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Interview with Morihiro Saito - Part 2 (1987)

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #75 (August 1987)

Sensei you taught Sunday morning classes at Hombu dojo for quite a long time. When did you start teaching there?

Around 1961 when O-Sensei went to Hawaii I was already teaching there. For a time I taught on Mondays and Wednesdays but later it was only on Sundays. I think I stopped teaching there shortly after 0-Sensei passed away. I would teach the ken and jo for about 15 minutes at the end of the Sunday class.

I believe there were no other teachers who taught the ken and jo at Hombu dojo.

O-Sensei would scold anyone attempting to teach them and demand from whom they got permission to do so. He let nobody teach them.

It seems that some teachers who wished to learn the ken and jo but couldn’t went on to study Iaido or the Muso-ryu jo. About when did they begin doing that?

Actually I was not conscious of the fact that they were studying iai to learn the sword and Muso-ryu to learn the jo. Some of those who demonstrate the jo at the All-Japan Aikido Demonstration at the Budokan do Muso-ryu. I can recognize it at a glance. They are free to practice whatever they want but they should demonstrate Aikido at Aikido demonstrations.

Did O-Sensei know that they were studying other arts?

I don’t think he knew. Although I don’t know when people started doing it, it seems that it began at quite an early date.

I believe that you are stating then that there is an Aiki Ken and an Aiki Jo. Would you elaborate on that please?

Aikido consists of taijutsu (body or weaponless techniques) and bukiwaza (weapon techniques) so we have to practice both. I have to teach at least the basic techniques from those the Founder left us. I am doing this because it is my duty to do so. It is more understandable for students if I explain multiple-attack techniques through the sword rather than taijutsu. I cannot explain and have them understand true Aikido well unless I explain the sword through taijutsu.

There are shomen (frontal) attacks in Aikido. Do they come from sword techniques?

They existed in the old jujutsu schools. If you do taijutsu in Aikido from these attacks you can also handle the sword in the same way. Although I don’t know where they originated from, there are shomenuchi, yokomenuchi and tsuki (thrusts) in both sword and jujutsu techniques.

The Aiki Ken and Aiki Jo were introduced internationally for the first time through your five volumes entitled “Traditional Aikido”. Would you tell us how you came to publish them?

Although many books had been published there was no book which introduced the techniques I was taught. I was asked to leave them in the form of a book by various people here and there. Then I wrote the books with the permission of Doshu. However, the explanation of Aikido techniques would not be complete if only ken and jo movements were covered so I also included taijutsu. At first the books were supposed to be published through Kodansha with the introduction of a Mr. Kataoka of Tohoku Gakuin University in Sendai, but Mr. Sugawara of the Minato Research Company asked me to let him publish my book. He emphasized that he would respect the contents of the book as they were. Since I hadn’t any contract with Kodansha yet I went up to Sendai on a night train on the same day to see Mr. Katakura and told him about the situation. I got permission from him and then published the book through Minato Research. However a certain teacher of Hombu dojo asked me to stop publishing the series and so I stopped writing them after the fifth volume came out. When I went to the Hombu dojo to present my third volume I was asked until when I would continue to publish the series and told not to continue. Although I didn’t know the reason for this order I said I understood and stopped writing the series after the fifth volume.

There is a traditional method of teaching Aikido where a teacher shows a technique rapidly while his students watch him and then imitate as best they can. This method may have some merits but it is hard for students to learn techniques. You use a methodology where you start out with basic techniques explaining them from various angles. Then you have students repeat the techniques and then break them down again. It is very easy to learn since they are taught as series. How did you come to teach in this way?

O-Sensei used to say that those teachers who were produced in the Iwama dojo were the best in Japan. The Iwama dojo was traditionally the dojo where outstanding teachers were formed. Tohei Sensei and Kisshomaru Sensei trained here and Shioda Sensei also came here with his family. So given this tradition it would be embarrassing if those who are trained at this dojo don’t become top teachers. Thus I want my students to do their best to preserve this tradition. How can they teach techniques unless they themselves learn them correctly? I instruct them strictly because they are going to become teachers. If they practice the art only for themselves that’s up to them, but in order to become a teacher you have to divide and organize the techniques correctly. I am doing my best using the limited intelligence I have.

I’ve noticed that since there are few foreign trainees coming to Japan who speak Japanese you often give explanations using gestures.

I use gestures also for Japanese to a certain extent. There are many things I can’t explain through words. As O-Sensei often said, “It is not possible to explain through the spoken or written word.” So gestures are definitely necessary. I suppose I have come to use more gestures since foreigners started coming to Iwama.

In comparison with other dojos, a larger number of techniques are practiced in the Iwama dojo even excluding ken and jo practice.

The techniques are more numerous here. If oyowaza (applied techniques) and henkawaza (varied techniques) are included the number of techniques increases severalfold. There are upward, downward, inward, outward, right and left techniques. The Founder taught me that the number of techniques was to be increased this way.

Were there many kuden (oral teachings) when O-Sensei taught taijutsu?

Yes, there were. I consider any point he made while teaching a kuden. In the book by O-Sensei entitled “Budo”, he uses the term “kojutsu” which means “to transmit or instruct through words”. He demonstrated his techniques before us in kata. So I could understand what O-Sensei was trying to say when I read that book. I didn’t know at all about the book until Aiki News discovered it. I was surprised and pleased to see it because the basic techniques described are exactly what we are doing. Through this book you can understand what great improvements O-Sensei made, the extent to which he researched his techniques and the historical progression of O-Sensei’s technique. I understood for the first time how he changed each technique rationally and also what he meant when he said that true Aikido techniques were developed after the war in Iwama and that those which existed before that were not Aikido. The techniques before the war were also splendid but he continued improving the art and created the wonderful Aikido we know. I can clearly say that the Iwama period was the time when Aikido was perfected. I can tell that by looking at the book “Budo”. It is important as a document from the pre-war period. There is much we have to learn from it. The book is also important for purposes of instruction, research and the development of Aikido. My viewpoint is that I must preserve this tradition. I became more confident after seeing the book “Budo”. I had been criticized a lot but it validated the things I had been doing. Surprisingly enough, I found out that these techniques are quite rational after carefully studying them. I am deeply grateful to O-Sensei.

Did O-Sensei show techniques in series?

He devoted himself to his own study of the art rather than thinking of his students. He would suddenly come up with a logical idea and have us put it to the test. As I look back on it, the brain of the Founder was like a computer. We learned techniques in series. When a two-hand grab technique was introduced the following techniques would all begin with the same grab. There were many practices like that.

So your method of teaching in series came from that?

Of course 0-Sensei’s way of teaching was extremely helpful. I thought that in order to have students quickly understand, teaching techniques in series would be better. There are various ways. For example, for ikkyo there are techniques such as shomen ikkyo, yokomen ikkyo, munadori ikkyo, ryokata ikkyo, etc. There are many nikyo techniques too like shomen nikyo, yokomen nikyo and so forth. Or from the shomen attack you can do ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo and yonkyo. It is easier for students to understand in this way and it also will help them execute variations if I teach techniques in series from various angles. I can also teach parts of many techniques. I have tried a lot of different ways. I try to find ways which work well for students. In any event, since people are busy nowadays not like it was in the old days, I have them learn techniques quickly.

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