It Aint Necessarily So: Rendez-vous with Adventure
Author and koryu instructor Ellis Amdur examines the myths surrounding the skills of Aikido pioneer Koichi Tohei and puts them to the test, in front of the available evidence.
I trained for a short time at the Kodokan, and then, for several years, with Tokaidai Sagami high school’s judō team. Tokai Daigaku, a huge complex of university campuses was the pre-eminent judō power in Japan, coached by some of its greatest former champions. They recruited students from all over Japan into their high schools. To give the reader an idea of the level of skill and power of these young men, we used to line up by weight to bow in. At that time, weighing about 100 kilos, I was not even in the middle of the approximately forty members of the dōjō—there were several close or equal to my two meters in height, and at leasty six young men, aged seventeen and eighteen, who could regularly defeat their own coach, a 36 year old sixth dan. Among my greatest achievements in martial arts training was during a workout with their star, a two meters, 150 kilos young man, expected to be the successor of Yamashita Yasuhiro. (He tragically and suddenly died of sudden-onset leukemia in his senior year.) I was an English instructor at the school, in my mid-thirties, and a relative beginner at judō, and he was surely taking it easy. I caught him off-guard in a kouchi-gari (inside reap) and managed to get him wrong-footed, up on one leg. While saying, “Nice move, Sensei!” he regained his balance, and instinctively whirled to throw me in a seionage that rattled my DNA all the way back to my long-dead grandfathers. I’m not sure if I’m prouder to have momentarily off-balanced him or of surviving the throw.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The views expressed in this article reflect only those of the writer, they are independent from those of the curators of this website.
Well, he was Mick Jagger, but he wasn’t [Mick Jagger !!!!!]
a disappointed groupie reporting to her friends, the morning after
All this by way of saying that I love judō. Put another way, “Judō namennayo” (“Don’t you dare take judō lightly”). Because of this, a very famous aikidō story has always rankled me. It was written by Robert Smith, a writer well-known for his books on Chinese martial arts, who also was, originally, a strong judōka. In 1953, he wrote a review of the First National AAU Judō Tournament
Tohei (8th Dan in Aikidō), a visitor from Japan, put on a remarkable demonstration of this ‘higher Judō’—although it is, of course, not exactly that. Five yudansha, including Yoshimura (4th Dan), attacked him simultaneously and were summarily beaten off by the agile little man dancing so daintily on the tatami. The bout was unrehearsed and I have never seen anything to equal it.
Robert Smith My Aikido Interlude
Tohei was allegedly a strong judōka before he trained in aikidō. Furthermore, the phrase, “agile little man” is really not accurate. He was short, but not little, as his massive arms in this photograph clearly show. In fact, Tohei was monstrously strong.
Kuroiwa Yoshio sensei told me:
Not only was Tohei sensei strong, but he also had control over his body. One time, during a demonstration, I, Tamura, Kobayashi, and Noro were supposed to do a multiple attack on him, and we decided to embarrass him. He was always bossing everyone around, so we decided to really go for it, just grab him and slam him to the mat. We got a hold of him and he just exploded. We were flying every which way. You want to know how strong he was ? After the war, Tohei sensei brought two suitcases of rice back from Iwama to the Honbu dōjō. This was considered black-market dealing. If he looked like he was having trouble with the suitcases, someone would have gotten suspicious and he would have been found out and arrested. So every time he went through the ticket gates in the train stations, he’d just pick up the suitcases to shoulder height, carrying them over the ticket wickets like they were empty, and hold them up like that until he’d walked out of sight.
Robert Smith was one of the pioneers among Westerners writing and studying East Asian martial arts. His writing, although often somewhat florid and verbose, beautifully described the teachers he studied under. I’ll never forget his descriptions of bagua ch’uan instructor, Paul Kuo, “His spine was as straight as smoke”. However, he sometimes framed accounts in a way contrary to others’ experience, including some of the teachers he was describing, making what others found to be mundane seem as magical. I recall a story of the simultaneous defeat of five judoka, that was picked up by the Aikikai and used as ”evidence” of aikidō’s invincibility. Yes, the Aikikai. Ueshiba Kisshomaru, in his book, Aikido, wrote:
Tohei visited Hawaii during the period of 1953 and 1954 and worked to introduce Aikido to Americans. He happened to participate in the All American Judo Contest at San Jose with the President of the Hawaii Judo Association. At the request of the many attendants there, he faced five American judoists who were selected among the players of various states. They attacked him at one time. With little effort he felled them all. This event was announced to all the world and the fact he defeated the five main players without any trouble—the giants whom he had not yet met—made him a hero in the United States and showed the true value of Aikido.
