During my many years in Japan, one of the highlights I especially remember took place on October 29, 2001 when Morihiro Saito Sensei visited the home of Koichi Tohei Sensei after a hiatus of nearly 30 years. This meeting came about due to a request from Saito Sensei’s son, Hitohiro Sensei, who asked me to attempt to arrange the meeting because of the advanced age and health of these two aikido legends.
First, a little background. During my years of close association with Saito Sensei spanning the late 1970s through the 1990s, I often heard him mention with respect and nostalgia his “sempai,” Koichi Tohei. When Saito Sensei enrolled in the Ueshiba Dojo in 1946 at the age of 18, it was Tohei Sensei who was the standout figure at the Iwama Dojo. Everyone looked up to him, Saito Sensei being no exception. It was this early era that Saito Sensei most fondly remembered.
Their association was cut short in 1974 when Tohei Sensei resigned from the Aikikai organization. There was no particular animosity on either side because of this unfortunate event, but the normal occasions when they would meet such as demonstrations, meetings or parties no longer brought them together. Their relationship was simply one of the fallouts of the political problems that occurred at the Aikikai during those years.
In any event, being ever the “nakodo” or go-between for this sort of situation, I actually tried to reunite the two sometime during the 1990s by contacting the Ki Society. In the mid-1990s, I had a chance to conduct a series of interviews with Tohei Sensei, so I took advantage of one of these opportunities to make the attempt. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful and reported the fact to Saito Sensei who appeared disappointed but understood Tohei Sensei’s reluctance.
After Saito Sensei became ill, Hitohiro Sensei asked me to once again try to arrange a meeting. To my great surprise and pleasure, this time Tohei Sensei agreed to meet with Saito Sensei. We were to visit Tohei Sensei at his ancestral home near the “Ki no Sato” in Tochigi Prefecture. Hitohiro Sensei drove Saito Sensei, me and two Iwama uchideshi to the Ki no Kenkyukai headquarters in the countryside for the meeting. It was about an hour’s drive to the west from Iwama.
Tohei Sensei greeted us with a warm smile as he walked somewhat unsteadily–he had undergone a hip replacement operation–down the hall. We sat down for a chat with the four of us present in the room: the two Senseis, and Hitohiro Sensei and myself. The two chatted cordially for a little over an hour. I offered a comment here and there, but was quite contented just to sit back and take in this historic scene of these two giants of the aikido world enjoying each other’s company.
I have not met Tohei Sensei since that day and only saw Saito Sensei one more time before he passed away in May of 2002. It was a day I’ll never forget. I hope you enjoy the commemorative photo we took that day.
For more on Koichi Tohei Sensei, please have a look at the information on his new DVD we have just released.