Interview with André Nocquet, 8th Dan pioneer of Aikido in Europe
André Nocquet 8th Dan Aikido, 4th Dan Judo, was one of the pioneers of Budo in Europe. He was the first ever foreign uchi deshi of Morihei Ueshiba and the training partner of Tamura Nobuyoshi. This interview was conducted for the French radio station France Culture in 1988, following the publishing of Master André Nocquet’s first book entitled “Morihei Ueshiba – Presence et Message”. For the occasion, the journalist asked Nocquet about his experience in Japan, learning for almost three years as a live-in disciple of Morihei Ueshiba Sensei, and his subsequent work to develop Aikido in France and Europe. I have published here the full length audio interview with added subtitles in English, as well as a full transcript of the piece for your reading convenience.
France Culture: You just published a new book “Morihei Ueshiba – Presence and Message” for the editions Guy Tredaniel Editeur. I believe that before you started Aikido, you were already interested in other practices, including Judo,how did you get from one to the other?
André Nocquet: My journey was quite long. I started at the age of 17 years. In the attic of my father, I found a little book on the Sandow bodybuilding method, and since I was not very big, I thought it was rather a good idea to start building muscles in order not to always get beaten by the of the kids at school. So I bulked up, and I founded in the city of Angoulême a fitness club and a physiotherapy cabinet. After that, I met the master Kawaishi, founder of French Judo, and immediately I wanted to do Judo.
France Culture: How did you get from Judo to Aikido?
André Nocquet: I had developed Judo throughout the all South west of France when a Japanese instructor called Minoru Mochizuki arrived in France. In the martial art that he was doing, there was no more grabs, nor prearranged stances. You know that in Judo, there are prearranged moves, we hold each other. It made me think that if someone attacks you in the street, and that you grab, it is not very good. I therefore considered that Judo and Aikido practiced together could be something very complete.
France Culture: Where did you hear about Aikido first, from your readings, from a demonstration?
André Nocquet: No, it is precisely at the arrival in France of the Japanese master Minoru Mochizuki, who had been invited by the founder of French Judo, master Kawaishi. When I saw this man at work, and I immediately enrolled in his classes.
France Culture: This discipline looked like it was the right thing for you?
André Nocquet: I found this discipline really remarkable. Movements were very round, very beautiful, and the falls were not slapped on the ground. I consider that Judo is a leading sports but Aikido is something that is different, and but both fit well together. Professor Jigoro Kano, the creator of Judo was a student, no, a friend of Ueshiba. He said when seeing Ueshiba work: “That is my ideal Budo”. He greatly admired Ueshiba.
France Culture: What is Budo?
André Nocquet: I asked that very question to a monk Kamakura what Budo meant. DO, and this is the way, and BU means stopping the sword, that is to say, to make peace. I read books in English which spoke of the aggressive spirit of the Japanese. This is not true at all, there is no aggression, we seek peace in martial arts, we try not to fight.
France Culture: At this time, it is in 1950-55 that you went to Japan?
André Nocquet: I went to Japan under the advice of the second Aikido master who came to Europe, Tadashi Abe, who told me “you André Nocquet, you are so fond of Aikido that you should see Master Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido”. I said, “wait a minute, I have a club Bordeaux with 300 students, I cannot leave Bordeaux like that”. I thought about it for months and months, wondering what to do.
France Culture: At this time, you were still teaching physical education?
André Nocquet: No, Judo, I have trained all teachers in Southwest, from Poitier to Biarritz, I did everything in Judo.
France Culture: When you moved to Japan, you spent three years over there?
André Nocquet: I went to Japan for three years under the guidance of Mr. Duhamel of the French Academy, who was a friend of my family. He told me “You must absolutely not take the plane, because Asia must be earned in small steps.”
France Culture: You took the maritime mail boat.
André Nocquet: Yes, maritime mail ship called “the Laos”, I was in fourth class.
France Culture: Were you alone?
