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It Had to Be Felt #57: Saito Morihiro: "Soft Strength"
It Had to Be Felt #57: Saito Morihiro: "Soft Strength"
by Ethan Weisgard
It Had to Be Felt #57: Saito Morihiro: "Soft Strength"

My History With Saito Sensei

My history with Saito Morihiro sensei starts back in 1978, when he paid his first visit to Sweden and Denmark, doing seminars and demonstrations in Gothenburg and Stockholm, and a short visit and demonstration in Copenhagen, Denmark. Takeji Tomita sensei was pivotal in inviting him to Scandinavia. Ulf Evenås and Lars Goran (Lasse) Andersson, along with several other high-ranking Swedes, had been to Iwama to train directly under Saito sensei, as early as 1973, so there was already a close connection between the Swedish practitioners and Saito sensei. As I had only started my aikido training in 1976, I didn't have any direct contact with Sensei at this time; I just merely tagged along to help with practical things during his stay. I was immediately impressed with his charisma and presence, but too much in awe to make any attempt at personal contact.

Sensei came back to Sweden to teach a week-long summer camp in either 1981 or 1982. The venue was in southern Sweden -- a town called Bostad, famous for being a training center for Swedish tennis players. He brought us the gift of the 31 kata kumijo. We had never seen anything like this before. We knew the original kumijo -- at this time there were only 7 of them (refer to the Traditional aikido series vol. 2 to see these old forms), and the (old) ken-tai-jo forms. But the complexity of the 31 kata kumijo was astounding! We spent hours and hours after class outside trying to memorize the system.

Channeling Saito Sensei

Saito sensei was very strict when teaching. When doing weapons training, he saw that many people were not doing what he was showing, and he exploded, yelling for people to gather around him. David Alexander was his otomo for this trip, and he was translating (channeling!) for sensei. David didn't yell as loudly as Sensei, but he channeled his intentions—Sensei's own voice made us very aware of the gravity of the situation. He told us that if we didn't want to do what he was showing us and just continued doing things our own way, he would make sure that people got their money back, and they should go home now. He got the point across!

David Alexander was an excellent translator. He had a very Zen-like approach to his work. For example Sensei was teaching iriminage and he came with a rather lengthy explanation in Japanese. David's Zen-like rendition was: "Grab high; bring low; blast out!" Fantastic! The essence of the whole technique right there!

Saito sensei said at the end of the seminar that he expected that this would probably be his only trip to Scandinavia, but that people were very welcome to visit him in Iwama. Luckily, this wasn't the case. Although Sensei only visited Sweden one more time, he came to Denmark many times where we hosted week-long summer camps about every second year from 1986. These camps brought together people from all over the world, and we usually had about 300 practitioners per camp. Stories from these camps would fill an entire book, so I will save this for my memoirs (if I still can remember them by that time!).

Going To Iwama

I made my first trip to Iwama in 1984, travelling together with my colleague, Torben Dyrberg, from the Copenhagen Aikido Club. We stayed for two months. At this time—summer 1984—there were no Japanese uchideshi, just our group of four Danes to take care of the chores and dojo care. Per Thunbo had been there the longest and Sensei liked him very much. He was a hard worker, and he knew very much about practical caretaking of the dojo and the dojo grounds. He could repair broken shoji correctly, he knew how to keep the grounds nice and trim, he was an expert chef (he and Saito sensei really connected through this common interest), and he loved his sake!

We worked very hard during the day—after morning weapons class, we would have a quick breakfast, and then off to work we would go. The dojo and jinja grounds are vast, so there was much to do for us four Danes. Quite often various sotodeshi would come during the daytime to help (among those who often came were two great Canadians guys: Rod and Garnet). Sensei would always be very generous in treating us all to a great lunch after the hard work in the morning. The best treat was his famous "aiki yakisoba" (fried noodles), flavored with a mountain of garlic and copious amounts of chili. Sensei loved his chili!

The Designated Drinker

I don't want to tell too many drinking tales, or people will think that was all we did, but allow me one story that shows a very special side of the Japanese culture: "Ki wo tsukau," meaning consideration. Our first welcome party was quite a big deal. It went in several stages! After our first morning of weapons training and hard work cleaning the fields, Sensei made us aiki yakisoba for lunch.

There was one gentleman, a local buddy of Sensei's, who joined us for lunch. Beer and other beverages of an alcoholic nature were served, and we enjoyed quite a bit of drink, as did our local gent. He started to feel the effect of the alcohol, and found a chair where he could rest while we continued. We continued the party at the Saito family restaurant adjacent to the Dojo, and presented sensei with some Danish schnapps (40 percent alcohol). Everyone tried some, and we continued our lunch, with Hitohiro Sensei (Saito Sensei's son) making us delicious sashimi -- served with the schnapps! Our local gentleman had some, felt the effects and found a chair where he could rest. I began to sense a pattern!

