Uke, nage, tori, shite...
Who can make sense of these terms? Who gives and who takes? Who does, and who receives? Who throws?
The terms I grew up with for aikido partners in paired practice were "uke" and "nage," the receiver (of the throw or technique) and the thrower. But "nage" does not always throw, and may also be a receiver as well (of the initial attack).
So I now only use "nage" when I specifically mean the one who is attempting a throw. More generally, I use "uke" and "tori." One means "to receive," and the other means "to take." We expect there to be an opposition, or at least a complementary pair, but both play a receptive roll. To me, this corresponds nicely with the brother/sister, husband/wife duo from Kojiki mythology -- their names, "Izanami" and "Izanagi," mean "she who invites" and "he who invites."
For all who do aikido, there's a clue there.
"Shite" is also used in some traditions, but the word signifies "the doer" or "the performer." Again, does this not apply to both players?
Ultimately, such confusion is, in a way, appropriate. Aikido is about blending, merging, joining, combining. Action and stillness, giving and receiving, asserting and yielding -- these qualities blur and swirl, reverse and exchange. This is the way of aiki.
We may think that an assailant initiates the attack. But what are they attacking, if the target wasn't there in the first place? By being the target, "shodo o seizu (control of the first move)" becomes possible. So who really initiates?
One thing we should certainly avoid is assigning either partner the role of good guy or bad guy. An "attacker" may have just cause. One who takes a fall or submits may in fact be the hero. Aiki is realized, not when one prevails over another, but when each player comes into accord with the other.
Perhaps the partners are like muscle groups: agonists and antagonists. Each may play a role by contracting or relaxing. And while in opposition, they may work together to move as one system. But can we say which is which?
So my default is to stick with the terms "uke" and "tori." My convention is that uke is the one who visibly initiates the encounter. Uke seeks and acquires the target, and generally closes distance to bring the solids together. Tori opens and merges, and through this process the form of technique becomes possible.
Occasionally though, I will joke that we should just call uke and tori "Fred and Ginger."
If you're too young to recall Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or if your cultural background is not such that you would know them, you really should take a few minutes and look up some old video clips of this great dance duo.
No one could mistake one for the other. They were separate and distinct individuals. Yet when they danced, they moved as one. Ostensibly, Fred would lead and Ginger would follow, but when you watch them, there's no ahead or behind, no before or after. Although, sometimes they do alternate.
(There is an old feminist joke about "Anything Fred Astaire could do, Ginger Rogers could do backwards and in high heels." I think this does them both an injustice.)
Too often I see situations on the mat (and in daily life) where it's too much Fred and not enough Ginger. What I mean is, too many people try to be Fred the solo star. Yes, the real Fred Astaire could make inanimate objects come alive
. The real Fred Astaire could be so in tune with his environment that he could only be described as a master of aiki. But imitation Freds try to do this sort of trickery with real live partners, and it's not the same.
If you find your partner trying to be Fred, be Ginger. If you find your partner ready to move like Ginger, be Fred. Don't try to move your partner around like a coat rack. Don't be so passive as to be moved around like a prop.
Aikido is a partnership, even when dealing with a real adversary. No matter what we call them, there are roles to be played in aikido, but the real trick is not to get stuck in them. If you try to be nage all the time, you will get thrown. If you try to be tori all the time, you will get taken.
Much of our training is to be able to see how our partner/opponent is behaving in the moment, and find what works with what they're doing -- and then use that to advantage.
We should move with the ebb and flow, and we should turn with the swirls. We should come together without collision, and we should float apart like mist above a pool. By moving with things, we become the movement. When we are the movement, then can we move things.
Fred and Ginger could move with one mind, one heart, one body. When they danced they became one another's breath, cycling in and out. Always individual, never sacrificing identity, yet performing as one creature.
We assign and accept roles to keep feet from being stepped on, so we know where to stand, where to move, and what to expect of others. If others mis-step, then we ruin the routine if we cannot work it in and make it look planned.
We can admire the talent of Fred and Ginger, but it is foolish to ask which one is really in control. Obviously both are. From dedicated personal discipline, each achieved mastery in their own body. In partnership, each contributed to the other. When joined, neither would be in control without the other.
The wise dancer knows what it takes to achieve individual mastery, and what is demanded when performing with another.
Once the faces exchange places, and the names no longer matter, the dancers disappear. What remains is the music, the dance, and the stillness.
That, and the smiling choreographer, who is all of this, and none of it.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA