40. Riai: The Meaning of the Meaning

The kanji characters for "riai."

It was, as I recall, one of those hot, humid, oppressive summer days that Kyoto is known for, when just standing in the shade will elicit buckets of perspiration. We were taking a sorely needed break from training and drinking iced tea in the little meeting room in the back of the dojo, gathered around a low table with a hibachi burner set in it, and I absent mindedly picked up a Kendo Nippon magazine that had been left on the table.  I flipped through the pages and found a photograph of a rather well-known teacher demonstrating a short, bladed weapon. I showed the photograph to my sensei.

“Oh, him,” he said, nonchalantly as he gulped down his iced tea and glanced at the photograph. “He’s okay. But he doesn’t understand the riai of that weapon.” Then he turned away to talk with another student.

I was somewhat taken aback, because I knew this teacher had a whole big crop of students in Western countries waxing eloquent about his masterful techniques. I thought, cynically, that perhaps there might be a bit of professional jealousy in my sensei’s rather blithe, off-the-cuff statement. Or, perhaps, he could be right. I couldn’t tell at the time.

However, some ten years later, I was engaged in some impromptu, informal cross-training with a senior instructor of another koryu, and in the course of our talking in between physical training, we somehow got on the subject of this teacher. Without my prodding, he said, “Oh, yeah. Well, X sensei is okay. But he’s like a journeyman teacher. He can teach the techniques but he really doesn’t understand the real riai.”

Amazed, I told the instructor that my own sensei used the very same words in describing that teacher. “Huh!” he replied. “Well, I guess great minds think alike!”

So inasmuch as Chuck Clark prodded me to talk about riai, I was somewhat hesitant, because I myself am still wrestling with the core riai of my own style. I wouldn’t want to have the same rep as that teacher.

On the other hand, while it may be really hard for me to discuss the particular, individual riai of my own styles of budo, I may be able to say something about the general notion of what riai is. I think. Well, let’s see…

My trusty Nelson kanji dictionary defines the two kanji that make up the word as meaning “reason,” or “ri-“ (principle, truth) with “coming together, meeting, or harmonizing (“-ai”).  In other words, in budo, riai is the underlying principles behind a technique. That’s as simple an explanation as I can give, and in most cases, that’s enough. Riai, in a way, is similar to the word bandied about frequently in karatedo schools: bunkai (analysis, reduction, parsing). (However, as the Nelson translated meanings make clear, they are somewhat different.)

In any case, on a superficial level, riai is simply explanation of the “meaning” of a technique or waza.

Okay, Grasshopper, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop right now, right? It can’t be as simple as all that.

So here it is. That defination of riai is good enough for most students. Certainly, for the average middle-class, suburban kid taking a kurrottee class in a shopping mall dojo, it’s plenty sufficient. We’re talking about students whose willingness to alter his/her mental, emotional and spiritual attitudes to delve further into the culture and ethos of combative arts as precariously limited, after all, so there’s nothing wrong with stopping there and letting them enjoy the experience, if that’s what the dojo is aiming for.

“Ya step forward and do a jodanzuki, which means you close the gap and punch the guy in the face! That’s the riai!” yells the sempai. Makes sense to me, the kid thinks. And for a maturity level and understanding of a preteen, maybe that’s all he/she can absorb. So let’s not be too harsh. For a lot of folk, that’s all they need. Step, punch, kick. Make some noise. Go home and don’t think about it until next practice.

Or, let’s say you’re in an aikido workshop and there’s some 50-plus people in attendance, with varying skill levels. You explain a kote-gaeshi technique. The guy grabs your right wrist with his right hand, and so you throw him down. The riai? Well, the guy is grabbing you so you throw him by stepping a certain way and twisting his wrist, forcing him to either take a tumble or you dislocate his wrist and elbow. For a large audience of  mixed levels of understanding, that should suffice.

But let’s take apart the notion that riai is an understanding of very, very core principles. In fact, if you were to drill down into that one technique, you would come up with some pretty heavy duty core principles that underly all of aikido.

First of all, why in heck are we starting that way? I mean, why let the guy get close enough to grab you, and then why does uke grab your wrist? One criticism non-aikido folk make of the art is that it’s “impractical,” it relies on the notion that people will grab your wrist, or take these huge, arcing swings at you with an open palm, like a sword attack. If somebody nowadays wants to fight with you, they don’t attack like that, critics say. They’ll come at you with boxing punches, or be hunched over and try to grab you MMA-style, or kick you…

The mistake critics make is based on a lack of understanding that the kote-gaeshi forms not only teach a particular reaction to a particular attack (a wrist grab), it teaches a generalized reaction to many forms of attack, be it a grab, punch, or kick: irimi, contact, control the attacker and control the timing and distance, become the center of the movement, and execution of a defense that renders the attacker unable to counter, in fact the attacker is yanked off balance by his own momentum.  Understand these general principles in kote-gaeshi, and you begin to see a glimmer of insight into nearly all the other kata of aikido. Miss it, and no matter how many forms you know, you are still not doing aikido right, because you don’t really understand the riai.

