True to Tradition – Interview With Hitohira Saito

Among the many questions that Hitohira Saito Sensei kindly replied to, you can read of the special connection between his father, Morihiro Saito Sensei, and the Founder of Aikido Morihei Ueshiba, at whose side he lived for 26 years; have an idea of the father/son, teacher/student relationship among Morihiro and Hitohiro; hear the version of Hitohiro sensei in relation to its break with the Aikikai Hombu Dojo… but also what it means the inheritance of the Founder of Aikido today and the prospects of Aikido in an increasingly disharmonious world 


On the occasion of the Dento Iwama Ryu Aikido International Koshukai, held in Modena, Italy on 24-25-26 June 2011, Simone Chierchini had the opportunity to realize a video interview with Hitohiro Saito, Head Instructor of Iwama Shin-Shin Aiki Shuren-kai (岩间神信 合气 修练 会), the school founded by Hitohiro on the death of Morihiro Saito Sensei. The interview, held in the premises of Utensileria Modenese, generous sponsor of the Koshukai directed by Hitohiro Saito Sensei, took place in the presence of the European Senpai of Iwama Shin Shin Aiki Shuren-kai and was made possible thanks to the valuable work of Giancarlo Giovannelli, who acted as interpreter.

The first question I would like to ask, Sensei, does not concern Aikido but rather the News: living in Japan today, what does the tragedy of Fukushima mean for the average Japanese person?

The earthquake and tsunami directly caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The world’s nuclear agency has revealed deficiencies in the management of the nuclear power plant, therefore there are also human responsibilities for what happened. However, let’s leave that aside. In the early days, the reading of data relating to the leakage of radioactive material from the plant were very high, but fortunately at this point the level of radiation in areas relatively distant from the central are gone down.
Currently, people who feel the nuclear issue the most are mothers who have young children, because the smaller is the child and more consequences of radiation exposure over time. Immediately after the accident we had the problem that the authorities did not provide correct information, there was a kind of censorship. This has caused a reaction and now I feel that what is communicated to us is the truth.

Finding a better balance with Nature

I live in Ibaraki province, about 150 km from the city of Fukushima and I think that we should not risk being exposed to nuclear radiation: it’s a matter of time, of course. The incident, nevertheless, has made everyone more sensitive to the problem.

In relation to the last problem, one could say that this is the tip of the iceberg: our world is gradually becoming further removed from its natural state and it could be argued that it has become more and more disharmonious. In this context, how does the practice of Aikido fit as a way of harmony? What responsibility lies with Aikido teachers in this kind of world?

I don’t know if I can provide a correct answer.
Humans are an element of nature. There is a theory that if human beings disappeared from the planet, it would revert to its ideal state; this is paradoxical. In Aikido, however, the Founder thought that mankind had the role of governing nature in order to achieve an ideal condition.
The Founder used to speak of misogi, an activity of purification with which training sessions in Aikido should start. When an inner conflict begins, from time to time we are faced with choices. If we possess decision-making skills, this is good, because each time we can make a conscious choice between good and evil.
I live in a rural area, away from the disaster’s site, however at the time of the nuclear accident I was still able to perceive nature’s force of reaction. When practicing Aikido, if students learn how to avoid negative, destructive attitudes towards others, that is their partners, certainly they will develop the same behavior in relation to nature, of which mankind is part.
O’Sensei preached non-violence. If one acts as I said, mankind could return to a more balanced condition of greater harmony between humans and nature.
The Way of the Warrior, Budo and agriculture, Nogyo, are complementary. The point of contact between the way of the warrior and agriculture is that both prepare for adversities and because of that it is also important to begin from the basics, from kihon. When we are forced to face nature’s caprices, we all must collaborate so that any problem at hand is solved or reduced.

Next question brings us deeper in the world of Aikido and especially of Iwama Aikido: could you explain for our readers the role of Morihiro Saito Sensei in relation to the teaching of the Founder?

When the second world war ended, my father became a student in O-Sensei’s dojo. Only O-Sensei’s practiced there. At the time, my father got a job with the state railways and used to work at night, returning home in the morning. According to the custom of the time, the ones who had worked at night were entitled to two days and the night in between off; therefore he could spend many hours with O-Sensei.

