was doing did not fit in with ‘normal’ practice.
Guillaume Erard: When you left Japan, what did you do? I heard you went to Hong Kong to help Virginia Mayhew with running the Hong Kong Aikikai, how were things over there?
Alan Ruddock: I did travel to Hong Kong to help Virginia, briefly whilst I was living in Tokyo and then for a few months on my journey home. She had a great group of people and a vibrant dojo where the Chinese were very eager to learn. She died last year in the States. She was a great character and a wonderful teacher.
Guillaume Erard: Then you returned to Ireland. Did you run an Aikido federation over there? Were you approached by the organizations in place?
Alan Ruddock: I travelled through London and briefly met Chiba Sensei. He brought me to a pub, bought me a pint of Guinness and proceeded to thump the table while telling me that real Aikido was not in Japan, because they were all going soft. I returned to Dublin realizing that I was out on my own. I started an Aikido group which had quite a number of the people who I had originally learned Karate with as members. I did not start or run any Aikido federation, just a dojo. There were no organizations at that time or indeed anyone else practicing Aikido.
Guillaume Erard: After that you got employed in England. Why did you avoid contact with Kazuo Chiba, the Aikikai delegate over there?
Alan Ruddock: I had to leave Dublin to find employment. I went and lived in London but I did realize that I was on a different path to others who followed the ‘official’ Aikido line. I had spent three years at the source and I knew where I wanted to be, even if I was not quite sure yet how to get there. I taught a small Aikido group at the college where I studied to become a schoolteacher.
Guillaume Erard: You then moved to the Isle of Man and ran your own group, the Aiki no Michi ever since. Could you tell us more about it?
Alan Ruddock: I started an Aikido group on the Isle of Man and it developed well for a year or two. Then when people wished to be graded, I joined with the Aikikai group in Britain. This was all right for a number of years, but the sense of being part of a worldwide monumental structure operated like a commercial business from Japan was not where I wished to be.
I left and set up my own group which I called Aiki no Michi. This was a loose organization where anyone from whatever dojo or ‘style’ was welcome to come to explore an Aikido which was always focused on the essential simplicity of the Founder’s art.
Guillaume Erard: You travel abroad more and more to give seminars. Which countries do you go to?
Alan Ruddock: If I am asked I will go, if people think it worthwhile. I go to 4 or 5 areas in Ireland, and to a similar number in England and Wales. I have also been to Poland, Germany, Italy, the Basque Country, Portugal and the Netherlands.
Guillaume Erard: Your Aikido being quite different from the standard taught by Aikikai teachers, what kind of response do you get from people who see you for the first time?
Alan Ruddock: Usually it is very positive. I have learned that these ideas do not suit everyone. Some people enjoy Smash Ki Do, I personally enjoy Aikido.
Guillaume Erard: From your time of practice and your time with O-Sensei, you are probably one of the most experienced Aikidoka in Europe. Why are you so discreet about it?
Alan Ruddock: All of the great teachers of the martial arts had very small groups initially and did not go around blowing their own trumpets. I am not a ‘great’ teacher but that is all the more reason to quietly do what I do. Real Ninja do not dress up in funny clothes and carry swords; they look just like everyone else…
Guillaume Erard: You graded with the Aikikai up to fifth dan I believe. Why did you leave the organization?
Alan Ruddock: I graded to 4th dan with the Aikikai and as mentioned previously decided that I should part company with the worldwide commercial organization.
Guillaume Erard: You graded sixth dan within the Butokukai, could you talk to us about this organization and why you graded there?
Alan Ruddock: I joined the Butokukai because one man in England where I was teaching had his group affiliated to them. They are an organization which includes all Japanese martial arts. O-Sensei was involved with the original Butokukai. I met the Japanese leader at a course and took a grading. I was graded 5th dan. They subsequently graded me 6th dan. I just decided that if anyone was into numbers then I could play the numbers game as well. The only certificate I really value is my shodan taken in the original old Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. I usually never mention my grade or even think about it.
Guillaume Erard: Do you have any contact with your former classmates from Hombu dojo nowadays?
Alan Ruddock: Ken Cottier who is 6th dan with the Aikikai and founder of the present Hong Kong Aikikai, I have seen many times. I keep in frequent contact with Ken. Henry Kono I generally see once or twice a year when we give a combined course. Joanne Tohei, nee Shimamoto (she married Akira Tohei who died about two years ago) I talk with occasionally on the phone. Virginia Mayhew passed away last October. The others I have not had any contact with.
Guillaume Erard: Now let’s get into the specifics of your teaching. Could you describe the main aspects of your teaching?
Alan Ruddock: I try to show to students the simplicity of basic ‘techniques’ which actually follow the principle of genuine Ai Ki. It requires a quantum leap in perception to actually execute these moves as real Aikido. The difficulty lies in what we try to ‘do’ or not ‘do’.
Guillaume Erard: What is the “neutral point”?
