Koichi Tohei Sensei was born on January 20, 1920 in the Tochigi prefecture of Japan. Tohei Sensei’s mother (Tomiko) contracted a severe case of pneumonia when she was pregnant with him. The doctors had given up on her and she nearly died. As a result, after Tohei Sensei was born, his mother did everything in her power to over-protect him. Because of this he was very frail and weak as a child. At the age of nine, at his father’s insistence, young Koichi studied Judo from his father who had earned a 4th degree black belt.
When Tohei Sensei was 16 he entered Keio Preparatory School a year early, where he continued to study Judo. At Keio he wanted to join the Judo division where only 3 people from 3 class years of students were selected, and because he helped win the school competition he was admitted to this select group. But then, during training, he was thrown very hard by a large senior student and badly injured his chest. At the hospital he was diagnosed with pleurisy, and immediately hospitalized, He asked the doctor when he could resume Judo practice. The doctor became very agitated and told Tohei that he could not practice Judo, tennis or even ping pong, not now or ever. The doctor said that his body was a frail as a cracked tea bowl and the most Tohei could be expected to do was to take a brief walk. He couldn’t raise his arm too high, he had to avoid all shocks to the chest, and he couldn’t raise his voice too loud.
With this kind of life ahead of him, Tohei grew depressed until he realized, through reading many books, that the body may get sick but there is a distinction between physical illness and weakness of Ki. By strengthening one’s Ki he believed it was possible to overcome physical illness. He then began to read everything he could find that might help him. He discovered that reading about something was no the same as doing it or acting on it. One day his sister gave him a book called My Teacher by Tetsuju Ogura. The book described the author’s teacher, Tesshu Yamaoka (a famous swordsman and calligrapher who lived in the late nineteenth century). In his book Tetsuju spoke of how Tesshu constantly risked his life in the pursuit of truth, never compromising for anything less. Tohei then learned at the end of the book that the author/student Tetsuju Ogura was still healthy and alive and teaching at the Ichikukai Misogi dojo in Nakuno, Tokyo. He then knew that this was his salvation and without telling anyone, because they would have strongly objected, he went to the dojo.
At the dojo, after much persuasion, he was allowed to begin Misogi training only if he started the Zen meditation classes to strengthen his body through sitting zazen. Only then could he begin the rigorous breathing and loud chanting of Misogi. The zazen training was 3 days a month, all night long. Because Tohei Sensei was able to do this easily after 6 months, he received permission in August of 1937 to begin Misogi training. “Misogi” means “cleanse the body,” and had been passed down in secret and practiced in closed warehouses since the Edo period. Tohei Sensei’s teacher said that Misogi was good for young people because it pushed the body to the limit, and strengthened their will power. Zazen and Misogi are not the same kind of training and the combination of zazen and Misogi was extremely severe. Three days of Misogi were followed by 3 days of zazen, which consisted of 8 sessions per day with little or no rest. The Misogi was considered life and death training and no slackness was permitted. Through this intense training Tohei Sensei regained his health and strength.
After Tohei Sensei tried Judo, Kendo, and Karate, he found that the largest and strongest usually win. He wanted to find something that could give him real strength, something that would help him against any opponent. One day, one of Tohei Sensei’s friends from school told him about an extremely powerful martial artist. His friend then wrote him a letter of introduction and took him to Wakanatsu-chu in Tokyo to meet this remarkable man. The Sensei was not there when he arrived but a live-in student (uchi-deshi) let Tohei in. Tohei Senei asked the student about this marital art called Aikido. The student told him to stick out his hand and then the uchi-deshi tried to twist it with a very strong wristlock. Tohei Sensei was unaffected by it, and the student immediately let go. Tohei Sensei was very disappointed because he believed you could know the level of the teacher by his students so he began to leave the dojo. But before he could leave, Ueshiba Sensei (O-Sensei) returned. Tohei Sensei saw a small man with white beard, good complexion and expansive smile who hardly fit the popular view of a strong martial artist. Still curious and a little bit surprised he presented the letter of introduction to O-Sensei and was taken right away to be shown some Aikido techniques. Tohei thought it looked fake when O-Sensei threw people much larger than he was because of Tohei’s experience with other martial arts. When O-Sensei asked him on the mat and he suddenly found himself on his back, he then knew that this was what he was looking for. He began training the next morning.
Within 2 years O-Sensei gave Tohei Sensei Aikido teaching responsibilities. He taught at military police academies, private schools, and several other places. He held a rank in Judo but he had never received a rank in Aikido. Only when Tohei Sensei was drafted into the army in December of 1942 did O-Sensei send him a certificate for fifth dan; the rank usually reserved at that time for professional martial art instructors. This was the first rank he received in Aikido.
