Autobiographical article (2): Koichi Tohei–Training in Japan by Stanley Pranin

Koichi Tohei Sensei demonstrating at the Los Angeles Aikikai in 1965

Koichi Tohei Sensei demonstrating at the Los Angeles Aikikai in 1965

“I felt poorly prepared for the fast pace of training and the variety of styles
where the same techniques were executed in fundamentally different ways.”

This article is the second in a series of four autobiographical articles by Aiki News Editor-in-chief Stanley Pranin and was first published in 1990 in Wushu, a Japanese-language magazine dealing with Chinese martial arts.

In my last article I covered the circumstances under which I began my practice of aikido in 1962 and some of my strongest memories from those first few years. I would like to pick up the thread of my narration where I left off last time. The year is 1965 and I am a student at the University of California at Los Angeles. In the intervening two years I had been promoted to ikkyu by Takahashi Sensei. Although the demands on my time for studies were heavy I managed to continue training on Fridays and weekends. Also, my interest in aikido had grown to the point that I began to take Japanese language classes as an elective at the university.

At that point in time, I did most of my training at the Los Angeles Aikikai. It was one of the first dojos established in the mainland U.S. and continues to operate today. Besides the chief instructor Isao Takahashi Sensei, most of the senior students were nisei or sansei and several of them had moved to California from Hawaii where they had earlier begun their aikido training. As I recall, more than half of the dojo members were of Japanese descent. Some of those early aikidoka did much to spread aikido in California during the early years and such names as Clem Yoshida, Rod Kobayashi, Dan Mizukami, Francis Takahashi, and Daniel (Kensho) Furuya stand out most in my mind.

Group photo taken at the Los Angeles Aikikai in 1965 during a visit of Koichi Tohei Sensei. Tohei Sensei is seated front row center. To his right, Isao Takahashi. The author is standing last row, second from left

Group photo taken at the Los Angeles Aikikai in 1965 during a visit of Koichi Tohei Sensei. Tohei Sensei is
seated front row center. To his right, Isao Takahashi. The author is standing last row, second from left.

That summer at the dojo was a very exciting time for everyone as we were anticipating a visit from the Head of the Instructors’ Staff (Shihan Bucho) of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, the famous Koichi Tohei Sensei. Tohei Sensei was at that time perhaps the most well-known aikido teacher in the west due to his frequent travels to America and the publication of his early books in English. He had introduced aikido to Hawaii in 1953 and remained there teaching for about two years. At that point in time, the image of aikido in the minds of most foreigners was primarily shaped by his concept of the art which emphasized kiand, in this sense, Tohei was more influential outside of Japan than even the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. Tohei was known for his unrivaled technique, and easy-to-understand, entertaining teaching approach. For those of us who had never met him, we were anticipating a man almost bigger than life.

Koichi Tohei in New York, c. 1967.
Courtesy of Long Island Aikikai

When Tohei Sensei actually walked into the dojo that warm summer day in 1965 I indeed felt a powerful presence. Since his English, though quite serviceable, was difficult to understand, one had to pay close attention to his words. When he stepped on to the tatami to teach, he would often smile and relate amusing anecdotes to convey key points regarding techniques. Tohei Sensei’s movements were very graceful and he would often jump or hop while executing them. Although he was heavily muscled, even a bit stout, I found his motions more dance-like than martial. At the same time, there was certainly no doubt that he had plenty of power in reserve if he ever cared to call upon it.

Being raised in health-conscious California I was somewhat disappointed to find that he smoke and drank, although in retrospect having lived in this country (Japan) for many years, I now understand that there is nothing surprising about any man having such habits from the Japanese cultural standpoint. I also had occasion to seen him in social contexts and he was very charming and entertaining and quite adept at social dancing.

Tohei Sensei’s approach to teaching was simplicity itself. He started presenting a series of preparatory exercises done alone or with a partner designed to teach one to move in a relaxed, circular fashion. He had also developed a series of “ki testing” drills where one would check to ensure that his partner was “extending ki” properly. These exercises were a lot of fun and were something you could show to impress and mystify your friends. I remember in particular the “unbendable arm” and “unliftable posture.” Tohei Sensei taught a core of some 50 aikido techniques and each was executed in a highly individualistic way and clearly bore his stamp. He would demonstrate techniques in a casual, playful manner, as if to suggest that if one mastered the movements of aikido executing them was mere child’s play. We were taught that it was wrong to attempt to develop or resort to physical strength as this would impede our ability to learn to apply ki when executing techniques. What we were doing was in one very real sense an “unlearning” process in that we were reprogramming our bodies and minds to deal with physical reality in a new, more efficient manner.

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