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Morihiro Saito: Following the Founder Into History

by Gaku Homma

Published Online

Mr. and Mrs. Saito and his son Hitohiro in 1986

Author’s note: Portions of this article were written soon after the passing of Morihiro Saito Shihan, but in keeping with Japanese traditions for mourning, were not released until after the beginning of the following New Year.

January 30, 2003

On February 7th through 9th, 2003, Hitohiro Saito Sensei will be coming to Denver to teach at an American Memorial Seminar which will be held to honor his father, Morihiro Saito Shihan.

There have been many technical books written featuring Saito Shihan and his Aikido. There have been many interviews and articles written about him as the Keeper of the Aiki Shrine and Iwama Dojo Cho over his lifetime. For those who will be able to attend this memorial seminar, or even if you will not be able to attend, I would like to share what I know about a side of Saito Shihan that has not often been written about; the more private side of the man who is known publicly world-wide as the great martial artist that he was.

Saito Shihan has had many uchideshi, and thousands of students share in his teaching and his mission. There are few, however, that saw his more personal, private side. His family, close senior students, and long time friends such as Stanley Pranin, editor of Aikido Journal, knew his “real face”, as I call it, or his personal manner.

My relationship with Saito Shihan, spanned almost four decades, beginning in Iwama when I was just a boy. From those early days until these last years, I have had the honor to know him, and to share in some private times with him. It was one of his last requests of me that I express what I knew of him during his final days, and his final battles. He especially wanted his students in the United States to understand the end of his life, as a way to understand its beginning. To this end I pick up my pen to write…

As human beings and as Aikidoists, we oftentimes think of death as a negative thing, something to avoid as long as possible. Whether one is a homeless beggar on the streets, a success on Wall Street, or a martial artist, no one can escape death in this world. Martial artists and movie stars I suppose are both in the spotlight during the peak of their careers. We hear of them when they win championships or Oscars. As they grow old, they seem to fade away and disappear. As the history of Aikido grows longer, its generations of students get older. There are many Aikidoists from the first pioneer generations that are no longer with us.

As human beings, we cannot escape death. No matter how strong, even famous martial artists do not live forever. How a martial artist prepares for this inevitability however can be a great lesson to us all. This is Morihiro Saito Shihan’s last lesson for all of us. He once said dying does not have to be something to fear or run from, it should be faced with courage and dignity.

The first time I spoke to Saito Shihan about coming with his son Hitohiro Saito to Denver was in 1999. “Thank you, but no thank you.” was his reply. “Students who come to Denver to practice at a seminar of mine are interested in learning from me. They are not Hitohiro’s students by some birthright. As a father it is not good for me to just present the structure and organization I have built to him on a platter. That is too easy. If Hitohiro wants to make a life out of Aikido, he must do it himself. After I am gone, I ask you to then ask Hitohiro to come to Denver. He will need to make his own start in this country, and I trust you to give him a solid platform to begin from.”

This American Memorial Seminar for Morihiro Saito Shihan is my gift to the father Morihiro Saito… and to the son, as a new beginning for the next generation to come.

Gaku Homma

With the sadness still clinging to my thoughts, I left quickly after the memorial service and headed to Wakayama Prefecture to visit Tanabe, birthplace and final resting place of the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, at the Kozanji temple.

June 10, 2001. Tosoba marking Saito Shihan’s visit to the Founder’s grave

At the grave of the Founder, I stood quietly to pay my respects. As I stood there I noticed something interesting; Three tosoba (wooden prayer markers) standing diligently behind the Founders grave. One was inscribed with the name “Morihiro Saito” and the other two with the name “Moriteru Ueshiba,” the grandson and heir to the legacy of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. These were the only three tosoba placed here in the last year or so. Morihiro Saito Shihan’s tosoba was dated June 10, 2001. Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba had two tosoba dated March 31, 2001.

