“Interview with Koichi Tohei (1),” by Stanley Pranin

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. (Interview, July 11th, 1995)

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.

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.

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  1. …I heard that Abe sensei was also awarded 10th dan. In all events, I recommend everyone to familiarize themselves with Tohei sensei and his teaching. Especially folks of “my generation” (started in ’74) will be amazed at how much or our material we owe to his efforts.

  2. Bruce Baker says:

    There is a state of mind, body, soul, that is both a conscious and unconscious connection to the here and now, to the life of your body, and the living energy of the world around us … and some people try to explain it as Ki, and yet they DON’T explain it because it is unexplainable, it MUST BE EXPERIENCED to be understood.

    I have been hammered by those who say Ki is this or Ki is that because they think they are practitioners of Ki and have learned the secrets of it, until … they are baffled how I or other practitioners can read their use of elements and neutralize those elements. Indeed, we are talking about living energy, electricity, human thought, movement, and being able to discern how a human being is using these elements to read an opponent so like a magnet’s attraction or repulsive forces we too can add these forces to our techniques and make them more effective.

    Just as the STUDENTS of the FOUNDER labeled the techniques and now we have indexed them into categories, so to the elements that make your techniques more effective to make the vaunted elemental “KI” become the magic of life and movement yours to control is the ability to gather together conditions and elements of mind, or body, or the very living energy around us and yes … scientifically all these things can be neutralized once you know how they work. Just like a magician uses the science of behavior and the human body to trick their audience … Ki is no less the ability to learn and master the elements of the living world to bring them into your applications of techniques of Aikido, or any martial arts you practice.

    The physical practice of Aikido gives you the structural physical skill, but you must develop your mental command structure so you are not thinking or feeling, but letting instant transmission of thought and movement occur. You must be able to read what your opponent or practice partner is doing so you can not only blend but use the subliminal signals that counters their physical strength and tears down their mental walls that give them strength of mind also. This is not a violent angry attack but it is a set of physical and subliminal signals that say… do not be violent… do not be angry. When and if you reach that point where all the three elements of mind, body, and energy come together .. then you realize “KI” is not a thing … but a code word for the science that creates our perception of life, of the living world around us. And then .. you begin to understand WHERE TO LOOK to find how to neutralize the anger, hostility, and physical violence someone wants to use to violently change the world.

    Realize .. this is not a THINKING MIND skill … it is intuitive and done with the subconscious mind that operates at a speed many times faster than your thinking/waking mind.

    Isn’t that interesting? My point is … Ki is just a word for your beginning the journey to find something you don’t understand …. just like GOD is actually the meaning for “…I don’t know”. Each begins the journey to understand life and the world around you in terms you can understand so you are not confused and angry, but finding a satisfaction and meaning in being alive. Sure, you can fake your way through practice by relying on the physical elements of practice, and the ignorance of the opponents use of the forces of the mind, body, spirit (energy), but at some point you will find yourself against a more practiced opponent and they will take advantage of your weaknesses…

    The struggle is to find the acceptance that failure is inevitable because it is the balance to success. Positive and Negative in balance. Yeah, I know … it’s a long hard road to figure it out … which is why PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE is just one element in figuring out what KI really is or is not. You are gonna have to do more than just show up for class … there is a lot of studying and research that goes along with figuring it all out…

    What? You didn’t think you could show up for a couple of years of classes and you would magically have all the skills to understand it all, did ya? Aikido is one of the NECESSARY Practices to understand the puzzle of self, and of martial arts.

  3. In fairness to a balanced perspective. Much as I’ve always had immense respect for Tohei sensei and have always stood up for him, it is evident that his massive ego is the major contribution to discord that happened along with his ability to comment with finality on things he knows nothing about. The pine tree episode has its merits without the exaggerations, but pen pushers who’ve never done real days work don’t qualify to comment about real work. There is a way to pull trees out of the ground. It is merely a skill. It can be done. Stick with speaking about what you know and leave what you don’t know alone. Then practice what you preach and listen to your own preachings, such as:
    “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.”

    Which whilst correct could also be interpreted as waffle.

    Also, it’s nice to try and not belittle your teacher and show a reasonable level of respect for the person from who you are seeking to gain knowledge from. Even though what you like to imagine is your “philosophy” mere words and opinions, may appear to differ somewhat.

    Otherwise what are you doing there? Spying?

    I think the respect Mr. Tohei lost was the respect he was failing to give. The universal aiki of cause and effect some call karma at play.

    We all make mistake and we can all learn.

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