Interview with Morihiro Saito Sensei
TODAY MAGAZINE, #47 - 1996.
Story and Drawing by Gaku Homma Sensei
from ATM #47.
The original version is at
interview has been reproduced here with the affable authorization of AIKIDO
| Morihiro Saito Shihan
(Aikikai 9th dan) began practice of Aikido in 1946 under Aikido's Founder,
Morihei Ueshiba, at the Ibaragi Iwama Dojo. This year marks the 50th
anniversary of his dedicated practice of the art of Aikido.He has published
many books, including the five in the classic series Traditional Aikido, and he
appears on several videos.
Having practiced Aikido for over 30 years, Gaku
Homma is the founder of Nippon Kan Culture Center in Denver, Colorado. He is
the author of Aikido for Life and other books on Aikido and Japanese culture.
It seems that at every important junction in my
life, Saito Sensei has been there. He was at Iwama during the years I spent as
an uchi deshi under the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba. Six years after the Founder's
death, Saito Sensei came, at my invitation, to a demonstration for an Aikido
club on Misawa Air force base, where I was teaching - a demonstration that led
to the opportunity for me to come to the US for the first time. Now, 20 years
later, in October 1995, I had the opportunity to invite Saito Sensei to
instruct at Aikido Nippon Kan in Denver, Colorado.
It seems like only
the blink of an eye - the time has gone by so quickly. I remember experiences
from the past as if they happened yesterday. I am 45 years old now, and Saito
Sensei is 67. As time passes and we grow older, I think our temperament and
values change, becoming more tolerant and generally more accepting. During our
seminar, as I took care of Saito Sensei and watched him teach, I clearly
realized just how much time had passed, and just how many memories I had.
As Saito Sensei taught, I never heard him talk about universal powers,
God, auras, peace, or ki, and I never heard him make any other cosmic
references. Yet in each of his movements, his body displayed the feelings that
these words strive to capture. This power to touch people's hearts through the
eloquence of his movements is what separates him from others. His physical
technique and his philosophy are simple and planted firmly on the ground. Who
he is and what he teaches is based on realism, not on illusive concepts that
can deceive or confuse.
As I interviewed Saito Sensei, I couldn't help
feeling that I was listening to a father getting on in years, passing the
wisdom of his experience on to future generations.
Gaku Homma - 1996
1.Saito Shihan, you
are very healthy. What do you think the secret is to your good health?
Morihiro Saito Sensei: Now
I am 67 years old. In Japan that makes me eligible to join the senior citizen's
activity groups. I receive many flyers and invitations to join senior citizen
activities from the Iwama town office. I don't feel I am quite ready for that,
What is the secret to my health? There is no secret, really. I
don't eat too much meat or fatty foods. I eat foods high in fiber. Going on
seminar tours is a good chance for me to lose a little weight; I usually don't
eat a great deal while I am traveling. Denver has been an exception, however.
Eating the meals that Homma-kun has prepared for me has stimulated my appetite.
["Kun" is a suffix indicating familiarity.]
If I did have a secret to
good health, it would be to keep busy. I try to create a very busy situation
for myself, keeping every day full of positive activity. My daily motto is
that, with every step I take, there must be another task waiting to be
completed. The same day I get back from this US tour, I will travel to northern
Honshu to give a demonstration at the Tohoku Regional Aikido
2.Gaku homma Sensei :
During the time I lived at the Aiki shrine dojo in Iwama, everyone called you
Iwama's "Mou-chan." ["Mou" is short for Morihiro, and "chan" is a term of
endearment.] or "Iwama's Napoleon." How did you get these names?
Morihiro Saito Sensei
:: From the time I became an uchi deshi at Iwama Dojo until the Founder's
death, I was a very busy young man. During the period that I was an uchi deshi,
I also worked for the Japan National Railroad. The only time I had to myself
was on the trip from the dojo to the train station and back. Other than that, I
had no personal time. My life consisted of work and practice. I was not able to
listen to music or follow the latest fads or sports like the other boys my age.
Sometimes I worked the night shift for the railroads, so my days and nights got
mixed up. If I wanted to take some extra time to do a personal chore - like
repairing my uniform, for example - I would have to shorten my sleeping time.
