Interview with Morihiro Saito - Part 1 (1987)
Aiki News #74 (April 1987)
The following interview took place in Rome, Italy on June 24, 1986.
How did O-Sensei teach Jo and Ken in Iwama after the war? We understand that you entered the Iwama dojo in the summer of 1946. Did you practice Jo and Ken as well as taijutsu immediately after you entered the dojo?
Yes, we practiced both of them. Since we could not practice them in the evening, we did them during morning practice. After we got up we sat down in front of the kamisama in seiza for 40 minutes and then practice began. The practice was for uchideshi only but an exception was made and I was allowed to join in.
Who were the uchideshi in those days?
Mr. Abe, Mr. Tohei, Mr. Kasuga, Mr. Ishihara who is presently the head of Ishihara Sangyo, and some others came and went. Kisshomaru Sensei, Tohei Sensei and Mr. Abe all practiced the ken and jo. Mr. Yamaguchi also came to Iwama. That was around 1951 or 52. Mr. Tohei brought his students along carrying rice from Tochigi Prefecture and stayed in the dojo to practice. He used to come to the dojo by bicycle in the beginning. It takes 50 minutes by car today! So it was very hard to commute from Tochigi.
Anyway, when O-Sensei explained Aikido he always said that taijutsu (body techniques) and ken and jo techniques were all the same. He always started out his explanation of Aikido using the ken as you see in his films. In the early stage of our ken practice, O-Sensei just told us to come to strike. That’s all.
Weren’t there any tsuki (thrusting) attacks with the bokken?
No, not at all. He just told us to come to strike him. Ken practice began from there. Since I had practiced Kendo when I was little I somehow managed to cope with the situation. Then he told me to prepare a stand for tan-renuchi (striking training). So I gathered some wood and made the stand with them. However, Sensei got angry and broke it with his bokken. He said to me, “This kind of thin wood is useless!” After that I had to think of something. I cut two big pieces of wood and drove nails into them and tied them together. When I made that Sensei praised me. However, even that lasted less than one week. So we hit at different places to save the wood. Then after one week I went out again to cut wood in order to make another one. There were a lot of trees in the hills in those days. We used this setup for training in striking with the bokken. It is training for the hips and arms and also for uchikomi (power striking). I named this “tan-renuchi” myself.
Did O-Sensei do tanrenuchi practice often?
Yes, he did. He would say, “Strike another 100 times”. O-Sensei lived on the other side of the shrine. The house was about 200 meters away from the dojo but it no longer exists. We would hit that stand in the morning. If we didn’t kiai loud enough, he would scold us. Since there were only one or two neighbors we had no problem. While we were practicing, some of the deshi would tire out and stop striking and only shout. O-Sensei could hear their shouting and this sounded like they were training as usual. Some ended up shouting from their beds. (Laughter). It sounds like a joke but it was really true.
As training advanced, we were taught what we now call “Ichi no Tachi” (first paired sword practice). He taught us only this for 3 or 4 years and nothing else. The only thing we did was to go and strike until we were completely exhausted and had become unsteady. When we came to the point where we were unable to move he would signal that that was enough and let us go. That was the only thing we did for morning practice every day. In the last years, I was taught by Sensei almost privately. Mr. Tohei got married and returned home and Kisshomaru Sensei also married and went to Tokyo. The other uchideshi also went home.
What kind of explanation did O-Sensei offer for the jo and ken?
For jo practice, he would just swing his jo in a flash in front of us. We just imitated him. When we couldn’t do it he would say, “If you watch carefully you’ll understand!” Then he would show the movement once more but faster this time. It was even harder to understand. Then he would say again, “If you watch carefully you’ll understand!”, and he would do it still faster. We ended up not understanding anything after all (Laughter). He wielded the jo in various ways while showing us movements. He offered us an explanation of how a technique was used depending on the type of attack. This was different from the awase or partner practices. He did it without a partner. He just imagined that he had an enemy in front of him and quickly showed techniques for various situations such as when you are attacked in a given manner, whether by a thrust or a strike.
Did O-Sensei give any names to the jo movements?
No, no names. He just told us to do this or that. Names came to be used much later. When I starting teaching myself I realized O-Sensei’s way of teaching would not be appropriate so I classified and arranged his jo techniques. I rearranged everything into 20 basic movements I called “suburi” which included tsuki (thrusting), uchikomi (striking), hassogaeshi (figure-eight movements) and so on so it would be easier for students to practice them.
