In early 2020 I wrote an article about “ukemi”, an important concept in the martial art of Aikido. I recently received an interesting question about that post, which I decided to write an article about. In order to follow the discussion I highly recommend reading the original article first, unless you are already familiar with terms like “uke” and “nage”.
The person gave a somewhat long question, but I will quote what I think are the key parts here:
But attacking is active, a giving out action, not a receiving action. How can the person that attacks, be the uke?…So isn’t the nage the defender, since he is the one defending himself by throwing the attacker?…My question is why not stay at that, why have it that the first attacker is called a “receiver”(uke) when the defender is the first receiver? Why not have it that the first attacker be called something more fitting, since he is the first active one? I mean, attacking goes with giving out force, defending goes with receiving. Why not call the attacker e.g. “the giver” and the defender the receiver?
First of all, I wanted to emphasize that there is only so much value to analyzing why the terms “uke” and “nage” are used, and why other terms aren’t used instead. Ultimately, these terms have been used for decades (even before Aikido existed, as far as I know) and they are not necessarily the “best” ways to describe these two roles.
Having said that, in this particular case I think the terms do illustrate important characteristics of Aikido, so I will give my two cents on this topic.
Also, as with all my posts on Aikido I am coming from a “Ki Aikido” background (more formally, “Shinshin Touitsu Aikido”), so there is a chance things may be different compared to other styles of Aikido, though sometimes I may just use the generic term “Aikido” for simplicity.
Generally in Aikido, there is less of an emphasis on attacking, and instead there is a much greater amount of time spent on how to deal with the attack. In fact, in Ki Aikido we focus more on applying Aikido principles in daily life, so a physical attack on the matt is just a way to practice some principles that can be applied to non-physical attacks, for example an angry boss’s complaints or the nagging of a relative.
If you want to call the person initiating the attack the “attacker”, that is fine, but in Aikido the focus is more on the waza (technique), both in terms of executing it and how the attacker receives that waza, which is why we typically call that person the “uke”, from the verb “to receive”. The way they “receive”––how they move their body as the waza is applied––it is generally called “ukemi”. (For an example of great ukemi, see this video that has professional ukes.)
The person applying the technique is typically called the “nage”, which literally comes from the verb “nageru” to throw. In reality, this is not really an accurate term, since there are many techniques where the “uke” is not physically thrown, but is instead led to the ground and safely pinned, thereby diffusing the conflict. There is actually an excellent verb in Japanese to describe this, which is 導き投げる (michibiki nageru), a compound word that literally means “guide throw”. The “guiding” is a very important part of the entire interaction, as opposed to “forcing”. The best Aikido practitioners can be said to perform a waza before the other person even knows what is happening, and this is not merely an expression of speed, but of the fact they are being “led” to do something as if it was their idea to begin with.
In “randori”, an advanced exercise where multiple people attack a single person, it is even easier to downplay the attacker’s role since the focus is dealing with the problems one at a time in a smooth and efficient manner, as opposed to focusing on the power of each attack.
Having said that, if the “attacker” (or “uke”) doesn’t attack properly, the technique may not make sense. For example, if your attack is super slow and doesn’t come close to the other person, it is harder to apply a technique properly (though sometimes we do slow down for the purpose of demonstration). Ultimately, the “nage” must make many adjustments to smoothly match the attack of the “uke”, in terms of speed, position, and other factors.
To be honest, there is nothing wrong with inventing your own terms in English to describe these actions however you like, but using the traditional Japanese terms makes things consistent, especially if you are training internationally (not uncommon for black belts).
In reality (considering both real physical and mental conflicts), both sides are performing the roles of “uke” and “nage”, as “attacker” and “defender”. Actually, often in the real world the concept of “attacker” is subjective; you can easily see this for non-physical (social/emotional) attacks, like the words of another, but even for physical attacks things can get fuzzy. In fact, some of the “attacks” that we begin with in Aikido can be seen as a defense themself––for example grabbing someone’s hand may be because they have a knife or to prevent them from punching us. In the big picture, Aikido is more about action and counter-action, where neither of these has to be malicious.
But in order to make understanding and training easier, we create the roles of “uke” and “nage” (or “attacker” and “defender”, if you prefer) and focus on just one response to one attack.
I hope you enjoyed this little break from my usual posts on Japan and Japanese culture (though technically this falls under the latter). I have some other posts on Aikido planned that I may write up in the next few months.
(If you are interested in more of my past posts about Aikido, check this out.)
Cool! I had a bit of judo training and we also used uke and nage. I didn’t have trouble with the terms, since we were taught that judo is more of a self-defense, rather than an offensive, martial art? So then, the main thing that is learned is how to defend oneself (not to initiate an attack), which is through nage or throwing. While the secondary thing learned is how to properly fall or “receive attacks”, through uke techniques. I hope that made sense!