Kenji Tomiki

The History of Tomiki Aikido

Tomiki ryu Aikido is the system developed by and named after the late Professor Kenji Tomiki. Before recounting his outstanding career in martial arts and his association with two of the most prominent men in martial arts in this century, Jigoro Kano and Morihei Ueshiba, we would like to delineate what we perceive as the uniqueness of Tomikiryu.

One might succinctly describe Tomikiryu by saying, “What Tomiki Shihan did by developing his system was analogous to what Kano Shihan did with jujitsu by creating Judo”. Tomikiryu Aikido consists of the following basic elements, as does Judo: (1) practice and learn thoroughly a limited number of basic wazas (techniques), (2) learn to use these basic wazas and their variations realistically through randori (sparring), (3) put to test the wazas thus acquired through shiai (tournaments), and (4) learn, as katas, those wazas that are not suitable for randori, including those that are too dangerous. Let us explain that further.

Because of the risks of injuries inherent in a majority of the wazas in Aikido, they had traditionally been taught through the repeated practice of kata. The practice could be quite vigorous but the manners of attack and defense are prearranged in katas. In fact, just about all systems of Aikido other than Tomiki ryu publicly state that a competition between Aikidoka is inconceivable. The basic wazas in Tomiki ryu are practiced in such a way that the risks of injuries have in effect been eliminated. Though undesirable risks have been removed, those wazas are quite effective, and when applied with intent to harm, will cause injuries. Therefore, it is crucial that the participants be completely ethical in the use of wazas. In randori, one learns to apply the basic wazas spontaneously under realistic circumstances. One also learns to make effective use of intuitive faculties, which can function faster and more efficiently than the conscious part of the brain. In shiai, since resisting an effectively applied wazas could still cause injuries, only one of the two contestants uses Aikido wazas while the other attacks with a rubber tanto (knife). The contestant with tanto may also score his points through properly landing the tanto on the opponent before that opponent applies an Aikido waza to counter the thrust. The contestants change their roles during a match. Additional wazas have been carefully selected and taught as classic katas. Practicing those classic katas will broaden the scope of students and can help them appreciate finer principles involved in Aikido. Some of those classic wazas are unsuitable for randori and some too dangerous.

The philosophical outlook of Tomiki Ryu Aikido is rational and scientific. All the wazas are understood in terms consonant to natural laws. The term “Ki” is not perceived as a quality representing a supernatural power; rather, it is viewed as a quality that enables a person, through proper training, to perform at maximum efficiency in a beneficial way. Its ethical principles are based on the ideal of peaceful and harmonious existence with fellow humans. Thus, its wazas are designed to control rather than to destroy an aggressor. Even its atemi waza (Striking techniques) are primarily used for controlled throws and not for destruction. However, in a dire emergency involving the life and well-being of an innocent citizen, these wazas can be used quite lethally.

With the passing of Professor Kenji Tomiki on December 25, 1979, the world lost a truly outstanding martial artist, a gentleman and a scholar. He was a personal student of Dr. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan Judo, and also a personal student of Master Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido. Tomiki Shihan was a ku-dan (or kyu-dan), 9th degree, in Aikido and a hachi-dan, 8th degree, in Judo. At the time of his death, he was President of the Japan Aikido Association and a member of the Board of Regents of the All Japan Judo Federation, among other numerous honors. His title of professor is not merely an honorific one, as he was a full professor at a major university (Waseda University) where he taught Aikido and Judo for nearly three decades. At the time of his death, at the age of 79, he was a professor at Kokushikan University.

The culmination of his long and productive martial arts career was perhaps the founding of the Tomiki system of Aikido (Tomiki-ryu). Incorporating Aikido techniques, he also developed an effective goshin-jutsu (self-defense) program for Kodokan Judo.

Kenji Tomiki was born on March 15, 1900 in the township of Tsunodate in Akita prefecture in northern Japan to a family of landed gentlefolk. A large fraction of the town residents were descendants of samurai and martial art practices were quite popular. In fact, at the age of 6, the young Kenji was already performing suburi with bokuto, (striking practice with wooden sword). By the time he was in the fourth grade, he was already enrolled in a local Judo Dojo, although his actual practice of Judo had apparently started a few years earlier. In secondary school, he excelled in both academic work and athletic activities, he was an honor student and was also captain of the Judo team.

As he was preparing for the entrance exam to college, he contracted tuberculosis and had to spend a few years in recuperation. (The school system in Japan then was different from the contemporary one, which is quite analogous to that in the U.S. We will use our approximate equivalents in the following.). These were the “bad old days” before the discovery of penicillin—it often took years to recover from tuberculosis. Sometimes, the patient did not recover at all. He spent those few years living in the villa of his aunt’s husband, a famous painter. The villa was frequented by a number of renowned artists and literary figures, which may have nourished the spiritual growth of the young Kenji in his formative years.

