Morihiro Saito: Following the Founder Into History by Gaku Homma

Author’s note: Portions of this article were written soon after the passing of Morihiro Saito Shihan, but in keeping with Japanese traditions for mourning, were not released until after the beginning of the following New Year.

Mr. and Mrs. Saito and his son Hitohiro in 1986

January 30, 2003

On February 7th through 9th, 2003, Hitohiro Saito Sensei will be coming to Denver to teach at an American Memorial Seminar which will be held to honor his father, Morihiro Saito Shihan.

There have been many technical books written featuring Saito Shihan and his Aikido. There have been many interviews and articles written about him as the Keeper of the Aiki Shrine and Iwama Dojo Cho over his lifetime. For those who will be able to attend this memorial seminar, or even if you will not be able to attend, I would like to share what I know about a side of Saito Shihan that has not often been written about; the more private side of the man who is known publicly world-wide as the great martial artist that he was.

Saito Shihan has had many uchideshi, and thousands of students share in his teaching and his mission. There are few, however, that saw his more personal, private side. His family, close senior students, and long time friends such as Stanley Pranin, editor of Aikido Journal, knew his “real face”, as I call it, or his personal manner.

My relationship with Saito Shihan, spanned almost four decades, beginning in Iwama when I was just a boy. From those early days until these last years, I have had the honor to know him, and to share in some private times with him. It was one of his last requests of me that I express what I knew of him during his final days, and his final battles. He especially wanted his students in the United States to understand the end of his life, as a way to understand its beginning. To this end I pick up my pen to write…

As human beings and as Aikidoists, we oftentimes think of death as a negative thing, something to avoid as long as possible. Whether one is a homeless beggar on the streets, a success on Wall Street, or a martial artist, no one can escape death in this world. Martial artists and movie stars I suppose are both in the spotlight during the peak of their careers. We hear of them when they win championships or Oscars. As they grow old, they seem to fade away and disappear. As the history of Aikido grows longer, its generations of students get older. There are many Aikidoists from the first pioneer generations that are no longer with us.

As human beings, we cannot escape death. No matter how strong, even famous martial artists do not live forever. How a martial artist prepares for this inevitability however can be a great lesson to us all. This is Morihiro Saito Shihan’s last lesson for all of us. He once said dying does not have to be something to fear or run from, it should be faced with courage and dignity.

The first time I spoke to Saito Shihan about coming with his son Hitohiro Saito to Denver was in 1999. “Thank you, but no thank you.” was his reply. “Students who come to Denver to practice at a seminar of mine are interested in learning from me. They are not Hitohiro’s students by some birthright. As a father it is not good for me to just present the structure and organization I have built to him on a platter. That is too easy. If Hitohiro wants to make a life out of Aikido, he must do it himself. After I am gone, I ask you to then ask Hitohiro to come to Denver. He will need to make his own start in this country, and I trust you to give him a solid platform to begin from.”

This American Memorial Seminar for Morihiro Saito Shihan is my gift to the father Morihiro Saito… and to the son, as a new beginning for the next generation to come.

Gaku Homma

With the sadness still clinging to my thoughts, I left quickly after the memorial service and headed to Wakayama Prefecture to visit Tanabe, birthplace and final resting place of the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, at the Kozanji temple.

June 10, 2001. Tosoba marking Saito Shihan’s visit to the Founder’s grave

At the grave of the Founder, I stood quietly to pay my respects. As I stood there I noticed something interesting; Three tosoba (wooden prayer markers) standing diligently behind the Founders grave. One was inscribed with the name “Morihiro Saito” and the other two with the name “Moriteru Ueshiba,” the grandson and heir to the legacy of the Founder Morihei Ueshiba. These were the only three tosoba placed here in the last year or so. Morihiro Saito Shihan’s tosoba was dated June 10, 2001. Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba had two tosoba dated March 31, 2001.

Many Aikidoists who have come to this resting spot to take a photo, but only two had taken the time and harbored the expense (approximately $500 for each tosoba) to acquire the services of the local priest to offer this special prayer. These prayers lingered, marked by the tosoba. Standing there thinking, I realized that Morihiro Saito Shihan had most likely come here to say goodbye.

