Remembering Morihiro Saito Sensei, by Stanley Pranin

morihiro-saito-aikinage

“One of his hapless ukes was sent flying into the back curtain of the
stage before unceremoniously sliding down to the mat with a thud.”

Introduction

I have on many occasions over the years written articles about my aikido teacher, Morihiro Saito, that have been published in Aiki News and Aikido Journal. During that entire period, however, I had the psychological assurance that this giant of a man was busy with his teaching and caretaking duties in Iwama or off to some far flung part of the globe sharing his encylopedic knowledge of aikido with his foreign students. He was always there.

Now it is the time to again take up the task of writing about Sensei knowing that he is no longer with us to lead and instruct us, but that we must now use the lessons he taught us and our collective memories as sources of guidance.

The sadness that I felt on Sensei’s passing and physical absence will of course remain. At the same time, in compiling these remembrances I am again and again reminded of the incredibly exciting and event-filled life Saito Sensei led. The emotion I find I am left with is one of joy and pride at having been associated with his life and work in some meaningful way.

Saito Sensei was a man who appeared on the aikido scene at just the right time in just the right circumstances. Imagine having the good fortune of meeting Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei at age 18 and spending over two decades learning and growing under the tutelage of such an inspired genius. Imagine being a key participant in the early growth and spread of aikido as an international phenomenon. Imagine, further, the deep sense of satisfaction Sensei must have felt at having thousands upon thousands of enthusiastic Japanese and foreign students coming to study at the Iwama Dojo and attending his seminars worldwide.

A rich life indeed!

First impressions on film

One of Saito Sensei’s favorite photos
taken at Aikikai Hombu Dojo c. 1969

My first recollection of Morihiro Saito Sensei dates from about 1968 when I viewed an old 8mm film of one of the early All-Japan Aikido Demonstrations. I believe this was the 1964 demonstration. The grainy image of Sensei caught on the film was that of a huge block of a man moving haphazardly around the stage while left and right demolishing attackers who appeared to be mere playthings.

One of his hapless ukes was sent flying into the back curtain of the stage before unceremoniously sliding down to the mat with a thud. Even though the film was silent you could imagine the oohs and aahs that this awesome performance must have elicited from the audience. Sensei’s demonstration impressed me as being rather crude yet fascinating for such a display of sheer brute power. This was certainly one gentleman to steer clear of on the mat if ever our paths were to cross!

Meeting Sensei for the first time at Hombu Dojo in 1969

My initial impression proved totally erroneous when I saw Saito Sensei for the first time in the flesh in Tokyo in the summer of 1969. That year I spent ten weeks training at the newly-built Aikikai Hombu Dojo where Sensei was conducting Sunday morning classes. He had been teaching at the Aikikai since the early 1960s and enjoyed a large following.

At first blush, Sensei reminded me of a rough-cut farmer just in from the countryside. He was stout weighing about 210 pounds at a height of five feet six inches. He had a deep baritone voice and teeth in bad need of dental work. But, my God, when the man moved he was the personification of grace and power!

Saito Sensei’s classes were always full and he enjoyed a reputation as perhaps the finest technician teaching at the Hombu Dojo in those days. His explanations were clear and methodical in contrast to most of the other Hombu teachers that simply demonstrated a technique with little or no commentary. He was always smiling and circulating around the dojo giving a lot of personal attention to students. In addition to his superb taijutsu, Saito Sensei also spent the last part of his class teaching the aiki ken and jo, the only teacher to do so when I was there. Sensei would show the basic striking and thrusting movements of the ken and jo and then incorporate them into a series of paired kata. I thought his system of relating taijutsu and weapons was very genial and hoped to have a chance to do more of this kind of training at some future date.

I took several roles of 8mm film that capture the atmosphere of those wonderful practices. In one scene, I pan the camera all the way around the packed dojo . It was unusual to see that many students on the mat in those days.

