12 May Giving to receive: uke, a cornerstone of the learning process
Giving to receive: uke, a cornerstone of the learning process – by Alexandre Grzegorczyk
It is commonly admitted that a whole life of practice is necessary to understand the essence of budo. This affirmation could be debatable, but it is nonetheless true that learning is a never-ending process. Near the end of their life, many masters reported only starting to understand principles they have been studying their whole lives. For example, Funakoshi sensei, aged 80, stated “I now start to understand face-level blocking”.
Such testimonies display lifetimes of studying, with a continuous questioning and constant remodelling of their practice. It is obviously not exclusive to martial arts, as the same mindset can be found with many musicians, painters or artisans. Personal study is a mandatory step in progression; however, practice cannot fully exist without a partner, especially in arts of the body. Having good teachers and good uke is a non-negligible factor of our evolution.
It is often stated that uke and tori are two sides of a same coin, both required for a budoka’s evolution. When one is in class, about half the time is spent as uke and half as tori. The teacher usually divides his time between demonstrations, explanations and corrections. The latter typically takes few minutes per exercise. Uke’s role then becomes important to help tori progress, but also to optimise his own learning time. Even though tori’s technical work is often emphasized, uke’s work remains essential.
However, uke’s role is rarely discussed nowadays, except for ukemi as it is one of the first things to be taught (for safety reasons mainly). It is generally one of the few moments where one is taught how to be a study partner. The term partner implies a relationship based on mutual help, contrary to the term opponent. Does this mean that uke’s role is simply about receiving the technique? Does uke have to simply and passively wait for his turn to be tori?
Etymology and history
Uke is a Japanese word made of the kanji 受 and the hiragana け. 受 represents the meeting of two hands exchanging an object. It expresses the idea to receive a gift. け is a kana pronounced ke. Uke, literally meaning “the one that receives”, is a term found within the verb ukeru (受ける). This verb describes the action of receiving, but also to accept, to follow.
By having a closer look at uke’s role in Japanese martial traditions, we can find this term in many koryu such as the Katori Shinto Ryu school. In this school, uke defines the instructor or the senior student “receiving” the student’s attacks. In the Toda-ha Buko-ryu school, two notions are found: uketachi, “the sword that receives” (once again a senior or a teacher) and conversely shitachi “the sword that acts” (the one doing the technique: the beginner, the student).
Nowadays, the student is asked to be tori and uke from the beginning of practice. However, some koryu keep a hierarchy in the formation of the school members. For example, this is the case of the Shinbukan school. In class, Kuroda sensei makes all the students feel the correct movement during the asobi geiko. While studying katas, students practice by level groups. When working with a direct student of Kuroda sensei, 90% of the time is spent as tori. This might sound confusing at first, but Kuroda sensei wishes to stay as close as possible when passing on his teaching. By having that much time as tori, it is easier for the student to understand the direction of study.
Due to our current sociocultural context, it would be an illusion to implement this kind of learning process, given the regular renewal of students within a dojo. But then should the importance of uke in the learning process be reduced? Uke’s role naturally finds its place in a koryu, and has even a more importance nowadays. As students spend less time on the mats, it is important to make the most of each learning opportunities.
Uke, a cornerstone of progression
As discussed above, the uke’s role originally had a very important part to play in the development of tori, and in practice. One can imagine the student studying for several hours (up to several months) before becoming uke. Tori’s role can be studied through various learning situations, ranging from more open to relatively closed. It is impossible to deny the importance of a sincere relationship between those two entities. The quality of practice will result from it.
An uke mimicking an attack, with no real intention, will affect differently tori’s work than an uke attacking with a lethal intention. Similarly, there will be some difference between an uke grabbing tori to prevent movement, and a reactive uke grabbing with an aim (i.e. to strike or project).
For a while, I struggled to understand the meaning of grabbing in order to block the partner, with no other objective than preventing him to execute a technique. It reminds me of a large practitioner who once came at the dojo. He tried to prevent Jean Luc Dureisseix, my Yoseikan Budo’s teacher, from doing a technique. We were working on katate ryote dori, ikkyo. After few seconds squeezing Jean Luc’s wrist as strongly as possible, the practitioner started to get tetanized. Jean Luc kindly asked him “Is that all you got? Can’t you squeeze any harder?”. Frustrated, the guy tried to block him even harder. Jean Luc gave him a mae geri in the shin, and he fell to the ground, in pain. Jean-Luc reminded us that this kind of grab is meaningless in this context of study, and even more in a martial context. He further added that when someone does not understand, his body often does. Too focused on the idea of blocking the arm of tori, the practitioner forgot that the other arm and legs were ready to attack him.
This anecdote is not a criticism of this kind of work, that focuses on the unification of the whole body in order to move uke without physical strength. Nonetheless, this is a specific study situation, in a very precise framework with no martial meaning. It is therefore important not to be tricked by our study approach, and re-contextualise each situation by defining the objectives of the work proposed. Just so, thinking that blocking someone is relevant to a martial situation seems to be wrong.
