This interview was conducted and published in 2008
David Rubens is a rare breed of martial artist. A London boy destined for trouble, he broadened his horizons by travelling the world, he lived in a kibbutz, joined the Israeli Army and became one of their elite parachute regiment. He then went to Japan, trained at the renowned Yoshinkan Honbu becoming an uchi deshi (live in student) under the famous Aikido Master Gozo Shioda, undergoing the hard Tokyo Riot Police Squad training programme. He returned home to found the famous MeidokanDojo in London.
Tempered by his training, he turned to the world of security and utilizing the skills and determination he had gained, rose to the top to become an International Security Consultant to governments, top institutions and multi national companies.
David is an inspiration to anyone following the hard road of traditional training and has been a leader in forging international relationships through both business and the Martial Arts using the etiquette and respect learned at theYoshinkan Honbu Dojo.
SR Hi Dave – can we start with you telling us a bit about your background?
DR Certainly, to begin with, I left England when I was seventeen to become an ‘adventurer’ and ended up in Israel, spending two and a half years in the Israeli Army, completing the training and serving in the parachute regiment.
SR What made you think of doing that at 17years old?
DR I was a young Jewish boy, living in Willesden Green, London, smoking a bit of dope and getting into trouble. My Father suggested going to Israel – and on the second day of being there I wrote home saying, “this is it, this is what I’ve been looking for”. I was living in a Kibbutz working hard, eating well and loved being part of the community. Living in a Kibbutz was a fantastic change from Willesden Green!.
I learned Hebrew, stayed for a year and then came back to England. I worked for 3 months, got some money together and spent 6 months travelling around Europe and ended up in Greece with no money left. I arrived back in Israel with seventeen dollars to my name and signed up to the army. They gave me the bus fare to a Kibbutz by the Dead Sea and told me that they would pick me up in seven weeks time. Military service was a shock, but I ended up staying two and a half years.
SR What kind of training did you do?
DR Basic training first and then went on to the Para’s training which was 6 weeks, we started with about 240 trainees and they were whittled down to about 80. A lot of those that left were due to injuries, because on your first day, get your equipment and are then marched 40 kilometers out into the desert – and there you stay for 7 weeks!
It was rocky desert rather than sandy, so you spent all your time trying not to break your ankles! The training wasn’t brutal but it was very, very tough. There was no bullying or brutality like you get in some services, it was very professional with a strong ethical and moral code. That was in 1979 – nearly 30 years ago now!
The Israeli Army has a different code now and if my 17 year old wanted to join up at the present time I would have a real moral problem with it.
SR What happened when you left the army?
DR When I left the army I met a German girl and flew to Germany with her and was asked to work with the Israeli Embassy Security Team. The PLO and Neo Nazi party were very active so I was Team Leader on the Israeli Embassy team for 6 months, which was very useful for my future career.
SR You then went to India?
DR That’s right, I spent two and a half years in India, I was very much into Buddhism and spent most of my time at Buddhist Monasteries, in fact I lived in a monastery for 3 months and then had the chance to live in a community and ended up living as a ‘beach buddy’ on the beach in Goa. It was there that I met a Japanese guy who asked me to take a look at Tokyo, so a few weeks later I did and stayed with him whilst I searched for an Aikido Dojo.
SR How did come across Aikido?
DR In Goa, there were a couple of French guys who would practice each evening on the beach as the sun went down.
SR What a lovely picture that conjures up!
DR Exactly, so when I got to Tokyo I went to see a couple of university dojo’s that didn’t appeal to me at all, they were just big guys bullying small guys and I’d just come out of the army so I didn’t go for that at all. Then I heard about this other school that was fairly close to where I was living and that turned out by chance to be the Yoshinkan Headquarters!
I went there on a Sunday and was invited upstairs to take a look. It was a beautiful dojo with about 80 people all lined up in seiza, in silence. The Sensei entered, who I found out later was Takefumi Takeno and at that stage he was 37 years old and Chief Instructor to the Tokyo Riot Police. When he did his first technique, I immediately thought “I want to do that!” He was so charismatic and powerful, that anyone who saw him perform would always say the same thing – “I want to be like that!” It’s said that if he was in the Arctic, penguins would do Aikido!
I went away and came back 3 weeks later and had my first class on the first of June 1984 at 6 O’clock in the evening and my first teacher was Jacques Payet, he was a French 3rd Dan at the time and he is still teaching now. From the very first class I said “this is what I want to do”. I stayed for the second class and they gave me an attendance card for 10 lessons, which I filled in the first week!
I had a hard time during my 5 years in Japan. I was absolutely useless! My body wasn’t designed for Aikido and if you were to look at all the beginners at that time you certainly wouldn’t peg me as the person that would still be doing Aikido 30 years later!
