Interview with Joe Curran, president of the British Birankai
Joe Curran is the current president of the British Aikikai, the only remaining organization under the technical supervision of Kazuo Chiba Shihan after his departure from England. Joe Curran spent more than 30 years practicing Aikido and he is one of the most dedicated students of Chiba Sensei in Britain for putting us into contact during a seminar Curran Sensei gave in Tunisia. Sensei. He accepted to talk to us about his organization and his personal views on Aikido in and abroad. Many thanks to Mrad Medsouheil from the Association Sahéliènne d’Aikido.
Guillaume Erard: Mr Curran, how did you start Aikido?
Joe Curran: It was around 1969. I was training in Judo and I met Master Kenshiro Abbe 8th dan. Afterwards I tried to find out more information on the Art. Very few books were available at the time. Dan, Founder of Kyu Shin Do. He had studied Aikido. Abbe Sensei was also instrumental in bringing Chiba Sensei over to the UK.
One day, as I was taking part to a Judo contest I sat in between bouts next to a thin, not too tall guy and he was reading Black Belt magazine, a publication which was very good in the early days. I asked him if I could look at it, then we parted company. Some time later I saw an advertisement for Aikido in a newspaper and I decided to visit the place. The Instructor looked familiar and I knew I had met him somewhere. I joined the group and later I found out that the instructor felt he knew me from somewhere too. We later realized that we had met at that Judo contest and he was the guy with the magazine! His name is Mr Coyle.
Guillaume Erard: Who was teaching the most during your time at the Hut?Joe Curran.jpg
Joe Curran: I did not train at the Hut. I was training in Scotland under Mr Coyle, leader of Makotokai. The dojo was affiliated to the Renown Aikido Society. My first contacts in the Hut were Hamish McFarland Sensei and Haydn Foster Sensei. Mr Coyle subsequently joined Chiba Sensei’s group, and in due course he studied under Saito Sensei. He is now I believe an independent group leader.
Guillaume Erard: You did not mention Mr Williams. Had he already left the Hut Dojo when you were there?
Joe Curran: I never met Mr Williams and I know little of his career. I did of course know of him, but as far as I know our paths have never crossed.
Guillaume Erard: Why did you pick Aikido rather than a more popular martial art?
Joe Curran: I tried Karate, Wrestling and various other things like Bodybuilding and Strand Pulling. I liked reading and doing Physical culture. My heroes were Steve Reeves, Leo Robert etc. With Aikido I found it stimulating mentally and I saw it as a challenge. I was for my size fairly powerful and despite my strength I found that I could not resist being thrown around like a rag doll by people like Chiba Sensei. Much later I realized my physical and mental attitude that was very inclined towards a competitive mind, was a bit counter productive to my Aikido study. To me, Aikido is still a rich vein of knowledge and I guess I could train for another 30 years and never reach the end. This in itself fascinates me; the fact that no matter how long, how often you train, there is always something new to discover about Aikido and yourself.
Guillaume Erard: How did you meet Kazuo Chiba Sensei and what was your first impression when you saw him?
Joe Curran: My first instructor, Mr Coyle, was a member of a group called the Renown Aikido Society. This was based at a Dojo called the Hut. Many early pioneers of Aikido in Britain trained there such as Henry Ellis, Haydn Foster, Derek Eastman Sensei to name a few. Mr Coyle decided to approach Chiba Sensei to join his group. We all piled into a car and went to a training session in Chiswick. My first impression of Chiba Sensei was (and still is) that his movements on the tatami remind me of a sleek, powerful animal such as a panther. Chiba Sensei was aged about 27 and he was at his peak. The sheer dynamism of his movement was spellbinding. I found it interesting how Chiba Sensei could manifest so much powerful waza and yet, he was not a massive built man. I knew I was looking at someone special. My Judo training had put me in contact with many great teachers but I thought Chiba Sensei was in a league of his own. Chiba Sensei taught you by simply doing the technique. Training was intense and I used to travel home from courses with arms like lead and my body aching. Going to meet Chiba Sensei was somewhat like a drug to me. He is very charismatic and has such a presence that people are either attracted to him or they are kind of scared.
Guillaume Erard: How was the training under Chiba Sensei?
Joe Curran: It was very hard both physically and mentally. There were other factors such as little sleep and sometimes too much to drink. I recall many courses where I slept on floors, under hedges. In one particular incident, while driving to London overnight to attend a course in Chiswick, I feel asleep at the wheel and hit the car on the central reservation barrier. It sure shook me up. Another time both myself and my training partner were so tired that Chiba Sensei took us back to his rented flat in London and Mrs Chiba fixed us up with some hot food and a beer but most of all a hot bath to ease the pain. After 30 years I can still sense the relaxed feeling of the arm water on all the aches and pain.
