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TAE Journal, Edition 1: Thoughts on Atemi and Aikido - by Lewis Bernaldo de Quiros

Updated: Apr 16, 2022


Atemi in Aikido is a controversial topic. Various first-generation teachers of the art who studied with the Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, have made it very clear that atemi was an integral part of his practice.

'Aikido is 99% atemi'

(Morihei Ueshiba, as quoted in Traditional Aikido Vol 5 (1974) by Morihiro Saito, p. 38)

'In a real battle, atemi is 70%, technique is 30%'

(Morihei Ueshiba, as quoted in Total Aikido (1997) by Gozo Shioda, p. 24).

And yet it is clear that the ethical basis of aikido forces us to evaluate atemi as something more than simply delivering a high impact blow to another human being’s body:

'The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter — it is the Art of Peace, the power of love'.

(Morihei Ueshiba speaking of a vision of the "Great Spirit of Peace" in 1942, during World War II, as quoted in Adjusting Through Reflex: Romancing Zen (2010) by Rodger Hyodo, p. 76).

So how can we understand atemi and its place within the practice of aikido?

We can understand atemi at three levels:

  1. Lethal contact atemi as a technique in itself which decisively ends an encounter by rendering an opponent unconscious, crippled or dead.

  2. Non-lethal, but painful, atemi used to create distraction or distortion in an opponent’s body.

  3. Non-contact atemi that is used to create an opening in an opponent’s defensiveness thereby allowing for the application of a technique which neutralises them without further injury.

In general, when atemi is employed in aikido it is in the sense of #2 or #3 as above. However, what most aikidokas are unaware of is that being able to call out an opponent’s defensive reactivity and effectively ‘capture his ki’ and attention as in the #3 of atemi, requires proficiency in #1.

George Ledyard in a good article on atemi illustrates this point clearly as follows:

Imagine that you are standing behind a perfectly clear sheet of Plexiglass and someone throws a baseball at your head. If the throw is done powerfully, with speed you would cringe and duck even if you knew the Plexiglass were there. If the throw was done by simply lofting the ball you would probably not react at all. The ‘not striking’ use of atemi must have all the energy and potential of a real strike or it will not create the effect on the partner, which it is designed to accomplish. The weak atemi thrown by many aikido practitioners will simply have no effect on a motivated and trained attacker.’

Another issue is that many techniques in aikido are practiced against atemi as an attack. However, given the lack of training in this area, these atemi are generally weak and unfocused and hence do not allow for developing any real ability in dealing technically with attacks of this nature.

So how can we develop ability in atemi as aikidokas? Is it necessary for us to cross train in other martial arts? While there are many different ways of practicing and developing ability in striking, what we seek in aikido is a system of atemi that fits in with the principles we are already using in taijutsu and weapons work (buki waza). We do not want to develop a system of striking which is at odds with the ways we are developing following the principles of Riai. This would not strengthen our aikido, but potentially weaken it. So, while it is important to be exposed to other martial arts, cross training where different body mechanics and principles are emphasised can potentially disrupt and confuse one’s own aikido. What we want is training in atemi that fits in with what we already practicing in terms of body work. Where the fundamental dynamic for generating power is to:

“Source power from the ground, direct from the center and express through the periphery (hand or weapon etc)”

This same dynamic must apply to atemi. The best way to really develop this is by using a makiwara. Other useful tools are impact cushions and punch bags. With the makiwara, we seek out the above dynamic by striking the target slowly and without power at first. This also allows us to gradually condition our hands. We only increase speed and power to the extent that the dynamic is active. Once we can really feel the dynamic with a simple basic punch, then the dynamic is translated to other strikes. Generally, this process of training takes time. Just as does feeling the dynamic in weapons or taijutsu practice. In the end, there needs to be a synergy between everything we do in Aikido. Weapons, or empty handed, the feeling of generating power should be the same. Generally, this type of training (with a makiwara, impact cushion or punch bag) should be done initially under supervision from someone knowledgeable in the practice to avoid injuries and to make sure the practice correctly orients us to the objective we seek to achieve. In this, functional considerations in seeking out the fundamental dynamic for the generation of power (as stated above above) includes consideration of:

  • Feet-hip-elbow-hand alignment;

  • Distance, timing and rhythm;

  • Solo exercises drills;

  • Impact drills (makiwara, impact cushions, punchbag etc);

  • Precision (both in terms of target and body weapon use).

Atemi within techniques:

  • Core waza: ikkyo, nikkyo, sankyo, kote gaeshi, shiho nage, irimi nage;

  • Advanced waza: kokyu nage, kaiten nage, koshi nage;

  • Free techniques (jiyu waza) against atemi: tsuki, shomen uchi, yokomen uchi, mae geri;

  • Slow motion attack and blend > freestyle technique games.

In the Iwama Dojo in Japan, Saito Morihiro Sensei de-emphasised the role of atemi at the basic level of training, choosing instead to focus on the fundamentals of ma-ai (distance, angles and timing) ukemi (receiving), kuzushi (balance breaking) and tai sabaki (body movement) while teaching the core techniques (kihon waza). However, [Saito] Sensei would often explain the above principles by referring to atemi. All the above key issues would be highlighted when potential openings in nage’s technique were considered in the light of uke’s ability to follow up an attack with atemi. Furthermore, at more advanced levels of waza (practice), such as henka (variations) or oyo (applied) waza, atemi were always included as vital aspects of the technique. It was also obvious that the seniors (godan and above) in the dojo all had considerable ability in atemi when practicing techniques against their attacks. So, it was clear that while the focus was on awase (blending), ukemi and kokyu within the regular training, a basic proficiency in atemi was also expected from students at the dan levels. Proficiency in this area was not practiced in regular classes, but was expected to be gained through one’s own efforts.

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