Discovering Aikido: Principles for Practical Learning

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Ma-ai is the distance at which combatants engage each other; as this distance is shortened, the courage and skill of the warrior must be increased.  Donn F. Draeger

 

One should always be aware of one’s surroundings with a view to self protection. For example, even the dojo is designed with protection in mind. The entrance is ideally to the rear left corner (when facing the kamiza), where the lowest students traditionally sit. The teacher sits at the front with his back to the wall, keeping the door in full view. If the teacher wanders near the door, so they should become a little more aware of that potential source of danger, not turning their back on it. If a madman suddenly enters then those of more ability at the further end of the dojo have more time to react. The dojo is the teacher's space and it is designed for them alone. So, the next time when in a public place choose where to sit a little more carefully.

 

(a)   Distance

 

Negotiating distance.

 

 
  Ready to attack.

 

Distance, or ma-ai, refers to the starting position in Aikido from where uke usually initiates a one step attack against tori and this distance is usually determined by one's reach. For standing techniques tori and uke will be at least one tatami length apart, but less than two, and should be slightly different for every partner. For kneeling techniques, or suwari-waza, as the step is shorter, so is the initial starting distance. Typically, the distance is within one tatami length.

In preparation for the attack the ideal uke gets the distance correct; tori just waits. Sometimes tori and uke can be seen continually shuffling about in preparation. This scenario occurs when each is sure that their interpretation of distance is correct, and that the other is at fault. Clearly, something needs sorting out but it could also be a reflection of tori and uke being of a different size. Certain schools maintain different distances; some start closer, others further apart. This can not be right – distance can not be set exactly.

It goes without saying that putting a weapon in your hand increases the distance by at least the length of the weapon. When both partners hold swords, uke should typically be a ‘one-step-attack’ away from tori in terms of either tsugi-ashi or ayumi-ashi. When standing, the swords do not cross. If the swords cross, the fight has already started. Instead, the minimum distance between the two extended swords should be at least a few inches. It could be a lot greater, being determined by how far one could leap to strike, or at extreme even the distance one could accurately throw, or fear thrown, a dagger. Unfortunately, in modern Japanese arts, very little thought is placed on correct distance or length of weapons. Assuming the weapons to be of the same length, which they almost always are, remaining variables are length of arm, length of stride, and length of lunge. Obviously different for everyone, this means there can be no set distance, the measurement of which can only be 'negotiated' in the moment by each pair as they face each other. One with a longer arm, stride, and lunge would feel 'ready' and capable of attack at a longer range while their partner might want to edge a little closer, although might do so rather warily. Naturally, their tactics might differ too. For example, in the latter case the taller and longer in stride and reach might be more aggressive, the shorter more defensive. Now, if the swordsmen were free to choose their weapons, it might be that a short stocky swordsman with shorter arms would choose to hold a longer, but heavier sword closer to their centre whereas a tall, lanky, small-framed swordsman might decide upon a shorter lighter one. And if that same shorter swordsman decides to suddenly thrust holding with just one hand at the bottom end of the handle, he will gain several inches in an instant. Of course, all things being equal, if the object is to stick the sharp point into an opponent, the tall person with the longer reach holds the advantage. But as we all know, things are never all equal, nor does the best fighter always win.

When holding a jo (staff), much of the above holds true. When facing one's partner the staves should not cross. One should only be concerned about one's own correct distance. Some shuffling is normal. If the opponent is too close, then one either thrusts if confident, or retreats if unsure. Again, as in sword work, uke typically starts from a ‘one-step-attack’ away. However, as the staff is longer than the sword, then so the initial distance should be greater. In addition, tori should be at a distance whereby it is possible to step back just one step to avoid a long range one handed roundhouse type strike, typically to the knee. For each unequal pair there will be one optimal 'negotiated' distance. Both tori and uke have to figure out this optimal distance as a pair. In so doing, they will both learn how to fit together harmoniously, and later, they will also learn that they can take advantage of mistakes their partners make in their measurement of distance.