The townspeople around me used to say, "Napoleon needed only three
hours of sleep on his horse. Iwama's Mou-chan dozing in his clothes needs only
30 minutes of sleep before he is ready to work again." Eventually, the name
"Napoleon" stuck and became my nickname. My body has not forgotten those times
- I'm still busy!
The nickname "Mou-chan" also brings back memories. I
didn't choose for this to happen, but for some reason the townspeople of Iwama
and the surrounding areas were afraid of that name. Everybody knew it, and it
carried a stigma. If any of the neighboring Yakuza or local boys tried to make
trouble in Iwama, the mention of the name "Iwama's Mou-chan" usually stopped
them. This was a great surprise to me!
One day, just before a festival
was to be held in the town of Iwama, the local boys got into a fight with a
rival group from a neighboring town. It seemed that this rival group wanted to
take over vending space for the festival, and they thought this might be a good
chance to invade Iwama territory. They called their group together and ventured
into Iwama with the Yakuza at the lead.
One of the young men from Iwama
ran to me and asked for my help in fending off their rivals. At first I
refused, not wanting to get involved in their personal fights. But, being young
and not knowing the meaning of fear, I eventually agreed to help them. Wearing
leather boots to protect my feet and a heavy leather jacket to protect myself
from a knife attack, I set out to lend a hand.
I was surprised when I
arrived at the scene. I had no idea how many people had gathered in the street,
ready to fight! Not knowing what else to do, I walked directly between the two
groups and said, "Fighting on the day of a shrine festival is not
The rival boss stepped up to me and asked, "Hey you, young guy -
who are you?" "I am Saito," I replied, but that got little response. Then
someone from Iwama screamed out, "He is Iwama's Mou-chan!" At that, the rival
boss got down on his hands and knees, lowered his head to the ground, and
I told the Iwama boys who had started the fight to
apologize, too. Then I grabbed the leaders from both groups and steered them
into a local sake bar. Lecturing the Iwama boys, I said sternly, "Anyone who
starts a fight is in the wrong and must remedy the situation by serving sake to
those they have hurt. Fix this situation now!" And with that I
Most of the townspeople knew my nickname but not my face, since I
was so busy working all the time. Because I practiced Aikido, my reputation
seemed to grow of its own accord. I was often called to resolve minor disputes,
even before the police were called. I'm still not sure whether my reputation
was a good one or a bad one. [Laughs].
Of course, I no longer have a
reputation of that kind. Those days were a lot different from today. The times
were more innocent - especially in the countryside.
3.Gaku homma Sensei :
It seems to me that you are still Iwama's Napoleon. During this seminar tour,
in a two-week period, you have traveled to the US from Japan, taught on both
the east and west coasts, and then came to Denver with no rest in between. That
seems like a strenuous schedule to me.
As you see it, what makes life worth
Morihiro Saito Sensei: What
makes me the happiest is teaching what I have inherited from the Founder. I
find great fulfillment in visiting my students all over the world, being able
to stay in their homes, teaching and practicing together. When I am home at
Iwama, if there is a little extra time, I enjoy spending it at the Aiki no Ie
[Aiki cottage], sitting around the irori [sunken fireplace] with old friends,
eating and drinking together. That is a happy time for me.
On a day like
that, I like to do most of the cooking. I am not a particularly picky eater,
but I am particular when I am cooking. For example, I like to make my own sauce
from chilies I have grown in my garden. I have a special way of blending the
chilies with sesame oil. It has to be just so.
I also like to make my
own udon [white flour noodles] and soba [buckwheat noodles]. I like to dry and
grind the grain, knead the dough, and cut the noodles myself. My son Hitohiro
runs his own soba restaurant, so I have a source of fresh organic buckwheat. I
don't like to say so myself, but I think my noodles have a pretty good
I also enjoy going to the hinoki buro [cypress bathhouse] to
relax. I can't describe how good that feels.
I am already a grandfather;
I have 13 grandchildren. Still, I believe that for people who have their own
dojos, there is no retirement. It is my destiny to continue. I feel it is my
obligation to teach the Founder's Aikido to as many students as possible. When
I die, a direct link to his technique will disappear.
