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Morihei Ueshiba and Morihiro Saito

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by Stanley Pranin

From Japanese Wushu Magazine

Morihiro Saito, Rohnert Park,
California, September 2000

The process of technical diversification began in aikido even before the passing of its founder, Morihei Ueshiba. Among the tendencies prevalent in aikido today are the soft approach emphasizing circular or ki no nagare techniques of Doshu

Kisshomaru Ueshiba of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo, the so-called hard-style school of Yoshinkan Aikido headed by Gozo Shioda Sensei, the emphasis on the concept of “ki” of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido as espoused by Koichi Tohei Sensei, the eclectic system of Minoru Mochizuki Sensei of Yoseikan Aikido, and the sports aikido system which includes competition devised by Kenji Tomiki Shihan. To these must be added the unified technical curriculum formulated by 9th dan Aikikai Shihan Morihiro Saito. Saito Sensei’s approach stressing the interrelationship between taijutsu and bukiwaza (aiki ken and jo) has become a de facto standard for many aikido practitioners the world over. This has been due largely to the success of his many books on aikido techniques and extensive foreign travels.

Introduction to aikido

Morihiro Saito was a skinny, unimpressive lad of 18 when he first met Morihei Ueshiba in sleepy Iwama-mura in July 1946. It was shortly after the end of World War II and practice of the martial arts was prohibited by the GHQ. The founder had been “officially” retired in Iwama for several years although in reality he was engaged in intensive training and meditation in these secluded surroundings. Indeed, it was during the Iwama years during and after World War II that Morihei Ueshiba was in the process of perfecting modern aikido.

Among the handful of uchideshi of those poverty-stricken years were Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei and Tadashi Abe. The young Saito was given little encouragement initially and had to endure the intensive, often painful training silently. Saito Sensei recalls the early days when suwariwaza practice on the dojo’s hardwood floor would continue endlessly leaving his knees bloodied and festering. To make matters worse, as a newcomer in the dojo he was on the receiving end of countless, vigorous techniques from the likes of sempai Koichi Tohei and Tadashi Abe.

Training at the founder’s side

Gradually however, his tenacity paid off and in a few short years Saito Sensei became one of the mainstays of the founder’s country dojo. Moreover, he had the advantage of being employed by the Japan National Railways on a 24-hour on, 24-hour off basis which left him with ample free time to spend at his teacher’s side. In addition to the hours he spent in the dojo, Saito Sensei would assist the founder in all aspects of his daily life including the performing of numerous chores and farm work. Although the work was demanding and Ueshiba a strict mentor, his reward was the unique opportunity of serving as the founder’s training partner particularly in the practice of the aiki ken and jo over a period of some 15 years. Morihei Ueshiba would usually train with weapons during the morning hours when regular students were unable to be present. Thus, it was partly due to his innate martial talent and perseverance, and partly due to his flexible work schedule that Morihiro Saito became the inheritor of Morihei Ueshiba’s technical legacy.

By the late 1950s, Saito Sensei had become a powerhouse and one of the top shihan in the Aikikai system teaching regularly at the Iwama Dojo in Ueshiba’s absence. Moreover, he began instructing on a weekly basis at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo starting in 1961 and was the only teacher besides the founder himself to be permitted to teach Aiki bukiwaza there. His classes were very popular and many Tokyo students would gather on Sunday mornings to practice taijutsu and the aiki ken and jo. When the founder passed away in April 1969, Saito Sensei became dojo-cho of the Iwama Dojo and also was entrusted with the caretaking of the Aiki Shrine Morihei Ueshiba had built nearby.

Publication of technical manuals and foreign travels

It was the publication beginning in 1973 of the first of what was to become a five-volume collection of Japanese-English technical books which established Saito Sensei’s reputation as the foremost technician among aikido shihan. These volumes contain hundreds of aiki techniques including taijutsu, aiki ken and jo and kaeshiwaza (counter techniques). These technical manuals introduced a classification system and nomenclature for aikido techniques which achieved wide acceptance. In addition, instructional films were offered to supplement the books and were enthusiastically received.

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