Remenbering Saito Sensei
Stanley Pranin

I have on many occasions over the years written articles about my aikido teacher, Morihiro Saito, that have been published in Aiki News and Aikido Journal. During that entire period, however, I had the psychological assurance that this giant of a man was busy with his teaching and caretaking duties in Iwama or off to some far flung part of the globe sharing his encylopedic knowledge of aikido with his foreign students. He was always there.

Now it is the time to again take up the task of writing about Sensei knowing that he is no longer with us to lead and instruct us, but that we must now use the lessons he taught us and our collective memories as sources of guidance.

The sadness that I felt on Sensei’s passing and physical absence will of course remain. At the same time, in compiling these remembrances I am again and again reminded of the incredibly exciting and event-filled life Saito Sensei led. The emotion I find I am left with is one of joy and pride at having been associated with his life and work in some meaningful way.

Saito Sensei was a man who appeared on the aikido scene at just the right time in just the right circumstances. Imagine having the good fortune of meeting Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei at age 18 and spending over two decades learning and growing under the tutelage of such an inspired genius. Imagine being a key participant in the early growth and spread of aikido as an international phenomenon. Imagine, further, the deep sense of satisfaction Sensei must have felt at having thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic Japanese and foreign students coming to study at the Iwama Dojo and attending his seminars worldwide.

A rich life indeed!


Saito Sensei by Gaku Homma

First impressions on film

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One of Saito Sensei’s favorite photos taken at Aikikai Hombu Dojo c. 1969  

My first recollection of Morihiro Saito Sensei dates from about 1968 when I viewed an old 8mm film of one of the early All-Japan Aikido Demonstrations. I believe this was the 1964 demonstration. The grainy image of Sensei caught on the film was that of a huge block of a man moving haphazardly around the stage while left and right demolishing attackers who appeared to be mere playthings.

One of his hapless ukes was sent flying into the back curtain of the stage before unceremoniously sliding down to the mat with a thud. Even though the film was silent you could imagine the oohs and aahs that this awesome performance must have elicited from the audience. Sensei’s demonstration impressed me as being rather crude yet fascinating for such a display of sheer brute power. This was certainly one gentleman to steer clear of on the mat if ever our paths were to cross!

Meeting Sensei for the first time at Hombu Dojo in 1969

My initial impression proved totally erroneous when I saw Saito Sensei for the first time in the flesh in Tokyo in the summer of 1969. That year I spent ten weeks training at the newly-built Aikikai Hombu Dojo where Sensei was conducting Sunday morning classes. He had been teaching at the Aikikai since the early 1960s and enjoyed a large following.

At first blush, Sensei reminded me of a rough-cut farmer just in from the countryside. He was stout weighing about 210 pounds at a height of five feet six inches. He had a deep baritone voice and teeth in bad need of dental work. But, my God, when the man moved he was the personification of grace and power!

Saito Sensei’s classes were always full and he enjoyed a reputation as perhaps the finest technician teaching at the Hombu Dojo in those days. His explanations were clear and methodical in contrast to most of the other Hombu teachers that simply demonstrated a technique with little or no commentary. He was always smiling and circulating around the dojo giving a lot of personal attention to students. In addition to his superb taijutsu, Saito Sensei also spent the last part of his class teaching the aiki ken and jo, the only teacher to do so when I was there. Sensei would show the basic striking and thrusting movements of the ken and jo and then incorporate them into a series of paired kata. I thought his system of relating taijutsu and weapons was very genial and hoped to have a chance to do more of this kind of training at some future date.

I took several roles of 8mm film that capture the atmosphere of those wonderful practices. In one scene, I pan the camera all the way around the packed dojo . It was unusual to see that many students on the mat in those days.

First visit to Iwama

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Sensei at about age 40
Photo courtesy of Bill Witt
 

One of my American friends, Bill Witt, whom I had met earlier in California, was living in Japan then and training at the Hombu Dojo. He was very keen on Saito Sensei’s approach to aikido and wanted to visit Sensei in Iwama. Bill invited me to accompany him to go out to the countryside to meet Saito Sensei and see the Iwama dojo and Aiki Shrine. I eagerly agreed and we boarded the Joban line from Ueno station one hot, muggy morning in July.

Saito Sensei was teaching a private class when we arrived and invited us to watch. After the training he chatted with us for an hour or so and were made to feel very welcome. My Japanese skills at that stage were very basic so I mostly listened to Bill and Sensei converse without being able to follow much of the conversation.

This meeting turned out to be fortuitous as Bill began visiting Saito Sensei often and soon, by the early 1970s, other foreign students followed and started living in the Iwama Dojo as uchideshi. Among the first foreigners to train in the dojo during this period were Hans Goto, David Alexander, Dennis Tatoian, Bruce Klickstein, all from the USA, and Ulf Evenas of Sweden. This was the beginning of a tradition of training visits of literally thousands of foreign aikidoka who have spent from a few days to several years practicing in Iwama. This would also lead to Saito Sensei receiving numerous invitations to instruct in foreign countries. In fact, I think there were only one or two years during the period of 1974-2001 that he did not travel abroad.

Though I had a very favorable impression of Sensei from my summer of training in Japan still there were other Japanese teachers I was attracted to and, at that stage, I had no particular idea of one day studying in Iwama.

1974 California seminar and interview

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Bill Witt, Terry Dobson, and Saito Sensei, Aikido of San Francisco  

Upon my return to California, I was immediately inducted into the US army and served three years. I was discharged in Monterey, California and taught aikido there and other locations in northern California for several years.

I had of course not seen Saito Sensei since my trip to Japan in 1969 but my interest in his approach to aikido was rekindled when he began the publication of a five-volume technical series titled Traditional Aikido in 1973. These books were published by Minato Research, headed by a student of Saito Sensei named Tetsutaka Sugawara. In California, we would eagerly await the appearance of each new volume. This series contained well-organized technical sequences, clear explanations and commentary in a bilingual format, and lots of nice old photos of O-Sensei. The basics of the aiki ken and jo were covered as well and I remember trying to work out the kata sequences with my students while using his books as a reference. Also, Saito Sensei was kind enough to send signed, gift copies of his first volume to several of the aikido instructors in northern California, myself included.

