In 1986 the Takemusu Aiki Association invited head of Iwama style Aikido Instructor Morihiro Saito Sensei to Australia for a seminar.  Australasian Fighting Arts magazine contributor and World Taiji Boxing Association guru Erle Montaigue had a chance to interview him after the seminar, and here is the article reprinted in its entirety, unedited.

Article copyright by Erle Montaigue, reprinted from Australiasian Fighting Arts magazine Vol.10 No.5 December 1986 used with permission.

The not-so-soft traditional AIKIDO 
of Saito Sensei 8th Dan Iwama Style

Interview by Erle Montaigue

Saito Sensei is the head of the Iwama Aikido dojo in Japan, reportedly the main traditional school left by Ueshiba Sensei, the founder of Aikido. Unlike many of his colleagues from the various schools around the world, Saito Sensei tends to keep Aikido at a very realistic level, discouraging  certain “magical, mystical” ideas.

When I asked him about the “fantastic feats” of the very aged Master Ueshiba, he told me quite frankly that when the grandmaster was giving demonstrations his students would not want to hurt him, and so they would just throw themselves and fall over when he “threw” them. (Mind you, he was then at the venerable age of 80; no doubt things would have been different in his earlier years…) So this, of course, certainly does not detract from the renowned skills of the true Grandmaster of Aikido, as he had truly earned the name O-Sensei, which means the highest level that anyone could attain in a Martial Art.

Saito Sensei’s Aikido is based upon realistic and tangible aspects such as perfect balance, timing and leverage – physical things that anyone who trains long and hard enough is able to obtain. Seeing him in action, one is able to properly see this Martial Art in action and understand exactly what is going on. There is no “mystical power that seems to come from nowhere…” Saito Sensei is not able to throw someone without actually touching them. Nor does he perform the circus tricks of the “unbendable arm” etc, that we have come to associate with Aikido.

During his demonstrations, he once again truthfully states that if he comes up against a really strong person who is able to hold hs arm really strongly, so that a one-armed throw is impossible, he simply tells his students to make use of their other arm for help! He also demonstrates, with physical examples, how and why Aikido works. It simply makes use of leverage and attacks the weaknesses of the joints. If you can’t move an arm one way, then try another way whereby you can make greater use of leverage. It’s as simple as that. Plus a lot of hard work, of course.

The main aspect of their style that Saito Sensei wants to get across is that Aikido is not the so-called “soft style” that many practitioners of the other, harder styles sometimes deride as being a “women’s Martial Art” etc. It is a devastating form of self-defence when used correctly.

As with T’ai Chi and the internal Chinese styles, what you see in the dojo is not what get in the street. Because a person performs the katas slowly concentrating on perfect timing, balance and weighting, it doesn’t mean that is the way he would use it in a real situation. At any time, the skilled Aikidoist should be able to use any part of a technique – out of sequence as the situation demands. For instance, there is one technique that makes use of the palm to the chin to push a person downward. This technique, in a real situation, would be used to strike the chin with great force and, contrary to common belief, Aikidoists are able to use strikes, including punches, as the situation dictates. Saito Sensei told me that because of the basic training in Aikido, a practitioner is able to use any technique from any martial Art.

Saito Sensei said he was the main student of Ueshiba after the war. There are now a few factions in the Aikido hierarchy, but Saito Sensei claims to be the one who has stuck with the original teachings of the founder. He frankly says that Koichi Tohei Sensei is actually senior to himself as Tohei Sensei started with O-Sensei before the war. But he goes on to qualify this by saying that only after the war did O-Sensei really perfect the art. 

(*Note: Iwama is a small town 100 kilometres north of Tokyo, in Ibaraki Prefecture. It is the site of the Aikido Shrine and O-Sensei Ueshiba’s home after the war.)

Erle: Were you one of Ueshiba Sensei’s first students?

Saito Sensei: During the history of Aikido, Aikido has always continued to develop. I served in the later  part of O-Sensei’s evolution of Aikido.

Erle: So this means that you were with O-Sensei when Aikido had already evolved into what it is today?

Saito Sensei: After the last war, O-Sensei achieved Aikido and was happy with it around 1948. I joined with O-Sensei about three years before that. When I joined, some of the techniques were very classical and then the last techniques were introduced. (The final and absolute techniques of the style.) People have different opinions about this. Some teachers who served O-Sensei before the war believe that Aikido was completed before the war, but some believe that the completion of Aikido was in the last part of O-Sensei’s life, just before he died. I have done much research into this and, in reading many of O-Sensei’s books and lecture notes, I believe it was about 1948 or 1949 when Aikido was completed. When I looked at some of O-Sensei’s books which were published about 48 years ago, also it was called Aikido, but a lot of the technique was Jujitsu and used very strong force and aggression. I compared those techniques to the ones that I learnt from O-Sensei after the war and I found that O-Sensei was concentrating on developing Aikido more at that time. For instance, in throwing someone the balance is maintained quite properly. But in Jujitsu, using aggression, the balance was sometimes lost. But O-Sensei developed the technique that after the throw, the balance must be maintained. Any technique where one loses balance must be modified so that the balance is kept.

