“Koichi Tohei’s 10th dan Promotion” by Stanley Pranin

“What was the reason for the delay and did Morihei Ueshiba
actually authorize Tohei Sensei’s 10th dan promotion?”

Koichi Tohei, 1967. Photo courtesy of Jason Hirata

Koichi Tohei Sensei is one of aikido’s most famous instructors and was the head of the Aikikai Instructors Staff for many years prior to leaving the Aikikai. Tohei gained fame as one of aikido’s pioneers and was responsible for taking the art to Hawaii in 1953. He also authored numerous early books on aikido that greatly contributed to the early success of the art.

The subject of Tohei Sensei’s 10th dan promotion has generated quite a bit of controversy over the years. It seems that enough time has elapsed that access to source materials is scarce and therefore the rumor-mill has taken over and various speculations have been made.

The unclear point has to do with the fact that an “Inauguration Party” for Tohei Sensei’s 10th dan was held on October 16, 1970, fully 18 months after the passing of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba. What was the reason for the delay and did Morihei Ueshiba actually authorize Tohei Sensei’s 10th dan promotion?

Actually, the answer to this seeming discrepancy is easily found by consulting the Winter 1970 issue of the “Aikido” newsletter published by the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. It seems that Tohei was awarded his 10th dan officially by the Founder himself on January 15, 1969 at the Kagami Biraki celebration held at the Hombu Dojo.

What happened next explains the confusion. The Founder fell ill in February and passed away on April 29, 1969. A high rank such as a 10th dan award would obligatorily involve a large-scale congratulatory party. However, due to the passing of Morihei Ueshiba and the official one-year of mourning, it was inappropriate to hold any type of celebratory event for Tohei’s promotion. Tohei’s congratulatory party also had to wait until after the official inauguration of the Second Aikido Doshu, Ueshiba’s son Kisshomaru, after a one-year wait.

As a result of this sequence of events, Tohei Sensei’s 10th dan party actually took place in October of 1970 at the Akasaka Prince Hotel with hundreds of guests attending including a Who’s Who of the aikido world and several of Tohei Sensei’s friends from his school years. A famous portrait from the event, now nearly forgotten, has survived. In it, Tohei is accompanied left to right by the following Aikikai instructors: Minoru Kurita, Fumio Toyoda, Seijuro Masuda, Koretoshi Maruyama, Sadateru Arikawa, Norihiko Ichihashi, Koichi Tohei, Shigenobu Okumura, Kisaburo Osawa, Shizuo Imaizumi, Masando Sasaki, Akira Tohei, Yoshio Kuroiwa, and Mitsugi Saotome.

This photo is very telling in the sense that among those posing with Tohei are several Hombu instructors who were most closely allied with him. After Tohei resigned from the Aikikai in May 1974, several of those appearing joined Tohei on his departure. Also, noteworthy is the absence of the Second Doshu and several of the higher-ranking Hombu instructors in the “official portrait.” As they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

I hope this clears up any confusion involved with Koichi Tohei Sensei 10th dan ranking. Actually, there is more to say about several other teachers who received 10th dan from the Founder outside of normal organizational channels or posthumously that we will save for another occasion.


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  1. bruce baker says:

    I don’t get why some people get all head up about the rank of some teachers? 8th dan? 9th dan? 10th dan?

    What did that teacher impart to you that you have kept alive in your practice as you teach others what you have learned?

    At some point .. rank disappears as the practice and the teachings are passed on.

    Let me put it this way, when the catastrophe strikes, and everyone is trying to escape with their lives .. how important will you fancy dress clothes and rank be?

    Maybe that is why I think we need a few more people to be more humble …. no one specific in mind .. but I reflect on the recent Haiti earthquake, and many many natural, as well as man-made, disasters in history. When hell rains down … how much does your vanity for rank count at that moment?

  2. …Finally, I think that proficiency is only one element of promotion above a certain level. Rather, the rank is an affirmation of the relationship between the master and the student.

  3. Bill Buckner says:


    Thank you for publishing the story about K Tohei’s 10th dan promotion. Those of us who were actively training at that time heard that O Sensei had promoted Tohei several months before he passed.

    Several factors distinguished Tohei from the other high ranking instructors. First, was his ability to translate many of the esoteric concepts that O Sensei propounded into a more modern context which was comprehensible by ordinary people who were not schooled in the Omoto religion. Second, was his somewhat unorthodox style which tended to be less static and more fluid than many of the other shihan level instructors at the time. Finally, Tohei taught the aikido techniques with a smile, with a more western style explanation, and with a explanation of why the techniques worked from the prospective of ki and coordination of mind and body. This last factor made him particularly popular with the Hawaii and Western United States students.

    Tohei elevated Aikido at that time to something other than mechanical Daito Ryu techniques, many of which had minimal applicability to the modern world. Was/is 10th dan appropriate? In my view, having been in many of his classes in the US, clearly yes. But I’ll leave that up to O’Sensei.

  4. steve kwan says:

    Rank is not everything, but it is something, for recognition, appreciation, encouragement and positive affirmation for efforts and contribution.

  5. Walther v. Krenner says:

    I have known Tohei Sensei since 1961. He was a great leader/teacher and without him Aikido would not have become popular in the west when it did. He has never been given the credit he deserves in the history of Aikido.

    I trained at Hombu Dojo in 1967 when O-Sensei was still alive and remember a lot of political tension between the Tohei and the Ueshiba factions. It was inevitable that Aikido would split up after the founders death. Since then politics, and what I call the “Aikido Franchise war,” have done a lot of damage to the art.

    A art that claims harmony as part of its teachings is certainly not very harmonious considering all the competing groups claiming they are better than the others. I don’t think O-Sensei ever envisioned a Corporative Aikido. Tohei Sensei’s rank was well deserved and as Stanley explains O-Sensei did award it to him allthough too late. In the final picture, taking away this silly competition, rank is not the meassure of a man.

  6. luis leyva jr md says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with with Mr. Buckner that Tohei Sensei taught aikido in a way that was “outside” the mystical Omoto religious point of view of O sensei. Frankly, I believe that if it were not for him, aikido would have taken longer to come to the USA via California.

  7. At a congratulatory party, several pictures are taken. It would be interesting to see the other ones. If a picture is worth a thousand words, so are the others.

    Patrick Augé

  8. George Szaszvari says:

    A valuable article and comments, thank you. Also interesting to the background of Tohei’s relationship with aikido and O-Sensei is how Tohei was awarded his initial ranking, and how and why O-Sensei made Tohei chief instructor over other, more senior, Aikikai uchi-deshi.

    George Szaszvari

  9. Based purely on curiosity, I wonder did Kisshomaru or the current Doshu ever receive any rank?

  10. Enlightening indeed! Thanks for the insights!

  11. What I remember most about Tohei Sensei is that when he taught at a seminar he would stop and observe each pair of students as they practiced. Then he would give each pair one correction that would significantly improve their performance. Something all Aikido teachers could learn from.

  12. What a kerfuffle over nothing. Who cares, just practice.

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