André Nocquet: Yes I was alone, in fourth class. I taught the officers some Ju-jutsu techniques, and in return, when it was too hot, they gave me a first class cabin, which was very nice of them. It took a month to get there.
France Culture: How was your arrival in Japan, you did not speak Japanese did you?
André Nocquet: I do not speak Japanese, but you know that English is the language of business, and most Japanese speak English. So with the English had I learned at school, I did rather well with the Japanese and therefore, there was no problem.
France Culture: Master Ueshiba did not speak English, how did you communicate with him?
André Nocquet: No English at all, he spoke only Japanese, but you know, with such a master, there is no need to speak, the teaching is from mind to mind.
France Culture: This is what you call Ishin-Denshin?
André Nocquet: Ishin-Denshin, that is it. You did not need to speak with Ueshiba. He actually said once, “It is not easy to get Aikido into the head of Nocquet”.
France Culture: How did you understand what he said?
André Nocquet: He said it via my interpreter. So I asked how I was going to learn Aikido. He replied, “I’ll teach him when he sleeps, because when he sleeps, he can not say anything so I can more easily penetrate his mind”.
France Culture: When you got in the dojo of Master Ueshiba in Tokyo, were you the only foreigner?
André Nocquet: Yes I was the first in the world to have been invited directly by Master Ueshiba in his own family.
France Culture: You lived with his family?
André Nocquet: I was eating with the master, and sleeping on the floor. The food was rather frugal, a lot of rice and fish. I had problems at times due to the fish, I contracted giant urticaria and master would blow in my face and the next day all was gone. It’s really funny is it not?
France Culture: How did the master behave in intimacy? Is it someone who knows intimacy or is it someone who is always the same regardless of the circumstances?
André Nocquet: In private, Ueshiba believed that all men, all his students, were his own sons.
France Culture: There were other students that stayed with him?
André Nocquet: There were many Americans who came but they did not sleep at the dojo, they came every now and then, sporadically. I was sleeping on the floor, waking up at 5 a.m. and starting cleaning the dojo with master Tamura.
France Culture: Who is now also teaching in France …
André Nocquet: Yes Noro Masamichi also, they were my favorites partners. We were in the dojo for an hour in the morning and after the master would arrive and begin the lesson. We trained five hours a day. It was a bit of a hell for a Westerner like me, it was really hard.
France Culture: The pace was different?
André Nocquet: The pace was indeed different because the Japanese practice Aikido in a manner that is somewhat different from Europeans, because we are influenced by Descartes, we are Cartesians.
France Culture: We want to understand before doing something…
André Nocquet: While the Japanese are not. The Japanese have a global mind. We practice the same movements for hours and hours, it frees up the mind and it is transmitted to the body, it is the Zen aspect of Aikido. The Japanese man practices, and when he has practiced a movement a thousand times, the mind is completely gone, it’s over, and the body takes. Whereas in Europe, we show a movement that the students practice, and all of a sudden they want to see another movement, and after yet another. They do not understand much that way.
France Culture: You mentioned the Zen in Aikido, can summarize the personal and spiritual journey of Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido?
André Nocquet: Master Ueshiba was a man who could not walk until he was seven years old, he was very frail. So he wanted to become strong, because he was also quite small. I’m not a very tall man but he was still ten centimeters shorter than me, he was about 1m55, no more. Gradually, through certain movements, he became stronger and stronger. In order to learn dodging, some students used to throw stones at him or beets, and he was trying to avoid all that. This is how Tai Sabaki was born. But the way of Ueshiba, not the spiritual route, but the physical one, was that he met many masters.
France Culture: In Hokkaido, for example?
André Nocquet: Yes, Hokkaido, but before he went to many dojos. We wandered around and when he saw a master at work, immediately, he asked for a test to see if he could beat him. He beat a lot of them and he said, I have nothing to learn from people I beat. One day in Hokkaido, he met a teacher named Takeda. It was behind an inn, in a small room, he saw the master and was very surprised to see he was doing a lot of dodging.
