It’s been almost a year since I began practising Aikido, and Koichi Tohei is one of the names that I’ve heard quite frequently in passing, him being a central influence in the history of the Welsh Aikido Society.
Unfortunately Tohei checked out in 2011, aged 91, so I’ll never get to meet the legend. There are a few unwritten things I’ve learned, mainly anecdotes that came indirectly from people who were reasonably close to him. The general story I’ve gathered is the Welsh Aikido Society’s founding members originally practiced a much harder form of Aikido in the 1970s. They decided there must be a better way, so Mal Saunders went off to learn from Koichi Tohei.
The Welsh Aikido Society’s web site states: ‘A fundamental principle stressed to all students is that progress beyond mere basic techniques can only be by personal development via complete acceptance of the principles and practices of Ki development both on and off the mat.’
But does that statement have any tangible meaning to readers? Not initially, without a few months’ practice. While my understanding is still pretty limited, I can possibly describe Ki development as working toward a state where the mind, body and the environment are in harmony/co-ordination with each other. Sounds new-agey. On the mat this means using the whole body, plus that of the opponent, in co-ordination to pull off a technique, something that’s often referred to elsewhere as ‘blending’. The general principles are applicable in most other areas of life, making a person more balanced, relaxed, natural and intuitive. A ‘sixth sense’ is also gradually developed – practitioners have to be able to read others around them. Most of it is essentially body mechanics with a bit of psychology thrown in.
Origins of Ki Aikido
What’s less commonly mentioned is how much Ki Aikido is based on what Tohei learned from sources other than Ueshiba.
As the standard bio states, Tohei was already a Judo black belt when he began learning Aikido/Aiki-jujutsu, but he also joined the Ichikukai Dojo after reading from a biography of swordsman Yamaoka Tesshu, and there he learned something (I’m not exactly sure what) that enabled him to defeat Ueshiba’s other students. From 1946 he experimented with things taught by Tenpu Nakamura. So, on the surface it appears Tohei went off on tangents and deviated from standard Aiki-jujutsu, but as I researched further I became more convinced he was researching in greater depth what Ueshiba taught.
What evidence is there to support this? Tohei had also trained at the Iwama Dojo from 1946. Now if I remember correctly, the students at Iwama were mainly labourers, physically much stronger and bigger than Tohei, which meant he didn’t have the option of resorting to strength when his technique wasn’t quite right. He must have emulated Ueshiba almost perfectly, otherwise the techniques simply wouldn’t have worked.
Last year I mentioned Kim Mortensen’s essay that examined Ueshiba’s philosophy, called ‘A short story of Ueshiba Morihei and his philosophy of life’. More recently I found the scanned pages of Ki Sayings, which appears to be the manifesto of the Ki Society in 1973 and an attempt to present a clearer definition of Ueshiba’s philosophy/theology. The general idea (being one with the universe and all that) is virtually the same in both texts. The real difference is that Ueshiba attached supernatural and religious meanings to it, while Tohei wanted to be as pragmatic as possible because the ideas would eventually have to withstand scrutiny.
What Tohei also did, according to the Aikido Sangenkai Dojo’s blog, is interpret, translate and even modify Ueshiba’s speeches the best he could, as they were almost incomprehensible in their original form.
In any case, Tohei refined some of the ideas, formalised them, then put together a syllabus that was published in a series of manuals from around 1960.
A Parting of Ways
As we already know, Ueshiba’s son became head of the Aikikai while Tohei remained the head instructor, and the official leadership really didn’t like Tohei deviating from their Aikido syllabus. Likewise, Tohei himself might have been a little pissed at being snubbed for the leadership position, in light of having financially supported the Aikikai up until 1959 through whatever income he gained in Hawaii, but by all accounts the central dispute was over what Tohei’s wanted to teach.
The friction continued until May 1974, when Tohei submitted, or rather published, his official resignation from the Aikikai. He made this known to all the dojos in and outside Japan, knowing a good number of them would join him.
Unfortunately for the official leadership, it was through Tohei that Aikido became known internationally, although it was Ueshiba himself who opened the first Aikido dojo outside Japan in 1961. In Nakamura Tenpu and Ueshiba Morihei: The Establishment of Ki (1999), it’s written that Tohei’s visits to Hawaii began in 1953 when it was apparent that the Japanese were generally becoming more interested in American culture than their own.
In the November 1977 issue of Black Belt Magazine, he’s quoted as saying: ‘At that time everyone in Japan believed that if something was made in America it had to be better than anything Japanese. So I thought it would be better to spread Aikido in the United States and return to Japan with it.’
By 1967, Tohei also made at least two lengthy teaching efforts in the United States and shifted a fair number of his manuals. Enough people were impressed by the demonstrations he put on, and and so a reputation was built in other countries.
Being either limited by the Aikikai or not content with his international influence, Tohei founded another organisation called the Ki No Kenkyukai, the predecessor to the Ki Society, for the purpose of teaching what later became known as ‘Ki Aikido’. Tohei eventually retired from the Aikido scene altogether, sometime around 1990, and focused entirely on ki development itself without the martial arts element.