It was an exciting occasion when Sensei traveled abroad for the first time in October 1974 to northern California. Sensei’s uke and traveling companion on that trip was Shigemi Inagaki Sensei, a formidable aikidoka. David Alexander and Dennis Tatoian also formed part of Sensei’s entourage from Japan. A number of his early foreign uchideshi including Bill Witt, Bruce Klickstein and Hans Goto were based in northern California and Sensei had been invited to conduct seminars on this occasion by them. He taught back-to-back seminars at the old Aikido of San Francisco and at Stanford University on October 5-6 and October 12-13, respectively. Below is a portion of the report I wrote in an early edition of Aiki News from October 1974:

Saito Sensei’s effectiveness as a teacher was indeed remarkable. And this was achieved without knowledge of the language of his students. His method of presentation consisted primarily of slow-motion pantomimes of the individual techniques with a minimum of verbalization. This coupled with careful groupings of related movements provided a well-focused perspective of many aspects of the Aikido system.

Those present could not help but remark the excellent poise displayed by Saito Sensei during the course of the two gasshuku both on and off the mat. He remained centered and calm despite the fact he found himself immersed in a foreign culture for the first time. Noteworthy also was Saito Sensei’s outstanding stamina. He participated fully in all sessions instructing students individually and taking falls. He remained patient and at the same time energetic during the many hours of intense training of the two gasshuku. The impact of his presence and teaching manner was very powerful and will continue to resonate in this region for a long time to come…

I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to conduct a short interview with Sensei at Stanford University with Katsuaki Terasawa serving as interpreter. That interview appeared in the June 1975 issue of Aiki News, which was a small newsletter in its infancy.

There was a particular episode from this trip that I will never forget. Sensei was teaching a class at Aikido of San Francisco and was demonstrating a kokyunage technique, if I remember correctly. His uke was David Alexander. Sensei threw David horizontally but misjudged the amount of space he had free. Right in the middle of the throw when it had become apparent that David would crash into the people who had crowded in close to better observe, Sensei stuck out his left arm and caught David in mid-air thus preventing a collision. No one could believe what they had seen. Sensei had the presence of mind, lightning-fast reflexes and physical strength necessary to pull off such a feat. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

Moving to Japan

I was at this time operating a dojo and attempting to make a living at teaching aikido in Monterey, but it was difficult to achieve a financial success in a smaller town with aikido still not very well-known. In 1976 I made the decision to relocate to Japan as soon as feasible. I actually left the USA in August of 1977 and stayed in the beginning in the Iwama Dojo.

I would like to say a word here about why I chose to study with Saito Sensei in Iwama as opposed to living and training in Tokyo or another part of Japan. All other factors being equal, I would certainly not have chosen to stay in the countryside of Ibaragi Prefecture. The food, lifestyle, and mentality were totally foreign to the life I had been accustomed to in California. In fact, there is really little else for a foreigner to do in Iwama besides practice aikido.

Moreover, I knew I did not want to become an uchideshi either. Spending three years in the army had cured me of ever again desiring to put myself in a communal living situation! I did end up spending about six weeks staying in the Iwama Dojo immediately after my arrival, however, I knew that the situation was temporary so I felt little psychological pressure in being at the dojo.

The overriding reason for chosing Iwama was the irresistible pull of Sensei’s aikido. The man was a gifted teacher and a technical wizard. Every class he taught was organized around easy-to-understand themes. His movements were very precise and his explanations logical. He would also frequently mention his teacher Morihei Ueshiba and offer a litany of “kuden” from O-Sensei to remind us of key technical points. Reminders of the fact that this was the founder’s private dojo were abundant everywhere. A great deal of O-Sensei’s personal belongings could still be found in his home which was physically attached to the dojo. There was also the serene Aiki Shrine situated nearby of which Saito Sensei was the guardian. Classes in the aiki ken and jo took place in front of the shrine nearly everyday.

There were other fine teachers I had seen and trained with too, but I believed Sensei’s approach was best suited to my methodical way of looking at things and I had a strong intuition that the practice of the aiki ken and jo would add an important dimension to my aikido.

Training in Iwama in late 1970s

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Sensei teaching at Iwama Dojo c. 1979  

As I soon had procured a job teaching English in nearby Mito, I moved out of the Iwama Dojo into a small apartment in Tsuchiura. I was able to train at the dojo about 4-5 days a week. In those days, Sensei always taught the morning weapons class in front of the Aiki Shrine and most of the evening classes in the dojo. Even though I attended his classes several times a week, I remember marvelling at how logical and organized his explanations of techniques were. His ability to organize the rich aikido curriculum into easily-understood segments was masterful.

I often would kid Sensei that had he not been from a poor farming village of the countryside of Japan but rather born into a family of means in a large city, he would certainly have become a “hakase,” a Ph.D. He seemed to draw great pleasure from this remark. Even though the comment was delivered jokingly, I meant every word. Truly, his eye for detail and systemization was amazing.

Sensei’s classes would always begin with tai no henko and morotedori kokyuho and finish with suwariwaza kokyuho. He reminded us that O-Sensei always taught his classes in Iwama this way and he was following that tradition. He stated over and over again that his main purpose in teaching aikido was to preserve and spread the founder’s techniques in undiluted form. Sensei would often mention that he and his wife Sata had spent 23 years serving O-Sensei and his wife Hata and that he would continue to serve the founder and propagate his techniques until he breathed his last. And so he did.

Sensei was conscious of the criticism that “Iwama Aikido” was overly concerned with basics and too static in the execution of techniques. Sometimes he would do progressions from the most basic form done in a one-two-three manner, then present increasingly more advanced ways of doing the technique until finally reaching ki no nagare. He would then show several different levels of ki no nagare until, at the highest level, there was only a hint of movement performed in a flash. He could demonstrate really advanced movements when he wanted to.

It was as if he were saying, “Look, these people criticize Iwama Aikido without ever having experienced it directly. They say all we do is basics. I’d like to see them perform a technique on all of these different levels. Do they really expect to learn effective techniques while skipping the basics? They attempt to start practicing ki no nagare techniques right from the beginning. This is a big mistake!”

I heard Saito Sensei voice such sentiments repeatedly over the years both while teaching and in private.

Another thing he was fond of doing was showing the relationships between taijutsu and weapons techniques, especially the ken. Basic techniques like shihonage, kotegaeshi, iriminage all had counterparts using the sword. Likewise, shomenuchi, yokomenuchi, and tsuki attacks were simply empty-handed adaptations of basic sword striking and thrusting movements.

Doubting the authenticity of Saito Sensei’s technique

Saito Sensei was very gracious with me right from the very beginning of my stay in Iwama. He knew that I was a friend of Bill Witt and clearly recalled that I had interviewed him several years earlier in California. Moreover, he strongly encouraged me in my research on aikido history. My Japanese had improved somewhat by then and I was having one-on-one conversations with him with some frequency. Looking back, I must have seemed a bit impertinent because, although I was totally committed to his approach to aikido, I still felt that he had made considerable changes to the techniques he had learned from O-Sensei. Since Saito Sensei’s continually repeated that he was teaching the techniques the way he was taught by the founder there was a disparity that I couldn’t resolve in my mind.

