Interview with Morihiro Saito Sensei

Here below is a wonderful interview with Morihiro Saito Sensei, from October 1995. Gaku Homma (of Nippon Kan Culture Center in Denver, Colorado, USA) asks Saito Sensei about his life, mostly of Iwama and his memories of O’Sensei.

Introduction (by Gaku Homma):

It seems that at every important junction in my life, Saito Sensei has been there. He was at Iwama during the years I spent as an uchi deshi under the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba. Six years after the Founder’s death, Saito Sensei came, at my invitation, to a demonstration for an Aikido club on Misawa Air force base, where I was teaching—a demonstration that led to the opportunity for me to come to the US for the first time. Now, 20 years later, in October 1995, I had the opportunity to invite Saito Sensei to instruct at Aikido Nippon Kan in Denver, Colorado. It seems like only the blink of an eye—the time has gone by so quickly. I remember experiences from the past as if they happened yesterday. I am 45 years old now, and Saito Sensei is 67. As time passes and we grow older, I think our temperament and values change, becoming more tolerant and generally more accepting. During our seminar, as I took care of Saito Sensei and watched him teach, I clearly realized just how much time had passed, and just how many memories I had. As Saito Sensei taught, I never heard him talk about universal powers, God, auras, peace, or ki, and I never heard him make any other cosmic references. Yet in each of his movements, his body displayed the feelings that these words strive to capture. This power to touch people’s hearts through the eloquence of his movements is what separates him from others. His physical technique and his philosophy are simple and planted firmly on the ground. Who he is and what he teaches is based on realism, not on illusive concepts that can deceive or confuse. As I interviewed Saito Sensei, I couldn’t help feeling that I was listening to a father getting on in years, passing the wisdom of his experience on to future generations.

Interview with Saito Sensei:

Gaku Homma Sensei: Saito Shihan, you are very healthy. What do you think the secret is to your good health?

Morihiro Saito Sensei: Now I am 67 years old. In Japan that makes me eligible to join the senior citizen’’s activity groups. I receive many flyers and invitations to join senior citizen activities from the Iwama town office. I don’t feel I am quite ready for that, though. What is the secret to my health? There is no secret, really. I don’t eat too much meat or fatty foods. I eat foods high in fiber. Going on seminar tours is a good chance for me to lose a little weight; I usually don’t eat a great deal while I am traveling. Denver has been an exception, however. Eating the meals that Homma-kun has prepared for me has stimulated my appetite. [“Kun” is a suffix indicating familiarity.] If I did have a secret to good health, it would be to keep busy. I try to create a very busy situation for myself, keeping every day full of positive activity. My daily motto is that, with every step I take, there must be another task waiting to be completed. The same day I get back from this US tour, I will travel to northern Honshu to give a demonstration at the Tohoku Regional Aikido Demonstration.

Gaku Homma Sensei: During the time I lived at the Aiki shrine dojo in Iwama, everyone called you Iwama’s “Mou-chan.” [“Mou” is short for Morihiro, and “chan” is a term of endearment.] or “Iwama’s Napoleon.” How did you get these names?

