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Kenji Tomiki: “The Second Jigoro Kano”

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #128

Part 1 - The Life of Kenji Tomiki

Among the many distinguished disciples of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, Kenji Tomiki stands out for his intellectual stature and skill in articulating the historical and ethical rationale of the art. Whereas the founder viewed life and, consequently, his budo, mainly in religious terms, Professor Tomiki espoused a view of aikido that included competition and placed it within the larger context of the history of Japanese martial arts. An academician as well as an athlete, Tomiki authored several books and formulated a theoretical basis for aikido that was understandable by the average person. In this article I will touch upon Professor Tomiki’s background, his relationship with Jigoro Kano and Morihei Ueshiba, and his contributions to present-day aikido.

Early education


A young Kenji Tomiki c. 1928

Kenji Tomiki was born to a family of landowners in Kakunodate, Akita Prefecture on March 15, 1900. It was there that he received his primary and secondary education and his academic and judo talents began to manifest themselves at an early age. Tomiki received a first dan in judo in November 1919. Following graduation from high school, he set out for Tokyo to prepare for university entrance examinations, but became very ill and was confined to bed for three-and-a-half years. During this time Tomiki received much encouragement and support from his uncle Hyakusui Hirafuku who was a famous painter of the time.

After several years lost to illness, Tomiki finally succeeded in entering Waseda University in 1923 where he studied Political Economics. He joined the highly-touted Waseda Judo Club, advancing to the rank of fourth dan by his senior year. It was during this period that he began to frequent the Kodokan and


Jigoro Kano (1860-1938)

first met the great educator and judo founder Jigoro Kano. Professor Kano’s thinking had a profound effect on the young Tomiki, particularly his view of judo as a vehicle for self-improvement and physical education. Tomiki would later expand on this philosophy of education and apply it in a unique way to aikido. His devotion to judo during his university days did not, however, cause him to neglect his studies and he maintained his academic standing being dubbed “the scholar from the sports division.”

Meeting Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba

It was in 1926 that Tomiki first met Morihei Ueshiba via an introduction from a senior in the Waseda University club named Hidetaro Nishimura. Nishimura was also an Omoto believer and had become aware of Ueshiba’s activities through his connection with the religion. Tomiki was highly impressed by Ueshiba’s mastery of jujutsu techniques.

After graduation from Waseda in 1927 with a degree in political science, Tomiki entered graduate school majoring in economics. During the summer of that year he spent a month of intensive training in Daito-ryu aikijujutsu under Ueshiba Sensei at the Omoto headquarters in Ayabe, near Kyoto. Ueshiba relocated to Tokyo later that same year and Tomiki continued his training often taking ukemi for his teacher during demonstrations. By the standards of those times, Tomiki was quite large and powerful and it was an impressive site when observers saw the diminutive Ueshiba handling him easily. For Tomiki, Ueshiba Sensei’s art—which was still Daito-ryu aikijujutsu at that time—included a huge body of essential jujutsu techniques that served as a vital complement to his judo training.


Morihei Ueshiba and Kenji Tomiki, c. 1935

Following completion of his formal education, Tomiki was employed by an electrical company in Sendai. In addition, he entered the prestigious Imperial Martial Arts Tournament (Tenranjiai) in 1929 as the judo representative from Miyagi Prefecture and placed within the top 12 after being forced to withdraw due to an injury.

Tomiki later became a junior high school teacher in his hometown of Kakunodate. While serving in this capacity between 1931-34, he would pass his summer and winter vacations in Tokyo training under Ueshiba Sensei. His sights set on Manchuria then under Japanese rule, Tomiki resigned his teaching post in 1934 and spent the following years in Tokyo in preparation for his move. For a time he rented an apartment near the Kobukan Dojo of Ueshiba Sensei in Wakamatsu-cho and was one of the senior instructors. He also played a major role in preparing the manuscript of the 1933 manual of Ueshiba’s techniques entitled Budo Renshu.

To Manchuria

Tomiki encountered Jigoro Kano for the last time in 1936 prior to relocating to Manchuria. At that meeting Kano encouraged Tomiki to continue his studies of aikijujutsu. Kano himself placed great importance on the preservation of classical Japanese martial arts and held Ueshiba in especially high regard. The judo founder even sent several of his leading students, the best known of whom being Minoru Mochizuki—to train under Ueshiba in 1930.


Seated front: Kenji Tomiki and Morihei Ueshiba; standing right: Hideo Oba. Photo taken in 1942 in front of Shimbuden Hall of Kenkoku University, Manchuria

Relocating to Manchuria in March 1936, Tomiki became a part-time instructor at Daido Gakuin and taught aikibudo to the Kanton Army and the Imperial Household Agency. In the spring of 1938, he was appointed to the staff of the newly established Kenkoku University in what was then Shinkyo (present-day Changchun). This appointment came about due to Tomiki’s connection with Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo. As a historical note, Rinjiro Shirata, one of Ueshiba’s best prewar students, was originally selected for the Kenkoku University post, but was forced to bow out following his conscription into the Japanese Imperial Army in 1937.

Tomiki was living in a house in Daiyagai in Shinkyo where he also operated a private dojo. This was in addition to his teaching activities at Kenkoku University. He taught people from the town and commuted to the Military Police Training Hall and the university. Another top prewar student of Ueshiba named Shigemi Yonekawa also lived with Tomiki for a time and assisted him in his teaching duties.

Largely through Tomiki’s efforts, aiki training become a compulsory subject for students of judo and kendo, and therefore he sent for his close associate Hideo Oba, then a 5th dan, from Akita in order to develop a teaching staff. Also, Morihei Ueshiba made regular fall trips to Manchuria during these years also to conduct classes at Kenkoku University. Professor Tomiki made great strides during the Manchuria years in fleshing out his theory of rikaku taisei. This term refers to the use of techniques for dealing with attacks by an opponent separated from the defender. This was part of Tomiki’s view of a “complete judo” which encompassed two parts: “grappling judo” (kumi judo) which equated to Kodokan Judo, and “separated judo” (hanare judo) which was equivalent to aikido.

Ueshiba began to adopt the dan ranking system about this time and promoted Tomiki to 8th dan in 1940. Tomiki was the first person to receive this rank from Ueshiba and this honor reflected the high regard in which he was held by the aikido founder. For the next four years, during the summer months Tomiki would visit Japan where he would give instruction to senior judo dan holders at the Kodokan.

The Waseda years

Following the end of the Second World War, Tomiki was stranded in Manchuria and interned in a prison camp in Siberia along with thousands of other Japanese. He continued developing his theories even while being detained and devised a series of tai sabaki (body shifting) exercises which also served as a means of maintaining his health under difficult conditions. Tomiki was finally released after three years and returned to Japan at the end of 1948.

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