Thursday, June 26, 2014

Aikido's greatest hits

So the subject of atemi came up recently. Atemi, of course, refers to striking, punching, smacking, bitch-slapping, whatever. Ignoring for a moment the first five techniques of randori no kata / junana hon kata, we're talking about moments in other techniques (mostly in koryu kata) in which tori takes the opportunity to bop uke before moving on.

The student of modern aikido should understand that it did originate, after all, from arts that were designed and practiced by samurai—professional warriors, whose job it was to kick some serious ass. Now, for the most part, punching or kicking didn't do a whole lot of good when dealing with an opponent wearing armor (hence the predominance of joint locks, throws, choking, etc.), but samurai were occasionally called upon to deal with violent situations while dressed in their civvies, so why not add the proverbial insult to injury by cracking a rib before you pin him and politely separate his head from his shoulders.

But Ueshiba turned all that into an art of love and peace and harmony, right? Well, for one, Ueshiba did his fair share of atemi in his practice, but yeah, if that's you're approach to the art, and you'd like to refrain from doing something as barbaric as cold-cocking the guy, splendid.

And yet, it does pop up occasionally, as I mentioned, in the koryu kata (as far as Tomiki aikido goes), so it bares contemplating. Now, it does serve a purpose, but my concerns lie not in the why but the how.

Punching for realz
I'm by no means an expert, but I've studied enough Shotokan karate to know that there's a right and a wrong way to strike someone or something. Do it incorrectly and you're likely to hurt yourself as much, if not more, than the other guy.

So if you're going to keep strikes in your kata, beuno—but I would advise learning and practicing how to do it correctly, not to mention where to hit the dude. Alternatively, as many in our system do, the punch can be replaced by a simple shomen ate. It seems to achieve the same thing, it's in line with what we've already been practicing for years, and perhaps more importantly, uke doesn't get his bell rung over and over.

Do or do not
I'm a firm believer that what you do in practice is what you'll do in reality. In other words, if you practice the atemi in such a way that you feint the hit, or "stop short", that's more than likely what will happen "on the streets."

If you tell yourself that, "Sure, when I train, I pull my punches, but in a real fight, I'd really hit the guy," I suspect you're in for a bit of a surprise. That's a conscious decision, and fights often boil down to split-second, gut reactions—the subconscious. Which means, if you want to include the idea of really hitting someone in your training, you need to really hit someone when you're training.

This, as many martial arts can attest, can prove problematic. Most people don't like getting punched over and over, be they bad guys or friends and training partners. Which is why sparring gloves and protective headgear were invented, so that everybody can practice doing violent things safely. (Am I the only one that finds that idea somewhat ironic?)

Of course, sparring gloves can make it a bit difficult to perform any of the finer hand movements often required in aikido. Maybe use those padded, fingerless MMA gloves?

. . . . . . . . .

Ultimately, I'm not here to make a case for or against the using of atemi in aikido. I'm just urging folks to be realistic about it. Never forget that, while we will spend 99.9% of our time doing this stuff in a nice, safe dojo, with friendly folks and pre-arranged forms, etc., any martial art is fundamentally about very real, very violent, very dangerous situations. Even when used in the spirit of love and peace and harmony, chances are very high that someone is going to get hurt, sometimes badly. Better them than you.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Making sense of Owaza Jupon

The kata Owaza Jupon has always been a unique one in my mind. It feels sort of out of place, thrown in there between junana hon kata and all the koryu kata as an afterthought. I'm sure I'm not the first one to wonder why exactly.

And from what I can gather, it's not a very common kata either, even within other Tomiki schools (mostly American ones, it seems). Which means finding more in-depth information about it is tricky, and what I can find is often inconsistent.

But this is what I know so far about why it was developed, or what we can learn from it:

Who it came from

Owaza jupon was apparently developed by Hiroaki (Riki) Kogure sometime in the 1950s, who taught in the US for a few years in the early 70s.

More movement

It seems that much of the basic Tomiki aikido training coming out of Waseda University was typically exercised with a static uke. So, in an attempt to create a more dynamic situation, Kogure pieced together some techniques that demanded more movement. (From Eric Pearson's blog.)

Okay, that makes sense in that context. It explains why we typically attack from three steps out instead of one, the way we normally would. But our school has always been a fairly dynamic one, emphasizing constant movement, etc., so I still wasn't sure how I'd benefit there.