Many Aikidoists who have come to this resting spot to take a photo, but only two had taken the time and harbored the expense (approximately $500 for each tosoba) to acquire the services of the local priest to offer this special prayer. These prayers lingered, marked by the tosoba. Standing there thinking, I realized that Morihiro Saito Shihan had most likely come here to say goodbye.

1997 Saito Shihan All-American Seminar

In the month of May of the year 2002, we lost a great martial artist, Morihiro Saito. Morihiro Saito was a human being, as well as a martial artist of great stature. He faced his last battle-—against cancer-—head on with calmness and determination. His manner and grace were his last lessons, ones he taught silently to all of us, his students.

I want to write about Morihiro Saito, the man, so that you may more fully understand the life-—and the end of life-—of a truly great martial artist.

In 1997, Morihiro Saito Shihan came to Denver, Colorado for the third time. He had come to teach his 1997 All-American Seminar, which was attended by more than 350 students from all over North America and beyond. During the closing ceremony, Saito Shihan asked his students, “Did everyone enjoy the seminar?” His question was answered with applause. “This may be my last visit to America,” he continued, “Would you have me come again?” Again, his question was answered with thunderous applause.

Even then, Saito Shihan could not swallow his food smoothly. He confided to me that he had had a complete physical before coming and that some of the test results had not been good. “I will probably need surgery when I get back to Japan,” he said. This did not stop him from coming, however. He didn’t wait for an answer and told his doctors he must go to the United States. Nor did he listen to the warnings of his family, who had told me that his condition was serious. I had even gone to Japan personally to try to dissuade him from coming. “I am not sick!” he insisted over a glass of shochu. In a heavy Ibaraki accent he continued, “Don’t worry, I am still okay. I may be ill, but I am not ill in spirit. There are many things yet that I must do, and going to the United States this year is one of them!” After listening to this, what more could I do but agree? When Shihan made up his mind, there is not much more to do than say, “Yes sir.”

Morihiro Saito Shihan Aikikai Hombu 9th Dan, Ibaragi Iwama Dojo Cho and Keeper of the Aiki Shrine was a very important leader in the world Aikido community. If something were to happen to him in Denver, it would be more than a terrible thing.

1996 Saito Shihan’s
50th Anniversary Seminar, receiving gifts of flowers

Before the seminar, he did not tell any of his students of his condition. Trying not to raise concerns, we did everything we could to take care of him. Two of my students are pilots for United Airlines, and they went to Tokyo to fly him to the United States personally. He went first class all the way. There is a photo of Saito Shihan sitting in the captain’s chair in the cockpit with United pilot and Nippon Kan President Doug Kelly. It is a photo I have seen him show off on many occasions. Later he confided in me, “First class was very impressive, but it was lonely up there by myself. My students were not allowed to come up to visit me. I had so much attention from the flight attendants that I couldn’t even sneak sips of the favorite sake I had brought with me from home!” I was very relieved to see him at the airport looking healthy and making jokes.

During the seminar we took other precautions. I asked two of my students-—one who is my personal physician and the other a cardiac nurse—to keep an eye on him. Between practice times and before and after the day’s events we checked his pulse and blood pressure, monitoring him for any signs of danger. We decided it was best not to interrupt his usual diet. I cooked all of his meals myself, using basic ingredients like miso, soy sauce, and rice that I had brought for him from Iwama. We removed the Western-style bed from his sleeping quarters and replaced it with a futon, one end raised slightly to allow him to breath easier. Each night I slept in front of his door so that I could hear if he began to cough or needed attending.

I am not looking for any kind of accolades. With my experience as the last uchideshi to the Founder Morihei Ueshiba, this kind of attendance was expected of me. It was not out of the ordinary for me to do so.

One evening during the seminar, Saito Shihan began choking during dinner. We rushed to his aid, but he waived us off. “Just sitting calmly for a moment will make the choking subside,” he told us. “My doctors told me that foods red in color are good for my health, so I think a glass of red wine is in order.” I thought about protesting, but knowing better, I stopped. He knew his condition, and I was relieved that he felt he could make light of it.