France Culture: How could he know that it was a master?
André Nocquet: He was told that it was master Takeda, coming from such school. He saw his work and asked him immediately if he could fight against him. There, something extraordinary happened, the small body of Ueshiba was thrown around sixty times in a few minutes. He had found his master and began to work with him. Takeda took him as student, but he taught him only 5 minutes a day, not even that. The rest of the day, he had to wash his master and prepare his meals. That is Japan, you do not pay, but you have to give of yourself to the master. It does not happen in Europe.
France Culture: Today, even though you are yourself a master of Aikido, this is not the same type of education that you want to convey.
André Nocquet: I have been taught in the traditional Japanese way but I try to transcend, to do what is called in religion as ecumenism, to the merge the Japanese teaching with Cartesianism, but it is not easy.
France Culture: Going back to Ueshiba’s journey, I think that he met someone from the Omoto sect.
André Nocquet: Yes he did many things, he went to Manchuria, he fought at war, he might even have killed, there were a lot of things. He was too short to do his military service, but he wrote to the emperor in letters of blood and was able to do it after that. Ueshiba was an extraordinary man. Then he met at the Omoto-kyo a man named Omoto [Editor’s note: Deguchi Onisaburo] and spoke of the principle of love between humans. That delighted and surprised a lot. His Aikido is a bit of that, but not completely.
During a snowstorm in Hokkaido, his master became a little mad. He said, “Ueshiba, go out into the storm, there is an enemy who is there waiting for me”. Ueshiba went out, but saw nothing. Takeda said, “I know it is there”. This is because Takeda had killed men. It was still the age of chivalry, almost medieval. Ueshiba said, “if the Budo created by my master requires to kill the other, it is not true Budo”. For him, a true Budo is the love of all people, not to kill anyone, and to control men, that’s all. Aikido is born this day in that feeling and that snowstorm in Hokkaido. I have a very important article that I could publish one day, not written by me but by another Japanese master, but I’m not sure I can publish it.
France Culture: It was in the 1920s that Ueshiba created Aikido didn’t he?
André Nocquet: He created Aikido through different stages, one can not immediately create something Aikido, at once it is not possible.
France Culture: It is a movement.
André Nocquet: Yes a movement. There are French masters who currently prefer the Aikido practiced by Ueshiba when it was very hard, square techniques, even though the master was working very round at the end of his life. There is a path that the master took. There is always a path in everything we do.
France Culture: So it may be that in fact, that Aikido was born at the death of Ueshiba.
André Nocquet: Aikido was born, not at his death, but when he was about 75 years old.
France Culture: It was at about the same time, in 1959 I believe, that Aikido began to spread outside of Japan.
André Nocquet: Yes, Aikido developed because the Japanese sent many teachers to different parts of the globe. I arrived in France in early 1959, after having taught in the United States for a while, to the police. I got there, I was alone. After that, master Tamura came in 1964. Another Japanese expert called Masamichi Noro, also very strong in Aikido, came, but he has since developed a slightly different approach called Kinomichi. Kinomichi has very beautiful movements, but this is not the actual teaching of Ueshiba. We can say that it is Tamura, who I work with, and who was my partner in Tokyo. He made me suffer a lot when I was in Tokyo. We worked on the movements for an entire hour, sometimes, my shoulders hurt a bit as a result.
France Culture: How can we define exactly Aikido? Going back to Japanese Kanji, Do is the way, and Aiki is the search for harmony?
André Nocquet: The Japanese master, during his youth, practiced many Japanese and extreme oriental martial arts, which allowed him to realize that most of them were aimed at destroying the enemy’s aggression by destroying the enemy himself. This finding led him to think that there was a deficiency, this deficiency being that the mental basis of these martial arts was violence. The big idea of the master was to destroy the aggressiveness of the opponent via making him feel that it was useless.
