An Overview of Koichi Tohei’s Early Aikido Career by Stanley Pranin

Koichi Tohei, 10th dan, teaching in Hawaii c. 1960

“Who is Koichi Tohei and why is he so important to
an understanding of the development of aikido?”

In May, 1974, an event occurred that shook the roots of the aikido world to its very foundations. It was then that Koichi Tohei, the chief instructor of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, resigned from his post and left the headquarters organization to form his own school.

Many aikido associations, dojos, instructors, and students, particularly in Japan and the U.S.A., were compelled to make a choice of whether to stay within the Aikikai system or join Tohei’s newly-created Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido organization.

The impact on those who remained within the Aikikai system was nonetheless traumatic because they saw the illusion of harmony at the highest level of leadership in the aikido world shattered. Regardless of where one stood on the issue, aikido at large had suffered a huge black eye.

From the viewpoint of the Aikikai, Tohei’s actions and attempts to dictate the technical curriculum and teaching methodology were unacceptable. In Tohei’s eyes, the aikido headquarters had snubbed his leadership and failed to sufficiently acknowledge his many accomplishments and contributions to the postwar spread of aikido, both in Japan and abroad. The contentious issue was further complicated by a web of long-standing personal relationships that had gone sour.

The upshot of this tragic situation was that in the aftermath of Tohei’s departure, neither he nor the Aikikai has wished to revisit this unfortunate episode and the issue has been effectively swept under the rug for more than 35 years.

Who is Koichi Tohei and why is he so important to an understanding of the development of aikido? Should he be unceremoniously deleted from aikido history due to past grievances or should he be given due credit for his role in the shaping of the art of aikido?

Early Years

Koichi Tohei was born in Tokyo on January 20, 1920. His well-to-do family soon moved to its ancestral home in Tochigi Prefecture where the young Koichi grew up. He studied judo as a teenager, but his training was interrupted while a student at Keio University due to a bout with pleurisy.

In 1940, in an effort to regain his health, Tohei joined the Ichikukai and engaged in intensive misogi breathing and meditation training. It was shortly thereafter that he received an introduction to Morihei Ueshiba Sensei who operated a private martial arts dojo in the Shinjuku Ward of Tokyo. Tohei immediately joined the dojo and practiced intensively under the Aikido Founder up until the time of his induction into the Japanese Imperial Army in October 1942.

Tohei saw action in China and was stranded on the continent at the end of the war until his repatriation in 1946. Soon thereafter, Tohei reestablished contact with Morihei Ueshiba who had retired to his country home in Iwama, Ibaragi Prefecture. Tohei resumed training in aikido traveling to Iwama from his nearby hometown as his schedule permitted.

It was also during this period that Tohei began training under Tempu Nakamura, the person who introduced yoga to Japan. Nakamura would have a major influence on Tohei and his approach to aikido and ki.

Ueshiba promoted Tohei to 8th dan at the young age of 32 in 1952 in recognition of his status as the Founder’s leading student. Tohei’s promotion would also serve to stimulate the growth of the Aikikai whose activities had been all but curtailed in the aftermath of World War II.

Koichi Tohei applying sankyo on huge Hawaiian, c. 1953

Koichi Tohei applying sankyo on huge Hawaiian, c. 1953

Establishing Aikido in Hawaii

In February 1953, at the invitation of the Hawaii branch of the Nishikai health system, Tohei visited the islands for an extended stay to introduce the then unknown art of aikido. Despite many challenges and hardships, Tohei established himself as top-tier martial artist and built up a network of Aikikai-affiliated dojos all over Hawaii. During this time, he provided financial support to the struggling Aikikai from donations he collected from his students and patrons. Tohei returned to Hawaii in 1955 and again in 1959 where he further strengthened the aikido base he had created several years earlier.

Back in Japan, the Aikikai gradually began to emerge as the leading aikido organization with Tohei assuming a leadership role as chief instructor, a post he was appointed to in 1956. A network of schools in various cities, universities and companies gradually formed and the art began to receive some exposure in the media.

Publications

Starting around 1960, Tohei published a series of books both in Japanese and English that were among the first covering the subject of aikido. He formulated a widely-accepted technical curriculum and provided a philosophical framework for his approach to aikido based on his theory of ki principles.

Tohei arranged a six-week visit to Hawaii by Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba in February 1961. The Founder was present at the dedication of the Honolulu Aikikai dojo and saw first hand the extensive network created by his top student in Hawaii.

Tohei further expanded his teaching base abroad with lengthy visits to the United States mainland in 1965 and 1967. On the international stage, Tohei had become the best-known figure in aikido due to his extensive travels and publications, even eclipsing the Founder and his son Kisshomaru.

Extensive foreign travels

Tohei’s activity in Japan and overseas continued unabated. During his years of active foreign travel between 1953 and 1971, he ventured abroad some 15 times. His reputation was further enhanced due to his well-publicized coaching of famous sports figures including all-time homerun hitter Sadaharu Oh and Sumo great Chiyonofuji. Over the years, Tohei gathered a large following of junior instructors and students within the Aikikai who favored his particular interpretation of aikido.

Koichi Tohei on the occasion of his 10th dan award ceremony in 1970


Promotion to 10th dan

In January 1969, Tohei was promoted to 10th dan by Founder Ueshiba, the first Aikikai instructor to be so honored. Ueshiba fell ill shortly thereafter and passed away on April 26 of the same year.

At this time, discussions took place about who would succeed the Founder and it what capacity. Some of the Aikikai decision-makers, including then Cabinet Member Sunao Sonoda, favored the idea of Tohei assuming the title of Doshu with Ueshiba’s son Kisshomaru becoming Headquarters General Manager. However, the position of Doshu did in fact go to Kisshomaru with Tohei retaining his post as chief instructor.

Rift within the Aikikai

Gradually over the years, a division had formed within the Aikikai with some members supporting the pedagogy of Kisshomaru and his allied senior instructors, while others preferred Tohei’s teaching methods with his emphasis on ki. Tensions developed to the point that, in 1971, Tohei created the Ki no Kenkyukai outside of the Aikikai where he taught his ki principles separate from aikido techniques.

The rift between the two factions of the Aikikai worsened to the point that Tohei tendered his resignation from the Hombu Dojo on May 1st, 1974. At this time, he established Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido, Tohei’s approach to aikido with ki principles incorporated. He later launched a healing method called “Kiatsu” that was taught in conjunction with his ki-based aikido.

Tohei’s Ki no Kenkyukai headquarters is located in Shinjuku near the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. He also established a major training center called the “Ki no Sato” in Tochigi Prefecture adjacent to his home. Officially retired since 1990, Tohei still occasionally instructs at Ki no Sato events despite his advanced age.

Having presented an overview of Tohei Sensei’s pivotal role in the early development of aikido, we now turn our attention to his technical system whose influence continues today in hundreds of dojos in Japan and abroad even within the Aikikai system despite the passage of more than three decades….

The above text is excerpted from the narrative section of a rare seminar video of Koichi Tohei from 1974.


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