I have been given
the gift of 23 years of experience with the Founder. . . . What I have learned,
I have learned from him, and what I have learned, I feel compelled to teach.
Other shihan have freedom, but I do not. There are shihan scattered
throughout Japan and all over the world who, at one point, gathered at the
Founder's feet to practice. The Founder understood the essence of Aikido, and
he held it in the palm of his hand. Those who gathered briefly at his feet
never quite grasped the gift that the Founder held in his hand - and then they
Iwama is for Aikidoists what, for example, Mecca is for Muslims,
or the Vatican is for Catholics. Metaphorically, Iwama is a lighthouse, and it
is my obligation to keep its light shining brightly. To other shihan, the
lighthouse symbolizes the great undertakings and achievements of the Founder.
They use this light to illuminate their way as they navigate freely in boats of
their own making.
As long as this light
continues to shine from Iwama, the roots of Aikido continue to
exist. I believe it is very important not to forget this point. I
joined Iwama Dojo in 1946. Until his death, I spent every day for 23 years with
the Founder. Since his death, I have remained at Iwama, even though I hold the
position of shihan at Aikikai Hombu Dojo. Every day, I remain dedicated to
keeping the light shining brightly in the lighthouse left by the Founder.
I have heard that some Aikidoists distinguish Iwama-style techniques
from "more modern Aikido," calling Iwama-style traditional and even
old-fashioned. In my opinion, this is a mistake. I believe that, if we deny the
origins of our own practice, we negate its validity. When people say that
Iwama-style Aikido is old-fashioned, they remind me of people cutting a tree
branch away from the trunk while they are sitting on the branch.
never say that Iwama-style Aikido is the only valid form of Aikido. Each
instructor has his or her own individual character that is built on his or her
cultural background and environment. It is only natural that different styles
and different organizations have developed. Traveling all over the world has
helped me to understand this, as I have come in contact with many different
people, places, and cultures. I think it is good for students to learn from
many different instructors and to practice at many different
However, I also believe that it is vitally important to practice
the founding techniques of Aikido. We cannot forget the source of our practice.
In people's lives, there usually comes a time when they reflect on
their own roots and heritage. I think that it is important for each of us to
include a study of the Founder's technique as we travel on our own Aikido
journey. Our closest link to the source is the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba, and
the closest link to him is Iwama Dojo. It is important to the Aikido community
that more people realize that the roots of our practice lie with the
Founder.It is important to pass on the great
undertakings and achievements of the Founder correctly - even if
that is done one person at a time.
For that reason, I keep the light in
the lighthouse burning brightly at Iwama. That is why I have no freedom.
Instead of freedom, I have my destiny - and I appreciate it. Keeping the
Founder's dojo alive and well is what makes my life worth living.
4.Gaku homma Sensei :
I know it was long ago, but could you tell us what it was like when you were an
uchi deshi at Iwama dojo?
Morihiro Saito Sensei : I
joined Iwama Dojo in 1946. That was just after Japan had lost the war, and
there were not many resources available; it was a very poor time. Born and
raised in the town of Iwama, I joined the dojo when I was 18 years
Not long afterward, a few of the Founder's uchi deshi from Hombu
Dojo came to Iwama. Gozo Shioda [the Founder of Yoshinkan Aikido] moved in with
his family of six (which surprised me a little). They stayed for about two
years. Koichi Tohei [Founder of Ki Aikido] also came at about the same time,
after being discharged from military service. I remember wondering at the time
whether the war had made him tough and strong. He left the dojo when he got
married. And there were two other students who became uchi deshi at the same
time I did. One has since become a regional education director, and the other
is now a member of the Diet. I am the only one left still hanging around Iwama!
It's hard to imagine what Iwama looked like at the time. Where
you now see houses, there were acres of wild woods. None of the roads were
paved, and when it rained some of them would turn to ankle-deep mud. We wore
geta [wooden sandals] with one slat protruding from the bottom, since mud would
get lodged between the slats of regular two-slat geta making them too heavy.
One-slat geta were better for walking in the mud - and on dry ground they were
useful for developing balance and coordination!