Kisshomaru Ueshiba – Aikido
This story has always seemed dubious to me. Did it really happen the way Smith—and subsequently the Aikikai—claimed ?
My doubts became convictions after seeing the 1957 film, “Rendez-vous with Adventure”. This is a light-hearted documentary where two cowboy-hatted Americans visit the Aikikai Honbu Dōjō, filmed Ueshiba powerfully demonstrating techniques, and even got to experience a few themselves. At one point, the cameraman, a tubby, lumbering middle-aged fellow with no fighting skills whatsoever, has a go at Tohei.
Rendez-vous with Adventure available Aikido Journal
His ”attacks” were confined to attempts to grab and wrestle with Tohei, who was surely under strict orders—this being Japan, it wouldn’t even have to be said !—not to damage the guest. Tohei weaves and evades, and dumps the fellow repeatedly, mostly using what could be termed judō kuzushi and taisabaki. At one moment painful to watch, Tohei is pulled to the ground in a tangle of limbs, but manages to extricate himself and dumps the guy again.
Herman putting Tohei down
Situations like this are awkward. If Tohei were to have thrown the man too hard, he might have injured him—he didn’t know how to fall properly. If he put an armlock on him, he might have broken a wrist, if the guy didn’t know which way to go. Still, it is an embarrassment, and even more embarrassing have been the intellectual somersaults that some partisans of aikidō have made to rationalize his performance. Remember, Tohei would have been selected for such a challenge, rather than a young buck like Chiba Kazuo or Tamura Nobuyoshi, BECAUSE Ueshiba (or his son Ueshiba Kisshomaru, who really managed the dojo) thought that he could handle him without injuring him. When I first saw it and was asked to comment, I wrote:
Oh my Gawd. This reminds me of when Reverend Andy farted next to Aunt Junie and she claimed that he had a beautiful resonant tone in a lower D flat, and smelled like a Kent mango, just before the peak of ripeness. Not only was the man a fat untrained out-of-shape middle-aged guy, Tohei, in his biography, made a big point about how he was a judō man, and after a little aikidō, was easily dropping his 4th and 5th dan seniors. Of course Ueshiba told him—or expected him, at any rate—not to hurt the guy. But nonetheless, for the shihan bucho of The Most Almighty Martial Art In All Of Japan, Ever Ever Ever™, that was abysmal. But it did resonate beautifully in a low D flat.
According to Admiral Takeshita in his training diary, Ueshiba spent much of the 1920’s specifically studying and teaching how to defeat judōka. Men like Tomiki Kenji, Kotani Sumiyuki, Sugino Yoshio, Shirata Rinjiro, Murashige Aritoshi, Shioda Gozo, Mochizuki Minoru, Nakazono Masahilo, Chiba Kazuo, judōka one and all, studied with him and not just because he was a charming old mystic. I have no doubt whatsoever that Tomiki, Shirata, or Mochizuki could have easily and safely managed this lurching uncoordinated middle-aged man. It just didn’t make sense to me. How could Tohei, who was so powerful that he could carry two suitcases full of rice at shoulder height like they were empty, who allegedly simultaneously defeated five young judō competitors—one of whom later became a professional football lineman—have such difficulty managing one fat rube ?
Thanks to the research of the incredible Joe Svinth, I got the names of some men who were at this tournament, sixty years before. I wrote a letter, a portion of which is reproduced here:
I lived in Japan for about thirteen years, trained in both judō and aikidō, among other arts, and saw most of the top aikidō teachers of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and I do not believe one of them could handle two strong judōka, much less five in the manner that is described. Most aikidōka, to be honest, would be dropped easily by one good judō man. Admittedly, Tohei was at the top of the aikidō heap, but still, this is a remarkable story. Robert Smith was, doubtless, one of the best writers on martial arts, and a seasoned practitioner. However, I’ve read other accounts of his where he seems to lean towards the magical rather than the purely factual. This is another one that sounds like magic to me.
