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Interview with Mitsugi Saotome (2)

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #90 (Winter 1992)

In this second of two parts, Aikido Schools of Ueshiba founder Mitsugi Saotome continues with a discussion of his approach to training and the role of aikido as self-defense, outlines his dreams for an “Aikido University,” and provides his interpretation of O-Sensei’s message.

I have received a number of contradictory opinions depending on whom I have asked this question. Do you think that hard training should be done at the beginning level?

That depends on the age at which one starts training. It is difficult to say clearly what is hard training and what is not. If you tell someone in his 60s to train hard from the beginning, he can’t do it, and it is not necessary. That kind of person is already very experienced physically so they don’t need to expend energy that way. Young people are, in a biological sense, very aggressive, and you must make them train vigorously. It won’t work to try to put a damper on young people bursting with energy. Smog is produced by car engines with poor combustion. So I have young people train hard and consume their energy. But that’s not all there is to it. It’s better to wear them out quickly. The purpose of hard training is to make them quickly aware of their own physical limits. You cannot enter into the world of the spirit unless you go beyond your physical limits. That’s why I make them completely exhaust themselves and have them practice rough techniques.

There are some senior instructors who encourage soft training from the beginning. After three of four years of such training, aikido ends up turning into a dance. Then people start having doubts about whether or not they can really use what they have learned.

It doesn’t follow that if one has done both kinds of training he can use aikido technique. For example, in sculpting there are both hard and soft methods. There is sculpting where you take something hard and laboriously change its shape to make a sculpture, and another where you gradually build up a shape using a soft material like clay.

Did the techniques of the aiki budo period include more emphasis on self-defense than in aikido as it is currently practiced?

Yes, I believe so. But the entire purpose of the aikido training system is self-defense. All martial arts are for the purpose of self-defense. There is no such thing as a martial art or martial way that is not self-defense. However, the wonderful thing about aikido is that it includes “self-defense of the opponent” as well as our own self-defense. We have to protect the life of the enemy. Both are types of self-defense.

I think it is necessary to have self-confidence to really achieve this.

Where do you think self-confidence comes from?

I think direct experience is necessary to a certain extent. To give a simple example, when I was a boy and heard a loud noise my whole body would react in fright and my shoulders would rise. Now I react in my stomach. I think that may be one of the results of aikido training.

That’s one example. But it doesn’t matter if there is waste of force when it comes to the martial arts or military matters. They are useful in times of misfortune or calamities.

There was a court case in New York recently involving a subway incident where one man shot five men and the verdict was that it was not self-defense. The question is why it was necessary to kill people whose resistance disappeared after the first shot was fired. For example, he should have shot them in the leg.

The way of thinking about self-defense is completely different in American and Japanese societies. In America, anyone can walk around carrying a gun, so the feeling of concern about walking around town there, compared to walking around in Japan, is completely different. There is no other city which is as safe as Tokyo. If your only concern is self-defense you can go to a gun shop and get a pistol. You don’t need to worry about nikyo or sankyo.

The reason it is difficult to spread the martial arts in America is, I think, related to its history as a nation founded by colonists. In any event, the people who colonized America already had guns. They never fought with spears or swords. However, the people of Europe and Asia have experience in martial arts which don’t include guns. If we ask why France, a typical European country, has a predilection for the martial arts, it is because the value of martial arts is already a part of its history. But that’s not the case with America. I think Americans want to understand arts like karate or kung fu as something supernatural, I don’t think they really respect them as martial arts.

What do you think is the value of techniques in the present world? What is the value of spreading them?

Well, the purpose of aikido is to learn a concept or way of thinking. It’s a way of learning a philosophy. It’s something necessary for teachers. Different teachers explain the same technique in different ways. In the process of explaining the same technique, some teachers create gorillas and some create more human-like human beings. It’s not a problem of organizations, but rather what the teacher is thinking about. This is really an important matter. Let me say it clearly: I didn’t feel that O-Sensei was strong in a superhuman sense. He was especially strong in the physical sense and there were things that only he could do. However, what was wonderful about O-Sensei was that the world he envisioned is possible for everyone. I don’t respect him simply as a martial artist. I can’t become like O-Sensei and it would be meaningless for me to wish to do so. But I can study O-Sensei’s world view by training in aikido. It’s a wonderful thing that O-Sensei conceived of this kind of world. This is something that is possible even for me. I don’t have the strength to uproot a pine tree five or six inches in diameter like O-Sensei did and so I can’t imitate him. If that’s all we’re talking about, then it’s just a matter of a man with great physical strength. I don’t respect O-Sensei for his physical dimension. I respect him because I believe that what he was thinking, what he was trying to envision, was wonderful, and how splendid that message is for the world to come. The purpose of techniques is as a method of learning this way of thinking; it is a method of study and training.

That is what I think and my way of explanation is very different from that of other teachers. My ikkyo doesn’t amount to much and I am an ordinary human being. O-Sensei would say, “Anyone can become a saint.” The interpretation of a Japanese saint and a Western saint is a bit different, but O-Sensei developed a sort of self-education or public education system, a method of training where anyone can reach this level through misogi (purification). This is something valuable in a historical sense.

In many books O-Sensei is depicted as a superman, but this was not O-Sensei’s original goal, although I certainly think that it is wonderful to have that kind of power.

I think one of O-Sensei’s attractions was his strength. However, in America there are dojos in which injuries occur.

I am most careful about the area of injuries when teaching in America. This is not just a physical thing. It is possible to destroy a person’s life. For example, take the case of a famous musician or surgeon, or a typist who comes and wants to learn aikido or study about the aikido spirit. Can you destroy that person’s fingers? To break that person’s fingers or do something where the person cannot use them is tantamount to destroying their life or ruining their livelihood. It’s the same as killing them. Perhaps such a person can make a living in some other way, but it can destroy that person’s purpose for living. That’s the same as committing a crime. It does not rob the person of their life, but, in a different sense, it is a crime to deprive someone of the value of their life.

I once had a very bad experience. I was training in a certain teacher’s class and he applied a really strong ikkyo to my left and right elbows by propping them up on his knees while pinning me. Afterwards, I wasn’t able to eat without help. I made my living by typing and I couldn’t work. The injuries took half a year to heal. I ended up thinking about where the responsibility lies when this sort of thing happens.

I really can’t answer that, but I can give you my thoughts on the matter. This is something that should absolutely never occur. It is a moral question. If you’re going to work as a professional you absolutely cannot do such a thing. If you are a professional teacher, you must have the confidence not to cause injuries regardless of how hard the training is. If you don’t at least have that much control, you can’t be called a professional. There’s a difference between an accident and something which is done consciously and intentionally. It’s a question of the morals of the person teaching martial arts.

If this sort of thing occurred in your dojo, would you assume responsibility even if you didn’t directly cause the injury?

Of course. But, in America with respect to the subject of my own responsibility, I don’t assume responsibility when the person taking the fall makes an error or when someone doesn’t follow the teacher’s instructions and there is a mistake. I am the most cautious when I am teaching black belts. This is a question of social morality. You open and operate a dojo and if you don’t have morals the dojo is the same as a jungle. Who would pay money to learn from you? This is anti-social behavior. Isn’t it the same as selling drugs? People understand that using drugs destroys people but still they sell them. This is anti-social conduct and is a crime.

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