Saito Sensei

Remembering Saito Sensei

Originally published on

by 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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

he 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Saito Sensei

Saito Sensei Interview

Originally published on

Editor: Saito Sensei, I understand you met O-Sensei shortly after the war. How was it that you decided to begin studying Aikido? Would you please describe your memories of that period?

Saito Sensei: When I was a youngster I used to admire the great swordsmen just like everyone else. I would buy story magazines and read about people like Goto Matabe and Yagyu Jubei since when I was growing up before and during the war if a boy didn’t know Judo or Kendo he was ashamed. Naturally, Kendo and Judo were taught as a part of school education, and I chose to practice Kendo. Then came the end of the war. At that time you couldn’t carry a weapon. No one was permitted to carry even so much as a small knife. So I began to go to the Shudokan Hall in Meguro as I thought it would be dangerous if I didn’t know some kind of technique. In Meguro there was a teacher of Shinto-ryu Karate. He was a professor at Nihon University. I would go there and train hard at Karate. Because of my family situation I was working in Tokyo at that time.

Then I was transferred here so I couldn’t go to train in Tokyo anymore. Then I went to a dojo in Ishioka. It was a Judo dojo. In those days I thought that if you knew both Karate and Judo… Judo is good in a hand-to-hand fight and also Karate is better than Kendo because a Karate man can use his feet… but Kendo is better with a weapon… so I thought I would have nothing to fear if I knew Kendo, Karate and Judo… But there was this old man doing strange techniques up on the mountain near Iwama. Some people said he did Karate and a Judo sensei told me it was called “Ueshiba-ryu Judo.”

Anyhow, it was frightening up there and I was afraid to go. I had a very strange feeling and it was eerie but still some of my friends and I agreed to go up there and have a look. But my friends got scared and didn’t show up. So I came alone. It was during the hot season and I came in the morning. O-Sensei was over here doing morning training. His house was over there. Minoru Mochizuki who went to Italy and France many years ago, was sitting over there. “Sensei’s over there,” he said to me, and when I jogged over here, Akio Kano, Tadashi Abe, who went to France in the early days, and one of the sons of the famous Ishihara Industry family – the three of them were training with O-Sensei. Then I went into what is today the six-tatami mat room and while I was sitting there, O-Sensei and Mr. Abe came in. When O-Sensei sat down Mr. Abe placed down a cushion for him immediately. He really moved fast in helping O-Sensei. Then he stared at me.

The Judo dojo with children running all around looked like a children’s playground by comparison. The Karate dojo was fairly quiet, but the Judo dojo was like an amusement park. That was partially the reason I became tired of Judo. When it comes to a fight a person can kick or gouge whenever he wants to, but a Judo man doesn’t have a defense for that kind of attack. So I felt dissatisfied when I practiced Judo. Another thing was in practice the senior students threw the junior students using them for their own training and would only allow us to throw a little when they were in a good mood. I thought they were very selfish, arrogant and impudent… well, if I complain too much O-Sensei will get mad… anyhow, O-Sensei asked: “Why do you want to learn Aikido?” When I answered I’d like to learn if he would teach me, he asked me: “Do you know what Aikido is?” There was no way I could know about it. Then Sensei said: “I’ll teach you how to serve society and people with this martial art.”

I didn’t have the least idea that a martial art could serve society and people. I just wanted to become strong. Now I have come to understand but at that time I didn’t understand at all. I think O-Sensei was already spiritually advanced at that time. I had been practicing martial arts just to become strong. When he said “for the benefit of society and people” I doubted how a martial art could serve that purpose, but as I was eager to be accepted I unwillingly answered, “Yes, I understand.” As I stood on the mat in the dojo rolling up my shirt sleeves thinking to myself, “Well, since I’ve come all the way here I might as well learn a couple of techniques,” O-Sensei said, “Come and strike me!” So I went to strike him and tumbled over. I don’t know whether or not it was kotegaeshi or what, but I was thrown. Then he said, “Come and kick me!” When I tried to kick him I was gently overturned. “Come and grab me!” I tried to grab him judo-style and again I was thrown without knowing how. My shirt sleeves and my pants ripped. Sensei said, “Come and train if you like.” With that he left the mat.

I felt a sigh of relief to think that I was accepted since Sensei told me to come and train if I wanted. But Mr. Abe said to me, “O-Sensei can judge people. From what he said it looks as though you’ve been accepted. But we have an organization named the Aikikai and we can’t accept you without their discussing the matter. Wait for three days. Recently a man came from Hokkaido and said, “I am going to practice Aikido, do or die! ” We told him to watch the class but he went home the next day and said that he wanted to think it over. I felt hurt being told that kind of thing by Mr. Abe so I said, “I will endure as long as my body lasts! ” It didn’t mean anything. Mr. Abe was just testing me. When I became a student I found Mr. Abe took good care of the junior students… he taught us in a kind, polite manner. I still appreciate it very much. In the same way that Mr. Abe was kindly taught like a brother by Mr. Tohei when he began, I was taught kindly in turn like a brother by Mr. Abe.

