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Interview with Morihiro Saito (1991)

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #88 (Summer 1991)

Aiki Shrine guardian, Morihiro Saito, began training with Morihei Ueshiba at Iwama in 1946 at the age of 18. During his years as uchideshi, Saito Sensei learned jo and sword techniques directly from the founder. In this interview, conducted in March 1991, Saito Sensei talks about his experiences with O-Sensei, his early days at the Aikikai, his own dojo and his training methods.

Morihiro Saito Sensei in 1991

Editor: Not many of our readers know that you taught as a shihan at the Aikikai in Tokyo for a long time. Would you tell us some of your memories of that period?

Morihiro Saito: I taught at the Aikikai once a week except for a period in 1961 when Ueshiba Sensei went to Hawaii with Nobuyoshi Tamura. We were short-handed in Tokyo, so I taught twice a week during their absence. Apart from that I mainly taught on Sundays.

During your Sunday classes you taught ken and jo after taijutsu practice, didn’t you?

Yes, with O-Sensei’s approval, I taught weapons techniques for the last 15 minutes of practice.

Was the present sanjuichi-jo (31-movement jo kata) finalized before O-Sensei’s death?

Yes, by the time I learned it the kata was already complete, but when Koichi Tohei Sensei [presently head of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido] came to practice in Iwama it had not yet been perfected. What he learned was different from what I learned, probably because O-Sensei’s way of instructing was not yet fully developed. When I learned under O-Sensei his teachings included all of the weapons techniques including the kumitachi. At one stage, there was no one left in Iwama except me, so I trained with O-Sensei by myself. His teaching gradually became more elaborate.

Founder Morihei Ueshiba with Morihiro Saito c. 1955

Did you teach the kumijo in Tokyo?

Not really, except to a few people in odd places such as on the rooftops of buildings. I used to teach the jo as a 27 or 28-movement form, but ended up with the 31-movement form as I found this was easier for students to understand. Just as my aikido has come to be called "Iwama-style," the "sanjuichi-jo" name that I gave to this kata has stuck.

What should aikidoka from overseas do if they want to come to Iwama to practice?

They should get a letter of introduction from someone. Then they need to stay for at least 10 days. If they are not from a dojo directly affiliated with us, it would be difficult to learn anything during a one-week visit and such people may leave our dojo without understanding anything and speak ill of us. For my own students one week is enough but for a person from a different school a minimum stay of 10 days is necessary. Anything less could be counterproductive.

Take the case of the Japanese university students who come to Iwama to train during their summer vacation. Their hips are not trained properly at all, so I have to correct their hip movements every morning during weapons training. They finally begin to use their hips correctly around a week before they leave, just when I am about to give up on them. It takes them three weeks to grasp this basic point. Even in ten days it is not easy, but those who come to Iwama from abroad are fine people and train hard.

How do the uchideshi in Iwama spend their time?

The dojo grounds are quite extensive and cannot all be cleaned at once. When they get up in the morning they first clean their own rooms, then the practice area, and then they sweep carefully in front of the shrine. The grass has to be mowed in the summer, so they sometimes help me with the power mower. It would be impossible for me to keep the place clean all by myself so the students naturally help with the cleaning. As a result of their efforts the shrine is always kept clean. Without this work their lives would be more comfortable, but they are all patient, fine people and there have been no objections.

Do you still teach weapons techniques every morning?

Yes, I do. Students also do free practice. There is plenty of space in the new dojo so they are free to practice kata. I am pleased that overseas students enjoy practicing in the new dojo, but we still regard the original dojo as the main one, and train there for preference whenever possible.

Interior of new Iwama Dojo

Training camps (gasshuku) have been held at the Iwama dojo for many years haven’t they?

We have had them ever since O-Sensei’s days. He was always pleased when he heard that a training camp was to be held. To prepare for these camps we used to make our own futon (bedding). Each night after practice we would sew futon covers and stuff them with cotton.

I am surprised to hear that you had to do such things! How many schools participate in your training camps now?