Saito Shihan with United Pilot Doug Kelly after flight from Tokyo

The morning after the seminar, we prepared to leave by van for the day’s activities. Before getting in the car he spread his feet in a wide stance and bent over one knee in an extended leg stretch. “Genki desu ne” or “You seem full of vigor and energy,” I noted, then I asked. “What are you doing?” “I must finish working on your garden,” he replied. “I am worried about it.” With that he hopped into the van. This was the private Saito Shihan, not the Saito Shihan who reigned over Aikido dojos around the world.

In the garden, no matter how much we fussed, he insisted on moving from point to point, directing us to get out of the way as he repositioned rocks and trimmed foliage. He was intent on “fixing” the garden and moved rocks with ease that were difficult for young uchideshi to move by themselves.

Shigeru Kawabe Sensei of Akita, Japan, and his wife accompanied Saito Shihan on this trip to Denver. On this Monday they had dressed up for the day’s outing, not knowing they were going to be doing a bit of gardening. They pitched in anyway and got their nice clothes a little dirty, but it was worth it to see the smiles on everyone’s faces.

After the work was finished, Saito Shihan sat down on a rock he had just repositioned and viewed his garden handy work. “It is always the best to sit in the garden after working in it and have refreshments!” he exclaimed. I asked him if he could name the rock he had worked so hard to move into just the right place, and he answered, “Morihiro rock, and the name for this garden is Aikien.” Aikien was the name used for the Iwama Aiki Shrine Yagai dojo (outside dojo) built by the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. Saito Shihan continued, “It’s okay, the name is not used anymore at Iwama, so this is a good name for this garden.”

Nippon Kan Garden. Relaxing after garden work
with Kawabe Sensei and author Gaku Homma.
“I need to come back next year” he said.

The Nippon Kan garden was barely a year old at the time, and the plants and trees were still small. It was more rock than garden at that time. I do believe Saito Shihan had quite a gift in being able to recognize and project what would become. I think that is why he knew exactly how to position the rocks. He even remarked that students and gardens were the same in that you needed to look ten years ahead when shaping them. Resting there together in the fledgling garden, there was no way to know that five years later, the garden would be named by Zagat’s Restaurant Review as #1 in atmosphere and décor out of 6,000 Japanese restaurants nationwide.

Since the return trip from Denver back to Tokyo was such a long one, we decided to spend one night in San Fransisco before Saito Shihan and Kawabe Sensei continued on to Japan. The hotel we stayed in had over thirty-five floors, and the rooms were outfitted with balconies that faced the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Once we had arrived in the room, Saito Shihan headed directly for the balcony, where he stood arms outstretched and exclaimed, “Ii na,” or “That’s nice,” in Japanese. The afternoon sun was still warm and the breezes came in gently from the bay.

Cheerfully, he returned to the room and began unpacking his belongings. Usually he had an uchideshi unpack for him, but this time he unpacked himself with an almost childlike enthusiasm. He carried a small bottle of sake to the balcony and pulled up two chairs to a small table on the balcony deck. “Kawabe-san, let’s sit out here,” he said enthusiastically. Knowing that Saito Shihan never drank sake without something to eat, his otomo, Mark Larson and I quickly headed for Japan Town to buy Japanese appetizers for them.

We soon returned to a scene I will never forget. Both Saito Shihan and Kawabe Sensei were still sitting facing each other over the small table on the balcony. They both sat, heads bowed toward each other as if in prayer. The warmth of the sun and soft breezes had done their magic after such a long, eventful weekend, and both of them were fast asleep!

Saito Shihan had accomplished his mission, and had been successful in his teaching in Denver. At this moment however, he was the private man who was taking a well-deserved nap.

Two days after his return to Japan, I received a phone call. “I have cancer,” Saito Shihan said over the phone. “There is an extract from the maetake mushroom that I am looking for, but it is not available in Japan. It is supposed to have special healing properties. I know it is available in the United States. Could you send some to me?” I could hear the determination in his voice.

