Bill Witt Builds the Bridge to Iwama
Editor's Note: William Witt Shihan is primarily responsible for bringing the teaching of Saito Sensei to the United States. This is extremely important in the history of Aikido in the U.S., because Saito Sensei has the best understanding of O Sensei's weapons system. O Sensei did not teach weapons to any great extent at the Hombu Dojo in Tokyo. He kept this training almost exclusively in Iwama. Weapons and Taijutsu go together in Aikido, as we've read, and if Bill Witt had not connected Saito Sensei with U.S. Aikido students, we might never have gained this understanding. Interview with Witt Shihan follows:
The Man Who Built the Bridge to Iwama
Originally published in Aikido Today Magazine
Traveling to Iwama is very commonplace these days. Anyone with a reasonably serious interest in Aikido can get over there for a short while. Many Aikidoists you talk to have been there.
That wasn't always the case, however. There was no bridge to Iwama until William F. (Bill) Witt traveled to Tokyo in 1967 and began building a friendship with Morihiro Saito Sensei.
(Photo: Bill Witt visits Morihiro Saito at Iwama Dojo circa 1970.)
Aikidoists in Virginia studied the Iwama style of Taijutsu and weapons with Witt during a seminar May 21-22, 1994, in Richmond, and then Saito Sensei himself arrived in Charlottesville Sept. 30 for a two-day weapons and taijutsu seminar that concluded his 1994 U.S. tour.
A graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Witt was 29 years old and working for a small U.S. firm as a mechanical engineer when his boss sent him to Tokyo on business. The year was 1967. While in Tokyo he became curious about Aikido and stopped by the Hombu Dojo for a look-see. The first person he saw was O'Sensei, sitting in an office, relaxing.
"So I inquired about taking classes," Witt said. "I actually told him I wanted to join without having seen what Aikido is like, and he suggested that I come back and watch a class. Which I did, and after the class was over, he came out and put on a demonstration for about an hour and talked. So that kind of sold me."
Witt said O'Sensei did not look like a mystical person, but it was obvious that he was the founder of the art. "And when you have the opportunity to study with the founder of something you'll probably be a little better off. I figured that that was a real good influence to have. If I wanted to start to train."
The business Witt was working on for the U.S. company did not materialize, and he stayed on to study Aikido.
"I really didn't want to come back to the States," he recalled. "I wanted to stay in Japan for awhile, and I needed something to occupy my time between lunch and dinner. I stayed there until December of 68, about a year and a half."
During that period, Saito, then 39, was commuting in from Iwama on Sunday mornings to teach a class, and Witt gravitated in his direction.
"Another student said that he taught good, basic Aikido and that I would like it," Witt said. "So I started going to Saito's Sunday classes, and started washing my uniform on another day."
Aikidoists who have easy access to weapons training today might be surprised to learn that no weapons were taught then. They were more of a guarded secret, and O'Sensei considered them potentially too dangerous to teach to rank-and-file students.
"I guess O'Sensei forbade weapons being used after one student stabbed another with a spear that was in the dojo," he surmised. "So that ended that."
(Photo: Bill Witt and Morihiro Saito at Iwama Dojo in early 1970s.)
Witt continued to go to Saito's Sunday morning classes and became immersed in his teaching style.
"He obviously had a great depth of experience. He was highly ranked, about Seventh Dan. I kept going to his classes and watching him. I found myself really liking not only his attitude toward students but his technique as well. He was really interested in teaching even then."
Witt was back in the U.S. when O'Sensei died in 1969, and when he returned to Japan he found that Saito had added jo training to his Sunday morning classes.
"So I started going, and Saito Sensei started talking to me a little bit. and coming over and giving me corrections. So It was kind of a period of time where he looked at me and said, 'Well, I guess you're serious, and I can spend some time with you.'"
Encouraged, Witt asked Saito if he could come out and visit him in Iwama some time, and he said yes. This was six months after O'Sensei had passed away.
Saito worked for the railroad at that time and could come into Tokyo only on Sunday mornings. On Sunday afternoons Witt would go back out with him and practice in Iwama that evening. Then he started going out for a couple days at a time.
From Tokyo it's about a two-hour ride on a local train covering about 50 miles.
"Unfortunately, Iwama is a small town and the express trains stop only at certain stops. Iwama is right between express stops.
