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Interview with Bill Witt

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #6 (September 1974)

Bill Witt

When did you first come into contact with Saito Sensei, Bill?

I started training in July of 1967 and after I had been in Japan a couple of months, a friend, Julian Jacobs, asked me if I ever went to Sunday class. I was training six days a week and resting on Sunday, so I told him I hadn’t. “You ought to go to some of Saito Sensei’s classes because he does some very good basic aikido,” he said. That seemed interesting, so I started going and whenever Saito Sensei taught O-Sensei would seem to come out too. I was really impressed right from the very first because here was a guy who was not too flashy but nice and solid with good basic technique who was willing to help beginners and who seemed very friendly. I attended his class for about six or nine months. One day, I walked out of the dojo and Saito Sensei was standing in front and he said to me: “How long have you been training?” I told him and then he said, “How do you like aikido?” I said, “I like it very much, but I don’t understand it.” Then he said, “Neither do I.” I thought that was a pretty significant statement coming form an 8th dan. Then he told me that if I wanted to systematize my training I should make a chart where on one side I put down all the attacks I could think of an on the other side all of the throws. As you learn them you start checking them off and you begin to see that there are parallels. You star breaking them up into attacks and defenses instead of attack-defense techniques.

A chart like this appears in one of Saito Sensei’s books, doesn’t it?

Yes… it made learning for me a lot easier. You could see that you can do this technique from here, her, and here, but not from here. So I continued going to his classes. This was of course when O-Sensei was still alive. I came back to the States in 1968. Then I returned to Japan again in 1969 five months after O-Sensei had passed away. It was while you were there, and that was when I went out to Iwama for the first time. That was when Saito Sensei was starting to teach Jo (the aikido stick) at Hombu Dojo and I thought that was pretty interesting. The time you and I went out to Iwama Saito Sensei mentioned that if we wanted to get together a special group to come out and train all we would have to do would be to give him the price of a bottle or something like that. So I got a small group together, Terry Dobson, and a few other people and we went out to Iwama fro a couple of weeks to train. Then I started going out a little more periodically because I had decided at that time that he was the person I wanted to train with.

What is the atmosphere like in the dojo when Saito Sensei teaches?

V-e-r-y traditional. The first time I saw Iwama, I felt that this must be a significant center… O-Sensei lived here, the aikido shrine is here. There is a top teacher who lives here… the dojo itself has a Shinto shrine rather than a simple Tokonoma like at Hombu Dojo. There are festivals every month on O-Sensei’s birthday anniversary, on the 14th… O-Sensei was born on December 14th. So when Doshu comes out, there is a little festival where the food is cooked up to offer to the Kamisama (deities) and then you eat it and drink Sake. So there are all these traditional aikido customs that have grown up over the years that O-Sensei started and which are still held.

And the training in the dojo itself?

Saito Sensei has three things that he always does during training. Tai No Henko, the basic blending exercise, then he does Kokyuho from the two-hand grab, and finally Kokyudosa. He considers those to be the three basic exercises that you should always do. He always finishes the practice with Kokyudosa and begins the practice with Tai No Henko and Kokyuho. He believes also in balancing Taijutsu training with training with the stick and sword, because, of course, a lot of aikido techniques were taken from the sword. Understanding how to swing the sword for instance should result in better technique.

Does Saito Sensei talk about aikido movements in terms of mechanics or use more abstract explanations?

He uses a lot of O-Sensei’s words. O-Sensei had a series of teaching patterns. He had a great number of sayings that he would use when he would teach, some were poems, some were just statements. For example, he would talk about doing Hanmi Hantachi Iriminage from Shomenuchi. He would say as you step aside and enter in you have to fold your partner up. Always make sure you fold your partner up. Some of them got a little more abstract in terms of being a little more poetic. I think some appear in Saito Sensei’s first book. Talking about Iriminage, there is something like… “My enemy stands before me brandishing his sword ready to attack, but I am behind him already.” Some of them like his Kuden, Kuden is like an oral teaching rather than a written one. For Koshinage (hip throws) he would say “Make your body and your partner’s into the shape of a cross, or the Japanese character for the number ten. Extend your hand and your partner’s hand up to the top of the pillar,” in other words right up to the ceiling. And then as you swing down you let your eyes follow the arm down. That of course makes the whole body rotate. It’s like taking your partner down over a rotating barrel. So he has quite a number of these, and Saito Sensei uses them all the time. He believes in doing what he calls Kihon Waza or basic techniques. And that’s really all he teaches in class. He has a lot of different patterns and different techniques and a lot of pretty far out techniques, but basically working with him is like being in a laboratory. He’s after you to move properly and correctly and be precise. When it comes time for you to develop into the next phase of technique that he calls Ki No Nagare, ki flow techniques, then you’re prepared. He believes he’s teaching you only for the first step. He can get flashy, but normally you only see him do the basic techniques.

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