I bought all of the maetake extract that was available in all of the health food stores and pharmacies in Denver that day. The next day I left for Japan to deliver it. My restaurant, Domo, was scheduled to open in one week, and leaving the country was not the best idea. Yet, Saito Shihan’s health was in danger. I didn’t give a second thought about going to him.

San Francisco hotel balcony. Saito Shihan and Kawabe Sensei having “nap time”

He was so surprised and happy to see me the next day that he almost shed a tear; he literally jogged out the door to meet me. It was not important whether the maetake extract was going to work or not as a cure for his illness. More important to me was to show my respect and support. If I had made him happy for only one minute, that was enough. “Are you hungry?” he asked, and he led me by the arm into his home.

In 1998 Saito Shihan underwent surgery, and although the operation was major in scope, he survived and went on to recover well from the surgery.

In May 1999 he called me to tell me that he was fine and that he was going to come to Denver. “I still have work to do in the garden,” he explained. My first thought was to convince him not to come to protect his health. I wasn’t sure how to do this, so I asked his family for help. They told me that except for his voice being a little hoarse, he seemed to be fine. That explanation left me without an excuse, so there was nothing more to say except, “When would you like to come, Sensei?”

We took even more precautions, however, and Saito Shihan’s 1999 Seminar went off without a hitch. My worries seemed unwarranted. He ate heartily and seemed to enjoy himself very much. The only difference I noticed was that he controlled how much he ate and drank and retired early. On a few occasions, however, he did return after most everyone had left for a nightcap with his closest students and friends. This was his private time to relax. He told us about his surgery and even showed us his scars. “The doctors said, ‘Saito-san count to three.’ I counted to three, and that is all I can remember. When I awoke I was stapled shut from my neck to my navel, and my back had a diagonal cut about two feet long!” He showed off his scars with the pride of a kid who had caught his first fish. The doctors here agreed with the doctors in Japan that his scars had healed well. He was proud of this.

More than 350 students attended Saito Shihan’s seminar in 1999, and it was a great success. During the seminar he paused to ask his students, “Is everyone happy? I am very happy to be back in Colorado again. May I come back again next year?” He received a standing ovation that lasted long after he had left the gymnasium. Later on at the welcome party he delighted everyone by singing a rousing chorus of “Shiroi Keiko Gi,” which was Saito Shihan’s Japanese adaptation of “Oh My Darling Clementine”. That evening, Hans Goto Sensei came to me privately, with an air of seriousness. “Could you ask Shihan if he could come to California next year?” he asked. “Of course,” I answered. “I would imagine it will depend greatly on his health. I agree that it is best that he not come back to Denver next time. He pretends that everything is fine, but he knows his tomorrows. It would be in my heart to wish that he stay home in Iwama and take care of his health.”

Later on at my home, I chose my words carefully and posed a question to Saito Shihan. “Sensei, for next year, would it be a good idea to visit your Iwama-ryu dojos in California? If you don’t, your students are going to feel like I have kidnapped their father! I would not like that to happen.” After a few moments he responded, “Going to teach at many dojos in California during one visit is very difficult for me now physically. It seems to make sense to have one seminar in a central location such as Denver.” “How about if you arrange to have one large seminar at one of your dojos in California?” I asked. “I would worry that it would seem that I favor one dojo over another and that it might cause problems in the future. It is very important to me that this not happen,” he said. “What if you chose a location that was central and had a committee of your dojo leaders organize the event together?” I asked again. Saito Shihan looked like he was thinking deeply about this but did not answer.

