By Mitsunari Kanai, 8th Dan, Shihan
Chief Instructor of New England Aikikai (1966-2004)
Chapter 5 – Ukemi
In this chapter, I will not address the complexity of defense in general; rather I will limit my discussion mainly to the relationship of Uke to Nage (the “other” or “partner”) by focusing on how to fall and/or how to be thrown. Even in this limited examination, we must recognize several key issues.First, one must understand the proper mental attitude appropriate to those who maintain and pursue the true form of “Bu” (martial arts). In developing the correct approach to ukemi, onemust learn to master the ukemi techniques appropriate to any kind of waza (techniques)received from the Nage. This implies both receiving the full force of the Nage’s technique, andalso making the Nage’s technique more refined or “polished”.Therefore one must understand these requirements while maintaining a serious attitude, as manifested in displaying correct manners to the Nage.The following are simple descriptions of ukemi techniques; however, one must not forget that the basics of learning ukemi require one to practice executing all types of ukemi with a flexiblebody, a sharp mind, and an accurate judgment of the situation. Also it is essential to abandonan overly dependent relationship to the Nage; that is, a relationship based on a compromise ofthe principle that Uke and Nage are connected by a martial relationship.
There are several implications of this relationship. For example, Uke must not fall unless Nage’stechnique works. Also, Uke’s technique must not depend on the assumption that the Nage willbe kind, or that he will fail to exercise all his options, including kicking or striking the Uke if openings exist.In training, one must polish one’s own technique as well as the technique of one’s partner, but at the same time one must maintain an attitude as serious and strict as if facing an enemy. This is the basis for a relationship that moves to higher levels based on a mutual commitment to polishing each partner’s Aikido.Koho Kaiten Ukemi (Back Roll ukemi)The basic requirements of Koho Kaiten ukemi are to be able to take a back roll without hurting yourself when being thrown, and further, to always recognize that the most dangerous element in a martial situation is the person whom you are confronting.You must practice with the understanding that the bottom line of Bujutsu (martial arts) is to protect yourself from the opponent(s) in any circumstances and at any point in time.
This imposes certain technical requirements on the techniques of ukemi.Failing to understand these requirements can create disastrous consequences for the current practice of Aikido. One can observe this in a commonly seen way to do Koho Kaiten ukemi.In this case, the Uke begins his Koho Kaiten by stepping back with the inside leg (i.e. the legclosest to the Nage), bending the knee until the knee is touching the floor (in a kneeling posture). The Uke then puts the buttocks down on the mat and first, rolls backward and then rolls forward while touching the same knee on the mat and, finally, stands up.Doing the backward roll in this way shows an insufficient awareness of the acute dangers inherent in performing all these movements directly in front of the opponent. What are these dangers?First, you must realize that stepping back with the inside leg means you are exposed to a kick.Furthermore, to lower the inside knee to the ground after stepping back in this way shows a potentially fatal carelessness due to the exposure to a kick, and also to the loss of mobility inherent in this position.
The error of putting down the knee before falling is compounded, after falling, by rollingforward and standing up directly in front of the opponent. This is proof that one is acting independently of the opponent and is in a relationship diametrically opposite to the martial situation, where one is completely involved with the opponent, and where one’s actions, to be correct, must acknowledge, and be based on, this interdependence. (The only exception is when practice is restricted by space limitations of a Dojo.) Rolling back while kneeling downand putting down the buttock in front of the other is a position exposing “Shini-Tai” (a “deadbody” or “defenseless body”) and, therefore, is a position in which you are unable to protect yourself.As long as Nage or Uke base their approach to practice on an independent relationship with each other, the assumptions underlying their practice will not be consistent with these assumptions of a martial situation. Because Aikido, as a martial art, is based on these (and other) assumptions, one cannot ignore them without compromising its essential nature.
Nonetheless, many people have done exactly this, and are practicing an adulterated form which should not be called Aikido because it has been drained of its essential character as a martial art. Approached from such a perspective, Aikido becomes reduced to a barren play, in which one can never produce or grasp anything from the real Aikido.Therefore, when taking ukemi, do not step back with the leg which is closest to the other! And,do not put down the knee when falling!What then is the correct way to take Koho Kaiten ukemi? Basically, you must take a big stepback with the outside leg and bend that knee without folding the foot so that the bottom of the foot continues to touch the mat. Then put down the same side buttock and do Koho Kaiten by rolling back over the inside shoulder, and then, after rolling over, stand up in Hanmi, take Ma-Ai and face the other.Depending on the particular technique received from the Nage, it can be appropriate to rollback over the outside shoulder (while still stepping back with the outside leg).In any event, to perform such correct ukemi, you must utilize the elastic power of the legs sufficiently. In Aikido, the “elastic power” (or “bending and stretching power”) is a basic method utilized to produce power or to soften power received from an opponent.
In the case of backward ukemi, for example, only by using the elastic power of the back leg after the backroll, can you create the momentum for standing up.You must use the Achilles’ tendon and the hamstring muscle (as well as all other muscles and tendons below’ the hip) as a part of creating power when you are being thrown, just as you usethem when you are throwing.Zenpo Kaiten Ukemi (Front Roll Ukemi)Step forward with the outside leg, i.e. the leg which is further away from the Nage. If, forexample, the right leg is the outside leg, extend the right arm forward while pointing its fingers inward and curve the right arm. Then make the outside of the curved arm touch the mats moothly and roll your entire body forward through, in order, the right shoulder, the curvedback, and the left hip.To complete the roll and rise to standing position, fold the left knee and position the right knee in a bent but upright position. Upon arriving at this one knee kneeling position, by using the momentum of the rolling, put your weight on the ball of the right foot and do Tenkan at the same time standing up and positioning yourself at Migi Hanmi to prepare for the next move.Complete the movement by taking a sufficient Ma-Ai which prepares for the next move of the opponent. Therefore, when one practices this Zenpo Kaiten movement the goal should be to make it low and far (i.e. lower in height and further in distance).