Tohei Koichi and Nakamura Tempu
The name Tōhei Kōichi (1920–2011) will be familiar to many visitors to this website as a major figure in the post-war dissemination of aikido. He was once generally acknowledged to be heir-apparent to aikido’s founder, Ueshiba Morihei.
My aikido journey began in 1970 under Kanai Mitsunari (1938–2011) in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Kanai-sensei was a product of the Aikikai’s Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, and his Cambridge dojo was a direct Aikikai affiliate. Ueshiba had just died the year before I began, but Tōhei Kōichi was Hombu Dojo’s dōjōchō (chief instructor), and I remember the reverence afforded him by Kanai-sensei and his senior students.
Then something happened. In 1974, Tōhei resigned from Hombu Dojo and broke away from the Aikikai to start his own organization. The exact circumstances of his departure are not of import to me here; suffice it to say they were acrimonious, that the Aikikai has made a concerted effort to erase Tōhei’s name from aikido history, and that there are always two sides to every story. Stan Pranin, far better informed than am I, has written extensively about Tōhei’s departure from the Aikikai in his Aikido Journal.
Under the auspices of his new organization, Tōhei established his own brand of aikido called shin-shin tōitsu aikido, “mind-body unification aikido.” The term shin-shin tōitsu (mind-body unification) will be familiar to anyone who has read my “Unification of Mind and Body” post; it is the name given by Nakamura Tempū to his body of work. Tōhei has described shin-shin tōitsu aikido as a synthesis of the legacies of his two most influential teachers, Nakamura Tempū and Ueshiba Morihei. (Later, when shin-shin tōitsu aikido proved to be too much of a mouthful for non-Japanese practitioners—Tōhei’s following was at least as large if not larger outside of Japan than at home—he changed the name to “ki aikido.”)
All that said, anyone expecting to read more about Tōhei Kōichi and his relationship with Nakamura Tempū in Heaven’s Wind will be disappointed: his name appears only in passing. Why the lack of attention to this giant of aikido who credits Nakamura Tempū as a major influence?
One day in 1999, while browsing the shelves of the Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku, I came across a newly published book by Tōhei, the title of which translates approximately as “Establishment of [the Principle of] Ki: Nakamura Tempū and Ueshiba Morihei.” I snapped it up in an instant: here was an authoritative work by a prominent exponent of the art of aikido about two men whose teachings I greatly admire.
I was disappointed. The book was about neither Nakamura Tempū nor Ueshiba Morihei but about Tōhei Kōichi. Yes, it was filled with anecdotal stories of Tōhei’s interactions with these men, and he acknowledged his indebtedness to both. But the anecdotes and even his deference were expressed in ways that were unabashedly self-serving. Even the establishment of the principle of ki referenced in the title, it became clear by the book’s conclusion, was to be understood as Tōhei’s achievement: he may have been standing on the shoulders of giants, but his understanding of the universal vital force and his ability to teach how it works has exceeded theirs.
Since then, I have encountered reviews and comments by both Aikikai associates and Tempūkai associates expressing similar—if not more vehement—opinions. On the other hand, I imagine that among the many people directly associated with Tōhei’s ki aikido the book is viewed favorably—as a valuable contribution to his legacy and one more example of Tōhei-sensei telling it like it is.
Time has passed, Tōhei is no longer alive, and I have become a little more multi-perspectival in my views and opinions. Recently I revisited the book and discovered much within it to be appreciated, not the least of which is an intimate view of Tōhei and his relationship with his two seminal teachers.
Tōhei began training in judo at the age of nine. In his teens, he suffered an injury that developed into a potentially life-threatening chest condition and was told he would never practice judo again. The following year he took up the practices of Zen meditation and misogi (ascetic purification) under the guidance of the Ichi-ku Kai, an organization that carries on the teachings of the famous nineteenth century swordsman and Meiji Restoration hero Yamaoka Tesshū. Among ascetic disciplines, that dished out by the Ichi-ku Kai is among the most extreme; but Tōhei rose to all its challenges and, in the process, cured himself of his chest condition.
His association with Ueshiba Morihei began in 1940. Japan was at war with China, and Tōhei, then nineteen and certain to be drafted, was searching for something that would serve him in combat; after returning to judo and then trying out both kendo and karate, he was given a letter of introduction to Ueshiba and called at his dojo. The diminutive and aging Ueshiba asked him to attack and then threw him so effortlessly that he found himself on his back without recollection of what had just happened. Tōhei immediately asked to be accepted as a student and began training daily.
