Discovering Aikido: Principles for Practical Learning  ©





We must use time as a tool, not as a crutch.  John F. Kennedy


The irimi and tenkan, or as some say, omote and ura versions of techniques can be thought of as being suitable for different situations. For example, if uke pulls, tori could enter and perform an irimi type of technique. If uke pushes, then tori could perform a tenkan type of technique. Another way of looking at the difference is in terms of how tori leads uke's energy. In performing an irimi variant, tori is effectively returning uke's energy back towards uke and beyond. When performing tenkan, tori adds a little to uke's energy, initially encouraging it on, outwards, in the direction it was going, then redirecting. Yet another way of rationalising irimi and tenkan is in terms of time.

I liken irimi and tenkan thus: irimi reverses uke's energy back towards him; tenkan allows his energy to continue. This is not followed in the waza of many schools, but I use it as a basis of my rationale as it just seems to make sense to me.

Training with time in mind adds an air of reality to practice, yet training in timing is rarely specifically targeted in Aikido or other Japanese martial arts. Timing exists, of course, and it is learned unconsciously. Without a framework, however, many people do not actually know what it is that they know. Nor can they easily teach it.

Some timing related concepts and exercises follow:

Total Harmony

    Before worrying about timing, in Aikido it is first best for tori and uke to learn to do everything at exactly the same time, in harmony. Once you have learned to do everything at exactly the same time, then, you will be better able to alter the time.

    Total harmony with the attack occurs when tori harmonises with ukeís movement from beginning to end. As uke raises his arm up to attack so tori goes to meet it, as uke cuts down so tori deals with it. This is what happens in the dojo most of the time. It is excellent practice but it is limited to one method. As you train up to Shodan and beyond you will probably notice that all of the 'times' mentioned below are covered in your training (especially in your bokken and jo training). But at the same time, no one will ever point out these 'times' to you in any rational way so that means the skills you have are hidden. I like to think that if you know what you are doing and target it in your training, you will get better at doing it.

 Note: I have rationalised my ideas a little better since I published my original book. I now rationalise attacks into 7 simple 'times'.

Seven Attack Times (a practical training methodology)

All martial arts deal with timing but few appear to provide a clear structural framework of principles that embody timing as a principle unto itself. With a little imagination it ought not be too difficult to transfer concepts of timing to any martial art. Even better would be to structure oneís own training to formally incorporate it.


#1 Before the attack 1  →  No time

The first time is basically, no time. It is the surprise ambush, like when a policeman approaches a criminal from behind and takes him down before he knows what's happening. It is certainly not in the policeman's interest to let the criminal know his intentions in advance.

#2 Before the attack 2  →  Provoking a response

Tori feints towards uke who responds by raising their own arm in defence. Tori then takes uke's raised arm and performs a technique. The initial feint is irimi in nature, but only if the body moves forward, as in an irimi type technique (if only the arm moves, it can not be called irimi; it is just a feint in Aikido). At this time, especially if uke stumbles back slightly, then tori can take initiative with an irimi movement. However, if uke responds a little more strongly preventing an irimi entry, then tori performs a tenkan movement. A typical example of this timing is shomen-uchi ikkyo irimi, where tori initiates the attack and takes control as uke raises their arm in defence.

Four attacks in a 360 degree cycle

Imagine your shomen-uchi strike from beginning to end - it raises up and then it comes down. Think of it as a circle describing 360 degrees as it moves up and down.


#3  Tori rushes in and meets the attack as uke begins to raise his arm, anywhere from 0 to the first 90 degrees. Uke barely has the chance to think. Tori overcomes him the moment he decides to attack.


#4  Tori meets the attack between 90 and 180 degrees - as it is rising - and will likely perfom an irimi technique sending uke backwards for say, irimi ikkyo. It is almost as if tori sends uke's energy upwards, stifling the attack before it fully starts.

Tori rushes in just as uke has begun a shomen-uchi attack. It is almost a clash, but if tori catches it early enough uke will be overcome by a combination of toriís forward momentum and the element of surprise - an irimi technique will likely result.


Tori meets the attack early.  


