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Morihiro Saito Celebrates 50 Years in Aikido

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by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Journal #109 (Fall/Winter 1996)

Prior to ceremony honoring 9th dan promotion
On May 4, 1996 a celebration was held in Iwama, Ibaragi Prefecture, to commemorate the 50 years Morihiro Saito of the Ibaragi Shuren Dojo has spent in aikido. Following opening remarks by Yoshimi Hanzawa Shihan, speeches were made by Aikikai Hombu Dojo-cho Moriteru Ueshiba, and the Mayor of Iwama who expressed thanks to Saito Shihan for his contributions to the town. After the presentation of gifts and flowers, Saito Shihan made an address (excerpts of which appear below) and donated funds for the welfare of the elderly in Iwama. A toast in which Hiroshi Isoyama Shihan of the International Aikido Federation called Saito “a modern-day Miyamoto Musashi” completed the ceremonies.

Some 400 people gathered to celebrate Saito Shihan’s half-century in aikido, including old-timers like Zenzaburo Akazawa and students from all over Japan. Numerous foreigners were also to be seen, offering a glimpse of the international character of Saito Shihan’s activities.

“One family created by the kami; one family created by aikido.”

(Excerpts from Saito Sensei’s speech)

Thanks to my teacher, founder Morihei Ueshiba and his family, I have been able to come this far in aikido.

The past 50 years have included times of great enjoyment and of hardship. When I became a student of Ueshiba Sensei back in 1946 there were already several uchideshi in the dojo. Many went on to become world-class teachers. They made me work hard, to be sure, but they also took good care of me.

Uchideshi life back then consisted of rising before the sun to pray, training, and eating two meals a day of rice porridge with sweet potato or taro. The rest of the time was spent working on the farm. Many of the old-timers here today no doubt helped O-Sensei with the farm work. He was always asking people to help, so being an uchideshi was pretty hard work. I myself had a job with the National Railroad, so every other day I got to slip away.

The founder would act on things as soon as he thought of them without paying much attention to the convenience of other people or their households. He would just suddenly say, “Everybody come tomorrow, there’s threshing to be done!” Of course, everyone had other business to attend to, but somehow we all ended up putting in our time anyway. Eventually, though, the sempai stopped coming during the day and there was no one left. I went to the dojo whenever I got off my shift at the railroad, but no one would be there. The founder would be in the fields already. When I greeted him he would say, “Ah, you’ve come,” and then we would train together, just the two of us. He was very good to me in that way.

On wedding day, January 1952
One day Ueshiba Sensei said, “Saito, get yourself a wife.” Fortunately, I ended up marrying Sata. I say fortunately because I wasn’t exactly a good catch as a husband, and I can’t think why anyone would want to marry her, either. Once we had settled on one another, Sensei said, “You can have the wedding in my house,” which we did. Soon afterward, however, he said, “You’re in charge of the place now,” and promptly left on a trip to the Kansai region. Well, I didn’t know what to do, so the next day I chased after him, following him all around Kansai asking him to come back. Because of that we never did get to go on a honeymoon.

On January 26, 1968 the founder’s wife was suddenly taken ill and ended up bedridden for over a year. O-Sensei was worried and would peer into her face and ask how she was doing. When she tried to answer, though, she didn’t have the strength to form proper words and could only make sounds. My wife would “interpret” by asking her, “What you said was this, right?” and she would make a sound in agreement. Nobody else, including her husband of 60 years, could make out what she was saying; but my wife had come to know her so well during 18 years of service that she understood. O-Sensei said, “Sata, you’re amazing! I don’t hold a candle to you.”

The founder’s wife passed away not long after he did in June of 1969 and I became the guardian and caretaker of the Aiki Shrine and the Ibaragi Dojo.

At the time I was also teaching on Sunday at the Hombu Dojo. One day an American practicing there told me he wanted more than anything to stay in Iwama. There was nobody practicing at the Ibaragi Dojo at the time, and I was worried about leaving the place alone at night, so I figured it was a perfect opportunity. That person became the first foreign uchideshi there, turned out to be an excellent student and eventually opened his own dojo in San Francisco. He sent people to Iwama every year, and after a while they started coming from Europe as well.

That was about 25 years ago when people were just starting to talk about world peace and international friendship. I realized that was the situation, although on a small scale, that had begun forming around me. People with different colored hair and different religions and what have you, all living together with no problem and having a good time, brought together by aikido. It was just like O-Sensei taught: “The universe is beautiful and we are one family created by God.”

I remember when I originally began practicing aikido my only goal was to become strong in a fight. Eventually I realized how absurd that was, and I asked myself how it would be possible to achieve the much broader goal of creating a “world family.” I decided it must be through expanding the circle of harmony and unity (wa).

People began asking me to go abroad, and I’ve now been overseas at least 50 times, and people from over 30 countries have come to train in Iwama. Wherever I go it feels like family at Iwama and all over the world, people are much the same. Thanks to the founder and thanks to aikido the world is becoming one family and life is becoming more and more enjoyable.

Sata Saito
As long as I am able, I am committed to correctly following the founder’s teachings, striving for world peace, international friendship, and working toward regional social development.

Serving the Founder’s Wife for 18 Years

(Sata Saito, wife of Morihiro, talks about her experiences)

Wedding at O-Sensei’s home

Yes, there were difficult times, if you think about them that way, but I did only what I considered my duty as the wife of Morihiro Saito. I served my husband as I felt I should, and I served his teacher and his teacher’s wife. No matter what, I would never put myself before O-Sensei or my husband. O-Sensei once told me, “Saito is my student (deshi), but you are not,” but I resolved just the same that I would do my best for both of them.