France Culture: This whole idea of non-aggression towards each other is part of an overall perspective of the universe itself, the origin of which happens to be explained in Aikido when he explains the origin of matter and Ki, but yet you are telling in your book “Morihei Ueshiba, Presence and Message” that Aikido is not a religion.
André Nocquet: No, Aikido is not a religion. One day I asked my master, Master Ueshiba, “You always say that Aikido is Love then, isn’t there a very narrow link with Christianity? ” He told me,”Yes, there is a very narrow link with Christianity but if you go to Europe, never say that Aikido is a religion. If you practice Aikido well, you may become a better Christian but if a good Buddhist practices Aikido, he will also become a better Buddhist.” Aikido is a way, a path, it helps to better understand religions and philosophies, but it is not a religion, this is what he told me.
France Culture: What is the influence of Zen in the foundation and the spirit of Aikido?
André Nocquet: It is very simple, about the Zen and Aikido; Ueshiba has always said that Aikido is Zen in action. It is obvious that this is true because we work in the moment, in the instant so there is an economy of gesture, while in a sport such as Judo, we are working in time, there is an effort in time. While for us Aikidoka, there is an effort in the moment, and in the moment, we do not get tired.
France Culture: Besides, you also say in your book that, that way, Aikido can help the warrior to wield his sword, the musician his bow, the architect his compass, the poet his pen, the painter his brush.
André Nocquet: Yes I wrote that but it did not come to me spontaneously, I wrote it and rewrote it, with time.
France Culture: You talk about spiritual alertness, is the goal of Aikido to reach and refine this vigilance?
André Nocquet: I think in Aikido, at the beginning, we should not really practice philosophy. Do not make it a spiritual quest. We must watch the body, and perform many movements without thinking of this spiritual quest. Master Ueshiba said, “Aikido is 95% perspiration and 5% philosophy.” By saying that, I have said everything.
It means that it takes a lot practice, and once you have reached a third or fourth Dan grade in Aikido, you can begin to address the spiritual aspect. Often, at Ueshiba’s dojo, I was reading, but the master told me, “No, no, no, Mr. Nocquet, do not read, you have to practice more with your body, you do not practice enough.” I told him that I was tired, and he said, “there is no meaning for an Aikidoka to talk about being tired, tiredness does not exist.” It took me a lot of time to write this book “Presence and Message”; it took a lot of time to do it.
France Culture: You were in Japan in the years 1955-1959 and this book is now out in 1988, so this is really the result of a lifetime of study isn’t it?
André Nocquet: Yes, it is the fruit of a lifetime, and the next book I’ll do, I’ll call the Heart Sword, because my teacher told me when I left Japan “projects your heart rather than your sword.” It is very important to project the heart, and we know that there is mediation between the heart and the mind. I discussed it with doctors and they told me “it is very symbolic what you said,” but I told them that it was Claude Bernard, the great 19th century physiologist who did much research showing strong evidence that the heart, body and mind, the brain, are together.
France Culture: The East understands this much better than the West.
André Nocquet: Oh yes. A man, if he has only the brain inaction, will slice in the flesh, he is sometimes wicked and evil but as soon as the heart does mediation, works with him, the man becomes good. This is why Aikido is a matter of the heart.
France Culture: You say that Aikido training is not only psychological, but it is a training of the whole person.
André Nocquet: What is the psychology Aikido? For me, it would be to defeat the other before the other defeats us, to anticipate movements.
France Culture: Besides the opponent in Aikido is simply a relative strength, this is not an absolute opponent.
André Nocquet: There is no opponent, if a man attack, I consider that the man is inscribed in a sphere, as represented by Leonardo daVinci. When the two spheres collide, it is Judo, because we hole each other. It does not happen in Aikido because we don’t hold each other, so both mine and my partner’s spheres are tangential. So Aikido is the art of tangential action.
There is a beautiful picture to understand Aikido, watch a spider web. This spider is a circle and the spider stands in the center, and waits. Me too, in my circle, wait, and when someone walks into my circle, then I can act. I must wait until another attacks and gets a little into my circle.
