“A Hiliarious Episode Involving Koichi Tohei Sensei I Will Never Forget,” by Stanley Pranin

Koichi Tohei Sensei in Los Angeles, c. 1965

Koichi Tohei Sensei in Los Angeles, c. 1965

“This was the trigger for the release of thunderous laughter on
the part of all present in the room, except for Tohei Sensei.”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninI 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.

Yoshihiko Hirata, Koichi Tohei, and Bernie Lau in Seattle c. 1967

Yoshihiko Hirata, Koichi Tohei, and Bernie Lau in Seattle c. 1967

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!



  1. Beautiful story! Thanks for sharing.

    Have a nice day!

  2. This must have been after Hirata left Chicago, where he helped form the Milwaukee Aikido Club and later ended up in the U.S. Army and started Aikido in Korea and dealing with the Hapkido types.

  3. Jim Cazel says:

    My father took me to see an Aikido demonstration at West Torrance High School, just outside L.A., in either 1967 or 1968. A small thin framed, bald, white-bearded, elderly Japanese man, in his seventies at least, and his dojo put on an amazing show. Extending Ki he held two men up off the floor, one pushing down on each laterally outstretched arm. My father having been a Judo instructor in the Air Force and having studied Aikido in Vietnam turned to me during the demonstration and said that was the founder of Aikido. I had no reason to doubt him. However, from what I have researched and have been told, O Sensei never did make a visit to the Mainland US, only as far as Hawaii. Any help in shedding some light and solving the mystery of who this elderly bald, white-bearded, thin framed Japanese Sensei was would be most welcome.

    • Jim,

      I believe I participated in that demonstration as the uke for my teacher. It was Tohei Sensei who headlined the event. I have some photos and I think the program. If there was a bald, white-bearded Japanese, it would have to have been someone lower in rank who was a student of Tohei Sensei. Off hand, I can’t think of anyone who matches that description.

      • Jim Cazel says:

        I thought perhaps you had participated after reading you were in the area during that time.Tohei Sensei makes sense. Our minds often play tricks on what we remember. I do recall an effortless randori(sp) with the uke’s in a circle coming at Sensei one at a time. For the Ki demonstration I recall Sensei stood at the bottom of gym bleachers and invited a good sized gentleman to come down and try to pull his laterally extended left arm down. Quite easy on the first try and then Sensei asked him to try again. Second effort not so easy. Sensei held him off the ground and invited a second good sized gentleman down to do the same with his right arm while still holding the other off the floor the entire time. Same result. By now Sensei held both men simultaneous off the gym floor! I thought that was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my sixteen years of life at the time! If it’s not too much trouble it would be very nice to verify the program and date at your leisure as all my high school annuals were ‘lost’ in transit years ago.

  4. Thank you, as always!

  5. Hi Pranin Sensei

    Certainly good humour exists within Aikido. I am sure many of us remember our Sensei having a good humour toward their students…. One such incident that occurs to me in reading your story was that of Andre Nocquet the French Aikido Master on an Easter Course in Newcastle, England, UK. Nocquet Sensei set the whole course of students for up to three days before giving us the punchline. Nocquet Sensei throughout the weekend course would pointedly say to a small group of students, ” ah ! every Easter I have Aikido courses, for many years, and my wife must remain at home in France alone” in very good spoken English with a gentle French accent. The students would feel very pleased to receive this personal conversation with him, however as the hours and days past, more than one student must have began to wonder, whether his old age and comment was bringing us to the stage of his retirement from Aikido travels. The final time that he reiterated the comment, was to a group of several students awaiting the next progress of the course. However after the comment, he turned away, and then turned back , and he made the comment – he had had another Easter away from home and his wife was alone in France you know ?. As he turned back, he said – ” well I think she has been alone !!” A great many students in seiza rocked and fell to the floor, laughing for many minutes, tears running down their faces, to his great enjoyment. Peace and Aikido to him a Master of Aikido now deceased and long missed.

  6. Lawrence A. Kurfiss says:

    I was blessed in my life to have studied Ki Aikido in Seattle under Y. Hirata Sensei. He was one of the most remarkable men I have ever met, and I was saddened to learn of his passing. He had an outstanding sense of humor, and almost always had a smile on his face. One day he told us this great little story:
    “I come to America, I join U.S. Ah-my. Not much English. Ah’m small, other guys think I’m a funny small guy. We do basic training, guys start to get hurt – sprain wrist, sprain ankle. Not good, you hafta go back, start basic all over. I know how to fix. Guys coming to me, pretty soon they ironing my uniform, stuff like that. I LOVE U.S. Ah-my!”
    He almost seemed to have an invisible shield around him. If he selected you to help demonstrate a technique his ki alone would prevent you from hardly touching him. I can still hear his voice. “Weight undah-side! …Relax completely!…Always be ready for Test!”
    R.I.P. Great Sensei.

  7. Sensei, every time I read the site I am amazed on how much I learn, and miss being in South Africa. Thank you.

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