However clumsily, I succeeded in verbalizing to Sensei the dichotomy I perceived between his and O-Sensei’s aikido. I pointed out that O-Sensei’s techniques preserved on film looked very different from the way Saito Sensei taught his techniques. Sensei was really amused by my conclusion and probably at my cheekiness for directly expressing my thoughts, something I’m sure a Japanese student would never have done.

Sensei told me that the reason for the difference was that O-Sensei was conscious of being filmed in public and would purposely not demonstrate techniques in the same way he would teach in Iwama. He added that O-Sensei was like the old-fashioned martial artist who would conceal his techniques from the general public. Still for several years I remained unconvinced.

The first photo shoot After I had been training in Iwama a little over a year I asked Saito Sensei to pose for a series of technical photos for use in Aiki News and the publication of a couple of technical booklets. He agreed to do so and we shot about 10 rolls of film in November 1978. These photos appeared in some of the early issues of the newsletter and we also produced two short technical manuals. One of my purposes in proposing this project was to rekindle an interest in Sensei is resuming the Traditional Aikido series that had been left uncompleted.

1979 trip to USA and Canada

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Interpreting for Sensei in Calgary, Canada, August 1979  

I was very honored when Saito Sensei first asked me to travel abroad with him on his trip to the USA and Canada in August 1979. We participated in the United States Aikido Federation summer camp sponsored by Mitsunari Kanai Sensei and Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, based in Boston, Massachusetts and New York City, respectively. Saito Sensei was well received on the east coast on this his first appearance and most aikidoka attending the seminar were seeing his weapons training for the first time.

I clearly remember too our meeting and chatting with Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei and Tiki Shewan Sensei of France at the New York Aikikai just prior to the summer camp. Another standout memory was a delicious seafood dinner in Boston harbor following which Saito Sensei, Yamada Sensei, Kanai Sensei, Bruce Klickstein and I talked until late at night on every imaginable aikido subject.

Sensei also conducted a seminar in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on that trip. Takeji Tomita Sensei joined us from Sweden and assisted as Saito Sensei’s uke. We also enjoyed a trip to Banff, a famous scenic resort nearby. I really enjoyed traveling with Sensei and having all the time in the world to talk with him about O-Sensei and his early experiences in aikido. He was a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge about the postwar years in Iwama and the early period of the Aikikai. Sensei, for his part, never seemed to tire of these conversations and he was one of my most important sources of information on many aspects of O-Sensei’s life.

A remarkable discovery

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Sensei referring to Budo while giving seminar, Tokyo  

1992 One day in July 1981, I was conducting an interview with Zenzaburo Akazawa, a prewar uchideshi of Morihei Ueshiba from the Kobukan Dojo period. Mr. Akazawa proceeded to show me a technical manual published in 1938 titled Budo which I had never seen before. It contained photos of some fifty techniques demonstrated by the founder himself. As I slowly turned the pages of the manual, I was amazed to see in the photos that the execution of several basics techniques such as ikkyo, iriminage and shihonage were virtually identical to what I had learned in Iwama under Saito Sensei. Here was the founder himself demonstrating what I had up until then regarded as “Iwama-style” techniques. Mr. Akazawa, who lives only a few blocks away from the Iwama Dojo, kindly lent me the book and I hurried to show it to Saito Sensei.

I’ll always remember the scene as I called at Sensei’s door to share with him my new discovery. To my surprise, he had never seen or heard mention of the book before. He put on his reading glasses and leafed through the manual, his eyes scanning the technical sequences intently. I felt compelled then and there to apologize to him for having ever doubted his assertion that he was making every effort to faithfully preserve the founder’s techniques. Saito Sensei laughed and, obviously with great pleasure, bellowed, “See, Pranin, I told you so!” From that time on up through the end of his life, Saito Sensei always had along his copy of Budo in the Iwama Dojo and on his travels to use as proof to show that a particular technique originated in the founder’s teachings.

The discovery of Budo was, to be sure, a watershed event in my personal aikido research, but I was even more delighted to see how important it was to Sensei to have this amazing document to waive in the face of his critics who doubted the authenticity of his aikido.

Travels abroad with Sensei
In late 1984, an Italian aikidoka named Paolo Corallini arrived at the Iwama Dojo to train. He became captivated by Saito Sensei’s aikido but could not speak Japanese or English. Though I was living in Tokyo by this time I sometimes visited the Iwama Dojo to practice and I met Paolo on one occasion. He asked me to interpret for him and this led to Sensei being invited to instruct in Italy in February 1985. I was invited along as interpreter.

This new connection with Europe proved to be of great significance to the future development of Iwama Aikido. Paolo Corallini was and is extremely devoted to Saito Sensei and this visit would be the start of annual and sometimes biannual visits to Europe.

On this first trip Sensei conducted seminars in Turin and Osimo, the latter located along the Adriatic Sea. The Italians and aikidoka from other countries in attendance reacted exactly like everyone else who came into contact with Sensei’s instruction. As I mentioned above, Sensei was a masterful teacher. Not only were his techniques superb, but he would vary the mood greatly while teaching. He would sometimes explain in an analytical way. At other moments, he would chide a student for a mistake and issue one of his famous “dame” admonitions, and then in the next moment make a hilarious comment that would break up the serious mood. Sensei was very conscientious about teaching these seminars and always succeeded in endearing himself to those who attended.

On this trip, we had an unexpected surprise in the form of a visit by Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei, his wife, and Pierre Chassang, an aikido pioneer in France, who drove from the southern part of France to greet Sensei.

Although not much of a tourist as I will mention later, Sensei did find the Italian countryside and antiquities pretty interesting and made numerous comments about the beauty of the country and ancient castles and structures as we traveled about.

The seminars Saito Sensei taught were also professionally videotaped by one of Paolo’s friends. They capture the magic of his teaching skills and technique at this stage of his life.

Getting a new set of teeth

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Sensei’s new teeth  

Paolo’s enthusiasm was contagious and he succeeded in convincing Sensei to visit again in May of that same year, not something that Saito Sensei would do normally. There was another reason for Sensei’s accepting a return invitation so soon after our initial visit. Paolo is a dentist by profession and Sensei’s teeth were in pretty bad condition. Paolo offered to completely repair his teeth prior to the seminar.