The same, I would hazard, goes for for karatedo, or any other budo. If you don’t understand the core principles behind the art, your techniques won’t look coherent. You’ll be doing something, but there won’t be a unity or cohesiveness. The techniques will look like disparate, unrelated actions. It will look choppity-chop.

On the other hand, the mistake defenders of aikido often make is they try to defend the particular method (like defending against the wrist-grab) and not stressing the riai, or core principles, that the particular form teaches. Sure, maybe you don’t see a lot of wrist grabs in a MMA bout. But you do see some fighters attempting some Muhammad Ali-type slipping and entering to counterpunch, some sophisticated fighters with jujutsu training using rudimentary but effective principles of disbalancing and control, distancing, and attempts to control and put pressure on the opponent’s joints. Those are core aikido principles, and are the riai to aikido, only in a different, more pugnacious expression.

But why grab at all then? I think here’s where to understand the riai, you need to have a cultural perspective as well as a technical one. Aikido was founded by Ueshiba Morihei. His main jujutsu teacher was Takeda Sokaku, who taught Daito-ryu. Sokaku was a formidable swordsman, and Ueshiba also had grounding in many weapons arts. As someone who came out of classical jujutsu and kenjutsu, Ueshiba might have been teaching what he thought was a breakthrough, novel approach to budo, but his thinking had a heavy imprint from older, classical martial arts. And one of the main axioms of  jujutsu schools was that, before the age of guns, the most formidable attacker you might face if you were unarmed was a swordsman. Sure, spears or halberds could kill you too, but swords were really scary. Imagine a two-foot long razor coming at you. Even a shorter tanto or wakizashi could hurt like the Dickens. And “back in the day,” a lot of people carried some kind of bladed weapon around for self-defense, if not for status. A person bent on violence would just as soon cut you than punch or grapple with you.

So, if you were going to attack someone, what was the biggest worry? His sword hand, his right hand, would grab his sword and cut you in retaliation. Hence, you’d grab his right hand first, nullify it, and then punch him, kick him, slap him or dance with him. Whatever. Maybe, if you grabbed him with your left, you could draw out your own sword with your right hand. Just don’t give the guy a chance to draw his sword out.

The fear of the opponent drawing his sword out was why a lot of attacks in jujutsu begin with a wrist grab, and why it carried over into aikido. That’s what an attacker might do, way back in the old days.

Seen in that light, the reason why so many attacks by uke in aikido are those large, somewhat “unrealistic” swings with a knife-hand is that they replicate a sword attack.

The riai, therefore, can be superficial: it can mean, well, here’s the guy grabbing your hand. So you turn, twist his wrist and throw him. That’s what it means. Period. End of story.

Or, you would have to dig deeper and deeper. WHY is uke going for your hand instead of trying to wrestle you down? Because in principle, in the old days, if his right hand was free, he’ll just take out his dagger or sword and stab you.

Now that we have that explained, why twist-turn and throw? You could just as well punch uke in the face and run away. Well, because uke could just as well have a very tough jaw and when you’re running away, there’s nothing to stop him from chasing after you and continuing his attack. Plus, by training in aikido, you might be able to subdue the attacker without resorting to methods that would lead to permanent damage. So you need to learn methods that will deflect the attack and then control the attacker in a substantial way, without putting yourself too much at risk. You are committing to trying to end the violence, not run away from the violence. That is, I think, a fundamental principle in aikido that even many aikido people don’t understand. Aikido may espouse “blending” and “peaceful” budo, but it doesn’t mean you run away from violence or allow yourself to be destroyed by it. It means you face aggression and meet it with redirection and blending, not giving in to violence and laying down and dying.

So you learn entering methods, or “irimi.” He grabs, you move off the center line and enter to a side, creating a new line of movement and direction, but without giving him an advantage. Rather, by entering, you render his frontal attacks more awkward. Whether it’s a right-hand-grab, a punch, uraken or kick, the PRINCIPLE of irimi will still hold true. Enter by slipping in. Aikido impractical? How many boxers would give their eye teeth to become really good at slipping a punch to the outside?

As you enter, you use your movement and the attacker’s own momentum to help pull the attacker off balance (like judo’s kuzushi principle) even before you execute the throw. The twist of the wrist is only the topping to the cake, which is the total body-control and disbalancing, and includes pressure on the attacker’s elbow joint and shoulder.

