Interview With Hitohira Saito – Part 1

Hitohira Saito: Ken Suburi in Modena, Italy

Among the many questions that Hitohiro Saito Sensei politely 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 


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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 it mean the tragedyof the Fukushima disaster 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 with the nuclear issue the most are the 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 the Ibaraki province, at about 150 km from the city of Fukushima and I think that we should not risk to be exposed to nuclear radiation: it’s a matter of time, of course. However the incident 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 one could argue that it has become more and more disharmonious. In this context, how does it fit the practice of Aikido 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 should 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 area, however at the time of the nuclear accident I was still able to see the force of reaction of the nature. When practicing Aikido, if the 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, the kihon. When we are forced to face nature’s caprices, we all must collaborate so that the problem at hand is solved or reduced.

Next question brings us deeper in the world of Aikido and especially of Iwama Aikido: Sensei can 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 of O-Sensei’s dojo. There was only O-Sensei’s  practiced in the dojo. 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 -with the night in between – off; therefore he could spend many hours with O-Sensei.

Morihiro Saito at a young age

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 era 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 agricultural 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 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 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 came the other students of the dojo, known as soto-deshi (external students) 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 in cash the teacher was unheard of; the student helped his teacher 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 nowadays we would call seminars, he received “thanks” in the cash. Some time soon 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 has declared 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 gifted the land on which to build his house from the Founder, 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 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 to the Founder like 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: if the aspects of daily life that concerned him were common, he was a 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.

End of Part 1 (To be continued)

Italian to English Translation by Simone Chierchini

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

Copyright Simone Chierchini ©2011Simone Chierchini
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