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Meeting Morihei Ueshiba
A.J:
When did you enter the Ueshiba Dojo?
Tohei Sensei:
I think it was in 1940. Kisaburo Osawa came in about a week later. I had been thinking what a poor state of affairs it was that I could train on my own for a couple of weeks and come back and throw everyone in the judo dojo. "Why bother with a martial art like that?" I thought. It was then that I met Ueshiba Sensei. Shohei Mori, one of my seniors at the judo club who had worked on the Manchurian Railway, told me about a teacher with phenomenal strength and asked if Iíd like to meet him. He gave me a letter of introduction and off I went.


Tohei with Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba in 1953
 

Tohei in Hawaii, circa 1953

Ueshiba Sensei was out when I arrived at the dojo and I was met by an uchideshi named Matsumoto. I asked him what aikido was all about. He replied, "Give me your hand and Iíll show you." I knew he was going to do some move on me, so I stuck out my left hand instead of my right. Being right handed, I wanted to keep my strongest hand in reserve. He grabbed my wrist and applied a sharp nikyo technique. I hadnít strengthened that part of my body at all, so it was agonizing. Iím sure my face went pale, but I wasnít about to let him to get the best of me, so I endured the pain as long as I could. Then I threw a punch at him with my right hand and he got flustered and let go.

I was just starting to think that if this was aikido I might as well forget it and go home. Just then Ueshiba Sensei returned. I produced my letter of introduction and he said "Ah yes, from Mr. Mori..." Then as a demonstration, he began tossing one of the larger uchideshi around the dojo.

I thought it looked kind of fake until Ueshiba Sensei told me to take off my coat and come at him. I got into a judo stance and moved in to grab him. To my great surprise, he threw me so smoothly and swiftly that I couldnít even figure out what had happened. I knew right then that this was what I wanted to do. I asked permission to enroll immediately and began going to the dojo every day from the following morning.

I found the training very strange and mysterious, and I was dying to know how the techniques were done. When someone uses power to throw you, thereís always something you can do to react or counter. But itís a different story when the person isnít doing anything in particular and youíre still getting thrown. I thought, "Wow, this is the real thing!"

In the beginning I had no idea what was going on. Even high school students could throw me without any trouble. Finding that rather odd, I tried grabbing even more strongly, but of course then I was only thrown that much more easily.

At the same time I was continuing my training at the Ichikukai [see the interview with Hiroshi Tada in AJ101 for more information]. I used to stay there overnight and practice zazen and misogi. The training focused on achieving a kind of enlightened state in which both body and mind become entirely free from restraint. It was exhausting, and afterwards I would rush to aikido practice, already dead tired. To my surprise, I found that in that state people who could always throw me before were completely unable to do so! It didnít take me much effort to throw them, either. Everybody thought it was strange and kept saying things like, "Whatís with Tohei?! He skips practice and comes back stronger than ever!"

Itís a lot more difficult for someone to throw you if you let go of power, and it also becomes much easier to throw your opponent. I thought about Ueshiba Sensei and realized that he was indeed relaxed when he did his aikido. It was then that I suddenly understood the real meaning of "relax."

My aikido continued to progress as I continued with my misogi and zazen. After six months or so I was even sent to teach at places like the military police academy in Nakano and the private school (juku) of Shumei Okawa. No one except Sensei could throw me. It took me only half a year to be able to achieve that degree of ability, so I think taking five or ten years is too slow.

Even now most people are trying as hard as they can to learn techniques, but I was learning about ki from the beginning.

A.J: When do you think Ueshiba Sensei mastered that "art of relaxing?"
Tohei Sensei:
I think it was probably when he was living in Ayabe and heavily involved with the Omoto religion. Ueshiba Sensei often told a story about one day when he was standing by a well wiping himself off after training and he suddenly realized that his body had become perfect and invincible. He understood with remarkable clarity the meaning of the sounds of the birds and insects and everything else around him. Apparently that state lasted only for about five minutes, but I think it was then that he mastered the art of relaxing.

Unfortunately, he always talked about that experience using religious-sounding expressions that were more or less incomprehensible to others.