So, first of all, were you there? Were you one of the five guys? Did you see it? Was it the way Smith described, or were the young guys taking falls for the honored visitor? Myths are a lot of fun in the martial arts, but the truth is even better.
Ellis Amdur Personal communication
And here are the responses from several of the great men of American judō:
I did participate in that tournament you are referring to. Since it has been a long time since the demonstration occurred, I vaguely remember that the judo participants could not get him down. As a bystander, it looked very real and I will stand by that.
The event you speak of was announced and a group of contestant appeared on the mat. I can visualize all of them approaching the mat, but recall no faces or names. My recollection varies from that of Mr. Smith’s narrative. I do not recall the “simultaneous attack” as a collective assault. I vaguely recall the group on the mat and executing attacks in an individual sequence, not a group pummeling. Of course, you must keep in mind that I could be very wrong about this as the event occurred many years ago. My impression was Tohei was attacked in earnest and that he defended himself admirably. I did not and do not believe it was a “young guys taking falls for the honored visitor” as you mentioned in your letter. I was 23 years old at the time and am now 83 years old. I remember the event as described above and to the best of my knowledge my recollections are accurate.
Lyle W. Hunt Jr.
This account is from a phone interview with the great Hawaiian judoka, Frank Nakashima. Of my three correspondents, he had the most direct contact with Tohei, although he was not part of the demonstration itself. He spoke with wonder in his voice:
I was amazed at what he could do. I visited him at his hotel room. While we were talking, he picked up a six foot rod and told me to grab the other end and see if I could move him. All of a sudden, I’m upside down! I couldn’t believe it. Wow, what did this guy do to me? Then he stuck out his hand and extended his little pinky and told me to push on it. I put two hands against his pinky and pushed with all my might. I couldn’t even move the guy. And the demonstration! They just met the guy. They had no practice together, and it wasn’t a show. They would attack him and bang, he’d put his arm up and they just bounced off. He was knocking them over like flies. He’d run and jump and when they got close, he’d put his arm up and they’d fall like flies. I wanted to train with the guy. Just imagine that—people bounce off when you put out your arm. I couldn’t do it, though. I was training for the Olympics in judo, and I just didn’t have time.
Frank Nakashima – Interview with Frank Nakashima
Not exactly Smith’s story, but still pretty amazing, isn’t it? The awe in Mr. Nakashima’s voice as he described his meeting with Tohei was palpable, and he expressed envy that I had a chance to actually study this incredible martial art (I didn’t have the heart to tell him I couldn’t do anything remarkable). In summing up, Tohei did not fight five judōka simultaneously. He was doing one-on-one randori in sequence. Joining the three accounts together, he was apparently evading attacks, getting his opponent off-balance by moving just beyond their reach at an angle and then using the standard attributes of what is called, variously, aiki or kokyu-ryoku, a connected, trained body augmented by his massive power. I am not belittling his technique with the staff or his ability to take a push against a very powerful young man in the least in stating that these are, as many readers know, the standard techniques used to demonstrate internal power by both Chinese martial artists, and top-level aikidō and Daito-ryu practitioners, at least in former days (training in these types of abilities has gone by the wayside, for the most part). Mr. Nakashima’s description of how he downed his judō opponents is congruent with this as well—rather than aikidō techniques, Tohei, just at the moment of impact, threw them with a combination of tai-sabaki (he was moving off-line to their attack) and whole-body atemi. By this, I mean that Tohei had the ability to align his body so that any impact was transferred through his body into the ground. This alignment also enabled him to direct both the opponent’s power and his own physical power as one integrated force.
