06 Mar Challenging the Uke-Tori relationship in Aikido
Challenging the Uke-Tori relationship in Aikido – By Tanguy Le Vourc’h
Since beginning Aikido, I have had the chance to meet a number of Aikido, Budo and Bujutsu masters; the main ones being Master Tamura, Master Kuroda, Master Hino and Master Akuzawa. I have spent a considerable amount of time attempting to develop their unique abilities, to feel and live their ways of moving their bodies. Understanding the meaning they give (or have given) to their practice, their system (physical, technical, strategical, philosophical), gave rise to a strong interest and many questions. Especially during the last 6 years, as my training consistently increased. I have the feeling that these masters have been, and are, mainly sharing the findings of their current research. Or, at least, the personal and subtle interpretations of their arts at their current state. I will always be grateful for their precious teachings.
I have realized that it is important to completely immerse oneself in the various ways of practising available and to separate meaningful information from the less useful one. However, above all, it is essential to study a form that has a personal meaning. A French aphorism, which can be understood as “he who mimics the teacher only becomes good at copying”, is a leitmotiv I find important. I believe it is too easy to hide myself behind the work or competences of my masters. Which would lead to answers such as: “Do that. My master said so”, “Do that and you will understand in 10, 20 years” or even “You need a lifetime to understand it”. I always had the feeling these excuses’ sole purpose was to keep some kind of power over a student and hide ignorance. Whereas a simple and honest “I don’t know” has the right to be.
There will always be a lot of “I don’t know” in my personal research. I have however taken the decision to study and share with my students a way of practising that fits my conceptions of Aikido, while maintaining enough space for them to experiment by themselves. A martial art is, for me, an art of surviving in combat. Aikido is a way of transcending duality. Martiality is the support, the mean. It is therefore not about eluding duality, or avoiding it by repeating choreographies with Uke (where Uke would symbolise the duality). In my opinion, living fully the art of combat allows to go beyond it. It has always seemed illusive and dangerous to speak about non-resistance, non-violence or harmony without feeling a real threat. I now try to avoid those fantasies and illusions – those concepts that are not physically felt. I have come to a conclusion: in my practice of Aikido, through the study of movement, only the meaning of combat and the constraints it imposes can lead to a better and deeper understanding of myself. For too long I have had the impression to miss what is, I believe, essential. This research of meaning drove me to reconsider the form of my work in Aikido, because many other means of study do not suit me anymore.
Here are the key elements that I imperatively wish to change in the work of Uke and by extension in the experience of various constraints.
- To reduce the lateral dimension of attacks, erase the openings.
- To remove any tells (or telegraphing) while attacking.
- To increase speed and power of the attacks.
- To perform attacks for a reason: grab the wrist just to grab the wrist leaves me dubious… When you grab, it is to hit or perform a functional movement. Same thing if you strike – it is to hit. Your attack needs to have an important destructive potential. There is strictly no point in attacking only to receive the technique.
- To perform attacks that allow continuity in the attacking motion or that offer the possibility to instantly go back to a defence and an efficient counter-attack. The attacker must be able to (and research how to) connect and continue his actions. There is no point in staying static as a rock after an attack, only waiting for Tori to execute his technique. Similarly, the attacker has to attempt to regain his balance (if Tori has unbalanced him) in order to continue his attack.
- To use more the second hand to continue the attack.
- Not to attack without restraint, throwing yourself in a suicidal manner.
- Not to continue to grip when another action is possible. I don’t see the point to keep grabbing when you find yourself in a vulnerable situation.
- Not to try to create a link. The link is already there in a combat, since the attacker tends to act upon you. It is the way this link is lived that matters.
- Not to attack upon a very approximate appeal from Tori. If the appeal is visible, there is no need to react to it.
- The roles of Uke and Tori must be interchangeable at any time. For me, there is no defence in Aikido, otherwise we are dependent from the other’s action. Where is freedom in this context? Tori has to be able to take the initiative at any point.
- To develop uncertainty in the attacks. This is a rarely studied element, but it is essential in my eyes. To perform a nice movement when we know where the strike is coming from and where it is going is one thing, and is part of the learning process. But it is only meaningful when the research evolves towards being able to do this movement in situations with a gradual increase in freedom.
- To develop situations with more and more freedom, with non-codified attacks. The attacks in Aikido allow us to become aware of the whole range of angles of attack and the tactics to put in place. Once these elements start to be integrated, it seems appropriate to me to include them in more varied movements and situations. A martial art must allow to develop an optimal adaptation capacity.
This obviously requires pedagogic arrangements. Aikido’s logic is not the one of combat sports and most of the techniques, when realised fully, are dangerous. It is therefore important to gradually increase the intensity and uncertainty. This will prevent an inhibition of Tori’s action, as he might not dare to fully attack for fear of injuring his partner, or as he runs the risk of being crushed by an attack with an intensity level above his current abilities. This is why components are added and progressed step-by-step, allowing a studying environment that is relatively safe.
We have in Aikido a very interesting display of attacks even though we usually use the simple basics. Some of them are banned in most combat sports, but are too often studied in a simplistic manner that they become risible. And then for an easy problem, comes an easy answer. However, nothing seems easy to me in the art of combat. If we wish to increase the level in Aikido and avoid becoming the laughingstock of the martial world, it is primordial to make the system of constraints and interactions between Tori and Uke evolve.
Original article by Tanguy Le Vourc’h “Remise en question de la relation Tori-Uke”, published on https://www.misogi-dojo.com/actualite-blog/item/53-la-relation-Uke-Tori-en-aikido
Open translation by Nathan Augeard, with permission.
 Uke: the one that receives
 Tori: the one that does the technique