Ukemi: Aikido and the art of rolling with the punches

By | January 7, 2020

The main focus of Self Taught Japanese is to communicate information about the Japanese language, especially regarding topics such as grammar, vocabulary, media reviews, and translation. However, there are a few other related things that I write about on occasion, and aikido is one of my favorite of these.

I’d like to dedicate this post to “ukemi”, a core part of aikido and one of the things I really enjoy about this traditional Japanese martial art.I’d like to dedicate this post to “ukemi”, a core part of aikido and one of the things I really enjoy about this traditional Japanese martial art.I’d like to dedicate this post to “ukemi”, a core part of aikido and one of the things I really enjoy about this traditional Japanese martial art.

Ukemi (pronounced “Ooh-Keh-Me”) is written in Japanese as 受け身, using a form of the verb “ukeru” (受ける), meaning “to receive”, and the character 身 which means “body”. So this compound word literally means something like “receiving body”. Interestingly, it also means “passive”, in terms of both a passive attitude and the passive verb tense (ex: “He was killed”).  But talking about word origins only gets us so far, so let’s take a look at what this word actually means in context.

In aikido, as well as other martial arts including judo and sumo wrestling, ukemi in a nutshell means something like “the art of falling safely” or “けがをしないように倒れる方法”––a phrase which is nearly equivalent to the previous English phrase. But while this is true to a degree, it is a fairly limited definition that omits some important aspects of Aikido. I should mention that I am speaking mostly from the point of view of the aikido style I have been training in for several years now, Ki Aikido (心身統一合氣道), though I feel this applies to other styles of aikido, as well as other martial arts, at least to a certain extent.

In order to explain in more detail I’d like to talk about the general flow of Aikido techniques. Generally, one person attacks (who is called the “uke”, from the same “to receive” verb we discussed above), and then another person called the “nage” (the verb 投げる “nageru” means “to throw”) performs some action or series of actions in order to avoid being hurt by the uke, often resulting in the uke being thrown, and the uke must then do their best to “receive” what is essentially a counter-attack––although in some cases the two do not actually make physical contact. There are two common ways for the uke to finish a technique, one involves “rolling out”, meaning they roll their body away and essentially escape, breaking contact with the nage. The other way is for the nage to maintain contact, bringing the uke to a safe position on the mat, where a restricting pin is often applied. If a weapon is involved (often a “tantou” 短刀, or short dagger), then nage often removes the weapon from the uke in this latter case.

That was somewhat of a lengthy explanation, but in summary the uke has three important roles: to attack properly, to maintain a connection with the nage at all times, and to make sure they protect their own body and avoid injury. This means that the uke’s responsibility actually starts from the time before there is any physical contact and continues until the technique is completed. To say “avoiding injury during falling” is a gross understatement, since either person can be injured before anyone actually falls to the ground.

So what’s the big deal here? The uke has to just be careful, right?

To play devil’s advocate for a moment, one could argue that the real star of the show here is the nage, since he/she is the one who is actually performing the technique. For sure, mastering a technique generally takes years, if not decades. 

However, while some might use this against Aikido’s position as a “martial” art, the fact is that the best execution of a technique requires both a skilled nage and a skilled uke. If you take a random person off the street to be the uke, there are two fundamental problems. The first is that the uke has a much higher chance to get injured. Furthermore––and this is probably less known by the average person––many of the techniques make assumptions about how the uke attacks and moves after the attack has begun. If you do a completely wrong attack, it may not be that the principles of aikido cannot handle it, but a proper response may involve a completely different technique than the one which is supposed to be practiced.

Sure, you don’t need a professional uke (yes, they do exist, at least in Japan) to practice the fundamentals of any technique, but each technique has a certain minimum requirement for what the uke must do in order to make the technique make any sense. That’s one of the reasons there are guidelines to what techniques should be learned at what experience level (though when training in a mixed group things get more complex). And the teacher should make sure that the students during practice are not forced to do ukemi that is way above their level.

