Questions and Answers with Tohei Shihan

The MAC’s Founder and Chief Instructor, Akira Tohei Shihan, held regular Question & Answer sessions with his students. Any and all questions were welcomed. The following document has been compiled from records of those sessions. Tohei Sensei answered a wide variety of questions. Topics included etiquette, technique, history, and philosophy.

What are the principles of Aikido?

Masakatsu, righteous victory, proper attitude. Agatsu, victory over self. Katsuhayahi – victory over speed of light, doing things quickly.

Who did the Aikido calligraphy that is hanging on the shrine?

This was written by Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba, the son of O-Sensei and presently the leader of the Aikido world. He presented the scroll to me when I was sent to Chicago by Hombu Dojo.

What is written on O-Sensei’s picture?

Takemusu Aiki which is another name O-Sensei used to refer to Aikido. Take …budo, martial spirit. Musu … creation, birth of. Aiki … aikido, harmony, love.

What sect of Buddhism does Aikido have its principles from?

Martial arts and Buddhism are two different things.

I heard that Osawa Sensei practiced Zen. Was he a priest or was he just a practitioner?

He was not a priest, but he did study Zen.

What is the meaning of bowing during practice?

Bowing is a show of respect and courtesy. In the martial sense, it is a baring of the neck to the opponent, indicating trust that one will not be harmed. In the social sense, it is a humbling or “making lower” of oneself — putting the other person on a higher level of esteem than yourself.

When bowing, which hand should be placed down first?

We cannot say which hand, right or left, should go first, since styles are different according to the situation and school of thought. In some martial arts, especially when one is using a sword, the left hand is placed down first since this is the side where the sword is worn. But in Aikido since we do not carry weapons, it is acceptable to simply place both palms down at the same time. What is important is that our hands form a triangle and that we perform the bow with sincerity and respect. In some arts, for example in tea ceremony, it is proper to place the right hand down first as the sign of utmost courtesy.

At the end of class, after bowing to O-Sensei and then to the instructor (Sensei), is it necessary to bow one more time when Sensei leaves the mat?

No. Only two bows are needed.

After the bow at the end of class, what does it mean when you motion with your hands?

This gesture means that class is over and you can bow to your partner and leave. But proper etiquette would also dictate that you do not move as soon as the gesture is made — you pause for a respectful moment and then disperse. Since this is my “home” dojo, it is not necessary for you to wait until I am off the mat. If we had a guest instructor or if I were visiting another dojo, students should wait until the instructor has bowed off the mat.

Do we need to bow when exiting the mat?

Yes, bow from the seiza position.

Should we bow when we enter the mat level of the dojo after removing our shoes?

Yes, from a standing position.

Do we need to bow to a Shihan when we pass him?

No, only if you interrupt him. Do not call attention to yourself.  

What does “onegai shimasu” mean?

Literally, I respectfully ask this favor of you. (Please teach me. Please come to my aid.)

Please explain the circle-square-triangle logo of our dojo.

These shapes represent Aikido. The triangle is like the beginner — strong, rough around the edges. Movement is in a direct line, like irimi. After some practice, the movements of the beginner become somewhat longer and more solid. This square is like nage and uke moving together. This is also the shape of the pin at the end of a technique. The circle is what we are aiming for — flowing, fluid, smooth movement.

How old were you when you began the practice of Aikido, and how did you find it?

I was 17, right after World War II ended. I wanted to help my country after its defeat by the U.S. I had returned from training to be a kamikaze pilot, and Japan had surrendered before I could fly my suicide mission. This sense of loss overwhelmed me, and I was searching for a purpose in life.

We have heard reference to “old-style” Aikido practice. Does this mean that it has changed over time?

I do not think there is an old or new style. Of course, when O-Sensei was young, his physical movements tended to be more rigorous than when he was older, but this is true for anyone. If you practice diligently, there is no distinction between styles. I teach what I learned during the time I was with O-Sensei.

What are some of your observations of Aikido practice and O-Sensei’s teaching?

O-Sensei had a certain aura about him. We deshi thought he was almost divine. His gifts shone through during practice sessions and each day was a different perspective.

Is there any lesson that O-Sensei taught you which helped your practice of Aikido?

O-Sensei didn’t talk much to us students, and questions were not allowed during his training sessions. My wife talked a lot more with O-Sensei because she spent time taking care of him. Ask her.

What is the difference between budoka and bugeisha?

Budoka is a professional martial arts instructor, whereas bugeisha is an instructor from an outside group. Aikidoka is a professional Aikido instructor, not students.

What does mushin mean?

Mushin means no mind, nothingness. It is very important to have this natural feeling during practice. This term is similar to heijoshin, but heijoshin should apply to your entire life, not just your practice.

After many years of training, technique becomes mushin (no mind). How does this apply to life?

When you first take a driver’s test, you concentrate very hard to maneuver the car correctly. But after many years of driving, your level of proficiency is increased and the same conscious focus is not required. Or take the example of a secretary who must hunt and peck when she first learns how to type, but after several years can perform very quickly and without looking. Extra effort is no longer required to find the letters on the typewriter.

How can we relax better while waiting for class to start?

Empty your mind of outside distractions by breathing slowly, deeply, quietly. As you are emptying your self, become aware of the atmosphere of the dojo and be open and receptive to the teachings of O-Sensei.

Is a balanced mind and a forgiving spirit required to practice Aikido?

Agatsu is all important. If someone is upset or angry, they do not have neutral feelings, and it is as if a gate is closed. With this sort of attitude, one is not receptive to any teachings. A student needs to be ready and open in order to learn.

How can we practice Aikido outside of the dojo?

Masakatsu, Agatsu, Katsuhayahi.  

Are there exercises we can work on when we are away from the dojo that would help us become centered?

All the exercises we do in class can be done at home. To get the most out of them, you must make sure that you have the proper frame of mind and are doing the exercises with care and attention.

Is omote and ura different from soto and uchi?


How should we address senior students?

Since everyone is a dojo member, call them by name regardless of rank. You can address senior members as “sempai” if you wish, especially if they are teaching class. (You would not call them “sensei” even in a teaching situation.)

What are proper questions for sempai? How do we talk to them?

You should feel free to ask sempai whatever you don’t understand. If they do not know the answer, they should be willing to find out. The role of sempai is to help new members by showing, not teaching.

To Be Continued …