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Koichi Tohei: Ongaeshi - Repayment of Kindness

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by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #110 (1996)

Koichi Tohei instructing in Hawaii, c. 1965

Aikido Journal has, over the years, championed many causes. We have been both complimented and roundly criticized during our twenty-two years of publication for our unconventional views on Morihei Ueshiba, Aikikai Hombu Dojo, Iwama Aikido, Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu, Shin’ei Taido, and an assortment of other topics. Readers who have appreciated our efforts have praised us for our fairness and objectiveness in our presentation of the aiki arts. But alas, it is not true! We are neither fair nor objective. We are guilty of having as many biases as the next person. We can only confess that we have often focused on certain teachers and subjects of particular interest to the staff and neglected other topics which readers have clamored for. We are extremists to the extreme, independent to the end, and proud of it!

In recent issues we have had a new cause to champion. We are intent on restoring the good name and accomplishments of one of aikido’s greatest teachers who has too long been overlooked or forgotten in many aikido circles. The man of whom I speak is Koichi Tohei.

Indulge me for a short while as we board together a time-machine to the golden years of aikido’s infancy in the USA in the mid-1960s. We see a totally different landscape when compared to the art of today. The name of Koichi Tohei is on everyone’s lips. He is now in his vigorous 40s, handsome, charming, and physically gifted. He is a fluent speaker of English, the author of best-selling books on the art. He is supremely confident, a wonderful teacher. He is the chief instructor of the World Headquarters Dojo, the Mecca of aikido, and he is the “ambassador of ki.” Yes, Koichi Tohei is the man every devotee wants to see in the flesh, the one whose techniques are to be emulated, the one who inspires. His interpretation of techniques represents “the” standard. His views on the principles of aikido and the “mysterious” concept of ki are unending topics of conversation. He is the motive power driving the spread of the art. Koichi Tohei IS aikido!

Yes, all of this is true. I know because I was there and I was one of the multitude who admired—no idolized!—the man. For those of us who fate brought to the doorsteps of aikido in the early years, the founder, Morihei Ueshiba, was but a symbol. He was aikido’s distant past while Tohei was its dynamic present. How is it that things have come to be so different nowadays? How could it come to pass that many practitioners today don’t even know who Koichi Tohei is? Perhaps, the answer lies partially in the success of the art itself. While other martial arts seem captive to the boom or bust cycle, the whims of the times, or the success of the latest martial arts movie, aikido has spread relentlessly to the point it has become a household word in the world’s major societies.

The growth of aikido led to literally thousands of foreign students flocking to Japan where they found many outstanding teachers to learn from. In a like manner, Japanese instructors relocating to foreign countries and those traveling regularly abroad to teach came to number in the hundreds. The many styles and interpretations of aikido began to assert themselves so much that today’s prospective enrollees are faced with a plethora of options. But there is another reason for Koichi Tohei’s disappearance from the limelight. One that is locked away in the memories of the old timers and which remains hidden from most aikidoka today. I refer to the veritable Civil War which took place in 1974 that tore the aikido world asunder. The event that crushed long-standing friendships and plunged many of the most talented and enthusiastic practitioners of the art into a state of bewilderment from which some would never emerge.

Yes, Koichi Tohei severed his ties with the Aikikai that year due to irreconcilable differences with Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and other Aikikai shihan. He left to devote his full energies to the Ki no Kenkyukai he had recently created. This devastating event altered the course of aikido forever and condemned the 10th dan master to relative obscurity outside of his immediate sphere of influence. He has been deleted from the Aikikai’s version of history and time has done the rest to erase his memory.

More than 20 years after these events, Koichi Tohei broke his long, self-imposed silence in the fall of 1995 when he finally agreed to be interviewed by Aikido Journal. That and subsequent interviews published in this magazine have exposed readers for the first time to Tohei Sensei’s personal recollections of his years at the Aikikai, the peaks and valleys of his relationship with the founder, his experiences as a pioneer in Hawaii, and other fascinating topics. As is to be expected, some of Tohei’s comments have aroused considerable controversy. No doubt some old wounds have been reopened, but I think the overall effect of Tohei’s revelations has been salutary and will surely lead to many reevaluating their views of aikido’s colorful past.

Surely, there are conflicting views on these same events seen by other participants and perhaps now would be the time for these individuals to come forth with their versions. However, given my long years of association with the principals involved at the Aikikai, I believe that few will choose to expose their views to the scrutiny of a public forum, but instead will prefer to carry their memories with them to the grave.

No one can dispute that Tohei’s remarks add a richness and depth to our understanding of some of the key events in the early years of the fledgling art. Moreover, they provide us with valuable firsthand glimpses of the founder that reveal unknown facets of his genius and idiosyncratic behavior. As an historian, I am overwhelmed by the importance of Tohei’s long-withheld testimonies.

I parted ways with Tohei Sensei in 1974 at the time of his split from the Aikikai. Yet I have never felt entirely comfortable with this decision as it was imposed upon me and thousands of others by the sweeping events of those times. After all, he had given freely and graciously of his vast knowledge and experience in a manner that left an indelible print on a young man’s life.

There is a term I have learned during my long stay as a guest in this country. It is “ongaeshi,” repayment of kindness. I am morally obligated to repay Tohei Sensei’s acts of generosity of more than 30 years ago. At the same time, in my capacity as Editor-in-Chief of Aikido Journal, I take great pride in presenting this series of articles on Koichi Tohei and the Ki no Kenkyukai which will continue in our next issue. It is my sincere hope that our readers will find many new perspectives and ideas to challenge their thinking. For the inevitable critics, still yourselves for a moment and let a great man speak his piece. By so doing, you will have earned the right to be heard in turn!