The techniques of Aikido are a way of asking an attacker, “Is this what we want? Can we move toward a mutually beneficial outcome in this situation?” Aikido techniques are inherently designed to leave the possibility of peaceful resolution open and to direct the attacker (uke) in a way that is least damaging given the circumstances. Looking at basic techniques like ikkyo, nikyo, sankyo, iriminage, kotegaeshi and shihonage there is within each of them a path for the uke to follow whereby they can escape significant harm. In other words, the main difference between modern aikido techniques and the techniques of traditional combat arts is that aikido techniques leave this opening. The skill in aikido is to preserve this opening for the uke while leaving no opening in ourselves.
At the same time, we practice the life-saving techniques of ukemi. Ukemi is the art of protecting yourself while receiving a technique. Within ukemi you must strive to maintain good body structure while remaining supple, mobile and alert and applying all the fundamentals of budo, especially ma-ai (spacing). Ukemi never involves merely folding up like a wet paper sack in the hands of the nage. To the degree that the uke wishes to test their partner’s technique they naturally invite potential consequences. This is not to say that uke should never resist. On the contrary, we must train to be strong and courageous and continually test our art to the degree that we are able. Personally, I like the uke to attack strongly as long as he is willing and able to take full responsilblity for his own ukemi. And if my technique fails then so be it. I’ll learn something. But understand that the uke must take complete responsibility for themselves and that there is always risk and possible sacrifice in the process.
Ukemi is a highly active role and you must never be complacent. An uke must never entirely depend on the nage for their own safety. Of course, when you are working with someone new to aikido they depend completely on you for their safety so you must take a great deal of care at this stage. But after a few months they are not a baby anymore and they should not depend so much on the graces of their partner to determine their fate.
There is always the possibility in the midst of a technique that an attacker can say by his actions, “No, I don’t want to go that way.” In this situation there would be consequences to their safety which would be of their own choosing. The only possible way that you can guarantee the safety of an attacker in every situation is if your technique is without teeth. It is not the point of aikido to sacrifice yourself to the attacker. The point of aikido is that you have allowed a route of passage within the technique which creates the possibility for the attacker to comply safely if he so chooses. The choice is theirs. We can make subtle use of ma-ai and kuzushi (balance breaking) in order to make the uke more amenable, but ultimately what compels them to choose the right path is the severity of the consequences of veering from it. A technique without consequences is not budo (martial art). We illustrate the strictness of this fact in aikido with a tool that is specifically designed to kill – the katana.
In the words of Nishio Sensei, “The purpose of the sword in aikido is to show proper conduct.” Implicit in this comment is that if the attacker does not agree to conduct themselves properly they will get cut. In the case of an empty hand technique the misbehaving uke would get hit, sprained or knocked out depending on the technique. For example, Nishio Sensei describes kokyunage (a technique that works with spacing and timing) as a technique done with atemi (striking). This means that the impetus for kokyunage is the strike. In other words, if uke does not follow the path prescribed by kokyunage he will be struck at one or more vital points.
They say, “You can lead the horse to water…” so if the attacker does not agree to follow the prescribed path then the consequences are of their own choosing. You can ask someone to choose peace and even provide a way for them to do it, but you cannot make them choose it. The nage must attempt to lead the uke down a path toward peaceful resolution, but at the same time the nage must sternly preserve the boundaries of that path, otherwise, the technique is merely an empty gesture.
Aside from proper ukemi which involves both meaningful resistance and intelligent compliance, there are a couple of other types of uke’s you can encounter.
First is the naïve uke. This is most often the person who is completely new to training. They turn left when they should turn right and without knowing it they put themselves in harms way. You have to be very patient and gentle working with this person, but they might even try to test you at the same time. It can be difficult protecting them from their folly, but you have to do your best. I was a naïve uke when I was just about 6 months into training. I was training with a nidan and things were going well until I saw what I thought was an opening so I tried to sucker punch him in the middle of a technique. In an instant my mouth was bloody and my wrist was sprained. This is not how I treat people in training, but I think at the time it was a good lesson for me.