Tōhei was drafted into military service soon after the outbreak of the Pacific War and saw live action in China, an experience that, he says, led him to discover the “principle of heaven and earth,” the principle of the natural order. Heaven and earth, he comes to understand, are animated by a universal will; one’s survival in war depends upon one’s ability to read and to submit to that will. What works, works because it is in alignment with the universal will; what doesn’t work, doesn’t work because it contradicts that will.
This is also why, he realizes, Ueshiba Morihei, when engaged in the practice of his art, is invincible. After the war, Tōhei was among the first of Ueshiba’s pre-war students to return to Hombu Dojo and to devote himself to the study of aikido for the remaining years of Ueshiba’s life.
Tōhei has unreserved admiration for Ueshiba’s skills as a martial artist, saying on one occasion that “Ueshiba’s waza [applications of technique] were—well, they were awe-inspiring. Had I been thrown with force I could have analyzed what had just happened and developed countermeasures, but he was throwing me without doing much of anything.” And on another that “Ueshiba had, beyond a doubt, mastered ki. On that point it can be said that he was a genius.” Almost in the same breath, however, he is critical of Ueshiba’s teaching methods, especially his explanations. “Unfortunately, he never taught this essence [the essence of ki] to his students.”
He also describes Ueshiba as jealous of “my popularity” and says he “often bad-mouthed me behind my back.” The content of that bad-mouthing, we are told on one occasion, was that “Tōhei is teaching mistakes!” and on another, that “Tōhei is going around giving away all the secrets I learned through hard work!”
Both criticisms may contain a grain of truth but need to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Ueshiba, in Tōhei’s estimation, had the essence of ki but either could not or did not want to teach it, with the result that his students suffered; we are to believe that only Tōhei, who was willing to go off the reservation and to embrace methods frowned upon by Ueshiba, succeeded in mastering this essence and developing a pedagogy. All music to the ears of Tōhei’s students but ludicrously presumptive to students of any one of the many other extraordinary instructors produced under Ueshiba’s tutelage.
Tōhei goes easier on Nakamura Tempū in matters of character but is similarly dismissive of his teachings. He meets Tempū after the War in the late 1940s. Furnished with a letter of introduction from a prominent politician and accompanied by Ueshiba Kisshōmaru, Ueshiba Morihei’s son, he calls on Nakamura at his residence and is graciously received. At some point in the conversation, Nakamura says, “The mind is what moves the body.” Tōhei is caught by surprise; it is the first time he has ever thought about the mind’s relationship to the body, and he joins the Tempūkai on the spot. (What Ueshiba Kisshōmaru decides, he does not say; but given that Ueshiba’s name appears in Tempūkai membership records, he presumably also joined that same day.)
Tōhei was then in his late twenties; Nakamura, seven years older than Ueshiba, was in his seventies, old enough to be Tōhei’s grandfather. By a quirk of fate, Tōhei later learns that his father, as a college student and member of his school’s judo club, had served briefly in Tōyama Mitsuru’s bodyguard detail assigned to protect Sun Yat-sen and had once shared the back seat of a car with Tempū. Tōhei brings Nakamura to his home town in Tochigi Prefecture to lecture, and Nakamura spends two nights in the Tōhei household.
In the beginning, Tōhei tells us, he attends Nakamura’s lectures and retreats at Gokokuji regularly. He tries out, he says, all the practices that are part of the shin-shin tōitsu-dō curriculum; none of them, however, appear to have stuck. From the early 1950s on, he rarely attends Tempūkai events but instead calls on Tempū-sensei at home about once a month. During these visits, conversation is predominantly light—Tempū does not offer nor does Tōhei request instruction—but Nakamura appears to enjoy his company. “Why don’t you stop spending all your time at Ueshiba-sensei’s place and come to mine instead,” he says. “We’ll treat you like a prince.”
Based on this invitation, which he describes as awkward, and which he politely refuses, Tōhei speculates that Nakamura may have wanted to make him his successor. The inference, in my opinion, is specious: Nakamura treated all his understudies like princes; the offer was neither extraordinary nor unique to Tōhei. Furthermore, his son-in-law, Yasutake Sadao, was already being groomed for the position of successor.
To Nakamura, forty-four years Tōhei’s senior, the fledgling Tōhei would have read like an open book: a far more likely interpretation is that Nakamura was toying with him by massaging his ego, all-the-while knowing full well that Tōhei was firmly invested in the dissemination of aikido and not about to give it up. Tempū may even have been a little wistful. Tōhei was talented and a natural leader; what a pity he was unwilling to relinquish his passion for aikido to pursue—to Nakamura’s way of thinking—the more meaningful practice of shin-shin tōitsu-dō. He also may have enjoyed making Tōhei squirm a little in his search for a reply.