A young Morihiro Saito

The idea of O-Sensei when he came to Iwama was to practice both agriculture and Budo, so my father helped O’Sensei to work in the fields. The Founder was born in an time when those who taught martial arts were always with their students, who lived with their teacher. The teacher eventually tended to become attached to this type of student who worked the land and trained with him, because they were always together. This is the uchi-deshi system, where the internal student lives in the house of his sensei. My father experienced this situation.
Post-war Japan was a poor country, because all the resources were used during the war. Students who helped the Founder, also had their field to cultivate, because there was nothing to eat. Those who could not or would not help O’Sensei in his farm activities, gradually gave up and were not to be seen anymore. In the mentality of a typical Japanese of that period, the ones who could not or would not help the teacher in these other extra-dojo activities, did not feel that they could be taught the techniques at all.
My father had the good fortune to continue to stand alongside his teacher; so at times, even as they cultivated the vegetable garden, O-Sensei would think of a new technique, put the hoe down and say: “Saito! Go to the dojo to get the bokken!”.  Then, in the middle of the field, or wherever they were, they moved from farming to martial arts. In the evening all the other students of the dojo, known as soto-deshi (external students), came and my father often had to go work for the railroad. During the day, however, for many years he was able to see and study with care the techniques of the Founder.
At that time the idea of paying the teacher in cash was unheard of; students helped their teacher by providing manpower. Since there was not much money and O-Sensei himself was not at all wealthy, to say the least, my father and the other students organised small money collections and donated what they could put together to the wife of the Founder, Hatsu, to pay for the electricity. Basically at the time O-Sensei did not earn anything, had no fixed income, just because there was not the idea of a fixed monthly fee to be paid to the teacher. Apart from the labor force received by the students, the only cash income for him came from the granting of Dan grades: once the ceremony was over, the student who had received the Dan put his offer on the kamiza. Also, when O-Sensei visited other dojos to give what we nowadays would call seminars, he received “thanks” in the cash. Some time right after the war ended, some of the students used to bring sacks of rice to thank O-Sensei for his teaching efforts.

My father has always been close to O-Sensei and in many occasions he stated that his role was to transmit all that he had lived in contact with the Founder. I repeat, this is what he always told me.

What are your memories of the Founder, Sensei? Especially your memories of Morihei Ueshiba from a human point of view.

My father was given from the Founder the land on which to build his house, then he got married and after we, brothers, were born. I remember that my mother was always in the Ueshiba family home to help them. Therefore we newborn children lived in the house of O’Sensei, because our mother was always there.
I have not seen O’Sensei for the first time when I started doing keiko, I saw him as soon as I was born! And I’ve also heard O’Sensei’s kiai when I was still a fetus in the womb of my mother… I do not think of the Founder as an outsider,  for me he is some kind of a grandfather.

Family photo: Morihei and Hatsu Ueshiba

He was a man who had something special: even though the aspects of daily life that concerned him were common, he was an awesome person. My parents always addressed him using referential language and I felt the distance, the stature of this person.
His posture was always correct, I have never seen him break it: even when he drank, he took the cup with both hands, thanking the gods, then placed it down once more with both hands, formally, according to the traditional system. We saw that this person was so revered by our parents, therefore in his presence we were always polite, because it was natural that we respected him: he had an important aura around him.
I had a beautiful image of O-Sensei and his wife, I never perceived them as two elderly people similar to the other village elders. Both were very devoted. Mrs. Ueshiba, having been born in the Meiji period, a historical period of transition, was a person who paid great attention to food and knew how to manage the economy of the house.

Next question concerns the relationship between Morihiro and Hitohira, both as father and son, and as teacher and student – an obviously very special relationship.

In the dojo I never approached my father as “dad”, I always called him “sensei”, like everyone else. He, in turn, in the dojo never treated me as a son, I was exactly like everyone else, that is, a student among students. When I was a white belt, I was cleaning like everyone else, I had no privilege. On the other hand, I never asked questions about dojo or techniques at home, there was never any talk of waza at home; at most my father told me that there was grass to be cut around the temple or that some maintenance work was needed. So in the dojo we had a type of relationship, which was that between teacher and student, and in the house another, a family one.

