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The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Volker Hochwald of Germany

“We must not break with the founder’s tradition just because people from abroad come here.”

Hitohiro Saito (40) was born in Iwama, where he started at the age of seven, studied under Morihei Ueshiba as a child, and continued learning from his father Morihiro Saito Shihan. Devoted to preserving the spiritual and technical tradition of O-Sensei’s aikido, Hitohiro has established a reputation for excellent technique and teaching methods in Japan, the US, Europe and Australia. We could feel his overflowing love and profound respect for his two masters (the founder and his father) during this exclusive interview.

Hitohiro Saito

Hitohiro Sensei, what are your earliest memories of the dojo?

I used to share meals with O-Sensei and to be given what was left on his plate. I also remember crying in the mornings in my childhood because I could not find my mother beside me when I woke up. She was always away at the dojo helping O-Sensei.

They say O-Sensei used to be very severe?

O-Sensei generally only demonstrated his techniques in other places, but he truly instructed in Iwama and was very strict. He would shout, “What kind of kiai is that! Go outside and see if you can down a sparrow with your kiai.” Or, to someone applying a sloppy yonkyo, “Go out and try it on a tree! Keep at it till you peel off the bark!”

Even as a child, I realized from the atmosphere around him that he was a great man. We all used to bow our heads from the moment Saito Sensei, my father, went to fetch O-Sensei, and remained prostrate until O-Sensei arrived with Saito Sensei following along behind. We finally raised our faces in order to bow with O-Sensei before the dojo shrine. Then we started training with tai no henko.

If I was sitting next to Saito Sensei while O-Sensei was explaining a shomenuchi technique I would be sent up to execute a shomenuchi strike against O-Sensei. One day my older sister was told to go and attack O-Sensei, but she started to cry and left the dojo, as it was not easy for a child to go and interrupt O-Sensei this way. I was told to go instead and I struck with a kiai shout, at which O-Sensei said, “So, you came, did you?” He threw me, but used his hand to stop my head hitting the mat, and said, “Careful now.” O-Sensei was such a kind person.

I remember going out to the garden and watching him brush his teeth, when he suddenly pulled them out, as they were false, and said, “That was funny, wasn’t it?” (laughs)

How old were you then?

Around my second year in elementary school. O-Sensei was still vigorous in those days. In his last years he did long warm-ups, but at the time when I started aikido he used to teach more techniques.

When did you decide to dedicate yourself completely to aikido?

I didn’t have much choice, since I am the only son, even though I was a lazy fellow when it came to training. (laughs) I planned to open a restaurant to be able to make a living while doing aikido. After high school, I went to Sendai for a year to learn how to cook, then I went to Osaka for a further two years of study. Whenever I had a day off, I visited Seiseki Abe’s dojo and learned calligraphy from him. I also visited Bansen Tanaka’s aiki dojo.

Abe Sensei practices misogi by pouring cold water on himself every morning to purify his soul. He seems to express an ascetic mind through his calligraphy. Originally he met O-Sensei at Bansen Tanaka’s dojo at Takahama. O-Sensei recognized a kindred spirit on the path of misogi, and began to learn calligraphy from him.

We visited Abe Sensei a few years ago and saw some amazing scrolls done by O-Sensei. You can feel a spiritual atmosphere as soon as you enter the dojo.

Those scrolls are luminous, aren’t they? To learn more about O-Sensei one should read his doka (poems) and study his calligraphy. Photos and video tapes give us a certain direct feeling of connection with O-Sensei, but his poems and calligraphy communicate more subtly with us. They are truly wonderful and profound.

Abe Sensei knows O-Sensei’s poems very well, doesn’t he?

That’s right, I hope he succeeds in his plans to publish a collection of O-Sensei’s calligraphy and to build a museum devoted to O-Sensei. When I was a child Abe Sensei often visited Iwama with his daughter. He is a man of learning with a deep understanding of the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), the oldest book in Japanese history, which O-Sensei used to quote when explaining aikido. Abe told me a great deal about The Kojiki, but since it is so difficult, I am afraid it went in one ear and out the other. (laughs)

Did you do aikido during your apprenticeship in Sendai and Osaka?

In Sendai, I trained under Hanzawa Sensei, and in Osaka I practiced at Abe Sensei’s dojo

Did you open a restaurant in Iwama as planned?

Yes, in 1978, but I was young and foolish and used to drink a lot with the customers at night, and did not train very seriously. I ran the restaurant for seven years, but began to fear I would ruin my health, so I talked with my father and he agreed that I should get out of that business. He went abroad often and needed someone to take charge of the dojo while he was away. That was 11 years ago and since then I have been teaching aikido full-time.

Eleven years ago I went to Denmark with Saito Sensei and participated in a seminar there. Last year was the 10th anniversary of the trip, so I went back again with Saito Sensei and several people from Iwama. It was a great seminar with about 300 attendees.

What advice would you give aikido students on the fundamentals of training?

Saito Sensei says that all taijutsu, ken and jo techniques are based on hanmi. First you should master hanmi. Then, you have to learn how to do proper kiai. I think training without kiai is miserable. The founder had a marvelous kiai. If you want to learn true budo you cannot go wrong by trying to imitate O-Sensei. Unfortunately, people do not know much about O-Sensei, so I do my best to tell them more about him.