Alan Ruddock: When Henry Kono spoke to me about O-Sensei’s statement to him as to why we could not do what he did, “Because you do not understand Yin and Yang”, this solved for me the mystery I had been struggling with for many, many years. Your focus of attention should neither be on Yin or Yang but where they meet. This is basically the Chinese view, between Yin and Yang there is obviously a neutral point, why bother to mention it. In the Aryuvedic description of the movement of forces, there are Positive, Neutral and Negative areas described. This alternative view of the same situation may ‘open the door’ for those who are perplexed at being asked to be somewhere which is ‘nameless’.
Guillaume Erard: What about this “Monkey” business of yours?
Alan Ruddock: The Chinese story of ‘Monkey’ is basically the story of a priest journeying to seek the truth and his ‘friends’ Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy who accompany him on the trip. It is actually a description of the turmoil which goes on in all of our minds. The relevance to Aikido lies in the fact that for the priest to be able to observe the contact or neutral point, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy have to be appropriately employed.
Guillaume Erard: Why is it important not to rearrange our partner?
Alan Ruddock: For the very simple reason that once we rearrange we are no longer at the neutral point and we are giving our uke information which they may use against us.
Guillaume Erard: You don’t like postures and big stances, would you care to say why?
Alan Ruddock: Posture is important. We need to stand up and move. However, other postural notions and stances inhibit our natural motion. If we fix the position of our feet we inhibit our ability to stay at the neutral point. They also encourage us to ‘do’ something to our uke, to ‘power’ them into the mat, performing smashkido.
Guillaume Erard: You often say “Don’t use your hands, move your feet”. What does this mean?
Alan Ruddock: It is merely a way of trying to get people to understand the significance of moving the body as opposed to just moving the hands. Just like when you have to ‘push’ a car to start it, you connect with your hands, but you push with your legs.
Guillaume Erard: You don’t necessarily look at your partner while doing Aikido, why?
Alan Ruddock: If you ‘look’ at something you are attached to it. If you just SEE out of the windows, your mind is free and unattached. If you ‘look’, you reduce the scope of information reaching your consciousness. You get more about what you are ‘looking’ at and a lot less about what you can SEE from the same position. In terms of Aikido as ‘one against many’, seeing is more valuable than looking.
Guillaume Erard: I have seen you teaching “weapons” on only one occasion… using only bokken handles!! What are you trying to get across by doing this?
Alan Ruddock: The weapon is merely an extension of your body. As I mentioned before, the AK47 or the frying pan are only useful weapons if you move your body correctly. In the lesson you describe, the bokken indicated the straight line motion which one had to follow in order to complete the move.
Guillaume Erard: The atmosphere during your classes is very relaxed. Are etiquette and strict discipline not important?
Alan Ruddock: Basic manners dictate that you respect your teacher. If you do not like what they do, or believe you ‘have’ it and they do not, you will quietly leave or not appear next time. I am trying to deliver a very simple message which at the same time is very hard for those used to ‘normal’ Aikido to understand. I stick to what I was used to in Japan, all those years ago, where there was a relaxed atmosphere, conducive to learning. I always remember my private teacher Ichihashi who spoke to me the day I left Japan and said, “Remember all these things we do like bowing and sitting in seiza are Japanese not Aikido. When you return home teach Aikido your way”.
Guillaume Erard: I recently published an interview with Henry Kono and an essay on his teachings. What is your connection with Henry and what is your take on what he is doing?
Alan Ruddock: When I was in Japan, Henry was a close friend. He would come to my room after class to have bacon and egg sandwiches which he regarded as real food! As a Canadian he was into good nourishment. After he returned home from Japan, I was still at Hombu for about another year. I never saw him or had contact with him again until 1995. He spoke to me about O-Sensei’s comment on Yin and Yang and his unravelling of the mystery of that statement. He made a trip to Ireland and the Isle of Man to show me what O-Sensei’s statement meant to him.
Guillaume Erard: How did it relate with your personal investigation of Aikido?
Alan Ruddock: It absolutely solved the mystery of O-Sensei’s Aikido and it let everything fall into appropriate order. When you struggle with something for years of your life, the answer however apparently simple is just so obvious.
Guillaume Erard: To finish, what message would you like to address to the young Aikido practitioners who read this interview?
Alan Ruddock: The message I would give to Aikidoka in general is that what we see today is not, in my humble opinion, the Aikido of the founder. It has become so many other things. So many complications, additions and unnecessary requirements hide the essential nature of the art. However, those who seek shall find, and if they are able to step outside of the box and dispassionately explore, they may discover a very simple magical secret!
To go further:
- Interview with Henry Kono
- Henry Kono’s article: Yin and Yang in motion
- Pictures kindly provided by Robert Bergman
 C. Layton. Shotokan Dawn Over Ireland: A Selected, Early History of Shotokan Karate in Eire: 1960-1964, Aiki Pathways, 2006.