Recommended reading: “Interview with Mitsugi Saotome (2)” by Stanley Pranin

The interview below with Mitsugi Saotome Sensei has been selected from the extensive archives of the Online Aikido Journal. We believe that an informed readership with knowledge of the history, techniques and philosophy of aikido is essential to the growth of the art and its adherence to the principles espoused by Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba.

If you tell someone in his 60s to train hard from the beginning, he can’t do it, and it is not necessary. That kind of person is already very experienced physically so they don’t need to expend energy that way. Young people are, in a biological sense, very aggressive, and you must make them train vigorously. It won’t work to try to put a damper on young people bursting with energy. Smog is produced by car engines with poor combustion. So I have young people train hard and consume their energy. But that’s not all there is to it. It’s better to wear them out quickly. The purpose of hard training is to make them quickly aware of their own physical limits. You cannot enter into the world of the spirit unless you go beyond your physical limits. That’s why I make them completely exhaust themselves and have them practice rough techniques.

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  1. bruce baker says:

    Learning how to use your spirit to exceed your physical limits, or to reach beyond your physical limits … is about the best description of what happens as the physical body deteriorates with age and we must depend upon some other energy to sustain us in our efforts.

    From an analytical position, as our body loses it’s physical superiority we learn to hypnotize ourselves as we go beyond our physical limits while at the same time sending out stimuli to our opponents who are weakened as we find ways to break down their physical and mental resistance to our efforts, thereby creating superior spirit and superior physicality by the will of our mind and the training of our body over many years.

    A frail old man, for a time, becomes the physical specimen he once was for a short time as the need arises. Call it superior spirit, but without superior technique, subliminal signals, and convincing one’s opponent they are inferior … that is .. learning to properly use all these techniques of Mind, Body, and Spirit, you will fail. It will take all these things to create the effect of superior spirit.

    I don’t know another way to do it other than to train, to fail, and then as you fail .. learn to succeed over a period of years.

  2. Brett Jackson says:

    Many thanks to Saotome Sensei for these great comments (advanced aikido understanding) and to Pranin Sensei for the interview and for publishing it. Permit me to highlight and add on to some of my favorite points.

    “It is difficult to say clearly what is hard training and what is not.” Absolute, hard/soft are eminently vague. “Hard” has a kind of slick, no-nonsense sound to it, as if you can be proud of yourself for practicing that way, even brag about it. Does it mean cardiovascularly rigorous, lots of breakfalls, pins applied to the point of injury, techniques applied quickly with a lot of force, pounding ukes into the mat with iriminage, lots of koshinage thows, leaving class sore, fewer ki no nagare techniques and more static techniques, taking high-level ukemi to the very edge of one’s capability, practicing with weapons vs no weapons, practicing with a scowl on your face, leaving class with blood on your gi or knees, or if that’s not “hard” enough for you, breaking bricks, or actually punching someone in the face? Depending on what hard means, it may or may not be useful for this or that length of time for this or that practitioner for this or that purpose. Same applies to the word “soft” – eminently vague.

    Ego-based controversy about hard vs soft in aikido is actually a red hearing based on a school-yard mentality. What’s the sound of one ego patting itself on the back? A criticism of someone else. The old “my dad (school) is better than yours” attitude. It’s this ego-based attitude that leads to the all too familiar, predictable criticisms we hear so often. It’s as if whoever brags the most or the loudest or the most frequently wins. Just the reverse in fact. You know the best ones when you never hear them talk bad of others. Talking bad about others, especially in the aikido context is an attack which leaves oneself open. Like pointing a finger at someone resulting in three fingers pointing back at yourself.

    “The wonderful thing about aikido is that it includes “self-defense of the opponent” as well as our own self-defense.” Man, what a great way to put way this point! You have to come to this understanding. You get it or you don’t. If you don’t get it, you don’t understand. Once you get it, it opens your eyes in many ways. Using the good cop / bad cop distinction, this is saying that Aikido chooses the good cop way. That’s what makes it a peaceful art or about “not fighting” (Ledyard Sensei).

    “Where do you think self-confidence comes from?” In my interpretation, Saotome Sensei is saying that self-confidence comes from knowing how to protect the attacker (!) while protecting yourself. That’s true self-confidence with no regrets, no bad karma and no recoil (as Nagiba Sensei would say). You develop that confidence through training, like putting money in the bank (to echo what Erdmann Sensei just said about training).

    “I can study O-Sensei’s world view by training in aikido. It’s a wonderful thing that O-Sensei conceived of this kind of world…. I respect him because I believe that what he was thinking, what he was trying to envision, was wonderful, and how splendid that message is for the world to come. The purpose of techniques is as a method of learning this way of thinking; it is a method of study and training.” How different this is from running around saying “He pulled up a tree, he pulled up a tree, see how strong/great he is!” (whether true or false). Like getting fixated on the finger totally neglecting the moon at which it is pointing.

    “If you are a professional teacher, you must have the confidence not to cause injuries regardless of how hard the training is. If you don’t at least have that much control, you can’t be called a professional… It’s a question of the morals of the person teaching martial arts.” Indeed, if aikido involves (ideally or to the extent possible) protecting the attacker, how much more so does it involve protecting one’s trusting uke during practice?

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