: During practice O-Sensei would teach the techniques he had developed up to that point as if systematizing and organizing them for himself. If we started doing suwari waza (seated techniques), we would continue doing that only, one after another. The sempai (senior students) and kohai (junior students) would practice together and the kohai would take ukemi (breakfalls). When the sempai finished the right and left sides and the kohai’s turn came it was already time for the next technique. Practice in those days was not easy. I used to review the day’s practice with Mr. Goro Narita, Yuichi’s uncle, on the road in the middle of the rice fields on our way to the Joban line (railway line in Ibaraki Prefecture.) If we practiced a long time it took as long as two hours to get to the station. It was my free practice. When we would study one technique we would systematically learn related techniques. As I also think that this is the right method, I don’ t teach favorite techniques in an unsystematic manner. I always teach only related techniques. In this way, students also can learn techniques in an organized manner and when they teach they will be effective. If they practice unsystematically they can’t teach in an organized way. Also, O-Sensei taught us two, three or four levels of techniques. He would begin with kata, then one level after another, and finally, it became just so… and now I teach in exactly the same way. It’s not good to teach only flashy techniques in order to be regarded as a great teacher. It doesn’t matter if you’ re not flashy. Those who don’ t want to practice don’ t have to come. So Aikido isn’t something we should solicit people to practice by saying: “Come and join us.” It’s not something to be publicized. Those who want to practice come and we all practice together. That’ s why I say we shouldn’t overdo it in urging people to come. Those who don’ t have a strong will will hinder others. They hinder those who practice earnestly. Because O-Sensei taught us systematically I’ve got to teach in an organized way, too. In the prewar period he taught without explanation. Students couldn’t ask questions. He only demonstrated throws. But I was taught from morning till evening and he would say: “That’s not the way. Every little detail should be correct. Otherwise it isn’t a technique. See, like this… like that!” Those are the “kuden” (oral teachings) I wrote down. So if I have a problem in doing a certain technique I remember what I was told by O-Sensei and then it works fine. That’s why I regard these words as superb secrets, in other words “kuden”. So I wrote my books as oral teachings. In olden times, the instructions were secret and secretly handed down. It was alright that they were kept secret. Secrets were necessary. However, in Aikido today, secrets are not necessary. Since the Founder said that we wish to spread this Aikido — correct Aikido — I would like to improve as fast as possible, even by one day. Also, though he didn’t have many students at that time, O-Sensei used to throw everyone at least once. So I also touch everyone, though it would be impossible to do so if there were tens of thousands of students, at least in “Tai no henko” and “kokyuho”. I don’t know whether I can call it my philosophy, but to my way of thinking, a family-like life such as this is necessary and that without actually touching and skin-to-skin contact true Aikido can neither be understood nor taught. I don’t think it will work well if a teacher says. “Do it like this!. or “That’s no good!” speaking down to the students. In my case my explanation during class is quite lengthy. Though everyone was intelligent, I wasn’t and I had a hard time in learning. So, when I see a student who is moving incorrectly I stop him and tell him: “Your movement is not quite right. It’s better this way.” or “You should do it like this.” And without explanation during the class everyone gets tired. Since I want to give them a chance to rest and also I want their technique to become perfect even one day sooner, I frequently give explanations during class. I can’t speak well and I don’t have much talent, so I can’t do as well as I wish. I was very lucky O-Sensei taught me thoroughly in detail, and I’m following his example. When I accompanied Sensei on a trip I was tested by everyone, though they weren’t impolite to the Founder. Once, when we went to Osaka the whole class consisted of fourth or fifth-dan judoists. You see, my arms were so skinny. So they teased me and tested me.

Editor: Your arms were skinny? (laughter)

Saito Sensei: After the war when Mr. Minoru Mochizuki opened a dojo in Shizuoka Prefecture O-Sensei was invited and I accompanied him. There, I entered the bath to wash O-Sensei’s back and he looked at me and said: “Saito, you are skinny!” After this happened, I want to the maintenance department of the JNR (Japanese National Railway where Saito Sensei was working at that time) and borrowed a rail which was one meter long and weighed 81 pounds. As there were no barbells, I used the rail….but now I have pain in my legs and I can’t do anything. Anyway, the Founder’s teaching method was perfect. He taught so that anybody could understand and remember. Pre-war Aikido wasn’t the true one — remember he was ordered to do what he did by the military — he used to say that his post-war Aikido was the true one….In any case, as O-Sensei’s instruction was sound, I preserve it in my teaching. But I think I should study more and teach more kindly and politely. I will try to do so….

It is said that when O-Sensei came to Iwama during the war he underwent a profound spiritual change. Would you tell us how O-Sensei changed during that important period and also what influence it had on the development of Aikido?