Morihiro Saito c1950

Morihiro Saito Sensei: From the time I became an uchi deshi at Iwama Dojo until the Founder’s death, I was a very busy young man. During the period that I was an uchi deshi, I also worked for the Japan National Railroad. The only time I had to myself was on the trip from the dojo to the train station and back. Other than that, I had no personal time. My life consisted of work and practice. I was not able to listen to music or follow the latest fads or sports like the other boys my age. Sometimes I worked the night shift for the railroads, so my days and nights got mixed up. If I wanted to take some extra time to do a personal chore—like repairing my uniform, for example—I would have to shorten my sleeping time. The townspeople around me used to say, “Napoleon needed only three hours of sleep on his horse. Iwama’s Mou-chan dozing in his clothes needs only 30 minutes of sleep before he is ready to work again.” Eventually, the name “Napoleon” stuck and became my nickname. My body has not forgotten those times—I’m still busy! The nickname “Mou-chan” also brings back memories. I didn’t choose for this to happen, but for some reason the townspeople of Iwama and the surrounding areas were afraid of that name. Everybody knew it, and it carried a stigma. If any of the neighboring Yakuza or local boys tried to make trouble in Iwama, the mention of the name “Iwama’s Mou-chan” usually stopped them. This was a great surprise to me! One day, just before a festival was to be held in the town of Iwama, the local boys got into a fight with a rival group from a neighboring town. It seemed that this rival group wanted to take over vending space for the festival, and they thought this might be a good chance to invade Iwama territory. They called their group together and ventured into Iwama with the Yakuza at the lead. One of the young men from Iwama ran to me and asked for my help in fending off their rivals. At first I refused, not wanting to get involved in their personal fights. But, being young and not knowing the meaning of fear, I eventually agreed to help them. Wearing leather boots to protect my feet and a heavy leather jacket to protect myself from a knife attack, I set out to lend a hand. I was surprised when I arrived at the scene. I had no idea how many people had gathered in the street, ready to fight! Not knowing what else to do, I walked directly between the two groups and said, “Fighting on the day of a shrine festival is not good.” The rival boss stepped up to me and asked, “Hey you, young guy—who are you?” “I am Saito,” I replied, but that got little response. Then someone from Iwama screamed out, “He is Iwama’s Mou-chan!” At that, the rival boss got down on his hands and knees, lowered his head to the ground, and apologized. I told the Iwama boys who had started the fight to apologize, too. Then I grabbed the leaders from both groups and steered them into a local sake bar. Lecturing the Iwama boys, I said sternly, “Anyone who starts a fight is in the wrong and must remedy the situation by serving sake to those they have hurt. Fix this situation now!” And with that I left. Most of the townspeople knew my nickname but not my face, since I was so busy working all the time. Because I practiced Aikido, my reputation seemed to grow of its own accord. I was often called to resolve minor disputes, even before the police were called. I’’m still not sure whether my reputation was a good one or a bad one. [Laughs] Of course, I no longer have a reputation of that kind. Those days were a lot different from today. The times were more innocent—especially in the countryside.

Gaku Homma Sensei: It seems to me that you are still Iwama’s Napoleon. During this seminar tour, in a two-week period, you have traveled to the US from Japan, taught on both the east and west coasts, and then came to Denver with no rest in between. That seems like a strenuous schedule to me. As you see it, what makes life worth living?

Morihiro Saito Sensei: What makes me the happiest is teaching what I have inherited from the Founder. I find great fulfillment in visiting my students all over the world, being able to stay in their homes, teaching and practicing together. When I am home at Iwama, if there is a little extra time, I enjoy spending it at the Aiki no Ie [Aiki cottage], sitting around the irori [sunken fireplace] with old friends, eating and drinking together. That is a happy time for me. On a day like that, I like to do most of the cooking. I am not a particularly picky eater, but I am particular when I am cooking. For example, I like to make my own sauce from chilies I have grown in my garden. I have a special way of blending the chilies with sesame oil. It has to be just so. I also like to make my own udon [white flour noodles] and soba [buckwheat noodles]. I like to dry and grind the grain, knead the dough, and cut the noodles myself. My son Hitohiro runs his own soba restaurant, so I have a source of fresh organic buckwheat. I don’t like to say so myself, but I think my noodles have a pretty good reputation. I also enjoy going to the hinoki buro [cypress bathhouse] to relax. I can’t describe how good that feels. I am already a grandfather; I have 13 grandchildren. Still, I believe that for people who have their own dojos, there is no retirement. It is my destiny to continue. I feel it is my obligation to teach the Founder’s Aikido to as many students as possible. When I die, a direct link to his technique will disappear. I have been given the gift of 23 years of experience with the Founder…What I have learned, I have learned from him, and what I have learned, I feel compelled to teach. Other shihan have freedom, but I do not. There are shihan scattered throughout Japan and all over the world who, at one point, gathered at the Founder’s feet to practice. The Founder understood the essence of Aikido, and he held it in the palm of his hand. Those who gathered briefly at his feet never quite grasped the gift that the Founder held in his hand—and then they left. Iwama is for Aikidoists what, for example, Mecca is for Muslims, or the Vatican is for Catholics. Metaphorically, Iwama is a lighthouse, and it is my obligation to keep its light shining brightly. To other shihan, the lighthouse symbolizes the great undertakings and achievements of the Founder. They use this light to illuminate their way as they navigate freely in boats of their own making. 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.

Gaku Homma Sensei: I know it was long ago, but could you tell us what it was like when you were an uchi deshi at Iwama dojo?