The other type of uke is the belligerent uke. They have something to prove and they are going to use the opportunity to work it out on you. This is a situation where you must gauge your own skill and experience. If you cannot handle them you should step away because it will only end in tears. If you feel you can handle them then continue on, but remain neutral and dispassionate. Don’t get sucked into their emotion. Apply the techniques firmly and deliberately and when it’s their turn use the opportunity to hone your ukemi skills. If they are passive aggressive they might fight you and then play the victim after they end up hurting themselves. This is a very difficult person to deal with both in training and in everyday life. It’s best to avoid passive-aggressive people.
The idea that attacking a “true aikido person” is like hitting a big fluffy cloud and that you always escape unharmed is misguided. What defines aikido is the opening that is left in the technique for the uke which allows the possibility of a benign interaction. This distinguishes aikido from martial arts of old which left no openings and no possibility for the enemy but death. But even in spite of our best effort the attacker is always free to choose something worse than what we have offered.
The sword clearly illustrates the severity of the situation. The sword is designed with the sole purpose of cutting and thrusting and the consequences to the receiver are nearly always fatal. The aiki sword seeks to avoid this fatal conclusion by blending with the attackers movements and avoiding direct collision through the use of irimi and tenkan. Once the initial attack has been evaded the attacker is increasingly brought into line with a series of controlling movements which define a particular path, at the end of which is the possibility of life for both people. Consider O Sensei’s first rule for training, “Aikido decides life and death in a single strike, so students must carefully follow the instructor’s teaching and not compete to see who is the strongest.” He was warning that aikido is not a competition or a playground for ego battles, it is the act of standing on the threshold between life and death.
It’s been said that the difference between the dojo and the real world is the difference between a swimming pool and the ocean. You can drown in either a pool or the ocean, but the ocean provides a much broader range of challenges. Even so, we can study the fundamentals in a pool. The application of technique in the dojo must always proceed with a great deal of understanding on the part of both uke and nage regarding these limitations. But this does not mean that the “water” is not real.
If a person only wants to do aikido for a pleasant, philosophical feeling then it cannot be said to be budo (martial art). O Sensei, the founder of aikido, was emphatic that aikido is budo and not merely a philosophical dance. James Williams, a respected teacher of Japanese budo said, My opinion though, if you don’t train and expose yourself to true danger you’re never going to fully understand and get to a place where the ancients got. You can’t get there by thinking about it, reading about it, feeling good about it. Warm gooey feelings have no place here in that sense of the term. As I frequently tell my students, that warm gooey feeling is usually blood!”
In 1941 the founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, agreed to conduct a demonstration of aikido at the Imperial Palace. When the occasion drew near Ueshiba became rather ill, but decided to go on with the demonstration. He chose two uke’s to attend with him Tsutomu Yukawa and Gozo Shioda. Yukawa felt that Ueshiba was weak from being ill so he made the mistake of attacking him lightly and being a little complacent! But Ueshiba threw him hard as ever and broke his arm right there. At that point Shioda had to take ukemi for the rest of the demonstration. Clearly, attacking O Sensei was not like landing on a bed of cotton balls. While we take pains to reduce the risk of injury in training, if you take exception to the fact that aikido uses force and that in budo people can get hurt, even at the hands of the master, then you must take exception with the founder himself.
Aikido gained a great deal of popularity in the U.S. starting in the late 1950’s and 60’s. Many people saw in aikido’s philosophy of harmony a perfect match for the anti-war sentiments of the times. So in the U.S. aikido often became divested of its martial-ness in favor of a kind of “light-and-love-floating-around” hippie brand of aikido. This is not how the art was taught by the founder. Aikido was always respected as a martial art in Japan, but in the U.S. and in post-WWII Japan is when Aikido began to suffer in the sense of budo. This is not something we should allow to continue.
A comment on aikido demonstrations. Sometimes you might watch high level aikido demonstrations and dismiss them as being fake. In most cases you’re right. But there is a level of training in which the interaction between nage and uke is so subtle that the uke is following the path prescribed by the nage without the necessity of being physically thrown or struck just as a well trained horse moves with the slightest intention from the rider. It is not necessarily fake, just extremely subtle to the eye. A less understanding uke would not have such a pleasant experience. This kind of thing makes for pretty demonstrations, but it is not good for our regular practice as it can create too much complicity in our training. Remember, the mark of good ukemi is meaningful resistance and intelligent compliance. And don’t forget, aikido is budo
~Philip Greenwood, Sensei