61. Being Uke

The young man came up to us after our group embu (demonstration) was over, excited about our particular part wherein we demonstrated a variety of jujutsu and weapons forms. He walked past me, as I was putting away our wooden implements, and strode up to my friend.

“Sensei,” he addressed my student. “Is there any way I could join your group?”

My student shrugged his shoulders, nodded his head in my direction, and said, “Well, you have to ask the teacher over there.”

A look of confusion arose in the teen’s face.

“But…you beat him. Aren’t you the sensei?”

“Nope,” my student said. “He’s the teacher. I’m just a lowly student.”

“I…don’t get it…” the young man said, and instead of coming up to talk to me, he wandered off back into the dispersing audience, still confused. He must have been thinking, “How good can that teacher be if he let a student beat him up?”

That was the first time I had ever participated in a koryu (classical Japanese martial arts) embu on the Mainland, but I was told that such confusion over roles in kata between junior and senior happens a lot. People don’t understand the context of how a kata is taught or performed in koryu. This is due to a huge gap in perception about the role of kata in training, and in the role of uke between what it means and how it’s perceived by people who don’t have much awareness of traditional training methods.

In paired kata training, the role of uke (or whatever name is given to the symbolic “loser” of the kata) is often the role of the senior student.

For the person who looks upon martial arts as a kind of ego-expression, like showing off who’s the big dog, this makes no sense. If you’re the best, why do you deliberately let someone “beat” you?

The reason is, in kata training, the junior is the one most in need of learning the form, and learning it right. So he has to practice the “winning” side more. It’s not a matter of ego or individual glory or beating up the weaker student. It’s a matter of pulling everybody up together as a unit. The ones who are least capable are encouraged in training to rise up to meet the level of the others. The ones who are most capable take on the task of helping the junior students to rise to their potential.

Being uke in koryu training is also a harder row to hoe than always being tori, or shidachi, or whatever you call the “winner.” There are various reasons for that. As the one in the “teaching” position, you have to focus not only on your technique, but also on what the junior member is doing, so that you can correct the person’s technique. You also have to move in a proper way so as to elicit the proper response from tori required in the kata. Such movements are harder than you might think when it comes to advanced level forms.

As one example, even the first short sword kata in my style makes very little sense if the “loser” didn’t shift his weight in a particular manner, creating openings that the “winner” learns to take advantage of. If both sides only go through the motions, without being aware of how to shift weight and movement in reaction to each other, they’re just doing things by rote, without any understanding of the kata. That’s like doing kata robotically, without any life or meaning.

When, in the kata, the attacker bears down with a one-handed cut to the head, “tori” blocks it and grabs the attacker’s fist. The assumption is that uke is very aggressive and tries to bear down on the block, so you go with his strength, pulling his arm and sword down and towards you, while twisting the knife back at his own face. He is pulled off balance to his forward, with the tip of the knife pointed right at his nostril. That’s a very awkward position, so he would naturally try to pull back to regain his balance and avoid being poked by his own knife. That creates an opening in which tori can jump in, pivot, and throw the attacker to the ground.

Sometimes, my students just don’t get the subtlety of the forms. They run through the motions, but both sides don’t “listen” or “feel” the other side’s body movements and rhythm. One of my senior students is a lot blunter about correcting their mistakes than I am. I try to talk my students through their errors. My senior sometimes won’t budge if the technique doesn’t work, and since he’s north of 250 pounds, it’s pretty darned hard to move him if he doesn’t want to go, and if he’s still in balance.

I couldn’t help but laugh once, when he was working out with a junior student who didn’t disbalance him enough and then tried to effect a throw. The junior student kept pulling and pulling on his arm with two hands and there the senior was, standing straight, looking at him, while the frustrated junior looked like Wiley Coyote from the Warner Brothers’ Road Runner movies, making all sorts of facial expressions, gasping, wheezing and straining with all his might.

“You have to disbalance me first,” my senior student said, looking like he was ready to take a smoke break because he was bored in the middle of the kata.