The foundation of aikido training is forging yourself. You cannot do this if you start practicing ki no nagare (ki-flow techniques) from the beginning. The basic training consists in allowing your partner to hold you firmly. By doing so he is doing you a favor. Your partner restrains you and only then do you start practicing a technique. This is the first step on the path. One of the founder’s instructions was to start with tai no henko. You should not neglect even one tai no henko practice. This is what we teach in Iwama.

It is very important to train hard in tai no henko and morotedori kokyuho. Otherwise, one can’t even start explaining ikkyo. When you pivot on your front foot and open to the rear, as in urawaza, you should be able to execute the proper movement of tai no henko, which is to bring the toes of your foot to meet the toes of your partner’s foot. Your body pivots around the big toe of your front foot. Be sure to pivot properly, not just any old way. You need to harmonize with your opponent precisely, not in a general, vague way. You must start from this solid beginning.

The precision needed for blending is a valuable point.

Anyone can blend in a general sense, but one should begin with more specific forms which will ultimately expand to the universal harmony the founder spoke of. First you learn how to blend with your partner “toe to toe,” then how to pivot on your front foot. When you know how to pivot properly you will be able to execute an urawaza technique. One cannot express these things verbally; they can only be mastered by training. The founder said: “Practice comes first.” It is not that your partner blends with you, but that you should blend with him in everything: “Move, open, then take the lead.” This is what O-Sensei taught Saito Sensei. A mistake of one centimeter could make it impossible to execute a technique successfully. You can’t change the techniques willy-nilly to suit yourself. There is a definite way to do each technique. Anyone, not just the physically strong, should be able to apply the techniques. Unfortunately, people neglect tai no henko. I can tell by watching people practice tai no henko and morotedori kokyuho what kind of practice they have been doing at their dojos. I do not need to see more. I think all the basics of the founder’s taijutsu are contained in these two techniques and ikkyo. It is hard to find anyone who is able to execute a perfect ikkyo technique. I know this may sound insolent, but I think you cannot understand aikido without starting properly from these techniques. If you have not mastered tai no henko, you will always end up clashing with your opponent in the other movements. The basic training it to enable you to solve the problems caused by wrong body movement. This is impossible to explain in words, as it has a deeper meaning, but I feel the only way to learn is to allow your partner to hold you firmly.

In some dojos teachers have their students practice the techniques after showing them only two or three times, without further explanation, but in Iwama you always give very detailed explanations.

The reason why Saito Sensei explains the techniques in detail is that he would like everyone to master each technique as quickly as possible. His teaching method is the result of making many mistakes himself over the years and learning from them. In his last years O-Sensei would demonstrate a technique as quick as a flash, then judge the students’ ability from how well they understood it. As Saito Sensei wants everybody to improve more quickly than he did, he stops his students immediately when they make a mistake and teaches them in detail. He would not be able to do so if he had been doing easy training. If your partner yields to you all the time, you can’t tell if you are executing techniques properly. By holding strongly your partner helps you to understand whether you are doing the techniques correctly or not. This does not mean he should hold in a nasty or devious way, although in such cases the technique can be changed to deal with the situation. Your partner should hold you firmly, but correctly, then you learn to blend with his power. This is the basic training. If he takes a cross-over grip from above or below, you should change your response accordingly. When your opponent comes to hold you, lead him skillfully. You lend your bodies to each other so you can train seriously.

People often say that in aikido you cannot measure your ability because your opponent collaborates with you.

That is not true. You can always see if your technique is good or bad at every moment of the practice. If you have to make any unnecessary effort, feel your opponent is heavy, or clash with him, it is because you are not blending completely with him. You should be able to clearly identify what is wrong with your movement, or whether you did not open wide enough. There is no need for a contest to tell if techniques work or not.

You mean your partner should attack you seriously in the training?

Yes, if I say, “Thrust at me,” he should thrust with full power; if I say, “Strike me,” he should strike hard; or he should grip me strongly. He should attack with all his strength and energy. Of course, if uke’s strength differs considerably from his partner’s he should attack with half power so nage can still learn. The founder maintained that practicing with a child was a good way to learn. Totally blending your energy with that of a child is a big challenge. Obviously some people are stronger than others, but if they injure their partner they commit an act of violence which is no longer aikido. Some people think that such violent practice is valuable, but I think it is disgraceful. The founder said we should enjoy our training, but it depends on you how enjoyable you make it. When you can sincerely say to your partner after the class, “Thank you very much. Please train with me again,” that is the best kind of practice. If conflict arises between you and your partner and an unpleasant feeling remains after training, such training cannot lead to world peace, as the founder wanted. I want people to enjoy all my classes. Even if someone has an injury but still wants to train they should be accommodated. I advise students to tell their partners if they have a sore elbow or wrist. They can still train earnestly with their good arm. I tell people whose knees are bad to do standing techniques rather than kneeling techniques. We should not practice recklessly. The best training is when you care about each other. The founder advocated an open-minded approach and in Iwama you can still be touched with this feeling. He also said you can learn from anything you see, if you only want to. That is so true.

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