The other day with some new people on the mat, the instructor, James, took a couple of minutes to say something about ukemi. He pointed out that Uke’s role on the mat doesn’t usually get as much attention as Nage’s. In fact, as he said, “learning to do aikido” often amounts to learning to do what Nage does in a technique. And yet Uke’s attitude and actions are very important to the exchange. He made the point that Uke needs to cultivate a determined strike that doesn’t stop short of its target, and that in a technique like kotegaeshi he or she needs to persist in the intent of the attack even beyond the point of connection. It occurred to me that the case could be made that there’s appropriate advice for Uke that is specific to every aikido technique, advice which is not confined to taking falls.
I couldn’t help wondering if Uke’s moves in a technique are often left out of the discussion partly because of an unrecognized attitude that Uke’s role is in some way inferior to that of Nage. Even though we know that in aikido we’re always changing sides, is there nevertheless a somewhat hidden notion that in taking ukemi one assumes the role of the loser, the one who will be “defeated?” I can recognize this assumption in myself. And if I begin to examine it, I realize that this sort of label hardly does justice to the complex nature of Uke’s role—as eager challenger and attacker, intense follower of an intention , and sensitive responder to the demands of a changing relationship.
People outside of aikido circles don’t necessarily see Uke’s job as inferior in any way, as I found out when I showed a videotape of my shodan test at a family gathering. The tape showed me calmly and somewhat minimally dispatching my uke Sharon, who was ten times more active than I, flipping upside down in dramatic koshinage, running around me in ushiro-waza, taking dozens of falls. After the videotape was over one of my nieces, a woman who is not at all familiar with martial arts, commented that she hoped I would keep on with aikido so that I could eventually learn to do what “that other woman” was doing!
Mary Stein practices aikido at Suginami Aikikai in San Francisco. Her book The Gift of Danger will be published by North Atlantic Books in August