Japanese book review: “コミュニケーションの原点は「氣」にあり!” (“Communication begins with Ki!”) by Shin’ichi Tohei (藤平信一)

By | May 26, 2020

Besides writing posts for this blog and translating Japanese literature, one of my biggest hobbies has been training in a style of Aikido called Shinshin Touitsu Aikido (心身統一合気道), which I’ve written about in some detail in this article. But in short, it is a Japanese martial art established by Koichi Tohei (藤平光一) which takes some elements from Aikido (originally established by Morihei Ueshiba) and adds various principles and techniques from Tohei Sensei himself. One of the core ideas of this martial art is taking what is learned in training and applying it to everyday life to improve quality of life, and ultimately make the world a better place.

Because of COVID-19, all in-dojo training has been suspended for some time now, although training has continued in some form using online video conferencing. I thought this period would be a good opportunity to read another book related to this martial art. (You can see the reviews I posted last year for the other two books I read here and here.) 

I chose one of the most recent books by Shin’ichi Tohei (藤平信一), not just the son of the late Tohei Sensei but also the head of the organization his father established (referred to as the “Ki Society”). The book is titled “コミュニケーションの原点は「氣」にあり!”, which can be roughly translated as “Communication begins with Ki!”

At this point some of you are probably wondering, “What exactly is this ‘Ki’ thing?” It turns out that “Ki” (氣) is at the core of Shinshin Touitsu Aikido (which is in fact sometimes called “Ki Aikido” for that very reason), but it can be a challenge to comprehend––at least for someone like me who is not confident with a vague understanding. To keep things simple for now, let’s just call it “energy of the universe”. But I wanted to point out that, to me, understanding exactly what Ki is, how it works, and how to apply that knowledge to your life are the most important (and perhaps most challenging) things about this martial art.

“Communication begins with Ki!” has a unique composition, consisting of four chapters; the first and third are comprised of conversations (対談) between Shin’ichi Sensei and Katsuhiro Nishinari (西成 活裕), a professor and physics researcher who has published over 50 papers in leading international journals. The second and fourth chapters are authored by Shin’ichi Sensei alone, and cover topics such as Ki, Communication, and Ki-Aikido, although he does make references to Dr. Nishinari’s research in some places. 

Dr. Nishinari’s research touches upon a variety of areas, but in this book he focuses largely on “the study of traffic” (渋滞学), a field he founded that he calls “jamology” (though personally I would prefer calling it “trafficology”). Having said that, the first chapter is about “relativization” (相対化), essentially how when researching something it’s important to look at other fields to see things from a different angle and get a better view of the big picture. He cites the example of how learning German helped drastically improve his English, that despite being a little dubious about, I agree with the point that being well-rounded is generally a good idea. By the way, I have considered studying Chinese in part to improve my Japanese, an expectation I have due to the strong historical connection between these two languages, and the same can be said of English and German. In all fairness Dr. Nishinari does mention that their similarity is part of the reason it helped his English ability. So perhaps I should say that I am not doubting that German study helped his English, but rather the extent that it did, and the full set of reasons. It would be hard for me to imagine a language mostly unrelated to English (say Chinese) having nearly the same effect just because it was “a different angle” on language.

Later in this chapter is a section about how conveying knowledge to others (what I consider essentially teaching) helps to validate your own understanding, something I experience nearly daily, whether it is helping less experienced people on the job or writing about Japanese on this blog. There is also a discussion of boiling down a complex subject into simple points that can be understood by anyone, which is truly an important skill. Later in the chapter he talks about how interdisciplinary research is important (that is called “digging a different hole” in one section) and his concept of using the letter “T” to describe depth and breadth of research. Basically, one should strive to have a lot of interdisciplinary knowledge (the top line of the “T”) in addition to some deep “digging” in one specialization area (the stem of the “T”). There is also discussion about how all things are connected, and that it’s a bad idea to assume two things are not related at least in some indirect way.

As mentioned previously, this chapter is in the form of a conversation between Dr. Nishinari and Shin’ichi Sensei, but while the latter does chime in with some important points (including connections to Ki principles), I feel that the professor is the one mostly driving the discussion.

