Interview with Koichi Tohei (1)
Aikido Journal #107 (1996)
Aikido has grown explosively since World War II. Koichi Tohei, a distinguished contributor to this development, is perhaps one of those most qualified to talk about the history of aikido. Most of the active aikido shihan (even those 7th dan and above) in the world today were taught, at one time or another, by Tohei.
Feeling strongly that future generations will decide their own destiny, Tohei has chosen to speak out very little over the years. At long last, on the condition that we represent his organization’s activities and thinking as they are, Tohei Sensei has finally agreed to this exclusive interview with Aikido Journal.
As the only student of Morihei Ueshiba to be officially awarded tenth dan and a figure of central importance in the post-war aikido world, Tohei has taken the opportunity to speak frankly with us about his views and experiences. (Interviewed July 11th, 1995)
The Principles of Heaven and Earth and My Approach to Life
Sensei, tell us about your approach to aikido.
As we move into the twenty-first century, the world we live in is becoming more and more relative. Because there is ahead, there is also behind. Because there is up, there is also down. Within this relativistic world, nothing is absolute in its correctness. It is not possible, for example, that north is correct while south is not. Both are simply “facts.”
The only sure way to be absolutely correct is to avoid being caught in the whirlwind of these so-called facts of the relativistic world and instead be in accord with the absolute principles of Heaven and Earth. When it comes to standards of judgment, that which is in accord with the principles of Heaven and Earth is correct, while that which is not is not correct.
Decisive action is born of an understanding of that which is in accord with the principles of Heaven and Earth. A lack of this understanding leads to “unreasonable effort,” or muri, the literal meaning of which is “lack of principle,” and should be avoided. This has always been my way of thinking and the reason I have scrupulously avoided acting in ways that involve unreasonable effort or that go against these principles.
Aikido is essentially a path of being in accord with the ki of Heaven and Earth. Many of those involved in budo, however, tend to talk about things that are illogical and involve unreasonable effort, things that are impossible. But my way of living is to avoid doing anything that is not in accord with principle.
Tall Tales and Reality: What I Really Learned from Master Morihei
What was the most important thing you learned from Morihei Ueshiba?
The way people most talk about ki these days tends toward the occultish, but I will say that I have never done anything even remotely involving the occult. Much of what Ueshiba Sensei talked about, on the other hand, did sound like the occult.
In any case, I began studying aikido because I saw that Ueshiba Sensei had truly mastered the art of relaxing. It was because he was relaxed, in fact, that he could generate so much power. I became his student with the intention of learning that from him. To be honest, I never really listened to most of the other things he said.
Stories about Ueshiba Sensei moving instantaneously or pulling pine trees from the ground and swinging them around are all just tall tales. I’ve always urged aikido people to avoid writing things like that. Unfortunately many people don’t seem to listen. Instead, they just decrease the size of the tree in the story from some massive thing to one only about ten centimeters in diameter. In reality, it’s pretty difficult to pull even a single burdock root out of the ground, so how in the world is someone going to extract a ten centimeter pine tree, especially while standing on its root system? Such things are nothing but exaggerations of the kind often used in old-fashioned storytelling.
The stories have gotten rather incredible since Ueshiba Sensei passed away, and now people are having him moving instantaneously or reappearing suddenly from a kilometer away and other nonsense. I was with Ueshiba Sensei for a long time and can tell you that he possessed no supernatural powers.
Sensei, you seem in very good health for a man about to turn seventy-six. Has this always been the case?
Actually, I was rather frail as a child. My father said I needed to be stronger and made me take up judo, which he had been involved in at Keio University. I trained hard and eventually did grow stronger, but after entering the pre-college program at Keio a bout with pleurisy forced me to take a year off. My hard-earned strength suddenly began to vanish again.
Unable to endure the thought of losing what I had worked so hard to gain, I replaced the judo with other forms of training such as zazen (seated Zen meditation) and misogi (purification). I vowed not let my strength deteriorate again even if it killed me. Worrying about my health and living as a semi-invalid did nothing to help with my recuperation, so I just said to hell with it, I might as well throw myself into training, even if it kills me. Aikido was part of that training as well. I concentrated on keeping myself strong, and somewhere along the way the x-rays showed that the pleurisy had completely gone away. Amazingly, I had gotten better.