France Culture: This is an individual practice.
André Nocquet: Yes it is an individual practice, then I turn around the opponent and in the principle of non-opposition, Yin and Yang become complementary. This is what people should understand.
France Culture: You say that in France and the United States, in particular, there are some mistakes in the approach of Aikido as it is seen a self-defense, while for you, it is not at all it.
André Nocquet: Aikido is an excellent self-defense.
France Culture: But it’s not only that.
André Nocquet: No it’s not only that, but it is clear that in the street, if we are attacked, we can defend ourselves because there are still some atemi, which are striking moves that can be used. If one man attacks me with a knife, it is not easy to make love with a man who has a weapon. Aikido is Love but if a man with a knife attacks, this man can kill you, so you must disarm him, then it is ok to strike a blow in vital areas that do not result in death. I love training with weapons. If a man has a gun, a knife, or a sword, I still consider weapons as an extension of the arm. There is no setting my mind on the weapon. I should see the whole man, and not look at what he has at hand.
France Culture: The movement…
André Nocquet: Yes, the whole movement. Aikido is very beautiful; young boys and ladies can practice it, because the falls are not brutal. More and more people practice, even if it does not grow as fast as Judo or Karate because there is no competition. No competition is possible in Aikido.
France Culture: How is this teaching of Aikido being transmitted? By disciples?
André Nocquet: I have a lot of followers in France and Western Europe, I formed the European Union, there were about eleven nations and amongst my best students, there are French people of course, but the more faithful, and those I love the most, are the Germans.
It is funny my dear madam, I am a former prisoner of war, I fought against the Germans, and now I teach them Aikido, it is beautiful. To teach men where there was war, and now there is no more war. I said the other day to a German student, “if there was another war between us, what would you do?” I said it to Rolf Brand, who is the president, “I have a gun and you have a gun, and we meet, there is a war between the two nations”. He told me “we put our guns on the ground and we go do the movements of Aikido”. I was very happy, it is great don’t you think? Love has no boundaries.
France Culture: In your book, you also talk of a hidden meaning of training, what do you mean?
André Nocquet: Hidden meaning… It is not easy to explain; Aikido is practiced but not explained. It takes much practice of Aikido to understand the practice, but the words do not work, they are useless. The hidden meaning is to overcome our aggressive nature, a lot of things in us that are bad.
France Culture: Is there a selection in the students who enter the dojo?
André Nocquet: No there is no selection. Students learn little by little. In general, people who are beginners are always taught by more advanced people, black belt, first or second Dan, and we take care of beginners like that, little by little. There is a path, and it changes every ten years or so. A man, at the end of ten years, has realized something. I once asked Master Ueshiba “Master, can I ask you a question? “He looked at me and said, “I cannot answer your question because you are not ready to understand”. I asked him when I would be ready and he said “I will decide that myself.” After two years, he taught me that thing I could not understand at first.
France Culture: I think he placed great emphasis on the fact that to receive his teaching, you had to have an empty head.
André Nocquet: He said one day, “your cup is full of coffee, empty the coffee and when it is empty, I can pour in my tea.”
France Culture: I think he wanted a renewal of ideas because there was another thing he said that went: “if a cup is always full, the water stagnates, and for the water to be fresh, it must be emptied regularly, and if your ears resound with the sound of your own voice, how can you hear the divine harmonies?”
André Nocquet: This is a really good quote that I did not even know.
France Culture: Do you think that the West can access this knowledge with no critical thinking?
André Nocquet: Yes I think that gradually Aikido could be united in the spirit that we are talking about now and I hope that the world, and the world of Aikido course, will see a real unification. It’s coming. The Doshu, who is the son of Master Ueshiba, is coming to France on March 31st to teach a seminar in Paris. I think he will make a speech on friendship, because the most important thing in Aikido, to develop friendship.
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Articles written by André Nocquet