First visit to Iwama

Sensei at about age 40.
Photo courtesy of Bill Witt

One of my American friends, Bill Witt, whom I had met earlier in California, was living in Japan then and training at the Hombu Dojo. He was very keen on Saito Sensei’s approach to aikido and wanted to visit Sensei in Iwama. Bill invited me to accompany him to go out to the countryside to meet Saito Sensei and see the Iwama dojo and Aiki Shrine. I eagerly agreed and we boarded the Joban line from Ueno station one hot, muggy morning in July.

Saito Sensei was teaching a private class when we arrived and invited us to watch. After the training he chatted with us for an hour or so and were made to feel very welcome. My Japanese skills at that stage were very basic so I mostly listened to Bill and Sensei converse without being able to follow much of the conversation.

This meeting turned out to be fortuitous as Bill began visiting Saito Sensei often and soon, by the early 1970s, other foreign students followed and started living in the Iwama Dojo as uchideshi. Among the first foreigners to train in the dojo during this period were Hans Goto, David Alexander, Dennis Tatoian, Bruce Klickstein, all from the USA, and Ulf Evenas of Sweden. This was the beginning of a tradition of training visits of literally thousands of foreign aikidoka who have spent from a few days to several years practicing in Iwama. This would also lead to Saito Sensei receiving numerous invitations to instruct in foreign countries. In fact, I think there were only one or two years during the period of 1974-2001 that he did not travel abroad.

Though I had a very favorable impression of Sensei from my summer of training in Japan still there were other Japanese teachers I was attracted to and, at that stage, I had no particular idea of one day studying in Iwama.

1974 California seminar and interview

Bill Witt, Terry Dobson, and Saito Sensei, Aikido of San Francisco, 1974

Upon my return to California, I was immediately inducted into the US army and served three years. I was discharged in Monterey, California and taught aikido there and other locations in northern California for several years.

I had of course not seen Saito Sensei since my trip to Japan in 1969 but my interest in his approach to aikido was rekindled when he began the publication of a five-volume technical series titled Traditional Aikido in 1973. These books were published by Minato Research, headed by a student of Saito Sensei named Tetsutaka Sugawara. In California, we would eagerly await the appearance of each new volume. This series contained well-organized technical sequences, clear explanations and commentary in a bilingual format, and lots of nice old photos of O-Sensei. The basics of the aiki ken and jo were covered as well and I remember trying to work out the kata sequences with my students while using his books as a reference. Also, Saito Sensei was kind enough to send signed, gift copies of his first volume to several of the aikido instructors in northern California, myself included.

It was an exciting occasion when Sensei traveled abroad for the first time in October 1974 to northern California. Sensei’s uke and traveling companion on that trip was Shigemi Inagaki Sensei, a formidable aikidoka. David Alexander and Dennis Tatoian also formed part of Sensei’s entourage from Japan. A number of his early foreign uchideshi including Bill Witt, Bruce Klickstein and Hans Goto were based in northern California and Sensei had been invited to conduct seminars on this occasion by them. He taught back-to-back seminars at the old Aikido of San Francisco and at Stanford University on October 5-6 and October 12-13, respectively. Below is a portion of the report I wrote in an early edition of Aiki News from October 1974:

Saito Sensei’s effectiveness as a teacher was indeed remarkable. And this was achieved without knowledge of the language of his students. His method of presentation consisted primarily of slow-motion pantomimes of the individual techniques with a minimum of verbalization. This coupled with careful groupings of related movements provided a well-focused perspective of many aspects of the Aikido system.

Those present could not help but remark the excellent poise displayed by Saito Sensei during the course of the two gasshuku both on and off the mat. He remained centered and calm despite the fact he found himself immersed in a foreign culture for the first time. Noteworthy also was Saito Sensei’s outstanding stamina. He participated fully in all sessions instructing students individually and taking falls. He remained patient and at the same time energetic during the many hours of intense training of the two gasshuku. The impact of his presence and teaching manner was very powerful and will continue to resonate in this region for a long time to come…

I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to conduct a short interview with Sensei at Stanford University with Katsuaki Terasawa serving as interpreter. That interview appeared in the June 1975 issue of Aiki News, which was a small newsletter in its infancy.

