Interview with Hitohiro Saito by Sonoko Tanaka

The following article was originally published in Aikido Journal #113 in 1998.

“We must not break with the founder’s tradition just because people from abroad come here.”

Hitohiro Saito (40) was born in Iwama, where he started at the age of seven, studied under Morihei Ueshiba as a child, and continued learning from his father Morihiro Saito Shihan. Devoted to preserving the spiritual and technical tradition of O-Sensei’s aikido, Hitohiro has established a reputation for excellent technique and teaching methods in Japan, the US, Europe and Australia. We could feel his overflowing love and profound respect for his two masters (the founder and his father) during this exclusive interview.

Hitohiro Saito

Hitohiro Sensei, what are your earliest memories of the dojo?

I used to share meals with O-Sensei and to be given what was left on his plate. I also remember crying in the mornings in my childhood because I could not find my mother beside me when I woke up. She was always away at the dojo helping O-Sensei.

They say O-Sensei used to be very severe?

O-Sensei generally only demonstrated his techniques in other places, but he truly instructed in Iwama and was very strict. He would shout, “What kind of kiai is that! Go outside and see if you can down a sparrow with your kiai.” Or, to someone applying a sloppy yonkyo, “Go out and try it on a tree! Keep at it till you peel off the bark!”

Even as a child, I realized from the atmosphere around him that he was a great man. We all used to bow our heads from the moment Saito Sensei, my father, went to fetch O-Sensei, and remained prostrate until O-Sensei arrived with Saito Sensei following along behind. We finally raised our faces in order to bow with O-Sensei before the dojo shrine. Then we started training with tai no henko.

If I was sitting next to Saito Sensei while O-Sensei was explaining a shomenuchi technique I would be sent up to execute a shomenuchi strike against O-Sensei. One day my older sister was told to go and attack O-Sensei, but she started to cry and left the dojo, as it was not easy for a child to go and interrupt O-Sensei this way. I was told to go instead and I struck with a kiai shout, at which O-Sensei said, “So, you came, did you?” He threw me, but used his hand to stop my head hitting the mat, and said, “Careful now.” O-Sensei was such a kind person.

I remember going out to the garden and watching him brush his teeth, when he suddenly pulled them out, as they were false, and said, “That was funny, wasn’t it?” (laughs)

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