We used very little
electricity, especially in the areas surrounding the dojo. At night it was so
dark that someone could walk up and pinch your nose and you still couldn't see
who it was! The Founder was a prominent member of the community, and he had the
distinction of having the only electricity in the area. The contrast between
the surrounding darkness and the glowing lights at the dojo at night made the
place seem magical. Later on, when my home was built, we pulled electric lines
from the Founder's house to my house as well. At the time, this was considered
The townspeople thought that the goings-on at
Ueshiba-san's dojo were a little unusual. For example, the way we uchi deshi
dressed caused more than a few startled looks as we passed through town. We
wore keiko gi (tattered and patched at the collar), faded hakama (much shorter
than today's, about ankle length), and haori (short kimono jackets) decorated
with batik patterns. We carried iron jos to make our arms stronger, swinging
them and dragged them noisily behind us as we walked. The townspeople were
known to say that they would not let their sons go to Ueshiba-san's home for
any reason. As a threat, parents would warn their wayward sons that, if they
didn't shape up, they would be sent to Ueshiba-san's. [Laughs] They used to
call us a ban kara [a rough, tough looking group]. Hearing the local gossip,
the Founder would warn us with a smile not to scare the townspeople too much.
A few years after the end of the war, life began to return to normal.
The country was still in transition, and there were many people without jobs.
Many joined the Iwama dojo looking for a new chance at life. Although we had a
garden at the dojo, there were soon more mouths to feed than we could handle.
The Founder put the new uchi deshi to work clearing nearby fields so that they
could be planted. The fields were covered with dense groves of bamboo, whose
web of tangled roots made clearing an extremely taxing job. A few of the new
recruits decided that the work was too hard, banded together, and disappeared
into the night. The work was hard for me, too. But, even if I had wanted to
runaway, there was no place else for me to go, since I had been born and raised
in Iwama. In fact, I still haven't left! [Laughs] After the field-clearing
incident, the Founder did not often order people to perform tasks that were
The area at the dojo where we now practice bokken and
jo is where the Founder and his wife had their private garden. Other larger
fields were planted with potatoes, peanuts, and rice. These days, I have a
small garden that I tend as a hobby. Only a few selected uchi deshi are allowed
to work in the garden. Actually, most uchi deshi are specifically asked not to
work in the garden. When they do, there is only more work needed to repair what
they have done. [Laughs]
The last uchi deshi who worked in the gardens
were you, Homma-kun, and the Founder's maid, Kikuno-san. I remember you with a
bundle of vegetables strapped to your back as you left for Tokyo's Hombu Dojo
to accompany the Founder as his otomo [assistant]. After the Founder's death
there were no other uchi deshi who worked specifically in the gardens.
5.Gaku Homma Sensei : I
remember, too. At the time, I was only 17 years old.
Those days were hard.
After the Founder completed his daily morning ceremony, I would accompany him
to the garden to pick the vegetables for use in that day's meals or, if there
were extra, to take to Hombu Dojo in Tokyo.
Speaking of Hombu Dojo - I have
read many articles and books on Aikido history written by Hombu uchi deshi.
But, when I accompanied the Founder to Tokyo, there were no uchi deshi living
at Hombu Dojo. Could you clarify this?
Morihiro Saito Sensei : At
the end of the war, there were many uchi deshi living at Hombu Dojo. For the
most part, those people are very old or have already passed away. After the war
ended, the Founder lived mostly at Iwama, going to Tokyo for only special
ceremonies or events.
Of the last generation of students to study
directly under the Founder, many who say they were his uchi deshi were actually
2nd or 3rd dan shidoin [assistant instructors] at Hombu Dojo. Most received the
equivalent of about two hundred dollars a month salary, lived in cheap
apartments near the dojo, and came to the dojo only for practice. These kayoi
deshi [students who lived outside the dojo] did not take care of the Founder.
Except when they were assisting him as uke, the kayoi deshi were not allowed
near him. The Founder commanded that much respect. Many now say that they were
close to the Founder, but that was not actually the case. Late in the Founder's
life, just before he passed away, even high-ranking shihan were only allowed to
offer greetings; they were not even in the position to engage him in
conversation. The Founder did not want to have many people close to him, and
there were really very few who personally took care of him.