Sensei took us out again in the evening, and lo and behold, there was our local gent, already installed on his chair. I got it: he was our group's ‘designated drinker.'

He was the one who was always more inebriated than us, so we wouldn't feel embarrassed about being too intoxicated! Sensei could have sent him home at any time, but no! He was there all the way through. Finally, a taxi was ordered, Sensei put him in it and sent him home, his duties done. We walked back to the dojo with Sensei, enjoying the warm, late-night air and our first full day in the Iwama Dojo. When I look at old pictures from this first day, our local gentleman is to be seen, in every photo, in a very relaxed condition, seated on a chair somewhere, doing his duty. Otsukaresamadeshita!

Saito sensei - Soft Strength

The tradition in Iwama under Saito sensei was to start each class with tai no henko and morotedori kokyu- ho. Sensei said that this was O-sensei's tradition, and he continued it. (In the old Dojo Kun from O-sensei's time, it is written: "Each class should begin with tai no henko." This has later been translated into English as: "Each class should begin with preparatory exercises")

Sensei would almost always call each student up and have them grab him for tai no henko. Sensei had huge wrists, but when grabbing him, one felt a surprising softness in his strength. He would move effortlessly through the body turn regardless of the size and strength of his uke. He would even demonstrate that there was no strength involved by making an up-and-down sort of shaking movement with his held hand to show that his hand was loose enough to do so while executing the movement. Soft strength!

Being uke for Saito sensei was a profound learning experience. When one sees the old clips of Sensei doing demonstrations, he is really unleashing massive amounts of force. One clip especially that comes to mind, of Sensei doing a demonstration -- I believe at the All-Japan aikido Demonstration - with Inagaki sensei and another uchideshi. Sensei shows a wide variety of iriminage, going full out. Both uke's are doing amazing high falls. Sensei was able to blast out at this level because he knew that they were capable of receiving his throws at the level of power that he was using. It is truly an amazing demonstration.

Sensei would never use this amount of power on someone not able to receive it, however. He would always adjust his technique to his uke. Ki awase by a master! One always felt safe when being called up to take ukemi by Sensei. One of the many beautiful aspects of aikido is the subtle use of power. The idea is to find out how little is needed to effectively execute a technique. If you have to use your technique in an actual encounter, then you should be able to unleash it with, if necessary, maximum force. This can be trained to a certain level by working with partners highly skilled in ukemi, and especially by training weapons suburi. Learning to unleash your full power in suburi training enables you to access that power in any situation. If you unleash your power in an iriminage to the extent that you do when performing a tanren-uchi strike, for example, imagine the devastation this would cause!

A very good example of sensei's awareness of his uke's level of proficiency—or lack of same, in my case—is illustrated when I was called up to be uke for sensei's shihonage. In the Iwama tradition, we learn to start with a strong grab. I did so, and sensei did his initial tai sabaki, and started to move into the initial part of the technique, where uke's arm is raised prior to entering under it. He stopped there. He started the technique again, and stopped again before actually going under my arm. After this second time, he sent me back to sit down. He said "Ukemi ga wakaranai" ("You don't understand the ukemi.")

I didn't get it then. I got that I didn't do something right! But what I later realized was that I was keeping the tension in my grip (and my arm especially) for too long. If sensei had continued with the technique, he would have injured me. So instead of him showing that he could do the technique no matter what uke was doing, he protected me. He lost no face by not doing the technique on me—he was being careful not to injure one of his students. I respect him so much for having this compassionate attitude. What I eventually learned from this encounter is the concept of ‘soft strength.' I can't always do it, yet, but I understand the theory behind it, and I have felt it in many of the other sensei from Iwama: Isoyama sensei and Inagaki sensei especially. There seems to be a way of gripping with extreme strength in the hand itself and yet keeping a flexible kind of structure in the arm and rest of the body. Both Isoyama sensei and Inagaki sensei can grip you using this "soft/hard" grip, and it virtually renders you immovable. Of course you can move, but trying to move into a given technique feels virtually impossible. They are able to use their own grip as a holding technique in itself.

The ukemi for shihonage is to initially grip strongly, but once the actual technique is initiated you must change from hard to soft (aikido is the budo of in/yo!) in order to receive the technique. If you stay rigid throughout, the technique will turn into an elbow lock. You may even participate in thereby breaking your own arm. Ukemi, therefore, is a kaeshiwaza (counter technique) by uke, enabling you to survive and recover from what is being executed upon you.