We have now come to a somewhat thorny issue: your break-up with the Aikikai Foundation and the birth of your new association, Iwama Shin-Shin Aiki Shuren-kai. Many things have been said about these events, but I think the most correct thing for us to do would be to ask you directly for your version of the facts.

When O’Sensei fell ill and was dying, he summoned my father, put his hands together and said, “Saito san, please take care of the dojo and of the Aiki Jinja”. For this reason my father remained within the Aikikai and took care of things as O’Sensei had asked him to.

Morihiro Saito in front of the original Aiki Jinja (1948)

At the same time, in addition to maintaining the dojo and the temple, my father taught Buki-waza techniques to thousands of aikidoka, giving them a certification. In life, my father had received a special task and a title to represent him, namely that of Guardian of the Aiki Jinja. After my father died, Aikikai asked me not to use this title anymore and to no longer award Buki-Waza certificates.  I accepted, but I said that I had a request: that Aikikai publish a declaration in its newsletter Aiki Shinbun with which the Aikikai Foundation committed itself to protect Aikido as it had developed in Iwama, recognizing the difference compared to that practiced in Tokyo. If they had fulfilled my request, they would not have put me in a difficult situation with the people who had received a certification from my father, almost all aikidoka residing abroad. The Aikikai Foundation, however, did not grant me this favor.
For the Saito family, having been invested by O’Sensei with the title of protectors of Aiki Jinja had been a very important honor: this was a title we were proud of.
It is true, within Aikikai Iwama’s Aikido is different. I wanted to protect and defend this, but it was not possible, because Aikikai did not want to recognize it. I am the soul, the heir of these two people who came before me, namely O’Sensei and my father Morihiro who has been close to the Founder all his life and received from him the task of protecting the dojo and the Aiki Jinja. I am the person who collected this legacy.
Even today we are grateful and live O’Sensei’s presence with great respect. Aikikai is made up of many different people and we live it in a different way, they are not the same for us. So I apologized to Moriteru Ueshiba sensei and said that in the future we would go on our own. This is the complete picture of the matter.

In relation to this last topic, I have another question that is directly connected. How do you relate with other Western teachers who refer to the same tradition as you and therefore with the dispute over the correct transmission of Iwama’s legacy in Italy and in the rest of the world.

In O’Sensei’s times there were already several currents, if we have to say the truth – just remember Tomiki, Yoshinkan, Ki no Kenkyukai, or Mochizuki Sensei. Many people came to Iwama to learn Buki Waza and Tai Jutsu, and afterwards they worked hard and did their best to pass these techniques on to other places. When a tree grows, then branches sprout. I don’t feel like saying that this is or it is not Iwama Ryu; I myself came out of the Aikikai, so I rather say nothing on the matter.

Let’s go around it then – option B, which will take us back to the same topic. My background in Aikido built on the Aikikai Hombu Dojo training system, through Aikikai d’Italia, and my connection with Iwama Ryu is comparatively quite recent. I must say that I am very disappointed – and that I also feel a little cheated – about one thing: why does Aikikai not teach Iwama Ryu’s Kihon and Buki Waza?