In kata form during a regular aikido session the throw can seem suspiciously lacking in brute force to really work, but that’s the way you learn the principle of maximum efficiency with the least amount of exertion (another judo principle, actually). If you can do the technique with a maximum use of body movement, irimi, kuzushi, angle and timing, then you are focusing on technique, and refining your technical abilities, and using a minimum of brute strength. Strength, as the saying goes, can of course enter the picture, but much, much later after you have figured out the more important (and harder to acquire) parts of the technique.

What you might find, if you practice kote-gaeshi long enough, is that the entering, disbalancing and joint pressure/throw can be applied in different situations, in different counters, and in different applications, IF you truly understand the underlying riai, or principles deeply enough. Consider that a leg is simply another kind of mammalian limb, like the arm. So you can apply the PRINCIPLES of a kote-gaeshi on even a front kick. Or a jab, or a grab to the head. It’s just that aikido started with a wrist grab due to cultural baggage, and it’s a good way to start still now, in the present day. But for the curious, consider looking at variations, perhaps after regular practice. I’m sure you’ll find it will still work. A kote-gaeshi can work against a karate-style stepping punch, if done with proper timing and disbalancing. What if it’s a jab and the arm is retracted too quickly for grabbing? Did I say you only had to grab the wrist? There are other parts of the body (other arm, neck, upper arm, etc.) you can grab, disbalance and apply pressure to in order to knock the person off balance.

Core principles of a martial art were once often contained not just in the first few kata and the most advanced kata, but also in succinct, but mysterious, poems and sayings. Muso Gonnosuke was supposed to have figured out how to create the Shinto Muso-ryu jo when a vision told him to “Seek the suigetsu with a log.”

That one simple phrase may, in fact, contain the core principle behind most of the jo methods, if you know what they are.

Our own Takeuchi-ryu has several poems and sayings that are supposed to aid us in understanding our methodology. The longer I trained in the ryu, the more I realized that, like other martial arts, the key to really getting good at it was to constantly go over the first basic kata and keep on trying to perfect them. The moves contained the entrée to all the other subsequent kata.

Then I finally was taught the “okuden” jujutsu methods, or the “secret” techniques that were the foundations for our entire grappling curriculum. These turned out to be extremely effective, but simple, general principles that, in some ways, returned you to the beginning, but with new insight in the mental and attitudinal states of mind. However, the only way to really grasp the okuden techniques was to have a solid understanding of the riai of the most simplest, most basic kata in our school.

Just as kote-gaeshi is a foundational technique in aikido, there are foundational techniques in other martial arts that, if properly understood, will enable an understanding into the riai not just of that technique, but of the entire curriculum.  And the wonderful thing about understanding riai is the discovery that it can go from a simple notion to great complexity, but in the complexity there is a beautiful simplicity, if understood correctly.

21 thoughts on “40. Riai: The Meaning of the Meaning

  1. Wayne, here is how much you helped…I just finished reading what you wrote and IMMEDIATELY posted the link to the (closed) Facebook group that our aikido dojo uses to share information. The only thing I added was an opening comment that everyone should read and re-read what you wrote, then use your thoughts to inform their own practice.

    Thank you.

  2. To add to Wayne’s excellent description, I prefer the terms “union, unification” for 合 rather than “meeting” or “harmonization”. So “riai” is not mere principles, but the unification of principles into a whole. There are a number of differences among classical ryuha, as well as modern kendo, and various schools will disagree on various things. But sit a group of people from various sword backgrounds in front of some bad youtube swordwork, or crappy cinematic choreography, and they’ll generally wince together. What they are wincing at is the lack of riai.

  3. Josh,

    Good point. Yes, “union” may be a better definition. And I have a whole slew of “crappy martial arts videos” stored in my YouTube account. It’s not that I go hunting for them. They just pop up when I start looking for “swordsmanship,” or other general search items, and if I click on them by accident, I’m just blown away by how bad they are, as if there is no sense of what they are doing, in light of so much information that is now out there to compare to. I save them as a source of sheer, perplexed, amazement that there’s no self-awareness on their part. Amazing.


  4. My first encounter with ri 理 was related to Buddhism. The concept of ri is multi-faceted. The general definition that I came up with is: universal truth; reason, a Buddhist term that means why something is ‘what it is’ and riai 理 合 is appropriate blending of theory and technique in action. There is also ji 事 – artistic, technical approaches designed by man to demonstrate or practice universal principle and truth. Doing movements (waza or kata) that have no ri are said to be muri 無理 or without the essence of “what it is”… or empty movements without understanding the essential meaning or proper intent. I’ve heard senior kodansha watching a judo kata mutter, “Bakka, muri” and walk away without further comment.