Tōhei’s major takeaway from Nakamura’s teachings was evidently the one seminal observation cited above, that the mind leads the body. He makes light of the specific practices of shin-shin tōitsu-dō, condescendingly suggesting that they were ineffective in transmitting a genuine understanding of universal ki as the “principle of heaven and earth.” The suggestion might be easier to swallow were it not for the record: Nakamura’s teachings have affected far more people and produced far more shining examples of human accomplishment than have Tōhei’s.
Tōhei takes special exception to the practice of kumbhaka. “Sensei, your kumbhaka is wrong,” he tells Tempū. “Tell me, do you practice kumbhaka yourself?”
“No, I don’t.”
“So you are telling your students to practice something you don’t practice yourself?”
“Well yes. That’s because I don’t need to practice; I can do it [kumbhaka] at will.”
“But Sensei. The ability to do it at will—isn’t that because you are always in a state of total relaxation?”
He has two of Tempū’s senior students, party to this conversation, get into a state of kumbhaka while sitting crossed legged on the floor and then pushes on them; they both topple over backwards. Seated similarly, he then centers himself using his own methods but brings his knees off the floor so that only his buttocks and heels are touching. In this precarious position, he has the two senior students push on him; try as they might, they cannot dislodge him.
“If you put power into your lower abdomen,” he goes on to explain, “you also put power [introduce tension] into your solar plexus. There’s no way you can relax [achieve a state of relaxed readiness] this way. The lower abdomen is where you should allow your mind to settle, not a place to put power into.”
There is much to parse in this story. Regarding the demonstration, anyone familiar with Tōhei’s reputation as a martial artist will have little reason to doubt that it happened just as he tells it. Not many people could have withstood a push from Tōhei, be they members of either the Tempūkai or the Aikikai, and while the Tempūkai senior students go unnamed, my guess is that neither was a practicing martial artist. As for their inability to dislodge Tōhei, this too, while representative of a high order of skill on his part, is entirely believable: he is known to have demonstrated the same maneuver to his aikido students, and film clips show Ueshiba Morihei doing the same.
As far as the explanation is concerned, this to me appears to be a question of semantics rather than method: are not filling your lower abdomen with energy (ki) and putting your mind there two alternate descriptions of the same procedure? Tada Hiroshi-sensei and Sasaki Masando-sensei, the two Aikikai instructors/Nakamura Tempū protégés with whom I have direct experience—both accomplished masters of ki in their own rights—taught kumbhaka in their dojos and employed it with great efficacy.
Tōhei goes on to tell Tempū that, because he is trying to teach his students how to assume a state of perfect centeredness and immovability by showing them the form instead of the internal state of relaxation from which that form is generated, they end up introducing tension into their bodies and fail to achieve the intended results. “Your students are not to be shamed for this. Their teacher is to be shamed,” he says.
One must give Tōhei credit for speaking his mind, even in the presence of a venerable and accomplished teacher (it was the late 1960s; Tempū would have been just about double his age). One must also give Nakamura credit, as Tōhei concedes, for acknowledging Tōhei’s criticisms and taking them to heart. This is consistent with the intellectual honesty that pervades Nakamura Tempū’s teachings. That said, those criticisms do not appear to have had any subsequent effect on Nakamura’s expositions of kumbhaka.
Tōhei Kōichi was both an extraordinary martial artist and an innovative teacher. But the chutzpah with which he anecdotally dismisses his two most seminal teachers’ teachings in this little book is both amusing and revealing: it tells us much about him, if less about either Ueshiba Morihei or Nakamura Tempū. Tōhei was clearly too large a figure to be contained by either of his teachers’ respective lineages, and it is fitting that he eventually established a lineage of his own.
He was also a contentious figure within the Tempūkai, just as he was within the Aikikai: the familiarity and lack of reserve with which he conducted himself in front of Nakamura Tempū earned him the disdain of Nakamura’s other students, and his name is conspicuously absent from Tempūkai histories and their typical lists of Tempū’s more famous protégés (aikido’s Tada Hiroshi, on the other hand, is almost always included). As for Tempū’s opinion of Tōhei, we know little more than what Tōhei tells us. But this, in its own way, is revealing: the transcripts of Tempū’s talks contain mention by him of many of his students; never once in all my readings of those transcripts have I come across the name Tōhei Kōichi.
In writing Tempū’s biography, I have of necessity been selective: Tempū’s story contains episodes so numerous as to fill several more volumes—and that would be too much of a good thing. The story of Tōhei’s association with Tempū did not make the cut both for lack of corroborating testimony and because it is of only marginal significance to Tempū’s narrative or the dissemination of his teachings. I stand by that decision today.
 Tempū’s kumbhaka, derived from yoga, is the fundamental practice within his shin-shin tōitsu-dō system of uniting mind and body; it is explained at length in Heaven’s Wind.