Dueling With Saito Sensei (Title Inspired By Ellis Amdur!)

Doing weapons training under Saito sensei was an amazing experience. His teaching methods were exemplary. The Iwama tradition -- started by O-sensei, and continued first by Saito sensei and now Inagaki sensei -- is to do weapons training outdoors in the early morning, usually 06:30—07:30, but sometimes 06:00—07:00. This is done year-round. Only if it is raining do you move indoors. Then morning practice is done with different weapons-based forms: jo-dori, tachi-dori, kumitachi henka (variations) etc.

Sensei would always have us uchideshi bring certain items with us for him for morning practice: a clock, a sign board showing the different sections if we were training the 31 kata kumijo, and a stick with which he could draw lines in the sand where we were training, to emphasize the specific tai sabaki and angles needed when doing the given techniques. The angles and body placement were very specific. Sensei would often quote O-sensei: "Aikido wa gouri-teki na budo desu": ("Aikido is a logical budo).

Being his partner for weapons practice was an intense learning experience. You needed to know what he wanted and when he wanted it. It made me very nervous in the beginning, partly because I needed more organization in my own head/body of the vast amount of weapons forms, and also because it took time to get to know him and thereby to read him. I got better as time went by, and this process forced me to ‘metabolize' the many paired weapons forms that we have in our curriculum. I later found out that many of the long-term sotodeshi told me they also felt worried when called up—it wasn't just the newbie!

When being uchitachi or uchijo for sensei, you really felt his power and energy. His kiai was beautiful. It came rumbling up from his hara and would resound strongly. He had a signature extended kiai, used especially when doing the advanced forms of kumitachi, kumijo etc. Usually the standard kiai starts from the hara during the initial movement of the strike of thrust (in the Iwama tradition, this is usually the vowel sound ‘ee' pronounced like the ‘a' in ‘air'), and terminate with a sharp ‘i' sound (pronounced as in ‘he'), tightening the diaphragm upon intended impact, and relaxing it again afterwards. But Sensei would often let his kiai continue quite long after the impact -- like an echo (the term ‘yamabiko no michi' -- ‘path of a mountain echo' comes to mind). It sounded beautiful—and powerful.

Pairing weapons with Sensei, I had the same feeling as when being uke for him in taijutsu: I felt safe.

I can't emphasize this point strongly enough: Saito sensei was an extremely charismatic human being, but not in the slightest way an egotistical one. He was very much at home in his own skin, and very down to earth. He didn't like people who were snobbish or full of themselves in any way.

When he taught his beloved aikido, and also when he demonstrated it, one clearly felt and saw that he was merely a vessel for the aikido that was embedded in him. There was no posing or posturing. He would stand in zanshin after executing a technique. The term zanshin (残心) means to remain/ stay behind (zan), and spirit (shin). In the Iwama tradition, it is used to indicate the final position of a given technique. This physical posture becomes the ‘vessel' in which your ki (spirit) is enabled to continue to issue forth, even after the actual movement is over. This also enables the person executing the technique to keep their ki connected to their partner, even though they are physically separated. With many people, this can be a pose. Sensei's zanshin was pure. He was simple there -- doing the aikido that was inside of him.

By sensei having this wonderful ‘attitude of no attitude,' one felt safe (albeit nervous sometimes due to one's own lack of skills) when partnering with him. On very rare occasions when he would miss a movement, he would simply continue—no anger or frustration to be seen or felt, and no taking it out on his partner, as can sadly be sometimes seen with other sensei if they miss a technique.

Saito Sensei's World Famous "Damé"

That is not to say that sensei didn't get angry. His trademark "Damé!" was famous throughout the worldwide aikido community. Damé, for those unfamiliar with this term means ‘bad/wrong.' It is pronounced ‘dah-may.' And said with conviction!

Sensei had many variations of the term that all uchideshi became very familiar with: "Zenbu Damé!": It's all wrong! "Uchideshi wa mina Damé!": All the uchideshi are terrible! And the slightly less intimidating "Damé, damé!" This one usually meant that something was wrong, but he wasn't really angry about it -- yet; sort of a preemptive "Damé!"