In the second chapter, titled “Ki Communication”, Shin’ichi Sensei begins by summarizing some of the key principles and ideas behind Ki Aikido, specifically how it is “The way of connecting with the energy of the universe” (天地の氣に合するの道). I appreciate that Sensei (as I will refer to Shin’ichi Tohei from here on) gives a disclaimer early on that the content in this section may be difficult and the reader should consider reading it through and then returning to it again after completing the book, at which point things might become clearer.

Rather than giving a detailed summary of this section, I will point you to this page on the main Shinshin Touitsu Aikido website that has much of the same content in English. But I do want to mention that one of the core ideas is that we are all part of the universe, and that being one with the universe is our natural state. All life is “born of the key of the universe and will return to the key of the universe”. 

Now you may be starting to understand why Shin’ichi Sensei has given a disclaimer about how the content might be difficult to understand in this section. To make things a bit clearer I’ll summarize, in my own way, a part of the content in this section (specifically page 67 in the paperback edition): We are all connected to the universe, including all living beings, though something called “Ki”. When that is flowing (氣が通ってる) we will be able to exhibit our innate abilities, and when it is not flowing smoothly (氣が滞ってる) various problems can occur.

The second chapter goes on to connect these principles to what Sensei calls “Ki Communication”, described as “[A style of] communication that allows the other party to exhibit their [full] abilities” (相手の能力を発揮させるコミュニケーション). Much of the rest of the chapter is about three principles (literally “points”) of Ki Communication: (with my rough translations)

  • 広くとらえて、全体をみる (“See the big picture”)
  • 心が静まった状態で接する (“Interact with a calm mind”)
  • 自発的な心の働きを呼び起こす (“Allow the other party to act voluntarily”)

The third chapter (titled “Ki blockages and traffic”) returns to the two-person discussion format. It is a melange of various connected topics, such as the nature of traffic, the cause of miscommunications, Ki blockages, the advantages of “extending Ki”, the value of proper definition and a firm foundation, the definition of Ki, global optimization, and taking a long term view of things. Overall I felt this section had a good balance between Shin’ichi Sensei and Dr. Nishinari, and I enjoyed it much more than the first chapter that seemed to be more weighted towards the latter. 

The final chapter, titled “Ki blockages in daily life” delves deeper into Ki blockages and touches on many other related topics, such as the difference between “Ki” and “mind”, the advantages of seeing the big picture, and a discussion about  “間” (pronounced “ma” in this context, this a concept that is a little tricky to translate, but means something like a “gap” in time or space).

The chapter closes with three Ki principles that are related to daily life, including translations in English of each and detailed explanations (in Japanese). You can see these three principles along with the English translations on Shin’ichi Sensei’s blog here.

As someone who has been training in Ki Aikido for a few years (I was often in the dojo 4-5 times a week during more normal times), a significant portion of the content about Ki or Ki Aikido was something I had already learned in some form, and this attests to the effectiveness of the various senseis I have worked with (several with over 30 years of experience, and one who is in relatively frequent contact with Shin’ichi Sensei). But besides acting as a review of various Japanese terms, reading everything in Japanese gave me a fresh take on the content, which I am sure Dr. Nishinari (as well as Shin’ichi Sensei himself) would appreciate. There were also a few bits and pieces that were new to me.

In particular, I found the explanation of how Shin’ichi Sensei evolves his explanations of Ki and related matters enlightening (pg.153). In short, he says that when giving an explanation he observes and notices whether that explanation helps the person or persons listening. He then gives the same explanation to as many people as possible, and ultimately, (to quote):

”。。。すべての人がよくなるようであれば、普遍性と再現性がそなわった「本質的な説明」だと判断します。”

(“…and if it seems that everyone is helped [by this explanation], I judge it as an essential explanation that possesses both universality and reproducibility.“) [italics mine]

