Remembering Morihiro Saito Sensei, by Stanley Pranin


“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.”


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

Sensei referring to Budo while giving seminar, Tokyo 1992

One day in July 1981, I was conducting an interview with Zenzaburo Akazawa, a prewar uchideshi of Morihei Ueshiba from the Kobukan Dojo period. Mr. Akazawa proceeded to show me a technical manual published in 1938 titled Budo which I had never seen before. It contained photos of some fifty techniques demonstrated by the founder himself. As I slowly turned the pages of the manual, I was amazed to see in the photos that the execution of several basics techniques such as ikkyo, iriminage and shihonage were virtually identical to what I had learned in Iwama under Saito Sensei. Here was the founder himself demonstrating what I had up until then regarded as “Iwama-style” techniques. Mr. Akazawa, who lives only a few blocks away from the Iwama Dojo, kindly lent me the book and I hurried to show it to Saito Sensei.

I’ll always remember the scene as I called at Sensei’s door to share with him my new discovery. To my surprise, he had never seen or heard mention of the book before. He put on his reading glasses and leafed through the manual, his eyes scanning the technical sequences intently. I felt compelled then and there to apologize to him for having ever doubted his assertion that he was making every effort to faithfully preserve the founder’s techniques. Saito Sensei laughed and, obviously with great pleasure, bellowed, “See, Pranin, I told you so!” From that time on up through the end of his life, Saito Sensei always had along his copy of Budo in the Iwama Dojo and on his travels to use as proof to show that a particular technique originated in the founder’s teachings.

The discovery of Budo was, to be sure, a watershed event in my personal aikido research, but I was even more delighted to see how important it was to Sensei to have this amazing document to wave in the face of his critics who doubted the authenticity of his aikido.

Travels abroad with Sensei

In late 1984, an Italian aikidoka named Paolo Corallini arrived at the Iwama Dojo to train. He became captivated by Saito Sensei’s aikido but could not speak Japanese or English. Though I was living in Tokyo by this time I sometimes visited the Iwama Dojo to practice and I met Paolo on one occasion. He asked me to interpret for him and this led to Sensei being invited to instruct in Italy in February 1985. I was invited along as interpreter.

This new connection with Europe proved to be of great significance to the future development of Iwama Aikido. Paolo Corallini was and is extremely devoted to Saito Sensei and this visit would be the start of annual and sometimes biannual visits to Europe.

On this first trip Sensei conducted seminars in Turin and Osimo, the latter located along the Adriatic Sea. The Italians and aikidoka from other countries in attendance reacted exactly like everyone else who came into contact with Sensei’s instruction. As I mentioned above, Sensei was a masterful teacher. Not only were his techniques superb, but he would vary the mood greatly while teaching. He would sometimes explain in an analytical way. At other moments, he would chide a student for a mistake and issue one of his famous “dame” admonitions, and then in the next moment make a hilarious comment that would break up the serious mood. Sensei was very conscientious about teaching these seminars and always succeeded in endearing himself to those who attended.

On this trip, we had an unexpected surprise in the form of a visit by Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei, his wife, and Pierre Chassang, an aikido pioneer in France, who drove from the southern part of France to greet Sensei.

Although not much of a tourist as I will mention later, Sensei did find the Italian countryside and antiquities pretty interesting and made numerous comments about the beauty of the country and ancient castles and structures as we traveled about.

The seminars Saito Sensei taught were also professionally videotaped by one of Paolo’s friends. They capture the magic of his teaching skills and technique at this stage of his life.

Getting a new set of teeth

Sensei’s new teeth

Paolo’s enthusiasm was contagious and he succeeded in convincing Sensei to visit again in May of that same year, not something that Saito Sensei would do normally. There was another reason for Sensei’s accepting a return invitation so soon after our initial visit. Paolo is a dentist by profession and Sensei’s teeth were in pretty bad condition. Paolo offered to completely repair his teeth prior to the seminar.

This trip proved quite an adventure because the dental work involved would normally have taken several weeks to complete. Paolo somehow compressed the entire treatment down to four days! He was a nervous wreck during this time as he was deathly afraid that something might go wrong. Fortunately, for all concerned, the treatment went flawlessly and Sensei emerged with a big smile and new teeth as you can see in the acommpany photo!

Although I have remained silent all these years, I must confess that I hatched a sinister plot on this trip. As those who spent time with him know, Sensei was fond of drinking as are most Japanese men. Foreign visitors are sometimes shocked at this phenomenon when they first visit Japan, but it is a fact of life that social drinking is commonplace at all levels of society and is regarded as a safety-valve for the stresses of daily life. In any event, out of concern for Sensei’s health and perhaps due to a bit of prudishness of my part, I was always trying to get him to cut down on his drinking.