Although the ideas were somewhat vague at that time, I had a sense that it was my mind and spirit (kokoro) that had motivated my body. I realized that the way you hold your mind is important. Physical illness is okay (if not desirable), but it is unacceptable to allow illness to extend to your mind or your ki.
In Japanese, when the body malfunctions in some way we call it yamai, or byo, which means simply “illness”; but when the failure extends to one’s ki as well we call it byoki. So although my body may be afflicted with some sort of illness, I don’t let that extend to my ki. If the mind is healthy, the body will follow.
After my recovery I returned to the judo club, but I couldn’t bring myself to resume training as enthusiastically as before. One reason was that judo inevitably emphasizes conditioning of the body before turning to matters of the mind. My thinking, however, was that the mind moves the body, and that anything you think in your mind you should be able to do with your body as well.
Also, having been away from judo for nearly two years, by the time I got my second dan, everybody else was already ranked fourth or fifth dan. Even many of the third dans had progressed so far ahead of me that they could throw me all over the place. That wasn’t very interesting and it wasn’t much fun, either.
Hoping to strengthen myself, I went home and started kicking lightly at the support pillars around the house. After doing that a couple of thousand times a day, though, the walls started to come down. My elder sister wasn’t very pleased about that and made me go outside in the garden instead. After a few weeks I got so I could move my feet with the same agility and dexterity as my hands. I went back to the dojo and was able to throw everybody.
Meeting Morihei Ueshiba
When did you enter the Ueshiba Dojo?
I think it was in 1940. Kisaburo Osawa came in about a week later. I had been thinking what a poor state of affairs it was that I could train on my own for a couple of weeks and come back and throw everyone in the judo dojo. “Why bother with a martial art like that?” I thought. It was then that I met Ueshiba Sensei. Shohei Mori, one of my seniors at the judo club who had worked on the Manchurian Railway, told me about a teacher with phenomenal strength and asked if I’d like to meet him. He gave me a letter of introduction and off I went.
Tohei with Aikido Founder Morihei
Ueshiba in 1953 (From Aikido:
The Arts of Self-Defense)
Ueshiba Sensei was out when I arrived at the dojo and I was met by an uchideshi named Matsumoto. I asked him what aikido was all about. He replied, “Give me your hand and I’ll show you.” I knew he was going to do some move on me, so I stuck out my left hand instead of my right. Being right handed, I wanted to keep my strongest hand in reserve. He grabbed my wrist and applied a sharp nikyo technique. I hadn’t strengthened that part of my body at all, so it was agonizing. I’m sure my face went pale, but I wasn’t about to let him to get the best of me, so I endured the pain as long as I could. Then I threw a punch at him with my right hand and he got flustered and let go.
I was just starting to think that if this was aikido I might as well forget it and go home. Just then Ueshiba Sensei returned. I produced my letter of introduction and he said “Ah yes, from Mr. Mori…” Then as a demonstration, he began tossing one of the larger uchideshi around the dojo.
I thought it looked kind of fake until Ueshiba Sensei told me to take off my coat and come at him. I got into a judo stance and moved in to grab him. To my great surprise, he threw me so smoothly and swiftly that I couldn’t even figure out what had happened. I knew right then that this was what I wanted to do. I asked permission to enroll immediately and began going to the dojo every day from the following morning.
I found the training very strange and mysterious, and I was dying to know how the techniques were done. When someone uses power to throw you, there’s always something you can do to react or counter. But it’s a different story when the person isn’t doing anything in particular and you’re still getting thrown. I thought, “Wow, this is the real thing!”
In the beginning I had no idea what was going on. Even high school students could throw me without any trouble. Finding that rather odd, I tried grabbing even more strongly, but of course then I was only thrown that much more easily.
Tohei in Hawaii, circa 1953
At the same time I was continuing my training at the Ichikukai [see the interview with Hiroshi Tada in AJ101 for more information]. I used to stay there overnight and practice zazen and misogi. The training focused on achieving a kind of enlightened state in which both body and mind become entirely free from restraint. It was exhausting, and afterwards I would rush to aikido practice, already dead tired. To my surprise, I found that in that state people who could always throw me before were completely unable to do so! It didn’t take me much effort to throw them, either. Everybody thought it was strange and kept saying things like, “What’s with Tohei?! He skips practice and comes back stronger than ever!”