This trip proved quite an adventure because the dental work involved would normally have taken several weeks to complete. Paolo somehow compressed the entire treatment down to four days! He was a nervous wreck during this time as he was deathly afraid that something might go wrong. Fortunately, for all concerned, the treatment went flawlessly and Sensei emerged with a big smile and new teeth as you can see in the acommpany photo!

Although I have remained silent all these years, I must confess that I hatched a sinister plot on this trip. As those who spent time with him know, Sensei was fond of drinking as are most Japanese men. Foreign visitors are sometimes shocked at this phenomenon when they first visit Japan, but it is a fact of life that social drinking is commonplace at all levels of society and is regarded as a safety-valve for the stresses of daily life. In any event, out of concern for Sensei’s health and perhaps due to a bit of prudishness of my part, I was always trying to get him to cut down on his drinking.

Well, this was my big chance! I conspired with Paolo and Tomita-san to have Paolo give Sensei a lecture in his capacity as a medical doctor on the reasons why it would not be a good idea for him to continue regular drinking if he wished to maintain his teeth in good condition. At the appointed time after the treatment was over, Paolo stood in his office wearing his white dental frock with Sensei seated unsuspectingly in the patient’s chair and delivered his lecture. Everyone knew what was going on except Sensei. Tomita-san almost could not contain himself and I feared he would burst out laughing and spoil everything! I was having a hard time keeping a straight face myself as the interpreter.

The upshot was that Sensei apparently took the lecture quite seriously and stopped drinking all together for several days. He would report to me everyday how he had not had a single drop! Finally, shortly after we boarded the plane to leave Italy, he could contain himself no more and poured himself a long drink. Seated at his side and normally very talkative, I remained stone silent pretending not to notice. Sensei looked very sheepish and said to me, “You’re angry at me, aren’t you?” I don’t recall what I mumbled in reply. But that was the last time I tried anything like that and it was a good lesson to Author’s note: Portions of this article were written soon after the passing of Morihiro Saito Shihan, but in keeping with Japanese traditions for mourning, were not released until after the beginning of the following New Year.

January 30, 2003

On February 7th through 9th, 2003, Hitohiro Saito Sensei will be coming to Denver to teach at an American Memorial Seminar which will be held to honor his father, Morihiro Saito Shihan.

There have been many technical books written featuring Saito Shihan and his Aikido. There have been many interviews and articles written about him as the Keeper of the Aiki Shrine and Iwama Dojo Cho over his lifetime. For those who will be able to attend this memorial seminar, or even if you will not be able to attend, I would like to share what I know about a side of Saito Shihan that has not often been written about; the more private side of the man who is known publicly world-wide as the great martial artist that he was.

Saito Shihan has had many uchideshi, and thousands of students share in his teaching and his mission. There are few, however, that saw his more personal, private side. His family, close senior students, and long time friends such as Stanley Pranin, editor of Aikido Journal, knew his “real face”, as I call it, or his personal manner.

My relationship with Saito Shihan, spanned almost four decades, beginning in Iwama when I was just a boy. From those early days until these last years, I have had the honor to know him, and to share in some private times with him. It was one of his last requests of me that I express what I knew of him during his final days, and his final battles. He especially wanted his students in the United States to understand the end of his life, as a way to understand its beginning. To this end I pick up my pen to write…

As human beings and as Aikidoists, we oftentimes think of death as a negative thing, something to avoid as long as possible. Whether one is a homeless beggar on the streets, a success on Wall Street, or a martial artist, no one can escape death in this world. Martial artists and movie stars I suppose are both in the spotlight during the peak of their careers. We hear of them when they win championships or Oscars. As they grow old, they seem to fade away and disappear. As the history of Aikido grows longer, its generations of students get older. There are many Aikidoists from the first pioneer generations that are no longer with us.

As human beings, we cannot escape death. No matter how strong, even famous martial artists do not live forever. How a martial artist prepares for this inevitability however can be a great lesson to us all. This is Morihiro Saito Shihan’s last lesson for all of us. He once said dying does not have to be something to fear or run from, it should be faced with courage and dignity.

The first time I spoke to Saito Shihan about coming with his son Hitohiro Saito to Denver was in 1999. “Thank you, but no thank you.” was his reply. “Students who come to Denver to practice at a seminar of mine are interested in learning from me. They are not Hitohiro’s students by some birthright. As a father it is not good for me to just present the structure and organization I have built to him on a platter. That is too easy. If Hitohiro wants to make a life out of Aikido, he must do it himself. After I am gone, I ask you to then ask Hitohiro to come to Denver. He will need to make his own start in this country, and I trust you to give him a solid platform to begin from.”

This American Memorial Seminar for Morihiro Saito Shihan is my gift to the father Morihiro Saito… and to the son, as a new beginning for the next generation to come.

Gaku Homma

With the sadness still clinging to my thoughts, I left quickly after the memorial service and headed to Wakayama Prefecture to visit Tanabe, birthplace and final resting place of the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, at the Kozanji temple.

June 10, 2001. Tosoba marking Saito Shihan’s visit to the Founder’s grave

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At the grave of the Founder, I stood quietly to pay my respects. As I stood there I noticed something interesting; Three tosoba (wooden prayer markers) standing diligently behind the Founders grave. One was inscribed with the name “Morihiro Saito” and the other two with the name “Moriteru Ueshiba,” the grandson and heir to the legacy of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. These were the only three tosoba placed here in the last year or so. Morihiro Saito Shihan’s tosoba was dated June 10, 2001. Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba had two tosoba dated March 31, 2001.

Many Aikidoists who have come to this resting spot to take a photo, but only two had taken the time and harbored the expense (approximately $500 for each tosoba) to acquire the services of the local priest to offer this special prayer. These prayers lingered, marked by the tosoba. Standing there thinking, I realized that Morihiro Saito Shihan had most likely come here to say goodbye.

1997 Saito Shihan All-American Seminar

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1997 Saito Shihan All-American Seminar  

In the month of May of the year 2002, we lost a great martial artist, Morihiro Saito. Morihiro Saito was a human being, as well as a martial artist of great stature. He faced his last battle-—against cancer-—head on with calmness and determination. His manner and grace were his last lessons, ones he taught silently to all of us, his students.

I want to write about Morihiro Saito, the man, so that you may more fully understand the life-—and the end of life-—of a truly great martial artist.

In 1997, Morihiro Saito Shihan came to Denver, Colorado for the third time. He had come to teach his 1997 All-American Seminar, which was attended by more than 350 students from all over North America and beyond. During the closing ceremony, Saito Shihan asked his students, “Did everyone enjoy the seminar?” His question was answered with applause. “This may be my last visit to America,” he continued, “Would you have me come again?” Again, his question was answered with thunderous applause.