Morihei Ueshiba & Morihiro Saito c1955

Morihiro Saito Sensei: I joined Iwama Dojo in 1946. That was just after Japan had lost the war, and there were not many resources available; it was a very poor time. Born and raised in the town of Iwama, I joined the dojo when I was 18 years old. Not long afterward, a few of the Founder’s uchi deshi from Hombu Dojo came to Iwama. Gozo Shioda [the Founder of Yoshinkan Aikido] moved in with his family of six (which surprised me a little). They stayed for about two years. Koichi Tohei [Founder of Ki Aikido] also came at about the same time, after being discharged from military service. I remember wondering at the time whether the war had made him tough and strong. He left the dojo when he got married. And there were two other students who became uchi deshi at the same time I did. One has since become a regional education director, and the other is now a member of the Diet. I am the only one left still hanging around Iwama! [Laughs] It’s hard to imagine what Iwama looked like at the time. Where you now see houses, there were acres of wild woods. None of the roads were paved, and when it rained some of them would turn to ankle-deep mud. We wore geta [wooden sandals] with one slat protruding from the bottom, since mud would get lodged between the slats of regular two-slat geta making them too heavy. One-slat geta were better for walking in the mud—and on dry ground they were useful for developing balance and coordination! We used very little electricity, especially in the areas surrounding the dojo. At night it was so dark that someone could walk up and pinch your nose and you still couldn’t see who it was! The Founder was a prominent member of the community, and he had the distinction of having the only electricity in the area. The contrast between the surrounding darkness and the glowing lights at the dojo at night made the place seem magical. Later on, when my home was built, we pulled electric lines from the Founder’s house to my house as well. At the time, this was considered pretty luxurious. The townspeople thought that the goings-on at Ueshiba-san’s dojo were a little unusual. For example, the way weuchi deshi dressed caused more than a few startled looks as we passed through town. We worekeiko gi (tattered and patched at the collar), faded hakama (much shorter than today’s, about ankle length), and haori (short kimono jackets) decorated with batik patterns. We carried iron jos to make our arms stronger, swinging them and dragged them noisily behind us as we walked. The townspeople were known to say that they would not let their sons go to Ueshiba-san’s home for any reason. As a threat, parents would warn their wayward sons that, if they didn’t shape up, they would be sent to Ueshiba-san’s. [Laughs] They used to call us a ban kara [a rough, tough looking group]. Hearing the local gossip, the Founder would warn us with a smile not to scare the townspeople too much. A few years after the end of the war, life began to return to normal. The country was still in transition, and there were many people without jobs. Many joined the Iwama dojo looking for a new chance at life. Although we had a garden at the dojo, there were soon more mouths to feed than we could handle. The Founder put the new uchi deshi to work clearing nearby fields so that they could be planted. The fields were covered with dense groves of bamboo, whose web of tangled roots made clearing an extremely taxing job. A few of the new recruits decided that the work was too hard, banded together, and disappeared into the night. The work was hard for me, too. But, even if I had wanted to runaway, there was no place else for me to go, since I had been born and raised in Iwama. In fact, I still haven’t left! [Laughs] After the field-clearing incident, the Founder did not often order people to perform tasks that were that difficult. The area at the dojo where we now practice bokken and jo is where the Founder and his wife had their private garden. Other larger fields were planted with potatoes, peanuts, and rice. These days, I have a small garden that I tend as a hobby. Only a few selected uchi deshi are allowed to work in the garden. Actually, most uchi deshi are specifically asked not to work in the garden. When they do, there is only more work needed to repair what they have done. [Laughs] The last uchi deshi who worked in the gardens were you, Homma-kun, and the Founder’s maid, Kikuno-san. I remember you with a bundle of vegetables strapped to your back as you left for Tokyo’s Hombu Dojo to accompany the Founder as his otomo [assistant]. After the Founder’s death there were no other uchi deshi who worked specifically in the gardens.

Gaku Homma Sensei: I remember, too. At the time, I was only 17 years old. Those days were hard. After the Founder completed his daily morning ceremony, I would accompany him to the garden to pick the vegetables for use in that day’s meals or, if there were extra, to take to Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. Speaking of Hombu Dojo—I have read many articles and books on Aikido history written by Hombu uchi deshi. But, when I accompanied the Founder to Tokyo, there were no uchi deshi living at Hombu Dojo. Could you clarify this?