Well, this was my big chance! I conspired with Paolo and Tomita-san to have Paolo give Sensei a lecture in his capacity as a medical doctor on the reasons why it would not be a good idea for him to continue regular drinking if he wished to maintain his teeth in good condition. At the appointed time after the treatment was over, Paolo stood in his office wearing his white dental frock with Sensei seated unsuspectingly in the patient’s chair and delivered his lecture. Everyone knew what was going on except Sensei. Tomita-san almost could not contain himself and I feared he would burst out laughing and spoil everything! I was having a hard time keeping a straight face myself as the interpreter.

The upshot was that Sensei apparently took the lecture quite seriously and stopped drinking all together for several days. He would report to me everyday how he had not had a single drop! Finally, shortly after we boarded the plane to leave Italy, he could contain himself no more and poured himself a long drink. Seated at his side and normally very talkative, I remained stone silent pretending not to notice. Sensei looked very sheepish and said to me, “You’re angry at me, aren’t you?” I don’t recall what I mumbled in reply. But that was the last time I tried anything like that and it was a good lesson to me to mind my own business!

Importance of Italian connection

Sensei with Paolo Corallini, Italy 1985

To the best of my recollection, we visited Italy five times all together, sometimes going to other countries on the same trip. The connection with Paolo Corallini would later give birth to the formation of a large, Pan-European organization centered on Iwama Aikido. The two main figures of this organization which remains active to this day are Paolo Corallini and Ulf Evenas of Sweden, the latter one Sensei’s first foreign uchideshi.

On a side note, these visits and the collaboration of Paolo enabled us to undertake some important historical work that could not have been attempted under normal circumstances. First of all, in 1987 I succeeded in talking Sensei into doing a very unusual project. This involved him reading aloud into the camera the text of the 1938 training manual Budo and then demonstrating the techniques from the book in front of the video camera. This is the same book I mentioned above that I had discovered in Iwama a few years earlier. I thought Sensei would be the perfect person to carry out this project because of his familiarity with the earlier techniques of O-Sensei. Also, since the content of Budo was very convincing as a validation of Saito Sensei’s approach to aikido, I believed he would welcome the opportunity since we had the cameraman and facility available. As it turned out, Sensei was tired from the long travel and I had to convince him to agree to the videotaping. By then, he must have known instinctively that if I were involved it would be a tough project!

At video shoot for the Aiki Ken and Jo tapes, Osimo 1988

One of the biggest problems to be overcome was the naming of the techniques covered in Budo. The techniques are merely numbered in the original manual and there are only single word section names. It took some cajoling on my part but Sensei succeeded in coming up with names for all 50 of the techniques. The finished video is an excellent technical document and also captures Saito Sensei in his prime.

The following year in 1988 we did yet another videotape, also of great significance. We recorded most of Saito Sensei’s aiki ken and jo suburi and kata as they stood at this point in time. The shoot took place in Paolo’s private dojo in Osimo and Ken’ichi Shibata partnered Sensei on this occasion. In looking back, I really appreciate how fortunate we are to have these documents preserved for future generations!

Sensei conquers France

Morihiro Saito with Nobuyoshi
Tamura, Lyons, November 1985

In November 1985, Sensei and I embarked on what was in many ways the most ambitious of our trips together. Sensei conducted seminars in France, Belgium and Italy on that occasion. My accompanying Sensei on this particular trip was for a somewhat different reason than past travels. I was along with his encouragement mostly to promote Aiki News with our emphasis on the importance of remembering O-Sensei and his historical connection with Iwama. By that time we also had a couple of videotapes of Saito Sensei to offer as well. My Japanese editor Ikuko Kimura joined us on this trip along with a French staff member Gabriel Valibouze.

This time, I was even more loaded down than usual with gear and products because we were to give several film shows as well. In fact, I had along a heavy video projector that weighed at least forty pounds. It was physically impossible for me to carry everything in one go so Sensei dutifully helped me carry my luggage on and off the airplane. I was terribly embarrassed by this and reluctantly accepted his help all the while apologizing profusely. Sensei was visibly amused. I don’t know what you would say about the “kabanmochi” (bag carrier) who had his bags carried by the Sensei, but that’s what happened!