In the month of May of the year 2002, we lost a great martial artist, Morihiro Saito. Morihiro Saito was a human being, as well as a martial artist of great stature. He faced his last battle-—against cancer-—head on with calmness and determination. His manner and grace were his last lessons, ones he taught silently to all of us, his students.

1997 Saito Shihan All-American Seminar

I want to write about Morihiro Saito, the man, so that you may more fully understand the life-—and the end of life-—of a truly great martial artist.

In 1997, Morihiro Saito Shihan came to Denver, Colorado for the third time. He had come to teach his 1997 All-American Seminar, which was attended by more than 350 students from all over North America and beyond. During the closing ceremony, Saito Shihan asked his students, “Did everyone enjoy the seminar?” His question was answered with applause. “This may be my last visit to America,” he continued, “Would you have me come again?” Again, his question was answered with thunderous applause.

Even then, Saito Shihan could not swallow his food smoothly. He confided to me that he had had a complete physical before coming and that some of the test results had not been good. “I will probably need surgery when I get back to Japan,” he said. This did not stop him from coming, however. He didn’t wait for an answer and told his doctors he must go to the United States. Nor did he listen to the warnings of his family, who had told me that his condition was serious. I had even gone to Japan personally to try to dissuade him from coming. “I am not sick!” he insisted over a glass of shochu. In a heavy Ibaraki accent he continued, “Don’t worry, I am still okay. I may be ill, but I am not ill in spirit. There are many things yet that I must do, and going to the United States this year is one of them!” After listening to this, what more could I do but agree? When Shihan made up his mind, there is not much more to do than say, “Yes sir.”

Morihiro Saito Shihan Aikikai Hombu 9th Dan, Ibaragi Iwama Dojo Cho and Keeper of the Aiki Shrine was a very important leader in the world Aikido community. If something were to happen to him in Denver, it would be more than a terrible thing.

1996 Saito Shihan’s 50th Anniversary Seminar, receiving gifts of flowers

Before the seminar, he did not tell any of his students of his condition. Trying not to raise concerns, we did everything we could to take care of him. Two of my students are pilots for United Airlines, and they went to Tokyo to fly him to the United States personally. He went first class all the way. There is a photo of Saito Shihan sitting in the captain’s chair in the cockpit with United pilot and Nippon Kan President Doug Kelly. It is a photo I have seen him show off on many occasions. Later he confided in me, “First class was very impressive, but it was lonely up there by myself. My students were not allowed to come up to visit me. I had so much attention from the flight attendants that I couldn’t even sneak sips of the favorite sake I had brought with me from home!” I was very relieved to see him at the airport looking healthy and making jokes.

During the seminar we took other precautions. I asked two of my students-—one who is my personal physician and the other a cardiac nurse—to keep an eye on him. Between practice times and before and after the day’s events we checked his pulse and blood pressure, monitoring him for any signs of danger. We decided it was best not to interrupt his usual diet. I cooked all of his meals myself, using basic ingredients like miso, soy sauce, and rice that I had brought for him from Iwama. We removed the Western-style bed from his sleeping quarters and replaced it with a futon, one end raised slightly to allow him to breath easier. Each night I slept in front of his door so that I could hear if he began to cough or needed attending.

I am not looking for any kind of accolades. With my experience as the last uchideshi to the Founder Morihei Ueshiba, this kind of attendance was expected of me. It was not out of the ordinary for me to do so.

One evening during the seminar, Saito Shihan began choking during dinner. We rushed to his aid, but he waived us off. “Just sitting calmly for a moment will make the choking subside,” he told us. “My doctors told me that foods red in color are good for my health, so I think a glass of red wine is in order.” I thought about protesting, but knowing better, I stopped. He knew his condition, and I was relieved that he felt he could make light of it.

Saito Shihan with United Pilot Doug Kelly after flight from Tokyo

The morning after the seminar, we prepared to leave by van for the day’s activities. Before getting in the car he spread his feet in a wide stance and bent over one knee in an extended leg stretch. “Genki desu ne” or “You seem full of vigor and energy,” I noted, then I asked. “What are you doing?” “I must finish working on your garden,” he replied. “I am worried about it.” With that he hopped into the van. This was the private Saito Shihan, not the Saito Shihan who reigned over Aikido dojos around the world.

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