SR The best skill a beginner can have in the Martial Arts is determination, if they have that, the rest we can teach.
DR That’s right, determination was certainly something that I didn’t lack. After two and a half years I approached them and asked if I could become uchi deshi and live in the Dojo following the uchi deshiprogramme. They carried out an assessment on me and I was accepted. I stayed as an uchi deshi for two and a half years. That meant I had to do the Tokyo Police Riot Squad programme for a year, live in the Dojo and serve the teachers. The programme was half monk and half soldier; it was very tough, in fact far tougher than the Israeli Para’s training! I never came close to quitting the Para’s training but at the Yoshinkan I thought about it on a daily basis, I had diarrhea for 2 years, sometimes just from the fear of training. I didn’t have it harder because I was a westerner training, everyone, whatever their nationality had it the same. If you want to become a Yoshinkan instructor it was the price you had pay.
I paid that price; and have to say that ever since that time I have benefitted from the training every day of my life. In my line of work I do a lot for large Japanese corporations at Chairman and Director level, I am often working with advisors to the Japanese Cabinet and the reason I can do that well is that I know how to behave. There are not a lot of westerners that know how to do that. Many people go to Japan to conduct business and come away thinking that they have done well, when in fact they’ve actually screwed it up quite badly and no one will ever tell them.
My clients are of a generation that know who Shioda Sensei is and a lot of these guys are ex senior policeman who have undergone the Riot Squad training at the Dojo. Often a meeting is going okay, but nothing special, until I mention that I was uchi deshi to Shioda Sensei and then everything changes as they start to reminisce.
My first introduction to the Japanese security scene came from someone who had undertaken the Tokyo Riot Squad training 24 years before I was there. I phoned and told him that I was coming to Tokyo and from day one we were on the same team. I owe everything that I am to that training, that’s why I still bow my head toShioda Sensei.
From my first session, I was told that you don’t come here to learn wrist locks, you come to learn to live as a man, as a Bushi, a warrior. As I said, I have since benefitted from that training every day of my life.
SR Where did you go from there?
DR I finished there in 1988, and I went to Iwama for 3 months and studied with Saito Sensei, I then spent two and a half years travelling around the world to Australia, America and India. I was in America when I received a phone call to say that my Father was about to die, and to come home. I returned home immediately and managed to spend 10 days with him before he died.
I had been out of England for 15 years, I was asked to teach Aikido classes in London, I agreed and after 10 days was told that they had found a place for me. It was in West Hampstead and was an old carpet store with a leaky roof, we took it over and I ended up teaching there for eight and a half years.
I considered myself to be a citizen of the world and really had no intention of settling down, but I’ve been running the Meidokan club for 18 years and have a wife and 4 children!
SR How did you meet your wife?
DR She was a student. We used to go running barefoot and in the winter I shouted at her because she kept her socks on; she thought that she would make me pay for that, she would marry me and then see who does the shouting! We’ve been married for 16 years now, have 4 kids and she’s still doing the shouting, so I paid for it!
SR Do you still have any students from your original club?
DR Not that many, but I have a few that have been with me for 10, 11 and 12 years, also people from all over the world that keep in contact. Many Sensei in various arts still regard me as their first instructor – from Iaido, Ju Jitsu and MMA. As Mustafa from the London Shootfighters and Gavin Mulhollands student Neil Edge, have trained with me, if they ever come up against each other in the cage, they will both have trained at the Meidokan!
We are a part of history and have been around for such a long time that many people have a connection with us – and I find that very pleasing.
SR What about the other side of your life? How did you get into the security world?
DR In 1991 I was driving in my car when a news item came on the radio about a ‘charm school’ for night club bouncers that Westminster Council was going to be running, so I phoned the radio station and they gave me Westminster Council’s phone number, I told them that I thought that I could conduct this course and they asked me to write them a programme, I did this and they asked me add in some items and we started running it. 5 years later we were one of the top 3 trainers in the UK. I have been very lucky to train with the top people in all fields of my life; the Dalai lama in Buddhism, the Israeli Army, the Yoshinkan and what they teach you is how to be excellent.
Sometimes my students move away and ask me what they can do if there’s no Yoshinkan Dojo nearby, I tell them to find the best instruction in anything they can, even if it means training in ballet or cello, because that’s the only world class teachers they can find, because what they will learn from those people is how to be world class in anything they do. I have an understanding of what excellence means, for example, 6 years ago I decided to take my masters degree in security risk management, the course was at the Scarman University in Leicester and was designed for people like me with not a great deal of academic knowledge but plenty of experience in the field, they asked me why I wanted to do the course and I answered that I wanted to do the qualification for 3 reasons,
1. I wanted the information
2. I wanted to become an instructor on the course
3. I wanted to become an international consultant.
And that’s what I now do. I travel the world as a consultant and have just been offered a position with the UK Defence Academy in the Terrorism and Resilience Department on their PHD programme. As you can see I’m still trying to get better, most people reach a point in their life when they lose the motivation to improve.
