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.

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