Koichi Tohei was a 10th degree black belt under the founder of Aikido who went on to start his own organization called the Ki no Kenkyukai, or Ki Society outside Japan. Many people don’t know that Morihei Ueshiba (founder of Aikido) was only 1 of the 3 main teachers in Tohei’s life. He also had a zen teacher named Tetsuju Ogura and a Japanese yoga teacher named Tempu Nakamura. He had other teachers including judo teachers, under whom Tohei earned a 2nd degree black belt, but this article will focus only on his 3 main teachers.
After sustaining an injury from judo practice that resulted in a subsequent illness, Tohei decided to focus on strengthening his mind. This led him to his zen teacher, Tetsuju Ogura who happened to be a student of the famous swordsman and calligrapher Yamaoka Tesshu. Tohei started studying zazen (seated meditation) with Ogura until he was given permission to join the misogi (chanting with meditation) training 6 months later. In his book “Way to Union with Ki”, Tohei speaks highly of the intense training and credits it for completely curing him of his illness. Tohei also comments that Ogura spoke often about Yamaoka Tesshu and Tohei learned the importance of loyalty and dedication to one’s teacher from these stories.
After strengthening himself through zen and misogi, Tohei then met his 2nd main teacher, Morihei Ueshiba. Upon meeting Ueshiba for the first time and getting thrown effortlessly, Tohei knew he would devote his life to learn what Tohei referred to as the “mysterious” art of Aikido. While Tohei always praised the skill of Ueshiba, what he did not praise was Ueshiba’s teaching ability. In Aikido Journal #107 he says “much of what Ueshiba sensei talked about sound[ed] like the occult.” Tohei claims the main thing he wanted to learn from Ueshiba was how to relax and that he didn’t really listen to most things Ueshiba said.
The 3rd main teacher in Tohei’s life was Tempu Nakamura, founder of the Tempukai, a system of Yoga that Nakamura developed through his ardent studies in India. Nakamura, like Tohei, committed himself to his training in order to overcome serious illness. As previously mentioned, Tohei was in awe of Ueshiba’s technique but frustrated with what Tohei perceived as Ueshiba’s inability to explain what he was doing with his body. Again in “Way to Union with Ki” Tohei writes “Ueshiba believed he was gifted with this ability from the universe. For this reason he prayed day and night.” While the typical Japanese student might be quiet and follow blindly, the average American would not. As Tohei was one of the first instructors to travel overseas to teach, he had to figure out how to explain what he was teaching. This is where Tempu Nakamura comes in. Much of the supplemental exercises that Tohei taught back then, and still exist in his organization today, came from Nakamura. Things like Ki testing and Tohei’s principles to unify mind and body come in large part from the Tempukai. Tohei was in fact so influenced by Nakamura that he named his style of Aikido (shin shin toitsu aikido) after Nakamura’s teaching method (shin shin toitsu do). Note: “shin shin toitsu” translates to “mind body unified” in English. While Tohei praised Nakamura’s breakthroughs in the art of self development, in later years Tohei criticized Nakamura for not being able to develop a way to truly unify mind and body. Just like Ueshiba, Tohei writes in “Way to Union with Ki” that he felt that some of Nakamura’s methods were too esoteric. Tohei always preferred simple and more direct methods.
If you look further into the lives and arts of Tohei’s 3 teachers (zen/misogi, aikido, Japanese yoga) you can see that Tohei really did combine all 3 teachings. Tohei overcame the challenge of teaching Aikido to non-Japanese by thinking deeply and analyzing what Ueshiba was doing. Due to Tohei’s superb verbal explanations and his well-written books, Tohei had much success in teaching Aikido throughout his life.
It may be of interest to the reader that the zen/misogi school that Tohei trained, the Ichikukai, is still in existence as well as Nakamura’s Tempukai organization.