I’m amazed that many people get to forty and stop training, but that’s when it gets really interesting, when you reach forty you should be pretty damn good at what you do and that’s the time to push on and see what you can really do!
I’m lucky that the two areas I’m involved in which is security and martial arts are the two areas which you get more valuable as you get older. The work I’m doing with the Japanese and government institutions are jobs that no thirty five year old in the world would get. So at forty nine I’m now getting those jobs, there are other jobs that you don’t get until you’re sixty, if you want to be on the United nations Committee you need to be in that age group with the relevant experience. At my age now, there is only around thirty people in the world that will be able to take that role, at sixty, how many will still be left? Maybe three or four, so if I’m one of those – I’m in with a good chance!
My advice to the readers is that when you get to forty, that’s the time to start ‘kicking on’ to really achieve something in your life, if you slacken off – you won’t go anywhere.
SR How do you see your future?
DR Hopefully gaining in wisdom…. Hopefully getting more comfortable with myself – I’m just becoming comfortable with who I am now, partly because of age and partly because of my kids growing up and the business doing well. I am genuinely looking forward to the next 10 years of my life, the PHD is a huge endeavor and I’m doing work with the Japanese Institutes. I’m a great believer in the power of visualization, the day I started Aikido I envisioned myself teaching a class, the day I started teaching a class I envisioned myself having a Dojo, I envisioned myself as an international security consultant and it’s coming true.
The higher up you go, the nicer people become, it’s a long time since I’ve looked at someone I’m doing business with and thought “you’re a plonker’ because by the time you get to this level, being nice is a part of the package. You’ve proved that you’re good at what you do and the people around you are also good at what they do, so you can really relax and be nice about it.
SR Isn’t it incredible that all this came from sitting on a beach in Goa…
DR It is. You can’t fight destiny. In India I thought my destiny would be to become a Buddhist monk. I thought that I would be doing all this through Buddhism. I’d have got into the hardest monastery I could find, have gone up the mountains and meditated for seven years and be sitting here now talking to you in orange robes saying that I’m forty nine years old and pushing on to the next level, so I don’t think that my destiny would have been that different, just the route.
SR You’re living proof of how the Japanese Martial Arts can really work well to improve a person’s life…
DR You’ve got to pay your dues, we had our 10th anniversary 8 years ago and I wrote to Inoue Sensei who runs the Yoshinkan and is one of my teachers and invited him to come over, I really thought hat he would be too busy. He wrote back saying ‘when do you want me to come?’ I thought Oh my God, now I’ve got to invite over all the other Yoshinkan group heads from all the other country’s and pay for their hotels and meals etc, it cost £10,000. But…. On one of the evenings in my office there was Inoue Sensei and the Head of each country’s Federation sat around the table with me, I thought “I’ve really made it” – I’ve paid my dues and bowed my head for 17 years and I’m accepted into the Circle.
It goes to show that if you pay your dues and do your time, it all comes to those that have the patience and determination.
SR What are your thoughts on the UK Martial Arts scene at the moment?
DR The answer is that I don’t know. A few years ago I was ‘on the circuit’ teaching 2 or 3 weekends a month. Now, I haven’t done that for years, I’m quite isolated; my feeling is that that there is an undercurrent of general excellence in this country. As you move further away from the founders, it becomes harder to maintain that excellence. Most martial arts are regressive or progressive, a founder starts the art and it then either becomes weaker or stronger. Funakoshi started Shotokan Karate and it is progressive, Nakayama took it over and made it better and developed it; but there are many arts that are regressive, when the ‘old man’ dies, they fall apart. Nothing guarantees that Yoshinkan will survive, other than the training that we do today. It is the responsibility of teachers to create people that can carry their art on in a progressive way to the next generation.
I’m very lucky that I teach a classical martial art. If I teach on a seminar I will say “my name’s David Rubens and I’m a student of Shioda Sensei”. That’s why I’m sitting here – it’s not because you think I’m great, it’s because I teach Yoshinkan Aikido. Therefore it’s my responsibility to teach a class in a way that brings honour and credit to Shioda Sensei. To teach a class that he would watch and say “that’s okay, you can do it in my name” – that’s my responsibility and that of anyone that teaches Yoshinkan Aikido.
SR Thanks for that David.
DR My pleasure.
David Rubens can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org