How long after you entered the Iwama dojo did university students begin to come to train?
They began to come while O-Sensei was still active. Students of Kanagawa University, Tohoku Gakuin and Ibaragi University came to Iwama every year while O-Sensei and his wife were still well. O-Sensei scolded his students at Hombu Dojo if they used the jo or ken but he would watch me teaching the students these weapons in front of the shrine in the morning with a smile on his face. I don’t know what distinction he made between us but one was certainly made.
Were you teaching the university students the kata you developed?
No. That happened later on. O-Sensei would get angry if we practiced in a one-two-three manner. His way of teaching might be good for private instruction but when you have to teach 30 or 40 students all together the one-two-three method is the only one effective. This was why I gave each of the suburi movements a number. Later this developed into the 31-movement jo kata. In later years I was visited by one of the alumni from that period. I think he was a student of Miyagi Education University. He said, “Sensei, wasn’t it the 24-movement jo kata?”. I replied “Now we have 31!” (Laughter). In those days we had 24 movements. Perhaps we included some of the jo movements in hayagaeshi and this added up to 24 movements. However, this was not easy enough to learn and so I divided the movements into 31. People came to call it the “31-movement jo kata” without my realizing it.
When I was taught the sword suburi I had a habit of swinging kendo-style. O-Sensei said that wasn’t good and had me do partial suburi practice. You must first practice the suburi in order to be able to practice the kumitachi. It is the same as learning how to catch a ball first before being able to play baseball. The basics to be learned for the kumijo and kumitachi are the suburi. This was why I made the seven sword suburi. You should not practice the kumitachi before you master these seven. It is not possible to do so and you are also likely to be injured. If you move on to kumitachi practice after learning the suburi and awase (matched partner practices), you will learn good form and also you won’t be injured. For the kumijo you should first learn the 31-movanent kata and 20 suburi properly. This is the correct order of practice. For taijutsu we practice ki flow techniques only after practicing the basics. You cannot call what we do a martial art if you practice only ki flow techniques while ignoring basics.
When O-Sensei showed the ken and jo movements, he seems to have done them quite rapidly. I imagine that is the case with the 31 jo kata too.
Although he didn’t use a one-two-three method he always taught us patiently and explained in detail what we should do. Mr. Tohei’s kata has a lower number count and so people say that he was taught in one way while I was taught in another way. But I’m not sure about that. O-Sensei also showed me different kata. However, I only remember half of them. The “13-movement jo kata” is one I created by imitating these kata I remembered.
It seems that the 31-movement kata really forms the basis for your jo practice.
Yes, but since this is a form the Founder left for us we should not call it the “31-movement kata”. As a student of the Founder, I cannot make any changes to the kumitachi or the 31-kata. Others are free to make changes but as long as I am in charge of O-Sensei’s dojo I have to do exactly what I learned from Sensei. For example, the second kumitachi is more difficult than the third one. Some suggested that I should replace the second with the third because nobody could tell the difference. But I told him that I wouldn’t do that because I would know the difference.
Did O-Sensei give you any explanation about how he himself studied the ken and jo or where these arts originated?
He once showed me a copy of a scroll written about kata. I don’t remember what school it was but there was a person who had been researching this art and he came to see O-Sensei with a copy of the scroll. By copy I mean a hand-copied document. The Founder talked to him about the art and he returned home satisfied leaving the copy he brought at the dojo. He showed me this copy when he was arranging his personal belongings in the old house. He told me to look at it. You know that I do variations of the five kumitachi. Well in the copy there were terms such as “riari” and “tokuari” which were written with sumi ink. These riari and tokuari are the variations I am doing. Sensei showed me this copy and explained to me that this riari means this and this tokuari is a variation of this form. However, once the Founder performed these movements they became “aiki-like” or Ueshiba style.
It would be interesting to find out more about this predecessor art.
I don’t know what it was nor does Kisshomaru Sensei seem to know about it. You know that I have a series of photos taken by Kodansha at the old Noma dojo. I found those photos which were half-destroyed and looked like trash when I was putting things in order in a storeroom. Their color had changed. When I told O-Sensei about the photos he said that he would not need them and gave them to me.
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