Morihiro Saito Shihan

Morihiro Saito Shihan

Morihiro Saito was a skinny, unimpressive lad of 18 when he first met Morihei Ueshiba in sleepy Iwama-mura in July 1946. It was shortly after the end of World War II and practice of the martial arts was prohibited by the GHQ. The founder had been “officially” retired in Iwama for several years although in reality he was engaged in intensive training and meditation in these secluded surroundings. Indeed, it was during the Iwama years during and after World War II that Morihei Ueshiba was in the process of perfecting modern aikido.

Among the handful of uchideshi of those poverty-stricken years were Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei and Tadashi Abe. The young Saito was given little encouragement initially and had to endure the intensive, often painful training silently. Saito Sensei recalls the early days when suwariwaza practice on the dojo’s hardwood floor would continue endlessly leaving his knees bloodied and festering. To make matters worse, as a newcomer in the dojo he was on the receiving end of countless, vigorous techniques from the likes of sempai Koichi Tohei and Tadashi Abe.

Morihiro Saito Shihan photograph © Takemusu Aikido Association Italy

Training at the Founder’s side

Gradually however, his tenacity paid off and in a few short years Saito Sensei became one of the mainstays of the founder’s country dojo. Moreover, he had the advantage of being employed by the Japan National Railways on a 24-hour on, 24-hour off basis which left him with ample free time to spend at his teacher’s side. In addition to the hours he spent in the dojo, Saito Sensei would assist the founder in all aspects of his daily life including the performing of numerous chores and farm work. Although the work was demanding and Ueshiba a strict mentor, his reward was the unique opportunity of serving as the founder’s training partner particularly in the practice of the aiki ken and jo over a period of some 15 years. Morihei Ueshiba would usually train with weapons during the morning hours when regular students were unable to be present. Thus, it was partly due to his innate martial talent and perseverance, and partly due to his flexible work schedule that Morihiro Saito became the inheritor of Morihei Ueshiba’s technical legacy.

By the late 1950s, Saito Sensei had become a powerhouse and one of the top shihan in the Aikikai system teaching regularly at the Iwama Dojo in Ueshiba’s absence. Moreover, he began instructing on a weekly basis at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo starting in 1961 and was the only teacher besides the founder himself to be permitted to teach Aiki bukiwaza there. His classes were very popular and many Tokyo students would gather on Sunday mornings to practice taijutsu and the aiki ken and jo. When the founder passed away in April 1969, Saito Sensei became dojo-cho of the Iwama Dojo and also was entrusted with the caretaking of the Aiki Shrine Morihei Ueshiba had built nearby.

Source: Article: Morihei Ueshiba and Morihiro Saito
Copyright © 2001 Aikido Journal

O-Sensei Morihei Ueshiba with Morihiro Saito

“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.”

“I would 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 dojos.”

“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.”

Source: Interview with Morihiro Saito Sensei
Copyright © Iwama Ryu Denmark

“When O-Sensei was not in Iwama, I was in charge of the teaching. I do not know who taught in Hombu dojo when O-Sensei was not there for obvious reasons, I was in Iwama. I rarely went to Hombu dojo. During 1960-61 O-Sensei was very vital. He then sometimes went to Tokyo to teach Aikido, though not many days would pass before students of the Hombu Dojo called me asking me to take O-Sensei home! O-Sensei was giving them a hard time, scolding them for not practising the correct way.”

“In Iwama O-Sensei used to do his own practise in the mornings and then I was the only student to take part. In return for his special teaching I worked in O-Sensei´s farm.”

“First of all I want to make it clear that O-Sensei was an Iwama person. That is where he wanted to spend his time. During the 40-ies and 50-ies he spent almost all of his time in Iwama, he sometimes went to Tokyo. O-Sensei went more often to Tokyo in the 60-ies, then perhaps the ratio was a 50-50 split between Iwama and Tokyo. Though when O-Sensei got sick in Tokyo, he himself would call me asking me to take him home.”

“There was a difference in what O-Sensei taught in different places. O-Sensei did not teach the weapons in Hombu Dojo! The concept of Riai (the relation between the weapons and taijutsu) was not taught in Hombu Dojo, only talked about. O-Sensei only taught the weapons and the concept of Riai in Iwama.”

“O-Sensei trained and studied really hard in Iwama. The developement took place in Iwama over a period of 15-20 years. The developement started in 1945 and finished some time between 1960-65. Aikido was developed during this Iwama period.”

Source: Interview with Morihiro Saito Sensei
Copyright © Mats Alexandersson

About Takemusu Aikido South Africa

The Takemusu Aikido Association South Africa (TAASA), formally Iwama Ryu™ South Africa, is a free group of black-belted practitioners of Aikido based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Our aim is to promote and spread the traditional teaching method of Morihiro Saito Sensei, direct student of the Founder of Aikido, to all communities in South Africa.