After his return to Japan, it was January 2000 before I heard from Saito Shihan again. He told me he had decided to come to California this year. It was his understanding that his students had decided to work together to organize a central seminar in California for everyone to attend. He seemed very pleased that all of his students were working together. He asked me if I would teach his instructors the ABCs of organizing a seminar, using the “Denver system,” as he called it. I replied gently, “Sensei, you have generations of uchideshi in California who have known you for decades. These instructors of yours now have generations of their own students behind them. While you still have your health, this is a good way to bond them together for the future. It is important for them to work together as a team. If I were to step in and give advice on how to organize a seminar, I would only be interfering and hamper the process. They are quite capable of organizing a seminar on their own. I think it is better for everyone if I am not involved.”

As Saito Shihan had wished, in the fall of 2000 a very successful seminar was held in the Bay area hosted by, as Saito Shihan believed, a team of his leading Iwama-ryu instructors and students. In May 2001, I went to Japan for the All-Japan Aikido Demonstration in Tokyo. The demonstration was held at the Nippon Budokan. Saito Shihan did a wonderful demonstration of sankyo techniques and variations. He was a crowd pleaser as usual and received loud applause. By this time, the power in his legs and his knees were getting weaker. His uke performed well and masked the fact that he was assisting Shihan to stand after a pin. Up in the bleachers while waiting for his demonstration to begin, Saito Shihan toyed with a collapsible cane which he folded and unfolded purposefully. “What do you think?” he asked me. “Do you think we could sell these canes to American Ninja? Never mind, if a Ninja is in need of a collapsible cane, he can’t be much of a Ninja,” he concluded. Everyone around him laughed at his humor.

The next day I visited Iwama and was welcomed warmly. In the new dojo dining area we ate together and he seemed to enjoy himself. He spoke of the United States, and said that he was getting a little weaker physically but that he had promised to go to California again this year and that was a promise he intended to keep. Everyone at the table tried to dissuade him, but on this point he stood stubbornly fast. Finally even his daughter said, “There is no point in trying to change his mind. It is better to just let him do what makes him happy.” As I was preparing to leave, he presented me with 30 bokken he had had packed into carrying bundles.

Saito Shihan packing bokken into bundles

I spoke to his daughter again before I departed. She told me that his cancer was spreading and was now affecting his lower extremities. As is very common in Japan, Saito Shihan’s family was being told more about his condition than he was, and they had been told that he might have only a few more months to live. She was very concerned about him traveling but was not in the position to let him know that his illness was worsening. She was concerned for his hosts in California as well. If something were to happen while he was in the U.S., it would be traumatic for his students. She asked if I could somehow persuade his students in California to ask him not to come. I told her I was in no position to do so, nor would I want to interfere with his relationship with his students.

Four months later came the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The Japanese Government made a public announcement that all travel to the United States that was not imperative be postponed or canceled. Saito Shihan called to tell me he wanted to come to the U.S., but was being strongly advised by his family and the government not to do so. He said he had made his decision, but he asked how dangerous I thought it would be to travel, and what I thought the reaction would be from his students if he did not go. “It is difficult to say. After such a terrible and tragic event, it was hard to predict what people’s reaction would be. To hold a seminar shortly after such a horrific event might seem insensitive to some people, to others it might be courageous,” I answered. He asked me, “If it were you, would you go?” Knowing about his worsening condition, it was a difficult question to answer. If it were me, I would have gone, but my position was very different from his. Although I knew very well all of the hard work his students had done to prepare for his visit and what a hardship and disappointment it would be if he did not go, for his sake, I advised him not to go. More important right now was his life and the wishes of his family.

I think we both knew it was for his health, but I suggested gently, “In this time of tragedy, out of respect for the victims of this terrorist act, I think it is better not to go.” The next day there was an announcement posted on Aikido Journal’s Web site announcing that Saito Shihan would not be coming to California. Knowing that he had made his decision before I had spoken with him, seeing the announcement made it official. I felt badly for his students, but if by not going on this trip prolonged his health and life by even one day, I felt it was my duty to support him to this end.