Even then, Saito Shihan could not swallow his food smoothly. He confided to me that he had had a complete physical before coming and that some of the test results had not been good. “I will probably need surgery when I get back to Japan,” he said. This did not stop him from coming, however. He didn’t wait for an answer and told his doctors he must go to the United States. Nor did he listen to the warnings of his family, who had told me that his condition was serious. I had even gone to Japan personally to try to dissuade him from coming. “I am not sick!” he insisted over a glass of shochu. In a heavy Ibaraki accent he continued, “Don’t worry, I am still okay. I may be ill, but I am not ill in spirit. There are many things yet that I must do, and going to the United States this year is one of them!” After listening to this, what more could I do but agree? When Shihan made up his mind, there is not much more to do than say, “Yes sir.”

Morihiro Saito Shihan Aikikai Hombu 9th Dan, Ibaragi Iwama Dojo Cho and Keeper of the Aiki Shrine was a very important leader in the world Aikido community. If something were to happen to him in Denver, it would be more than a terrible thing.

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1996 Saito Shihan’s 50th Anniversary Seminar, receiving gifts of flowers  

Before the seminar, he did not tell any of his students of his condition. Trying not to raise concerns, we did everything we could to take care of him. Two of my students are pilots for United Airlines, and they went to Tokyo to fly him to the United States personally. He went first class all the way. There is a photo of Saito Shihan sitting in the captain’s chair in the cockpit with United pilot and Nippon Kan President Doug Kelly. It is a photo I have seen him show off on many occasions. Later he confided in me, “First class was very impressive, but it was lonely up there by myself. My students were not allowed to come up to visit me. I had so much attention from the flight attendants that I couldn’t even sneak sips of the favorite sake I had brought with me from home!” I was very relieved to see him at the airport looking healthy and making jokes.

During the seminar we took other precautions. I asked two of my students-—one who is my personal physician and the other a cardiac nurse—to keep an eye on him. Between practice times and before and after the day’s events we checked his pulse and blood pressure, monitoring him for any signs of danger. We decided it was best not to interrupt his usual diet. I cooked all of his meals myself, using basic ingredients like miso, soy sauce, and rice that I had brought for him from Iwama. We removed the Western-style bed from his sleeping quarters and replaced it with a futon, one end raised slightly to allow him to breath easier. Each night I slept in front of his door so that I could hear if he began to cough or needed attending.

I am not looking for any kind of accolades. With my experience as the last uchideshi to the Founder Morihei Ueshiba, this kind of attendance was expected of me. It was not out of the ordinary for me to do so.

One evening during the seminar, Saito Shihan began choking during dinner. We rushed to his aid, but he waived us off. “Just sitting calmly for a moment will make the choking subside,” he told us. “My doctors told me that foods red in color are good for my health, so I think a glass of red wine is in order.” I thought about protesting, but knowing better, I stopped. He knew his condition, and I was relieved that he felt he could make light of it.

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Saito Shihan with United Pilot Doug Kelly after flight from Tokyo  

The morning after the seminar, we prepared to leave by van for the day’s activities. Before getting in the car he spread his feet in a wide stance and bent over one knee in an extended leg stretch. “Genki desu ne” or “You seem full of vigor and energy,” I noted, then I asked. “What are you doing?” “I must finish working on your garden,” he replied. “I am worried about it.” With that he hopped into the van. This was the private Saito Shihan, not the Saito Shihan who reigned over Aikido dojos around the world.

In the garden, no matter how much we fussed, he insisted on moving from point to point, directing us to get out of the way as he repositioned rocks and trimmed foliage. He was intent on “fixing” the garden and moved rocks with ease that were difficult for young uchideshi to move by themselves.

Shigeru Kawabe Sensei of Akita, Japan, and his wife accompanied Saito Shihan on this trip to Denver. On this Monday they had dressed up for the day’s outing, not knowing they were going to be doing a bit of gardening. They pitched in anyway and got their nice clothes a little dirty, but it was worth it to see the smiles on everyone’s faces.

After the work was finished, Saito Shihan sat down on a rock he had just repositioned and viewed his garden handy work. “It is always the best to sit in the garden after working in it and have refreshments!” he exclaimed. I asked him if he could name the rock he had worked so hard to move into just the right place, and he answered, “Morihiro rock, and the name for this garden is Aikien.” Aikien was the name used for the Iwama Aiki Shrine Yagai dojo (outside dojo) built by the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. Saito Shihan continued, “It’s okay, the name is not used anymore at Iwama, so this is a good name for this garden.”

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Nippon Kan Garden.Relaxing after garden work with Kawabe Sensei and author Gaku Homma. “I need to come back next year” he said.  

The Nippon Kan garden was barely a year old at the time, and the plants and trees were still small. It was more rock than garden at that time. I do believe Saito Shihan had quite a gift in being able to recognize and project what would become. I think that is why he knew exactly how to position the rocks. He even remarked that students and gardens were the same in that you needed to look ten years ahead when shaping them. Resting there together in the fledgling garden, there was no way to know that five years later, the garden would be named by Zagat’s Restaurant Review as #1 in atmosphere and décor out of 6,000 Japanese restaurants nationwide.

Since the return trip from Denver back to Tokyo was such a long one, we decided to spend one night in San Fransisco before Saito Shihan and Kawabe Sensei continued on to Japan. The hotel we stayed in had over thirty-five floors, and the rooms were outfitted with balconies that faced the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Once we had arrived in the room, Saito Shihan headed directly for the balcony, where he stood arms outstretched and exclaimed, “Ii na,” or “That’s nice,” in Japanese. The afternoon sun was still warm and the breezes came in gently from the bay.

Cheerfully, he returned to the room and began unpacking his belongings. Usually he had an uchideshi unpack for him, but this time he unpacked himself with an almost childlike enthusiasm. He carried a small bottle of sake to the balcony and pulled up two chairs to a small table on the balcony deck. “Kawabe-san, let’s sit out here,” he said enthusiastically. Knowing that Saito Shihan never drank sake without something to eat, his otomo, Mark Larson and I quickly headed for Japan Town to buy Japanese appetizers for them.

We soon returned to a scene I will never forget. Both Saito Shihan and Kawabe Sensei were still sitting facing each other over the small table on the balcony. They both sat, heads bowed toward each other as if in prayer. The warmth of the sun and soft breezes had done their magic after such a long, eventful weekend, and both of them were fast asleep!

