Those encountering legendary Koichi Tohei for the first time often come away with the impression that he resorted to physical strength when executing techniques. Surely a large part of this erroneous impression has to do with Tohei’s powerful physique and mighty arms of impressive proportions.
However, those who actually felt his technique will tell a different story. He was exceedingly strong, to be sure, but his technique was also superlative and he executed techniques with a casual ease. Tohei cultivated a relaxed body when moving and this was the prime reason his techniques worked consistently. It was rare to see him use a trace of power in his execution. Tohei even went so far as to say that the most important thing he learned by watching Morihei Ueshiba was the Founder’s uncanny ability to relax.
Tohei Sensei’s timing was impeccable, and he had very good breath control. Although he did not rely heavily on atemi or kiai, his setups were well executed and he would frequently emphasize the importance of leading his partner’s mind.
Tohei also had outside pursuits that included misogi breathing and meditation training at the Ichikukai school. Following World War II, Tohei was an enthusiastic follower of Tempu Nakamura, an expert martial artist and the founder of Japanese yoga. Nakamura greatly influenced the shaping of Tohei’s aikido curriculum with its emphasis on ki energy.
Koichi Tohei’s aikido was in many ways ahead of his times. His curriculum was more sophisticated and nuanced than those of his contemporaries most of whom only began aikido training after the war and were relatively inexperienced.
Aikido, especially in the Aikikai context, chose to present the art as a body and character building discipline that emphasized a spirit of love and cooperation in accordance with the beliefs of Founder Morihei Ueshiba.
Koichi Tohei’s aikido methods with their emphasis of blending and harmony fit neatly into this spirit that matched the tenor of the times. His aikido was not harsh or martial and he eschewed the use of physical strength in the application of techniques.