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Interview with Mitsugi Saotome (1)

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #89 (Fall 1991)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Jim Sorrentino of the U.S.A. Mitsugi Saotome Shihan is well-known in the United States as the founder of the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba. In the first half of a two-part interview, Saotome Shihan recalls his fifteen years as uchideshi at the Hombu Dojo, provides his impressions of O-Sensei, and discusses his approach to weapons training.

Aiki News: Could you tell us about your aikido background?

Saotome Sensei: I practiced judo when I was in high school. I was taken to the Kuwamori Dojo with an introduction from my judo teacher because he thought aikido would be suitable for me. That’s when I learned about aikido for the first time. At that time Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei was teaching the class. I was bigger than I am now and weighed about 190 pounds. I used to win judo matches in Tokyo. After the class, Yamaguchi Sensei told me to grab his fingers. The moment I grabbed them I was thrown. I didn’t know how it happened and thought I had fallen by myself by tripping on a corner of the tatami mats. So I asked him to do it again. I think I was thrown four or five times. He threw me with his fingers and also when I grabbed his shoulder. This is how I started the art. After the class I talked with Yamaguchi Sensei and Kuwamori Sensei not only about martial arts, but also about various things such as Oriental philosophy. I was very glad to be able to do so because I was hungry for discussion on such topics to help me in my life. I still respect Kuwamori Sensei and I was very impressed by Yamaguchi Sensei. So I entered the dojo while continuing to practice judo.

Was this after Yamaguchi Sensei had returned from Burma?

No, it was before he went. The Kuwamori Dojo was the first Aikikai branch dojo after the war. In those days, Aikido Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba also used to come to the dojo, although we called him “Wakasensei” then. I imagined that he would be a typical martial-arts type but he looked like a university professor and spoke very politely. He impressed me as quite a gentleman. I was surprised to see his thick, strong hands. He was different from judo teachers. I spoke with him about many subjects and came to appreciate aikido even more.

In those days Wakasensei was still employed by the Osaka Securities Company. I have been doing aikido since that time. Shoji Nishio was also present. And Nobuyoshi Tamura started three months before I did. This happened about 37 years ago [ca. 1954]. I wanted to become an uchideshi but that didn’t happen until 1961. In those days Tamura was also working outside even though he was an uchideshi. It’s not like today when the dojo gives the young teachers a salary.

When I first met O-Sensei I was a high school student. I practiced in the old Hombu Dojo. The dojo wasn’t dirty but the tatami were worn out. O-Sensei, with his white beard, was talking to his students. I didn’t know who O-Sensei was then. O-Sensei spoke to me first to welcome me while the people around him were very tense. I was very surprised and felt a tingling feeling in my spine. I don’t know whether or not you could describe it as a spiritual awakening, but I was very shocked. In those days I personally visited teachers of other martial arts, not only from judo, but they were all different from O-Sensei. O-Sensei was in his sixties then and was dignified. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to meet him. He impressed me very strongly and this made me feel that I could give up everything to learn under him.

Was it mainly Wakasensei who was instructing at the Hombu Dojo at that time?

Wakasensei taught morning classes and then went to work. Yamaguchi Sensei taught the most.

Were there classes in both the morning and evening in those days?

That’s right. But there weren’t many classes in the beginning. The number increased gradually. In those days I participated in the 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. class which was usually taught by O-Sensei. If ten students showed up, the present Doshu commented on the large number of participants. He was still young then. I remember we used to practice kakarigeiko (training with continuous attacks) with Doshu. Nowadays aikido is known, but in those days many people asked what aikido was, even in Tokyo.

When I became an uchideshi O-Sensei scolded me more than anyone else. I was an uchideshi for almost 15 years and maybe that’s why he found it easier to scold me. I was the clumsy type while other uchideshi were much quicker than me to learn. I was the last to remain as an uchideshi. In my opinion, while O-Sensei was alive the art changed year after year and was continuously evolving. I wanted to observe O-Sensei while he trained himself. That’s why I stayed the longest as uchideshi [laughter]!

Did you learn the sword from O-Sensei?

In the old days the shihan took turns teaching on Sundays. I think O-Sensei became bored one day and said, looking into the office, “Who’s here today, Saotome?” He told me to shut and lock the windows, and I wondered what he was thinking. Then he ordered me to bring a bokken. “This is a sword kata for use in a real fighting situation,” he said, and showed it to me. His way of thinking was very old-fashioned. He ordered me to close the windows so nobody would see him. “You will never become a master,” he said [laughter]. I couldn’t understand at all. That kata was slightly different from the kumitachi. He showed me the kata very quickly in about five minutes.

A number of years ago, when I watched you train, Sensei, you were using the bamboo sword of the Yagyu-ryu, I believe. Do you still use it in your practice?

All my students use it. The reason I use the Yagyu-ryu bamboo sword is if we use the bokken to learn the basics of the sword and the kata, we can hurt our fingers and so we experience fear. If we are actually struck by a bokken we will be injured. So we really don’t want to strike each other. If we use the bamboo sword we feel safe to a certain extent, because if we are struck by it we won’t be injured. Even though we feel pain, we won’t suffer any broken bones. So we will be able to reach a certain level of skill quickly. If we use a bokken we are sure to become tense. If we use the bamboo sword, we can relax and practice without hesitation. Later we use the bokken. In that way students can master the kenand kumitachi. If we practice without any danger of injury, however, training becomes very haphazard. We have to be very careful about how we hold the sword in order to avoid injuries. Somehow we are not able to develop the true feeling of the kumitachi. It ends up only being a kata. You’re not able to harmonize or move your ki at all. So I have my students use the bokken after mastering the sword up to a certain degree. Since they are used to it, they can control the sword. Thus, we train in a step-by-step manner.

Morihiro Saito Sensei, for example, has organized the ken and jo movements he was taught by O-Sensei. What are the kumitachi you devised for “Aikido Schools of Ueshiba” like?

O-Sensei’s way of teaching varied according to the situation. The people who were taught by O-Sensei do the ken and jo differently. Since O-Sensei’s sword was the sword of aikido it is difficult to comprehend. You always had to follow him closely. It was necessary to systematize his teaching yourself. When I saw Morihiro Saito Sensei’s ken and jo at the Friendship Demonstration, I thought, “Yes, O-Sensei taught that too.” But somehow it was different. Saito Sensei has organized well what he was taught. My sword method and way of doing the kumitachi is also a bit different. This is because our experiences are different.

This is something that Shoji Nishio Sensei said clearly. At that time the emphasis in teaching at Hombu Dojo was on taijutsu(empty-handed) training, but the ken and jo were also considered important. However, there was no one at the Hombu Dojo who taught the ken and jo in the old days.

O-Sensei taught [ken and jo] during seminars at that time. He taught the basics. It is not proper to say this, but people who came to the dojo from the outside were guests. The students were the uchideshi who served O-Sensei. Since those coming from the outside were guests we took good care of them. The guests were not scolded even if they made the same mistakes we did. If I made the same mistake I was really given a hard time.

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