Guillaume Erard: The history of British Aikido is a very agitated one. Can you tell us why you decided to found the British Aikikai (under technical supervision of Kazuo Chiba) rather than taking part in Minoru Kanetsuka’s organization?
Joe Curran: In 1976 Chiba Sensei announced that he was returning to Japan. At a dinner in London, Sensei declared that his nominated successor as Technical director of the Aikikai of Great Britain [AGB, also know as British Aikido Federation] would be Kanetsuka Sensei. He then went on to ask each senior member of the AGB to pledge their full support to Minoru Kanetsuka Sensei. Mr Kanetsuka indicated that he was honored and privileged to be the successor and asked for the continued support of all the main high grades. For sometime afterwards things went fairly well. Later a few people felt that the AGB under Kanetsuka Sensei’s direction was flawed. A group led by the late Mr William Smith 6th Dan Shihan decided to break away from the AGB and they formed the United Kingdom Aikikai. I personally chose to stay in the AGB and despite great personal unhappiness; I tried to support Mr Kanetsuka in order to keep my pledge to Chiba Sensei. However, it soon became obvious to me that I could not actually support Kanetsuka Sensei and I resigned from the AGB and joined the UK.A. Had I not taken this step, I would more than likely have stopped doing Aikido. While in Mr Smith’s group, I found it more like the early days of my time in the AGB under the technical direction of Kazuo Chiba Sensei. Later Chiba Sensei became the Technical Director of the United Kingdom Aikikai and all seemed to be well.
Guillaume Erard: What were the reasons of your unhappiness with the British Aikido Federation under Kanetsuka Sensei?
Joe Curran: In common with quite a few other senior members of the British Aikido Federation I felt that the technical, administration and political structure of the British Aikido Federation were not in keeping with my own viewpoint. I felt that certain actions were taken by individuals which were in my opinion not in keeping with what I perceived as correct.
Guillaume Erard: But you did you eventually left the United Kingdom Aikikai too…
Joe Curran: After my terrible time in the British Aikido Federation it was good to continue training under Chiba Sensei. A few years later Chiba Sensei was no longer the Technical Director of the United Kingdom Aikikai. With this development, a few of Chiba Sensei students decided to resign from the United Kingdom Aikikai and affiliate with Sensei by way of joining the United States Aikido Federation Western Region in order to maintain contact with Japan etc. I decided to follow my teacher and I resigned from the United Kingdom Aikikai and I then allied myself to the others above. In time, although it was not the intention to start a new organization, the British Aikikai came into being with Chiba Sensei as our Technical Director. Sensei appointed me Shidoin, and later asked me to work as the British Aikikai representative in respect of the British Aikido Board. Later on the resignation of the late Mike Holloway, I was appointed Chairman of the BA, a position I held for 7 years. In 2007 Chiba Sensei then appointed me to my current position of President of British Birankai.
Guillaume Erard: Why did the United Kingdom Aikikai choose to carry on without Chiba Sensei as a technical director?
Joe Curran: I was never privy to any discussion that took place before or after Chiba Sensei’s departure from the United Kingdom Aikikai. Neither have I discussed this period with Mr Jones, co-principal of United Kingdom Aikikai. I have a personal view however this may not be a valid one. Perhaps Mr Jones would care to elaborate on any decision made by the United Kingdom Aikikai in this context?
Guillaume Erard: What are your relationships with the United Kingdom Aikikai nowadays?
Joe Curran: Both organizations share a common link inasmuch we both have had Chiba Sensei as our Technical Director. In our case Sensei is still our Technical Director. Most of the current United Kingdom Aikikai Senior Instructors are direct students of Chiba Sensei. This we have in common. There is personal contact between some United Kingdom Aikikai and British Aikikai members but generally speaking, there is limited contact between our respective groups at a national level.
Guillaume Erard: Compared to France, there is much more diversity in Aikido in the UK. A significant amount of dodos do not affiliate to Aikikai but to other organizations like Yoshinkan, Ki No Kenkyukai, Iwama etc. Why is that so?
Joe Curran: I cannot say exactly why this is so. I would imagine that many groups do not have direct lineage to the Founder. There is also this whole thing about styles. Rather than appreciate that Aikido has different flavours, which is in my mind acceptable, we now find that there is little or no contact between each groups. I also think that there are financial implications involved as well.
