Historical photo from 1974: Morihiro Saito brings Iwama Aikido to America!

“Sensei had the presence of mind, lightning-fast reflexes and physical strength necessary to pull off such a feat. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since!”

This is an important photo that was taken in early October 1974 by Charlie Watkins at Aikido of San Francisco. Saito Sensei was visiting the USA for the first time and this trip was the first time he had traveled outside of Japan.

He was accompanied by Shigemi Inagaki, then a 5th dan, and gave seminars at the San Francisco Dojo and at Stanford University on back-to-back weekends. Here is an excerpt of my impressions of Saito Sensei from that trip from the October 1974 issue of Aiki News:

Saito Sensei’s effectiveness as a teacher was indeed remarkable. And this was achieved without knowledge of the language of his students. His method of presentation consisted primarily of slow-motion pantomimes of the individual techniques with a minimum of verbalization. This coupled with careful groupings of related movements provided a well-focused perspective of many aspects of the Aikido system.

Those present could not help but remark the excellent poise displayed by Saito Sensei during the course of the two gasshuku both on and off the mat. He remained centered and calm despite the fact he found himself immersed in a foreign culture for the first time. Noteworthy also was Saito Sensei’s outstanding stamina. He participated fully in all sessions instructing students individually and taking falls…. The impact of his presence and teaching manner was very powerful and will continue to resonate in this region for a long time to come.

I also recall a remarkable feat by Saito Sensei at this time in a commemorative article I authored following his passing in 2002 titled Remembering Morihiro Saito Sensei

There was a particular episode from this trip that I will never forget. Sensei was teaching a class at Aikido of San Francisco and was demonstrating a kokyunage technique, if I remember correctly. His uke was David Alexander. Sensei threw David horizontally but misjudged the amount of space he had free. Right in the middle of the throw when it had become apparent that David would crash into the people who had crowded in close to better observe, Sensei stuck out his left arm and caught David in mid-air thus preventing a collision. No one could believe what they had seen. Sensei had the presence of mind, lightning-fast reflexes and physical strength necessary to pull off such a feat. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

This visit by Saito Sensei to America was historic in many ways. It marked the first time that most people had ever experienced Iwama Aikido with its vast technical repertoire that included a myriad of empty-handed techniques combined with the Aiki Ken and Aiki Jo. Soon, many schools in the Northern California began to incorporate weapons training in their curriculum, using the Traditional Aikido books that Saito Sensei had begun publishing as their reference.

Saito Sensei visited the USA again several times in the 1970s, and also expanded his student base in Europe, especially Sweden, where he had many followers. These instructional tours and the publication of more books stimulated an uninterrupted stream of visits to Iwama by foreign students desiring to learn directly from Saito Sensei. Many of these hardy aikidoka would return to their respective countries and teach the Iwama style of aikido. Over time, this produced an international network of hundreds of schools practicing the Iwama methods. Today, many of the Iwama schools follow Saito Sensei’s talented son, Hitohiro Saito, while others practice Iwama Aikido under the umbrella of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo system.

Take a close look at today’s photo which captures the instant of the completion of a sword kata. Notice Saito Sensei’s stable base, powerful extension, and total focus. Saito Sensei’s weapons system gained traction in America from this moment forward.

Morihiro Saito was certainly a giant in postwar aikido, and one of the art’s most notable teachers whose influence continues today unabated.


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  1. Saito Sensei also gave classes at the old Aikido Institute on College. Among his entourage were also Dennis Tatoian and, if my memory serves me well, Sugawara Sensei. I had the privilege to train with them as well as Dave Alexander and Inagaki San.

  2. Fantastic picture.

    Seeing Sensei’s hips so low, I remember one of my sempai from England once criticizing me for my hips being too low. However, I do remember Sensei teaching us that there always should exist a V made by your leg and your upper body. He also – in his very personal and comical way of teaching (putting aside those times when fear was indeed present in my heart from keiko to keiko)- taught that, while standing, if you could not take a picture with your girl friend sitting on your front hanmi leg, then the hips would not be low enough. If your hips were too high she would fall down and leave you, he said.

    In Takemusu Aikido he said: Dropping your hips is important for all aikido techniques”

    • Tristão, excellent post and anecdote! I saw Saito Sensei as early as 1969 and he would drop noticeably lower in his weapons practice in those days. Later in life, he was much more erect. I suspect that part of the change was due to the increasing pain in his knees over the years. What’s your take on this?

      • Yes, Sensei had great pains in his knees and bones on the last years of his life. He always walked aided by a walking stick (he had many of these and of many qualities) and I always advised uchideshi to walk behind him to catch him when a sudden big pain would jolt him backwards (anyway, is not that the place of a student, to walk behind the master?). I told them walk behind Sensei a little to his left and always try to have your right hand free to help him or hand Sensei the utensils he needs.

        However, he never complained. He never screamed. When we were seating drinking, he would just close his eyes firmly for a moment until the pain stopped. During keiko, Sensei could not take big steps backward anymore. However, his oral teachings would always say, “I cannot drop my hips, but you do it. I cannot do anymore big movements, but do big movements.”

        Once, Sensei was leading a shodan test in the afternoon – I think it was around 2000 – and the candidates were not doing correct sankyo in suwari waza despite his oral corrections. So Sensei got down on this knees and did a most perfect and beautiful shomenuchi sankyo omote with big movements and, of course, lots of kiai. We were amazed! He showed no pain, he had some trouble getting back on his feet, but Sensei showed no pain.

        Sensei’s technique in his last years was definitely influenced by his body condition. For me, who was – and am – always in awe of his every move, this did not matter. I followed his directions and tried, despite my laziness, to practice suburi and basic movements like Sensei taught, dropping the hips and taking big steps.

        I love the picture posted early for it reminds me of the tremendous power I used to feel when being uke for Sensei. Thank you very much.

    • I once, for emphasis, took that stance while practicing in an Iwama-oriented dojo in Tahiti… and was criticized for the restricted mobility of the feet so far apart. 😉

  3. nikola rachev says:

    Perfectly chosen photo. I think it says it all.

  4. Jacques Forget says:

    I am curious as to why, in this article, you never forgot politeness and due respect for Saito Sensei always including Sensei with his name or using his full name (Morehiro Saito) while in an article, I recently read, related to Morihei Ueshiba you omitted completely the Sensei or the O Sensei and wrote only the name Ueshiba?

    • I usually am writing about O-Sensei in biographical mode whereas Saito Sensei was my direct sensei and my deference carries over into what I write about him.

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