6.Gaku Homma Sensei :
When speaking of those who took care of the Founder in his private life, we
can't forget your wife. Could you tell us a little about her?
Morihiro Saito Sensei : In 1951, the Founder cleared the
land where my house now stands. We built the house together. In the yard there
is a chestnut tree that the Founder planted.
Since I was an uchi deshi,
it was understood that I would attend the Founder. My baba [nickname for wife
or grandmother] was not a student of the Founder, and so she was not under the
same obligation. But she worked harder than even I did to take care of the
Founder and his wife. I went to work every day, and so I was not always at the
dojo. My baba worked 24 hours a day for 18 years taking care of them. She took
such good care of them that, if for some reason she could not be there, the
Founder's wife Hatsu would have trouble knowing where everything was.
Once Hatsu became ill and had trouble speaking. My baba understood what
she was trying to say just by watching her mouth the words. That's how much
time she spent with them.
I have received promotions and recognitions of
achievement from Hombu Dojo, but my baba is the person deserving the most
credit when it came to taking care of the Founder and his wife. Only my baba
could talk to the Founder directly, giving him advice and offering her
In addition to caring for the Founder, she has also taken care
of our own family and countless uchi deshi over the years. I appreciate my wife
7.Gaku Homma Sensei : I
remember your wife very well. She always knew when to appear with a large rice
bowl filled to the brim. As you just said, if the Founder was angry and your
wife would appear, the Founder's mood would miraculously change to that of a
happy child. It always amazed me.
Morihiro Saito Sensei : Just
before the Founder went to the hospital in Tokyo, the effects of his illness
were at their worst. We all felt very sad for him, but it was difficult to get
close to him. It was sad to see a great martial artist nearing his
That was a difficult time for you too, Homma-kun, since you cared
for him privately. The Founder's temperament was unpredictable at best. If his
mood was bad when you entered, you would get caught in his wrath. During the
last year of his life, no one visited the Founder from Tokyo, because they
didn't want to get involved. That was a very lonely and tumultuous time for the
Founder. It must have been difficult both for you, Homma-kun and for
Kikuno-san, since you were so young.
8.Gaku Homma Sensei :
It was a difficult time. Maybe it was because we were so young that the Founder
felt comfortable with us and talked with us, even near the end.
recent events, Sensei, what did you think about the seminar here in Denver?
Morihiro Saito Sensei : I was
first surprised that over 300 people registered for the full three-day seminar.
That is quite a number! It was nice to see a seminar that did not draw
attendance by offering "candy" such as ranking examinations, etc. That an
independent dojo like Nippon Kan can attract that many students from all over
the world on a seminar's own merits is very good. I understand there were
students in attendance from more than 17 different organizations and from other
independent dojos. I'm very pleased that so many came. I think the Founder in
heaven must be happy, too.
The martial arts community, including the
Aikido community, is facing a future where more and more groups will become
independent - especially in the US and Europe. The Founder's organization, the
Aikikai, must pay attention to this. I believe that, rather than concentrating
on making stricter rules and more restrictions, they would be wiser to
acknowledge and respect independent organizations. That would pave the way for
stronger relationships and a more stable future.
Going beyond the boundaries of affiliation or style offers a
wonderful opportunity for nice people to get together, as this
seminar demonstrates. The Founder's philosophy of love and harmony was manifest
at this Denver seminar. I would be happy to travel anywhere to teach at any
such a gathering. That is my mission.
You, Homma-kun, are not
affiliated with the Aikikai or with Iwama-style Aikido. But that is not an
issue. That an independent dojo like Nippon Kan can gather over 300 people
together is something that must not be overlooked. Your students should be
proud of your dojo's unique structure of activities - and of the reputation it
has earned through your contributions to the community. I do not think it is
necessary to turn your dojo's accomplishments over to another organization.
Privately, I hope that I can continue to be an advisor and supporter of
Nippon Kan. As I foresee more independent dojos in the future, I want this one
to set a good example for others to follow. I have great expectations for your
role as an established independent dojo.