Saito Shihan had accomplished his mission, and had been successful in his teaching in Denver. At this moment however, he was the private man who was taking a well-deserved nap.

Two days after his return to Japan, I received a phone call. “I have cancer,” Saito Shihan said over the phone. “There is an extract from the maetake mushroom that I am looking for, but it is not available in Japan. It is supposed to have special healing properties. I know it is available in the United States. Could you send some to me?” I could hear the determination in his voice.

I bought all of the maetake extract that was available in all of the health food stores and pharmacies in Denver that day. The next day I left for Japan to deliver it. My restaurant, Domo, was scheduled to open in one week, and leaving the country was not the best idea. Yet, Saito Shihan’s health was in danger. I didn’t give a second thought about going to him.

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San Francisco hotel balcony. Saito Shihan and Kawabe Sensei having “nap time”  

He was so surprised and happy to see me the next day that he almost shed a tear; he literally jogged out the door to meet me. It was not important whether the maetake extract was going to work or not as a cure for his illness. More important to me was to show my respect and support. If I had made him happy for only one minute, that was enough. “Are you hungry?” he asked, and he led me by the arm into his home.

In 1998 Saito Shihan underwent surgery, and although the operation was major in scope, he survived and went on to recover well from the surgery.

In May 1999 he called me to tell me that he was fine and that he was going to come to Denver. “I still have work to do in the garden,” he explained. My first thought was to convince him not to come to protect his health. I wasn’t sure how to do this, so I asked his family for help. They told me that except for his voice being a little hoarse, he seemed to be fine. That explanation left me without an excuse, so there was nothing more to say except, “When would you like to come, Sensei?”

We took even more precautions, however, and Saito Shihan’s 1999 Seminar went off without a hitch. My worries seemed unwarranted. He ate heartily and seemed to enjoy himself very much. The only difference I noticed was that he controlled how much he ate and drank and retired early. On a few occasions, however, he did return after most everyone had left for a nightcap with his closest students and friends. This was his private time to relax. He told us about his surgery and even showed us his scars. “The doctors said, ‘Saito-san count to three.’ I counted to three, and that is all I can remember. When I awoke I was stapled shut from my neck to my navel, and my back had a diagonal cut about two feet long!” He showed off his scars with the pride of a kid who had caught his first fish. The doctors here agreed with the doctors in Japan that his scars had healed well. He was proud of this.

More than 350 students attended Saito Shihan’s seminar in 1999, and it was a great success. During the seminar he paused to ask his students, “Is everyone happy? I am very happy to be back in Colorado again. May I come back again next year?” He received a standing ovation that lasted long after he had left the gymnasium. Later on at the welcome party he delighted everyone by singing a rousing chorus of “Shiroi Keiko Gi,” which was Saito Shihan’s Japanese adaptation of “Oh My Darling Clementine”. That evening, Hans Goto Sensei came to me privately, with an air of seriousness. “Could you ask Shihan if he could come to California next year?” he asked. “Of course,” I answered. “I would imagine it will depend greatly on his health. I agree that it is best that he not come back to Denver next time. He pretends that everything is fine, but he knows his tomorrows. It would be in my heart to wish that he stay home in Iwama and take care of his health.”

Later on at my home, I chose my words carefully and posed a question to Saito Shihan. “Sensei, for next year, would it be a good idea to visit your Iwama-ryu dojos in California? If you don’t, your students are going to feel like I have kidnapped their father! I would not like that to happen.” After a few moments he responded, “Going to teach at many dojos in California during one visit is very difficult for me now physically. It seems to make sense to have one seminar in a central location such as Denver.” “How about if you arrange to have one large seminar at one of your dojos in California?” I asked. “I would worry that it would seem that I favor one dojo over another and that it might cause problems in the future. It is very important to me that this not happen,” he said. “What if you chose a location that was central and had a committee of your dojo leaders organize the event together?” I asked again. Saito Shihan looked like he was thinking deeply about this but did not answer.

After his return to Japan, it was January 2000 before I heard from Saito Shihan again. He told me he had decided to come to California this year. It was his understanding that his students had decided to work together to organize a central seminar in California for everyone to attend. He seemed very pleased that all of his students were working together. He asked me if I would teach his instructors the ABCs of organizing a seminar, using the “Denver system,” as he called it. I replied gently, “Sensei, you have generations of uchideshi in California who have known you for decades. These instructors of yours now have generations of their own students behind them. While you still have your health, this is a good way to bond them together for the future. It is important for them to work together as a team. If I were to step in and give advice on how to organize a seminar, I would only be interfering and hamper the process. They are quite capable of organizing a seminar on their own. I think it is better for everyone if I am not involved.”

As Saito Shihan had wished, in the fall of 2000 a very successful seminar was held in the Bay area hosted by, as Saito Shihan believed, a team of his leading Iwama-ryu instructors and students. In May 2001, I went to Japan for the All-Japan Aikido Demonstration in Tokyo. The demonstration was held at the Nippon Budokan. Saito Shihan did a wonderful demonstration of sankyo techniques and variations. He was a crowd pleaser as usual and received loud applause. By this time, the power in his legs and his knees were getting weaker. His uke performed well and masked the fact that he was assisting Shihan to stand after a pin. Up in the bleachers while waiting for his demonstration to begin, Saito Shihan toyed with a collapsible cane which he folded and unfolded purposefully. “What do you think?” he asked me. “Do you think we could sell these canes to American Ninja? Never mind, if a Ninja is in need of a collapsible cane, he can’t be much of a Ninja,” he concluded. Everyone around him laughed at his humor.

The next day I visited Iwama and was welcomed warmly. In the new dojo dining area we ate together and he seemed to enjoy himself. He spoke of the United States, and said that he was getting a little weaker physically but that he had promised to go to California again this year and that was a promise he intended to keep. Everyone at the table tried to dissuade him, but on this point he stood stubbornly fast. Finally even his daughter said, “There is no point in trying to change his mind. It is better to just let him do what makes him happy.” As I was preparing to leave, he presented me with 30 bokken he had had packed into carrying bundles.

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Saito Shihan packing bokken into bundles  

I spoke to his daughter again before I departed. She told me that his cancer was spreading and was now affecting his lower extremities. As is very common in Japan, Saito Shihan’s family was being told more about his condition than he was, and they had been told that he might have only a few more months to live. She was very concerned about him traveling but was not in the position to let him know that his illness was worsening. She was concerned for his hosts in California as well. If something were to happen while he was in the U.S., it would be traumatic for his students. She asked if I could somehow persuade his students in California to ask him not to come. I told her I was in no position to do so, nor would I want to interfere with his relationship with his students.