Derek Eastman, Chris Tickerou, George Stavro, Henry Ellis and Joe Curran
Guillaume Erard: In France, the government regulates both grades and teaching qualifications. Could you tell us how things are organized in the UK? What is the role of the British Aikido Board?
Joe Curran: I can only speak for the British Aikikai here. The British Aikikai follows a system of Teachers Certification. One such method is the adoption of the teaching certification of Shihan, Shidoin, Fukushidoin ranks. This is the Japanese standard of adoption. At the same time, we also comply with the rules of the Btitish Aikido Board as a member body, and adopt their Coaching Schemes and Personal Indemnity policies. The British Aikido Board’s function is to promote Aikido and it is set up as an official Government, Sports Ministry approved body to ensure that standards of behavior, health and safety are maintained and that all instructors are fully insured and hold appropriate Coaching Certification. The British Aikido Board has its own Coaching Staff and some groups have also their own British Aikido Board approved Coach Tutors. Each member organization of the British Aikido Board has its own British Aikido Board representative who plays an important role in communicating issues and liaising between with the Dojos and the British Aikido Board on issues relating to Aikido development in the UK.
In the period that you are referring to, it was possibly the best era for British aikido. Under Chiba Sensei we had the opportunity to study under such luminaries of Aikido such as Kanai, Kitaura, Saito, Tamura, Sekiya, Yamada, Asai, Yamaguchi Sensei and the second Doshu. These times were great. There was no sign that the AGB would suffer the hemorrhage that later came when Chiba Sensei left Britain. Had Sensei remained in Britain I think the course of British aikido history would have been markedly different. Chiba Sensei, due to his strong personality and his incomparable technical abilities was firmly in control. When he left for Japan, the tensions started to emerge. Instead of working for the benefit of aikido I felt that some people became egocentric and rather than see themselves as servants of the students, they perceived themselves as masters. This is not in itself unusual. It takes a certain type of person to be a leader. It is so easy to abuse power.
In respect of the above wonderful teachers the students were given the opportunity to see all the different aspects of O Sensei s art. On the one hand you had the softness of Sekiya, Yamaguchi Sensei for example and the powerful waza of Saito Sensei. It was very interesting to consider the motivation and thought processes of the relevant Sensei. Each master had something special to offer and it was mainly due to Chiba Sensei’s influence that we brought these senior instructors to the UK. Bear in mind that in 1970’s, Aikido was not that long established. Nowadays with so many different groups in Britain, there can be several Summer Schools taking place all inside a period of a few weeks, each with their own teaching staff such as in the British Aikido Federation as well as the NAF or the United Kingdom Aikikai.
Guillaume Erard: Talking about great teachers, do you feel that any one of them particularly influenced your Aikido?
Joe Curran: I consider that I have two main influences on my own study, Chiba Sensei and his late father in law Sekiya Sensei. With Chiba Sensei, I admire his dedication and commitment to the art. In Sekiya Sensei’s case, his Aikido was totally different from Chiba Sensei. Where Chiba Sensei was like a force of nature, so dynamic and powerful, Sekiya Sensei was very soft yet you could not move him. He was also very approachable on and off the mat. He was like everyone’s favorite grandfather.
Guillaume Erard: Henry Ellis was telling us that because of the independence of each group for the awarding of dan grades; a lot of abuse was committed with a lot of self promotion. What is your take on that?
Joe Curran: I share Mr Ellis’s concern. Nevertheless, if some people wish to call themselves Shihan or inflate their own ego, that is a matter for their own conscience. As far as I am concerned, I think I am a competent Aikidoka and have paid my own dues. I would much prefer to be a sound 5th Kyu than an 8th Dan Shihan or whatever who either is self promoted or has little lineage. Chasing grades is a waste of time. Self promotion is misnamed; it should be renamed self deception.
Guillaume Erard: Do you think that it affects the overall quality of Aikido in the UK?
Joe Curran: Of course, with the spread of Aikido and other Aikido organizations with little or no contact with the Japanese, it stands to reason that standards and quality can drop. I am not saying that all non Aikikai affiliated groups are not technically good but just that I think that standards may well suffer. There are some non Aikikai affiliated people I have great respect for such as Mr Ellis and Derek Eastman. These men along with people like Foster or Williams Sensei did much work in promoting Aikido in the beginning and should be given the respect of all the Aikido community in Britain. Without these early pioneers we would not be where we are today.