Saito Sensei: I don’t know such details. What I do know is the following: Toward the end of the war, the military finally became aware of the fact that Japan couldn’t win the war by teaching Judo (to soldiers). Dr. Soichi Sakuta, President of Kenkoku University in Manchuria said, “We can’t win the war with Judo. Teach Aikido instead.” Then, Mr. Kenji Tomiki became the Aikido shihan of Kenkoku University. Also, in the Naval Academy at Edajima they decided that Judo was inadequate and changed to Aikido. They discussed who would be a suitable shihan there and thought that Akasawa-no-sabu (nickname) would be good. Mr. Akasawa was at that time fighting on the Pacific front aboard the ship “Akishima.” O-Sensei was influential enough to have him recalled to Edajima with a telegram from military headquarters. So Mr. Akasawa came back to Edajima and I heard he just ate and slept and ate and slept in order to get his body back into shape. Then, soon the war ended. O-Sensei had said, “Aikido has finally been recognized. The young officers of the army and navy are slack. We’ve got to reeducate them. But we don’t have a suitable place for this. We should build an outdoor dojo. Without retraining the young officers in an outdoor dojo there’s no way we can expect to win the war. We can’t win the war by requiring them to learn Judo and Kendo. They have to learn Aikido basics according to the Aikido method.” When he found this place (Iwama) for the outdoor dojo and the dojo was built, the war ended. That’s all I know. Beyond that I don’t have any idea about the psychological change in O-Sensei caused by the social situation. What I have just told you is what I know and I heard it clearly (from O-Sensei.) Close to the end of the war, the military finally judged that our country would lose the war if we practiced Judo. At least at the Naval Academy they thought so. Before that, O-Sensei used to teach at the Nakano Military School, the Army University, the Naval University, Toyama University and the Military Police School, he taught for more than ten years. After it was decided that Judo was inadequate, the Kenkoku University in Manchuria also changed to Aikido. However, when the war ended it was prohibited to train in the martial arts, to possess a sword, or a gun, or a knife with a blade longer than 7 centimeters. Under such circumstances, when O-Sensei was trying his best to keep the seed of Aikido alive here, I happened to become his student. There were a lot of sempai but they all grew up and left. They all returned to their own homes, entered companies, returned to their families, or got jobs. If their family had a dojo they inherited that, etc. In the end, only a small number of sempai from around here and myself were left. But all the sempai from this area ended up not being able to come to the dojo after getting married because they had to work hard at their occupations…. Whenever Sensei was here we couldn’t tell when he would call to us. Even if we asked for the neighbors’ help in threshing rice, that very day, if Sensei said, “Come!” and we didn’t, the result was terrible. So everybody ended up unable to come to the dojo in order to maintain their own families. I could continue because I was free during the daytime though I went to work every other evening. I could live without receiving any money from O-Sensei because I was paid by the JNR. O-Sensei had money but students around here didn’t. If they came to Sensei they would have had no income and not have been able to raise rice for their families and would have died by coming to the dojo. All of them gradually stopped coming. I could continue because I had money enough to live. I was lucky enough to have a job, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to continue. As I was of some use to him, O-Sensei willingly taught me everything. It was extremely severe. It was only to those students who served him at the risk of their lives, even though it was only for budo, helping him, from morning to evening in the fields getting dirty and massaging his back that O-Sensei opened his heart. to be continu

It’s a full nine years since O-Sensei passed away and there is always the danger that what O-Sensei taught us will become changed over the course of time into what can no longer be regarded as Aikido. So I would like to ask you what you regard as fundamentally important points when you teach.

Well, it is to adhere to basics. People think light of basics and are attracted to fancy techniques. Also, nowadays one cannot be regarded as good unless he does fancy things. Otherwise a teacher won’t attract students. It’s wrong for a martial artist to try to make a living from students’ tuition by teaching budo. A martial artist shouldn’t be worried about his personal financial situation. Otherwise, he will end up giving ranks to weak students, or if someone brings him something he will give him special treatment and be biased in his favor. O-Sensei always used to say, “I am what I am because I trained hard style for sixty years. What do you think you can do?” He would frequently say this. But there are many people who don’t understand the meaning of “hard” and “soft.” “Hard” means to do the technique firmly with a soft movement. But people tend to train in a jerky way. And when people do soft training they do it in a lifeless way. Soft movements should be filled with the strongest “ki.” People can’t grasp the meaning of hard and soft because they didn’t have contact with O-Sensei. O-Sensei used to say that if he went to another place and demonstrated his techniques they would be stolen and he also said, “Aikido techniques are not to be demonstrated. To spread Aikido is to teach and spread it to those devotees who gather together. It doesn’t mean to show and propagate it among those who are in no way connected to the art. To increase the number of true Aikido devotees is to spread Aikido. So at demonstrations O-Sensei would intentionally do those techniques which nobody would understand. But they contained the essence of Aikido. Those who hadn’t practiced systematically starting from basics wouldn’t understand them and they would only imitate the techniques O-Sensei demonstrated. So Aikido has gradually become removed from its center.

The situation is hopeless because the point of departure of Aikido has become unclear. Correct Aikido is difficult. There are many unhappy days. Nothing is enjoyable in the beginning. But with this as a basis it eventually becomes enjoyable… Through very hard training you will come to enjoy Aikido. As some people enjoy themselves in the beginning they find it tougher later on. Such a person as Hidaka Shihan who has withdrawn to Iwate to train is a great man. So, withdraw and devote yourself to daily practice observing those things 0-Sensei said. Train as 0-Sensei trained himself in Iwama. In any event, to do perfect Aikido, study O-Sensei. Fortunately, I frequently dream of O-Sensei. As Mr. Abe said in his letter, we shouldn’t forget 0-Sensei. But in the case of all you students, there’s nothing to be done. But at least if those who were taught by O-Sensei respect him and keep his memory alive, they will always recall his scolding words. In that way mistakes can easily be corrected and his words will always come back. If one forgets O-Sensei, he will no longer appear and one goes along according to his own will. If a person has proceeded far in this manner there’s no way of return. And if he suddenly stops his own way of teaching after having taught in that way, then people will ask him, “Is what you taught us false?” Kokyuho is included in the basics which 0-Sensei taught and “ki” exists in kokyuho itself, but there is no kokyuho in “ki.” “Ki” is in kokyuho. Since I trained in Iwama, I can only teach according to the way we did it here. So that’s how I have taught. Therefore… the basics 0-Sensei drilled me in, even though they’re extremely tough to learn, must likewise be learned by everyone. Those who perservere will gain a true understanding in the end. There are various kinds of students. Some find it fashionable to walk to the dojo carrying a “gi” on their shoulder. And some don’t place any importance on training but find it very enjoyable and refreshing like “coca cola” when their teacher takes a splendid “ukemi” for them even though they don’t know how to throw. And some others simply want to become strong. They don’t want any rank, they just want to be strong. On the other hand, there are people who want to get their dan rank. There are these two extreme types. So there are a good many people who stop coming completely after they get their dan. There are many different types of students. The best of them are those who are not greedy… The ones who are not greedy are the best. Such people also have a spirit of service. They are also polite. And polite people are alert. When you become alert you will naturally become polite. So I think the old-style martial artists were polite.

