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Home > Training > Taking Ukemi and Being Uke
by Peter Boylan <Send E-mail to Author>

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Peter Boylan is currently the proprietor of Mugendo Budogu.

In modern aikido we are all taught how to take ukemi, but we are rarely taught how to be an uke.

This is something I've been thinking about a lot, and until this discussion I haven't really been able to see clearly. Reading the responses to this thread has helped me clarify my thinking.

For the last couple of years, when I get to train in jodo in Japan, a great deal of my training has been focused on how to be uchi, the defeated partner in the kata. For those who haven't heard my single minded rants on koryu before, in classical Japanese budo, with the fairly obvious exceptions of iaido and kyudo where it would just be too dangerous, kata is always a two person exercise.

The kata are pre-arranged sequences of threats, attacks and responses. Uchi attacks and shite blocks, evades, counterattacks or responds as is required by the kata. Uchi then responds as dictated by the kata. My training lately has been leading me into exactly why we do things the way we do, and how uchi leads shite to learn and understand.

The first thing I've learned from all of this is that there is a dang good reason why we're not allowed to do the uchi side of kata until we've shown a fair level of competence at the shite side. The uchi side is really dangerous. Inexperienced shite can come up with all sorts of unpleasant surprises that aren't part of the kata, but uchi has to be able to deal with them to protect both herself and shite. Sometimes shite will mix kata and come up with an attack that is used at a similar juncture in a different kata. If uchi just moves through the kata mechanically, uchi will get her skull split open as she walks into shite's attack. Sometimes shite forgets to move at the right time, or is just too slow, and then uchi has to control, slow, or stop an extremely committed attack in time to not hit shite in the face with the weapon.

Uchi actually has to be much more aware of what is happening in the kata than shite is. The assumption here is that uchi knows the shite side of the kata and is helping shite to learn it. This help goes a lot further than just knowing what happens next in the kata and doing it, or protecting shite if she makes a mistake. That's just the most basic level of things. Uchi is also responsible for controlling the intensity, speed and timing of the practice. If uchi just matched shite's intensity, shite could easily get hurt by training at a level at which they can't deal with uchi's response. Uchi has to learn to restrain the intensity of the training to something that right for that lesson. The same goes for the speed and timing. I know that if I train with my teacher, he will only let things go at a speed I can handle. Otherwise I would have gotten my wrists broken by now. Uchi has to be aware of all this, and choose what is appropriate for the current lesson. Sometimes shite needs to train right out at the edge of her ability, where she can just barely handle the speed and intensity, but most of the time there are a lot of lessons to be learned about spacing, timing and position that can't be learned at that level of intensity. It's uchi's job to take things to the right level of intensity and speed for the lesson at hand.

In each kata, as uchi we learn not just what attack to make, we also learn how to respond to shite's actions. By this I don't mean that we learn ukemi. It's not about learning to protect ourselves from the damage, though we do learn that. It's about learning how to move to the next position of strength, and why other responses are not as effective. We learn very blunt lessons about why not to try to muscle shite. There are many good reasons for each movement in any kata, and when we try something else, even if it's just putting too much raw power into something, we place ourselves in danger. There is a particular technique in jodo called kiri tsuke which involves shite responding to a shomen cut from uchi by evading and catching the uchi's tsuka with the end of the jo. Big uchi (like me) tend to want to really put their weight on the jo and force it down. That's just fine from shite's point of view, because that sets up a neat little flip strike that uses uchi's power and weight to drive the other end of the jo into their temple.

Uchi is specifically taught why putting their weight into things at this point is a really bad idea. At each step of the kata, uchi is taught how to uchi should act and why. Even if no one in modern aikido or judo uses the name, all those choreographed attacks and responses that you study to reproduce for the testing panel grading your shodan test are kata. Just like the kata in kenjutsu, jo, naginata, jujutsu or other budo that come from Japan. The difference is that in most aikido dojo there is a lot of time spent on how to be shite/nage/tori. There is also lots of time spent on how to take ukemi, but almost none on how to be uke.

I wonder if aikido training wouldn't be far more effective if as much time were spent on teaching people how to be uke as is spent on teaching people how to take ukemi. For example, if ryotedori kotegaeshi, if the teacher not only showed how they want shite to do the technique, but also how uke should do the attack AND follow-up, and why. A brief, "I see a lot of uke grabbing and stiffening up like this.... If this happens, the correct response from shite should be ...." might take care of much of the problem of inappropriate uke pretty quickly. If stubborn ukes know that stiffening up will get them something other than a frustrated shite, I suspect it will happen less.

More importantly though, I believe that both uke and shite will get a deeper understanding of the technique if uke is learning how to finish the kata and why they should finish that way. In most of the aikido dojos I've trained in uke really doesn't learn their role in depth, and what training there is in how to be uke is haphazard. I think for most of us it would help if the training in how to be uke was as systematic and formalized as the training in how to be shite and why to do it that way.

The traditional practice of always having the senior be uke means that juniors don't spend a lot of their time in undirected practice. All of their training time is maximized, and they learn the kata to it's full depths. When juniors in the shite side have a question about things, or need direction, it is right there and they don't spend time practicing things incorrectly. The juniors also have get immediate feedback when they try something they've been thinking about. Occasionally they may be thinking in the right direction, but usually they're not. A senior uchi can keep junior shites on the right path.

Surprisingly, the senior uchi also gets a lot out of the relationship. By the time someone is practicing the uchi part, they are ready to start exploring deeper aspects of timing and maai, which acting as uchi to beginners gives lots of practice in, since the beginner doesn't know what the "correct" timing and maai are. Additionally, the senior uchi gets to practice with someone who doesn't always do what's expected in the way of attacks, which means that they develop flexibility in their responses. With a beginner partner, they can't be sure their partner is going to actually do next what the kata calls for, so they have to be ready and able to deal with a variety of unscripted actions on their partner's part. Kata may be a set sequence, but until someone really learns those sequences, it can be a lot of other things too.

This is all part of learning to be an uke. Ukemi is the most basic skill of an uke, but it's not the only one, or even the most difficult. I think we do ourselves a disservice when teach people to do ukemi, but not to be ukes.

Peter "the Budo Bum" Boylan

Copyright © 2005 Peter Boylan, all rights reserved

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