Among those considered most powerful in internal training are the practitioners of I-ch’uan/Ta-cheng ch’uan (known in Japan as Taikiken). They have a reputation of being formidable fighters, although in China, this is largely due to the exploits of their founder, Wang Xiangzhai, and a few of his immediate successors. The originator of the Japanese faction, Sawai Kenichi, had a similar reputation—Mas Oyama of Kyokushinkai karate stated that he was the only man who ever defeated him. Given that their training is largely solo training—mostly ”post standing”, where they stand, immobile, as if hugging a tree—how could they possibly have become effective fighters? As for Wang Xiangzhai and even his ”outside” student, Sawai, both of these men were already seasoned fighters when they began to train to coordinate their body. In essence, they tuned up the engine in an already well-functioning car.
These days, however, many of the taikiken students, training exclusively in their own arena with people playing the same game, manifest significant skills in their ability to redirect force, or root themselves against a push. However, when they participate in sparring matches against Kyokushinkai karate fighters, they invariably lose—quickly. Power is one thing and fighting another.
So how does this relate to Tohei, and why was he so inept (there’s no other way to put it) with the lumbering cameraman?
Tohei’s actual time under Ueshiba’s tutelage was quite small. The number of hours of direct instruction he received in aikido was surely far less than the majority of readers of this article have received from their own aikidō instructors. Tohei’s aikidō technique was rudimentary, compared to the relaxed precision of Yamaguchi Seigo, the complexity of Nishio Shoji, or the majesty of Shirata Rinjiro, to name only a few. He hopped around (when I first trained aikidō, it was actually called the “Tohei Hop”), and when others tried to imitate this in their own aikidō, it made them very easy to knock off balance or sweep. Those who had not also acquired some level of Tohei’s internal abilities, which he referred to as ”ki”, were all, in my experience, very limited in their abilities, among those most dependent upon their partner moving and attacking in a pre-determined way.
The “Tohei hop”
I can easily be accused of arm-chair criticism, so let me add the opinions of some contemporaries. First of all, Kuroiwa Yoshio stated of Tohei: “He was very strong, but fighting is different. He didn’t know how to fight, almost none of them did.” We also have the statement of Yamada Yoshimitsu, a contemporary of Kuroiwa, and a man whose general opinions on just about any other subject could not be more different: “Tohei’s movements were terrible, but he had an extraordinary use of the body“
As I wrote above, Tohei was actually a judōka before he entered aikidō. In California, he was facing people, one-after-another, from whom he knew exactly what to expect. He was doing judō, (something Robert Smith noted), but then using an application of power that they were not prepared for. Because they were trained and powerful young men, he could hit/throw them hard enough to ensure they would fall down, with a reasonable probability that they wouldn’t be hurt. In short, they were chasing and trying to grab a rubber ball that, at just the right moment, bounced and hit them back.
With his “Rendez-vous with Adventure,” however, he had someone who was, to the best of his unskilled abilities, trying to beat Tohei. It was a “fight”, in the sense that he wasn’t playing a game Tohei knew, and his attacks, therefore, had a random element. Couple this with the stricture against throwing the cameraman down hard, where he, with no skill at ukemi, might be concussed, as well as an apparent constraint against joint locks as well, Tohei, with his limited array of techniques, was at a loss.
Too harsh? I’ve sparred with professional boxers, whom I couldn’t touch, and they, over and over would tap me on the face. I couldn’t block them. I once sparred with a capoeira contra-mestre and he took my cell-phone off my belt and started tapping in a number, without disrupting the spinning kick that grazed my chin which immediately followed. I’ve rolled with high level grapplers, and one man actually started verbally predicting what I’d do next before I did it.
Consider Tohei’s own statements about his training:
I saw that Ueshiba Sensei had truly mastered the art of relaxing. It was because he was relaxed, in fact, that he could generate so much power […] To be honest, I never really listened to most of the other things he said […] At the same time I was continuing my training at the Ichikukai. 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 aikidō 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 didn’t take me much effort to throw them, either. Everybody thought it was strange and kept saying things like, “What’s with Tohei?! He skips practice and comes back stronger than ever!”
Koichi Tohei Interview with Koichi Tohei
Tohei clearly was interested in two things: a specialized kind of power based on relaxation and to make himself ”unthrowable”.