Ma'ai — Spacing or reach

Different spacing

Another idea is that it attempted to address is people coming in from a more distant ma-ai. Up until this point, most students train with uke beginning right at the edge of our little personal bubble, always reaching out and touching hands with uke to measure prior to executing the technique. This ingrains into our subconscious a more natural sense of where the boundaries of that bubble are, and how it relates to other people (or things).

At a certain point, however—probably around first or second brown belt, and certainly by shodan— students should begin working with more natural, spontaneous attacks from all kinds of directions and distances, without all the "get ready" business, so I definitely like the idea.

Go no sen

Different timing

Some practice it with a go-no-sen (or late) timing. While the techniques of junana hon kata are often practiced sen-no-sen timing (a middle of the spectrum, simultaneous, mutual timing), the Big 10 offers a chance to experience a more "oh, shit!" type of condition. We're caught unaware, we're unprepared, and all we can do is get out of the way.

Good idea in my book. Go-no-sen timing is often uncomfortable, a bit more frightening than the others because we're late and not in control as we'd like to be. Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable and creating harmony out of chaos is what it's all about.

Absent techniques

For some reason I've never understood, Mr. Tomiki didn't include in his katas certain techniques that are considered something of a staple in Ueshiba schools, such as irimi nage or shizumi otoshi. The Big 10 includes them, but it also includes some repeats from the 17: shiho nage, kote gaeshi and ushiro ate. Some simply consider these versions as variations, or henka, while others find them too redundant and have replaced them altogether with different techniques.


This one always gave me some trouble. Many teach that this kata should be performed with separating, diverging centers, as opposed to the converging centers in junana hon kata. Separating, separating, always moving, moving away.

For one thing, I've had a hard time seeing all of the techniques in the Big 10 really work from a separating mindset. 1 through 4, sure, great, makes sense. But aiki nage, more commonly known as irimi nage? Maybe, I guess. But "irimi" means "entering" which seems more converging than diverging. And ushiro kubi gatame, well, I'm hanging onto the guy indefinitely.

I don't know, you could probably debate me on all that, but more importantly, I wanted to know why? Why would I want to separate? What purpose did it serve?

From a strategic point of view, I would think that just tossing uke away would only give him the opportunity to get back up and come at me again (if he didn't injure himself in the fall, which would be foolish of me to count on every time).

In fact, I've heard a number of teacher extoll the need for a more definitive approach. From classical samurai bujutsu to modern-day law enforcement, ideally we'd like to control the situation as best as we can. Pin him, lock a joint, (or from a judo perspective, choke him unconscious). Draw your wakizashi, run him through, and sever his head for a trophy. Whatever—just don't let the guy have a second shot.

So why would I just... "let go"?

Multiple attackers

This is the angle that caused a mental light bulb to go off. One thing that no other Tomiki aikido kata covers is the idea of several attackers. Now, in that case, our strategy changes somewhat.

If I'm surrounded by three or more hoodlums or ninjas or whathaveyou, I can't afford to get caught up in doing all kinds of fancy-pants techniques and locks and so forth with the first guy, because his buddies will be on my back in the blink of an eye.

So what I think people are trying to get at when they emphasize "separating" is more along the lines of "minimal engagement" and constant movement.

In other words, how can I deal with thug #1 in such a way that I avoid getting clobbered, and maybe even do something to break down his balance, without getting so preoccupied that I can't react to the next guy in line? How can I give each guy a problem to deal with without me stopping and giving everyone else a sitting target?

But here's the thing: even in a multiple attack situation, I don't always want to just throw the guy away. Sometimes, I'd like to throw, or even hold, an uke strategically—say, between me and the next attacker.

With that mindset, I see techniques like shiho nage, ushiro ate, and kote gaeshi not as mere repeats, or even henka just for the sake of being different, but as ways of possibly hanging a guy in space quickly—not letting him fall, but not letting him get back up either—with minimal commitment, to act as a sort of temporary human shield. I can, to a certain degree, control when or where he falls. Ideally, into the next guy, or at least between him and me. Ushiro kubi gatame and even irimi nage are exceptionally good for doing just that.

. . . . . .

So, is any of that what the Big 10 was created for? Don't know. Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps only Mr. Kogure knows for sure. But for me, at least the Big 10 finally makes a lot more sense in my mind. At least for now!