Interview with Mitsugi Saotome: Part 2

In this second of two parts, Aikido Schools of Ueshiba founder Mitsugi Saotome continues with a discussion of his approach to training and the role of aikido as self-defense, outlines his dreams for an “Aikido University,” and provides his interpretation of O-Sensei’s message.

Interview conducted in 1985 by Stanley Pranin.

I have received a number of contradictory opinions depending on whom I have asked this question. Do you think that hard training should be done at the beginning level?

That depends on the age at which one starts training. It is difficult to say clearly what is hard training and what is not. 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.

There are some senior instructors who encourage soft training from the beginning. After three of four years of such training, aikido ends up turning into a dance. Then people start having doubts about whether or not they can really use what they have learned.

It doesn’t follow that if one has done both kinds of training he can use aikido technique. For example, in sculpting there are both hard and soft methods. There is sculpting where you take something hard and laboriously change its shape to make a sculpture, and another where you gradually build up a shape using a soft material like clay.

Mitsugi Saotome at the first Aikido Journal Friendship Demo in 1985, when this interview was conducted.

Did the techniques of the aiki budo period include more emphasis on self-defense than in aikido as it is currently practiced?

Yes, I believe so. But the entire purpose of the aikido training system is self-defense. All martial arts are for the purpose of self-defense. There is no such thing as a martial art or martial way that is not self-defense.

However, the wonderful thing about aikido is that it includes “self-defense of the opponent” as well as our own self-defense.

We have to protect the life of the enemy. Both are types of self-defense.

I think it is necessary to have self-confidence to really achieve this.

Where do you think self-confidence comes from?

I think direct experience is necessary to a certain extent. To give a simple example, when I was a boy and heard a loud noise my whole body would react in fright and my shoulders would rise. Now I react in my stomach. I think that may be one of the results of aikido training.

That’s one example. But it doesn’t matter if there is waste of force when it comes to the martial arts or military matters. They are useful in times of misfortune or calamities.

There was a court case in New York recently involving a subway incident where one man shot five men and the verdict was that it was not self-defense. The question is why it was necessary to kill people whose resistance disappeared after the first shot was fired. For example, he should have shot them in the leg.

The way of thinking about self-defense is completely different in American and Japanese societies. In America, anyone can walk around carrying a gun, so the feeling of concern about walking around town there, compared to walking around in Japan, is completely different. There is no other city which is as safe as Tokyo. If your only concern is self-defense you can go to a gun shop and get a pistol. You don’t need to worry about nikyo or sankyo.

The reason it is difficult to spread the martial arts in America is, I think, related to its history as a nation founded by colonists. In any event, the people who colonized America already had guns. They never fought with spears or swords. However, the people of Europe and Asia have experience in martial arts which don’t include guns. If we ask why France, a typical European country, has a predilection for the martial arts, it is because the value of martial arts is already a part of its history. But that’s not the case with America. I think Americans want to understand arts like karate or kung fu as something supernatural, I don’t think they really respect them as martial arts.

What do you think is the value of techniques in the present world? What is the value of spreading them?

Well, the purpose of aikido is to learn a concept or way of thinking. It’s a way of learning a philosophy. It’s something necessary for teachers. Different teachers explain the same technique in different ways. In the process of explaining the same technique, some teachers create gorillas and some create more human-like human beings. It’s not a problem of organizations, but rather what the teacher is thinking about. This is really an important matter. Let me say it clearly: I didn’t feel that O-Sensei was strong in a superhuman sense. He was especially strong in the physical sense and there were things that only he could do. However, what was wonderful about O-Sensei was that the world he envisioned is possible for everyone. I don’t respect him simply as a martial artist. I can’t become like O-Sensei and it would be meaningless for me to wish to do so. But 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. This is something that is possible even for me. I don’t have the strength to uproot a pine tree five or six inches in diameter like O-Sensei did and so I can’t imitate him. If that’s all we’re talking about, then it’s just a matter of a man with great physical strength.