Damé were usually given out when there were chores and practical things to be done that we didn't do correctly. During class Damé was given for incorrect execution of a technique. When sensei would see someone making a mistake during class, he would call them up to show their technique. Sometimes the unknowing individual thought that they were being called up to show how masterful they were. Alas, this was not the case! But sensei's use of this situation served several purposes—one of which was of course to take people's ego down a notch. The other, and this is a very important factor, was that one should always keep ‘beginner's mind' during training. You must always check to see if you, too, are doing the same mistake as what is being pointed out up front. I remember being called up to show a version of morotedori kokyuho in front of the class. I already knew it wasn't my perfect form that was to be shared for the class's viewing pleasure. I struggled with the technique for a while in front of everybody, and it didn't get much better during that time. Sensei sent me back with a "Damé, Damé" and a slight smile. That meant for me to take it back to the ‘workshop,' and bring it back better next time.

There is a story of one elder gentleman who was an uchideshi in Iwama, and was having a hard time getting his techniques right. He thought that "Damé" was sensei's nickname for him, because that's basically all he heard sensei say to him.

The Correctional Code Of Saito Sensei

Sensei would always show consideration towards his high-ranked students. He would not correct them directly, especially not if they came with their own students to Iwama. So he had a way of getting around this situation. He would find someone of lower rank who was making the same mistake, and correct that person instead. You should know that this correction probably had your name on it, but it was given to another addressee for the sake of saving (your) face. Unfortunately, not all the high-ranked people knew of this didactic concept, so they thought that if they weren't corrected, then everything they were doing was just right.

Sensei also didn't bother to correct people if he could see weren't really trying to do things the way he was showing. He spotted these people quickly, and they were basically left to their own devices. This was often the case when people came from other styles. It can be hard to try to relearn something you have been doing differently for a long time. This requires not only body reprogramming, but also letting go of your ego and trying to do it another way. One of O-sensei's favorite sayings, ‘masakatsu agatsu' comes to mind: ‘correct victory is victory over the self.'

So sensei's "Damé's" were dealt out with a feeling of tough love to those who were making the effort. If you even got just a little better, you would get a smile and possibly an "OK!" from him.

He was a very traditional Japanese man in many respects, but he also broke with tradition in many significant ways. He would praise people (not lavishly, of course, but still) when he could see that they had bettered their mistakes. And perhaps most of all, he went far out of his way to make the aikido that he learned at the feet of the Founder accessible to as many people as possible. He broke down techniques into composite parts, and took time to explain them, not only to his students, but wherever he went. He would teach very methodically and specifically in Iwama. But he would do the same—to the extent that it was possible considering the circumstances—when he taught seminars throughout the world.

The Sensei Slam

As a student of a martial art, there is always a part of you that wants to see your sensei in action. Back in the old days, this was actually possible. I'm not going to divulge old war stories of what I heard went on in the days of yore, when the Iwama bravos would go to town. The techniques are battle-tested and proven -- but you have to be able (and willing) to make them work, requiring both sufficient training, proper teaching. And even then, it must be said, it all comes down to the individual in the end.

I did however have the opportunity of seeing sensei unleash his power in a quite amazing, yet non-harmful situation. We brought sensei to Denmark for a series of Aikido Summer Camps during the 1980s and 90s. The camps took place in Jutland, a part of Denmark that required a ferry trip to get there. We had driven onboard the ferry with sensei and had gotten out of our car. We were walking towards the stairs to get to the passenger deck, and the cars were lined up in rows very tightly. I was bringing up the rear with sensei in front of me as we passed by a car. I could see inside the car and noticed that the passenger on our side started to open the door, just as sensei was passing. Without breaking stride or even looking, as he stepped forward on his left foot, Saito sensei swung his right hand down, using his tegatana, and slammed the opening door shut on the passenger on his way out. Said passenger was propelled by this perfectly timed ‘gedan barai' across the rear seat of the car and over to the other side! Sensei just kept on walking.

Please note: no harm was done to this passenger -- but I am sure to this day he has no idea of what happened to him! One moment he was getting out and the next he was in the corner of the back of his car!

Cultural Training

I had the privilege of getting to know Saito sensei quite well over the course of my 18 years as his student. I met my wife the first time I was uchideshi, and sensei enjoyed having her as a back-up ‘cultural consultant' when we were in situations that needed us gaijin understanding how to read between the lines.

My dear, patient and helpful wife also helped me understand—in time—more of the complexities of Japanese culture and society, with all its hidden rules and expectations. Personally, I love this aspect of life in Japan. It's a lot like aikido: it's not easy, it's a constant challenge, but if you study enough then it usually makes sense. And you also have to accept that sometimes it doesn't make sense: just do it! Saito sensei taught me very much about things Japanese, both inside and outside of the dojo. Many Japanese will just let you fumble around, and be too polite to mention your mistakes. But sensei expected me to know better, because of my family situation—and my love of Japan. So he would correct me—quite directly. Having gained reasonable proficiency in the Japanese language helped me to become closer to this fascinating man. He once explained to someone who was asking me where I came from (I'm born in America and have lived in Denmark since 12 years of age). He pointed to my body and said "Ethan is American on one side and Danish on the other, but he's Japanese in the middle." I take that as a great compliment, coming from him.

