The Case of the Reluctant Uke
by David Lynch
Aikido Journal #117 (1999)
The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Jon Aoki of the USA.
For those of us not congenitally attracted to violence, aikido training sometimes presents problems that are difficult to ignore. They come in human form and in distinct personality types. Amongst these is the reluctant uke.
This is the guy who tries to block all your efforts to apply a technique and takes a smug delight in refusing to fall. He dedicates his time on the mat to trying to prove your techniques do not work. And sometimes he succeeds.
He may be new to aikido, having migrated from another martial art or, worse, someone with years of experience who knows precisely when to make himself totally uncooperative for maximum effect.
Typically he seems not to understand how meaningless and destructive his behavior is, and no amount of aikido philosophy gets through to him. He sees everything in competitive terms and believes that every technique must work regardless of the circumstances. Only rarely will he change his spots.
How many people have given up aikido because of him? How many women have been turned away from the art by his chauvinistic behavior? How many honest and sincere instructors has he caused to hang up their hakama, convinced they are not qualified to teach?
Sometimes the reluctant uke is amenable to reason and will respond to a pep-talk, provided it is delivered early in his career. He should not be confused, by the way, with the uke who holds firmly or strikes positively in order for both partners to research and discover the meaning of aikido. The difference is in the attitude and the intention.
Of course the reluctant uke can be dealt with physically, by a swift atemi or a painful and dangerous abbreviation of a technique, and some instructors have earned a fearsome reputation for meting out this kind of eye-for-an-eye treatment, but many of us hesitate to respond in this way. Usually the effort to block a technique makes the blocker an easy target for a punch, but retaliation is not consistent with the aims of aikido, and could lead to an ongoing exchange not different from a contest.
My own son went through a period (thankfully short-lived) during which he became a very reluctant uke indeed. While I was slowly performing a technique in front of a class he would suddenly exert his full strength to block it halfway through. To respond with atemi was not really an option under the circumstances.
We also had a champion power-lifter in our class who used to apply his massive strength at the most unexpected times. Once when we were doing kokyuho he suddenly pulled my arms in towards him, enveloped them with his brawn and pinned them under his armpits. Aside from head-butting him or biting his nose - options I did not consider appropriate or necessary - I was powerless.
No doubt readers have had similar experiences and will recognize this type of attitude. It was a type neatly represented by a Chinese martial arts instructor I once met in Hong Kong. I only visited him at the suggestion of a friend who said the man would be glad to meet me and keen to exchange technical know-how. But, in the event, he was very suspicious and began interrogating me on my motives in coming to see him. I was about to flag the whole scenario away as another cross- cultural cock-up when he said: “O.K., show me some aikido.”
Thinking to start with nikyo, I invited him to grip my wrist, whereupon he made the memorable and no doubt perfectly logical remark, from his point of view: “Why would I do anything as stupid as that?” He obviously saw the whole exchange as a challenge aimed at testing him or showing him that my technique was superior to his.
Unfortunately, many aikidoka have the same attitude - having missed the point of training by a country mile and having failed to see that aikido is defensive, not offensive, and that its goals transcend winning and losing. When you take on aikido you must put aside the whole idea of winning and losing and focus on achieving harmony. You can’t have it both ways.
Seeing aikido in competitive terms is like trying to prove something that cannot be proven. Occasionally even a Japanese will display this attitude, though the respect for authority in Japan generally militates against it, and most Japanese aikidoka appear to accept the nage-uke (performer-receiver) cooperative system of training. One Japanese friend told me, under the influence of alcohol, that he would love to have just one shot at testing his sensei’s skill by refusing to fall nicely all the time. He added that he was prepared to pay all his own hospital bills! In general Japanese aikidoka (not all of them, of course) are more inclined to abuse their position as nage, by thrashing their unfortunate and obedient ukes.
What is so puzzling to me is not just the fact that people seem unable to think outside the parameters of a contest but that they confound training in the dojo with reality. Getting the reluctant uke to understand this is often a major challenge. (If only he would just go away and take up a competitive sport like judo or karate where he could block to his heart’s content!) Aikido is not, after all, for those who feel the need to defend their egos at all times. We can, within limits, always learn something by trying to relate to these contrary individuals, but those limits need to be recognized, and going beyond them can be counter-productive to say the least.
Dojo training is not a life-and-death affair, and there are many things you cannot and need not do in the context of training. Just as you cannot do ikkyo on an elephant or kokyuho on a concrete wall, there are some ukes who cannot be thrown against their will without nage resorting to dangerous or violent tactics departing, in the process, from the principles of aikido training.
How you react is a measure of your training and your personal philosophy: a laugh or a smile may be enough. Though the urge to suggest, in one way or another, that these ukes get a life can be quite strong, we need to learn to take a metaphorical step back (which is also a sound technical approach) and to calmly refuse to play the reluctant uke’s game. Even if you cannot do anything with him, it really does not matter, as it is only a game after all. Paradoxically, a realization of this fact is sometimes all it takes for the technique to actually work, but you should accept the fact that you can’t win ‘em all.