Speaking of explanations, one of the other sections that I found interesting was about the meaning of the phrase “氣を出す”, a core principle of Ki Aikido that literally means “put out Ki” but is often translated as “extend Ki”. In a subsection of chapter 3 titled (“Putting out [Ki] is important to resolve blockages”) Shin’ichi Sensei alludes to the principle “When you extend Ki, new Ki comes naturally,” which is one of the three principles described at the end of Chapter 4 and mentioned on his blog here. Dr. Nishinari’s first comment on this topic a question about what “extend Ki” really means. Sensei answers with the following: (pg. 157)

”このケースでいえば、「外界とのつながりを取り戻す事」といっていいと思います。”

 (“In this case, I think you can say it means ‘to recover [ones] connection with the outside world.’ “)

He continues by saying that when someone is depressed, the act of simply speaking with someone you can trust is a way to “extend Ki” and can “replenish your Ki”. When I read this part something clicked in my mind––perhaps a piece of the puzzle of a complete understanding of “Ki”.

The review I’ve given so far has been mostly from my own personal point of view, especially with regards to the fact I already knew much of the material before picking up this book. But for someone less familiar, I think this would be quite a different experience and offer a wealth of fresh ideas to ponder over. Although this book isn’t labeled as an introduction to Shinshin Touitsu Aikido or Ki principles, there is enough introductory information about this martial art explained in easy-to-understand language so that I think it is a not a bad place to start if you want to learn more. For a more comprehensive take, I would suggest reading this book by Shin’ichi Sensei’s father.

As for Dr. Nishinari’s contribution to the book, while he presented some interesting ideas ultimately I felt there wasn’t anything revolutionary, or at least not memorable enough to recommend the book just for his contribution. Having said that, his research does seem quite profound, and I probably would enjoy reading one of his books that got deeper into the details. In this book there were only a few brief references to actual experiments that he or others had performed. To tell the truth, I find the study of traffic quite fascinating (I have written several programs about traffic simulation), but there just wasn’t enough depth in this book on it.

For those studying Japanese, I would say this book would be fairly difficult because it is targeted at adults and there are very few kanji reading hints (furigana). But if you are at the level where you can get through books like this (or have the patience to look up many words and kanji characters), there is a great deal to learn or review in terms of language related to daily life, business, or academic matters. Also, the language used in the dialog chapters is at a politeness level above the basic ~desu and ~masu forms and provides good exposure to a type of Japanese you may not otherwise interact with. Finally, I feel the total amount of domain vocabulary (words you wouldn’t experience in daily life) in a book like this is much less than, say works of fiction literature, so once you read through one book in this genre your second will be much easier.

In closing, I wanted to address a topic that may have crossed your mind while reading this review. If the purpose of Ki Aikido is ultimately to improve your daily life, and there are various resources available online or in book form (including some in English, though the majority are somewhat old), is there any need to actually train a physical dojo?

For those who like throwing others around (or being thrown), clearly that can only be done safely in a controlled environment like a dojo. But even for learning the basic principles, there are many reasons simply reading text passively is not sufficient. One of them is that frequent feedback from a skilled sensei is important in order to avoid accidentally using (or understanding) the principles incorrectly. But another is a problem shared with many self-help books: even if you know how to put the techniques in practice, it is often difficult to put aside the time to do so, and the more things you learn or read about the more they compete for your time or attention. Spending time physically in a dojo makes it much easier to focus on the principles involved.

Finally, even though it may seem like throwing people around safely is difficult to do (yes, it is), plus the fact there are hundreds of techniques to learn, the fact you executing the techniques in a controlled environment means that, ultimately, the physical side of Ki-Aikido may be easier than actually using the principles in daily life. I should mention at this point that physically vigorous movements (like being thrown across the room) are only a fraction of what is done in the dojo, and we actually spend a lot of time on refining our posture and other things through a series of exercises and techniques that involve slow-paced movement and can be done at almost any age.

As a final note, I wanted to make it clear that the translations, interpretations, and summaries of the book’s content in this review are all my personal opinions. Translating this type of content accurately can be challenging (even for short phrases like chapter titles), and it’s possible another translator would render things differently. This is yet another reason that it’s important to actually practice these principles, both on and off the mat, because language can only get you so far.

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