Morihiro Saito demonstrating inside Iwama Dojo c. 1990. Uke: Pat Hendricks

“I gathered some wood and used it to build a stand. However,
O-Sensei got angry and broke it with his wooden sword.”

[Part one of this essay on Morihiro Saito's contributions to aikido can be found here]

Saito’s job with Japan Railways was a stroke of good fortune as far as his aikido training was concerned. His work schedule of twenty-four hours on and twenty-four off left him free to spend a great deal of time at the Ueshiba dojo. As a result, he was allowed to participate in the early morning sessions normally reserved for live-in students.

These morning practices consisted of about forty minutes of prayer while seated upright in front of the altar of the Aiki Shrine, followed by weapons training as the weather permitted. At this stage of his life, the founder was engrossed in the study of the aiki ken and jo and their relationship to empty-handed techniques. He was experimenting with the basic weapons forms which Saito would later formalize into a comprehensive system to complement the empty-handed techniques of aikido.

O-Sensei just told us to come and strike him. Sword practice began from there. Since I had practiced kendo when I was a boy, I somehow managed to cope with the situation. Then he told me to prepare a stand for tanrenuchi, or sword-striking training. So I gathered some wood and used it to build a stand. However, O-Sensei got angry and broke it with his wooden sword. He said to me, “This kind of thin wood is useless!”

I had to think of something. I cut two big pieces of wood and drove nails into them and tied them together. When I made that Sensei praised me. However, even that stand lasted less than one week. So we struck at different places to save the wood. Then after a week I went out again to cut more wood in order to make a new stand. There were a lot of trees in the hills in those days. We used this setup to train in striking with the wooden sword….

As training advanced, we were taught what we now call “ichi no tachi,” the first paired sword practice. O-Sensei taught us this one technique for three or four years. The only other thing we did was to continue striking until we were totally exhausted and had become unsteady. When we had reached the point when we could no longer move, he would signal that that was enough and let us go. That was all we did for morning practice every day. In the last years, I was taught by Sensei almost privately.

The widespread poverty of Japan in these years made it increasingly difficult for the few students at the Iwama Dojo to continue practicing. One by one, work and family obligations compelled them to abandon their training until only a few students came to practice. Seeing Morihiro’s devotion and enthusiasm toward training, Ueshiba gradually began to rely on him more and more in his personal life. Finally, only young Saito was left to serve the founder on a regular basis. Even after his marriage, Morihiro’s passion for training continued unabated. In fact, his young bride began to serve the Ueshibas too, and personally looked after O-Sensei’s elderly wife, Hatsu.

In the end, only a small number of senior students from this area and I were left. But finally, after they were married, they could no longer come to the dojo, since they had to work hard at their jobs. Whenever Sensei was here we would never know when he would call us to help him. Even if we had already asked a neighbor to help thresh rice, if Sensei happened to call us and we didn’t come, the consequences were terrible!

Eventually, all of the students stopped coming to the dojo in order to maintain their own families. I could continue because I was free during the day though I went to work every other evening. I was lucky enough to have a job, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to continue. I could live without receiving any money from O-Sensei because I was paid by the Japan National Railways. O-Sensei had money, but the students around here didn’t. If they came to Sensei they would have had no income. They would not have been able to raise rice for their families to live on.

Serving the founder was extremely severe even though it was just for the study of a martial art. O-Sensei only opened his heart to those students who helped him from dusk to dawn in the fields, to those who got dirty and massaged his back, those who served him at the risk of their lives. As I was of some use to him, O-Sensei willingly taught me everything.

The founder amply demonstrated his great affection for and trust of young Saito. When Morihiro took the initiative in helping O-Sensei favorably resolve a land dispute, he presented Saito with a parcel of land on the Ueshiba property. It was here that Saito built a home and where he, his wife and children lived and served the founder.

Morihiro Saito in Iwama dojo c. 1957

By the late 1950s, the years of intensive training under the direct tutelage of the founder had transformed Saito into a powerful man and one of the top instructors in the Aikikai system. He taught regularly at the Iwama Dojo in Ueshiba’s absence and was asked to substitute for Koichi Tohei at the latter’s dojo in Utsunomiya when Tohei traveled to Hawaii to teach aikido. Around 1960, Saito also began to instruct on a weekly basis at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo and was the only teacher besides the founder himself permitted to teach aikido weapons there. His classes were among the most popular at the headquarters school and for many years Tokyo students gathered on Sunday mornings to practice free-hand and weapons techniques with Saito.

After the founder’s death on April 26, 1969, Saito became chief instructor of the Iwama Dojo and also the guardian of the nearby Aiki Shrine. He had served the founder devotedly for twenty-four years and O-Sensei’s passing only strengthened his resolve to make every effort to preserve Ueshiba’s aikido legacy intact.

