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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > January, 2005 - Striking a Balance
by Ross Robertson

Striking a Balance by Ross Robertson


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O-Sensei is often quoted as having said "atemi (striking) is 99 percent of aikido." How in the world are we to interpret this? Even the most harsh and brutal forms of aikido are practiced with a liberal amount of throwing, choking, grabbing, and twisting. While atemi is present, we generally don't see 99 punches for every arm-bar. And in viewing the films of O-Sensei, at any stage of his career, the same can be said. So where is all this atemi?

Maybe we're not meant to interpret it so literally. Maybe we're supposed to understand that what he really meant was "atemi is very very important in aikido." In "Dueling with O-Sensei," Ellis Amdur says that it's the potential for atemi that must be present at all times. Yeah, ok. Maybe. Then why didn't O-Sensei say, "The potential for atemi is 99 percent of aikido?"

Like so many things O-Sensei said, I think it's useful to imagine that he meant just what he said. But faced with such a preposterous proposition as this one, we should either discard it altogether as an aberration, or we should look for deeper levels of meaning. Since we can never know for sure what he really meant, we can examine the statement as if it were a riddle, and see what benefit there is in guessing at answers.

Striking is 99 percent of aikido. But whose striking? The attacker necessarily has their part to play in the encounter, so their strike may be a major percentage. Maybe their strike is the 99 percent. If we assume that the attacker is trying to hit us, then this may be O-Sensei's way of saying, "let the attacker provide 99 percent of the energy."

Or maybe both of us striking together in a conjoined effort is the 99 percent. If a punch comes at me, and I turn and join with it, effectively helping the attacker along with the punch, then my self-defense has not only been successful for the moment, but I will have achieved some of the other things O-Sensei talked about, like joining, combining, fitting, and so on.

These interpretations make so much obvious sense to me, that I'd be happy to just leave it at that. But we tend to believe that aikido is something of a grappling art, a throwing art, so I suppose we need to talk about that as well.

Throwing is an attack. Please don't pretend it's not. It doesn't matter if they started it, if you toss someone onto the ground, it's a counter-attack, not a defense. Some have argued that just hauling off and hitting someone would be a kindness in comparison. But just as an atemi can be hard or soft, a person hitting the ground can land badly or well. But they're still hitting the ground. So, throwing is atemi.

What about grabs? Grabs are often done to control someone who is trying to hit you. Or, an attacker may grab to have better control of hitting a target, or as a precursor to a throw. In all these cases, atemi is present in some form or another.

As for chokes, they are sadly absent or are only a minuscule part of most schools' curriculum. Usually when present at all, they are studied as something done to initiate an attack. Now, even I'm not going to try to figure out a way to interpret choking as atemi, so let's just assume that it's not part of the 99 percent.

Finally, what are to say about all this arm twisting and joint locking? Like Mr. Amdur, we could say that when these are done, we create opportunities for strikes, even if we choose not to take advantage of them. Certainly this is true. It's also true that it's something we might do to keep the other person from hitting us. But it's something of a stretch to say that ikkyo, sankyo, kotegaeshi -- in and of themselves -- are a kind of atemi. However, they are most often employed as part of a throw or take-down. So again, if we allow that throwing is a kind of atemi, then all the arm manipulations are sub categories of throwing arts, which themselves are sub-categories of atemi.

Still, all this has the feel of grasping at straws. There are so many ways to interpret this that we might as well be debating religion. We could say that "Irimi is 99 percent of aikido," meaning that in every encounter we enter the attacker's nervous system and strike at their spirit. We could say that "kuzushi is 99 percent of aikido," meaning that we strike the opponent's balance. At the end of the day, like Ellis Amdur, we'll decide on an interpretation that makes the most sense to us and is most consistent with the aikido we've been exposed to.

Here are a few ways I would interpret it that make sense to me:

    "The attack is 99 percent of aikido."

    "The reality of violence is what gives rise to the need for aikido as a martial art."

    "Merging with the aggressive expression of an attacker is 99 percent of aikido."

Now that that's settled, will somebody please tell me what is this mysterious remaining 1 percent?


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