Mitsugi Saotome Sensei - interview

Mitsugi Saotome

An Aikikai shihan, Saotome Sensei studied for 20 years with Aikido's Founder, spending 15 of those years as O-Sensei's uchi deshi. Today he leads the organization Aikido Schools of Ueshiba, whose headquarters is Shobukan Dojo in Washington, DC.

ATM:: Sensei, there seems to be renewed interest in uchi deshi programs. We at ATM are often asked where there are such programs --- and we run ads and announcements about uchi deshi programs all the time.What exactly does it mean to be an uchi deshi?

SENSEI: Uchi deshi are not just students who sleep on the mat. Their training is disciple training, not just technical study. The uchi deshi system is similar to the intern system for doctors.

Uchi deshi live and sleep in the dojo, so that they can study 24 hours a day. Many forms of service are necessary parts of their training. Some people use the term "uchi deshi" very freely --- as a title for any student who sleeps on the mat, but this is not what the term means to me.

ATM:: In the past, you have expressed doubt about whether a true uchi deshi system can exist today. What lies behind those doubts?

SENSEI: A true uchi deshi program would take 24 hours of work each day on the part of both the students and the teacher. Working people would have to quit their jobs to become uchi deshi; it would take that level of dedication. And there are many things that would require attention on the part of the teacher: feeding the students, housing them in (or maybe near) the dojo, and so on.

Many people have asked to set up an uchi deshi system in my dojo, but I won't do it. I don't have the facilities or resources that I would need to take care of true uchi deshi. I have had very close students, but they have not been exactly the same as uchi deshi. Recently, one student lived in my dojo --- an "uchi deshi American style." And, when I first came to the US, Hiroshi Ikeda performed the function of an uchi deshi, traveling with me and so on. But the times and the culture are very different from when I was O-Sensei's student, and I'm not sure that a true uchi deshi system can exist anymore.

ATM::A moment ago, you said that uchi deshi training would include many forms of service. What did you mean by "service"? Showing up at seminars, getting the teacher to seminars, taking ukemi for the teacher, folding the teacher's hakama, carrying the teacher's the bags --- things like that?

SENSEI: All of those are elements of service, but there are many more --- like cleaning the dojo and serving tea to guests.

ATM::Can an uchi deshi have a life outside the dojo?

SENSEI: When I was an uchi deshi to O-Sensei, I could not say, "I'm sorry, Sensei, but I can't go to the next seminar" or "I'm sorry about class today, Sensei, but I have a date." As an uchi deshi, I would have days off, but I also had a regular daily schedule.

ATM:: Will you tell us how you became an uchi deshi?

SENSEI: When I realized that I wanted to be an uchi deshi, I talked to Doshu [Kisshomaru Ueshiba]. At the time, he was not an uchi deshi; he was working in a company outside the dojo. The only uchi deshi was Tamura Sensei, who had begun his study of Aikido about three months before me.

I wanted to be uchi deshi, but I understood that Doshu couldn't afford it --- that he didn't have the income to take care of me. I went to Kyoto and, for about three years, I taught Aikido and other things at a school for the handicapped. When I came back to Hombu Dojo, I had to wait about two more years.

Becoming an uchi deshi was a turning-point in my life. If I hadn't become an uchi deshi, my life would be very different now. When I started as an uchi deshi, Doshu taught class in the morning and evening for a few students. Today, of course, the mat at Hombu Dojo is completely filled. But, those days, when there were ten students on the mats, Doshu would say, "Today we have a big class!"

In obvious ways, O-Sensei and Doshu were essential to the development and expansion of Aikido. But we should also remember the hard work and dedication of the many uchi deshi --- including Tamura Sensei, Yamada Sensei, Kanai Sensei, Sugano Sensei, Chiba Sensei, and others --- who laid the foundation after WW2 for the present Aikikai.

Unfortunately, we're not working cooperatively together now. But these people are my brothers; we all have the same background.

ATM:: When you think back to your years as an uchi deshi, what kinds of lessons do you remember being taught?

SENSEI: With O-Sensei, the practice was not only on the mat. Off the mat, he instructed me in all sorts of things. That's why I wrote the book Aikido and the Harmony of Nature --- and I hope someday to write another book about what I learned from O-Sensei. Maybe I still don't understand what he what he was saying, but I am trying. I am very fortunate to have had my experience with him.

I think that O-Sensei's other uchi deshi would say similar things about their own experiences. But sometimes I think that the other uchi deshi saw the experience from a perspective different from mine. I think that an interesting book could be put together that explored these different angles. We all have very interesting memories. When we die, will our memories of O-Sensei be lost? Never mind organizational differences! What is of value is our experience as uchi deshi.

ATM:: Did O-Sensei have uchi deshi before the war?

SENSEI: Yes, but the experience was a little different before the war. He trained a different type of uchi deshi. I think that many of them came from rich families, and many were deshi for only a short time --- one or two months.

