“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.