I don’t respect O-Sensei for his physical dimension. 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.

That is what I think and my way of explanation is very different from that of other teachers. My ikkyo doesn’t amount to much and I am an ordinary human being. O-Sensei would say, “Anyone can become a saint.” The interpretation of a Japanese saint and a Western saint is a bit different, but O-Sensei developed a sort of self-education or public education system, a method of training where anyone can reach this level through misogi (purification). This is something valuable in a historical sense.

In many books O-Sensei is depicted as a superman, but this was not O-Sensei’s original goal, although I certainly think that it is wonderful to have that kind of power.

I think one of O-Sensei’s attractions was his strength. However, in America there are dojos in which injuries occur.

I am most careful about the area of injuries when teaching in America. This is not just a physical thing. It is possible to destroy a person’s life. For example, take the case of a famous musician or surgeon, or a typist who comes and wants to learn aikido or study about the aikido spirit. Can you destroy that person’s fingers? To break that person’s fingers or do something where the person cannot use them is tantamount to destroying their life or ruining their livelihood. It’s the same as killing them. Perhaps such a person can make a living in some other way, but it can destroy that person’s purpose for living. That’s the same as committing a crime. It does not rob the person of their life, but, in a different sense, it is a crime to deprive someone of the value of their life.

Mitsugi Saotome Shihan at Redlands Aikikai in 2017

I once had a very bad experience. I was training in a certain teacher’s class and he applied a really strong ikkyo to my left and right elbows by propping them up on his knees while pinning me. Afterwards, I wasn’t able to eat without help. I made my living by typing and I couldn’t work. The injuries took half a year to heal. I ended up thinking about where the responsibility lies when this sort of thing happens.

I really can’t answer that, but I can give you my thoughts on the matter. This is something that should absolutely never occur. It is a moral question.

If you’re going to work as a professional you absolutely cannot do such a thing. 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.

There’s a difference between an accident and something which is done consciously and intentionally. It’s a question of the morals of the person teaching martial arts.

If this sort of thing occurred in your dojo, would you assume responsibility even if you didn’t directly cause the injury?

Of course. But, in America with respect to the subject of my own responsibility, I don’t assume responsibility when the person taking the fall makes an error or when someone doesn’t follow the teacher’s instructions and there is a mistake. I am the most cautious when I am teaching black belts. This is a question of social morality. You open and operate a dojo and if you don’t have morals the dojo is the same as a jungle. Who would pay money to learn from you? This is anti-social behavior. Isn’t it the same as selling drugs? People understand that using drugs destroys people but still they sell them. This is anti-social conduct and is a crime.

I’m asking this from the viewpoint of a researcher of history. So far we have interviewed many senior instructors and they say different things about what happened at a certain time in history. This is very difficult for us to deal with.

That’s quite natural. I have the same thing happen among my students. There are a number of extremely different types of people who study with me and sometimes they quarrel. They say that I taught something in a certain way; but I have never taught saying that one or another way is the right way. I say things like, “You can do it this way,” “Wouldn’t this way be better?” or “I think this way would be good for you.” As Buddha said, “Look at the person and teach the Way.” People have their likes and dislikes. They’re all right, but they’re all wrong. We’re all on a sort of journey. There is no such thing as a perfected aikido because everything is advancing with the universe; everything advances with time. We must all cooperate in an attempt to approach perfection. We don’t have time to stop. To move forward aiming at perfection is to move forward toward the universe. That’s why I tell my students to go out and see other teachers. I explain to them that I can only do so much and tell them to take a good look at such and such a teacher because he has certain wonderful points. I don’t say, “I’ll expel you if you learn from such and such a teacher,” or “You shouldn’t go there.” I am the only one who can do what I do.

Go out and see the wonderful points of other teachers and you will grow. I can say those things because I have self-confidence. I have pride that only I can do certain things and I know my own limitations. In addition to a certain pride, I understand the good points of other teachers, so I tell my students to go out see them. I don’t want to make my students into blind and deaf people.

