Koichi Tohei, Part 2

Editors Note: This is the second in a three part series written by Pietro Ignacio, one of our students.  Pietro has a black belt awarded by the Ki Society.

Taking Aikido to the West


In 1953, The Hawaii Nishi Kai sponsored a visit by Tohei to introduce Aikido to the islands. It was at this time just prior to Tohei’s trip that Ueshiba awarded him 8th dan in Aikido.

During Tohei’s visit to Hawaii, he was met with many challengers. Since Aikido was a new martial art, many experts in other arts, from Judo to Sumo, would actively resist or even launch a surprise attack while Tohei was delivering a lecture. During these incidents, Tohei would always prevail further raising the status of Aikido in the west.

Roy Suenaka, a lifelong martial artist, who was able to observe Tohei during his demonstrations and teaching engagements in Hawaii, noted that since Aikido was virtually unknown at that time, Tohei would not have a trained uke available. Instead, challengers from different martial traditions would come and challenge Tohei. All of them were looking to disprove the practicability of this new martial art. Although they would forcefully resist Tohei’s techniques, or even attack simultaneously, it was to no avail. Many of these challengers subsequently became students of Aikido, including Roy Suenaka himself.

It was also during these challenges that Tohei realized that many of the physical techniques he learned in Japan would not work with attackers who were almost twice his size. However, when he applied techniques using Ki, the attacker’s size became irrelevant.

Tohei made several trips to the US to promote Aikido. During these trips, he was surprised how western students would so readily ask questions when most Japanese students would be content with just watching and trying to copy what the teacher does.

This experience encouraged Tohei to codify the teachings of Aikido, and systemize techniques and exercises. Codifying these techniques also allowed Tohei to provide a guide to the Shihans he assigned to teach in various dojos that had opened throughout the country. His lessons always included 10 minutes of Ki development exercises followed by 50 minutes of waza.

In 1956, Morihei Ueshiba promoted Tohei to 9th dan.

Trouble at Home

Tohei spent several years touring the United States to promote Aikido. When in Japan, he taught several classes in various locations and universities in his capacity as Master General and Shihan Bucho of the Aikikai.

As Chief Instructor, he had a free hand in choosing the classes he wanted to teach. However, the first class of the day was usually always taught by Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the founder’s son who was mostly charged with the administrative management of the Aikikai.

Although not talked about openly, it was known that the Doshu and the Shihan Bucho were not very close with each other. One point of contention was the teaching of Ki principles during Aikido classes. Although Tohei always made it a point to emphasize Ki development during his classes, Doshu was firmly against it. This disagreement came to a head during one of Suenaka’s visits to the Hombu, which Suenaka later described as follows:

Tohei had asked [Suenaka] to accompany him to a teaching trip. Before they left the dojo, Tohei asked [Suenaka] to wait in the hallway while he went to the Doshu’s office. Within a few minutes, [Suenaka] heard raised voices in argument. Worried, he opened the office door to see what was happening and as he stuck his head in, both the Doshu and the Shihan Bucho scolded him to stay out of the office. While waiting at the hallway, [Suenaka] overheard some of the conversation. Doshu was telling Tohei that he is not to teach Ki during his Aikido classes anymore, Tohei replied that he will not teach Ki in the Hombu classes but that he will continue to teach Ki outside of the Hombu Dojo. Doshu replied that if he wanted to teach Ki outside of Hombu he should go ahead and do so but that he is not allowed to use any Aikido techniques or terms in teaching Ki. Tohei replied that he will do so without using anything from Aikido nor will he recruit any students of Aikido.

He then stormed our of the office, [Suenaka] in tow.

After this incident, Tohei started his ShinShin Toitsu Do classes in gymnasium near the Hombu dojo. He taught Ki meditation, Ki Development, and Ki hygiene as he learned it from Tempu Nakamura. Although his classes first started with just a few students, his classes later grew to about 300 students.

O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba was still alive and active during this time of contention between Doshu and Tohei, but he never involved himself, nor said a single word to address the contentious relationship between his son and his appointed Chief Instructor.

Late in 1968, O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba prevailed upon Tohei to accept the 10th Dan rank in Aikido, which was the highest rank ever awarded by O-Sensei to anyone in Aikido. It was then only known to the few in Aikido’s inner circle that O-Sensei was suffering from liver cancer. Within only a few months, in April of 1969, O-Sensei would pass away. In keeping with Japanese tradition, Tohei’s 10th dan promotion could not be celebrated during the year after the Founder’s death.

With the passing of O-Sensei, Koichi Tohei is the only person to have been awarded the highest rank of 10th dan by the Founder.

Ki Society

As mentioned before, Tohei had established the Ki Society to teach Shin Shin Toitsu Do under a severe restrictive agreement with the Doshu. There were five conditions that Tohei promised the Doshu he would observe: 1) no Aikido techniques would be taught, 2) no Aikido names would be used, 3) no Aikido headquarters facilities would be used, 4) no Aikido funds would be used and, 5) no Aikido students would be invited to attend the ki classes.

Despite these conditions, Tohei’s Ki classes grew. During this time he was also serving as the Aikikai’s Chief Instructor and Master General, although Tohei had severely cut down his time at the Hombu.

Tohei later explained that his decision to focus on Ki was prompted by his observation that O-Sensei, when he taught, always talked about Ki and emphasized it in his techniques. But because the concept of Ki is more difficult to explain and demonstrate than the physical movements of Aikido, many people tend to concentrate only on the physical movements. If this trend were to continue uncorrected, O-Sensei’s Aikido would become watered down and it’s effectiveness would suffer. Tohei also explained that he had taken pains to analyze and codify the teachings of O-Sensei in order to more easily and systematically be able to disseminate the lessons of Aikido. If he were prevented from teaching the concept of Ki as being central to Aikido, then all of his hard work and years of study would soon be forgotten.

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