#5  Tori meets the attack a little later, as it comes down, anywhere between 180 and 270 degrees. Here, it is natural to perform a tenkan technique, though it is sometimes possible to do irimi.


As uke begins to strike down with shomen-uchi, tori moves forwards quickly to meet it in the same time, and on meeting turns and deflects it slightly, adding energy to it. Tori typically moves ever so slightly to the side to avoid meeting the attack head on. Meeting at this slightly later point in time, uke's energy usually necessitates that tori perform a tenkan technique. However, while the initial movement is tenkan in nature, tori might decide to follow up with an irimi technique.

While practising, Tori can have the feeling of starting late, catching up and overtaking, or, moving at the same time in direct co-ordination and total harmony with uke.

  Tori meets the attack midway


#5-2  Tori disturbs uke's attack by cutting up as uke cuts down. This uses a different strategy but using the same time.

As uke cuts down with shomen-uchi, tori cuts up hitting ukeís strike at a tangent, contacting on or near the elbow and deflecting it slightly off course. Tori follows though with a new cut, adding energy to ukeís arm. If the follow up cut is fast, a tenkan technique will result, if slow and uke recovers slightly, irimi is natural. The feeling in the deflection is as if trying to knock something out of ukeís hand mid-swing.


As uke cuts down, tori raises his arm up to deflect.  


#6  Tori is really late and meets the attack 270 to 360 degrees. Here, tenkan is far easier to perform than irimi.

That point in time, after a powerful shomen-uchi or tsuki lunge where uke has momentarily over-extended themselves, is another opportunity waiting to be taken. At this exact moment, uke is likely wide open for an incapacitating strike and adding a little energy to uke's direction of imbalance offers an opening to begin a tenkan technique.


  Uke's attack has momentarily expired.


7 After the attack

After uke has over-extended himself, it is natural to recover. In this instance, tori should immediately harmonise with ukeís retreat and move in for an irimi technique.

What is apparent then, is that the distinction between when one should, and when one should not perform an irimi or tenkan type technique can be based upon the time of meeting uke's energy. It should also be pointed out that it is possible to mix irimi and tenkan together. One can start with an irimi movement and finish with tenkan, and vice-versa, but not recommended in gradings where one is supposed to keep them separate to show that one does indeed know the distinctions. Of course, those keen to learn Aikido should be aware that the above distinctions are rarely, if ever, taught in any rational framework.

* Adding spice to life

The above seven 'times' are a simple mechanical method. You 'interrupt' uke at different points (especially in Nos 3-7) along a particular attack. The earlier you meet - the faster you should be. But this means you are simply waiting for uke to attack and then respond.

However, you can learn to play with and control uke a little better if you initiate with #2 (either a real attack or a feint), and then wait for the response and deal with it using any time from #3 to #7. Or, you might offer uke an opening, a suki, an opportunity. When uke takes it you are again ready to respond. In this way, you are predicting or, rather, creating the future - a future where you are ready to receive uke's attack at a point in time of your own choosing. If you examine your bokken and jo katas, you may find more interesting ideas that can be used in empty-hand work.



Kendo Time

Japanese sword arts utilise three basic concepts for time. Note, sen means 'first/early/before' and in Japanese martial arts, some people like to translate sen as 'initiative'.

    go-no-sen : Literally, after the attack, or late initiative: Your partner takes the initiative, you see the attack, the attack finishes, and you act in response to that. This does not necessarily mean that your opponent has the initiative. Though it may mean that, a better interpretation of this concept is to allow your opponent to make the first move while at the same time, quietly waiting to take advantage of that fact. You may decide to offer an opening, which you use to lure in your opponent: he attacks first ... you lie in wait and respond accordingly.

    sen-no-sen : Literally, early initiative. Tori deals the attack as it approaches but before it fully arrives. Of course, tori should use his skill to lure uke into this 'time'.

    sen-sen-no-sen : Literally, at the same time as the attack. You attack just as uke is about to, or just as he initiates his attack, to fully overwhelm him. The attack cannot develop - it is smothered. The attack is pre-empted. The attacker's intention barely has the time to materialise into a strong physical attack..

