“Honest attacks vs. straw man attacks,” by Stanley Pranin

“I will sometimes joke with my students when demonstrating tai no henko, and tell them to “pulverize” my wrist when grabbing…”

I recently wrote an article titled “Sunao — Being honest in training” that elicited a fair amount of feedback from readers. Summed up briefly, the article suggested that an uke who uses his foreknowledge of the technique being practiced to alter his attack and purposely block nage’s movement is acting in a dishonest manner, and hindering his and his partner’s progress.

A number of readers reacted favorably to my remarks, but there were several who took issue with what I had written. Somehow they read into my article that I was advocating that uke “simply fall over or give his balance away because that is what is expected,” as one commenter put it. I was quite baffled by this reaction, and so I reread my article in search of where I had suggested such a thing. I found nothing at all because that is not what I think about the matter, and came to the conclusion that these people had not carefully read my article in the first place.

Still I must hold myself responsible for this misunderstanding since several people had similar reactions. For the sake of clarify, let me offer my viewpoint on how I think uke should conduct himself in training.

As I see it, uke should present a strong resistance when initiating his attack. This means that uke should be honest or “sunao” in his attack and act with a pure mind. In other words, uke should understand the nature of the attack he is supposed to be executing. A grab is a strong “pure” grab in the sense that uke does not preplan to block the movement that he knows nage will attempt. When striking, uke strikes with vigor to the target he is aiming for without purposely deviating to one side or the other merely to prevent nage from executing his technique. For a humorous example of what can happen in such a case, see the reference to Kenji Futaki described in my earlier article.

Morihiro Saito Sensei would often tell us to use full power when grabbing. If nage could not deal with uke’s attack, we were instructed to remove half of our power until nage could successfully execute the technique. The aim of uke and nage was to conduct themselves during training in a manner designed to promote the maximum progress of both.

Personally, I will sometimes joke with my students when demonstrating tai no henko, and tell them to “pulverize” my wrist when grabbing, the point being to give a strong, honest attack for me to work with.

In closing, I would ask readers who wish to submit comments to avoid a common pitfall that is one of the common tactics of trolls. I refer to what is know as a “straw man attack.” In case you are not familiar with the term, here is a partial quote from Wikipedia:

“A straw man… is a type of argument… based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the “straw man”), and to refute it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.”

Exactly this situation occurred when several commenters took me task for suggesting that uke should act in a compliant manner and “fall down” for nage, something I did not at all imply in my article. Nor is this what I think uke’s role should be.

As far as possible, I try to create a friendly atmosphere on our websites where intelligent people can exchange ideas for the benefit of all without fear of being subjected to personal attacks. It’s kind of like how an aikido dojo should be. Would you not agree?


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  1. I can see where the confusion would arise. I tend to grab quite strongly, and I have had some senior dan ranks complain about it when they couldn’t execute techniques under under the guise of the ‘sunao’ argument you used. I think if you have had people use this argument dishonestly in that manner, you tend to be quick to react against it without actually thinking through why you are reacting.

    Interestingly, I had an incident in the dojo this morning of a similar nature to what you described. We were practicing morote-dori kokyu-ho, and everyone in the dojo knows that I like uke to really try to lock me out if they are able. On this occasion, though, uke was not very experienced, and rather than holding strongly, they jerked their arms to the side as soon as I started to move. On one occasion, all I had to do was blink, and my arms were jerked sideways. I’m sure that this is what you are trying to prevent. In this instance, I changed what I was doing and it became an irimi-nage. Uke was not impressed at hitting the mat quite that hard. I then explained what had happened, and uke understood.

    I think these are issues that really need to be addressed with regard to ukemi. I think people seriously underestimate how difficult it is to be a good uke, and misunderstand what a good uke actually does. I think I might write a short piece on it some day, if I have a free day or 2. I will send it to you if I do.



    I took your comments to agree very much with my own thoughts.