Saito Sensei, you teach your students step by step the important techniques from basics to “ki no nagare” in a very kindly manner. Your instruction is so easy to follow that even foreign students who don’t know a single word of Japanese can understand it very well. How did you develop this teaching method?

I owe it to 0-Sensei. I was pestered and repeatedly scolded by 0-Sensei and so I studied…

How did O-Sensei teach Jo and Ken in Iwama after the war? We understand that you entered the Iwama dojo in the summer of 1946. Did you practice Jo and Ken as well as taijutsu immediately after you entered the dojo?

Yes, we practiced both of them. Since we could not practice them in the evening, we did them during morning practice. After we got up we sat down in front of the kamisama in seiza for 40 minutes and then practice began. The practice was for uchideshi only but an exception was made and I was allowed to join in.

Who were the uchideshi in those days? Mr. Abe, Mr. Tohei, Mr. Kasuga, Mr. Ishihara who is presently the head of Ishihara Sangyo, and some others came and went. Kisshomaru Sensei, Tohei Sensei and Mr. Abe all practiced the ken and jo. Mr. Yamaguchi also came to Iwama. That was around 1951 or 52. Mr. Tohei brought his students along carrying rice from Tochigi Prefecture and stayed in the dojo to practice. He used to come to the dojo by bicycle in the beginning. It takes 50 minutes by car today! So it was very hard to commute from Tochigi. Anyway, when O-Sensei explained Aikido he always said that taijutsu (body techniques) and ken and jo techniques were all the same. He always started out his explanation of Aikido using the ken as you see in his films. In the early stage of our ken practice, O-Sensei just told us to come to strike. That’s all.

Weren’t there any tsuki (thrusting) attacks with the bokken? No, not at all. He just told us to come to strike him. Ken practice began from there. Since I had practiced Kendo when I was little I somehow managed to cope with the situation. Then he told me to prepare a stand for tan-renuchi (striking training). So I gathered some wood and made the stand with them. However, Sensei got angry and broke it with his bokken. He said to me, “This kind of thin wood is useless!” After that I had to think of something. I cut two big pieces of wood and drove nails into them and tied them together. When I made that Sensei praised me. However, even that lasted less than one week. So we hit at different places to save the wood. Then after one week I went out again to cut wood in order to make another one. There were a lot of trees in the hills in those days. We used this setup for training in striking with the bokken. It is training for the hips and arms and also for uchikomi (power striking). I named this “tan-renuchi” myself.

Did O-Sensei do tanrenuchi practice often?

Yes, he did. He would say, “Strike another 100 times”. O-Sensei lived on the other side of the shrine. The house was about 200 meters away from the dojo but it no longer exists. We would hit that stand in the morning. If we didn’t kiai loud enough, he would scold us. Since there were only one or two neighbors we had no problem. While we were practicing, some of the deshi would tire out and stop striking and only shout. O-Sensei could hear their shouting and this sounded like they were training as usual. Some ended up shouting from their beds. (Laughter). It sounds like a joke but it was really true. As training advanced, we were taught what we now call “Ichi no Tachi” (first paired sword practice). He taught us only this for 3 or 4 years and nothing else. The only thing we did was to go and strike until we were completely exhausted and had become unsteady. When we came to the point where we were unable to move he would signal that that was enough and let us go. That was the only thing we did for morning practice every day. In the last years, I was taught by Sensei almost privately. Mr. Tohei got married and returned home and Kisshomaru Sensei also married and went to Tokyo. The other uchideshi also went home.

What kind of explanation did O-Sensei offer for the jo and ken?

For jo practice, he would just swing his jo in a flash in front of us. We just imitated him. When we couldn’t do it he would say, “If you watch carefully you’ll understand!” Then he would show the movement once more but faster this time. It was even harder to understand. Then he would say again, “If you watch carefully you’ll understand!”, and he would do it still faster. We ended up not understanding anything after all (Laughter). He wielded the jo in various ways while showing us movements. He offered us an explanation of how a technique was used depending on the type of attack. This was different from the awase or partner practices. He did it without a partner. He just imagined that he had an enemy in front of him and quickly showed techniques for various situations such as when you are attacked in a given manner, whether by a thrust or a strike.

Did O-Sensei give any names to the jo movements?

No, no names. He just told us to do this or that. Names came to be used much later. When I starting teaching myself I realized O-Sensei’s way of teaching would not be appropriate so I classified and arranged his jo techniques. I rearranged everything into 20 basic movements I called “suburi” which included tsuki (thrusting), uchikomi (striking), hassogaeshi (figure-eight movements) and so on so it would be easier for students to practice them.

How long after you entered the Iwama dojo did university students begin to come to train?

