In budo, like other physical endeavors, the interconnected factors of space and time (rhythm and timing) are crucial. In Japanese, the term for “space,” in between objects and opponents is “ma,” and the character can also be pronounced “aida,” as in “in between.” It is the space “in between” yourself and your opponent, the empty field that defines the potential of attack and defense, the ma-ai(the “meeting” space). Like music, however, “empty space” between notes or opponents aren’t “empty” in a sense that there’s nothing there. Potential is there. Fullness is there. Emptiness is necessary for fullness. Spaces between individual notes creates a song, its tension and melody. Space between adversaries define the field in which they fight, and the person who can control the space (and time) best is the one who wins.
An understanding of ma-ai (the proper distancing) is important, but many martial artists of even respectively high levels in their specific art aren’t aware of it beyond their particular specializations. Worse, kata-based training (especially when done individually, such as in karate kata and iaido) may make a person ignorant of proper ma-ai.
I thought of that the other night as I was watching my iai students go through their kata, and I felt that they weren’t thinking about what they were really doing. They were just going through the motions, like automatons. I had them put aside their metal swords, pick up wooden swords, and pair off. One person would go through the first form, for example, rising up out of seiza and then cutting horizontally at his partner, who sat five feet away, holding his wooden sword vertically in front of him. The intent was that they were to cut right at about the height of the partner’s temple, were his head at the bokken distance.
On first attempt, most of them missed. Then they were to slide forward as their partner slid backwards and raised his bokken horizontally just above the top of his head with two hands, striking downwards as in a head strike. Some of them missed by not sliding forward enough, others overshot and struck the horizontal bokken with the bottom edge of their wooden blade.
We went through the first four kata and the performance were pretty much just as bad. They weren’t paying attention in their individual kata exercises and it showed when they tried to do the forms against an actual target at a specific distance.
The strength of “free form” or “sparring” in some martial arts is that in working with a partner in a fluid, ever-changing exercise, you can learn to adjust automatically to an opponent’s timing and space, unlike what can happen in such individual kata-based training such as described above. And, lest I paint iaido and karatedo too broadly, that is why there are kumite forms and free sparring in karatedo, and paired bokken kata in our iai style. Doing things solo all the time may make you look great, but it all goes to heck if you don’t know about proper distancing.
However, specialization such as in sportive martial arts can also lead to a narrow understanding of ma-ai. The mai-ai a judoka will be comfortable with, for example, is primarily that of gripping the opponent standing up, or grappling on the ground. It’s a very close ma-ai. Put the judoka at a distance comfortable for a karateka, and the judoka will feel uncomfortable and out of his league, and will attempt to quickly close the gap. Conversely, get a karate person on the ground, pressing gi to gi, and many may panic out of lack of familiarity with that fighting distance.
In modern composite martial arts, such as MMA, where fistic, kicking and grappling elements are all allowed, the ability to adjust to different distances is perhaps more obviously part of the training.
The problem there though, is what modern self-defense and classical martial training realizes: that grappling and punching-kicking distance awareness is not enough. What if the attacker held a weapon? That’s a totally different ma-ai.
There’s an article that Diane Skoss, of Koryu Books, wrote about being a woman training in koryu budo. She made a comment that, even after years of aikido, she never understood mai-ai very well until she started weapons work in koryu. Then all of a sudden, she had to deal with opponents who came at her with short staffs, long staffs, naginata, spears, swords and all sorts of weapons, long and short.
Such training gave her an innate understanding of the elastic, variable nature of ma-ai, dependant on the situation, attacker, angle and weapon.
That is why, I suspect, that Okinawan karate and aikido included some kind of weapons training in their curriculum. Even Kodokan Judo had weapons work, but discarded them as it evolved into more of a specialized sport, and less of a martial system. If you don’t get out of your comfort zone in ma-ai, you won’t understand proper distancing. So this is an argument, in a way, for studying weapons if you are primarily a grappler or puncher-kicker.
In classical systems, there are various terms to explain ma-ai. The most common are the three different terms of toh-ma, uchi-ma, and chika-ma to denote the three basic distances. Depending on the weapons (or lack thereof), toh-ma is when the distance is too far (toh- is from the word for “far away,” toh-i) for you or the opponent to strike, unless you take steps to close the gap. Although you can begin to engage the enemy at that distance, you won’t be struck easily.
Chika-ma is when you are too close to effect the proper attack in your style or using your weapon. For example, what may be just right for a grappler (skin to skin on the ground) is much too much chika-ma for a swordsman, who would need enough space in between to swing or thrust his long sword.
Uchi-ma is the perfect striking distance. For swordsmen (and these three terms are derived from mostly bladed systems), uchi-ma is when you can take just one step forward and strike your opponent. If using a sword, the sharpest cutting part of the blade, the first third at the tip, will strike the opponent. If the bottom two-thirds strikes the opponent, you are too close.
Uchi-ma is a dangerous situation to be in, because if you can hit the opponent, the opponent can also hit you. So you have to nullify that by striking quickly before the opponent can strike, moving out of distance, or attempting a tactical maneuver, ruse or changing the angle to make it hard for the opponent to strike you while you can strike at the opponent at will.
In one school that I studied, the proper striking distance is described as issoku-ittou; or one-step, one strike. In other words, the effective combative attack distance is when you can take one step and strike immediately.
The problem with ma-ai is that there are so many variables. Not just in terms of weaponry, but also in terms of rhythm and timing, angles of attack and positioning of the attacker and you. All of these will affect proper ma-ai. Space and time are not separate entities. They interact with each other.
While we’ve been discussing the physical tactics of handling space, we can’t also forget the mental/psychological and psychic overlay of spacing. In esoteric doctrines in some sword schools, even standing at a distance, you have a kind of mental uchi-ma; i.e., you can still be too far for a quick strike with your sword, but if your spirit and energy is strong enough, you can already attack the opponent.
I’m not talking about the overblown fakery of many “ki” or “chi” masters who claim they can knock someone out with a wave of their hands. Such claims, as far as I’ve seen on YouTube videos, have usually proven to be more about group hypnosis and the power of suggestion than actual martial prowess. I’m talking about focus and attitude that can overwhelm an opponent’s own fighting spirit from a distance. …Sort of like psyching out the opponent before you even start a fight.
Think of it this way: according a fictionalized account of the swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, Musashi already attacked his nemesis Sasaki Kojiro even before their swords met on Ganryujima. Kojiro, impatient at Musashi’s tardiness, yanked his sword out and threw away his scabbard in frustration, yelling at Musashi for being late to the death-duel.
Musashi just smiled and said, “You’ve already lost, Kojiro.”
Kojiro demanded to know what Musashi meant, and Musashi calmly said, “Only someone who knows he’ll never be alive to put his sword back into the scabbard will throw it away.”
That drove Kojiro into an even greater rage and he ran at Musashi, throwing aside all strategies and schemes. Musashi had unbalanced Kojiro’s mental attitude, striking him from a distance using psychology. Musashi knew that while he was still too far away to physically strike Kojiro, he could use his wiles to strike at Kojiro’s mental state.
This gets into more esoteric concepts, of which different classical ryuha will have different things to say, based on their own theories and approaches to combat.