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Master Morihiro Saito

and Iwama Aikido!

Morihiro Saito (1928–2002) was a teacher of the Japanese martial art of Aikido, who has many students around the world.

Saito's practice of aikido spanned 56 years, from the age of 18 when he first met Morihei Ueshiba, aikido's founder, to Saito's death in 2002.

Morihiro was born in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. Growing up in a poor farming village in the 1930s and early 40s, he had an interest in historical heroes such as Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi and Goto Matabe.

In Japanese schools at that time, the martial arts of kendo and judo were taught to students, and Saito chose to study kendo.

Immediately following the end of World War II, the carrying of weapons of any kind, as well the practice of martial arts, was prohibited by the GHQ. As a result, Morihiro Saito studied Shinto-ryu karate at the Shudokan.

After a while, his work with the Japanese National Railways transferred him to Iwama, and he was forced to find other martial arts training. He then studied judo as a useful complement to his kendo and karate skills.

In the summer of 1946, however, Saito heard stories about an old man doing strange techniques up on the mountain near Iwama. It seemed that people were confused about what martial art, exactly, this old man was practicing, but one  said the man was teaching Ueshiba-ryu Judo.

Meeting aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba O'Sensei

In 1946, a ban was imposed on martial arts practice, which forced Ueshiba into an official 'retirement' from practice for several years.

He took this opportunity to seclude himself in the small town of Iwama, and was engaged in the practice of ascetic training (shugyo), and some believe that it was during this period that Ueshiba perfected his aikido.

It was at this time, at the age of 18, that Morihiro Saito joined Morihei Ueshiba for training, which already included several live-in students like Kisshomaru Ueshiba, Koichi Tohei, and Tadashi Abe.

This early training was quite brutal, but after persevering for several years, Morihiro Saito became one of Ueshiba's closest students. Much credit is given to the fortuitous work schedule Saito had with the Japanese National Railways, where he worked 24 hours on, 24 hours off.

As a result, Saito was often the sole training partner of Ueshiba, and had the unique opportunity to train in the practice of the sword and short staff, which occurred early each morning before other students arrived.

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Morihiro Saito
Training in Iwama

Training at the Iwama dojo consisted of a lot of farmwork. The life of the full-time live in students included prayer each morning before sunrise, two meals of rice porridge a day, and rigorous aikido training, mixed with large amounts of work on the farm.

As a result of Morihiro Saito's unique work schedule, it meant that he could train as a live-in student only every other 24 hours. Eventually, the other live-in students moved away, and Saito would train alone O'Sensei.

Although other students such as Koichi Tohei trained with Ueshiba for more years than Saito did, Morihiro Saito's work allowed him to train almost as an uchideshi, for long periods as the only student.

From 1946 until Ueshiba’s passing in 1969, Saito served as Ueshiba's assistant in a variety of ways at Iwama while his wife served Mrs. Ueshiba. During Saito’s period as a deshi he taught classes in the Iwama dojo.

Before his death Ueshiba gave Morihiro Saito the responsibility of carrying on the teaching at the Iwama dojo and also the position of caretaker of the Aiki Jinja Shrine, located in Iwama.

Training Methodology and Philosophy

Saito's instruction of aikido is particularly remembered for its emphasis upon the basics of aikido, and especially upon the relationship between the armed and unarmed aspects of the art.

Many of the iwama students were very strong because of the combination of their farm work and  rigorous training.

It was quite an opposite culture from Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. Because it is in the capital of Japan, Hombu’s membership consists of white-collar workers, intellectuals, businessmen, politicians and university students.

Any members who came to visit Iwama Dojo from Hombu must have looked pale and weak from city living to Iwama members. Indeed, the Iwama students treated them as such and challenged them vigorously.

Kazuo Chiba also emphasized Morihiro Saito's focus upon katai-keiko, or vigorous practice without holding back, which Morihei Ueshiba taught and Saito demonstrated in his methods of teaching and practice.

Apparently, this rigorous training with Saito, which Ueshiba would often observe, also included intense conditioning exercises, as well as general farmwork that students at the Iwama dojo were expected to assist with.

Other students of Morihiro Saito attest to his commitment to carry on Ueshiba's legacy, and to follow and preserve Ueshiba's teachings.

Saito believed that striking techniques (atemi) are a "vital element" of aikido, and also that the principles of swordsmanship formed the basis of aikido techniques. He also advocated training to cope with the attacks of other martial arts, such as the kicks.

According to Saito's son, Hitohiro Saito, Morihiro believed that the basis of all empty-handed, sword, and staff techniques was the mastery of aikido's basic posture (hanmi). Saito believed that once the correct posture was mastered, the next step was to develop a proper kiai shout.

In the beginning of the 1970s aikido students from outside Japan began traveling to Iwama to train under Saito. The kind of aikido that Saito's students do are often referred to as Iwama aikido or Iwama style.

For a period of time, some of Saito's student's in the West formed a dan ranking network of dojos called Iwama Ryu and could choose to receive their grades directly from Saito rather than from the Aikikai although Morihiro Saito never left that organization.

After his death, his son Hitohiro formed the independent Shinshin Aikishuren Kai. Some of the Iwama Ryu network dojos joined Hitohiro, while others chose to remain affiliated with the Aikikai.

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