They began to come while O-Sensei was still active. Students of Kanagawa University, Tohoku Gakuin and Ibaragi University came to Iwama every year while O-Sensei and his wife were still well. O-Sensei scolded his students at Hombu Dojo if they used the jo or ken but he would watch me teaching the students these weapons in front of the shrine in the morning with a smile on his face. I don’t know what distinction he made between us but one was certainly made.

Were you teaching the university students the kata you developed?

No. That happened later on. O-Sensei would get angry if we practiced in a one-two-three manner. His way of teaching might be good for private instruction but when you have to teach 30 or 40 students all together the one-two-three method is the only one effective. This was why I gave each of the suburi movements a number. Later this developed into the 31-movement jo kata. In later years I was visited by one of the alumni from that period. I think he was a student of Miyagi Education University. He said, “Sensei, wasn’t it the 24-movement jo kata?”. I replied “Now we have 31!” (Laughter). In those days we had 24 movements. Perhaps we included some of the jo movements in hayagaeshi and this added up to 24 movements. However, this was not easy enough to learn and so I divided the movements into 31. People came to call it the “31-movement jo kata” without my realizing it.

When I was taught the sword suburi I had a habit of swinging kendo-style. O-Sensei said that wasn’t good and had me do partial suburi practice. You must first practice the suburi in order to be able to practice the kumitachi. It is the same as learning how to catch a ball first before being able to play baseball. The basics to be learned for the kumijo and kumitachi are the suburi. This was why I made the seven sword suburi. You should not practice the kumitachi before you master these seven. It is not possible to do so and you are also likely to be injured. If you move on to kumitachi practice after learning the suburi and awase (matched partner practices), you will learn good form and also you won’t be injured. For the kumijo you should first learn the 31-movanent kata and 20 suburi properly. This is the correct order of practice. For taijutsu we practice ki flow techniques only after practicing the basics. You cannot call what we do a martial art if you practice only ki flow techniques while ignoring basics.

When O-Sensei showed the ken and jo movements, he seems to have done them quite rapidly. I imagine that is the case with the 31 jo kata too.

Although he didn’t use a one-two-three method he always taught us patiently and explained in detail what we should do. Mr. Tohei’s kata has a lower number count and so people say that he was taught in one way while I was taught in another way. But I’m not sure about that. O-Sensei also showed me different kata. However, I only remember half of them. The “13-movement jo kata” is one I created by imitating these kata I remembered.

It seems that the 31-movement kata really forms the basis for your jo practice.

Yes, but since this is a form the Founder left for us we should not call it the “31-movement kata”. As a student of the Founder, I cannot make any changes to the kumitachi or the 31-kata. Others are free to make changes but as long as I am in charge of O-Sensei’s dojo I have to do exactly what I learned from Sensei. For example, the second kumitachi is more difficult than the third one. Some suggested that I should replace the second with the third because nobody could tell the difference. But I told him that I wouldn’t do that because I would know the difference.

Did O-Sensei give you any explanation about how he himself studied the ken and jo or where these arts originated?

He once showed me a copy of a scroll written about kata. I don’t remember what school it was but there was a person who had been researching this art and he came to see O-Sensei with a copy of the scroll. By copy I mean a hand-copied document. The Founder talked to him about the art and he returned home satisfied leaving the copy he brought at the dojo. He showed me this copy when he was arranging his personal belongings in the old house. He told me to look at it. You know that I do variations of the five kumitachi. Well in the copy there were terms such as “riari” and “tokuari” which were written with sumi ink. These riari and tokuari are the variations I am doing. Sensei showed me this copy and explained to me that this riari means this and this tokuari is a variation of this form. However, once the Founder performed these movements they became “aiki-like” or Ueshiba style.

It would be interesting to find out more about this predecessor art.

I don’t know what it was nor does Kisshomaru Sensei seem to know about it. You know that I have a series of photos taken by Kodansha at the old Noma dojo. I found those photos which were half-destroyed and looked like trash when I was putting things in order in a storeroom. Their color had changed. When I told O-Sensei about the photos he said that he would not need them and gave them to me.

Few individuals have so thoroughly investigated the origins of aikido as Aiki News’ own editor-in-chief Stanley Pranin. In this series, originally written for publication in the Japanese-language magazine Wushu, Pranin recounts some of the highlights of aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba’s long career through his association with his teachers and leading students. Part eight focuses on Morihiro Saito, keeper of the Aiki Shrine in Iwama, who has done much to classify and systematize the aikido he learned during fifteen years of training with O-Sensei.

The process of technical diversification began in aikido even before the death of its founder, Morihei Ueshiba. Among the tendencies prevalent in aikido today are the soft approach emphasizing circular or ki no nagare techniques of Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, the so-called hard-style school of Yoshinkan aikido headed by Gozo Shioda Sensei, the emphasis on the concept of ki of Shinshin Toitsu aikido as espoused by Koichi Tohei Sensei, the eclectic system of Minoru Mochizuki Sensei of Yoseikan aikido, and the sports aikido system devised by Kenji Tomiki Shihan, which includes competition. To these must be added the unified technical curriculum formulated by 9th dan Aikikai shihan Morihiro Saito. Saito Sensei’s approach, which stresses the inter-relationship between empty-handed techniques and weapons (aiki ken and jo), has become a de facto standard for many aikido practitioners throughout the world. This has been due largely to the success of his many books on aikido techniques and his extensive foreign travels.