Guillaume Erard: You invite Chiba Sensei every year to your summer school in the UK.; can you tell us more about it?
Joe Curran: Since 1976 when the British Aikikai/British Birankai was formed, Chiba Sensei as our Technical Director has been visiting the UK. to conduct our Summer School, in conjunction with our own Shihan and Shidoin. We formulate technical and administrative policy and monitor various factors and events and plan our strategy for the future during this period. Apart from Chiba Sensei, we also have guest instructors such as Miyamoto Sensei 7th Dan Shihan, from Japan. Birankai International is a wide ranging family, with member countries such as France, Greece, the USA, Israel, Germany, Poland and Kazakhstan so we also get feedback from events taking place in these areas. The main thing is that we get to meet and train intensively during this time. It is very tiring mentally and physically but very rewarding.
Guillaume Erard: Do you see many members of other federations attending the event?
Joe Curran: Not as many as we would like. I am pleased to say that we were able to meet recently with Mr Ellis, of the Ellis School of Aikido at our Chiba Sensei 40th Anniversary Course held in London. Mr Harada MBE, the Shotokan Master, also drops in and shares in our social activities once in a while. We also see some senior members of the United Kingdom Aikikai such as Mr Brady, Mr Jones, Mr McCalla calling in every now to pay their respects to Chiba Sensei.
Guillaume Erard: Let us go back to the reason why you are here to today. How did you come into contact with the Tunisian federation?
Joe Curran: I received an email from the Association Sahéliènne d’Aikido asking if I would be interested to visit Tunisia on a voluntary basis to conduct the 1st Tunisian Summer School in 2005. I have subsequently returned there up until present again at my own expense to encourage and support the Tunisian aikidoka.
Guillaume Erard: What would be the main characteristics of Tunisians practitioners?
Joe Curran: It would appear to me that Aikido in Tunisia is in a position where due to internal politics, the Aikido groups do not appear to have fraternal connections. Despite the fact that my visits to the area are well publicized, I have made little if any contact with senior members of Tunisian Aikido other than Association Sahéliènne d’Aïkido. Having said that, I did meet members of the Egyptian and Algerian Aikido community back in 2005. I really liked their attitudes. The Aikidoka in Tunisia are warm hearted and friendly. My advice would be to try a find common ground within the Aikido community politically and technically. One can do much more as a part of a group than as a lone person. Aikido is an art whereby sacrifices in terms of time and money are sometimes required. Any young group has to make sacrifices for the benefit of others in the future. This is why I chose to help any group who feels I can be of assistance. I also believe that in North Africa, visa restrictions and financial limitations have an adverse effect on development of Aikido in Tunisia. May I also suggest that it would be a good idea if some or all the Tunisian and others interested parties could see a way to meeting for a friendship course with a view to mutually improving the Aikido in Tunisia. No one person or group has the monopoly on truth.
Guillaume Erard: Is the way of teaching different in these countries compared to the way you teach in Europe?
Joe Curran: There are always different methods between any groups. The main thing I feel is to look for things that are similar in content rather than what is different. An apple and an orange differ but they are both fruit and are enjoyable to eat. It is a matter of taste. Even in you own dojo I am sure one instructor will not transmit the art the same. This is normal as far as I am concerned.
Guillaume Erard: In many respect, Aikido is still in its early phase over there. Do you see similarities with the situation during the early years of British Aikido?
Joe Curran: Only inasmuch that any new group has to learn to walk. The main problem is choosing the right person or group to lead you on the path. If you choose the wrong leader or group, you may learn a hard lesson. When anyone takes on the responsibility for an Aikido group the person in charge has the responsibility not only for himself but for others. You need sound judgment.
Guillaume Erard: Do you travel to other countries to teach on a regular basis?
Joe Curran: Recently my main priority has been Tunisia. I have also taught in Holland and in the USA. I would like in the future to be able to travel more, especially to newly established groups and pass on advice to these groups. I am now 69 and both Chiba Sensei and I know that we both have limited time left and there is so much work to be done. As the President of British Birankai and a senior Dan grade within the British Birankai, I am aware and accept the responsibility and duty that Chiba Sensei places on me and others to promote Aikido and ensure that high standards are maintained. Of course one also needs a platform to activate the role and this is not entirely in my hands. One does not enter any other person’s house unless one receives an indication that you are either welcome or invited by the householder.
Guillaume Erard: Thank you for your time Sensei.
Joe Curran: My pleasure, no problem. Hope you are well. Please pass on my regards to John Rogers, not forgetting your own people.