Morihiro Saito: “Learning to fight
for the benefit of society”

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Morihiro Saito and Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba in outdoor training in the fields of Iwama (1964)

“There was this old man doing strange techniques up in the mountains near Iwama. Some people said he did karate, while a judo teacher told me his art was called “Ueshiba-ryu judo”

After its defeat in the war, Japan was a poor, humbled nation governed by an occupation army. Morihei Ueshiba was residing with his wife, Hatsu, in the small village of Iwama where he had “officially” retired in 1942. The Ueshibas led a frugal life, growing rice and raising silkworms, assisted by a few live-in and local students who practiced aikido under the founder.

Ueshiba was in his sixties and the possessor of a powerful physique resulting from decades of hard training. Freed for the first time in many years from heavy teaching responsibilities, the founder could at last pursue his personal training and ascetic activities with undistracted intensity. Although Ueshiba had taught tens of thousands of students prior to the war, the aftermath of the horrible conflict left him severed from all but a handful of his former disciples. The practice of martial arts had been prohibited by the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces, but this edict was unevenly enforced even in urban areas and was of little consequence in the countryside of Ibaragi Prefecture. During these early postwar years, Morihei Ueshiba called his country residence the “Aiki En” (Aiki Farm) to de-emphasize his martial arts activities, in deference to the GHQ ban.

Morihiro Saito was a skinny lad of eighteen when he summoned up the courage to seek out the founder in the summer of 1946. He was born on March 31, 1928 in a small village a few miles from the Ueshiba dojo. A typical Japanese youngster, young Morihiro admired the great swordsmen of feudal Japan such as Matabe Goto and Jubei Yagyu. Boys in Japan prior to and during World War II were embarassed not to have some understanding of judo or kendo, and these arts were taught as a part of the required school curriculum. Young Saito had opted to learn kendo in school.

As a teenager Morihiro took up Shito-ryu karate in the Meguro district of Tokyo where he was then working. His karate training in Tokyo did not last long, as he soon moved back to Ibaragi Prefecture to work for the Japan National Railways. Saito then decided to take up judo because he felt that if he knew both karate and judo he would have nothing to fear in a fight. Judo was good in a hand-to-hand situation while karate was superior to kendo because one also developed kicking skills.

Morihei Ueshiba demonstrating before Self-Defense Force members c. 1955 with Morihiro Saito as uke

Morihei Ueshiba demonstrating before Self-Defense Force members c. 1955 with Morihiro Saito as uke

Saito recalls his early martial arts training and his dissatisfaction with judo:

The karate school was fairly quiet, but the judo dojo was like an amusement park with children running all around. That was part of the reason I became tired of judo. Also, in a fight, a person can kick or gouge whenever he wants to, but a judo man doesn’t have a defense for that kind of attack. So I was dissatisfied with judo practice. Another thing I disliked was that during practice the senior students threw the junior students, using us for their own training. They would only allow us to do a few throws when they were in a good mood. I thought they were very selfish, arrogant, and impudent.

Morihiro’s thinking about martial arts was, however, soon to undergo a major transformation. This was the result of a fortuitous encounter with an old man with a wispy, white beard who, according to local rumors, was practicing some mysterious martial art. Many years later Saito described his fateful first meeting with Morihei Ueshiba:

There was this old man doing strange techniques up in the mountains near Iwama. Some people said he did karate, while a judo teacher told me his art was called “Ueshiba-ryu judo.” It was frightening up there and I was afraid to go. I had a very strange feeling about the place. It was eerie, but some of my friends and I agreed to go up and have a look. However, my friends got cold feet and failed to show up. So I went alone.

It was during the hot season and I arrived in the morning. O-Sensei was doing his morning training. Minoru Mochizuki directed me to where O-Sensei [lit., “great teacher,” a term of respect often used by aikidoka to refer to the founder] was training with several students. Then I entered what is today the six-tatami mat room of the dojo. While I was sitting there, O-Sensei and Tadashi Abe [an early pioneer of aikido in France] came in. As O-Sensei sat down Abe immediately placed a cushion down for him. He really moved fast to help O-Sensei. Sensei stared at me and asked, “Why do you want to learn aikido?” When I replied that I’d like to learn if he would teach me, he asked, “Do you know what aikido is?” There was no way I could have known what aikido was. Then Sensei added, “I’ll teach you how to serve society and people with this martial art.”