This visit was sponsored by the FFLAB organization of Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei and the turnouts at the seminars in France were tremendous. There were 600 people on one huge mat area at the course in Lyons. This practice facility was about three times as large as a college gymnasium. Sensei, even though he had a strong voice, could not be heard by everyone so he came up with a quick solution. He got everyone to help stack up about 15-20 mats on top of each other so that the French interpreter, Daniel Boubault, could be better seen and heard. He also had everyone form a huge circle so that they could get in close to watch and listen.

Another memory I have of that experience was Nobuyoshi Tamura Sensei’s presence on the mat training in Saito Sensei’s class. I thought he set a wonderful example for others by being willing to display a “beginner’s mind” even though he was and is one of the most skilled aikidoka around. We also met Andre Nocquet Sensei, an early foreign student of O-Sensei, and Hiroo Mochizuki Sensei, son of the famous Minoru Mochizuki Sensei, on this trip.

Unforgettable episodes

We traveled together many times during the 1985-1989 period and I have had to set about constructing a chart of Sensei’s foreign trips to jog my memory. I recall visiting the following countries: Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland, and the USA, several of them on two or more occasions. Sensei also traveled a couple of times to Australia during this time frame without me.

The episodes from this period are endless, but here are a few that stand out in my mind. On one occasion, Sensei was making critical remarks in front of a large group of students during a seminar in Italy. He was pointing out a common technical error that particularly annoyed him and then proceeded to name a famous teacher who taught the technique the “wrong way.” I was always uncomfortable when Sensei criticized people publicly this way and I told him so, but he was a very direct, unhibited person and he usually said exactly what he was thinking.

So on this occasion Sensei would make a remark and I would dutifully translate it. Then the criticisms became stronger and stronger. My translations started getting shorter and shorter. Finally, Sensei really let out a piece of his mind and I stayed totally silent. He then gave me the strangest look and said, “Oh, I can see you’re mad at me for talking this way. Okay, I’ll stop.” Everyone could tell what was happening and had a good laugh. I’m sure my face was red as an apple!

Another time, someone showed us a painting of O-Sensei done by a local aikido student/artist. This person was very proud of the portrait and had it prominently displayed in his home. He anxiously awaited Sensei’s reaction. Actually, I thought the painting didn’t look anything like O-Sensei at all and so apparently did Saito Sensei. I think it is very hard for western artists to learn how to capture oriental features and vice versa. Anyway, Sensei was in a tough spot because he didn’t want to tell a lie, so he mumbled something about how the artist was very skilled and the person seemed satisfied.

Sensei would always rib me for being a slow eater. In fact, he called me “the slowest eater in the world.” He would joke repeatedly how by the time everyone had finished their meal and was ready for dessert I was still on the first course! He and the other diners would wait impatiently for me to finish while poking fun at me for being so slow thus causing me further embarrassment. Finally, one day I evened the score. I said, “Okay, everyone, I don’t want to keep you waiting for me to finish so I’ll stop interpreting and let you talk among yourselves.” Needless to say, with the interpreter on strike, the dinner conversation dwindled almost to nothing.

Finally, I found a solution to the problem. I started showing up for meals about a half an hour early and eating by myself. That way when Sensei came down to dine I could devote my full attention to interpreting for him.

There was a particularly amusing incident that occurred during this trip that I would like to relate. To say that Saito Sensei was not much of a tourist would be a gross understatement. He much preferred shopping! I remember clearly our visit to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I had never actually stopped to take a good look at this famous structure and was very much looking forward to our visit. One of the hosts drove us to the tower and Sensei took a look around, remarked how big it was and snapped a couple of photos. Then he said, “Ok, now I’ve seen it! Let’s go.” The whole process took maybe five or six minutes. Although I was a bit disappointed, I had to laugh at his reaction. Maybe some day I’ll have another chance to visit the tower at my pace!

Friendship Demonstrations

Sensei demonstrating at 1985 Friendship Demonstration with Hitohiro Sensei as uke

During these years of extensive contact with Saito Sensei even with all the foreign travel, we had his collaboration and support for yet another Aiki News undertaking in Japan. This was a series of events that took place from 1985 to 1988 called the Aiki News Friendship Demonstrations. Each year’s demonstration had a separate theme and different participants. Among those who participated were many famous teachers from various styles of aikido and from the kobudo world. Sensei of course knew some of the teachers, but he also had an opportunity to meet and interact with several of the participants for the first time.