ATM:: Did other traditional Japanese arts --- the Art of Tea or Karate-do --- have uchi deshi systems?

SENSEI: Yes. Like Aikido, they had a disciple system, which is very important.

The disciples are the dedicated students. In some ways they are crazy, since they have to sacrifice to their teacher. For example, they have to live with no income.

When I was an uchi deshi, No one knew what the future held, but we still believed in the future.

ATM:: You and O-Sensei's other uchi deshi have made the future of Aikido.

SENSEI: Yes, we went out, first in Japan and then in other countries, to establish Aikido's popularity and promote its expansion. Many of O-Sensei's uchi deshi planted seeds --- along with Doshu, of course --- and now those seeds are blossoming.

Now Aikido has achieved popularity. But, in the beginning, many of us who had been through the uchi deshi experience had a very hard time. We came to unfamiliar countries, and we struggled to begin again. We were pioneers.

ATM:: What do you think should happen now to the uchi deshi system in Japan?

SENSEI: In my opinion, the uchi deshi system doesn't exist any more --- not the system that my fellow uchi deshi and I knew. Our time was different.

ATM:: You could have gotten a job outside of Aikido as a teacher or engineer, and O-Sensei's other uchi deshi also had their skills and talents. But you chose to do this. Surely, you didn't expect to make a lot of money. . . .

SENSEI: "What kind of future is there in Aikido?", my family asked. "There's no income, you know. What are the guarantees? There are other things that you can do. Why are you choosing to be an uchi deshi?" The answer, I think, is that I very strongly wanted the way of life that Aikido offered --- a way of dedication and devotion. I certainly did not choose to be an uchi deshi because I wanted to be rich or to have a full social life.

Very few people now understand the purity of spirit, the dedication, that existed in those early days. All of us who brought Aikido to America and Europe struggled through poverty and hardship for something that we thought was very important. We started with small dojos --- not enough students. Some of us slept in our dojos. The New York Aikikai and the New England Aikikai had not yet been set up. We had to build, build, build. Who had that courage? Only people who were 100% dedicated to Aikido.

Now many people see running a dojo or having an uchi deshi program as a way to make money. I understand why other teacher's are angry about this attitude, and I share their feelings. In the beginning, none of O-Sensei's uchi deshi thought that a dojo's purpose was to make money. The dojo existed for the sake of the training. The commercialization of Aikido angers those of us who worked so hard and sacrificed so much without the thought of making money.

Now that Aikido is popular, some people have forgotten its real meaning, and they just want to make money. I say that, if that is what they want, they should go into some other business.

ATM:: In previous interviews, you have urged Aikido teachers to learn about management and to run their dojos in a professional, business-like manner. Are you now changing your position?

SENSEI: No. Commercialism is not the same as professionalism. If a person's only aim is to make money, that person's dojo may be a commercial success. But professionalism has a different, deeper meaning. To be a professional Aikido teacher is to make sacrifices, to make Aikido one's highest priority, to dedicate one's self to the art, to subscribe to the Aikido philosophy.

I think that Aikido schools have a function similar to that of monasteries, and that Aikido teachers are like monks or ministers. How many people open churches to make money?

ATM:: In their efforts, O-Sensei and Doshu had uchi deshi to help them. If people want to dedicate themselves to Aikido now, don't they need a similar system of support?

SENSEI: Are you talking about someone who is, say, a shodan? When a teacher of that level sets up a program for live-in students, it would be a joke to call it an uchi deshi program.

ATM:: But, if teachers at a more advanced level want to set up uchi deshi programs today, is there anything that prevents them from doing so?

SENSEI: Setting up an uchi deshi system today in the US would be very difficult, if not impossible. Here, if a sensei tells a student to clean something up, the student may ask "Why?" The student may even say, "Hey, I'm not a slave!" American culture is different from Japanese culture. So, the system would have to be different.

As I have said, the old system does not now make economic sense.

Also, people now have a different mentality. For example, even young Japanese now do not understand the meaning of the sempai / kohai relationship. Those concepts come from a very different culture.

And students today don't have the patience or dedication. Suppose that modern students find a teacher they think is good and that they dedicate themselves to the teacher. If the teacher gets angry one day, the students may leave the teacher forever.

If an American were to become one of O-Sensei's uchi deshi, he might not last more than a few days.

ATM: We tend to think of O-Sensei as a sweet old guy. Did he get angry at his deshi?

SENSEI: I have very clear memories of O-Sensei's being angry at me. I was not very smart; the other uchi deshi were much smarter. So, he seemed to get angry at me more than at them.

ATM:: A moment ago, you listed several reasons why it would be difficult to set up an uchi deshi program in the US today. Are you suggesting that we give up on such programs completely?