    I first began to learn about this when I was around Ernie Cates – sensei, but didn’t really get it until I was a yodan in both judo and Tomiki ryu aikido. I was told my kata began to have real riai when I was a godan, and I could actually feel the difference. I was really getting the timing, etc. of real kuzushi and understanding the fitting that should be there. It’s difficult to write or even talk about this without hands on, but when riai is there it’s visible to someone that knows and often even by the sound of the movement, connection, and ukemi.

    I’m sure that your experience in tea is the same. You can feel and spot the riai and certainly can tell when it’s just empty movements. It can look the same to those without eyes but to someone who knows, it’s obvious that it’s a sham, empty, performance event rather than real “doing” with riai.

    There’re some good stories about this subject, as I recall, in Trevor Leggett’s book, “Zen and the Ways.”

    Hope this makes some sense …. Lots more could be said, but it’s very difficult to write about in just a few words. I wrote this a couple of days ago and just now read the new comments. I like Josh’s idea of “union”… I think it goes along with the “appropriate blending of theory and technique in action.”

    Best regards,


  5. Chuck,

    A wonderful extension of ideas and thoughts. I’m starting to enjoy this “blog” thing mainly because it allows an interchange between some really insightful folk like you and Josh, and many, many others. Maybe one day we can put this into a book, …by Wayne and….all the guys posting? That would be fun.

  6. Chuck’s comment trigger a thought about Confucius and ritual. The rituals were meaningless unless they were sincere, and when they were sincere they were a natural expression of a man’s higher character.

  7. It reminds me of some discussions I had with C.Y. Pang, a noted Pakua and Tai Chi teacher, who did his own translation of the Confucian classics. He said the problem with Confucianism is that many of his followers historically followed the form, but not the heart, of Confucius’ teachings. It led to empty form and ritual that were for their own sake, not for the true betterment of society and humanity.

  8. The ability to “read someone’s intent” is one of the tools of budo that many have neglected because they’ve been taught by lower level instructors that hadn’t reached that level of training.

    Many practitioners’ mind is taken up with: fear of the opponent, worrying about ‘winning/losing’, whatever they’re planning on doing “to the opponent”, what others think of them, etc. The act of taking sente (the lead) by entering and “filling the connection and time/space situation” of the two (or more) participants leaves us with ONE instant of connection, not separate entities. Kuzushi should happen in this action, and the waza “fits” what’s necessary to keep the sente and is the kake or finish of the cycle of action. All of this happens in one action… rigi ittai. Whether it’s a cut with a sword, jo, or tai jutsu waza, it’s the same intent/action all in one connection of action. All waza, tachi waza, newaza… no difference, the intent is the same.

    The idea of compiling this sort of interaction/exchange of ideas, etc. into a book is interesting Wayne. It could be done and be very interesting and valuable, I think. It would be a daunting undertaking though, I suspect… and worth doing.

  9. Chuck,

    Certainly the compilation would be a very long-term, far-in-the-future project. Let’s see how far the discussions on this blog goes. By the way, I’m starting a new blog soon about me and my dog. It’s taken from some short articles I wrote for a local ethnic paper. They printed my silly first piece, but as a community-based paper, I didn’t get paid for it at all, nor was I expecting to be. But it was fun, and I decided to do more.

  10. I read it and enjoyed it! Maxine is sure a sweetie… I can tell from the photos. Funny thing, Sherry Baby is almost 10 months old now and several of us that are around her frequently have noticed similar things. She has moments now that are very similar to when Aaron was about 6-7 years old. There’s a noticeable look in her eyes and posture when she realizes that what she just did is “puppyish” behavior and she changes to what she now knows is more “appropriate” and then she comes and wants acknowledgement and congratulations! It’s very cute and, at the same time, powerful. She’s a keeper for sure! It’s great having such a wonderful dog as Susie Q that she can model from and that was part of the plan.

    1. Some budo folk don’t need pets, some do. It’s really funny. I remember the first time I met Phil and Mieko Relnick, teachers of Shinto Muso-ryu jo and Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu, and instead of discussing koryu, all we talked about were our iPhone apps and our dogs. Dave Lowry, standing on the side, must have thought we were all dog-crazy nutcases.


  11. I seem to hang with budo people that are also dog/cat people who also love to cook, eat, and drink quality beverages… Phil and Nobuko Relnick just got into dogs a couple of years ago and they’re like new parents with their babies… kinda cute, if you know what I mean. When all of our dogs get together it’s “interesting” and lots of fun.

    1. Chuck,
      While I’m not much of a drinker, I do love good food. And I’m usually the cook in the house, experimenting with all sorts of recipes. So I seem to fit into your profile! Stoics in the dojo, epicures in the kitchen.

  12. I really enjoyed your blog on riai. I have trained in aikido and now study a koryu. You explained the concept very well. Thank you.

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