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Interview with Morihiro Saito (1978)

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by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #32 (December 1978)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Jason Wotherspoon and Patricio Marshall.

Morihiro Saito c. 1970

On September 10, in the lingering summer heat, the AIKI NEWS staff visited Morihiro Saito Shihan, head of the Aikikai Ibaraki Dojo and caretaker of the Aiki Shrine at Iwama, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, the residence of O-Sensei. We asked Saito Sensei about his days spent with O-Sensei, his teaching method, his advice for practitioners of Aikido, etc. Present at the interview were several high-ranked students of the Iwama Dojo who had just finished their Sunday morning training as well as two guests from Iwate Prefecture. The interview was held in a family-like atmosphere graced by the hospitality of Mrs. Saito.

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.

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