Uchi-Deshi Life: An Introduction to Mitsugi Saotome Sensei


When Mr. Ogawa of 月刊秘伝 wrote back in response to an inquiry about a writing position, I did not expect to write this. I felt that it is a story and now is time to tell because if budo is to grow, it will require a way for transmission to survive, and for that, I think humanity and earth needs help. I’d like to be part of it because I’d like to see all budo grow, because I feel it can benefit each being, society, the world, and beyond. I believe that budo, true budo illuminates the world, and aikido too is part of that, along with many others, like friends of the many arts we all have kinship with. Uchi-deshi life I think needs some help, because it is in need of support and I know that is one of the final missions Sensei wants to see too, and I share this vision, having lived, and still continuing to live it. While a series of seven articles intended to make it to print, it became more appropriate to share in the context of its true home with minimal advertisement.

An Introduction to Mitsugi Saotome Sensei

(Photo by Roy Æ Hodges 2020)

Saotome Sensei, chief instructor of Aikido Schools of Ueshiba (A.S.U.), named in honor of Morihei Ueshiba (O’Sensei), is considered by his students and many guests as a naturally talented and diligent practitioner of aikido with deep eclectic artistic sensibilities. Born into Tokyo on March 7th, 1937, and the youngest of three siblings, a father as master woodworker, and mother skilled in cooking and folk culture. His father was responsible at one time for eight apprentices learning the woodworking trade, and it is here that Saotome Sensei says remembers it as inspiration for his own interests. Sensei recalls dancing in festivals with his mother, “all summer long,” he says. Sensei speaks of strong memories of these festivals and upon hearing recordings of historical Japanese folk songs, he swiftly dances and chants along around the living room. He recalls raising poles with many locals and being inspired by community harmony.

Shortly thereafter World War II broke out. “So much destruction,” he says looking off into the distance, still conveying strong emotions which stir empathy in me for the traumas endured by him and the Japanese of his generation. He remembers the destruction of his family’s and many other family homes, “everything gone,” he stops, and just repeats it, “gone all gone.”. After a pause, “my friend, he left, going to Hiroshima,” sensei looks down at his hands, “gone.” He speaks of never seeing his friend again after Hiroshima. Sensei and his family left Tokyo to live with his mother’s parents in the country, returning five years later. 

Saotome Sensei’s father passed away shortly thereafter, whereupon his mother opened a small teppanyaki restaurant for income. “Only a few people,” he says, gesturing the small size with his hands. He remembers his mother’s cooking fondly. “Country style,” he exclaims proudly, mixing separate plates of rice, pickles, smoked fish, and seaweed all together in his bowl. “Very healthy,” he looks at me gesturing to eat more than I could fit in the stomach, “you no eating?” One learns to eat at Saotome Sensei’s pace, not finishing before. Unfortunately, his mother had become ill, and Saotome Sensei and his siblings worked at an early age to provide for the household.

Mitsugi Saotome, Sumi-e
(Photo provided by Patty Saotome Sensei)

In high school, Saotome Sensei trained in Judo under Sumpo Kuwamori. “Kuwamori Sensei [asked], ‘Saotome, have you seen aikido? There’s a demonstration, we [should] go see’,” Saotome Sensei explains, and then his eyes go wide and bright, “I never saw anything like this!” He had visited a class by Seigo Yamaguchi Sensei, becoming enraptured by aikido, and the philosophy of it. He then saw Kisshomaru Ueshiba (Doshu) in sessions, who, “looked like a university professor and spoke politely,” very much impressed by the presence and dignity of Doshu. Saotome Sensei recalled visiting Hombu Dojo and imitated a shy young man, nervous, and not sure what to do, “there was an old man on the other side, ‘Welcome to my Dojo! Where [are] you from?!’,” he recalls the old man’s booming voice with warmth and affection. A faint emulation of embarrassment washes over Saotome Sensei, “this was O’Sensei!”

A faint emulation of embarrassment washes over Saotome Sensei, “this was O’Sensei!”

Mitsugi Saotome Sensei

During this time, Saotome Sensei worked at Honda Motors on heavy construction equipment, “I lifting big gears, you know? This size,” he gestures as if a large gear is on the floor, then looks over the balcony across the street, and points to some construction vehicles with backhoes and buckets, “like that. Can you imagine?” Saotome Sensei stops, taking another puff of a cigarette looking over the horizon, time passes, the clouds pass, traffic moves, “I met O’Sensei, my life going,” Sensei gestures forward, then abruptly angles his hand ninety degrees, “like this. Changing, my life changing.” A student on a video call asked what it was like when he first attacked O’Sensei.

Saotome Sensei leans forward, eyes wide, he leans back, eyes go wider, “Wow!”. In another interview he says he felt, “a tingling feeling in my spine.” Soon after this meeting and experience with O’Sensei, he continued training, recollecting that a handful of people attended O’Sensei’s classes, but the dojo kept growing. He met his first wife at this time, and soon his son and daughter, Taiji Saotome and Wakana Saotome were born. Saotome Sensei soon after entered life as uchi-deshi under O’Sensei in 1959, he trained regularly, and he clearly recalls many lessons. 

Mitsugi Saotome Shihan’s Early Promotions from O-Sensei (Morihei Ueshiba)
(Provided by Patty Saotome)

Many of Saotome Sensei’s memories of O’Sensei during this time are told in The Principles of Aikido (1989), Aikido and the Harmony of Nature (1993), and A Light on Transmission (2014). He received promotions, quickly took on responsibility at Hombu Dojo as an instructor, and then shihan in 1968. After O’Sensei had passed away in 1969, which was a tremendous loss, he remained at Hombu Dojo and worked in developing Aikido and relationships in the local communities. Saotome Sensei was recognized as the chief aiki-ken and aiki-jo instructor at Hombu dojo. Then in 1975, he received the invitation to come to the United States, and accepted, surprising many. After this, the world for Saotome Sensei and aikido practitioners in the United States would change. The birth of A.S.U. was on the horizon, where he would meet and mentor many students and marry his future wife, Patty Saotome; the rest is history.

(Photo provided by Patty Saotome Sensei)

Saotome Sensei’s appreciation and dedication to O’Sensei is unquestionable, and he ensures that students understand the importance of O’Sensei’s role and teachings. A.S.U. places O’Sensei and the Ueshiba lineage at the heart of the organization as both a symbol and lasting commitment to the teachings of O’Sensei. Today Saotome Sensei and A.S.U. networks together dojos in the United States, Canada, South America, and Europe. In this network, it is hoped that the teachings of O’Sensei may continue transmitted through many generations and beyond.

This is a first in a series of articles on uchi-deshi life, stay tuned for more later. For reprints into other languages, please submit a contact request. The next article, “Journey to Aikido” is available.

Mitsugi Saotome Sensei leading keiko at Aikido Shobukan Dojo
(Photo by Roy Æ Hodges; Late 1990’s to Late 2000’s)

One response to “Uchi-Deshi Life: An Introduction to Mitsugi Saotome Sensei”

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