It’s a lot more difficult for someone to throw you if you let go of power, and it also becomes much easier to throw your opponent. I thought about Ueshiba Sensei and realized that he was indeed relaxed when he did his aikido. It was then that I suddenly understood the real meaning of “relax.”
My aikido continued to progress as I continued with my misogi and zazen. After six months or so I was even sent to teach at places like the military police academy in Nakano and the private school (juku) of Shumei Okawa. No one except Sensei could throw me. It took me only half a year to be able to achieve that degree of ability, so I think taking five or ten years is too slow.
Even now most people are trying as hard as they can to learn techniques, but I was learning about ki from the beginning.
When do you think Ueshiba Sensei mastered that “art of relaxing?”
I think it was probably when he was living in Ayabe and heavily involved with the Omoto religion. Ueshiba Sensei often told a story about one day when he was standing by a well wiping himself off after training and he suddenly realized that his body had become perfect and invincible. He understood with remarkable clarity the meaning of the sounds of the birds and insects and everything else around him. Apparently that state lasted only for about five minutes, but I think it was then that he mastered the art of relaxing.
Unfortunately, he always talked about that experience using religious-sounding expressions that were more or less incomprehensible to others.
Before the war Sensei taught at the Naval Staff College, where he had Prince Takamatsu (a younger brother of the Showa emperor) as one of his students. On one occasion the prince pointed at Ueshiba Sensei and said, “Try to lift up that old man.” Four strong sailors tried their best to lift him but they couldn’t do it.
Sensei said of that time, “All the many divine spirits of Heaven and Earth entered my body and I became as immovable as a heavy rock.” Everybody took him literally and believed it. I heard him say that kind of thing hundreds of times.
For my part, I have never had divine beings enter my body. I’ve never put much stock in that kind of illogical explanation.
Once when I was with Sensei in Hawaii, there was a demonstration in which two of the strong Hawaiian students were supposed to try to lift me up. They already knew they couldn’t do it, so they didn’t think much of it. But Sensei, who was off to the side watching, kept standing up and saying, “Stop, you can lift Tohei, you can lift him! Stop, make them stop! This demonstration’s no good!”
Tohei demonstrating in Hawaii
shortly after his arrival
You see, I had been out drinking until three o’clock in the morning the previous evening, and Sensei knew what condition I had come home in. He said, “Of course the gods aren’t going to enter into a drunken sot like you! If they did they’d all get tipsy!” That’s why he thought they would be able to lift me.
In reality that sort of thing has nothing to do with any gods or spirits. It’s just a matter of having a low center of gravity. I know this and it’s what I teach all my students. It wouldn’t mean anything if only certain special people could do it. Things like that have to be accessible to everyone if they’re to have any meaning.
People with so-called “supernatural powers” are usually the only ones who can do whatever it is they claim. Others can’t do what they do and they can’t teach what they do, because what they do is not real; it’s fake. Anybody can do the things I teach. They’re alive in aikido techniques just as they are. All you have to know is how to do them correctly, and viewing them as supernatural powers requiring the presence of some god or what have you is a big mistake. I regard it as my responsibility to teach correctly.
Teaching U.S. servicemen
The Personality of Morihei Ueshiba
Were there any notable personalities in the dojo back in 1940 or 1941—any who would later make a name for themselves?
There was no one like that when I first went. There were no students and hardly any uchideshi.
What were your strongest impressions of Ueshiba Sensei?
He seemed to me like a nice old man. Smiling, you know. In many ways he had a very child-like personality.
We have quite a few documents about O-Sensei, but it is still difficult for us to get a picture of him in his day-to-day life. Did he talk about ordinary, everyday subjects? From the recordings we have of him speaking, he seems almost like he came from another planet.
Yes, I know what you mean. He certainly did talk that way.
I’ve heard that sometimes he would suddenly explode in anger.
Yes, that happened often. He was kind to women, though. I never saw him get angry at a woman. Curiously, his anger was never specifically directed at the person he was supposedly angry at. It was like he was just furious by himself, unable or unwilling to direct his anger at its object.
(The full article is available for subscribers.)