Into 2002, Saito Shihan was in and out of the hospital. By February, the cancer had spread to his spinal column, which rendered him unable to walk. He was confined to a wheelchair and had been told that this was the final countdown. He refused any more medical treatments by his doctors and returned home from the hospital. His family told me that his condition was worsening and I made the journey to Iwama to visit him on March 1, 2002.

I was surprised to see that Saito Shihan had moved his bed to the front room of his house, very close to the sliding screen doors. In Japan it is the custom, especially for a martial artist, to sleep farthest from the door, particularly if they are ill or otherwise compromised. It is also customary to sleep with one’s head pointed toward the altar as a show of respect. Saito Shihan, however, had positioned himself where he could hear the best what was happening on the grounds and in the dojo and what his uchideshi and students were up to. His mission of teaching Aikido to his uchideshi and students still came first — even if that meant he slept with his feet toward the altar.

He lay on his bed, and attended to a pump that was used to drain fluids. The pump left bruises on his skin that were hard to look at, they looked so painful. Even still he joked, “I have never been this black and blue, even when I was young and got into fights all of the time!”

I asked him if he would like me to massage his feet. As I massaged his feet under the futon a tear came to my eye. I had done this before, in this same place. Only the last time I had done this, it was for the Founder before he died. My life seemed to have come full circle, and I was again offering the comfort of a massage to another great martial artist in Iwama.

As I massaged his feet, Saito Shihan spoke privately about his students, especially his students abroad. After about 20 minutes of conversation, I started to excuse myself from the room. He surprised me though and gave me a start when he barked commands at an uchideshi who was waiting behind a shoji screen. “It’s cold outside this morning! Get that stove going, Homma-kun needs breakfast now! DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” The uchideshi ran as fast as he could toward the kitchen.

After he finished giving orders to the uchideshi, he turned to me and said in a soft voice, “Thank you for coming. We should have breakfast together, but since I am unable, there will be breakfast ready for you in the uchideshi kitchen.” With that he returned his attention to the retreating uchideshi. “Don’t forget that stove!” he shouted.

After I finished breakfast, I stopped back in to say goodbye. He ordered me to go to storage and get 20 to 30 bokken. I thanked him kindly for his generosity, but he had already given me one generous gift of bokkens, and that was enough. I had only come to say farewell for now.

On April 23, 2002, I received a phone call from Japan. My presence at this year’s Aiki Jinja Tai Sai Festival on April 29 was being requested. Tai Sai is the grand festival held at the Aiki shrine in Iwama every year to honor the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. Without hesitation I began to make plans to leave for Iwama, where the festival was to be held. Saito Shihan was preparing to officiate over the Tai Sai ceremony, and it was important to me to be there.

When I arrived in Iwama, I stopped by Saito Shihan’s home to say hello. Assisted by his uchideshi, he was busy changing clothes. He was dressed officially in montsuki haori. His hair had been lightly dyed to remove extra gray, and he looked quite dignified.

He was brought by his uchideshi in his wheelchair to a spot outside in front of the dojo. His students soon gathered around him. I had arrived with Doug Kelly, the pilot who Saito Shihan had met many times before. He spotted us and asked Doug if United Airlines was taking the day off for Tai Sai.

Saito Shihan makes everyone smile with a joke as they gather around

Everyone laughed at this, which broke the tension of the moment. We all bent down on one knee to be a little closer to Shihan and also to show our respect for him. It is never polite to look down on a Sensei, especially this Sensei on this special day.

As we gathered around him, Saito Shihan updated everyone on his condition. We were in the direct sun, and it was hot. I suggested we move into the shade, but he shook his head, no. “The doctors wanted to do too many tests and take too many x-rays, so I left. The dojo is my hospital, and I am much more comfortable here. Anyway, radiation and medicines just make you lose your hair and lose weight. That’s enough for me. I have been sent wonderful herbs from all over the world. I will drink these to get better.”