In 1924, fully recovered, he was admitted to Waseda and promptly joined the Judo club. It was during the “golden age” of Judo at Waseda. He also went to Kodokan to study under Professor Jigoro Kano. He was a Shodan (first degree black-belt) when he entered Waseda University but, because of his outstanding performances, he was promoted each year and was a Yondan (4th degree black belt), by the time he graduated from Waseda. In 1926, while still a student at Waseda, he was introduced to Master Morihei Ueshiba, who was famous for his Aiki-bujutsu. In 1927, after receiving his degree in political science, the student Kenji started his graduate work in economics and plunged into the practice of Aiki-bujutsu in the summer of that year. Ueshiba’s training method was rather unique, to put it conservatively. He would repeatedly caution Kenji “not to strive too hard”. Without any explanations, Master Ueshiba would simply throw or pin down Kenji repeatedly. He forbade Kenji to practice with other students saying that he did not want him to pick up bad habits. Although Kenji was quite baffled by this rather strange approach, he pursued his training in Aiki-bujutsu with much dedication and determination.

Ueshiba’s training method was quite a change from that of Kano’s. Kano would first explain the underlying principles and train his students according to those basic principles in a well-organized program. Kano was a man of modern outlook although he had deep respect and appreciation for traditional ways. Among other honors, Kano had a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and was president of a prominent college in Tokyo. Today, that college lives on as Tsukuba University, which is regarded as one of the outstanding centers of higher learning. He had the insight of a genius that enabled him to analyze and comprehend the complex, classic martial art of jujitsu in terms of its elegant basic principles. He was also capable of articulating his thoughts clearly. In addition, he had a superb talent in organization.

Ueshiba, on the other hand, was a man of pre-modern tradition. He did not have much in the way of formal education but was a genius whose mastery and understanding of the martial arts were strictly at an intuitive level. Of course, intuitive faculties play a crucial role in any art form and Kano too possessed the gift of intuition. However, where Kano enunciated his thoughts lucidly and clearly in terms of scientific principles, Ueshiba would invoke the divine spirit. Kano’s system of Judo was catholic in nature and could be taught to the world with minimum chance of miscomprehension, whereas Ueshiba’s system was basically a very personal one. Ueshiba’s understanding of the Aikido principles was not articulated but was simply expressed as ki; hence, it was very difficult, if not altogether impossible, to transmit the gokui (secret) of his art to anyone but another genius like himself. With humility, we suggest that Master Kenji Tomiki was such a genius. Indeed, Tomiki was the first of Ueshiba’s students to receive menkyo-kaiden (hachidan, eighth degree black belt); this took place in 1940. Traditionally, menkyo-kaiden is the ultimate certificate that a master would issue to an exceptionally gifted student who had attained gokui of his school. According to the April 1980 issue of Black Belt, Mochizuki was the only other student who was ever to receive menkyo-kaiden from Ueshiba. Incidentally, the same article notes that Mochizuki was also a student of Kano’s.

Getting back to the proper historical time frame, Master Tomiki (he indeed had a master’s degree by then) continued his training in Judo and Aikido after leaving Waseda. In 1928, on the auspicious occasion of the first practice of the new year at Kodokan, he was promoted to Godan, (fifth degree black belt), together with Kotani. In the following year, in a special national martial art competition, he was among the 12 finalists in Judo. Very regrettably, because of an injury he had to withdraw. The first All Japan Judo championship was held in the succeeding year of 1930.

In 1936, he accepted a faculty position with Daido-gakuin (college) in Manchuria. Before his departure, he visited Kano Shihan [1] at the Kodokan. At that occasion, Kano Shihan said to his talented student Tomiki, “I would like to incorporate into Judo the type of techniques that you are studying under Mr. Ueshiba. The difficulty is, of course, in developing a viable training method for the techniques that are potentially as destructive as those taught in old jujitsu”. To that Tomiki responded firmly saying, “If we applied your Judo principles correctly, it should not be impossible to develop such a training method”. And, thus, he left Japan for the new frontier of Manchuria with an enthusiasm not unlike that of an idealistic Peace Corps volunteer of today. In 1938, the University of Manchuria was established and he accepted a faculty position there.

The year 1938 was a very sad one for the students of Judo—Kano Shihan passed away. He died before completing his dream of incorporating fighting techniques from distant positions (kakuri-taisei no waza) into competitive Judo. Kano first adapted into Judo those jujitsu techniques that could be applied in full vigor without fear of injuries in competition. Those jujitsu techniques that were potentially destructive if used in competitive Judo were largely preserved as either katas (forms) of Kodokan-goshin jutsu such would include some kansetsu waza and atemi-waza. Kano Shihan hoped that Tomiki would bring Aiki-bujutsu into the fold of Kodokan so that competitive Judo would encompass kakuri-taisei no waza and attain its wholeness as an unarmed fighting art.

Master Tomiki returned to Japan briefly in 1941 to give a demonstration of his system of Aiki-bujutsu, concentrating on kansetsu-waza and atemi waza (joint locking and striking techniques). Nango, who was head of Kodokan at that time, was quite impressed and organized a committee to study kakuri-taisei no waza: the committee concerned itself with techniques that are effective against blows, strikes, kicks and weapons. The committee, headed by Murakami, included such Judo notables as Nagaoka, Samura, Mifune and Iizuka. Master Tomiki returned to Japan once a year through 1944 to make presentations to the committee. He concentrated on developing techniques that were not just for “show” but were for “real”.