Morihiro Saito Sensei: At the end of the war, there were many uchi deshi living at Hombu Dojo. For the most part, those people are very old or have already passed away. After the war ended, the Founder lived mostly at Iwama, going to Tokyo for only special ceremonies or events…Of the last generation of students to study directly under the Founder, many who say they were his uchi deshi were actually 2nd or 3rd dan shidoin [assistant instructors] at Hombu Dojo. Most received the equivalent of about two hundred dollars a month salary, lived in cheap apartments near the dojo, and came to the dojo only for practice. These kayoi deshi [students who lived outside the dojo] did not take care of the Founder. Except when they were assisting him as uke,the kayoi deshi were not allowed near him. The Founder commanded that much respect. Many now say that they were close to the Founder, but that was not actually the case. Late in the Founder’s life, just before he passed away, even high-ranking shihan were only allowed to offer greetings; they were not even in the position to engage him in conversation. The Founder did not want to have many people close to him, and there were really very few who personally took care of him.

Gaku Homma Sensei: When speaking of those who took care of the Founder in his private life, we can’t forget your wife. Could you tell us a little about her?

Okusama Saito

Morihiro Saito Sensei: In 1951, the Founder cleared the land where my house now stands. We built the house together. In the yard there is a chestnut tree that the Founder planted. Since I was an uchi deshi, it was understood that I would attend the Founder. My baba [nickname for wife or grandmother] was not a student of the Founder, and so she was not under the same obligation. But she worked harder than even I did to take care of the Founder and his wife. I went to work every day, and so I was not always at the dojo. My baba worked 24 hours a day for 18 years taking care of them. She took such good care of them that, if for some reason she could not be there, the Founder’s wife Hatsu would have trouble knowing where everything was. Once Hatsu became ill and had trouble speaking. My baba understood what she was trying to say just by watching her mouth the words. That’s how much time she spent with them. I have received promotions and recognitions of achievement from Hombu Dojo, but my baba is the person deserving the most credit when it came to taking care of the Founder and his wife. Only my baba could talk to the Founder directly, giving him advice and offering her opinions. In addition to caring for the Founder, she has also taken care of our own family and countless uchi deshi over the years. I appreciate my wife very much.

Gaku Homma Sensei: I remember your wife very well. She always knew when to appear with a large rice bowl filled to the brim. As you just said, if the Founder was angry and your wife would appear, the Founder’s mood would miraculously change to that of a happy child. It always amazed me.

Morihiro Saito Sensei: Just before the Founder went to the hospital in Tokyo, the effects of his illness were at their worst. We all felt very sad for him, but it was difficult to get close to him. It was sad to see a great martial artist nearing his end. That was a difficult time for you too, Homma-kun, since you cared for him privately. The Founder’s temperament was unpredictable at best. If his mood was bad when you entered, you would get caught in his wrath. During the last year of his life, no one visited the Founder from Tokyo, because they didn’t want to get involved. That was a very lonely and tumultuous time for the Founder. It must have been difficult both for you, Homma-kun and for Kikuno-san, since you were so young.

Gaku Homma Sensei: It was a difficult time. Maybe it was because we were so young that the Founder felt comfortable with us and talked with us, even near the end. Turning to recent events, Sensei, what did you think about the seminar here in Denver?

Morihiro Saito Sensei: I was first surprised that over 300 people registered for the full three-day seminar. That is quite a number! It was nice to see a seminar that did not draw attendance by offering “candy” such as ranking examinations, etc. That an independent dojo like Nippon Kan can attract that many students from all over the world on a seminar’s own merits is very good. I understand there were students in attendance from more than 17 different organizations and from other independent dojos. I’m very pleased that so many came. I think the Founder in heaven must be happy, too. The martial arts community, including the Aikido community, is facing a future where more and more groups will become independent—especially in the US and Europe. The Founder’s organization, the Aikikai, must pay attention to this. I believe that, rather than concentrating on making stricter rules and more restrictions, they would be wiser to acknowledge and respect independent organizations. That would pave the way for stronger relationships and a more stable future. Going beyond the boundaries of affiliation or style offers a wonderful opportunity for nice people to get together, as this seminar demonstrates. The Founder’s philosophy of love and harmony was manifest at this Denver seminar. I would be happy to travel anywhere to teach at any such a gathering. That is my mission. You, Homma-kun, are not affiliated with the Aikikai or with Iwama-style Aikido. But that is not an issue. That an independent dojo like Nippon Kan can gather over 300 people together is something that must not be overlooked. Your students should be proud of your dojo’s unique structure of activities—and of the reputation it has earned through your contributions to the community. I do not think it is necessary to turn your dojo’s accomplishments over to another organization. Privately, I hope that I can continue to be an advisor and supporter of Nippon Kan. As I foresee more independent dojos in the future, I want this one to set a good example for others to follow. I have great expectations for your role as an established independent dojo.