As my personal teacher, Saito Sensei was the sole teacher we invited each year and he gave wonderful demonstrations. I remember in particular a series of techniques from the 1985 demonstration where Sensei threw one of his students flying in a seemingly casual way that left the audience agape. I imagine that the audience must have reacted in a similar way at his performance back in the 1964, the one I first saw in the 8mm movie.

A two-year blank

In the summer of 1989, Saito Sensei became upset at me for what later turned out to be a complete misunderstanding. At that time, Sensei was rather fidgety because he had been informed that the Ueshiba family intended to sell off the land in Iwama where the dojo and O-Sensei’s home stood. Not knowing what the future held in store or whether he would have a place to teach, he set about raising funds and eventually constructed a new dojo on his property not far from the old dojo.

The upshot of this incident was that I did not see or talk with Sensei for nearly two years. The ice was finally broken in 1991 due to some behind-the-scenes activity to get us back together. When we finally met for an interview after the long hiatus in the new dojo, it was almost as though nothing had happened. Our collaboration had been very productive over the years and we soon picked up things where we had left off.

Takemusu Aikido technical series

Author, Sonoko Tanaka, Saito Senseiand Daniel Toutain during photo shoot, May 1998. Photo courtesy Joran Fagerlund

In 1993, after consultation with the Aiki News staff, we decided to propose to Saito Sensei a major project that would hopefully produce the definitive technical work on Iwama Aikido. The idea in a nutshell was to photograph and describe the vast technical repertoire known only to Sensei and to publish this material in a series of technical manuals. Saito Sensei’s earlier Traditional Aikido books were certainly landmark works, but I thought we could do even a better job.

This series too would be in bilingual, Japanese-English format and would include background material to provide better context as to the genesis of Iwama Aikido. It would moreover cover the weapons techniques that Sensei had devised over the years that were not covered in his books from the 1970s.

A personal concern of mine was that this project would require several years to complete and, since Sensei had slowed down a bit in recent years, I wanted to move forward as soon as possible while he was still in good health.

Sensei gave the provisional go-ahead to the idea, but was concerned about duplicating the techniques already published in his Traditional Aikido series. I personally didn’t think that this was a major issue because, by this point in time, those books were hard to obtain and subsequent reprintings did not reproduce the photos very well. Also, the translations I felt left something to be desired.

In any event, we rented the Taito Riverside Sports Center dojo in Asakusa and shot several hundred photos of Saito Sensei and his son, Hitohiro Sensei. I also took several rolls of color film with a large-format camera which were later used as cover photos for the new books. If memory serves, there was another photo shoot in Asakusa and two more in Iwama, the final one taking place around 1999. In the last two sessions, Saito Sensei had Hitohiro Sensei perform most of the techniques since he still had not fully recovered from recent surgery.

Sensei gives speech at 50th Anniversary Celebration

The technical explanations were produced based on meetings with Sensei in Iwama. We had the sequential photos for each technique laid out so that Sensei could refer to them. He would invariably stand up and pantomine each technique giving an explanation of the roles of uke and nage for each photo. You could see his computer-of-a-mind hard at work. He visualized each technique breaking it down into its component parts and strained to find just the right turn of phrase to convey the key points. These sessions were tape-recorded and edited by the Aiki News staff and then sent back to Sensei for corrections.

A total of six volumes were published from 1994-2001 under the title of Takemusu Aikido. They cover the Iwama basics in great detail and present much material of intermediate and advanced levels. Volume one contains many variations of ikkyo through yonkyo techniques and also a rather long historical introduction I wrote on Sensei and Iwama Aikido. Volumes two and three complete the basics while volume four is an exhaustive treatment of kokyunage techniques. Volume five covers tachidori and ninindori techniques.

The sixth volume called Takemusu Aikido, Special Edition presents all of the 50 techniques from the 1938 manual Budo and serves as a companion to the videotape we shot in Italy in 1988 covering the same material. This book was an idea near and dear to my heart that Sensei also liked very much. Not only did it present an opportunity to call attention to this important historical book—the only one in which the founder appears demonstrating techniques—but it also provides incontrovertible proof of the close technical relationship between O-Sensei’s teachings and Saito Sensei’s aikido.

The Takemusu Aikido series is truly a valuable reference. Not only is a great deal of the Iwama technical curriculum documented, but also a good part of the teachings of O-Sensei from the immediate postwar period are preserved. This is the point in time generally considered to coincide with the birth of modern aikido.

Sensei is feted

On March 8, 1992, a large celebration was held in an Iwama hotel on the occasion of Saito Sensei’s promotion to 9th dan. Many dignitaries of the aikido world including Second Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba and his son, the present Doshu, Moriteru Ueshiba were in attendance. I snapped many photos at that celebration when Sensei received much deserved recognition for his contributions to the art.