As the Tai Sai ceremony began, Saito Shihan, propelled forward in his wheelchair by his uchideshi made his way to the shrine. We stood with him as he bowed his head to pray. Looking out at the grounds, he called to me quietly, “Homma-kun, I have for a long, long time, tended these grounds here at Iwama dojo, but this is the end. It is amusing to me that every day of the year I take care of this shrine and only one day of the year does everyone come from Tokyo and Hombu. They come to celebrate and then leave again. There is always so much trash left behind! Last year I told everyone to take their trash with them when they go. The trash made it as far as the Iwama train station where the station receptacles were left filled to overflowing. I got a call from the stationmaster complaining to me about all of the mess! This, too, is now at an end for me.” He looked at me and smiled. As he sat outside the shrine, azalea petals drifted down from nearby branches, settling gently on his shoulders and in his hair. If this had been a different year, if he had been in good health, he would have been inside the shrine for this ceremony. For this year though, he sat outside under the azalea trees.

Saito Shihan gives a prayer of welcome to the priest

The ceremony was followed by a naorai (celebration party) in the dojo. Saito Shihan drank a tiny cup of red wine, which made him happy. He asked to have a photograph taken of himself with me and Kawabe Sensei. Both Kawabe Sensei and I tried to huddle in close to Shihan for the picture, but a bottle of wine on the table was getting in the way of the photo. Jokingly, Saito Shihan said, “Ummm, if that bottle of wine is in the photograph, everyone will mistakenly think I am a big drinker!” We removed the bottle and struck a serious pose for the photograph, which made him laugh.

The next day, it was time for me to return to the United States, so I came to say goodbye. I stood outside the sliding doors and said, “Denver no Homma desu. I must leave Iwama. Thank you very much.” From inside the room I heard, “Homma-kun, have you had breakfast yet?” “Yes,” I replied. “Alright then, take care.” Then after a pause he continued, “You are the only Japanese from Iwama who has a dojo in the United States. Keep good friends with everyone.” “Hai, arigato gozaimashita,” I replied.

Those were the last words that Saito Shihan spoke to me.

He was that kind of person. Unlike some of his peers, other Hombu high-ranking instructors, Saito Shihan was born a country man; a country man from Iwama. Saito Shihan lived in Iwama, worked the railroads in Iwama, and focused his life on taking care of the Founder, and the Aiki Shrine in Iwama. He was actually a simple country man with simple country stubbornness. Uchideshi and students over many decades will testify that Saito Shihan was a very hard and strict teacher. But once a student graduated from that teacher/student relationship, Saito Shihan was a very kind, very human individual with a unique taste. It was this essence of Saito Shihan’s that gave him the power to attract students from all over the world.

Saito Shihan asks us to take a photo with him

The relationship I had with Saito Shihan spanned almost four decades. When I was young, I shared a relationship with both the Founder and Saito Shihan. The time came then, as it had now, for me to leave Iwama. When the Founder moved from Iwama to Hombu just before his death, I also turned to leave. As I was leaving then, Saito Shihan gave me a roll of contact photos. They were test photos for Saito Shihan’s first book, which was to become Volume I, Background and Basics.

After the Founder had left for Tokyo, I still remember what Saito Shihan said to me when I came to say goodbye. “You are the Founder’s student, and when the Founder was in good health it was not my place to teach you. Take a roll of these photos; I am going to use them someday for a book. You have a long journey ahead of you to get back to Akita. You will need a lot of rice balls to get you there. Help yourself; take these rice balls with you.”

Maybe it was his own experience of the hard life as an uchideshi, but Saito Shihan was always worried about people having enough to eat. No matter how strict he was as a teacher, no matter how hard times might have been, he always took care to make sure those around him were fed. That is something else about him I will never forget.

We cannot forget that Saito Shihan was a student of the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba. Or, that he was an Aikikai instructor under the Founder’s son Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and his grandson the current Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba.