Gaku Homma Sensei: Thank you very much, Saito Sensei.

Morihiro Saito Sensei: Over the course of the seminar I heard people saying, “Iwama-style Aikido is a lot more user friendly than I thought it would be. I thought Saito Sensei’s style would be more strict and severe.” My motto for teaching is to have a happy practice that clearly demonstrates the day’s lesson, so that students can understand fully and take it back home with them. Of course, I always want a safe practice with no accidents or injuries. While I am teaching, if I feel my explanations are going to be lengthy, I ask students to sit comfortably. If the room is crowded, I ask people in the back to stand up so they can see. I try to move around the room, so that everyone has a chance to see clearly. I make my explanations slowly and clearly. I’m not interested in just throwing ukes wildly into the air. This year alone, I have traveled overseas three times. All in all, I have taught seminars in outside Japan over 50 times. I honestly do not know how long I will be able to continue teaching all over the world. If my health continues to be good, I feel I must continue my mission as a testimonial to the Founder. It makes me very happy that I have wonderful students actively teaching and practicing in the US and all over the world. I trust my students to carry on my will and philosophy. Because of their efforts, people from all over the world travel to Iwama to train as uchi deshi. On rare occasions, I have heard of students who have trained at Iwama and then returned to their own country only to cause problems with other Aikido groups. This concerns me, because these people obviously did not completely understand the training they were receiving at Iwama. They perpetuate their misunderstandings by misrepresenting Iwama-style Aikido to others. This has never been my intention. It is important, as a first priority, that we work smoothly with others within the Aikido community on a friendly basis. These days I travel with my otomo, but there have been times when I have traveled by myself. Once, when I arrived in an airport in the northwest US, there was no one there to meet me. Since I can’t speak English, this was a problem! Luckily, a group of Japanese tourists passed by, and I tagged along with their group to get out of the airport. [Laughs]. I can’t forget the many times I have carried my rice cooker in my bag, cooking for myself as I traveled. I never imagined I would be sitting at Homma-kun’s house eating Japanese food in Denver, Colorado.

Gaku Homma Sensei: It has been an honor and a pleasure, Sensei. Thank you very much.

Concluding remarks (by Gaku Homma):

After his arrival in Denver, one of the first questions Saito Shihan asked me was “What techniques should I teach this evening?” After every class, he asked whether the lesson was adequate and whether a certain series of techniques would be appropriate for the next class. I was impressed by his earnest and professional manner. After practice in the waiting room, Saito Sensei thanked everyone in attendance and offered them fruit and refreshments. It was a pleasure to see such warmth and kindness offered by a man of his dignified position. A mood of generosity prevailed around him during the entire seminar. During the closing Thank-You Party, we accompanied Saito Sensei to the rest-room and waited by the sink to hand him a towel to wipe his hands. I was touched as I watched him carefully tidy up the sink that had been splashed by others as a courtesy to the next user. I accompanied Saito Sensei, his translator, his otomo, and other guests to San Francisco to see them off to Japan. Before the plane landed in San Francisco, I watched as Saito Sensei removed the air-sick bag from the pocket of the seat in front of him. I was concerned that he was not feeling well. But he merely asked all of us in his escort whether we had any trash to throw away, collected our napkins and wrappers in the bag, and then tucked it back neatly into the pocket in front of him. He said that this would help make the job easier for the person who had to clean up the plane. Saito Sensei made sure that his otomo was well taken care of, even offering him a portion of his own meals. He also took care of one of my students who acted as driver in San Francisco, grabbing his hand and discreetly depositing a token kokoro zuke [thank-you payment] into his palm. Saito Senseis position as a leader in the global Aikido community has been built on a lifetime of hard work and effort. He is a real bujin [martial artist]. His humanity, kindness, and thoughtfulness remain imprinted in my memory—where they remind me of the private side of the Founder, Morihei Ueshiba. As we walked through the crowded airport terminal, my mind switched back to an occasion when I walked with the Founder through a crowded station in Ueno, Japan. The way they walked was very much the same.