In Koryu, the grabs are usually very light due to the fragility of traditional kimonos. In the Shinbukan, when we start working on the asobi geiko, the grabs of Kuroda sensei and his students remain very light, but far from less efficient. When they work with us, incorrect movements are blocked. But the correct movements get through. Blocking with the sole purpose to block has no meaning. It is only normal for advanced students to allow tori to refine his sensations. Their higher level of understanding of the school allows them to block an incorrect movement. But if the knowledge of the correct movement is not understood by uke, what is the pertinence of blocking tori?
By watching again an interview of Mochizuki Hiroo, I found an excerpt where he describes the training method of his father. He discusses the strength of the grabs linked with competitive work. He also shares memories of the suppleness that his father (Mochizuki Minoru) showed when he was grabbed, which was similar to the grab of Mifune Sensei.
To adapt to each partner rather than imposing
In a warlike context where the partner is susceptible to hide a weapon, a powerful grab loses all its interest as it leads to a vulnerable situation. It can happen that a seasoned uke releases the keikogi to protect himself or to modify his attack in case of threat. This level of practice seems to go beyond a simple grab, where one aims to maintain it as long as possible.
I remain convinced that a technique should work despite uke’s reactions. In a real situation, what would be the best solution: try to force a set technique upon uke, or immediately adapt oneself to turn the situation to one’s advantage? Any practitioner who experienced “free practice” (i.e. where no attacks, techniques or roles are predetermined) or sport-related fights (i.e. matches or competitions), will confirm that it is impossible to make a kaeshi waza succeed without an instantaneous adaptation. Especially when aite could be physically more powerful.
While reading Osensei’s writings, I found this quote: “When the opponent moves forward, let him enter. If he moves backward, push in his direction”. It demonstrates the importance of a continuous adaptation to aite’s attack in Osensei’s practice. This adaptation is a principle common to many budo.
It is therefore important to question the pertinence of uke’s work in a given situation. As uke has a key role in the study process, the following question emerges “what do I need to execute to help tori to study?”. Obviously, it is not about accepting every technique from tori and maintaining him in a constant illusion of success. Uke’s role is to offer a surmountable level of difficulty, helping tori to progressively improve. For example, Leo asks uke to challenge tori at least two times out of four. Within a study situation, the identification of the partner’s level and the awareness of which elements can challenge him is important in order to offer a surmountable difficulty. This constructive difficulty is to be tailored to each practitioner.
In the video, Ueshiba Sensei is the uke of a young student. As a good study partner, he does not try to block tori, but guides him into finding the correct movement. It is justifiable to ask the following question “why block a beginner when the form is not yet correct?”. Would you place some obstacles in front of a toddler learning to walk, or would you help and guide him towards a self-sufficient gait? Why ask a toddler who is not walking yet to jump over an obstacle?
To optimise study time, studying while being uke
As discussed earlier, uke is far from being a passive role. Uke is both responsible for tori’s and his own progression. When practice time is divided between these two roles, it always seemed to me that limiting learning to tori’s role is be a waste of time. Being uke is, for example, the occasion to work on one’s maai, attacks or intention. Uke can also look for the slightest flaw, correct tori and sharpen his eyes to instantly adapt himself to any perceived openings (in the scenario of a conflict). Uke’s role is important to study these key points.
Uke’s aim is to adapt to his partners’ level, without putting aside his own learning. This will lead to a continuous, common and personal progression. For example, by working on his attacks, uke will be able to progressively offer a more challenging study situation. Uke’s attacks will also become more meaningful, by having an increased efficiency. Efficient attacks are less likely to be made the laughingstock of the combat disciplines. As an aikidoka, uke will be able to push tori outside his comfort zone by offering a progressive difficulty. This progression is a requirement to understand the underlying principles of our practice.
Understanding what the teacher asks to help tori’s progression is an ongoing battle. Thusly, uke will seek to find the best way to support aite’s learning, while avoiding solely waiting for his time to practise.
Kindness, harmony and compassion are major principles shared between the two partners. To receive it is primordial to be able to give. Uke’s role is much more important than what it seems. Uke allows the recontextualization of each study moment, aiming for a simultaneous progression while maintaining the martial essence, necessary to the study of budo. Uke is therefore one of the main actors of success.
Original article by Alexandre Grzegorczyk “Donner pour recevoir : uke, un des piliers de l’apprentissage”, published on 25/01/2016. Link: https://alexgrzeg.wordpress.com/2016/01/25/donner-pour-recevoir-uke-un-des-piliers-de-lapprentissage/
Open translation by Nathan Augeard, with permission.
 Kaeshi waza: counter technique
 Osensei: Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido
 Maai: distance, timing