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(Founder of Ki no Kenkyukai)
Tohei-sensei was born in 1920 and grew up in an upper class Japanese family, north of Tokyo. He was sickly as a child and was introduced to Judo and Zen by his father, a 4th dan in Judo, to try to strengthen his constitution. By fifteen, Tohei had acheived 1st dan in Judo and later 2nd dan. After training so hard at judo that he developed pleurisy and had to leave school and rest for a year he decided to work on strengthening himself mentally and physically. He devoted a great amount of time to Zen meditation and Misogi breathing. He learned Zen from Master Josei Ohta, head of the Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto, and Misogi from Master Tetsuju Ogura, one of the leading disciples of the famous Master Tesshu Yamaoka, and from his successor, Master Tesso Hino. These events and training shaped much of what was to develop in his later life.
In 1939, he met Morihei Ueshiba Sensei and was introduced to the art of Aikido (known as aiki-budo at that time). He expressed some amazement that despite his Judo training he was unable to deal with this much older man and quickly became a serious student. In 1942, he was called up to the army and spent time in action in China. During this time, he became aware of the importance of a calm mind and the unification of mind and body that were to shape much of his later training, and developed quite a reputation as a “lucky” officer who never lost a single man under his command even during the most fierce fighting.
After the war he returned to his role as uchi-deshi to Morihei Ueshiba Sensei, becoming one of the strongest and most influential figures within the Aikido world. In those days, challenges to the teacher were common and it was Tohei Sensei who usually had to respond to people coming to the dojo to test Ueshiba sensei. Quite a few people were “bounced on their heads” including a group of US wrestlers who had previously tried to arrange a challenge at the Kodokan Judo HQ!
In 1953, he was sent by Ueshiba sensei to Hawaii, becoming the first teacher to introduce Aikido to the United States. Over the next decade or so, Tohei-sensei came to the US many times and was responsible for training many of the fine teachers in the U.S. today. It was during this period that his Aikido underwent a lot of change, since dealing with HUGE Americans was quite different to the conventional training in Japan. During this period, his practice also started to drift away from some of what was being practiced by other instructors, as can be seen if you compare the book written in the late 50s by Tohei-sensei with that written about the same time by K. Ueshiba-sensei — both of which were approved by O-sensei.
Tohei Sensei rose to the position of Chief Instructor at the Aikikai Hombu dojo and was the only person awarded 10th Dan by Ueshiba Sensei and issued with a formal scroll of rank. In a video tape of an American TV show from 1957, Tohei Sensei acts as interpreter for Ueshiba Sensei during an interview. He was certainly one of the most noticeable figures in the Aikido world, due to his large outgoing personality.
After Ueshiba sensei’s death, his son, Kisshomaru Ueshiba Sensei, became the second Aikido Doshu, and Tohei Sensei continued to be the Chief Instructor. For the next few years things continued as before, but there were tensions building within the senior Aikido teachers.
Tohei Sensei had very clear ideas about the best way of teaching Aikido, ideas that were based largely on the principles of Unification taught by one of his Yoga teachers, Tempu Nakamura founder of Tempukai (1919) who called his practice Shin Shin Toitsu Do(Way of Mind and Body Coordination), and his first hand experience of Ueshiba Sensei’s aikido. By all accounts, Nakamura Sensei and Ueshiba Sensei, men of the same generation who had both fought in the Russo-Japanese war, knew each other well and were friends. Many Aikikai teachers trained at the Tempukai in the 1950’s and 1960’s while both men were still alive. Tohei Sensei proposed to introduce this system of teaching Ki within the Aikikai but met with much resistance from the second Doshu and senior teachers that preferred to conduct classes in the traditional Japanese manner of Ueshiba Sensei (watch and copy, no explanation, no questions, steal what you can, practice many times till you find the answers). So, in 1971, while still the Chief Instructor of the Aikikai, Tohei Sensei founded the Ki no Kenkyukai, to teach the principles of Ki and Coordination of Mind and Body, without using Aikido and based on Shin Shin Toitsu Do. This situation continued for a few more years until the rift between Tohei Sensei and the second Doshu of the Aikikai became too big and he officially resigned from the Aikikai. He then added Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido, to teach Aikido in accordance with the Ki principles, as part of the arts in Ki training taught at Ki no Kenkyukai (Ki Society HQ). These arts include Aikido, Ki Development exercises, Ki Breathing, Ki Meditation, Kiatsu Ryoho (massage therapy) and various forms of Misogi. The purpose of all these is to unify mind and body so that person develops the ability to allow the flow of universal Ki in everyday life.
This split caused a great divide in the Aikido world since many people were torn between following Tohei Sensei, who was the most senior Aikido teacher in the Aikikai, or staying with the Aikikai which was headed by Ueshiba Sensei’s son. This choice caused much bad feeling in the USA where Tohei Sensei had been the living presense of Aikido (Ueshiba Sensei visited Hawaii in 1961, but otherwise did not travel outside of Japan). The vertical nature of society in Japan lead to the very Japanese solution of a complete break that was not understood in other countries. Fortunately, to younger generations this is ancient history and the interaction among many groups separated by this artificial divide has increased in recent years (as well it should).
Since the 1970’s, Tohei Sensei continued to refine and develop his methods of teaching Ki and Aikido and the Ki no Kenkyukai has grown to over 200,000 members with branch dojos spread throughout the world.
Tohei Sensei is a very special individual. Almost everyone agrees that, excepting the founder, Ueshiba Sensei himself, Tohei Sensei’s Aikido was probably the finest to be seen. In addition, he is one of the most gifted teachers the Aikido world has seen, developing most of the teaching methods used in many dojos today.
Tohei Sensei passed away on May 19, 2011, at the age of 91. His son, Shinichi Tohei Sensei, is the current President and Chief Instructor of Shin Shin Toitsu Aikidokai and Ki Society HQ.
Tohei-Sensei has been a prolific author, writing everything from the first Aikido book in English through to a non-fiction Bestseller in Japan on Ki in Business. See the Aikido FAQ bibliography for many examples.
One of the areas of his writing that is not very well known outside the Ki no Kenkyukai is the collection of inspirational poems called the Shokushu. These are similar to the traditional doka (songs of the way) written by many masters. (Ueshiba Sensei’s doka being an example.)
Examples of these poems are read before the start of each class to help focus the mind on the essence of practice.