Being a good uke also requires not just knowledge of the techniques of both sides of the kata, it also requires that you can ramp up or lower your speed, timing and strength to challenge the junior member to up his/her game, but not so much that they are overwhelmed.  The danger of having people of the same rank train with each other is that, unless they are both very earnest and careful, they will only train up to their shared level, not higher. Training with a higher-ranking senior allows the junior to try to meet the senior’s level, and the senior has to be careful to raise the bar higher and higher according to the junior’s capabilities.

The ideal training situation, therefore, is to have other students who are higher and lower ranked than you are. You get a feel of where you stand vis a vis your technical abilities, you learn from a senior and upgrade your skills, and you are able to teach a junior and upgrade his/her skills.

The unfortunate situation with my own group is that it has always been very small, and my best, longer-term students had moved on to different locales. The current students’ levels of capability are pretty much the same, which sometimes can lead to a certain amount of complacency among them. They are about as good as each other, so they think they’ve progressed. I try to bring them up to my own level of expectations, but too often they revert back down.

So one day, I thought I’d try to inject some fire into their bellies by going a bit beyond the comfortable amount of bo forms they knew. I was going to teach them a bit of the okuden (higher level “secret”) bo, I said. Maybe that would inspire them to work harder at their basic techniques. The students were all excited to be learning the advanced kata.

They’re really not too hard, technically speaking, except that they are the “fighting” bo kata. They were meant to be performed at a speed and intent that mimicked an actual combative situation. If your basic form or technique wasn’t up to snuff, you won’t be able to hack it.

So I showed them the tori part slowly. Then faster and faster until we reached an appropriate level. Then I said, okay, we’re going to do it as a formal kata. I paired off with a student. I spun my bo up to vertical, signifying that I was about to attack him and he should get ready. He flexed his knees in response, getting ready to move. I attacked with a head strike at full speed.

His eyes widened in surprise at the rush of the bo heading for his head, he tried to grab his bo with two hands but couldn’t get the proper grip because in the basic kata he had the bad habit of moving his hands around to find a grip rather than getting a proper position right away, and then he tried stepping back but tripped over his own back leg because he also had a bad habit of crossing his legs when stepping forward or backward into a too-narrow stance. He fell right on his rear end.

I sighed. Well, guys, back to the basic kata. See, basics are important. You have got to have your stances, grips, body movement nailed.

Describing this incident, I don’t mean to embarrass my students. I want to illustrate that the goals of kata training is to reach a level of competency and speed that mimics actual combative situations. The basic forms teach the foundations. If you don’t master the foundations, then doing the advanced forms is not going to make you any better. You’re just going to be doing them as badly as your crappy basic forms.

And again, in order to reach that level, a junior student needs to work with not just people at his level, but with seniors who can push him to reach a higher level of competency. There needs to be a constant upping of the ante until you reach a high level of technical ability. Being satisfied with mediocrity is not an option.

In the teaching of a kata, you will see in aikido dojo the oft-used training regime of show-and-do. A sensei will demonstrate the technique. You see his form and try to imprint how he does it into your psyche, then you pair off and try to do what he showed.

There’s nothing wrong with this system.  You need to see the best example of a form before you can execute it yourself. How does the importance of being a good uke fit into this?

As teachers of educational pedagogy will tell you, this is actually a pretty complex operation, fraught with possible dangers. For one thing, some aikido dojo (and I’m only using aikido as an example because it’s the first that came to my mind…I can just as well use a karate school, or a koryu school) will take the “show” part to great lengths, but not any “explain” part.

So you see it happening, but in some dojo, a junior may have no idea conceptually what’s going on. That, educators would say, doesn’t address learners who learn by logical, mental processing, and so this only works well with students who are kinetic learners. These students are the ones who can watch a movement, internalize it and repeat it with their bodies without having to consciously think about it too much. All of us are spread out across a wide spectrum between being kinetic and mental learners.

Part of this may be cultural. Many traditional Japanese groups prefer not to talk or cogitate much, and depend more on “doing” it right. Part of the situation might be cross-cultural. A Japanese teacher perhaps starts up a school. His English is minimal, so he relied upon showing and not so much explaining. His students become teachers, and they imitate his way of teaching. Who knows?

All I know is, in Japan I happened upon some VERY verbal teachers in my koryu schools, who loved trying to dissect the kata for me so I could “get it” not just physically, but conceptually, mentally and even emotionally.