To simplify all this for Aikido:

      EARLY  sen-sen-no-sen : Tori moves in early as uke raises his arm for shomen-uchi, pushing him straight back, for ikkyo.

      MIDDLE  sen-no-sen : Tori evades uke's shomen uchi by stepping to the side, adds a little downward energy to it (the 'time' finishes here), and then performs irimi-nage as uke rises.

     LATE  go-no-sen : Tori moves inside to evade a migi yokomen-uchi, and as uke's attack finishes, tori then steps in with a left handed shomen-ate strike as uke starts to recover.

* For an interesting read on all this in relation to O-Sensei and Aikido try: here


Miyamoto Musashi  (the ideas taken from his book, Gorin-no-sho, match those of Kendo)

    Musashi used the same basic concepts as in modern Kendo but gave them different names.

The first method/time is to forestall the enemy by attacking, which is called Ken No Sen (to set him up).

The second method/time is to forestall the enemy as he attacks, which is called Tai No Sen (to wait for and to then take the initiative).

The third method/time is when both you and the enemy attack together. This is called Tai Tai No Sen (to move at the same time)

Musashi states that, "There are no methods of taking the lead other than these three." (Musashi, Gorin-no-sho, 1645).



Italian Fencing time

Italian schools of fencing combine time with method to produce strategy. In fencing, one aggressive or one defensive movement is labelled as being done in one time, irrespective of the speed of the movement.

 dui tempo - double time: The simplest to understand and practice, but easiest to defend against. Here, block/parry and counter-strike make two completely separate movements.

mezzo tempo - middle time: Counter the attack as it develops, sometimes with the feeling of overtaking it.

in tempo - in time, or stop hit: Avoid and counter-strike in harmony with the attack, in the same time.

stesso tempo - one time: Intercept, deflect the attack, and counter all in the same time.

contra tempo Ė counter time: A counter attack is provoked, and exploited.

Of swordplay, George Silver (Paradoxes of Defence, London, 1599) explains his four true times: (1) time of the hand, (2) time of the hand and body, (3) time of the hand, body, and foot, and (4) time of the hand, body, and feet. His four false times are: (1) time of the foot, (2), time of the foot and body, (3) time of the foot, body, and hand, and (4) time of the feet, body, and hand. Here it is interesting to note that Aikido, a body art whose motion originates in the centre, appears to be based on his false times.

Techniques without time are nothing more than dead form. Training in the tempo of movement is a priceless tool of strategy; one can anticipate and predict or lure to create the immediate future. However, it must be remembered that European fencing is a hand art whereas Aikido is primarily a body art. As such, Aikido offers a few more variations such as taking the balance, adding energy to the attack, and looking for openings in the midst of movement to a different range of target techniques. One thing to be wary of is that a lot of basic Aikido techniques are based on the simplest and most basic Italian concept, duo tempo. If one has the knowledge of where one is in time, one can modify it to be different. A sensible learning strategy is to isolate examples of various times within Aikido training and to memorise and practise them.



While in South Korea in 2015 I was watching some Karate students training and came up with the following rationale. What I am trying to do is to come up with all the possibilities in terms of time in such a way as to become more aware of what exists to be trained. See what you think.

TIMING IDEAS                                                                                                                           RMJ Atkinson ©

On being attacked:

  • Stand still. Get hit.

  • Move, just avoid. No time to do anything else. Just ready enough to move.

  • Parry. Nothing else. No time to counter.

  • Parry and counter with opposite hand (double time)

  • Parry and counter with parry hand (double time)

  • Parry and counter with opposite hand at same time (single time, same time)

  • Hit the attack (direct against bone, or against joint when partner extends)

  • Parry and punch/push through (single time, same time)

On the attack:

  • Hit (partner not ready)

  • Hit as partner is getting ready to attack

  • On being parried, hit partner with other hand (double time)

  • On being parried, hit partner with other hand (single time, or close)

  • On being parried, rotate arm and hit partner with same hand

  • Strike the parry

  • Hit your partner going through the parry with a heavy arm

  • On being parried, hit the parry with the intention of using partnerís energy to get through the parry

       *No leading feints are included here



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