Four months later came the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The Japanese Government made a public announcement that all travel to the United States that was not imperative be postponed or canceled. Saito Shihan called to tell me he wanted to come to the U.S., but was being strongly advised by his family and the government not to do so. He said he had made his decision, but he asked how dangerous I thought it would be to travel, and what I thought the reaction would be from his students if he did not go. “It is difficult to say. After such a terrible and tragic event, it was hard to predict what people’s reaction would be. To hold a seminar shortly after such a horrific event might seem insensitive to some people, to others it might be courageous,” I answered. He asked me, “If it were you, would you go?” Knowing about his worsening condition, it was a difficult question to answer. If it were me, I would have gone, but my position was very different from his. Although I knew very well all of the hard work his students had done to prepare for his visit and what a hardship and disappointment it would be if he did not go, for his sake, I advised him not to go. More important right now was his life and the wishes of his family.

I think we both knew it was for his health, but I suggested gently, “In this time of tragedy, out of respect for the victims of this terrorist act, I think it is better not to go.” The next day there was an announcement posted on Aikido Journal’s Web site announcing that Saito Shihan would not be coming to California. Knowing that he had made his decision before I had spoken with him, seeing the announcement made it official. I felt badly for his students, but if by not going on this trip prolonged his health and life by even one day, I felt it was my duty to support him to this end.

Into 2002, Saito Shihan was in and out of the hospital. By February, the cancer had spread to his spinal column, which rendered him unable to walk. He was confined to a wheelchair and had been told that this was the final countdown. He refused any more medical treatments by his doctors and returned home from the hospital. His family told me that his condition was worsening and I made the journey to Iwama to visit him on March 1, 2002.

I was surprised to see that Saito Shihan had moved his bed to the front room of his house, very close to the sliding screen doors. In Japan it is the custom, especially for a martial artist, to sleep farthest from the door, particularly if they are ill or otherwise compromised. It is also customary to sleep with one’s head pointed toward the altar as a show of respect. Saito Shihan, however, had positioned himself where he could hear the best what was happening on the grounds and in the dojo and what his uchideshi and students were up to. His mission of teaching Aikido to his uchideshi and students still came first — even if that meant he slept with his feet toward the altar.

He lay on his bed, and attended to a pump that was used to drain fluids. The pump left bruises on his skin that were hard to look at, they looked so painful. Even still he joked, “I have never been this black and blue, even when I was young and got into fights all of the time!”

I asked him if he would like me to massage his feet.

As I massaged his feet under the futon a tear came to my eye. I had done this before, in this same place. Only the last time I had done this, it was for the Founder before he died. My life seemed to have come full circle, and I was again offering the comfort of a massage to another great martial artist in Iwama. As I massaged his feet, Saito Shihan spoke privately about his students, especially his students abroad.

After about 20 minutes of conversation, I started to excuse myself from the room. He surprised me though and gave me a start when he barked commands at an uchideshi who was waiting behind a shoji screen. “It’s cold outside this morning! Get that stove going, Homma-kun needs breakfast now! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” The uchideshi ran as fast as he could toward the kitchen.

After he finished giving orders to the uchideshi, he turned to me and said in a soft voice, “Thank you for coming. We should have breakfast together, but since I am unable, there will be breakfast ready for you in the uchideshi kitchen.” With that he returned his attention to the retreating uchideshi. “Don’t forget that stove!” he shouted.

After I finished breakfast, I stopped back in to say goodbye. He ordered me to go to storage and get 20 to 30 bokken. I thanked him kindly for his generosity, but he had already given me one generous gift of bokkens, and that was enough. I had only come to say farewell for now.

On April 23, 2002, I received a phone call from Japan. My presence at this year’s Aiki Jinja Tai Sai Festival on April 29 was being requested. Tai Sai is the grand festival held at the Aiki shrine in Iwama every year to honor the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. Without hesitation I began to make plans to leave for Iwama, where the festival was to be held. Saito Shihan was preparing to officiate over the Tai Sai ceremony, and it was important to me to be there.

When I arrived in Iwama, I stopped by Saito Shihan’s home to say hello. Assisted by his uchideshi, he was busy changing clothes. He was dressed officially in montsuki haori. His hair had been lightly dyed to remove extra gray, and he looked quite dignified.

He was brought by his uchideshi in his wheelchair to a spot outside in front of the dojo. His students soon gathered around him. I had arrived with Doug Kelly, the pilot who Saito Shihan had met many times before. He spotted us and asked Doug if United Airlines was taking the day off for Tai Sai.

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Saito Shihan makes everyone smile with a joke as they gather around  

Everyone laughed at this, which broke the tension of the moment. We all bent down on one knee to be a little closer to Shihan and also to show our respect for him. It is never polite to look down on a Sensei, especially this Sensei on this special day.

As we gathered around him, Saito Shihan updated everyone on his condition. We were in the direct sun, and it was hot. I suggested we move into the shade, but he shook his head, no. “The doctors wanted to do too many tests and take too many x-rays, so I left. The dojo is my hospital, and I am much more comfortable here. Anyway, radiation and medicines just make you lose your hair and lose weight. That’s enough for me. I have been sent wonderful herbs from all over the world. I will drink these to get better.”

As the Tai Sai ceremony began, Saito Shihan, propelled forward in his wheelchair by his uchideshi made his way to the shrine. We stood with him as he bowed his head to pray. Looking out at the grounds, he called to me quietly, “Homma-kun, I have for a long, long time, tended these grounds here at Iwama dojo, but this is the end. It is amusing to me that every day of the year I take care of this shrine and only one day of the year does everyone come from Tokyo and Hombu. They come to celebrate and then leave again. There is always so much trash left behind! Last year I told everyone to take their trash with them when they go. The trash made it as far as the Iwama train station where the station receptacles were left filled to overflowing. I got a call from the stationmaster complaining to me about all of the mess! This, too, is now at an end for me.” He looked at me and smiled. As he sat outside the shrine, azalea petals drifted down from nearby branches, settling gently on his shoulders and in his hair. If this had been a different year, if he had been in good health, he would have been inside the shrine for this ceremony. For this year though, he sat outside under the azalea trees.

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Saito Shihan gives a prayer of welcome to the priest  

The ceremony was followed by a naorai (celebration party) in the dojo. Saito Shihan drank a tiny cup of red wine, which made him happy. He asked to have a photograph taken of himself with me and Kawabe Sensei. Both Kawabe Sensei and I tried to huddle in close to Shihan for the picture, but a bottle of wine on the table was getting in the way of the photo. Jokingly, Saito Shihan said, “Ummm, if that bottle of wine is in the photograph, everyone will mistakenly think I am a big drinker!” We removed the bottle and struck a serious pose for the photograph, which made him laugh.