Would you talk about your hopes and dreams for “Aikido Schools of Ueshiba?”

I do have several dreams. One dream I have for Aikido Schools of Ueshiba is to make an American aikido family through the art. American society is changing dramatically. For example, my students travel to Florida, Colorado, or California. But they are not concerned even if they go to visit a dojo they don’t know at all. All they have to say is, “I’ve come from New York,” or “I’ve come from San Francisco,” and they immediately become friends. Within America they are bound together by friendship.

It’s very common for Americans to go to a town and not have any friends at all. But if you are doing aikido you don’t have to worry much. I think that such people can lead rich lives since they can go anywhere and have friends.

I’m not saying this in a materialistic sense; it’s a matter of human relations. One problem of the United States which is different from Japan is that there are many different races. However, if you go beyond culture and different backgrounds, in aikido all people become friends. It is out of this that harmony is created in America. This is something very important for America. The various parts of Japan became united after fighting for several hundreds years during the Warring States period (1482-1558). So perhaps it is America and Europe which need aikido the most. In any event, that is the goal of aikido. Aikido is a way of contributing to the country.

I am not trying to make Americans into Japanese because aikido is a Japanese martial art. The American people will achieve greater harmony through the practice of aikido. It will strengthen public relations. This is an important point. That is what O-Sensei wished and this is the dream of Aikido Schools of Ueshiba. So we’re not aiming at creating a military-type organization. When we established this organization, I only required one thing—that it not create any penalties. If our group is effective for people then they will likely become members. If they dislike it they will leave. Our real goal has to do with trust. Penalties are of no use.

You mentioned earlier that you were thinking about establishing an aikido university. Could you tell us about that idea?

My idea is different from the usual university. Although I refer to it as “Aikido University,” what I have in mind would be an “aikido life” university, a comprehensive university. It would be different in structure from present American universities, and would involve production, as well as art. In my opinion, if you learn aikido, which is concerned with the laws of the universe, the laws of nature, or harmony, I think it is necessary to study things like philosophy, psychology, religious philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, and natural science. Of course, political science is also necessary. We must study world political history. Everyone talks about aikido as the loving protection of all creation and as being concerned with world peace—the martial arts are for the purpose of promoting peace and harmony, not for the purpose of destroying the world.

I am not persuaded by the idea that peace can be achieved through prayer alone.

It’s not possible. That is solifidianism, the idea that salvation is attainable through prayer alone. That is only a mental world. I believe that the universe is actually a combination of the material and the spiritual. Christ and Buddha both preached peace. But man’s life also includes the material world. Another problem is the desire to possess. In any event, it is not possible to produce peace through spiritual means alone. The means of production is also important. We have to learn a political and social system and a production technology in order to achieve peace. Even if we talk of world peace, it is an immensely difficult task unless we have the resources.

If you were actually to establish an aikido university you would, of course, require the material means.

I don’t want to use material means such as are used in the present university system. The students must produce things. It is necessary for them to work and to produce things, and then to learn at the university using that money. In the university system today students only attend school; there’s not much of a relation with production. Students would be self-supporting. For example, those students who were studying agriculture would grow vegetables. They would live off of what they themselves produced and then offer it to society. In that way production, studies, and economic life would become one. So it can be done even without money. The true university would simply be people working and participating in society.

At such a university, would you have other activities besides aikido training?

Of course. For example, I am considering things like yoga and meditation. People who are learning aikido must study spiritual and physical aspects as well. This is because we care for our partner spiritually and physically. Isn’t this true love? This is not talk on a conceptual level. You have to act in a concrete way. Phrases such as, “The loving protection of all creation,” and “Aikido is love,” are concepts. It is a question of how one can realize these things.