My husband and I were married in January 1952. Apparently one day O-Sensei told my husband to find himself a bride. When asked why, he said, “I’m going with my wife to my hometown of Tanabe, which I haven’t visited for 40 years. I need someone to look after things here in Iwama. But this place is so big that it has to be someone established with a family of their own.”

My husband’s parents were not so easily convinced and did not approve. It would have been okay if he was capable of handling the job, but if it turned out he wasn’t, there would probably be hell to pay. But O-Sensei was impatient and said, “Saito, if you’re going to dawdle I’ll find someone else. I’ll get someone I like!”

In those days women often went to meet their prospective husbands without ever having been introduced to them before. You just went to meet whomever you were told to. If you found the person acceptable you drank the tea you’d been served; if they didn’t suit you you could say so by leaving the cup untouched on the table.

Back then, marrying someone outside the prefecture was still rather difficult. You also had to obey your parents’ wishes and it was difficult to marry someone without their approval. O-Sensei’s household was of a somewhat higher class than I was used to, and I had trouble understanding what he said because he spoke in the Kansai dialect, which I had never heard before. So I had a pretty hard time of it in many different ways.

It was customary for brides to do their hair up in a Shimada-style coiffure, so women stopped cutting their hair when it came about time to be getting married. I didn’t have time to grow mine because everything happened so quickly, so I had to use hairpieces to make up the difference.

In the old days the groom would come to the bride’s house and take her back to his home, where the wedding would take place. Our wedding was held before the Shinto altar (shinzen) in O-Sensei’s old house, so from that day I entered directly into the Ueshiba family. People like Koichi Tohei, Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and other prominent members of the Aikikai attended the ceremony.

“Saito, I want you to live here!”

Morihiro Saito, c. 1955
We were married so soon after the war that food rationing was still in effect. O-Sensei had his own land, so the household didn’t receive any rice rations; we had to grow enough to feed ourselves. If we didn’t work the fields we’d have nothing to eat. O-Sensei was still young then and did a lot of the work himself, but he also had his students help out. Of course, most of the people around here come from farm families, so they also had their own fields and food to worry about. Most couldn’t afford be at O-Sensei’s side all the time. When it came harvest time, though, O-Sensei couldn’t wait for the rest to finish harvesting their own farms, so he was pretty persistent in asking them to come help. For that reason, it was very difficult for some people to continue practicing aikido, and many gave up and stopped coming.

My husband, on the other hand, was the last child in his family and had a job with the railroad. He didn’t have any family farm responsibilities to worry about, either, so I think O-Sensei found him just right and relied on him.

About four months before the marriage O-Sensei said, “Saito, I want you and your wife to live here,” and he started clearing the trees on the land by himself in preparation for our arrival! Despite the fact we still didn’t have the permission of either of our parents, he was out there clearing land for us! The land was covered mostly with kunugi (a kind of oak) and there was no one around with time to clear it, what with other fields to attend to and so on. (We didn’t have a chance to finish the clearing until after we’d gotten settled, and even then it wasn’t completed while O-Sensei was still alive.) This house was finished on September 28, if I remember correctly. After all that our parents didn’t really have much choice but to resign themselves to the marriage. And of course my husband couldn’t really oppose his teacher, especially since he had gone through all the trouble he did. In those days a deshi didn’t disobey his teacher in any way. So that’s how we came to live here. The house didn’t have a proper tiled roof at first; it was just thatched with a base covering of cedar bark. Later, O-Sensei gave us the land, partly in gratitude for that fact that my husband had helped him straighten out certain difficulties regarding the surrounding property.

“Sata, calm him down!”

Because Sensei had some assets and wealth, there were certain people who said various things to him about our dedication to him and his wife. But O-Sensei told me, “Sata, I’ve told all the deshi to respect Saito. I told them he’s so respectable they’d benefit even by drinking tea made from the dirt under his fingernail.” But then there were occasions when someone would fill his head with slander like, “Saito has taken on that kind of responsibility because he’s got his eye on your money.” And even though O-Sensei had heaped such praise on him before, he would believe that person and say, “Ah, I bet you’re right. That Saito is really disgraceful, isn’t he.”

Well, when my husband happened to hear one of those comments he went to O-Sensei and said, “If you call me an idiot and a fool I will still follow you anywhere, because I am your devoted student. But if you think me that sort of evil man, well, I can’t stay here even one more night. I will leave immediately!” O-Sensei and his wife begged him not to go saying, “Saito, wait, don’t go!”

Pushing against founder in demonstration, c. 1957
They knew how short a temper he had so they told me, “Sata, do something to calm him down!” I said, “I’m sorry but once he’s made up his mind about something there’s not much I can do to change it.” But they kept on saying, “Don’t apologize, just do something, please, make him stay!”

My husband was a railroad employee, so he got to ride the trains for free, which made it very convenient for him to accompany O-Sensei on his numerous trips. Whenever he went somewhere he’d tell my husband to come along. One day my husband said, “I’m sorry, Sensei, but I just can’t take that many days off from work.” Hearing that, O-Sensei told Kinya Fujita [a businessman who was heavily involved with the incorporation of the Kobukai] to call the president of the railroad. A few days later the train station my husband worked at received a telephone call from the president’s secretary. He said, “You have a man working there named Saito. Give him a week off.”

Even when my husband came home from the night shift, I never saw him taking a nap the next day. Instead, he was always helping O-Sensei or training.

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