Saito Shihan at times seemed to draw a line separating himself from Aikikai Hombu Headquarters. He sometimes spoke harshly of Hombu dojo and their ways of practice. This sometimes served to alienate Saito Shihan from peers and students who did not fully understand his criticism. Underneath his criticism, I believe was his desire for Aikikai Hombu to pass down and continue the philosophy of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba correctly in his eyes.

I think it is especially difficult for some students who are not from Japan to understand the complex nuances and levels of Japanese relationships and style of communication. To try to take Saito Shihan’s harsh words at times literally when pertaining to Hombu would be too shallow and not reflect a true picture.

There are two terms in Japanese called honne and tatamae. They can be difficult concepts to grasp, especially at times for Westerners. In general, honne is the term for one’s personal, private beliefs, while tatamae refers to the persona and position one assumes for cohesiveness with those in their surrounding society. The two are intrinsic to one another, yet understood and expressed differently in Japan than the United States. It is common in Japan in some social settings, for people to vent frustrations, or display personal opinion in the way that a husband will come home for dinner and complain to his wife about his boss. Mostly it is just venting, and is taken as such. In usual circumstances in Japan, a wife just listens to her husband’s complaints and understands them for what they are. It would never occur to the complaining husband that his venting from a previous evening would become public or be related back to his boss in any way.

I fear that for a man in Saito Shihan’s position, his harshness at times, especially in social settings, was misinterpreted and taken literally when it should not have been.

Misunderstandings that damaged Saito Shihan’s reputation and some of the relationships he had over the years I think might have been avoided with a deeper cultural understanding of Japanese communication.There is a Zen phrase “Sokkotsu no Ki”. To translate this, it is more useful to impart a parable than a definition.

A mother bird lays her eggs and protects them as they grow. She guards them from enemies and keeps them warm. She waits patiently for the chick inside to develop. When the time comes, the baby chick begins to peck at the shell from the inside, trying to break free. When the mother bird hears the pecking, she pecks delicately from the outside to start the shell to crack. She does not however break the shell open for the chick to emerge. The chick must free itself from the egg it has grown in. As the chick breaks through the shell, it has no knowledge that the mother bird helped it by starting the crack in the shell from the outside. The chick enters the world outside thinking it has come into the world on its own. For the Japanese way of teaching, this kind of timing is very important; knowing when and how to help a student break through with new growth of their own. Saito Shihan was very good at this when teaching his students.

Saito Shihan taught many generations of students in his lifetime. He had different students during different periods in his own life and his own development. Over the years, times changed, values changed, the world changed, yet every student was one of Saito Shihan’s uchideshi, no matter which period of his life they were part of.

Picasso was famous as a painter. As a painter he grew and his style and expression changed through different periods in his life. It would not make sense to take one period of Picasso’s art and call it his only form of expression, or his only true form of expression. All of his painting was Picasso. It was all a part of him.

The same holds true with a martial artist such as Saito Shihan. Not by any means the beginning of his Aikido journey, Saito Shihan practiced and taught Aikido for thirty three-years after the Founder’s death. As his style and execution changed naturally over the years, what he taught his students also changed. If students from different eras in his life were to compare his teaching there would naturally be differences, yet all of his teaching was from Saito Shihan, it was all a part of him. By the end, Saito Shihan had become enlightened about his coming death. He spoke to close students about making funeral arrangements. He ordered specially made mourning kimono for his wife and daughter. To his son Hitohiro, he gave his own formal kimono…a kimono that his son would wear soon in the months to come. Before the Aiki Jinja Tai Sai, he ordered his son and his uchideshi to clean every inch of the dojo grounds until they met with his satisfaction. After Tai Sai ended, he visited his temple and prayed in front of his own family gravesite. A few days later he had a little trouble breathing and thought it would be better to check in at the hospital. No one knew that this was to be a one-way trip.

On May 13, 2002, one of the great Aikidoists of our time followed the Founder Morihei Ueshiba into history. The legacy he left to us is as big as life itself, and his last lessons are lessons of dignity and honor that will continue in his memory.

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