Saito Sensei—The Master and The Man

Saito sensei was a man of strength and power, yet gentle when needed to be. He had a great sense of humor, and enjoyed life immensely. He loved good food and drink, and he loved parties. But he loved aikido most of all. That—and his students. I remember a situation that happened one of the last times I was in Iwama before sensei passed away. After an evening party, two of the uchideshi had gotten into an argument and it had gotten quite aggressive. Sensei heard things escalating and came into the shokudo (our dojo mess hall). He was livid. It was clear that he wanted to make a very strong example. Yelling at the uchideshi (all of us -- not just the two involved) he said "You uchideshi need to be kind to each other!" He was so fired up about this situation that he took a bottle of sake, and smashed it on the floor. I noticed that he carefully chose the spot he smashed it on, so that the glass splinters would not harm anyone. Even in anger, he still had kikubari (awareness).

And then he said "This has to stop." And the sentence he ended with I will never forget: "Uchideshi wo aishiteiru kara": Because I love you Uchi Deshi.

As Japanese speakers will know, using the term ‘ai-suru/ai-shiteiru' is not usual. It is almost only used in terms of endearment in a couples—based relationship. The word is way past what most Japanese would ever use in regular personal relationships. But sensei used it—and meant it. This was the love that we uchideshi could feel, and what made us feel so extremely lucky to have had a teacher like him.

Saito sensei had many students over the years. He touched each and every one of our hearts. My life would not be what it is now if it hadn't been for him. I am forever grateful to him for this.

Many other people have had more experience than I with him, both in terms of being his uke as well as experiencing being around him in general. I hope that many more will be able to contribute their stories and personal experiences with this great man. In this way, the spirit of Saito sensei can live on.

For those inclined to post, please re-read the introductory column before doing so. The rules for contributors, in short:
  • Only people who have actually taken ukemi the teacher who is the subject of this thread, may post
  • Simply post your direct experience of taking ukemi. This can include the nature of your relationship with them, as ukemi is more than merely taking falls.
  • Do not engage in back-and-forth with other posters, disputing their experience, or trying to prove why yours is more real. Just post your own experience. Trust your readers to take in each writer's account on its own merits.
  • If, for any reason, you find something to praise or condemn in anyone's description or wish to amplify your insights and perceptions, do so elsewhere. Start a thread about that subject in the appropriate section of Aikiweb.
  • Follow-up posts should be substantive, striving to equal the depth of the original essay. Simply agreeing with the writer, or a brief comment that, yes, the teacher in question was really powerful or had a wonderful shihonage or the like, are not congruent with the purpose of this archive.
Ethan Weisgard is one of the highest-level direct students of the late aikido master Morihiro Saito in Europe. He traveled to Japan for the first time in 1984 to live and train as a direct student of Saito in Iwama. He has returned more than ten times, including a stay of more than one year, to immerse himself in training.

Weisgard was appointed direct representative in Denmark by Saito personally. He has traveled throughout the world teaching the aikido taught to him by his master, teaching in Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Germany, America, Russia and even in the homeland of aikido, Japan.
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Old 04-20-2017, 10:25 AM   #2
iwamaki's Avatar
Dojo: Westlake Village Aikido
Location: Pahrump, NV
Join Date: Sep 2011
Posts: 24
Re: It Had to Be Felt #57: Saito Morihiro: "Soft Strength"

Kudos to my good friend Ethan Weisgard for his excellent article about Morihiro Saito-sensei. He asked me to post some comments.

I lived in Iwama for 10 years training with Saito-sensei starting in 1972. He was my teacher, mentor and friend.

We had many great times training and partying together. Besides Aikido, we shared a liking for Suntory Red whisky, the official dojo drink, which we called "Iwama nectar".

He and his wife Sata (we called her "okusan") were always very kind to me and my wife Takako and our kids.

I took Sensei's ukemi hundreds of times. It was always a surreal experience.

Although he was extremely strong, I never really felt his power. I would attack him, and the next thing I knew I was down on the mat without having the slightest idea what happened in between.

Those years in Iwama were like living in heaven. They were the best of my life, and although I can never get them back again, I will always have fond memories.

If anyone is interested, there are a lot of stories and pictures from my time in Iwama at my dojo website www.iwama-aikido.com.

David Alexander

Last edited by iwamaki : 04-20-2017 at 10:29 AM.
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