  3. Charles Humphrey says:

    I’m confused. My sense was always that the “dishonesty” that can happen in the kinds of Japanese training drills that Aikido folks favour comes from an over-emphasis on unnaturally rigid and committed ukes. I was often unimpressed in my Daito-Ryu training when a person required that my whole body be rigidly locked in the grab in order to be able to effect kuzushi. It was like their bodies were so naturally tense that only by making myself even tenser were they able to gain an advantage on me in a prearranged kata. Whenever I would just grab with firm intent but without so much force that my whole body went hard nobody could effect a technique on me in one dojo – not even the head teacher – in another dojo the teacher and senior students would be put me on the floor in short order anyway. So I left one and spent more time at the other.

    My habits from other training modalities is to NEVER give someone full force commitment as you’re just reducing your options and giving away your centre. The problem with this kind of training is that using this kind of force becomes an unconscious habit – and a potentially dangerous one if you’re in a real defence situation as your muscle memory could be counter-productive. This might also explain some of the issues with martial relaxation you described in your seminar Stan. If people who only train in these two-person kata drills grow up in their understanding of martial arts building motor programs where every encounter is “full tension” then this is like to affect their movement when they’re on the nage end too. A lighter grip is one I’ve always found more challenging and more realistic because as an attacker, if I’m grabbing you its not so that I can stand there rigidly and hold you and go “HA! Now your wrist is mine, punk!”, it’s generally to have the option to use that point as leverage for a strike or takedown and so full commitment would be counter-productive by reducing general mobility.

    I’m intrigued by this suggestion that “honest” training is training that is based on excessive tension in attack rather than moderate tension. One of my goals as a martial artist is to become an expert in PRODUCING tension in my opponent’s body, without his compliance. This is one of the goals of combative striking. If someone grabs in such a way that I can’t get at their centre effectively I have only to use a strike to cause them pain and distress and their body will tense up defensively thus facilitating whatever method I am using to bring them to the ground and pin them. I find this to be a central component to martial training if it is to have any effectiveness and I am often distressed at what I see in many Japanese approaches where uke is instructed to lock themselves out for the nage – this is prevalent even in very senior instructors I think. Anyway thats my little lunchtime thought. Would be curious if anyone had something to add to that.

  4. Charles Humphrey says:

    I had another thought that is in keeping with my earlier one. I’ve often wondered why, when I have trained with people with a long history of practice in Japanese methods, they are so powerfully affected by pressure point techniques and joint locks. Does anyone know what I mean? Unless someone’s really skilled and hits them very hard, I never feel overwhelmed by any of the usual pressure points that for many Japanese practitioners generate instantaneous tension and compliance.

    This was a source of a great deal of discussion amongst my old Japanese training group who found that amongst themselves, these points were devastatingly effective. I think the difference is that I have spent a great deal of time training myself to always remain physically and psychologically relaxed – it is kind of the basic foundation of my training. Not only were my Japanese training friends (as in Japanese methods, not just Japanese nationality) lacking in this essential component but seemed to be rendering themselves increasingly tense and vulnerable to the kinds of techniques they were learning through this emphasis on maximal tension when serving as uke.

    This might explain some of the rather cramped physical appearance I’ve noticed in a great deal of (but by no means all, or even a majority) senior Daito-Ryu and Aikido practitioners. You all seem to have an excellent understanding of spacing, position, timing, sensitivity to how to manipulate joints, but I often see a kind of deep residual tension in the body that gives the impression of a very tall and very finely built tower but without a properly wide and deep foundation. That’s just some musings but its something that has bothered me for some time about some of the approaches that are essential dogma in this kind of training.

  5. I believe that there is a big difference between giving an honest attack vs. “blocking” a technique. Blocking involves both having and abusing the foreknowledge of what is about to happen and intentionally (or unintentionally) taking advantage of the slow-motion training scenario that beginners need in order to learn.

    An honest attack is an attack that proceeds in its original intentions and with the force and speed appropriate for the level of the nage.

    Of course, no one benefits from an overly-compliant uke that just falls down in an unrealistic way. There is no point to that. The same can be said of an uke that wants to prove that they can block a technique. If an aikidoka ran up against resistance, they would just change technique midstream to use the resistance in a new way.

  6. Just grab your opponent give them something to work with, a little less if they cannot move, and let them learn and evolve. Not that hard is it? Sadly personal ego gets in the way all the time.