We have Hirosaki University from Aomori Prefecture and Tohoku Women’s University, both from Northern Japan, Tokushima University from Shikoku, and others such as Osaka Prefectural University, Iwate University, Tohoku University, Tohoku Gakuin University, Miyagi Prefectural University of Education, Kanagawa University and Nihon University. Since they all come at the same time, in March, it is hard to accommodate them all.

Are these combined training camps?

Yes, when the clubs are under the same shihan. For example, when Aichi Medical University holds a training camp, Kanagawa University will also participate.

Aiki Shrine in Iwama, c. 1988

You first went abroad to instruct in 1974 and since then you have traveled almost every year, perhaps more than any other shihan?

There are many invitations I can’t refuse, although I only visit dojos operated by my own students. But these days I try to stay here as much as possible because of the number of students here and for the sake of those who visit Iwama to study.

Historically, I think aikido developed from situations where a samurai could not use his sword. Some critics say aikido won’t work against modern fighting systems like karate. What do you think?

Aikido includes tanto dori (short sword taking), tachi dori (sword taking), and jo dori (jo-taking). During such techniques, if you allow the blade of a weapon even to touch your body you could be killed, whereas a punch or kick will not kill you unless it strikes a vital point. A sword need only make slight contact to seriously injure or kill; yet we practice how to defend against the sword with our bare hands. If we always bear this in mind it is valuable training.

Do you think that aikido without atemi can be effective against a strong attack?

Aikido includes atemi, although of course training is not the same as reality so we do not apply atemi fully in the dojo. In taijutsu, atemi is a vital element that we emphasize in our dojo.

It has been my experience that atemi is not taught in many aikido dojos today, but in his films we see that O-Sensei often used atemi.

Aikido is now being taught in many different ways, and it is good to learn from different teachers. We should not forbid students to go to other teachers. There are some shihan who make a fuss about this but I think they are mistaken.

In aikido atemi is used against attacks with a weapon, so do you think that it is desirable for aikidoka to learn how to cope with karate kicks now that karate-like attacks are often used?

Yes, I think they should. It’s not something to be avoided. There are many basic techniques, which can enable us to cope with karate, such as tsuki and yokomenuchi.

A group established by some of my students does a form of defense against karate attacks, which is quite interesting. A man with a 4thdan in both aikido and judo dodges the karate attacks and steps in to throw or pin his attacker in a splendid performance of aikido techniques. I would also recommend plenty of practice of such techniques as yokomenuchi and tachi dori.

Editor Stanley Pranin interviews Saito Sensei in 1991

You place strong emphasis on weapons and base your teaching on the principles of the sword. What do you think of the present situation elsewhere in aikido?

I don’t know any aikido other than O-Sensei’s. I was taught by O-Sensei from the age of 18 to 41 and served him in the same way as a live-in student, so I don’t know any other teacher. Many shihan create new techniques and I think this is a wonderful thing, but after analyzing these techniques I am still convinced no one can surpass O-Sensei. I think it is best to follow the forms he left us.

These days people are inclined to go their own way, but as long as I am involved, I will continue to do the techniques and forms O-Sensei left us.

You mentioned before that students fail to move their hips sufficiently. Could you explain in more detail about the importance of the hips in practice?

The founder said that the key to effective hip work was in the legs, and the work of the brain depended on the arms. This means the hips cannot be stable unless the legs are steady. That is why I insist my students keep their back foot in line with the front foot when in hanmi. It is incorrect to move the back foot off that line. Although it may be okay to adopt a hanmi with the back foot close to the front leg, I think a hanmi where the legs are steady is best.

When you turn quickly to the rear keeping your front foot on the line, you should be able to recover your hanmi stance. But if your feet are not in line you will not be able to assume hanmi smoothly after turning 180 degrees without correcting the rear foot position. You will lose control and the motion will slow down. Recently I have placed great emphasis on hanmi even though perhaps it is not good to concentrate too much on this. Whenever I notice awkward movements in students I find that their legs are positioned wrongly.

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