By the way, while my realization about the importance of uke was a bit of a shock, it doesn’t mean at all that Aikido is not worth studying and spending hundreds of hours practicing over many years. This applies especially to Ki Aikido, which focuses more on applying the principles of integrating mind and body in places outside of the dojo. But even in Ki Aikido, the techniques done on the mat are important, and without proper execution of them you cannot rise in belt ranking.

But, to return to the topic of ukemi itself, there are several reasons I really enjoy being uke. First, being an uke frankly is conceptually simpler than a nage in many respects; there is less to worry about in terms of timing and fine details of executing a technique. Second, despite any arguments about how “real” Aikido is, being an uke is as “real” as it gets, since you have to maneuver your body properly to avoid actual injury (there is even the possibility of collision with the wall or another person), and learn to do it in an efficient way so you can practice for hours at a time. Also, the uke typically gets much more exercise than the nage, especially because one of Aikido’s core principles is an economy of movement. The nage may be making a small circular movement, but when done with the right timing and positioning can cause the uke to spin around dramatically, requiring a large expenditure of energy on uke’s part.

Finally, being an uke really requires you to be very “in the moment”, which means both your mind and body have to be ready to respond to whatever happens. In certain higher level techniques called “jiyuu waza” (自由技 “free techniques”), the technique being used is not known until the very instant it is performed. So you can’t make assumptions about a scripted series of movements, and you have to basically “roll with the punches”. 

Being chosen as the teacher’s uke to demonstrate a certain technique is a special privilege that I have been fortunate enough to have on many occasions. The ukemi required in such situations is especially important, because besides protecting yourself you want to also do your best to help the teacher illustrate his or her instructional points. Just like with free technique practice, the teacher may do things unpredictably, including doing a technique the “wrong” way, and the uke has a lot of control in terms of how much to hold back and how fast to move at any point in time. Sometimes to make a point the teacher may slow things down (a fun experience that reminds me of “bullet time”) or even reverse time and do a portion of a technique backwards.

Being able to do great ukemi requires a combination of many factors, including flexibility, reaction time, and the knowledge of the “right” way to do ukemi for a certain technique (this may differ between styles of Aikido, something I am painfully aware of as someone who has changed styles). Things like age and years of experience certainly affect one’s ukemi, but there definitely seems to be some variation depending on inherent ability. The reason I say that is I have seen major differences between people with roughly experience ranking or experience level. When watching a technique performed, the beauty or fluidity of the uke’s reaction is very visible, but ultimately whether the uke can fall consistently safely is more important.

While I practice with some people who have quite skillful ukemi, it is nice to be able to watch professional ukes once in awhile to see what I should be aiming for. This is one such video about the founder of Ki Aikido, Koichi Tohei, that has a lot of great ukes helping him to demonstrate various techniques. If you are interested in Aikido I would highly recommend watching the entire video (which has English audio and Spanish subtitles), but you can watch around 25:00 to see an example of an uke doing some pretty extreme ukemi during free techniques. While I can do a rough version of many of the uke movements in this video, the first two throws around 25:00 are pretty extreme and I am not sure if I have tried anything like that before. For me, the longer air time involved the more careful I need to be about how I am moving, and how I land.

I also see ukemi as an (albeit indirect) measure of how physically in shape someone is, and I feel that proper ukemi practice over time can greatly improve overall physical health, and even help protect against injuries outside of the dojo. I’ve heard more than one story of an experienced aikido teacher or student falling in an everyday setting and avoiding injury. It’s promising to see there are people a decade or two older than me who have excellent ukemi and can train extensively, sometimes for several days at a time.

Of course, I wouldn’t be doing justice to Ki Aikido if I didn’t mention the bigger application of ukemi––our everyday lives. I feel that being able to respond quickly and properly to whatever unexpected challenges life presents you with, and roll with the punches, is one of the most important things you can learn from aikido.

(If you want to read more about Ki Aikido and where I train, please see this post. You can also see my other articles about Aikido here.)

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