You hear the words “The loving protection of all creation,” but do you know what they mean in reality? This phrase is often repeated as a saying of O-Sensei, but his students must realize it on a concrete level. It is a way of repaying O-Sensei. If the day comes when aikido ends up as merely lines of poetry, then it is all over. So we must engage in agriculture and crafts, and concern ourselves with the protection of the natural environment. City planning is also necessary, and we must also study the arts. Making peace is a bigger project than making war. Money is necessary, too. You often hear people shouting, “Peace! Peace!” but it is merely noise-making. We have left those days behind. We don’t have time. It’s a question of the earth’s survival and a question of whether or not we can coexist. Of course, mankind exists as a part of natural life and so we will not destroy only ourselves. That is the deadline we are facing. It’s a very important time. We have to start a revolution and we must change our way of thinking. I think that is our only possibility for survival. That’s why I said during the Friendship Demonstration that there are no foreigners in aikido. That’s something O-Sensei said. We are all one family.

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba demonstrating tai no henko with uke Mitsugi Saotome

In your opinion, did O-Sensei’s way of thinking change after the war? Do you have any recollections about that?

Yes, I do. In O-Sensei’s words, mankind’s age of quarreling has ended. O-Sensei said that clearly. He said it ended with the atomic bomb. He said that that was the work of the kamisama (deities). To put it in the opposite way, the bomb was a flash from the kami. He said everyone must get along and the earth must become a single family. Therefore, true aikido would be necessary starting at that time, and true martial arts would emerge.

O-Sensei once said, “If you go to another country to teach aikido, become one of them. If you succeed in making that country a better place, this will result in world peace.” It’s wonderful, don’t you think?

I would like to ask you about the subject of the family succession system in aikido.

I believe that something must exist as the center of the world. Without such a center, a collection of many groups without a leader becomes necessary, something like a federation where people of different ways of thinking gather. But aikido was begun by Morihei Ueshiba and today aikido is being spread with the Ueshiba family as its center. I too learned from Ueshiba Sensei and am one of those who were raised with Ueshiba Aikido. Naturally I believe the Ueshiba family is necessary. It is very important as a point of contact for world aikido. I think that a unity centered around the aikido lineage going back to the founder is the ideal. If the lineage in aikido should be lost, it would lead to fragmentation. We should join together in looking after the center because a center exists. People unite because a center exists. My conception of the Ueshiba family is a little different from that of family succession system in the tea ceremony or flower arrangement schools. I think of the family as the center of the system.

The family lineage is necessary in a spiritual sense as the center. However, the organization can be criticized because it is simply a system. It is not an emotional issue. The aikido lineage is an emotional and spiritual issue for me. For that reason, I don’t criticize matters concerning the Ueshiba family. I am in favor of the system. I am proud of the fact that I was raised by the Ueshiba family. It is a spiritual support for me. As long as I am alive the Ueshiba family will be important for me. This may be something I feel as a Japanese.

For example, the navel is the center of the body. Well, what is that center? It is the connection to the mother. Your mother is the person who gave you life. I think there is a love for one’s mother. My feeling is the same as that. My present life now was given to me by the Ueshiba family.

My concern is over the issue of the misuse of the family lineage system by an organization. If it goes too far, many people will end up opposing the system.

I may not be able to look at the Ueshiba family objectively because I am too close. What I can say clearly is that the Ueshiba family is the point of contact for the aikido world. I realize there are various problems—it is not possible to have a perfect international system. But I think if a system can be created it will operate well.

Watch Saotome Shihan’s demo from 1985 on Aikido Journal TV, performed within days of this interview. Watch Now >

Profile of Mitsugi Saotome

Born in 1937. Aikikai shihan. Began aikido ca. 1954 at the Kuwamori Branch Dojo and entered the Hombu Dojo as uchideshi in 1961. Arrived in the United States in 1975 and subsequently established the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba, an originally independent organization which, since January 1988, is recognized by the Aikikai Hombu. Author of numerous books on aikido, he travels extensively throughout the United States.

Aikido Schools of Ueshiba >

Josh Gold

I am Executive Editor of Aikido Journal and co-founder of Ikazuchi Dojo. I began my aikido journey in 1991 under Haruo Matsuoka and am honored to have been his direct disciple for the last 26 years.

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