When using the tanto in Aikido, typically, one person has it, the other does not. Therefore it should be immediately obvious that the one who has it has the advantage of distance. That one should start in a posture with hand and tanto crossed is ridiculous, which should therefore establish the principle that to do so when both tori and uke have empty hands is likewise wrong. If a principle is to be principle it should stand the test of logic and carry over into other situations. Typically, the attack starts from one step away, and uke may decide to add spice and 'poke' tori should a suki (gap) emerge in their technique.

In Aikido, one does not normally kick. However, even though one does not kick, one should be in such a position that it is possible to do so, should one wish. Thinking like this will teach one the correct distance to maintain during the technique. Careful consideration here will see certain set distances that can be established. In terms of the feet, close enough to deliver a low side kick, a low instep kick, a knee to the ribs as uke comes down (as in ikkyo), a step on the foot, or a trip. If any of the latter are possible, it is fair to say the distance is good, but if one is between distances, and such counter-attack is not possible, then the distance could be said to be compromised.

The attack gives tori something to work with, hence the famous phrase, 'no attack, no technique'. In Budo, the best time to act is early and therefore, it is useful for tori to train to close the distance.

 

(b) Weapon length

Sword is shorter than optimal length.

The most distinctive feature of weapons in Japanese martial arts is that of each type, they are almost all of the same length. In Paradoxes of Defence (1599), George Silver, calculates the correct length of a one-handed sword as being, with the sword arm's (right) elbow fully drawn back, long enough to uncross one’s own dagger, or in other words, reach the fingers in the outstretched opposite (left) hand. Any longer, it advises, would result in one not being able to disengage rapidly if crossed (by withdrawing the elbow). Any shorter, it advises, would result in one not taking advantage of one's physical size. The size of the English short-staff (up to nine feet long) was calculated according to one’s height and length of arms.
 

 Staff fighting of olde was divided into short and long range: Short range fighting called for a half-staff position where the practitioner held the staff a quarter-length from each end, thereby holding half the length between the hands. In longer range quarter-staff fighting, one held the lower quarter-length end of the staff with the point squared at the opponent. Here we see two completely different strategies combined for one weapon. While there may be different methods of calculating the correct length of weapons, what is readily apparent in Aikido is that they are all the same - no thought is given to one's physical size whatsoever, although on rare occasions some do speak of a ground to armpit length measure for the jo. Further, if one spies an old Japanese suit of armour in a museum with a katana next to it, one can not fail to notice just how small that suit is in relation to the length of the accompanying sword. Surely, for a long-armed six-foot Anglo-Saxon a modern standard Japanese katana must be rather short. The blade of my own bokken is 29.5 inches; according to Silver’s method my six-foot frame could handle a blade 9.5 inches longer.

I have heard many times that the movement of the jo in Aikido represents that of a spear. Certainly, it must be a very short spear. All I can conclude is that someone must have chopped the pointed part off of an old spear for training purposes and then forgotten to have added a bit of extra length to make up for it. Spears are long, usually much longer than staves. Another possibility is that O Sensei incorporated Jukendo (bayonet) movements in to his Aikido training using the jo; he was known for his prowess at Jukendo whilst training the Japanese military before the War. Further evidence that the jo is not a staff can be found in the fact that in Jodo, the Japanese art of the short staff, the techniques are quite different, being more suited to a weapon the size of the jo. If I appear to criticise Japanese weapons somewhat for maintaining tradition over common sense, it should also be pointed out that after the invention of the gun in renaissance Europe, the design of swords was more likely to be dictated according to gentlemen's fashion than to function.

What is most important in Aikido practice is to search for and maintain common principles in terms of co-ordination, space, and time. What is learned with the bokken ought to correspond and not conflict with what is learned with the jo or empty hand. Weapons training offers insight into common principles and if ignored, one is likely to end up practising separate arts, and though one spends a lifetime at task, one might never understand. One is not likely to become a sword master by studying Aikido. If that is the aim, one must study Kenjutsu. Simply, the purpose of weapons practice in Aikido is to provide foundation for the empty hand techniques.

 

 

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