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Interview with Morihiro Saito - Part 1 (1979)

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #33 (March 1979)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Volker Hochwald of Germany. It is the second installment of a three-part interview with Morihiro Saito, 8th dan Sensei of the Ibaraki Dojo in Iwama, Japan. Saito Sensei continues his description of O-Sensei’s teaching method during the post-war years in Iwama.

Screen shot from 1973 video

Saito Sensei : 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 continued

(transcribed by Kaori Fujisaki; translated by Stanley A. Pranin and Midori Yamamoto.)