The next day, it was time for me to return to the United States, so I came to say goodbye. I stood outside the sliding doors and said, “Denver no Homma desu. I must leave Iwama. Thank you very much.” From inside the room I heard, “Homma-kun, have you had breakfast yet?” “Yes,” I replied. “Alright then, take care.” Then after a pause he continued, “You are the only Japanese from Iwama who has a dojo in the United States. Keep good friends with everyone.” “Hai, arigato gozaimashita,” I replied.

Those were the last words that Saito Shihan spoke to me.

He was that kind of person. Unlike some of his peers, other Hombu high-ranking instructors, Saito Shihan was born a country man; a country man from Iwama. Saito Shihan lived in Iwama, worked the railroads in Iwama, and focused his life on taking care of the Founder, and the Aiki Shrine in Iwama. He was actually a simple country man with simple country stubbornness. Uchideshi and students over many decades will testify that Saito Shihan was a very hard and strict teacher. But once a student graduated from that teacher/student relationship, Saito Shihan was a very kind, very human individual with a unique taste. It was this essence of Saito Shihan’s that gave him the power to attract students from all over the world.

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Saito Shihan asks us to take a photo with him  

The relationship I had with Saito Shihan spanned almost four decades. When I was young, I shared a relationship with both the Founder and Saito Shihan. The time came then, as it had now, for me to leave Iwama. When the Founder moved from Iwama to Hombu just before his death, I also turned to leave. As I was leaving then, Saito Shihan gave me a roll of contact photos. They were test photos for Saito Shihan’s first book, which was to become Volume I, Background and Basics.

After the Founder had left for Tokyo, I still remember what Saito Shihan said to me when I came to say goodbye. “You are the Founder’s student, and when the Founder was in good health it was not my place to teach you. Take a roll of these photos; I am going to use them someday for a book. You have a long journey ahead of you to get back to Akita. You will need a lot of rice balls to get you there. Help yourself; take these rice balls with you.”

Maybe it was his own experience of the hard life as an uchideshi, but Saito Shihan was always worried about people having enough to eat. No matter how strict he was as a teacher, no matter how hard times might have been, he always took care to make sure those around him were fed. That is something else about him I will never forget.

We cannot forget that Saito Shihan was a student of the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. Or, that he was an Aikikai instructor under the Founder’s son Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and his grandson the current Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba.

Saito Shihan at times seemed to draw a line separating himself from Aikikai Hombu Headquarters. He sometimes spoke harshly of Hombu dojo and their ways of practice. This sometimes served to alienate Saito Shihan from peers and students who did not fully understand his criticism. Underneath his criticism, I believe was his desire for Aikikai Hombu to pass down and continue the philosophy of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba correctly in his eyes.

I think it is especially difficult for some students who are not from Japan to understand the complex nuances and levels of Japanese relationships and style of communication. To try to take Saito Shihan’s harsh words at times literally when pertaining to Hombu would be too shallow and not reflect a true picture.

There are two terms in Japanese called honne and tatamae. They can be difficult concepts to grasp, especially at times for Westerners. In general, honne is the term for one’s personal, private beliefs, while tatamae refers to the persona and position one assumes for cohesiveness with those in their surrounding society. The two are intrinsic to one another, yet understood and expressed differently in Japan than the United States. It is common in Japan in some social settings, for people to vent frustrations, or display personal opinion in the way that a husband will come home for dinner and complain to his wife about his boss. Mostly it is just venting, and is taken as such. In usual circumstances in Japan, a wife just listens to her husband’s complaints and understands them for what they are. It would never occur to the complaining husband that his venting from a previous evening would become public or be related back to his boss in any way.

I fear that for a man in Saito Shihan’s position, his harshness at times, especially in social settings, was misinterpreted and taken literally when it should not have been.

Misunderstandings that damaged Saito Shihan’s reputation and some of the relationships he had over the years I think might have been avoided with a deeper cultural understanding of Japanese communication.There is a Zen phrase “Sokkotsu no Ki”. To translate this, it is more useful to impart a parable than a definition.

A mother bird lays her eggs and protects them as they grow. She guards them from enemies and keeps them warm. She waits patiently for the chick inside to develop. When the time comes, the baby chick begins to peck at the shell from the inside, trying to break free. When the mother bird hears the pecking, she pecks delicately from the outside to start the shell to crack. She does not however break the shell open for the chick to emerge. The chick must free itself from the egg it has grown in. As the chick breaks through the shell, it has no knowledge that the mother bird helped it by starting the crack in the shell from the outside. The chick enters the world outside thinking it has come into the world on its own. For the Japanese way of teaching, this kind of timing is very important; knowing when and how to help a student break through with new growth of their own.

Saito Shihan was very good at this when teaching his students. Saito Shihan taught many generations of students in his lifetime. He had different students during different periods in his own life and his own development. Over the years, times changed, values changed, the world changed, yet every student was one of Saito Shihan’s uchideshi, no matter which period of his life they were part of.

Picasso was famous as a painter. As a painter he grew and his style and expression changed through different periods in his life. It would not make sense to take one period of Picasso’s art and call it his only form of expression, or his only true form of expression. All of his painting was Picasso. It was all a part of him.

The same holds true with a martial artist such as Saito Shihan. Not by any means the beginning of his Aikido journey, Saito Shihan practiced and taught Aikido for thirty three-years after the Founder’s death. As his style and execution changed naturally over the years, what he taught his students also changed. If students from different eras in his life were to compare his teaching there would naturally be differences, yet all of his teaching was from Saito Shihan, it was all a part of him. By the end, Saito Shihan had become enlightened about his coming death. He spoke to close students about making funeral arrangements. He ordered specially made mourning kimono for his wife and daughter. To his son Hitohiro, he gave his own formal kimono…a kimono that his son would wear soon in the months to come. Before the Aiki Jinja Tai Sai, he ordered his son and his uchideshi to clean every inch of the dojo grounds until they met with his satisfaction. After Tai Sai ended, he visited his temple and prayed in front of his own family gravesite. A few days later he had a little trouble breathing and thought it would be better to check in at the hospital. No one knew that this was to be a one-way trip.

On May 13, 2002, one of the great Aikidoists of our time followed the Founder Morihei Ueshiba into history. The legacy he left to us is as big as life itself, and his last lessons are lessons of dignity and honor that will continue in his memory.

 
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