O-Sensei concentrated on research to find out which angle doesn’t clash with the opponent’s power. O-Sensei concentrated on ways to come out from the Jujitsu style, Then when O-Sensei achieved this, no longer did any sign of Jujitsu remain. Some teachers think that there aren’t any weapon techniques in Aikido. Even before the war, irimi (entering) technique, which is unique to Aikido, some people believe was not in. Some teachers say that. But some books which were written about 45 years ago show that technique!  Therefore I have hard, physical proof.

Before the war, O-Sensei was a very busy person, so therefore no-one served him for a very long period. I was serving O-Sensei for a long period but after the war, when we lost the war, O-Sensei had no job so he came back to Iwama and had a quiet life. And because of that quiet life, O-Sensei set himself the task to perfect the sword. So, before he achieved his goal, he never taught anyone the sword technique. That is why people believe that there are no sword techniques in Aikido.

Erle: During the workshop, I noticed Sensei was talking about the “old techniques”, which were harder. Does he still teach them? (Question directed to Sensei Saburo Takayasu, 4th Dan, Saito Sensei’s senior teacher in Australia, who was translating…)

Saito Sensei: I only used these techniques for an explanation as to how our techniques originated, but I don’t teach the old ways.

Erle: Many times during his demonstration I saw that there were many opportunities for Sensei to use a palm attack or to simply punch his opponent out. Do you use any strikes?

Saito Sensei: In Aikido, if you want to be aggressive, you can do it. But any part of the movement you can use at any time. We can use a strike at any time, because we maintain the body posture.

Erle: Many people look upon Aikido as soft. When you practise, the students always roll with the force so that no-one is hurt, but if someone were to use great force against you then surely the wrist would be broken. Would it not be more humane to simply punch the opponent out?

Saito Sensei: In an actual fight, you can punch any time and you can show aggression to finish off. But in the training, unless you bring out the throwing stage, your partner doesn’t develop a strong body and good balance. Being thrown is also part of training. We have a much larger range of technique, and at any time you can use the aggression and then finish off with a throw.

Erle: So what people actually see in the dojo is a training method to gain a martial aspect. So if you were attacked in the street you wouldn’t necessarily see what one sees in the dojo. Is that correct?

Saito Sensei: Yes. If it is an actual fight, it is immediate – like that (He snaps his fingers) Instant technique. When I was young I always tested against the gangsters in the street (Saburo Sensei interjects: “Sensei was famous…”) I was caught by the police many times, but was let off because they were gangsters. The palm is much is much more dangerous than the fist. It will not only damage, but it will also throw the person hard onto the ground, onto the back of his head.

To have a strong punch or palm technique the power must come from the hip. The hip and foot movement is trained in the throwing technique. If you are always training in light techniques, you never get these parts of the body strong. The complicated techniques are sometimes not realistic, but if you can do them, more realistic ones become easier to perform.

Erle: As with any great Martial Art, factions always manage to creep in. Why do you think this is so? Are people not satisfied with some aspects?

Saito Sensei: What style one follows, or the recent history that one follows depends upon which part of history you have learnt from. For instance, Tomiki Sensei was originally a Judo instructor and then he learnt Aikido and he tried to implement into Aikido the competition part of Judo. He formed the Aikido competition. Then he starts to sell his ideas as the Tomiki style. It depends upon where and when one left off learning as to what he teaches. If someone didn’t learn the whole system, then he might be dissatisfied with it and change it. there is also a great difference between our style and “Hombu” style. Hombu is the head office style. This is simply because the grandmasters son’s style differs from the style of the grandmaster. The interpretation of Aikido becomes different. After the war, O-Sensei stayed in Iwama, while O-Sensei’s son stayed in Tokyo. I (Saito Sensei) was a student of O-Sensei after the war. Tomiki Sensei was a student of O-Sensei before the war. After the war, Martial Arts were prohibited and so teachers were out of a job for a while. So O-Sensei didn’t have anywhere to go and only then did he start to research Aikido.

I consider myself very lucky to have met O-Sensei at that period. O-Sensei never taught Hombu people to use the jo (a wooden staff) and also the sword. He only showed the Hombu people by demonstration, but never actually taught them. I was taught from the very basics, how to grip etc. from O-Sensei directly. I shared my daily life with O-Sensei. We grew crops together and shared our lives around Aikido. The true meaning of teaching is not from a class, but living together, only then will the pure essence be transferred.

Erle: Do you feel then, that this was what we are missing in the west? This type of continuous training and simply living the art?