9.Gaku Homma Sensei :
Thank you very much, Saito Sensei
Morihiro Saito Sensei : Over the
course of the seminar I heard people saying, "Iwama-style Aikido is a lot more
user friendly than I thought it would be. I thought Saito Sensei's style would
be more strict and severe."
My motto for teaching is to have a happy
practice that clearly demonstrates the day's lesson, so that students can
understand fully and take it back home with them. Of course, I always want a
safe practice with no accidents or injuries. While I am teaching, if I feel my
explanations are going to be lengthy, I ask students to sit comfortably. If the
room is crowded, I ask people in the back to stand up so they can see. I try to
move around the room, so that everyone has a chance to see clearly. I make my
explanations slowly and clearly. I'm not interested in just throwing ukes
wildly into the air.
This year alone, I have traveled overseas three
times. All in all, I have taught seminars in outside Japan over 50 times. I
honestly do not know how long I will be able to continue teaching all over the
world. If my health continues to be good, I feel I must continue my mission as
a testimonial to the Founder.
It makes me very happy that I have
wonderful students actively teaching and practicing in the US and all over the
world. I trust my students to carry on my will and
philosophy. Because of their efforts, people from all over the world travel to
Iwama to train as uchi deshi..
On rare occasions, I have
heard of students who have trained at Iwama and then returned to their own
country only to cause problems with other Aikido groups. This concerns me,
because these people obviously did not completely understand the training they
were receiving at Iwama. They perpetuate their misunderstandings by
misrepresenting Iwama-style Aikido to others. This has never been my intention.
It is important, as a first priority, that we work smoothly with others within
the Aikido community on a friendly basis.
These days I travel with my
otomo, but there have been times when I have traveled by myself. Once, when I
arrived in an airport in the northwest US, there was no one there to meet me.
Since I can't speak English, this was a problem! Luckily, a group of Japanese
tourists passed by, and I tagged along with their group to get out of the
airport. [Laughs]. I can't forget the many times I have carried my rice cooker
in my bag, cooking for myself as I traveled. I never imagined I would be
sitting at Homma-kun's house eating Japanese food in Denver, Colorado.
10.Gaku Homma Sensei :
It has been an honor and a pleasure, Sensei. Thank you very much.
After his arrival in Denver, one of the first
questions Saito Shihan asked me was "What techniques should I teach this
evening?" After every class, he asked whether the lesson was adequate and
whether a certain series of techniques would be appropriate for the next class.
I was impressed by his earnest and professional manner.
in the waiting room, Saito Sensei thanked everyone in attendance and offered
them fruit and refreshments. It was a pleasure to see such warmth and kindness
offered by a man of his dignified position. A mood of generosity prevailed
around him during the entire seminar.
During the closing Thank-You
Party, we accompanied Saito Sensei to the rest-room and waited by the sink to
hand him a towel to wipe his hands. I was touched as I watched him carefully
tidy up the sink that had been splashed by others as a courtesy to the next
I accompanied Saito Sensei, his translator, his otomo, and other
guests to San Francisco to see them off to Japan. Before the plane landed in
San Francisco, I watched as Saito Sensei removed the air-sick bag from the
pocket of the seat in front of him. I was concerned that he was not feeling
well. But he merely asked all of us in his escort whether we had any trash to
throw away, collected our napkins and wrappers in the bag, and then tucked it
back neatly into the pocket in front of him. He said that this would help make
the job easier for the person who had to clean up the plane.
Sensei made sure that his otomo was well taken care of, even offering him a
portion of his own meals. He also took care of one of my students who acted as
driver in San Francisco, grabbing his hand and discreetly depositing a token
kokoro zuke [thank-you payment] into his palm.
Saito Sensei's position
as a leader in the global Aikido community has been built on a lifetime of hard
work and effort. He is a real bujin [martial artist]. His humanity, kindness,
and thoughtfulness remain imprinted in my memory - where they remind me of the
private side of the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba.
As we walked through the
crowded airport terminal, my mind switched back to an occasion when I walked
with the Founder through a crowded station in Ueno, Japan. The way they walked
was very much the same.