Gaku Homma Sensei

Important Basic Principles

The founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, met the famous martial arts genius Sokaku Takeda in 1915. Takeda Sensei taught Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu in the first part of twentieth century, and it was this Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu that was the major technical influence on modern aikido. (See this link for more information.) In fact, Morihei Ueshiba received a Daito-ryu teaching certification, awarded by Sokaku Takeda in Ayabe in 1922.

In the video clip posted below, Katsuyuki Kondo Sensei, probably the worlds leading Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu teacher, explains the basic principles of Daito-ryu. These concepts however are very relevant to Aikido (or to any martial art for that matter), and most Aikidoka will recognise these principles. Kondo Sensei points out that by learning, practicing and applying these basic principles you will be able to perfect your technique.

Rei: Respectful and correct behaviour. Dojo etiquette (Reishiki) is an important part of Budo training, it creates a safe and enjoyable atmosphere in which to practice. Here are the Founder of Aikido rules for practicing Aikido:

“In Aikido, one blow can determine life or death.  When practicing, obey your instructor, and do not engage in useless contests of strength.”

“Aikido is an art in which a person learns to deal with not only one but multiple attackers.  It therefore requires that you practice at all times with careful awareness not only in front of you but in all directions.”

“Practice at all times with the feeling of pleasurable exhilaration.”

“The teachings of your instructor constitute only a small fraction of what you will learn.  Your mastery of each movement will depend almost entirely on individual, earnest practice.”

“Daily practice begins with light movements of the body, gradually increasing in intensity and strength.  There must be no excessive strain.  That is why even an elderly person can continue to practice pleasurably without bodily harm, and will attain the goal of his or her training.”

“The purpose of Aikido is to train both body and mind and to develop a person’s sincerity.  All Aikido techniques are secret in nature and are not to be idly revealed to others in public, not shown to rowdy or unprincipled people who will misuse them.”

Metsuke: This means “where to fix one’s eyes”. Here is some guidance from Kondo Sensei in considering the meaning and practice of the power of the eyes, or Metsuke:

Through the correct fixation of the eyes it is possible to read, predict, and discern another’s movements;

It is possible to control ones partner with a piercing gaze, the best situation being able to avoid a fight altogether;

Metsuke also means to have insight and the capacity to read another’s mind.

Here is a quote from Aikido Founder, O’Sensei, with some practical advice:

“Don’t look at the opponent’s eyes, or your mind will be drawn into his eyes. Don’t look at his sword, or you will be slain with his sword. Don’t look at him, or your spirit will be distracted. True budo is the cultivation of attraction with which to draw the whole opponent to you. All I have to do is keep standing this way.”

Maai: This is combative distance. Depending on the situation one’s maai will be different, for example if your opponent has a sword the maai will be greater than that of an empty handed situation. Even during a technique maai plays an important role. Please consider Kondo Sensei’s words carefully.

Kokyu: This can be translated as “breathing”. Kondo Sensei interestingly points out that if we practice kokyu sufficiently, then we will be able to perceive and read an opponent’s movements. Saito Sensei would say that kokyu power is present at all points in a technique, and that if it were absent then Aikido would become a dance. Following the training method of O’Sensei, every class we practice Morote-dori Kokyu-ho and Suwari-waza Ryote-dori kokyu-ho, exercises to develop kokyu power.

Kuzushi: This means “balance breaking”. Of course in all our Aikido practice our aim is to break the physical balance of our partner so we can easily perform techniques. Included in balance breaking is atemi (strikes to vital points) as well as kiai (combative shout), which can perhaps be viewed more as psychological balance breaking. Kondo Sensei says that “aiki” energy also falls within the concept of Kuzushi, which is worth careful consideration and practice; for example, read again above from O’Sensei: “…True budo is the cultivation of attraction with which to draw the whole opponent to you.”

Zanshin: There are various translations, one being “lingering mind”. A practical example of zanshin is maintaining awareness of one’s partner after a technique has been completed, don’t just think its all over. This echo’s an old Japanese samurai saying relating to zanshin, and illustrating that the term generally refers to the end of a confrontation: “When the battle is over, tighten your chin strap.” Zanshin however is not only for after the fact, but is a state of continuous mindful awareness. This has important implications for self-defence, being able to anticipate a potentially dangerous situation and thus being able to avoid it before it has begun. Kondo Sensei in the video explains zanshin as giving all of oneself to a situation, until there is nothing left to give. Consider maintaining this attitude moment to moment. It is possible to practice this way inside the dojo! (If you would like to read more, there is a lovely article about zanshin here.)