Saito Sensei: I have many people living in Iwama doing it the same way that we did it in the old days. I have also many Europeans doing this as well. Three of them are here. (He points to three Australian Black Belts who have all been to Iwama to train full time). We get up together, work together, eat together and train together. (Saito Sensei’s instructors in Australia, Saburo Takayasu 4th Dan, Derek Minus, 2nd Dan, Mic Marelli 1st Dan [in Sydney] and Barry Knight, 4th Dan and Michael Field, 2nd Dan [in Melbourne] have all spent considerable time in living and training at the Iwama dojo)

Erle: (Addressing the following questions to Michael Field and Derek Minus) Do you find this way of life at all alien to the informal Australian lifestyle that you must have been brought up with? Do you have the bowing and the ceremony? And had it been difficult to almost completely change cultures? I’ve noticed that you even call yourselves by the Japanese name endings such as Derek san etc…

Derek Minus: I don’t think it’s so much a matter of change, so much as recognising or understanding the other way of life. This is why we follow Sensei and why we’ve been able to maintain a strong technique in Australia. Because we simply understand that this is the way it has to be done. We can’t interpret it. We can’t say ‘Oh that’s the way Sensei does it, but in Australia we should do it differently’. Obviously there are cultural differences. But, as much as possible, follow what we can. I have never had a conflict by bowing because of this is the way. We’ve changed shaking hands for bowing. Unless you approach any art with that open-minded attitude you won’t be able to really grasp the inner side of it, because you’ll always be trying to interpret it; and you can’t. That’s when the technique becomes weak.

Michael Field: I think if we couldn’t bow to Sensei, then we couldn’t learn his technique.

Erle: So you think that to learn Aikido, one has to become totally involved with the culture and the art of that system’s country?

Michael Field: You couldn’t just take a part of it and learn it without the rest. You’d only learn some technical thing, but not the real art.

Derek Minus: One very important thing about Saito Sensei’s teaching is the severity. Aikido technique requires some stimulation of the body. The technique can be quite painful; not just to injure the other person, but to build their body. So when we train we give each other a lot of pain. But not to hurt each other; not with a vicious mind. But we must have the pain to gain. No pain, no gain…

Erle: Who are the top japanese Sensei’s of Aikido today?

Saito Sensei: There are many teachers in Aikido, and each one is good in their own way. Therefore the student should see many teachers before he makes up his mind as to which one he will choose.

Tomiki Sensei is dead.  Mr. Tohei spent some time in Iwama with me together and studied with the grandmaster for a while after the war. Shiota Sensei is a student of O-Sensei. Tohei Sensei trained in Aikido before the war in Tokyo head office. Then he went to the war and retired from it and returned to train for some more time in Iwama. There are many teachers leaving Aikikai, which is the Hombu Dojo. In Europe all of the different associations have a good relationship with each other and when I go to teach there they all come together to learn. My hope was that all students would unite as one family. I have never dismissed any of my students. I have maintained unity within our own style.

Erle: We have heard much about Tohei Sensei, because of his books etc. Would you tell us about his past?

Saito Sensei: The true history of Tohei Sensei is that he was training in Aikido before the war, in the university of O-Sensei; Keio university. Before this he was good at Judo, then he met O-Sensei in Tokyo and started training in Aikido with him. Then he went to the war and when he came back, already he was a student of O-Sensei and so he came to join us. So Tohei Sensei is my senior in training. Kisshomaru Sensei, the son of O-Sensei, is related to Tohei Sensei by marriage. Tohei Sensei’s wife is the sister to Kisshomaru Sensei’s wife. When Tohei Sensei was going to the USA to teach, then I was looking after Tohei Sensei’s dojo.

Erle: What other Martial Arts have you trained in?

Saito Sensei: I have trained in Kendo, and a little Judo, but mostly Karate…

Erle: Do you still keep in touch with Tohei Sensei?

Saito Sensei: No. We have lost touch now, but I still respect him. I feel sorry that Tohei Sensei left Aikikai.

Erle: So there was a split there and Tohei Sensei has formed his own Association?

Saito Sensei: Yes.

Erle: I’ve noticed that your Aikido is very basic, logical, well-balanced and timed. These are all good physical things that will enhance any Martial Art. What do you think about the ‘magical, supernatural’ feats of strength of some of the Aikido people who perform the old ‘unbendable arm trick’? Or the ‘sitting on the floor and not being pushed over trick’ etc?

Saito Sensei:  (Saito Sensei laughs as he answers) It is their own preference to show some magical technique.

Erle: Do you believe in competition tournaments?

Saito Sensei: If you have rules, then you have no realism. If you don’t have rules, then people get hurt. So tournaments are contradictory to the Martial Arts.

Erle: How would you describe your own technique as being different to others?

Saito Sensei: Our technique is powerful. Not because of superior muscle strength, but due to better body co-ordination.

Erle: What about the future of Aikido?

Saito Sensei: We have come to the stage where the Hombu style and the Iwama style will never meet together. Maybe the Hombu style has got trouble in the future. Because the Hombu style is now too far away from the grandmaster’s style. Even when we hit the trouble, I am always willing to help Hombu. I hope to never have trouble with other associations, but when there are others in trouble I will try and help.

(Erle Montaigue’s conclusion: Saito Sensei is a likeable traditional Japanese Sensei who commands respect from all of his students. His technique in Aikido is close to perfection…)