This may seem to be a bit of a digression, but the important thing is, in the typical “show and do” kata training, the teacher demonstrating has the advantage of usually demonstrating with a high-ranking student, who knows how to be uke. So the form looks good. It’s not because “uke” fakes it. Far from it. It’s that a good uke knows the meaning of the kata, can play the right role, and is able to elicit the proper defensive response to the proper attack.

When a junior tries to repeat the performance, he/she is at a disadvantage, therefore, because he not only is trying to figure out how his own body has to move, he sometimes is working with an uke whose movements and attacks and responses are less than optimal for learning the kata properly. If you manage to work with a higher ranked partner, you will probably find that your technique will improve faster. Your partner will be able to point out corrections and steer you in the proper direction.

So what also helps is if the junior is working with someone more advanced than him. The senior, as uke, can speed up a student’s progress. Having a great uke is bliss. You can figure out your own technique without worrying that uke is not going to hit you the wrong way left when he should be cutting right, for example. Uke is going to come at the right speed and distancing, so you can really see how the pristine, foundational kata form really works.

So, again from an aikido perspective, that’s why the teacher moves around the pairs and often takes the part of tori again with the partner’s uke, showing how it has to be done with that particular partner, how the kata is particularized to fit that person’s abilities, height, weight and timing. The teacher can also point out the junior student’s mistakes in an individual manner.

I realize now, too, that I really liked working out in judo and aikido with people who had better abilities than me because they pushed me to improve my own skills, and they also drew me up to try to reach their own level. Sure, in judo I’d get thrown or pinned a lot more. But it forced me to improve, and it also forced me to absorb their own skill sets. I could throw around students at a lower level than me in judo, but I wasn’t really developing my style or skills if I just beat up lower ranked students. Working out with better people made me better.

Does this attitude of being a good loser also have some meaning for competitive martial arts? You bet. If you are doing something like judo, sometimes it’s a good idea to be a kind of “uke” to help the other student grow. I used to help out with a friend’s kid’s judo class. If an elementary school-age kid managed to do an Osoto-gari halfway right, I’d take the fall and give the student self-confidence and an awareness that his technique is getting better. That made the little kids happy and not so frustrated, they learned something, and I learned to sense a good throw from a bad throw, and how to take a breakfall from any position or throw.

I was taught to train that way in judo. You don’t frustrate junior students. You help them learn, so sometimes if a throw is halfway decent, you go with it. Not all judo dojo preach this philosophy. Some dojo will encourage you to fight like the Dickens no matter who you randori with. It does make for an interesting anecdote, though:

Once, when I went to a big, multi-day judo seminar, I let the little kids throw me or pin me if  their techniques were technically clean. I would let them fight out of a throw or pin if they showed good spirit and technique. One particular teenage kid with a brown belt used to like to work out with me. I think he got a kick out of throwing around a black belt.

On the last day of the workshop, we had an informal batsugun tournament. The person who won the most matches and continued against other opponents would win the tourney. We started with the littlest kids, moving our way up. I went up against several very big black belts, and luckily managed to beat a good number of them before I was decked with an ippon myself. So I won the tournament based on having thrown or pinned a whole lot of other black belts. I chalked it up to sheer luck, and maybe because the other, older black belts were more tired than I was from the week-long training camp.

Apparently, the brown belt teenager didn’t realize that during practice, I had let him throw me. At his dojo, everyone fought tooth and nail and didn’t give an inch when doing randori. He came up to me, amazed that I had won against black belts who decked him out all over the place.

“You…you let me throw you?” he blurted out.

“When your technique was good, of course. That’s how I was taught to help teach young kids,” I said. “Didn’t you realize that?”

Apparently not. He then insisted that I work out with him at our last, post-tourney randori session.

“And don’t hold back! Don’t hold back!” he insisted.

Are you sure? I asked. He insisted. He wanted to see how he would match up to me at full speed. So okay. We bowed, we locked up. I got him in a Seoi-nage and threw him hard and fast. He bounced on the floor twice, got up, ran off the mats and held his head between his hands.

“Are you okay” I asked. Yeah, yeah, he said. He shook his head…Then he ran back at me, grabbed me, and tried to throw me. I flicked it off, and when he pivoted back to face me, I used his momentum and did a Tai-otoshi, and bounced him again on the mat, then immediately pinned him. And unlike the times when I let him escape, I put all my weight on him and smothered him so he had to tap out because he couldn’t breathe.