The 1970s publication of Saito’s authoritative five-volume series of technical manuals, Traditional Aikido, helped establish his reputation as one of the art’s foremost technicians. These volumes contain hundreds of aikido techniques covering empty-handed techniques, aiki ken and jo, and counter-techniques. The books also introduced a system of classification and nomenclature for aikido techniques that is now widely used throughout the world. In addition, instructional films were prepared to supplement the books and were enthusiastically received.

Saito made his first trip abroad in 1974 to conduct a series of seminars in California. For the first time, large numbers of foreigner practitioners were able to directly experience Saito’s encyclopedic knowledge of aikido techniques. His clear teaching method, which incorporates such devices as slow-motion execution of techniques and numerous gestures, won widespread praise from seminar participants.

By the mid-1970s Saito had retired from the National Railways after thirty years of service. Free to dedicate all of his time to aikido, he began to make frequent journeys abroad launching a career that would last nearly three decades. During this period, he traveled overseas nearly one hundred times to conduct seminars.

Over the years, Saito established a wide network of instructors outside of Japan who teach “Iwama-style aikido,” as his form of aikido became informally christened. Iwama aikido has become synonymous with training with a balanced emphasis on empty-handed techniques and weapons practice, in contrast with many schools which train only in free-hand techniques. In particular, the U.S.A., Italy, Germany, Denmark, Australia, England, Sweden, and Portugal have numerous practitioners of Saito’s methods.

In 1989, Saito inaugurated a system for the certification of instructors of the aiki ken and jo. In this system, traditional handwritten transmission scrolls were awarded to those who had demonstrated the requisite skills in the use of aiki weapons. Separate from the aikido belt grading system, the aim of the program was to preserve the founder’s aiki ken and jo techniques, which are inseparable from the empty-handed techniques of aikido. These scrolls included the names and detailed descriptions of aikido weapon techniques and were patterned after the traditional scrolls awarded in the classical martial art traditions. Shortly thereafter, Saito began an Iwama grading system independent but in parallel to Aikikai Hombu Dojo rankings as he remained a member of that organization.

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba with Morihiro Saito in front of the old Aiki Shrine c. 1955


Another effect of the popularity of Saito’s books and his extensive foreign travels was a constant stream of foreign aikidoka traveling to Japan to train and live in the Iwama Dojo. The live-in system afforded participants the opportunity to train intensively in aikido and learn the use of the aiki ken and jo. Over a period of more than 30 years, literally thousands of students journeyed from abroad to study under Saito. Often the foreign practitioners outnumbered their Japanese counterparts at the Iwama Dojo.

Saito continued his six-day-a-week schedule conducting morning classes on the aiki ken and jo for live-in students and general practice in the evenings when he taught empty-handed techniques. On Sunday mornings, weather permitting, he led the general class outdoors, and provided instruction in aiki ken and jo. Also, he hosted numerous training retreats for Japanese university aikido clubs throughout the year at the Iwama Dojo, a practice which continued from the days when the founder was still active.

Saito continued his active teaching schedule including frequent trips abroad until a few months before his death in May 2002. He began to groom his son Hitohiro to succeed him in the early 1990s. The younger Saito, himself very talented, shared instructional duties at the Iwama Dojo with his father and also started conducting overseas seminars on a regular basis.

Shortly after Saito Sensei’s passing, Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba instituted a number of changes in the operation of the Iwama Dojo and also assumed the role of dojocho. The net effect was to relieve the Saito family of responsibility for the dojo and the Aiki shrine. In 2003, Hitohiro Saito officially resigned from the Aikikai to pursue an independent path and follow in his father’s footsteps. Hitohiro Saito continues the Iwama aikido legacy instructing at his own private dojo in Iwama, conducting a live-in student course, and regularly traveling abroad to teach.

In retrospect, Morihiro Saito’s success as a leading teacher of aikido lay in his unique approach to the art, his blend of tradition and innovation. On the one hand, he was totally committed to preserving intact the technical tradition of the founder. At the same time, Saito displayed great creativity in organizing and classifying the hundreds of empty-handed and weapons techniques and their interrelationships. Furthermore, he devised numerous training methods and practices based on modern pedagogical principles to accelerate the learning process.

In the aikido world today, there is an increasing tendency for practitioners to regard the art as primarily a “health system” and the effectiveness of aikido technique is little emphasized in many quarters. In this context, the power and precision of Morihiro Saito’s art stand out in great relief and, due to the efforts of his son and other dedicated teachers, aikido can still be regarded as a true martial art.

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