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.