Kiai: The founder of Aikido really had great kiai (combative shout), apparently it could be heard over a mile away! As mentioned above, kiai can be seen as part of kuzushi, to break the psychological balance of an opponent. Also, kiai can be a part of kokyu, or breathing, creating correct coordination between body movement and breath. In Iwama-ryu Aikido, kiai is very important. Technique without kiai is like a silent movie! It is well worth an in-depth study of Saito Sensei’s kiai in the video footage we have. Sometimes Saito Sensei’s kiai is long, “haiiiiiiiiiii”, other kiai is not just one, but multiple strung together (see/listen here). Kiai produces a vibration in the air, it sets the tone in which a technique is performed, and it lingers too!

5th Kyu Syllabus


* Hanmi

* Tai Sabaki (Tsugi ashi, ayumi ashi, tenkan, irimi tenkan, kaiten, haya gaeshi)

* Ukemi (Mae / Ushiro / Yoko)

* Shikko

* Katate Dori Tai No Henko (Kihon & Ki-no-nagare)

* Morote Dori Kokyu Ho (Kihon)

* Shomen Uchi Dai Ikkyo (Omote & Ura)

* Katate Dori Shiho Nage (Omote & Ura)

* Shomen Uchi Irimi Nage

* Suwari Waza Ryote Dori Kokyu Ho (Chudan)


* Ken Suburi Nanahon

* Roku No Jo

Katatedori tai no henko kihon and ki no nagare.

Morotedori Kokyu ho kihon

Shomenuchi dai ikkyo omote and ura

Katate dori shiho nage

Although the following two videos deal with ryotedori, they are equally applicable to katate dori shiho nage:

Shomenuchi irimi nage kihon

Suwari waza ryotedori kokyu ho

Ken Suburi Nanahon

Roku No Jo Kata


(Please note, most terms are a rough translation.)

Tai Jutsu = body technique / skill

* Hanmihalf body, the Aikido stance or posture.

* Tai Sabaki = bodymovement / management

* Ashifoot / leg

 * Tsugi = shuffle / thrusting

* Ayumi = crossing / normal walking

* Tenkan = literally “convert” or “divert”. It is a 180 degree pivot to one’s rear, on the lead foot.

* Irimi = to enter

* Kaiten = rotate

* Haya (haiyai)quick / fast

* Gaeshi = turn

* Ukemi = Break fall

* Mae = forward

* Ushiro = backwards

* Yoko = side

* Shikko = Knee walking

* Katate-dori = one hand holding one wrist

* Morote-dori = both hands holding one wrist

* Tai-no-henko = turn of the body

* Kihon = basic, static, solid

* Ki-no-nagare = in the flow of “ki”, in motion, opposite to static.

* Kokyu-ho = breath-power exercise

* Shomen-uchi = front of the head strike

* Dai-ikkyo = first principle (dai- meaning basic)

* Omote = front / moving forwards to the front side of ones partner

* Ura = to the rear

* Nage = throw

* Shiho nage = 4 directional throw

* Irimi nage = entering throw

* Suwari waza = seated techniques

* Ryote-dori = both hands holding both wrists

* Chudan = middle level (as opposed to “jodan” – upper level, and “gedan” – lower level)

* Buki waza = weapons techniques

* Ken sword

* Suburi = exercise

* Nanahon = 7

* Roku = 6

* Joshort-staff

Aikido Strategy

Seven Samurai 2

One of the great movies of all time is “Seven Samurai”, directed by Akira Kurosawa. There is a great scene where the lead samurai is scouting for suitable samurai to help defend a farming village from bandits. He instructs his apprentice (deshi) to stand behind a doorway with a wooden sword and as a possible candidate crosses the threshold to strike him on the head! The reasoning being that if he were a real samurai then he would have no problem in defending himself. The first samurai comes through the doorway and successfully defends himself from the surprise attack (“go-no-sen” or “sen-no-sen”). The second samurai stops before even entering the doorway, laughing and saying “jokers!” (“sensen-no-sen”). The third samurai just gets struck on the head! No strategy there!

