“Looking at Ukemi” by Mary Stein

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


  1. steve kwan says:

    I am looking for books or materials on the topic of taking Ukemi. As learning to be a good Uke is as important as learning the Aikido techniques (be a nage), I think by understanding better on taking Ukemi will definitely improve the Aikido techniques. Any suggestions as where to find these books or materials?

  2. Ukemi is certainly a neglected aspect. Yet it is fundamental to improvement. That is, beyond the minimal aspect of surviving to train again. When I started even that was neglected. I took a couple of bad tumbling rolls at the beginning of my first class and sensei said, “That looks ok.” For the next couple years I was only without pain after warmup and before fatigue set in. A week at a hot spring brought new levels of sore to the surface each day for six days. After the seventh I went back to class.

    At a certain level of training making real attacks is a challenge. If you ever really have to use this stuff, being able to execute a good attack is important. Think about morote dori. If done well, it has a similar effect as ikkyo and can bring things to a conclusion very fast. For that matter, tsuki done with no obvious intention or wind up can create the initiative needed to conclude things. Think Sean Connery dealing with the bouncer in “Rising Sun”. Every single aikido attack can be decisive, or lead quickly to a decisive result. If that isn’t apparent, give it some consideration.

    For that matter, ukemi is key to kaeshi waza. I’m still working on that. Presumably, everybody tells me, I’ll get too old to fall. Then what will I study?

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