Several years later on May 4, 1996, Sensei was honored once again, this time for his 50 years of involvement in aikido. A stretch-limousine pulled up in front of the Aiki Shrine to take him and his wife to the hotel just before the ceremony. They were both dressed in formal kimono and I thought this was a grand photo-op. Although they were in a hurry, he and his wife posed for several photos in front of the Shrine and I think they are among the best shots of Sensei ever taken!

The then Dojo-cho Moriteru Sensei attended this ceremony representing the Aikikai to congratulate Saito Sensei. Hiroshi Isoyama Sensei gave the toast on that occasion and referred to Sensei as “a modern Miyamoto Musashi.” With his wife standing at his side, Sensei gave a memorable speech that was both touching and humorous. Here is an excerpt:

One day, Ueshiba Sensei said to me, “Saito, get yourself a wife.” Fortunately, through some twist of fate, I ended up meeting my wife, Sata. I say fortunately because I wasn’t exactly a good catch as a husband, and I can’t think why anyone would want to marry her either. Once we had settled on one another, Sensei said, “You can have the wedding in my house,” which we did. Soon afterward, however he said, “You’re in charge of the place now,” and promptly left on a trip to the Kansai region. Well, I didn’t know what to do, so the next day I chased after him, following him all around Kansai asking him to come back. Because of that we never did get to go on a honeymoon!

In his speech on that occasion he made various mentions of his days training with and serving O-Sensei in Iwama. Those were clearly wonderful years, but at the same time a period full of hardships as the founder and his wife were demanding in many ways. I had heard Sensei and his wife speak in private about various matters so some of his references were obvious to me and others who knew him well.

Sensei reads my editorial in class

Sensei teaches weapons outdoors
at 1997 Denver, Colorado seminar

Saito Sensei was very supportive of my work with Aiki News over the years. He was quite tolerant of my associations with a broad spectrum of teachers from the aikido and Daito-ryu worlds. I think that this was possible for him psychologically because he had a great deal of confidence in his own abilities and was very focused on his mission of preserving and disseminating O-Sensei’s aikido.

In 1996, I wrote an editorial titled “Is O-Sensei Really the Founder of Modern Aikido.” The basic premise of the article was that it was actually O-Sensei’s son, Kisshomaru, and certain key students such as Koichi Tohei, Gozo Shioda, and a few others who were responsible for the postwar spread of the art. A corollary of my thesis was that, due to an accident of history and his exceptional talents, Saito Sensei was the person who spent the longest period learning directly under the founder and that he was in a unique position to preserve O-Sensei’s teachings, at least in a technical sense.

Sensei was very pleased with this particular piece and apparently read aloud excerpts to his students in Iwama. I was told this by one of his foreign deshi afterward and was very pleased that he liked it. To this day, it remains one of the most read articles I have written and is one of my personal favorites.

Final USA seminars

Saito Sensei with Kenichi Shibata
at All-Japan Demonstration, c. 1992

I moved with my family back to the United States in late 1996. Ironically, I was still able to see Saito Sensei with about the same frequency as when I was living in Japan. I would make 3-4 visits a year to Japan and usually be able to see him on those trips. Sensei also came several times to the USA to teach and I was able to meet him on most of those occasions as well.

Two of the seminars he taught in the the USA took place in Denver, Colorado in 1997 and 1999. Saito Sensei was hosted by Gaku Homma Sensei of the Nippon Kan. Homma Sensei had spent a short time in Iwama as a teenager and regarded his contact with O-Sensei and Saito Sensei as among his most valuable life experiences. I think these events were a way for Homma Sensei to express his profound gratitude.

Homma Sensei is a master organizer and these huge events attended by more than 300 people went off like clockwork. As usual, Sensei captivated his audience with his amiable manner, technical precision and virtuosity. He also had a habit of finishing off such seminars with an exciting demonstration and did so on these occasions too.

Sensei’s last seminar in the USA was a large affair in September 2000 in northern California. It was sponsored by Hans Goto with the cooperation of Dennis Tatoian and also attracted over 300 persons.

Last appearance at the All-Japan Aikido Demonstration

Sensei with Pat Hendricks at 1994 All-Japan Demonstration

The last time I saw Saito Sensei perform was at the 2001 All-Japan Aikido Demonstration at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo held in May. He was not up to his usual par on that occasion as his legs had weakened and he could not stand unassisted. Nonetheless, the audience was very appreciative of his appearance and he received enthusiastic applause.

