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R.A. Robertson
04-17-2008, 12:49 PM
Randori, as it is practiced in some traditions, is an exercise for learning defense against multiple attackers. Other styles use the term to refer to one-on-one jyu waza (free-style practice), but for this discussion we mean two, three, four or more attackers against one defender -- also sometimes called "taninzu-gake."

Like any training tool, randori is meant to be a simulation which attempts to find an appropriate balance between realism and artifice appropriate for practice and progress. It would be a mistake to imagine that randori accurately reflects the reality of a gang mugging -- but it would be equally wrong to imagine that it is entirely fake.

After many years of administering randori sessions, the thing that began to bother me the most was the fact that its conclusion is conventionally in the hands of the instructor rather than the participants. I realized that in real life, Sensei never claps. How then, would an actual encounter conclude?

Ideally, tori would escape and find a safe haven. But in training we assume that the escape option is not readily available and the attackers must be dealt with. Is tori then expected to be able to pin the attackers one by one, piling each on top of the other like so many turtles? Is tori so gifted at evasion and nage-waza that muggers will give up in exhaustion? Would a gang of assailants achieve satori when confronted with the equipoise and Úlan of an aiki master, and abandon their violent ways? Or, is it tori who must abandon the more peaceful aspirations of aikido and resort to lethal force? Is this what we want?

For my part (and for my students, hopefully), I have resolved the issue by substituting one artifice for another. I have dropped the Sensei Clapping thing (though of course I reserve the right to intervene if necessary) and I have given tori some liberties not normally found in most instances of traditional randori.

The result is what I call the Randori Game.

It works like this: the randori session is initiated as usual, with a line of uke facing a single defender. instructions are given to all parties concerning the parameters of speed and any other special considerations. At a command, the players quickly bow and engage.

Tori may use any standard or improvised defense from our repertoire, or simply evade. What makes the Randori Game different is that tori is expected to incapacitate the attackers one by one, and in a manner that would at least be potentially harmless to an actual adversary.

Specifically, shime-waza (chokes) and two forms of atemi (strikes) are allowed. If these are successfully applied, the recipient must retire to the sidelines for a count of 30 seconds.

If all uke are sidelined at the same time, or if the last remaining uke is successfully pinned while all the others are sidelined, the session is concluded and formalities of respect are exchanged. If, however, a sidelined uke reaches their count of 30 while action is still under way, they then rejoin the fray. The play continues until the necessary conditions are achieved for a successful conclusion.

Choking is simulated by getting an arm around the neck of an uke and controlling them (and managing other "live" uke) for a period of three seconds. If the uke is unable to break free in that time, they are then sidelined.

The two atemi that are allowed (and encouraged) are a decisive tap to the chest of an uke and a well-controlled kick to the outside thigh just above the knee. The first is meant to simulate a blow to the solar plexus which would knock the breath out of an adversary. The second is an attack to the vastus lateralis muscle, which reportedly can momentarily paralyze the leg if rightly placed.

I call it a Game to emphasize that these parameters, while not arbitrary, are highly artificial. In reality, it would be very difficult to choke someone out in three seconds under such chaotic conditions. Even a good punch to the solar plexus would not guarantee incapacitation. The same is true for trying to hit the correct kyusho point on the thigh. And should a person be successfully be taken out, they may recover in just a few seconds rather than 30.

Even so, I believe the Randori Game represents a net gain toward better realism -- without sacrificing safety and control. It illustrates a potential scenario where one could defend against multiple attackers without necessarily inflicting harm. However difficult in actual application, the concept is at least plausible.

More importantly, it emphasizes that the responsibility for the final outcome is in the hands of the practitioner. Running around waiting until Sensei claps is a risky habit to reinforce. Students should understand that evading and throwing alone might not result in the ideal aikido that is envisioned. Throws may do serious harm to someone who does not know how to fall correctly, or may accomplish nothing at all in cases where an attacker can roll well. Certainly, you can't expect to pin everyone. We need to give our students a set of realistic tools and expectations about what they can do to bring such an encounter to the safest outcome. And if it becomes necessary to inflict harm, then the habit of training should not require drastic alteration in either technique or mind-set.

The responsibility and oversight of the instructor is in no way removed, except perhaps in the one area where he or she has no business. Even then, intervention may be necessary if a tori simply cannot prevail, or if an uke does not play fair. The instructor must persistently communicate to all parties how to find the right balance between realism and artifice in each individual randori session, and take corrective action whenever necessary.

Not least of all, it's fun. My students who have been around long enough to have done it both ways seem to appreciate the extra element of control that has been placed in their hands as tori. And as uke, they no longer can get away with a wanton feeding frenzy, since they now realize that tori can "bite back" just a little bit. And as the instructor, I enjoy it more since I'm not always looking for that most critically appropriate moment to end the session.

I hope that some of you will be willing to give this a try. I welcome your feedback. If you come up with different parameters for "disabling" an attacker, or change the game in other ways that you find favorable, I'd love to hear about it and I'll consider incorporating them into my practice.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

Ross Robertson lives and teaches aikido in Austin, Texas.