I had a certain amount of contact with Koichi Tohei Sensei in the mid-to-late 1960s in California. In fact, I took my shodan and nidan tests in front of him in 1965 and 1967, respectively. I know a lot about him from that period from my direct experience, and also because I was close to several key people in Southern California who would talk to me about some of the behind-the-scenes events that were occurring. Tohei Sensei even came to my home dinner one evening in 1967, and met my parents.
The event I will describe now took place somewhere around May or June 1970 in Los Angeles. At this point in time, I was serving in the US Army and was on leave prior to being assigned overseas. Since I had only a few days between tours of duty, I did not have an opportunity to train in Tohei Sensei’s seminars, but I was invited to a party one evening.
This party was attended by many of the high-ranking aikido teachers and senior students from the Southern California area, all under the tutelage of Tohei Sensei. This included many Japanese-Americans as they were some of the earliest to begin practice in California and elsewhere and had risen to higher rank before other practitioners. There were perhaps three or four Japanese speakers among the guests, which did not include me, as I didn’t learn the language until several years later.
At a certain point in the evening, the discussion came around to me and I was asked how my experience in the army had been. I briefly explained where I had been stationed, something about my training, and where I was being sent… Ethiopia! Then I began to relate to Tohei Sensei an episode that had recently occurred to me in the army barracks.
One day, our barracks underwent an inspection by the sergeant in charge. I had a framed picture of O-Sensei next to my bed. When I returned from training later that day after the inspection, the photo of O-Sensei was face down on my bed! I was more than a little irked by this and felt that my privacy had been violated. I talked to one of my buddies who informed me that the sergeant thought that this was a photo of Ho Chi Minh! You’ll recall that he had been the President of Communist North Vietnam until his death in 1969.
The fact that the sergeant mistook O-Sensei for Ho Chi Minh did not reflect a high level of education on his part. The fact that I had a photo of an oriental person at my beside in an army barracks during the Vietnam War did reflect a high degree of naivete on my part.
I paused after describing the incident to Tohei Sensei, but he had no reaction. Probably he didn’t understand who I was referring to because the Japanese use different names to refer to Asian figures due to different readings of Chinese characters. Perhaps one of the Japanese speakers present explained to Sensei who Ho Chi Minh was and he finally smiled. I don’t remember very clearly. However, the next thing that happened I will never forget!
Here’s what I said next: “Sensei, I think that if I had your photo next to my bedside, the sergeant would have done the same thing to you thinking that you were Mao Tse-tung!”
There was a pregnant pause in the room because everyone but Tohei Sensei got what I had just said. However, no one dared to show any reaction out of deference to Sensei. In retrospect, the scene was totally outrageous! All present were trying to repress an explosion of laughter. Tohei Sensei was totally in the dark because he had no idea who this Mao Tse-tung was. By that time, I was beginning to get very embarrassed because I feared I had crossed the line by making such a stupid comment while attempting to be clever. The silence continued for what seemed to be an eternity.
Present in the room was Yoshihiko Hirata, a Japanese national who had settled in Seattle, Washington. Hirata had trained at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo previously and knew Tohei Sensei well having been his student. He was also a good speaker of English. Hirata of course understood the joke. Then suddenly, he erupted in laughter being unable to control himself any longer! This was the trigger for the release of thunderous laughter on the part of all present in the room, except for Tohei Sensei. He still had not a clue about what had happened, and was the only one to have been left out of the joke.
I couldn’t control my laughter either, but at that same time, I felt myself begin to slink down in my chair. I became overcome by embarrassment after realizing what I had done. I was 24 years old at the time.
Then mercifully, Mr. Hirata leaned over and explained to Tohei Sensei that this Mao Tse-tung was actually “Motakuto” in Japanese. Finally, Tohei Sensei was let in on the joke. He looked at me in the strangest manner possible not quite knowing how to react. Finally, a somewhat sheepish smile appeared on his face.
This was simultaneously one of the funniest and most embarrassing incidents of my life! To this day, I have no idea what Tohei Sensei was really thinking at that moment. Looking back, after all my years in Japan, I really can’t believe I was that cheeky to have made such an outrageous comment directed toward a person of his high stature. I still cringe at the thought!