Before the last world war O’Sensei had not yet codified the system with which to transmit his techniques. After the war my father was the only one who stayed with him all day and practiced jo, ken and yari with him. The other students came to practice in the evening, while the fFounder’s students from before the war – who lived in Tokyo – spent a day here and then left. The fact that these techniques after the war were not passed on to many is also due to these contingent reasons. No Hombu Dojo instructor has been able to practice Iwama techniques like my father.
However, I must say that when O’Sensei went to teach at the Hombu Dojo he would take the sword and say to someone: “Attack me” and show techniques. He demonstrated techniques, but then he didn’t let anyone use the bokken and let them try it. When he saw that students of the Hombu Dojo took the bokken and performed techniques, techniques that he had never explained, he said: “You are crazy! Who taught you to do this? Who told you to do this?” and he got very angry.
The Founder was very proud of his thought and therefore did not tolerate that someone else “reinterpreted” it [Sensei shows some pages of the 1938 Budo manual by Morihei Ueshiba, NdR]. Here it is written that he required that only Aikido was practised in his dojo and not Iaido or something else. If it’s an Aikido dojo, do only Aikido, if you want to do Iaido, you go to a Iaido dojo.
If he saw someone at the Hombu Dojo with a bokken in his hand, he would say to him: “If you have never been to Iwama, why are you using a bokken then?”.
So, perhaps, the students of the Hombu Dojo, misunderstanding his intentions, thought that it was forbidden to touch the bokken there, since O’Sensei got angry if he saw such a thing. His idea was that those who wanted to do Iaido should go and do it in a Iaido dojo, or Jodo in a Muso ryu dojo, etc.
Aikido is nothing but the practice of the Samurai, but if you train without using the sword, then it is definitely not Samurai training! According to some, weapons should only be practiced from a certain level onwards, while in our opinion this is not true. Everything must be practiced simultaneously, Taijutsu and Bukiwaza. Those who disagree should complain to O’Sensei… To be a Samurai you had to learn to ride a horse, hold the spear, shoot an arrow, wield a sword… it’s obvious, isn’t it? Riding and archery require very large spaces, and also maintaining a horse is very expensive; instead using a stick and sword is possible, because this can be done everywhere: that’s why they are still in use. Everyone can work with weapons from the beginning, because O’Sensei has intertwined the techniques of Taijutsu with those of Bukiwaza, this is the characteristic of his work.
Since everyone can do it, Aikikai could always do it too. I am willing to help; if they want to do it, I’m here.

To better understand and clarify: shihans of extraction other than Iwama ryu, who have been sent to teach around the world in the last 40-50 years, have proposed their Bukiwaza, which has nothing to do with that of O’Sensei.

Among Aikikai-style Shihans, some learned their Bukiwaza techniques from my father, although I have not seen many teachers come and visit him in Iwama. Kobayashi sensei did, although then I saw that he did things a little differently.

What is your position, sensei, regarding the dichotomy between tradition and innovation in Aikido? Is it right and correct to keep Aikido as formulated by the Founder, or is it right and correct to continue to evolve it? Shall we just preserve the tradition?

I think innovation is inevitable, because O’Sensei used the expression Takemusu Aiki, that is, the techniques are born and then multiply spontaneously. Therefore if ten people learn from a teacher, since people are not all the same, it is inevitable that we will have ten slightly different results. The fact that things change over time I believe it to be inevitable.

I would like to conclude with a message of hope, of encouragement on your part towards those who are beginning the path of Aikido now: our beginners.


In Japan for centuries there has been this attitude: when one wants to learn something, whatever that might be, from a teacher, nobody hastens to do it in the first place they find. First there is a study phase, preparatory. If I am interested in archery, if I want to do Kyudo, I will look around, or ask others, I will inquire, basically, in order to join the best place, from the teacher who is considered the best.

This must be the basic attitude of those approaching a martial art. So I recommend, as mentioned above, to visit more dojos to see which Aikido is best for the individual in question and then choose accordingly. In relation more specifically to Aikido, thanks to the Founder O’Sensei Ueshiba this is not only a physical activity, but it also embodies a very high spiritual level. I think it is a beautiful activity to undertake, and attractive for a beginner.

Martial arts are neither sports nor fun activities. Alongside there is always death, which is the concept behind the choice that was made in Japan in ancient times when people decided to learn a martial art. You must always have this awareness. It is not just a physical or bodily activity: when it is practiced  keeping always in mind that we have death beside us, a martial art becomes an activity of the soul. Once you understand this, welcome, please start doing Aikido.

Saito Hitohira - Chierchini Simone 2011
Hitohira Saito demonstrates with his interviewer

Sensei, I would like to thank you very much for the time and attention you have given us. I would also like to thank you on behalf of the Italian aikido community, regardless of federations, teachers, styles. I hope your teaching will find the space it deserves here.

Arigato gozaimashita.

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2011

All rights are reserved

I wish to thank my interpreter Giancarlo Giovannelli for the precious assistance during the interview and Carlo Cocorullo for his useful editorial work

Watch Slideshow from H. Saito International Koshukai in Modena (italy), June 2011

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