Morihiro Saito
Adapted from Takemusu Aikido: Background and Basics.
Pictures are from the Takemusu Aikido books series if another source is not specified
After the end of WWII, Japan was governed by the US occupation army. By that time, Morihei Ueshiba was “officially” retired, and residing in the small village of Iwama. He led a frugal life, doing farming, and teaching aikido to a few live-in and local students.

Ueshiba was in his sixties and had a great physical condition gained through decades of hard training. He was free from heavy teaching responsibilities and finally could chase for his personal training with undistracted intensity. Before the war Ueshiba has taught numerous students, but by the end of conflict he was severed from all except a few of his former disciples. The practice of martial arts had been banned by the occupation administration, but it was impossible to enforce it in the rural areas as Iwama was at that time. During the early postwar years, Morihei Ueshiba called his residence the Aiki Farm to hide his martial arts activities.

Morihiro Saito was born on 31 March 1928 in a small village located near the Ueshiba dojo. Young Saito had learned kendo in school, as judo and kendo were taught as a part of the required school curriculum in Japan prior to and during World War II. As a teenager Saito had learned Shito Ryu Karate in Tokyo where he was then working, but soon he moved back to Ibaraki Prefecture to work for the Japan National Railways. Saito then decided to take up judo because he felt that if he knew both karate and judo he would have nothing to fear in a fight. Judo was good in a hand-to-hand situation while karate was superior to kendo because one also developed kicking skills.
Saito recalls his early martial arts training and his dissatisfaction with judo:
“The karate school was fairly quiet, but the judo dojo was like an amusement park with children running all around. That was part of the reason I became tired of judo. Also, in a fight, a person can kick or gouge whenever he wants to, but a judo man doesn’t have a defence for that kind of attack. So I was dissatisfied with judo practice. Another thing I disliked was that during practice the senior students threw the junior students, using us for their own training. They would only allow us to do a few throws when they were in a good mood. I thought they were very selfish, arrogant, and impudent”.

However, Saito’s understanding of martial arts has undergone a major transformation after the encounter with a strange old man who, according to local rumours, was practising some mysterious martial art. After years Saito has recalled his first meeting with Morihei Ueshiba:

“There was this old man doing strange techniques up in the mountains near Iwama. Some people said he did karate, while a judo teacher told me his art was called “Ueshiba-ryu judo.” It was frightening up there and I was afraid to go. I had a very strange feeling about the place. It was eerie, but some of my friends and I agreed to go up and have a look. However, my friends got cold feet and failed to show up. So I went alone.

It was during the hot season and I arrived in the morning. O-Sensei was doing his morning training. Minoru Mochizuki directed me to where O-Sensei was training with several students. Then I entered what is today the six-tatami mat room of the dojo. While I was sitting there, O-Sensei and Tadashi Abe came in. As O-Sensei sat down Abe immediately placed a cushion down for him. He really moved fast to help O-Sensei. Sensei stared at me and asked, “Why do you want to learn aikido?” When I replied that I’d like to learn if he would teach me, he asked, “Do you know what aikido is?” There was no way I could have known what aikido was. Then Sensei added, “I’ll teach you how to serve society and people with this martial art.”

I didn’t have the least idea that a martial art could serve society and people. I just wanted to become strong. Now I understand, but at that time I had no idea of what he was talking about. When he said, “for the benefit of society and people,” I wondered how a martial art could serve that purpose, but as I was eager to be accepted, I reluctantly answered, “Yes, I understand.”

Then, as I stood on the mat in the dojo rolling up my shirt sleeves thinking to myself, “Well, since I’ve come all the way here I might as well learn a couple of techniques,” O-Sensei said, “Come and strike me!” So I went to strike him and tumbled over. I don’t know whether it was kotegaeshi or some other technique, but I was thrown. Next, he said, “Come and kick me!” When I tried to kick him I was gently overturned. “Come and grab me!” I tried to grab him judo-style and again I was thrown without knowing how. My shirt sleeve and my pants ripped. Sensei said, “Come and train if you like.” With that, he left the mat. I felt a sigh of relief to think that I was accepted…
Despite Ueshiba had admitted the young Saito to the dojo, the senior students severely tested his determination. Saito recalls how painful his early training days were, and how he felt it would have been easier “to have been beaten up in a fight!” Once he had to remove a bandage protecting an injury to avoid being mocked. If his face showed a minor trace of pain, his seniors would abuse that part of his body even more. Soon, however, the determined young Saito had proved his fortitude and gained the respect of his seniors. He remembers with gratitude the lessons from such great masters as Koichi Tohei and Tadashi Abe.

In Iwama the founder has significantly changed his teaching methods from his approach during the prewar years. Previously he followed the traditional method of martial arts teaching when students had to “steal” their teacher’s techniques. But now, Ueshiba devoted his full energies to his personal pursuit with just a few close students.