When we bowed out, after I had bounced him around and pinned, choked and arm-locked him, he shook my hand and said, “Wow. That was great.” Then he walked off, his feet wobbling under him like he was drunk.

Ah, memories. I don’t think I’m currently capable of even half that kind of endurance and strength anymore.  My competitive days are long, long behind me, so these are the anecdotes of a grumpy old fart.

But the lesson remains: even in competitive style budo, if you are concerned about raising up the skills of the lower ranking students, you can’t just constantly beat them into the ground.  You’re only teaching them how to lose. You have to guide them, raise them up slowly by giving them little victories, by being a sort of “uke” in free practice, so they can model being a “winner.”

And for kata geiko, being uke to a junior can be a harder role to play than being tori, because of the fact that you have to not only perform your part well, but you have to watch your junior partner and analyze his movements at the same time.  “Losing,” in this context, becomes actually harder than “winning.”

11 thoughts on “61. Being Uke

  1. Brillianant article, I think this should be as widely spread as possible, to all budo students , throw egos away and teach and learn from each other, I wish this had been told to me many years ago, I see how I helped others but was not helped much myself, and eventually left that training, now I understand a little why I left, when my son beats me , I will point him to another harder challenge
    , so he may be luckier then I was,

    Keep up the great work
    Ps:no more karate 80’s disco please , I went through the 80’s and don’t wish to be reminded off the styles

    1. Greg…getting philosophical here…sons should always surpass their fathers, and then the role of caregivers reverse. The way of life.

      Oh, and no more ’80s disco karate. For now!

  2. Wonderful, Wayne… really enjoyed reading this, especially first thing in the morning. 🙂

    I’ve always said that being a good uke is the hardest part of our practice. I’ve had experiences over the years similar to your description in this piece. I’d rather have a really good uke that just about anything else I could think of… in fact, if I had to choose over winning a huge lottery and getting to have my son on the end of my arm for the rest of my life, I’d choose the great uke. If it wasn’t my son, though, I’d take the money and train another great uke and pay them a salary for ever…. 😐

    Take care, my friend.

    – Chuck

    1. Chuck,

      Yep. I love a good uke because when I teach, it’s easy to explain how a kata flows a particular way, how you react and counteract a particular movement. With an untrained uke, it’s like trying to teach something that already is half-messed up. On the other hand, teaching someone to be a good uke is part of the training. It’s teaching not to “lose,” but to be able to react in the best way to avoid as much damage to oneself as possible. Anyway, glad you liked the blog!

  3. I sincerely hope this doesn’t come across like kissing-up (especially since we’ve never met and your training world and mine are pretty far apart) but I have to say that it is refreshing to see an “older” martial artist who doesn’t seem too full of himself. Many that I have known, or read (particularly in the world of koryu) tend to be a little….haughty, and look down on others or take themselves a bit too seriously.

    Your openness makes your blog much more reader-friendly; and your dojo too, I’m sure.

    1. Kyokushin,
      I can’t say I’ve met many koryu folk who are stuffy, but maybe it’s the circles I run in. I AM opinionated, however, although I try to keep it to myself unless pressed (in person) or on this blog…! Thanks for the note, though!

  4. As we’ve talked about before, lots of parallels with the role of skilled moderators and role players in force on force tactical training….. I also like the clear distinction made between training developing basics (including an uke) and training for developing actual fighting skills.

    1. Kit,

      That differentiation in forms training is something I was thinking about for a long time, especially in our bo kata. I wondered why the sets were compiled that way, and it took me all this time (and teaching, and practicing them) to (duh!) figure out that t here was some kind of practical teaching intent. Some people can go full blast right away. A lot of people can’t, and maybe they never can even in a year or two. The “basics” build up skills to move a student up to full speed level.