When it is your turn to be uke and you feel you could stop your partner’s movement, you should resist the temptation and allow him to compete his technique. What have you got to lose? What do you gain otherwise? Certainly you show your partner the inadequacy of his technique by blocking it, but there are more positive ways to encourage him and help him to improve.
Some instructors precede their demonstration of a technique with a realistic version, as opposed to the standard dojo version. This is a sort of a bad cop-good cop approach where you explain how to break an arm with ikkyo, smash a head with shihonage or mangle a wrist with sankyo – not forgetting the devastation that can be wreaked with powerful atemi. You then proceed with aikido… “But, in the dojo, we do it this way.” While okay up to a point, this approach panders to the competitive mentality and can become an end in itself, to the detriment of the aikido spirit.
The competitive mentality can invade a dojo like a virus against which a constructive, harmonious training atmosphere offers little immunity. Newcomers feel intimidated and do not speak out, and often the instructor feels unable to do so either, without losing face. He may feel that he should be able to take all this in his stride, just as O-Sensei accepted challenges from all-comers in the old days.
Far better, I think, to acknowledge that we are not O-Sensei and that these are not the old days. It is the instructor’s responsibility to protect his students from ignorant people, and to ensure the dojo is a place where something worthwhile can be learned and where students treat each other with mutual respect, not a battlefield for shallow egos intent on outdoing one another. The dojo should be a sanctuary where one can safely experiment with ideas and techniques that aim for a completely different outcome.
The difference between training and reality (and between a competitive sport and a martial way) is well illustrated by the aikidoka who responded to a challenge from a judo man by showing up with a live sword tucked in his belt. These days, however, it is not very practical to say it with swords whenever taijutsu seems inadequate, but another weapon, often underestimated, is the spoken word. Despite the stoic budo tradition which prizes the strong, silent type, I feel it is appropriate to speak up when one encounters the boorish, reluctant uke. This is by no means easy to do and calls for some resolve. It may not stamp out the breed but it may make life more tolerable for many members of the dojo, i.e., for those who really want to learn aikido and have no interest in competing. Left unchecked the reluctant uke just becomes more and more reluctant.
Unfortunately, the seniority system tends to intimidate beginners, who are the ones most likely to be affected by blocking and bullying, but I feel that remaining silent while someone is applying unnecessary force in the dojo is an outdated and inappropriate attitude. Furthermore, it is always better to use your tongue than your fists, and to use your brain before trying to brain someone else, or before they try to brain you.
Old attitudes die hard, as I found when visiting Japan recently. I was sitting with a group of students in one of the dojos I used to train in when somebody mentioned my articles in Aikido Journal. The sensei present said, “It is interesting that these days virtually anyone can write about aikido, whereas in the old days only the very top teachers dared to do so.” (He actually used the Japanese words “were allowed to,” which is revealing.)
Whether this remark was aimed at me (if the cap fits, wear it) or was just a generalization I do not know for sure. However, I believe anyone is entitled to speak or write about aikido, regardless of rank or experience. It is up to the listener or reader to decide how much credibility to give their words. Freedom of expression is just one of the planks of democracy that many older-generation Japanese appear to have difficulty with.
When it comes to O-Sensei-style mystical insight and any attempt to explain that in words, I would agree that he who speaks does not know and I would be the first to accept whatever divine punishment came my way if I even pretended I had access to that kind of knowledge. I suspect such punishment would not be as dramatic as a bolt of lightning, but would more likely take the form of a gradual slide into even greater ignorance. You would end up like the proverbial man without a torch, in the coal-cellar, searching for the black cat – that isn’t there! In that sense, ignorance is its own reward. It is a risk one has to take when opening one’s mouth on anything, but this should not stop anyone from protesting at glaring breaches of the aikido spirit.
Coal-cellars aside, there is a dark side to aikido which is typified by the reluctant uke, and if senior exponents have become blasé about it, then it is important for newcomers and those who can still see it clearly to show it up by whatever means they can. They have as much right as anyone else to speak up.
Experience does not automatically lead to enlightenment, and some sensei talk utter rot while some ordinary people have far more wisdom to offer. It is a sorry delusion to assume that people with long experience of aikido are somehow superior. Likewise, any unwritten rule that prevents a person from protesting about the abuse of power by those in high places should be relegated to the garbage heap of worthless traditions.
The danger of becoming psychologically desensitized to violence increases every time it is ignored, and we need only look at the death and destruction that is now almost commonplace around the world to see the end result of this attitude.
The old Roman adage si vis pacem para bellum (if you want peace prepare for war) is another bit of traditional wisdom that does not fit the observable facts. Preparation for war has always led to war, and it is depressing to see this borne out even as we speak.
We should thank our lucky stars that we are able to practice aikido, where the opposite aspect of the human spirit is manifested.
The least we can do is to try and maintain peace and harmony in our aikido training, insignificant though this may seem in comparison with the scale and horror of the current destructive global events.
There is more than enough conflict in the world already.
Let us see if we can find another way.