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Morihei Ueshiba & Morihiro Saito

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by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #101 (1994)


The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Dan Palmer of the UK.

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.