There was a particular episode from this trip that I will never forget. Sensei was teaching a class at Aikido of San Francisco and was demonstrating a kokyunage technique, if I remember correctly. His uke was David Alexander. Sensei threw David horizontally but misjudged the amount of space he had free. Right in the middle of the throw when it had become apparent that David would crash into the people who had crowded in close to better observe, Sensei stuck out his left arm and caught David in mid-air thus preventing a collision. No one could believe what they had seen. Sensei had the presence of mind, lightning-fast reflexes and physical strength necessary to pull off such a feat. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

Moving to Japan

I was at this time operating a dojo and attempting to make a living at teaching aikido in Monterey, but it was difficult to achieve a financial success in a smaller town with aikido still not very well-known. In 1976 I made the decision to relocate to Japan as soon as feasible. I actually left the USA in August of 1977 and stayed in the beginning in the Iwama Dojo.

I would like to say a word here about why I chose to study with Saito Sensei in Iwama as opposed to living and training in Tokyo or another part of Japan. All other factors being equal, I would certainly not have chosen to stay in the countryside of Ibaragi Prefecture. The food, lifestyle, and mentality were totally foreign to the life I had been accustomed to in California. In fact, there is really little else for a foreigner to do in Iwama besides practice aikido.

Moreover, I knew I did not want to become an uchideshi either. Spending three years in the army had cured me of ever again desiring to put myself in a communal living situation! I did end up spending about six weeks staying in the Iwama Dojo immediately after my arrival, however, I knew that the situation was temporary so I felt little psychological pressure in being at the dojo.

The overriding reason for chosing Iwama was the irresistible pull of Sensei’s aikido. The man was a gifted teacher and a technical wizard. Every class he taught was organized around easy-to-understand themes. His movements were very precise and his explanations logical. He would also frequently mention his teacher Morihei Ueshiba and offer a litany of “kuden” from O-Sensei to remind us of key technical points. Reminders of the fact that this was the founder’s private dojo were abundant everywhere. A great deal of O-Sensei’s personal belongings could still be found in his home which was physically attached to the dojo. There was also the serene Aiki Shrine situated nearby of which Saito Sensei was the guardian. Classes in the aiki ken and jo took place in front of the shrine nearly everyday.

There were other fine teachers I had seen and trained with too, but I believed Sensei’s approach was best suited to my methodical way of looking at things and I had a strong intuition that the practice of the aiki ken and jo would add an important dimension to my aikido.

Training in Iwama in late 1970s

Sensei teaching at Iwama Dojo c. 1979

As I soon had procured a job teaching English in nearby Mito, I moved out of the Iwama Dojo into a small apartment in Tsuchiura. I was able to train at the dojo about 4-5 days a week. In those days, Sensei always taught the morning weapons class in front of the Aiki Shrine and most of the evening classes in the dojo. Even though I attended his classes several times a week, I remember marvelling at how logical and organized his explanations of techniques were. His ability to organize the rich aikido curriculum into easily-understood segments was masterful.

I often would kid Sensei that had he not been from a poor farming village of the countryside of Japan but rather born into a family of means in a large city, he would certainly have become a “hakase,” a Ph.D. He seemed to draw great pleasure from this remark. Even though the comment was delivered jokingly, I meant every word. Truly, his eye for detail and systemization was amazing.

Sensei’s classes would always begin with tai no henko and morotedori kokyuho and finish with suwariwaza kokyuho. He reminded us that O-Sensei always taught his classes in Iwama this way and he was following that tradition. He stated over and over again that his main purpose in teaching aikido was to preserve and spread the founder’s techniques in undiluted form. Sensei would often mention that he and his wife Sata had spent 23 years serving O-Sensei and his wife Hatsu and that he would continue to serve the founder and propagate his techniques until he breathed his last. And so he did.

Sensei was conscious of the criticism that “Iwama Aikido” was overly concerned with basics and too static in the execution of techniques. Sometimes he would do progressions from the most basic form done in a one-two-three manner, then present increasingly more advanced ways of doing the technique until finally reaching ki no nagare. He would then show several different levels of ki no nagare until, at the highest level, there was only a hint of movement performed in a flash. He could demonstrate really advanced movements when he wanted to.