      However, I’m thinking about a concept new to me: that there may be dangers inherent in repetitive basics that we have to consider, which is why a lot of koryu (in the beginning) had very little “basic” training moves, or at least “basics” as we know them. Shinto Muso-ryu jo had NO kihon to speak of, from what I understand, until Shimizu sensei developed some in the 20th Century because he was having a hard time teaching staff work to modern Japanese budoka, police and military folk who had no previous abilities in handling staff or real swords. There was a reason for the lack of basics, not just primitive teaching methods, hinted at by someone senior to me, and something I have been thinking about quite a lot. I’ll write about my thoughts later, perhaps…


      1. There is danger in any element of practice which is not done mindfully or honestly — kihon is no exception. Nor is kata itself. Nor the reishiki . . .

        (I’m beginning to think the overarching lesson of budo is paying attention to everything, all the time! It’s *hard*.)

        The idea that kihon wasn’t needed before modern times because everyone grew up around weapons has certainly been out there, and it does make sense. In this vein, it can have an important role for practitioners who are *not* able to train with the group several times a week — one simply cannot get enough iterations of a sticky movement under the belt under those circumstances to learn it, without some sort of kihon. But it has to be done with intent.

        I love your judo story. My favorite memories of judo are working with folks like that, and I try to emulate them when I am in the senior role.


  5. Wayne, a similar problem exists in mantra practice… unless the correct image is formed in the sound it becomes repetitive nonsense that is empty of the real essence of the vibrations. Meditative practice that has only the form, the posture, a properly shaved head, etc. are often called “bullet heads” by others. I’ve seen many, many kata (of all sorts) that are mu ri because they’re just empty movements… no matter how they “look”, how fast, powerful, crisp, etc. they seem to the uninformed eyes. The force of the intent, it’s raison d’etre must be inherent at it’s core. Hatha yoga that has no internal qualities becomes just positions of the body and stretching exercise. Musical pieces become just a bunch of notes in some order without the powerful intent of the musician. All of this becomes just mechanics without fuel that makes it full of fire… the appropriate human intent.

    Repetitive movements of kihon by those who don’t also have the riai are sure signs of beginners and, no matter how long the practice is, or how many repetitions are “performed” they never grow into the real thing without the connection of seniors and teachers who are already there.

    – Chuck

    1. Beth and Chuck:
      Some more good ideas here worthy of expanding into more blogs! …The scarcity of kihon in older koryu is one that I thought about a lot. In my own style, we really didn’t do much warm ups or kihon before “going at it” with ukemi and regular kata, and there were some kihon in the bo kata, but not really much other than that. So I asked, once, “are there any basics?” and so my sempai got into the habit of leading warm ups and kihon. I asked about the warm ups and he said, “Actually, these aren’t traditional. I got these from my rugby warm ups.” As for the kihon, we have them, but I always suspected they entered the ryu much later than the original founding. I’m thinking of expanding my ruminations into a separate blog about the role of kihon later…

      That said, one of my teachers suspects that “ryu” existed long before what we now call “koryu” schools came into being, but the training methods were different, entailing more what we would consider one-person “kihon.” The koryu took off, he conjectures, when people managed to train with other people. So, instead of just banging away with yoko-men strikes with a broken branch, whacking the trunk of a tree over and over with the same strike, you were able to go through different steps and motions, eliciting actions and reactions, etc…From single person to paired kata. Anyway, more food for thought.

      Not having done mikkyo mantra practice myself, I differ to others, but a close budo friend does say the same things as you do. There has to be intent and proper posture: internal and external manifestations of proper mantra and mudra. The danger, he says, of doofuses doing stuff on their own without a real understanding of the internal dynamics of mantra and mudra practice is that you could unleash things that will severely disbalance your mental and/or spiritual state. If you believe that such practice has effects (then why are you doing it, if not?) is that there are dangers involved in dabbling in things you don’t really know how to do right. Hence, his concern with self-taught esoteric “masters” or folk who slap some kind of stuff they learned from DVDs and books onto their martial arts to make it more mystical and super duper. Having an proper teacher and proper training is very, very important, therefore.

      …And that’s why (so far) computerized music playbacks still don’t seem as emotive as human musicians. Maybe one day they’ll be unrecognizable as computer renditions, but for now, there’s something about the variations a human being can bring to a musical piece that makes it more than simple rote repetition, that makes it a work of art. Same with kata training. I suppose a computer program can replicate the movement in a 3D computer simulation, but a simulation is not the same as two live human beings doing the kata. It just isn’t.

      Ah, summer is here again!

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