    I just cringe at the so called “higher ranked” Aikidoka, that I have met worldwide, who turn their backs on you expecting you to just blindly follow them to try and grab their offered wrist. That is not “leading your attacker”, that is just plain foolishness and suicidal. If you offer your back on the street when someone comes at you aggressively, then you deserve the wake up call that you will surely get.

    Enjoy the journey

  7. If nage can “pulverize”your wrist, you are not doing tai no henko… yet. Keep practicing!

  8. Dear Stanley,

    I totally agree with all your insights. I would like to add that the Uke’s attack simulation should be accurate as
    possible and with proper Maai and to the right target. In addition for the sake of learning, the strength and speed should take into
    account Nage’s level. Also important, allowing Nage’s success in applying the technique if he is doing it reasonably right.

    In other words, no brutal or violent attack, but a closer to real as possible, with the heart open for the partner’s success.

  9. One reason uke can anticipate and pre-emptively counter nage’s action is that very often the uke has no clear intention when he/she brings his attack, and the attack is a pure abstraction. No one will grab your wrist unless it is to either secure you for an attack with the other hand or to pull you to them, into an attack with the other hand, or to sequester you (pull you out of sight or into a vehicle). When uke attacks, he/she should be focusing his/her intention on the second part of the attack (the punch, stab, kick, choke, pull etc.), not the grab itself. Uke is grabbing in order to accomplish something, not so you can do your technique. Mindful practice in this way can mitigate the unconscious (or conscious) tendency to frustrate technique, and lead to a more practical application of martial art.

  10. Dear Mr. Pranin, we all have students who hear only what they want to hear and do only what they want to do. Your explanations were quite clear. It doesn’t prevent those who “read” only what they want to read from missing your point. However, it’s also an indication that some of us might have missed something and that we need to go through a second or third reading.

    Patrick Augé

  11. Hello all,
    A very beginner’s question,

    Can this be fixed in randori? In contrast to standard practice, uke will not have prior knoledge of nage response and then will reallize that, mainly for his safety, “striking where nage might be” is worse than an honest attack. Thank you

    • I would want to think this through when talking about randori attacks. I’m focused on basic techniques here. Thank you for your input!

  12. Dear Stan
    I am so on the same page with your view point of Uke attacking properly. At our dojo, we have it broken down into levels of resistance from 1 – 10. Depending on the aikidoka who are practicing together they set the level of resistance they will use with each other so they can gain the most out of the technique they are learning as the technique improves they up the level so that they can challenge themselves.

    Best Always

  13. john elliott says:

    I have seen similar problems in other kata based arts like jujutsu and judo. Some of this I think highlights the limitations of kata in general.

    A more open ended exercise, such as having no predetermined attack or defense, or some type of randori, I think lends itself to a more adaptive mind and ultimately everyone being more honest. Uke has no idea what the counter will be so he/she can’t game the attack to make it more difficult. Tori has no idea what uke will do so he/she must be flexible and adaptive. In the case of randori, of course, uke and tori concepts don’t really apply.

    The other problem here is ego. Sadly, I think even randori does not eliminate this up front, it takes time and maturity. Although to move without ego is to adapt.

    • This is what we do. In our dojo our jiyuwaza consists of uke attacking in whatever manner he/she likes and nage will perform whatever technique (or part of technique) comes out. And, if nage gets locked up, they are expected to flow into another technique more appropriate to the situation to gain control.

  14. I had an instructor say “Uke is the input to nage’s output” as well as “garbage in garbage out.” He had us practice given some real attacks: grabbing shoulder with force to move them, aim a punch properly and not overextend to the point of falling over. We then found it easier to move and harness that energy for technique.

    I often see uke (especially beginners) who don’t close distance when grabbing or give a yokomen or shomen attack way off target. Maybe it’s a mental block; fear of hitting and hurting your partner. I try to work through that by giving proper aim and intention to my attacks, but only putting in enough force to nudge them.

  15. Kudos to you Stan for tirelessly sharing your insights and experiences, in a forum where there are more opinions than answers and everyone feels their opinion is the best one. This article like everyone of your articles that I have read seems to promote and foster the integrity of the art. When I read your posts I start with the lens of this guy’s only agenda is to support high caliber training.