The years Tohei Sensei spent in the army were difficult. He had many life and death situations thrust upon him. These situations forced him to ask questions like, for what purpose had he trained? Had he done anything yet in his life to truly help others or make the world a better place? This time period in Tohei’s life made him realize that only when you are relaxed completely could you be full of Ki, and then you could move safely through life. Total relaxation could not only be a key in facing physical danger, but any kind of pressure o problem in daily life. Though Tohei Sensei learned important things about the nature of Ki through his wartime experiences, he never felt that it was necessary to go through such an ordeal to understand Ki.
After the war, the Tohei family, like almost all of Japan, underwent many hardships and had several business failures. But despite all this Tohei Sensei resumed his practice of Aikido and Misogi. He would pack enough rice on his bicycle to stay at the dojo for a week at a time. O-Sensei told him that he was much stronger than before the war and promoted him to 6th dan.
Although O-Sensei’s techniques had grown to a higher level of maturity, there was still something unfathomable about them. Why could O-Sensei throw people so effortlessly but all his students had to fight their way through it. O-Sensei did not explain much and this bothered Tohei Sensei greatly.
During this period he was introduced to Tempu Nakamura Sensei who had served in the war with China and Russia as a special operative. Tempu, years before, had contracted a nearly fatal case of whooping cough (“galloping horse tuberculosis”). He went to the United States for treatment and was cured. He then stayed on to get his degree in medicine from Columbia University. Tempu still coughed up blood occasionally and so he decided to go to India seeking complete recovery with Yoga. He then returned to Japan to teach Yoga and the great hidden powers of man. Many people studied his teachings; John D. Rockefeller III, Admiral Togo and Prime Minister Hara. He taught what would be known in the west today as positive thinking. Tempu talked about mind and body unification and that the mind leads the body, which allowed Tohei Sensei to realize the secret of O-Sensei’s movements. He could lead his opponent’s mind and therefore easily lead their body. The students tried to force their opponent’s body to move and would encounter resistance. Tohei Sensei also discovered that before you could lead anyone’s mind you had to control your own. If you cannot control your own mind and body you have no hope of understanding of leading the mind of another.
Tohei Sensei realized that the way to union with Ki (Aikido) could never be accomplished simply by trying to blend (Tohei Sensei says, “No matter how well blended, the result is still two—we want one”) with the movements of a single opponent. In order to achieve union with Ki, it was necessary to first unify mind and body. He then reevaluated all of the Aikido arts that he had been taught, with mind and body coordination as the basic principle. Even though this was not the way O-Sensei taught it, Tohei Sensei discovered that this was what he did. O-Sensei’s techniques were perfect mind and body coordination but his teaching was vague and mystical. Tohei Sensei watched him very carefully and became easily able to lead and throw men much larger than him.
After these reevaluations Tohei Sensei decided to follow the way the universe was leading him, which was to train with O-Sensei. It became clear to him that he should spread the principles of Ki and Aikido to the world. Soon thereafter, he was invited to teach young people in Hawaii. In February of 1953, at O-Sensei’s request, Tohei Sensei was the first to spread Aikido to the Western world. Over the next 16 years Tohei Sensei drew many people to demonstrations all over the world. Many times he was setup to take on all comers of any size, any martial art, with no rules, and he was never defeated. Teaching Ki and Aikido, starting new dojos all over the world and sending his own students to teach overseas even caused a renewed interest in Aikido in Japan. On January 15, 1969, O-Sensei gave Koichi Tohei Sensei the rank of 10th dan, the highest rank in Aikido.
Then, three months later, to the deep regret of people all over the world, Ueshiba Sensei (O-Sensei) passed away at the age of 85. Although Tohei Sensei was the Chief Instructor of the Aikido organization as appointed by Ueshiba Sensi, out of a deep respect for his teacher, he recommended that O-Sensei’s only son, Kisshomaru, be elected as the director of the Aikikai, which was the only government recognized Aikido organization in the world at that time. It soon became clear that Tohei Sensei’s view of Aikido was different than that of Kisshomaru’s. Kisshomaru taught that Aikido was a way of harmonizing with the Ki of the universe, through mind and body coordination. This split caused dojos all over the world to choose between the man who brouht Aikido to the world outside of Japan and the founder’s son.
In 1974, after 3 years of mourning for his teacher and 2 years of difficulties with the Aikikai organization, Tohei Sensei started the International Ki Society. Tohei Sensei gave principal emphasis to the teaching of mind and body coordination (Ki training) and its Aikido applications. The Aikikai does not teach Ki, saying it is something that could only be understood over time through Aikido Techniques. The Aikikai use the more traditional Japanese style of teaching; observe, repeat, learn by doing, and use a great deal of time doing it. Tohei Sensei learned while teaching overseas, especially in America, that everyone wanted to know why and how it worked and they always threw questions and challenges at him. But many Americans were too intellectual about it and did not practice, while Japanese practice all the time and never questioned why or how. Tohei Sensei then decided that a combination of both, asking to understand why and then practicing until you understood with your body was best. Tohei Sensei’s Ki principles are the cornerstone of his life’s work, and through these he believes anyone can benefit from them, even without practicing the art of Aikido.