Witt was still a First Kyu then, and the three other persons training at Iwama were Third Dans.
(Photo: Bill Witt, Terry Dobson and Morihiro Saito Shihan at Aikido of San Francisco in 1970s.)
"Three Third Dans and a white belt, so you can guess who used to fall the hardest."
There still was no formal weapons training available to Witt, but Saito took time to show him some of the jo kata. If there were partner practices, the San Dans would stay and Witt would be asked to leave. Saito was working three days a week. He would work 24-hour shifts on the railroad and then teach at the dojo on the other days.
"A grueling schedule." Witt recalls. "When he wasn't working, he'd be around the place all day and then he would give me class. So I had private lessons from him at this particular time. Nobody else was around, except the San Dans. There were no uchi deshi. There were no live-in students, or live-out students who would come over as there are now."
Witt returned to the U.S. for two years and worked diligently on the 13 and 31 jo kata. That's all Saito had given him.
"They were something that Saito Sensei put together," he said.
Witt believes that Saito's weapons training most accurately reflected O'Sensei's teaching, but adds, diplomatically, "It's hard to tell. When you talk to Saotome Sensei, for instance, and some others, they claim that they got weapons instruction from O'Sensei, which is true. I don't short cut any of them. I know Saotome Sensei and I respect him very much."
Witt recalled that Saito had taken responsibility for the care of O'Sensei during his final years.
"There were no other people out there. O'Sensei at the very end was infirm, and his wife was old. Saito Sensei and his wife took care of the couple. Therefore, Saito Sensei used to get a lot of instruction from O Sensei."
After two years of practicing the 13 and 31 kata, Witt wrote Saito a letter asking if he could come back to Iwama on a vacation break.
"I got a very rapid reply. Saito Sensei said, 'Oh yes, come on back. I'm waiting for you.'"
After six years, the bridge to Iwama had essentially been completed.
"It took that long to have him really consider me a serious student."
Witt went to Iwama and trained for three weeks.
"Saito Sensei showed me suburi and said, 'This time you're going to take your Nidan exam. He showed me the Jo Suburi and Ken Suburi. And that was it. So basically I spent two years practicing Jo Kata, and then when I went over there he showed me the suburi. He even tested me on some of them when I took my Nidan test.
Witt returned to Iwama for two more years in 73.
"The company I was working for folded and I said well that's okay, I'm going to go to Iwama for awhile."
Witt said he went over there open-minded, not knowing how long he was going to stay. And finally he was given access to the more advanced practices, including Kumijo and Kumitachi.
"I had spent years practicing Suburi."
The only others gaining access to weapons training in Iwama were the three San Dans. Saito was still being very careful. The San Dans had been young boys in the dojo when O'Sensei was still alive and stayed on with Saito, so Witt was among select company.
"Saito Sensei had a 'real person' connection with them," Witt recalled. "They were local people, anyway. With me, it was a little different because I was here and there, and I would show up for a little while and then go home. So he had to evaluate me and say, 'Well, I'm showing him this. Is it going to be a waste? Is he going to go away and not practice it?' And so he was really surprised when I came back. The first thing that he would do on my trips back during this time would say, 'Show me what you've been doing.' So I guess he was quite surprised when I did well.
Saito was so impressed that he now uses Witt as an example of the benefit and importance of extended suburi and kata training.
"Pat Hendricks (Saito's interpreter on tours) told me he always says, 'I have a student in America. Three years he did Suburi. He didn't do any Kumitachi or Kumijo. I wouldn't show it to him.' So I am a legend in Iwama!"
Witt said Saito would say to him privately that students only wanted to learn "Kumi this and Kumi that," all the partner practices and just did not want to do Suburi.
"And then Saito Sensei tells me, 'Well, Bill, you've worked so long with Suburi your hips really move where they should.'"
Witt was a Fourth Dan when he returned to Iwama for the last time 15 years ago, and now, "I just don't have the time any more." Saito made his first trip to the U.S. in the mid-70s on a tour arranged by Witt and Bruce Klickstein. It was the first of several visits arranged by Witt and Klickstein.
"That was good because we got a chance to repay him for some of things he's done for us," Witt said, "and basically what we've done is develop a personal relationship with him that took a long time... Your teacher takes care of you, and you take care of your teacher."