The Aiki-bujutsu (or alternatively kakuri-taisei no waza) program that he developed at the University of Manchuria with tender loving care came to naught in August of 1945 as the Russian tanks rolled across the border into a practically undefended Manchuria. For reasons best known to themselves, the Japanese military trusted the Russians to stay neutral in the war. As a consequence, most of the fighting units of the famed Kanto-gun, the Imperial Army in Manchuria, had earlier been committed to the Pacific Theater. The Russians encountered little armed resistance. Master Tomiki was among those captured by the Soviets and taken to a Siberian labor camp. The Russians were quite egalitarian and did not discriminate against civilians—they just took away whomever they felt like taking. Tomiki spent the next three years in the desolate landscape of Siberia without any realistic hope of repatriation. He had of course no opportunity to practice Judo or Aikido but with his characteristic energy and forward-looking attitude he developed a form of exercise that he named Judo Taiso. Today, Judo Taiso is being taught at Tsukuba University, among other places.

Soon after the end of World War II, Master Ueshiba renamed his Aiki-bujutsu as Aikido. It happens that bujutsu means martial art. At that time, the Allied Forces occupying Japan proscribed the teaching and practice of all martial arts. The practice of Judo was also officially banned. Those Japanese who wanted to practice martial arts had to do so clandestinely. For instance, a friend of ours practiced Judo secretly in the basement of a police station!

It was to such a Japan that Master Tomiki returned in 1948. With other dedicated Judoists, he worked energetically toward elimination of the ban on the practice of Judo. In this year, he became associated with the faculty of physical education at Waseda University. In a few years, the ban on the teaching of Judo was lifted and he started teaching Judo, Judo Taiso, and kakuri-taisei no waza in Judo. He formally adopted the use of the word Aikido at Waseda in 1960, as he probably wanted to avoid the appearance of competition with his old teacher, Master Uyeshiba. In 1952, he started teaching 12 Aikido techniques from which he had removed the risk of injuries—Master Tomiki had by then developed a new method for teaching Aikido safely. When Master Ueshiba learned of this, he invited Tomiki to return to his school with the new method. Although some of his friends advised him to start his own system and name it Tomiki-ryu, Tomiki was willing to return to Ueshiba’s school. However, those surrounding Master Uyeshiba interfered and, regrettably, Tomiki’s innovative system did not come to grace Ueshiba’s school.

In 1953, he was appointed to full professorship at Waseda University. This year, with Kotani, hachi-dan, and Otaki, shichi-dan, (both 1953 ranks), Master Tomiki toured the U. S. to teach Judo. During this period and over the succeeding years, he authored a number of important articles and books on Judo and Aikido. Only one of those have thus far been translated into English and French. His famous book entitled “Judo and Aikido” was translated into English in 1956 and into French in 1960. It was the first book to introduce Aikido to the Western world and has since come to be regarded a classic.

Tomiki Shihan’s contributions to the martial arts are numerous but two items stand out as perhaps the most significant. First, through thorough understanding of the countless Aikido techniques, he developed a few dozen basic techniques and a new method of practice through which one could discover for oneself all other variations. One might say that he developed the alphabet and grammar for Aikido with which sentences of Aikido may be written efficiently. Second, he developed a method that made possible the practice of randori and shiai without fear of injuries. Without randori (or kumite in the case of karate), it is extremely difficult to develop a true fighting skill that is effective in defending oneself in a real life situation. Only a rare genius might master a realistic fighting art purely from kata practice or through pre-programmed actions and reactions; even such a genius would probably have to spend a long time learning a fighting skill that way.

Tomiki Shihan was planning an Aikido tour of the U. S. in 1978 when he was suddenly hospitalized for an operation. It was kept confidential but he had an intestinal cancer. On Christmas Eve of that year, a choir from a nearby church came to the hospital yard to sing carols for the bed -ridden patients. Master Tomiki appeared to be feeling better as he listened to the choir. Thanks to the dedicated and loving care of Mrs. Tomiki, it looked as though he would see the New Year of 1980. However, he did not live to see the sunrise of December 25; he passed away early that morning. True to the traditional ideal, Tomiki Shihan was not only a distinguished martial artist but also an accomplished man of letters.

The mantle of Tomiki-ryu Aikido has been succeeded by Mr. Hideo Oba, a long time, outstanding student of Professor Tomiki. Mr. Fumiaki Shishida, who now teaches Aikido at Waseda University, generously permitted us to use his biography of Tomiki Shihan in preparing this article.

Article by Yoji Kondo

Shihan is a proper honorific title accorded to distinguished martial art instructors. It is traditional in Japanese to place it after the name. The more commonly used term, Sensei, is used for teachers of just about any subject, be it flower arrangement, flying, music or physics.