Here are some important Japanese terms which are used when discussing strategies or timings in a martial arts context:


This refers to a defensive or counter movement in response to an attack. So basically you’re a bit late, the attack is already underway and you are responding to it. Great!


This is a defensive initiative that occurs simultaneously with the attack of the opponent. You’re perfectly in time, exactly as the attack is coming in, the defensive move is underway. Good stuff!


This is a defensive initiative which is launched in anticipation of an attack. This is considered to be the highest level in martial arts strategy.

In an interview conducted in 1957, an interesting dialogue develops, highlighting the attainment of the Founder of Aikido:

O’Sensei:  In Aikido, there is absolutely no attack. To attack means that the spirit has already lost. We adhere to the principle of absolute nonresistance, that is to say, we do not oppose the attacker. Thus, there is no opponent in Aikido. The victory in Aikido is masakatsu [correct victory] and agatsu [self victory], since you win over everything in accordance with the mission of heaven, you possess absolute strength.

Interviewer: Does that mean go-no-sen?

O’Sensei: Absolutely not. It is not a question of either “sensen no sen” or “sen no sen.” If I were to try to verbalise it I would say that you control your opponent without trying to control him. That is, the state of continuous victory. There isn’t any question of winning over or losing to an opponent. In this sense, there is no opponent in aikido. Even if you have an opponent, he becomes a part of you, a partner you control only.

So here the Founder’s experience of Aikido strategy transcends psycho-physical confrontations. Well, where does that leave us? Stanley Pranin of Aikido Journal offers the following: “This is a high-level ideal that is attainable only through long years of training….” (link). Sage advice really.

Ethan Weisgard (6th Dan from Denmark) writes a great article (here) about these timing distinctions in Aikido practice. He concludes by saying:

We should consider [these terms] as a means to help us understand the intricacies of perception in Budo practice, and strive for even higher levels than these terms represent.” (Ethan Weisgard, Copenhagen Aiki Shuren Dojo)

So, try to recognise these concepts of timing in your own training. Sometimes its important to practice the distinctions clearly. In Katete-dori tai-no-henko ki-no-nagare for example, Saito Sensei instructs, “Aite no ki wo yobidasu” – call out the ki of your opponent, the one performing the technique must initiate the movement, call out the attack. This is sensen-no-sen.

Aikido & Farming

The Founder of Aikido was really enthusiastic about farming, would make extra heavy tools for himself, and of course get his uchi-deshi (live in students) to work hard in the fields. Some students of Aikido have taken to heart this ideal of farming and Aikido, and actually created Aiki-En’s or farms, for example in Germany. Bill Witt Shihan makes an interesting observation that this ideal of farming and Aikido can be put into a more personal, modern context. So, Aikido and dentistry, or Aikido and plumbing, the important point being to balance Aikido with any profession, that the principles of Aikido are not just for inside the dojo, but are to be taken out into one’s everyday life.

Saito Sensei Explains Iwama Ryu Aikido

The video posted below is a great introduction to Aikido in general and to Iwama-Ryu Aikido in particular. Some salient comments contained in this video are:

* In Aikido there is no competition.

* The Aikido founder studied many martial arts and created Aikido. One of the main differences in Aikido is “hanmi” [i.e. stance – literally means “half-body”]…. No other martial art is based on this stance.

* There will be no error as long as your body movement is based on this hanmi stance.

* Iwama style Aikido can be learnt by anyone, male, female, young, old. This is simply because the techniques [of Aikido] are 100% logical.

* The history of Aikido is quite long, but the inter-relationship between weapons and empty handed techniques [ken-jo-taijutsu-no-riai] is only since 1945.

* Simply because of hanmi footwork, it makes your movement so quick and well balanced.

* Using these three components [hanmi (footwork), tai-sabaki (body movement), and kokyu-ho (breathing power)], try to use minimum power to create great effect, so that you can defend against many simultaneously.

* If you look at it [the attack], you can’t move it, because your intention and the other person’s intention clash. Just let it go!

* Training everyday is great fun for all students!

* After World War II, in the peaceful environment of Iwama, the Aikido Founder spent about 15 years to complete present Aikido as a perfect Budo (martial art). During that period the mind of the founder worked like a computer!

* When you do empty hand techniques always think about sword. When you do sword-work always think about empty hand technique.