I didn’t have the least idea that a martial art could serve society and people. I just wanted to become strong. Now I understand, but at that time I had no idea of what he was talking about. When he said, “for the benefit of society and people,” I wondered how a martial art could serve that purpose, but as I was eager to be accepted, I reluctantly answered, “Yes, I understand.”

Then, as I stood on the mat in the dojo rolling up my shirt sleeves thinking to myself, “Well, since I’ve come all the way here I might as well learn a couple of techniques,” O-Sensei said, “Come and strike me!” So I went to strike him and tumbled over. I don’t know whether it was kotegaeshi or some other technique, but I was thrown. Next he said, “Come and kick me!” When I tried to kick him I was gently overturned. “Come and grab me!” I tried to grab him judo-style and again I was thrown without knowing how. My shirt sleeve and my pants ripped. Sensei said, “Come and train if you like.” With that he left the mat. I felt a sigh of relief to think that I was accepted…

Morihiro Saito as a young student c. 1950

Although Ueshiba had accepted the young Saito as a student, the seniors at the dojo severely tested his resolve. Saito recalls the aches and pains of his early training days and how he felt it would have been preferable “to have been beaten up in a fight!” On one occasion during practice, he had to remove a bandage protecting an injury to avoid being ridiculed. If he showed the slightest trace of pain on his face, his seniors would torture that part of his body even more. Soon, however, the determined young Morihiro had proved his mettle and gained the respect of his seniors. He remembers with gratitude how he was kindly taught by people such as Koichi Tohei and Tadashi Abe.

The founder’s teaching methods in Iwama were very different from his approach during the prewar years. In earlier years, it was his custom to merely show techniques a few times with little or no explanation and then to have students attempt to imitate his movements. This was the traditional method of martial arts instruction and students had to do their best to “steal” their teacher’s techniques. But now, Ueshiba had the luxury of being able to devote his full energies to his personal pursuit with just a few close students.

As I look back on it, I think the brain of the founder was like a computer. During practice O-Sensei would teach us the techniques he had developed up to that point as if systematizing and organizing them for himself. When we would study one technique, we would systematically learn related techniques. If we started doing seated techniques, we would continue doing only that, one technique after another. When he introduced a two-hand grab technique, the following techniques would all begin with the same grab. O-Sensei taught us two, three or four levels of techniques. He would begin with the basic form, then one level after another, and finally, the most advanced form. The founder stressed that every little detail should be correct. Otherwise it wasn’t a technique.

The seniors and juniors would practice together and the juniors would take breakfalls. When the seniors finished the right and left sides and the juniors’ turn came, it was already time for the next technique. Though he didn’t have many students at that time, O-Sensei used to throw everyone at least once. Sometimes while some of the senior students were practicing with O-Sensei, we waited for our turn to be instructed by him personally.

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In the video below, Saito Sensei demonstrates a series of shomenuchi techniques taught by O-Sensei in the postwar period in Iwama. The scope of the technical material and attention to detail are noteworthy, and dwarf the limited curriculum commonly taught in aikido today. Many of these techniques are presented in Saito Sensei’s “Takemusu Aikido” training manuals described below.

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Aikido Journal has published a series of ebooks authored by Morihiro Saito, 9th dan, in high-resolution PDF format. The collection currently consists of 8 volumes in which Saito Sensei covers more than 430 empty-handed aikido techniques. We believe this series of technical manuals to be the most complete treatise on aikido technique available at the present time. With such a detailed technical reference at hand, you will be able to steadily improve your understanding and execution of aikido techniques.

Readers will be able to download their ebooks within minutes of purchase. No more paying for shipping, no more customs charges, or lost packages, no more waiting! This offer is available for the special price of $49.95.

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