"As I look back on it, I think the brain of the founder was like a computer. During practice O-Sensei would teach us the techniques he had developed up to that point as if systematizing and organizing them for himself. When we would study one technique, we would systematically learn related techniques. If we started doing seated techniques, we would continue doing only that, one technique after another. When he introduced a two-hand grab technique, the following techniques would all begin with the same grab. O-Sensei taught us two, three or four levels of techniques. He would begin with the basic form, then one level after another, and finally, the most advanced form. The founder stressed that every little detail should be correct. Otherwise it wasn’t a technique.

The seniors and juniors would practice together and the juniors would take breakfalls. When the seniors finished the right and left sides and the juniors’ turn came, it was already time for the next technique. Though he didn’t have many students at that time, O-Sensei used to throw everyone at least once. Sometimes while some of the senior students were practising with O-Sensei, we waited for our turn to be instructed by him personally."

Saito worked with Japan Railways, and his work schedule of twenty-four hours on and twenty-four off enabled him to spend a lot of time learning aikido at the Ueshiba dojo. As a result, Ueshiba allowed him to participate in the early morning sessions normally reserved for live-in students. These practices have begun from the prayer in front of the altar of the Aiki Shrine, followed by weapons training. At this stage of his life, the founder has studied the relations of the aiki-ken and-jo to empty-handed techniques. He was experimenting with the basic weapons forms later formalized by Saito into a comprehensive system to complement the empty-handed techniques of aikido.

“O-Sensei just told us to come and strike him. Sword practice began from there. Since I had practised kendo when I was a boy, I somehow managed to cope with the situation. Then he told me to prepare a stand for tanrenuchi, or sword-striking training. So I gathered some wood and used it to build a stand. However, O-Sensei got angry and broke it with his wooden sword. He said to me, “This kind of thin wood is useless!” I had to think of something. I cut two big pieces of wood and drove nails into them and tied them together.

When I made that Sensei praised me. However, even that stand lasted less than one week. So we struck at different places to save the wood. Then after a week I went out again to cut more wood in order to make a new stand. There were a lot of trees in the hills in those days. We used this setup to train in striking with the wooden sword.
As training advanced, we were taught what we now call “ichi no tachi,” the first paired sword practice. O-Sensei taught us this one technique for three or four years. The only other thing we did was to continue striking until we were totally exhausted and had become unsteady. When we had reached the point when we could no longer move, he would signal that that was enough and let us go. That was all we did for morning practice every day. In the last years, I was taught by Sensei almost privately”.
In light of the widespread poverty in these years many students at the Iwama Dojo had to abandon their training due to work and family obligations. One by one people left the dojo, and finally, only young Saito remained to serve the founder on a regular basis. Seeing his commitment and excitement about training, Ueshiba relied on him more and more in his personal life. Even after his marriage, Saito did not change his passion for training continued unabated. Even more, his young bride began to personally look after O-Sensei’s elderly wife, Hatsu.

“In the end, only a small number of senior students from this area and I were left. But finally, after they were married, they could no longer come to the dojo, since they
had to work hard at their jobs. Whenever Sensei was here we would never know when he would call us to help him. Even if we had already asked a neighbour to help thresh
rice, if Sensei happened to call us and we didn’t come, the consequences were terrible!
Eventually, all of the students stopped coming to the dojo in order to maintain their own families. I could continue because I was free during the day though I went to work every other evening. I was lucky enough to have a job, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to continue. I could live without receiving any money from O-Sensei because I was paid by the Japan National Railways. O-Sensei had money, but the students around here didn’t. If they came to Sensei they would have had no income. They would not have been able to raise rice for their families to live on. Serving the founder was extremely severe even though it was just for the study of a martial art. O-Sensei only opened his heart to those students who helped him from dusk to dawn in the fields, to those who got dirty and massaged his back, those who served him at the risk of their lives. As I was of some use to him, O-Sensei willingly taught me everything.”

The founder clearly demonstrated his strong fondness for and trust in young Saito. When Saito took the initiative in helping O-Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba presented Saito with a piece of his land where Saito built a home.
By the late 1950s, Saito became a powerful man and one of the best Aikikai instructors. He taught at the Iwama Dojo in Ueshiba’s absence. Around 1960, Saito also began to instruct on a weekly basis at the Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo and was the only person apart from the founder himself permitted to teach aikido weapons there.

After the founder’s death on April 26, 1969, Saito became chief instructor of the Iwama Dojo and also the guardian of the Aiki Shrine. He had served the founder devotedly for twenty-four years and O-Sensei’s passing only strengthened his resolve to make every effort to preserve Ueshiba’s aikido legacy intact.
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.