Before the war Sensei taught at the Naval Staff College, where he had Prince Takamatsu (a younger brother of the Showa emperor) as one of his students. On one occasion the prince pointed at Ueshiba Sensei and said, "Try to lift up that old man." Four strong sailors tried their best to lift him but they couldnít do it.

Sensei said of that time, "All the many divine spirits of Heaven and Earth entered my body and I became as immovable as a heavy rock." Everybody took him literally and believed it. I heard him say that kind of thing hundreds of times.

For my part, I have never had divine beings enter my body. Iíve never put much stock in that kind of illogical explanation.

Once when I was with Sensei in Hawaii, there was a demonstration in which two of the strong Hawaiian students were supposed to try to lift me up. They already knew they couldnít do it, so they didnít think much of it. But Sensei, who was off to the side watching, kept standing up and saying, "Stop, you can lift Tohei, you can lift him! Stop, make them stop! This demonstrationís no good!"


Tohei demonstrating in Hawaii shortly after his arrival

You see, I had been out drinking until three oíclock in the morning the previous evening, and Sensei knew what condition I had come home in. He said, "Of course the gods arenít going to enter into a drunken sot like you! If they did theyíd all get tipsy!" Thatís why he thought they would be able to lift me.

In reality that sort of thing has nothing to do with any gods or spirits. Itís just a matter of having a low center of gravity. I know this and itís what I teach all my students. It wouldnít mean anything if only certain special people could do it. Things like that have to be accessible to everyone if theyíre to have any meaning.

People with so-called "supernatural powers" are usually the only ones who can do whatever it is they claim. Others canít do what they do and they canít teach what they do, because what they do is not real; itís fake. Anybody can do the things I teach. Theyíre alive in aikido techniques just as they are. All you have to know is how to do them correctly, and viewing them as supernatural powers requiring the presence of some god or what have you is a big mistake. I regard it as my responsibility to teach correctly.


Teaching US Servicemen

 

The Personality of Morihei Ueshiba
A.J:
Were there any notable personalities in the dojo back in 1940 or 1941óany who would later make a name for themselves?
Tohei Sensei:
There was no one like that when I first went. There were no students and hardly any uchideshi.

A.J: What were your strongest impressions of Ueshiba Sensei?
Tohei Sensei:
He seemed to me like a nice old man. Smiling, you know. In many ways he had a very child-like personality.

A.J: We have quite a few documents about O-Sensei, but it is still difficult for us to get a picture of him in his day-to-day life. Did he talk about ordinary, everyday subjects? From the recordings we have of him speaking, he seems almost like he came from another planet.
Tohei Sensei:
Yes, I know what you mean. He certainly did talk that way.

A.J: Iíve heard that sometimes he would suddenly explode in anger.
Tohei Sensei:
Yes, that happened often. He was kind to women, though. I never saw him get angry at a woman. Curiously, his anger was never specifically directed at the person he was supposedly angry at. It was like he was just furious by himself, unable or unwilling to direct his anger at its object.

Once a young student named Kurita happened to notice that Sensei had shifted in his chair a bit and moved to adjust it for him. Sensei exploded at him, and demanded to know what he was doing. The poor fellow had no idea what was going on until I explained that Sensei had mistaken his action for some kind of mischief.

A.J: What was O-Senseiís attitude when you started basing your teaching around the principles of ki?
Tohei Sensei:
He was jealous and told people not to listen to me. He would say, "Aikido is mine, not Toheiís. Donít listen to what Tohei says." He would peer into the dojo and say things like that, especially when I was teaching a group of women. In that respect he was quite child-like in his directness and lack of sophisticationóvery spontaneous and innocent.

People connected with various religions would come to the dojo and get money out of him by flattering him with names like "Morihei Ueshiba, the kami of aikido." He hardly ever spent money on himself, but he always seemed to be strapped for cash because he kept giving it away to people like that.

A.J: What were your strongest impressions of Ueshiba Sensei?
Tohei Sensei:
He seemed to me like a nice old man. Smiling, you know. In many ways he had a very child-like personality.

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