“How could such an elaborate technical system have developed in the isolated countryside of Iwama if Morihiro Saito were its creator?”
I have always felt that the origin of “Iwama Aikido” presents a conundrum for students of the history of modern aikido. For those unfamiliar with the subject, Iwama is a small town in Ibaragi Prefecture where Morihei Ueshiba relocated during the war. It remained the Founder’s official residence until his passing in 1969.
A fair question to ask is how could such an elaborate technical system have developed in the isolated countryside of Iwama if Morihiro Saito were its creator? Saito had only a middle school education and, aside from a short work assignment in Tokyo as an employee of Japan Railways, spent his life up to the age of 46 years in and around the town of Iwama. His studies of judo and karate as a teenager were brief and superficial, his main influence being his apprenticeship under the Founder starting from 1946.
What then are the possibilities as to the origin of Iwama Aikido? As I see things, they are three: (1) Morihei Ueshiba did teach a technically rich system including weapons in Iwama over a protracted period of time with Morihiro Saito as his leading student. Saito passed on the Founder’s teaching methods essentially intact, changing or adding little; (2) Saito took the loosely-organized aikido basics he learned from the Founder and devised an elaborate curriculum of his own without outside input that is substantially different from what the Founder taught. (3) Saito acquired a deep knowledge of aikido from his long association with the Founder and systemized this body of information into a modern, pedagogically sound system. The third conclusion seems the most convincing to me. If readers see other possibilities based on available evidence I am overlooking I would be glad to entertain them.
I once doubted that Saito Sensei’s methods were closely rooted in O-Sensei’s teachings because of the apparent differences in their execution of techniques. I based myself on the Founder’s demonstrations in the films from his final years where he performed very few techniques, many of them involving little contact with his uke. On the other hand, Saito Sensei’s aikido was precise, martial and technically diverse. However, I was forced to reevaluate my opinion on this key point following the discovery of O-Sensei’s 1938 technical manual “Budo” where photos of several key basic techniques are virtually identical to the aikido forms taught by Saito Sensei in Iwama. My later exposure to the more than 1,000 photos from the Noma Dojo series of 1935 reinforced this change in my thinking. Literally, hundreds of very precise and complex techniques stemming from the Founder’s years in Daito-ryu aikijujutsu are preserved. Only a true martial art master could have acquired such a marvelous skill set.
Many have implied that the Founder was somewhat haphazard in his teaching approach but, at least during the Iwama years, he seems to have left intact a brilliantly conceived and original martial system.