Introduction to aikido

Morihiro Saito was a skinny, unimpressive lad of eighteen when he first met Morihei Ueshiba in sleepy Iwama Village in July 1946. It was shortly after the end of World War II and practice of the martial arts was prohibited by the GHQ. The founder had been “officially” retired in Iwama for several years, although in reality he was engaged in intensive shugyo in these secluded surroundings. Indeed, it was during the Iwama years during and after the war that Morihei Ueshiba was in the process of perfecting modem aikido. Among the handful of uchideshi during those poverty-stricken years were Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, and Tadashi Abe. The young Saito was given little encouragement initially and had to endure the intensive, often painful training silently. Saito Sensei recalls the early days when suwariwaza practice on the dojo’s hardwood floor would continue endlessly and leave his knees bloodied and festering. To make matters worse, as a junior member of the dojo he was on the receiving end of countless vigorous techniques from seniors such as Tohei and Abe.

Training at the founder’s side

Gradually however, Saito’s tenacity paid off and in a few short years he became one of the mainstays of the founder’s country dojo. Moreover, he had the advantage of being employed by the National Railways on a 24-hour on 24-hour off basis that left him ample free time to spend at his teacher’s side. In addition to the hours he spent in the dojo, Saito assisted the founder in all aspects of his daily life, including numerous chores and farm work. Although the work was demanding and Ueshiba was a strict mentor, Saito’s reward was the unique opportunity to serve as the founder’s training partner; particularly in the practice of the aiki ken and jo, over a period of some 15 years. Morihei Ueshiba would usually train with weapons during the morning hours when regular students were not present. Thus, it was partly due to his innate martial talent and perseverance, and partly due to his flexible work schedule that Morihiro Saito became the inheritor of Morihei Ueshiba’s technical legacy.

By the late 1950s, Saito Sensei had become a powerhouse and one of the top shihan in the Aikikai system, teaching regularly at the Iwama Dojo in Ueshiba’s absence. He also began instructing on a weekly basis at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo starting in 1961 and was the only teacher besides the founder himself to be permitted to teach aiki weapons there. His classes were very popular and many Tokyo students would gather on Sunday mornings to practice taijutsu and the aiki ken and jo with him. When the founder passed away in April 1969, Saito became dojo-cho of the Iwama Dojo and was also entrusted to take care of the Aiki Shrine Morihei Ueshiba had built nearby.

Publication of technical manuals and foreign travels

It was the publication in 1973 of the first of what was to become a five-volume series of Japanese-English technical books that established Saito Sensei’s reputation as the foremost technician among aikido shihan. These volumes contain hundreds of aiki techniques, including taijutsu, aiki ken and jo, and kaeshiwaza. These technical manuals introduced a classification system and nomenclature for aikido techniques that has since achieved wide acceptance. In addition, instructional films were offered to supplement the books and were enthusiastically received.

In 1974 Saito Sensei made his first instructional trip abroad to the United States. I was present at his Northern California seminars and remember vividly the amazement of the participants at his encyclopedic knowledge of aikido techniques. This, coupled with his clear teaching method, replete with numerous gestures, made the services of an interpreter almost unnecessary. Saito Sensei has traveled abroad more than 50 times in the intervening years and has far more invitations than his time and energies permit

Iwama: Mecca for foreign practitioners

The popularity of his books and his extensive foreign travels have resulted in the Iwama Dojo becoming a Mecca for foreign aikido students wishing to train intensively and gain experience in the use of the aiki ken and jo. Over the years, literally hundreds of aikidoka have journeyed from abroad, and often the foreign practitioners outnumber their Japanese counterparts at the Iwama Dojo. Perhaps the secret of Morihiro Saito Sensei’s success among foreign enthusiasts is his unique approach to the art, a mixture of tradition and innovation. On the one hand, he is totally committed to preserving intact the legacy of techniques bequeathed by the founder. That is to say, Saito Sensei views himself as providing a sense of continuity that enables present-day practitioners to understand the origins of aikido. At the same time, he has displayed considerable creativity in ordering and classifying the wealth of technical knowledge passed on by Morihei Ueshiba so as to reveal its internal logic and facilitate its transmission to future generations. The clarity of his instructional methods has been well received abroad.

Aiki ken and jo certification system

Saito Sensei has also instituted a novel system for the certification of instructors of aiki ken and jo, whereby traditional handwritten scrolls are given to those who have demonstrated certain skill levels with weapons. Separate from the dan grading system, the aim of the program is to preserve the ken and jo techniques developed by the founder that are closely related to and inseparable from aiki taijutsu. The scrolls include the names and detailed descriptions of aiki weapon techniques and are patterned after the mokuroku awarded in traditional schools before the introduction of the dan ranking system. This method of certification is quite unusual among modern martial arts.

Today Morihiro Saito Sensei continues a heavy schedule, instructing morning classes devoted to the aiki ken and jo and general practice in the evenings, where he teaches taijutsu techniques. Also, a number of training camps are held each year at the Iwama Dojo, a practice that has gone on since the days when the founder was still living. He is continuously honing his technique and devising new training routines to make his teaching methods more effective.

In the aikido world today, there is an ever-increasing tendency to regard the art as primarily a “health system” and the effectiveness of aiki techniques as almost inconsequential. In this context, the power and excellence of Morihiro Saito Sensei’s technique stands out in great relief and, due to the efforts of Saito and a few others, aikido can still claim the right to be regarded as a true martial art.