It was as if he were saying, “Look, these people criticize Iwama Aikido without ever having experienced it directly. They say all we do is basics. I’d like to see them perform a technique on all of these different levels. Do they really expect to learn effective techniques while skipping the basics? They attempt to start practicing ki no nagare techniques right from the beginning. This is a big mistake!”

I heard Saito Sensei voice such sentiments repeatedly over the years both while teaching and in private.

Another thing he was fond of doing was showing the relationships between taijutsu and weapons techniques, especially the ken. Basic techniques like shihonage, kotegaeshi, iriminage all had counterparts using the sword. Likewise, shomenuchi, yokomenuchi, and tsuki attacks were simply empty-handed adaptations of basic sword striking and thrusting movements.

Doubting the authenticity of Saito Sensei’s technique

Saito Sensei was very gracious with me right from the very beginning of my stay in Iwama. He knew that I was a friend of Bill Witt and clearly recalled that I had interviewed him several years earlier in California. Moreover, he strongly encouraged me in my research on aikido history. My Japanese had improved somewhat by then and I was having one-on-one conversations with him with some frequency. Looking back, I must have seemed a bit impertinent because, although I was totally committed to his approach to aikido, I still felt that he had made considerable changes to the techniques he had learned from O-Sensei. Since Saito Sensei’s continually repeated that he was teaching the techniques the way he was taught by the founder there was a disparity that I couldn’t resolve in my mind.

However clumsily, I succeeded in verbalizing to Sensei the dichotomy I perceived between his and O-Sensei’s aikido. I pointed out that O-Sensei’s techniques preserved on film looked very different from the way Saito Sensei taught his techniques. Sensei was really amused by my conclusion and probably at my cheekiness for directly expressing my thoughts, something I’m sure a Japanese student would never have done.

Sensei told me that the reason for the difference was that O-Sensei was conscious of being filmed in public and would purposely not demonstrate techniques in the same way he would teach in Iwama. He added that O-Sensei was like the old-fashioned martial artist who would conceal his techniques from the general public. Still for several years I remained unconvinced.

The first photo shoot

After I had been training in Iwama a little over a year I asked Saito Sensei to pose for a series of technical photos for use in Aiki News and the publication of a couple of technical booklets. He agreed to do so and we shot about 10 rolls of film in November 1978. These photos appeared in some of the early issues of the newsletter and we also produced two short technical manuals. One of my purposes in proposing this project was to rekindle an interest in Sensei is resuming the Traditional Aikido series that had been left uncompleted.

1979 trip to USA and Canada

Interpreting for Sensei in Calgary, Canada, August 1979

I was very honored when Saito Sensei first asked me to travel abroad with him on his trip to the USA and Canada in August 1979. We participated in the United States Aikido Federation summer camp sponsored by Mitsunari Kanai Sensei and Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, based in Boston, Massachusetts and New York City, respectively. Saito Sensei was well received on the east coast on this his first appearance and most aikidoka attending the seminar were seeing his weapons training for the first time.

I clearly remember too our meeting and chatting with Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei and Tiki Shewan Sensei of France at the New York Aikikai just prior to the summer camp. Another standout memory was a delicious seafood dinner in Boston harbor following which Saito Sensei, Yamada Sensei, Kanai Sensei, Bruce Klickstein and I talked until late at night on every imaginable aikido subject.

Sensei also conducted a seminar in Calgary, Alberta, Canada on that trip. Takeji Tomita Sensei joined us from Sweden and assisted as Saito Sensei’s uke. We also enjoyed a trip to Banff, a famous scenic resort nearby. I really enjoyed traveling with Sensei and having all the time in the world to talk with him about O-Sensei and his early experiences in aikido. He was a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge about the postwar years in Iwama and the early period of the Aikikai. Sensei, for his part, never seemed to tire of these conversations and he was one of my most important sources of information on many aspects of O-Sensei’s life.

A remarkable discovery


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