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Shomenuchi Ikkyo: Contrary to Aikido Principles?

by Stanley Pranin

Aiki News #91 (Spring 1992)

Shomenuchi ikkyo is probably the most frequently practiced of all aikido techniques. Many instructors regard this technique as the pillar of aikido basics and often begin their practice sessions with shomenuchi ikkyo omote. Moreover, the founder is said to have taught it extensively both before and after the war.

How is this technique typically practiced today in aikido dojos? Uke initiates the attack with a shomenuchi strike at tori. Tori receives the strike, pushes the attacking arm back or to the side while stepping forward with his rear foot to unbalance the attacker, and finally applies ikkyo. This is, of course, a very simplified description of what is actually a complex physical process, but any aikidoka will recognize the pattern of movements to which I refer.

I have, over the years, practiced this technique as described above in classes taught by numerous teachers. I have always found shomenuchi ikkyo omote difficult to execute smoothly since the timing in meeting the shomenuchi attack is critical. If one is even a split second behind in responding to the attacking blow, the technique can become a clash of opposing forces which ends up in a battle to determine who has more stable hips or greater arm and shoulder strength. Contrast this with other basic aikido techniques such as yokomenuchi shihonage, munetsuki kotegaeshi, and numerous others, where the object is to remove oneself from the line of attack, blend with the incoming power, and then apply an appropriate technique followed by a pin. Here strength is not the major consideration since the technique involves no direct confrontation. Such techniques are clearly “aiki-like” in their physical manifestation.

For the longest time I attributed my difficulty in executing shomenuchi ikkyo to my inability to grasp the fundamental concept or to generally poor technique. Then in 1973, 11 years after beginning aikido, I was exposed to a different method of practice. I spent one month in Shingu in Wakayama Prefecture training under Michio Hikitsuchi Sensei. Hikitsuchi Sensei’s approach involved tori actually initiating the technique by executing an atemi to uke’s head. Uke, although the one being thrown, was forced to protect his head by blocking the atemi, and then, since he was unbalanced, he was easily thrown. Practicing in this manner was new to me and I didn’t enjoy it. The training pace was very quick and, in the role of uke, as soon as I got up after being thrown, my partner’s hand was again in my face. I thought to myself, “How can this be aikido if I, the attacker, am being attacked?”

A few years later, in 1977, I moved permanently to Japan and trained at the Iwama Dojo under Morihiro Saito Sensei. There shomenuchi ikkyo was practiced in a similar way. Tori initiated the technique with an atemi, uke blocked and was subsequently thrown and pinned. Saito Sensei declared that this was how the technique was taught by the founder Morihei Ueshiba in the years following World War II. I finally became accustomed to practicing shomenuchi ikkyo in this way and experienced no further difficulty in executing the technique.

Later in 1981 while interviewing one of the pre-war uchideshi of Morihei Ueshiba Sensei, I saw for the first time the technical manual Budo to which we have often alluded in the pages of Aiki News. The founder describes the correct execution of shomenuchi ikkyo in the following words: “1) Advance your right leg and strike at your partner’s face with your right hand. Your partner blocks with his right hand. 2) Grasp your partner’s right wrist with your right hand and his elbow firmly with your left hand. 3) Twisting your hips, bring your partner’s arm down spirally in front of you, then step in deeply with your left leg. 4) Draw your right leg forward. 5) Press your left knee into your partner’s right armpit and, with your right hand grasping his wrist, stretch out his arm and pin” (AN#48, pp. 8-9).

It is quite clear how the founder performed this important basic technique in 1938 when Budo was published. Some might say that the techniques published in this manual represent prewar aiki budo and that the founder’s techniques changed after the war. They would be correct, but only to a certain extent. There is clear evidence that O-Sensei taught many basic aikido techniques in a way very similar to his pre-war style even after the war during the Iwama period and at least up to the mid-1950s. In the films of the founder during his final years, he executes shomenuchi ikkyo omote without moving his feet very much, but he never waits for the attacker to launch a powerful overhead strike. He is always ahead of the attack and never clashes with uke. I attribute the lack of clear footwork and taisabaki seen during this late stage of his life to be due to his advanced age and inability to move as freely as he once did.

I personally consider the founder’s explanations of basic techniques contained in the pages of Budo and as taught during the Iwama years to be the “grammar” of aikido. Aikido may seldom be taught in this way anymore but our historical understanding of the art has advanced to the point where Morihei Ueshiba’s technical and pedagogical methodology has been well documented. That these methods are still considered important is evident in Aikido Doshu Kisshomaru Ueshiba’s recent authorization of the publication of an English translation of Budo through the prestigious Kodansha publishing house. Moreover, it can be hoped that a Japanese-language reedition of the book will soon be forthcoming.

Aikido, because of its unique characteristic as an ethical martial art, seems destined to attract an increasingly large following throughout the world. As such, its technical content will come under close scrutiny and the art will, for better or worse, be compared with other martial arts. If dance-like techniques practiced in a haphazard manner which ignore the fundamental martial tenets of Morihei Ueshiba’s aikido are used as the basis for such comparisons, I fear aikido will be found seriously wanting in a technical sense. Advanced practitioners of aikido, and particularly those operating dojos, owe it to themselves and the art to reevaluate the content of their training on an ongoing basis. Are attacks during practice sincere and energetic? Is the attacker’s balance broken before applying pressure or executing a throw? Is the throw executed cleanly and followed with an effective pinning movement which precludes any escape? These are things which must always be kept in mind. And finally, although we can no longer learn directly from the founder, his legacy remains for all who wish to take the trouble to explore the genius of his theories and techniques.