On May 4, 1996 a celebration was held in Iwama, Ibaragi Prefecture, to commemorate the 50 years Morihiro Saito of the Ibaragi Shuren Dojo has spent in aikido. Following opening remarks by Yoshimi Hanzawa Shihan, speeches were made by Aikikai Hombu Dojo-cho Moriteru Ueshiba, and the Mayor of Iwama who expressed thanks to Saito Shihan for his contributions to the town. After the presentation of gifts and flowers, Saito Shihan made an address (excerpts of which appear below) and donated funds for the welfare of the elderly in Iwama. A toast in which Hiroshi Isoyama Shihan of the International Aikido Federation called Saito “a modern-day Miyamoto Musashi” completed the ceremonies.

Some 400 people gathered to celebrate Saito Shihan’s half-century in aikido, including old-timers like Zenzaburo Akazawa and students from all over Japan. Numerous foreigners were also to be seen, offering a glimpse of the international character of Saito Shihan’s activities.

“One family created by the kami; one family created by aikido.”
(Excerpts from Saito Sensei’s speech)

Thanks to my teacher, founder Morihei Ueshiba and his family, I have been able to come this far in aikido.

The past 50 years have included times of great enjoyment and of hardship. When I became a student of Ueshiba Sensei back in 1946 there were already several uchideshi in the dojo. Many went on to become world-class teachers. They made me work hard, to be sure, but they also took good care of me.

Uchideshi life back then consisted of rising before the sun to pray, training, and eating two meals a day of rice porridge with sweet potato or taro. The rest of the time was spent working on the farm. Many of the old-timers here today no doubt helped O-Sensei with the farm work. He was always asking people to help, so being an uchideshi was pretty hard work. I myself had a job with the National Railroad, so every other day I got to slip away.

The founder would act on things as soon as he thought of them without paying much attention to the convenience of other people or their households. He would just suddenly say, “Everybody come tomorrow, there’s threshing to be done!” Of course, everyone had other business to attend to, but somehow we all ended up putting in our time anyway. Eventually, though, the sempai stopped coming during the day and there was no one left. I went to the dojo whenever I got off my shift at the railroad, but no one would be there. The founder would be in the fields already. When I greeted him he would say, “Ah, you’ve come,” and then we would train together, just the two of us. He was very good to me in that way.

On wedding day, January 1952

One day Ueshiba Sensei said, “Saito, get yourself a wife.” Fortunately, I ended up marrying Sata. I say fortunately because I wasn’t exactly a good catch as a husband, and I can’t think why anyone would want to marry her, either. Once we had settled on one another, Sensei said, “You can have the wedding in my house,” which we did. Soon afterward, however, he said, “You’re in charge of the place now,” and promptly left on a trip to the Kansai region. Well, I didn’t know what to do, so the next day I chased after him, following him all around Kansai asking him to come back. Because of that we never did get to go on a honeymoon.

On January 26, 1968 the founder’s wife was suddenly taken ill and ended up bedridden for over a year. O-Sensei was worried and would peer into her face and ask how she was doing. When she tried to answer, though, she didn’t have the strength to form proper words and could only make sounds. My wife would “interpret” by asking her, “What you said was this, right?” and she would make a sound in agreement. Nobody else, including her husband of 60 years, could make out what she was saying; but my wife had come to know her so well during 18 years of service that she understood. O-Sensei said, “Sata, you’re amazing! I don’t hold a candle to you.”

The founder’s wife passed away not long after he did in June of 1969 and I became the guardian and caretaker of the Aiki Shrine and the Ibaragi Dojo.

At the time I was also teaching on Sunday at the Hombu Dojo. One day an American practicing there told me he wanted more than anything to stay in Iwama. There was nobody practicing at the Ibaragi Dojo at the time, and I was worried about leaving the place alone at night, so I figured it was a perfect opportunity. That person became the first foreign uchideshi there, turned out to be an excellent student and eventually opened his own dojo in San Francisco. He sent people to Iwama every year, and after a while they started coming from Europe as well.

That was about 25 years ago when people were just starting to talk about world peace and international friendship. I realized that was the situation, although on a small scale, that had begun forming around me. People with different colored hair and different religions and what have you, all living together with no problem and having a good time, brought together by aikido. It was just like O-Sensei taught: “The universe is beautiful and we are one family created by God.”

I remember when I originally began practicing aikido my only goal was to become strong in a fight. Eventually I realized how absurd that was, and I asked myself how it would be possible to achieve the much broader goal of creating a “world family.” I decided it must be through expanding the circle of harmony and unity (wa).

People began asking me to go abroad, and I’ve now been overseas at least 50 times, and people from over 30 countries have come to train in Iwama. Wherever I go it feels like family at Iwama and all over the world, people are much the same. Thanks to the founder and thanks to aikido the world is becoming one family and life is becoming more and more enjoyable.

Sata Saito

As long as I am able, I am committed to correctly following the founder’s teachings, striving for world peace, international friendship, and working toward regional social development.

Serving the Founder’s Wife for 18 Years
(Sata Saito, wife of Morihiro, talks about her experiences)

Wedding at O-Sensei’s home

Yes, there were difficult times, if you think about them that way, but I did only what I considered my duty as the wife of Morihiro Saito. I served my husband as I felt I should, and I served his teacher and his teacher’s wife. No matter what, I would never put myself before O-Sensei or my husband. O-Sensei once told me, “Saito is my student (deshi), but you are not,” but I resolved just the same that I would do my best for both of them.