SENSEI: No. There is something in the uchi deshi system that it is very important to preserve. It once was the case in America and Europe that people would learn arts by apprenticing themselves to a teacher. For example, people would learn how make a violin by apprenticing themselves to a master violin maker. In traditional education, professionalism comes from the disciple system --- the uchi deshi system.

ATM:: If the traditional uchi deshi system is not suited to our times and culture, what sort of disciple system is? What can we do to promote professionalism in modern American Aikido?

SENSEI: I'm not sure --- but I still believe that the future of Aikido depends on the existence of professional Aikido teachers who have more than just technical skill. For Aikido to continue, its teachers must be able to communicate on an equal footing with professionals in politics, academics, and business. In the past, being a technical expert may have been enough, but times have changed. Now the authority of an Aikido shihan must be equal to that of a university professor --- or even greater.

Although Aikido is basically a martial art, it is not just a martial art. As a Budo, it has to do with philosophy, people's relationship to one another, to society, and to their environment. That is how I understand it. Knowing martial arts technique is of limited interest. People want to know how to deal with others, how to manage their business, and so on.

In my opinion, an uchi deshi system should not be for people just out of high-school or college. I think that, as a prerequisite for being an uchi deshi, a person must have held another job first, to get some perspective. Experience of this kind is crucial --- working, communicating with others, managing. It would be very dangerous to make a high-school kid or university student a professional Aikido teacher. Can you imagine a high-school kid suddenly becoming a sensei? A teacher needs to have knowledge of ordinary life.

I'm not sure that there should be a uchi deshi system in America today. This is a different culture from Japan, and a different approach is needed. Still, for Aikido to flourish in the future, it does need professional education of some kind.

ATM:: As you have said, an uchi deshi system needs the right teacher in addition to the right students.

SENSEI: Yes. O-Sensei or Doshu may be able to have an uchi deshi system, but not me. A teacher must take responsibility for the livelihood of his students. I cannot support ten students.

I was very lucky that I found O-Sensei and Doshu. My teachers were very fine people. If I had a nasty teacher, I would never have become an uchi deshi. I studied Judo and other martial arts, and I found them interesting --- but I never had the dedication that I would have needed to be an uchi deshi in those arts.

ATM:: When you consider the Aikido world today --- the multiplication of organizations, the rivalry, etc. --- what do you think will become of Aikido in the future?

SENSEI: Many people ask me that question. But the future of Aikido is not my problem. It's your problem. What do you think?

There are many Aikido organizations in the US, but they all have the same roots. All can trace themselves back to Hombu dojo, and many have O-Sensei's uchi deshi as their shihan.

We --- the shihan --- will eventually disappear. Then it will be your turn. So, you must be learning how to engage in a positive political process.

People criticize Aikido organizations or groups, but how could everybody work together without them? Suppose various teachers were "local kings" --- one the King of Southern California, another the King of Northern California, another the Chicago King, another the King of Florida. What could we do then?

American Aikido will never unite in one organization, but we might still have an overarching group with an organization like, say, the US Academy of Sciences. A loose structure of that sort might be possible. Through a structure like that we might exchange with one another and get along harmoniously, which is the goal.

ATM:: I can say from my own experience as the editor of a nonpartisan Aikido magazine that, to set up such a structure, people would need to have very good diplomatic skills.

SENSEI: Yes. Setting something like that up would require a lot of wisdom, patience, and confidence. It's very hard to bring different people together and to build a peaceful society --- very hard. But Aikido is not philosophy; it is the practice of applying certain philosophical principles to reality, the system. And this requires sacrifice and hard work.

I want to make it clear that I am not attempting anything political myself. My mission is to adopt and train members of the next generation as O-Sensei did with me --- to transmit O-Sensei's gift to the next generation. Organization is not my responsibility. The question of how Aikido people are going to get together is a question for the next generation.

ATM::One of your points seems to be that, to answer this question successfully, members of the next generation will need a very broad education that goes far beyond the curriculum of traditional Aikido.

SENSEI: Yes. Some politicians don't understand the environmental system, and some business men don't understand human psychology. But such narrow, specialization doesn't work. That is why my dream is for Aikido teachers to broaden themselves.

Technique is important, of course, but Aikido teachers should not worry so much about technical skill. They should think more about personal development, personal skill, and a positive political approach. Their attention should be on things like better management, safety, and community.

My dream is to change the image of the Aikido teacher. Some people in the martial arts are very close to being outlaws; it's a terrible thing. But I want Aikido teachers to be known for being true professionals, people with real vision, people with a function in society.

In the past, churches may have brought people together, but now they tend to divide us. Muslims don't often go to Christian churches, and Christians don't often go to Jewish temples. When people of different kinds live in the same city, where can they get together? Only in the Aikido dojo. In the Aikido dojo, people of many different backgrounds come together looking for something. So, we cannot give up the Aikido principle of musubi --- the principle of unification. In today's society, Aikido offers something unique and valuable.


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