The 1970s publication of Saito’s authoritative five-volume series of technical manuals, Traditional Aikido, helped establish his reputation as one of the art’s foremost technicians. These volumes contain hundreds of aikido techniques covering empty-handed techniques, aiki-ken and aiki-jo, counter-techniques. The books also introduced a system of classification and nomenclature for aikido techniques that are now widely used throughout the world. In addition, instructional films were prepared to supplement the books and were enthusiastically received.
Saito made his first trip abroad in 1974 to conduct a series of seminars in California. For the first time, large numbers of foreign practitioners were able to directly experience Saito’s encyclopedic knowledge of aikido techniques. His clear teaching method, which incorporates such devices as slow-motion execution of techniques and numerous gestures, won widespread praise from seminar participants. By the mid-1970s Saito had retired from the National Railways after thirty years of service. Free to dedicate all of his time to aikido, he began to make frequent journeys abroad launching a career that would last nearly three decades. During this period, he travelled overseas nearly one hundred times to conduct seminars.
Over the years, Saito established a wide network of instructors outside of Japan who teach “Iwama-style aikido,” as his form of aikido became informally christened. Iwama aikido has become synonymous with training with a balanced emphasis on empty-handed techniques and weapons practice, in contrast with many schools which train only in free-hand techniques. In particular, the U.S.A., Italy, Germany, Denmark, Australia, England, Sweden, and Portugal have numerous practitioners of Saito’s methods.
In 1989, Saito inaugurated a system for the certification of instructors of the aiki-ken and-jo. In this system, traditional handwritten transmission scrolls were awarded to those who had demonstrated the requisite skills in the use of aiki weapons. Separate from the aikido belt grading system, the aim of the program was to preserve the founder’s aiki-ken and-jo techniques, which are inseparable from the empty-handed techniques of aikido. These scrolls included the names and detailed descriptions of aikido weapon techniques and were patterned after the traditional scrolls awarded in the classical martial art traditions. Shortly thereafter, Saito began an Iwama grading system independent but in parallel to Aikikai Hombu Dojo rankings as he remained a member of that organization.
Another effect of the popularity of Saito’s books and his extensive foreign travels was a constant stream of foreign aikidoka travelling to Japan to train and live in the Iwama Dojo. The live-in system afforded participants the opportunity to train intensively in aikido and learn the use of the aiki-ken and aiki-jo. Over a period of more than 30 years, literally, thousands of students journeyed from abroad to study under Saito. Often the foreign practitioners outnumbered their Japanese counterparts at the Iwama Dojo.
Saito continued his six-day-a-week schedule conducting morning classes on the aiki-ken and aiki-jo for live-in students and general practice in the evenings when he taught empty-handed techniques. On Sunday mornings, weather permitting, he led the general class outdoors and provided instruction in aiki-ken and aiki-jo. Also, he hosted numerous training retreats for Japanese university aikido clubs throughout the year at the Iwama Dojo, a practice that continued from the days when the founder was still active.
Saito continued his active teaching schedule including frequent trips abroad until a few months before his death in May 2002.
In retrospect, Morihiro Saito’s success as a leading teacher of aikido lay in his unique approach to the art, his blend of tradition and innovation. On the one hand, he was totally committed to preserving intact the technical tradition of the founder. At the
same time, Saito displayed great creativity in organizing and classifying the hundreds of empty-handed and weapons techniques and their interrelationships. Furthermore, he devised numerous training methods and practices based on modern pedagogical principles to accelerate the learning process.
In the aikido world today, there is an increasing tendency for practitioners to regard the art as primarily a “health system” and the effectiveness of the aikido technique is little emphasized in many quarters. In this context, the power and precision of Morihiro Saito’s art stand out in great relief and aikido can still be regarded as true martial art.