I recalled seeing him in so many earlier demonstrations when his performances were among the highlights of the events. For example, the 1978 demonstration where Shigemi Inagaki and Bruce Klickstein, two of Sensei’s strongest deshi, served as his uke was a tour de force. Sensei executed an explosive series of irimi techniques and was the personification of power and poise. The audience loved it, but Inagaki-san suffered a shoulder separation that day.

There was another demonstration, I think in the early 1990s, where Sensei just executed the basics of ikkyo through yonkyo to perfection. It was perhaps as much of a political statement as it was a demonstration of technique and I think the audience understood Sensei’s intent. It was as if he was uttering the simple statement in front of 5,000 people, “Back to basics, folks. Learn them and there is no limit to how far you can take your aikido!”

Sensei also used long-time students Bernice Tom and Pat Hendricks as his uke for memorable weapons demonstrations at two of the later All-Japan events. Sensei was race and gender-blind and from early on would freely use foreign students, including females, in his public demonstrations.

Visiting Tohei Sensei after 30 years

Saito Sensei meets Tohei Sensei
after 30 years, October 29, 2001

The last opportunity I had to meet Saito Sensei before he became bed-ridden took place on October 29, 2001. This was truly an historic day. His son, Hitohiro Sensei, asked me to attempt to arrange a meeting between Saito Sensei and his old sempai, Koichi Tohei Sensei. Since I had heard Saito Sensei mention many times how Tohei Sensei had been a role model for him in his early years in aikido, I had tried to set up such a meeting a few years earlier while interviewing Tohei Sensei, but the latter declined.

This time, however, Tohei Sensei agreed to the idea and the date was set. I took the train to Iwama in the morning arriving in the early afternoon. Then Hitohiro Sensei drove Saito Sensei, myself and two uchideshi to Tohei Sensei’s country home in Tochigi Prefecture. The meeting was cordial and nostalgic as the two had not met for nearly 30 years. It was a thrilling experience to see two martial arts giants reunited after such a long hiatus and I felt very privileged to be present.

Last visit with Sensei

Morihiro Saito, his wife Sata, and son
Hitohiro Saito Sensei, Iwama 1992

When Sensei fell ill in January 2002, it soon became apparent that he would not recover. The word spread among his students that time was limited and that those who wanted to pay their respects should do so as soon as possible.

I last visited him on February 24 with Ikuko Kimura. Although he lay paralyzed in a special hospitable bed set up in his home, he was in good spirits and full of fight. I was quite relieved to see his spiritual strength had not waned. Not knowing what condition I would find him in, I brought along a tape recorder as usual just in case.

Since I suspected he might tire easily, I limited my questions to two so that I would be sure to record his answers for posterity. The two subjects I asked him about were, first of all, the circumstances leading to Saito Sensei being given a plot of land on Ueshiba property to build his home. Secondly I asked him to talk about the details of the proposal made by Gozo Shioda Sensei in the mid-1980s that Saito Sensei become the former’s successor at the Yoshinkan, something known only to a few people.

Hitohiro Saito Sensei in front of Aiki Shrine, Iwama 1988. Photo by Sonoko Tanaka

Sensei gave detailed answers to both questions but I could see he was tiring so we left after spending a little over an hour. When we got up to leave Sensei wished me the best of luck with the upcoming Aiki Expo. Then, he grabbed my hand with his left hand and simply said, “Pranin-san, thank you.” That was the last time I saw him.

In pulling together materials to write this remembrance of Saito Sensei, I discovered an old unedited audio tape from 1985 that was recorded on our visit to England. Sensei is relaxing after dinner with a group of students and Ikuko Kimura and I are present. His booming voice and laughter can be heard over and over again and his enthusiasm is infectious. I felt very happy listening just as though Sensei were in the room with me.

Sensei’s son and successor

In the last years of his life Sensei’s health went into a gradual decline. Little by little, his son Hitohiro began to take over his father’s duties. Hitohiro Sensei is an extremely talented aikidoka who began training under the founder and his father as a child. He is a gifted instructor in his own right and has traveled extensively abroad. Hitohiro Sensei has also shown a great interest in O-Sensei’s spiritual studies and as had frequent contact with Seiseki Abe Sensei in Osaka, one of the most knowledgeable people in this area.

There is no doubt in my mind that Hitohiro Sensei will make a fine successor to his father and show the light to the further development of Iwama Aikido worldwide.

Stanley Pranin
Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
May 31, 2002


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