My husband and I were married in January 1952. Apparently one day O-Sensei told my husband to find himself a bride. When asked why, he said, “I’m going with my wife to my hometown of Tanabe, which I haven’t visited for 40 years. I need someone to look after things here in Iwama. But this place is so big that it has to be someone established with a family of their own.”

My husband’s parents were not so easily convinced and did not approve. It would have been okay if he was capable of handling the job, but if it turned out he wasn’t, there would probably be hell to pay. But O-Sensei was impatient and said, “Saito, if you’re going to dawdle I’ll find someone else. I’ll get someone I like!”

In those days women often went to meet their prospective husbands without ever having been introduced to them before. You just went to meet whomever you were told to. If you found the person acceptable you drank the tea you’d been served; if they didn’t suit you you could say so by leaving the cup untouched on the table.

Back then, marrying someone outside the prefecture was still rather difficult. You also had to obey your parents’ wishes and it was difficult to marry someone without their approval. O-Sensei’s household was of a somewhat higher class than I was used to, and I had trouble understanding what he said because he spoke in the Kansai dialect, which I had never heard before. So I had a pretty hard time of it in many different ways.

It was customary for brides to do their hair up in a Shimada-style coiffure, so women stopped cutting their hair when it came about time to be getting married. I didn’t have time to grow mine because everything happened so quickly, so I had to use hairpieces to make up the difference.

In the old days the groom would come to the bride’s house and take her back to his home, where the wedding would take place. Our wedding was held before the Shinto altar (shinzen) in O-Sensei’s old house, so from that day I entered directly into the Ueshiba family. People like Koichi Tohei, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and other prominent members of the Aikikai attended the ceremony.

“Saito, I want you to live here!”

Morihiro Saito, c. 1955

We were married so soon after the war that food rationing was still in effect. O-Sensei had his own land, so the household didn’t receive any rice rations; we had to grow enough to feed ourselves. If we didn’t work the fields we’d have nothing to eat. O-Sensei was still young then and did a lot of the work himself, but he also had his students help out. Of course, most of the people around here come from farm families, so they also had their own fields and food to worry about. Most couldn’t afford be at O-Sensei’s side all the time. When it came harvest time, though, O-Sensei couldn’t wait for the rest to finish harvesting their own farms, so he was pretty persistent in asking them to come help. For that reason, it was very difficult for some people to continue practicing aikido, and many gave up and stopped coming.

My husband, on the other hand, was the last child in his family and had a job with the railroad. He didn’t have any family farm responsibilities to worry about, either, so I think O-Sensei found him just right and relied on him.

About four months before the marriage O-Sensei said, “Saito, I want you and your wife to live here,” and he started clearing the trees on the land by himself in preparation for our arrival! Despite the fact we still didn’t have the permission of either of our parents, he was out there clearing land for us! The land was covered mostly with kunugi (a kind of oak) and there was no one around with time to clear it, what with other fields to attend to and so on. (We didn’t have a chance to finish the clearing until after we’d gotten settled, and even then it wasn’t completed while O-Sensei was still alive.) This house was finished on September 28, if I remember correctly. After all that our parents didn’t really have much choice but to resign themselves to the marriage. And of course my husband couldn’t really oppose his teacher, especially since he had gone through all the trouble he did. In those days a deshi didn’t disobey his teacher in any way. So that’s how we came to live here. The house didn’t have a proper tiled roof at first; it was just thatched with a base covering of cedar bark. Later, O-Sensei gave us the land, partly in gratitude for that fact that my husband had helped him straighten out certain difficulties regarding the surrounding property.

“Sata, calm him down!”

Because Sensei had some assets and wealth, there were certain people who said various things to him about our dedication to him and his wife. But O-Sensei told me, “Sata, I’ve told all the deshi to respect Saito. I told them he’s so respectable they’d benefit even by drinking tea made from the dirt under his fingernail.” But then there were occasions when someone would fill his head with slander like, “Saito has taken on that kind of responsibility because he’s got his eye on your money.” And even though O-Sensei had heaped such praise on him before, he would believe that person and say, “Ah, I bet you’re right. That Saito is really disgraceful, isn’t he.”

Well, when my husband happened to hear one of those comments he went to O-Sensei and said, “If you call me an idiot and a fool I will still follow you anywhere, because I am your devoted student. But if you think me that sort of evil man, well, I can’t stay here even one more night. I will leave immediately!” O-Sensei and his wife begged him not to go saying, “Saito, wait, don’t go!”

Pushing against founder in demonstration, c. 1957

They knew how short a temper he had so they told me, “Sata, do something to calm him down!” I said, “I’m sorry but once he’s made up his mind about something there’s not much I can do to change it.” But they kept on saying, “Don’t apologize, just do something, please, make him stay!”

My husband was a railroad employee, so he got to ride the trains for free, which made it very convenient for him to accompany O-Sensei on his numerous trips. Whenever he went somewhere he’d tell my husband to come along. One day my husband said, “I’m sorry, Sensei, but I just can’t take that many days off from work.” Hearing that, O-Sensei told Kinya Fujita [a businessman who was heavily involved with the incorporation of the Kobukai] to call the president of the railroad. A few days later the train station my husband worked at received a telephone call from the president’s secretary. He said, “You have a man working there named Saito. Give him a week off.”

Even when my husband came home from the night shift, I never saw him taking a nap the next day. Instead, he was always helping O-Sensei or training.