Demonstration of Koichi Tohei at the Japanese Self-Defense Ministry
Had Tohei simply unleashed all his power on this man, I’m sure he would have crushed him into a heap of bones and flesh. One hard throw or a full-on wrist lock and that would have been the end of it. But if those who were once, at some level, his students say, “He didn’t know how to fight” and “Tohei’s movements were terrible” that pretty well explains why he didn’t have the ability to manage him well in a controlled, protective way, using the martial art that he was, allegedly, an expert in.
Why spend so much time on a discussion like this? (There’s a part of me that likes my “Reverend Andy” response much better.)
Aikidō hagiography once made much of Tohei’s encounter with the judōka in California. “Rendez-vous with Adventure” made that utterly unbelievable to many outside observers. But the judōka who observed him at the time of the San Jose demonstration were utterly convinced of his power. The awe, however, came from his manifesting, in Tohei’s statement regarding Ueshiba: “[…] because he was relaxed, in fact, that he could generate so much power.”
Relaxation alone—even a specialized form of it—is not aikidō, however. If this internal power is a foundational skill—one largely abandoned today—the techniques of aikidō are its delivery system. Even with remarkable power, without a delivery system, one is no more able to fight than a power lifter is able to win in a boxing ring, just because he can bench press six hundred pounds.
Then he said, “Before you go, is there anything you want to ask me?” So I said simply, “O-Sensei, what is aikidō?” He responded by saying, “Well, let me write it down for you and someday you can read it and understand.” What he wrote were the words: “intellectual training, physical training, virtue training, ki training-these produce practical wisdom.” He added that it wouldn’t do for even one of these to be missing, that lacking any one of them would render everything for naught and inevitably slow one’s overall development. One must, he told me, always maintain a harmonious balance among these.
Takahashi Mariye – Interview with Mariye Takahashi
In this statement, Ueshiba has sketched his martial art as a four-legged animal. When I look around at the aikidō world today, full of myths that pass for reality, I see lots of people hopping on one or another of these four legs. A complete martial art should be the entire beast, because without it, one may fail one’s own rendez-vous with adventure.
This essay is a small departure for me. To date, I have published everything, either research or speculation, with considerable confidence in my conclusions. I certainly have had a number of people disagree with some of my assertions, but I’ve always stood on what I feel is very solid ground. Not so in this essay. I wrote it, however, provoked by what has seemed to be unfounded confidence on the other side. On the one hand, Tohei Koichi is superhumanly powerful, fighting five champion judoka, and on the other, an embarrassingly inept performance. With any caveats that partisans might offer (protecting the inept man, etc.), many judoka, at the turn of the 20th century got on stages in music halls and controlled such large untrained people with ease. In Tohei’s case, the contradiction between what is said about him and what we see is insupportable.
I know my inferences are a stretch, based on casual comments by two men who were once his juniors. I never saw Tohei myself, much less took ukemi for him. This is the best I can do—that Tohei was very powerful, but did not have a complete range of technical skills. I think this is supported by his own emphasis that all he learned from Ueshiba was relaxation, and he ignored the rest. Well, at minimum, this gives me the chance to set the record straight about what he really did in the 1953 AAU championship.
- The tournament was held at San Jose State May 8-9, 1953. Smith wrote his review in the “American Commentary, “Budokawi Quarterly Bulletin, 9:4 (July 1953), on pages 10 and 11
- Ueshiba, Kisshomaru, Aikido, translated by Tanahashi Kasuzaki & Roy Maurer Jr., Hozansha Publishing Col, Tokyo, Japan, 1969, p. 165
- Pranin, Stanley – Rendez-vous with Adventure (DVD) Aikido Journal
- Amdur, Ellis – Hidden in Plain Sight: Tracing the Roots of Ueshiba Morihei’s Power. Edgework: Crisis Intervention Resources PLLC (2009). Pocket: 252 pages. ISBN-10: 0982376200
- Amdur, Ellis – Dueling with O Sensei, 2nd Edition, publication pending, Freelance Academy Press
- Tamaki, Léo – Yamada Yoshimitsu, the Free Man.
- Pranin, Stanley – Interview with Koichi Tohei. AikidoJournal
- Amdur, Ellis – A Consideration of Aikidō Practice within the Context of Internal Training. AikiWeb
- Pranin, Stanley – Entretien avec Mariye Takahashi (2). Aikido Journal n ° 120