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But if it is Heaven’s way to take from those who have too much
and give to those who have not enough,
this is far from being man’s way.
He takes away from those that have not enough
in order to make offering to those who already have too much.

Excerpt from Arthur Waley’s translation of Tao Tê Ching, chapter 77

In the katas we practice every day, there are a lot of points of exchange between the partners. And in many of these points the exchange happening is unfair. Tori gains more than they give up, and uke gives up more than they receive. The kata of course is a historical artifact handed down through history, and comes from a way of thinking which is not very peaceful.

Maybe an exception is katate dori tai no tenkan. Where none of the partners are treated unfairly. At the end position the position of uke is almost better than it was before the exchange. There are more possibilities for different kinds of movement. However in the end position of ikkyo there is no doubt that an unfair exchange must have happened somewhere, because the martial position of uke is not as good as it was in the initial position of the kata.

I was wondering in which ways do these unfair exchanges happen?

  • It could happen by habit. We did the kata thousands of times without being conscious of what is going on. Both tori, and uke, is accepting the exchanges, unfair as they are, without even noticing it.
  • It could happen by leverage. Leverage could magnify the power of tori, allowing tori to force uke into a bad position. It could also happen by one being physically stronger than the other.
  • It could happen by deception and timing. Tori might be fooling uke by pretending to do one thing, and at the opportune moment in reality doing something else. This might break the posture and position of uke, leaving tori free to exploit the advantage, either by leverage or just simply taking away support which they pretended to be there to trick uke. It could also happen by one partner being physically able to move faster than the other.
  • It could happen by economy. Very often the one who practiced longer is moving more economically than the one who has shorter experience. In addition, in many katas tori is leading uke in a longer path around, so that uke arrives too late. This can be used to break the posture of uke. Just as with timing, this could also be compensated by physical speed of the person.
  • By aware acceptance of the kata.

There could of course be combinations of these different categories, and in most cases they are combinations of several out of them working together. It is not the art of peace, until we reach the final point, where we accept the kata for what it is, and we are aware of all the intricate exchanges happening in each part of the kata.

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso. Photo from Mayoral Magazine.

To always seek a way to dominate the other is also a valid way to practice. However, the most experienced, the most fit, and the most clever, will always defeat the weaker. This is the way of the world. The one with the bigger gun is always exploiting the ones with less technology. This is the way that will in the end kill us all. It is not going to be a problem to practice aikido in that way though. Because we change the roles. After being tori four times, we are uke four times. And at some point we will come to the realisation that something is happening during the exchange which we can study in more detail.

I remember Christian Tissier sensei elegantly expressed a quite vital point related to this. “If the partner does not accept the point (of exchange), it is not a point.” And there is the simple reality of it. The partner needs to accept everything we do, and they will only accept it if it something beneficial for their part. That is the limit.

By the way, I am of course not suggesting that we change anything. Aikido is perfect, just the way it is. It is a paradox that we are studying these katas, which are in history an art of war, and we are closing in on the art of peace, using them as a road. I guess it is like a word. The word is not what it is pointing to. Neither is the kata. The kata is from the manifested world, but it is pointing to something beyond.

It is all an exciting mystery to me.

Enjoy your keiko! Aikido makes people happy!