Killer Shihonage: “Escaping serious injury or even death!” by Stanley Pranin


“Shihonage as one of the techniques causing
numerous deaths in university clubs in Japan”

Aikido Journal Editor Stanley PraninMartial arts techniques are designed to damage the human body. Misuse or carelessness can result in serious injury or death. As a result, we have to take precautions during training to allow participants to practice safely.

Among the hundreds of techniques in aikido, there are several that are particularly dangerous. One of them is shihonage, “the four-direction throw.”

In his seminal article titled “Aikido and Injuries: A Special Report,” Waseda University professor Fumiaki Shishida implicates shihonage as one of the techniques causing numerous deaths in university clubs in Japan. Here is an excerpt:

As can be seen from the above cases, shihonage and iriminage stand out as techniques causing the accidents. In both techniques, it is easy to hit the back of one’s head with the inherent danger of a cranial hemorrhage. Let us first of all consider the case of shihonage. In this technique, the tori holds one hand of the uke and turning his body, causes the uke to fall backward. If the tori does this continously, it becomes increasingly likely for the uke to hit the back of his head depending on the speed, strength and point of release of the hand hold.

In these cases, it was repetitive head injuries in the university clubs where hazing is common that caused the deaths of the unfortunate students.

Morihei Ueshiba executing a "safe" shihonage that does not cause injury (1936)

Morihei Ueshiba executing a “safe” shihonage (1936)

Shihonage is the culprit in another kind of serious injury in aikido. Although not lethal, improper execution of shihonage has led to numerous serious shoulder, elbow and wrist injuries. The way this usually happens is when nage doesn’t make a complete turn when performing shihonage leaving uke’s arm hyper-extended and unprotected. Experienced ukes may avoid injury by taking a high fall to escape the intense pressure on the arm. However, practitioners who are less advanced may be overwhelmed by the pain caused and lack the skills to escape injury to the wrist, elbow or shoulder. In some cases, promising aikido careers have been ended as the victims have been left with chronic pain and loss of function in the injured areas.

In shihonage, it is important to fully pivot bringing uke’s arm back to his shoulder controlling the wrist. From here a safe back fall is possible. A rapid, incomplete pivot where uke’s arm is extended away from his body — as pictured in the color photo above — will leave him exposed to serious injury.

One other point I feel must be mentioned is the fact that there are are occasionally violent people who practice aikido. They train very hard pushing their uke to the limit and leave a trail of injuries in their wake. Some of these injuries are caused intentionally. Anyone who has practiced aikido for a long period of time has encountered such individuals in their careers and knows well what I am talking about here.

It is my personal belief that the dojo-cho is ultimately responsible for what goes on in the dojo and must be eternally vigilant to prevent this sort of dangerous activity under his watch.


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  1. This is such a great article! When teaching shihonage, I always stress that making sure uke’s hand is on his/her shoulder should be paramount. AsI was taught to me by Thomas Collings Sensei, when you place the hand of uke on the shoulder, after executing a FULL pivot, you not only protect uke’s elbow, but yourself as well. As is clearly depicted in the photo above with O’Sensei, uke has no ability to deliver any counter strike or attack whatsoever. However, “cranking” the elbow, as shown in the color photo provided in your article, does provide the ability to harm uke, it also leaves a huge opening for uke to deliver a strike to nage’s face. I’ll tell my students, “Protecting your uke is protecting yourself. Harming uke is harming yourself.”

  2. In aikido, it’s not the purpose of throwing to injure. Nishio Sensei would get upset with people when he saw them slamming their partner down on the floor. That doesn’t mean training is always soft. There is an essential aspect of budo which involves toughening and strengthening the body. In my dojo, I encourage people to be able to take some degree of impact to the body (based on their physical ability and health, of course) without going into shock or getting upset. It’s just essential if you’re going to claim to be a martial artist. I never get upset with a student if they hit me in the face. It’s my job to not let that happen, and when it does happen it’s my job to remain neutral.

    The execution of any technique in aikido – iriminage, kotegaeshi, shihonage, etc. – is the point at which the initial physical conflict should have been resolved already. Throwing, in the words of Nishio Sensei, is the final point of forgiving the offense, not the point at which we exact punishment. Everything leading up to the throw is designed to avoid the attack and dissolve the initial point of tension. It’s a philosophical and technical incongruity to go through that process only to maliciously slam your partner or break them. To echo the words of Nishio Sensei, each of the steps in a technique is part of a conversation in which we ask the attacker, “Is this what we want?” “Can we find a way here that works for both of us?” By the end of the technique, if we have done our aikido well, the answer should be, “Yes. Thank you very much, now we can both be on our way.”

    Techniques where the opponent attacks and the nage blasts straight in with an iriminage across the neck might be visually impressive, but there is no conversation in that – only “You hit me. I slam you on the floor.” Perhaps we can call that the “Out for Justice” approach. In a real life assault this might be fine, but it’s not the highest expression of aikido to my mind. Of course, in practice, by the time you reach the final point in a technique the uke may still choose to resist, in effect throwing themselves on the sword, which they do at their own peril. The point of aikido is to give them the choice and the ability to escape without harm if they wish – that’s why we have ukemi.

    • Julian twigden says:

      Further to what you were saying about people who do aikido but deliberately try to drive people into the mat- I wish to talk about some people being arrogant towards other practitioners. I am only a 3rd kyu so am not even a dan grade but I have come across some 1st dans in my 9 years who will deliberately NOT take a breakfall from a lower grade throwing them. Your blog highlighted that because I am still fairly inexperienced there is a danger I may inadvertently injure uke and this is compounded Ifeel by some higher grades who seem to relish picking faults with the technique of lower grades. Has anybody out there experienced this and how do I resolve this because I have a real urge to inflict much pain and harm upon said people, but this would make me look like the bad guy and those people would come up smelling of roses so to speak!

      • Do you really want to inflict much pain and harm?

      • Julian,
        It can be frustrating at times to face resistance while learning a technique, and yes there is rank and sadly ego to be dealt with on the mat. However, I would urge to you to take a week or 2 off and re-evaluate your reasons for training. There is nothing worth injuring someone over this issue. True Budo also is knowing when to walk away (find another place to train).

        I would urge you talk with your Sensei about this after clearing your mind of all negative and hurtful feelings.

        Good luck to you .. Gambatte !!
        Ernest H.

      • Jamie Gauld says:

        I have also encountered some senior students from time to time who deliberately stop you whilst trying to perform a technique, they tell you it’s wrong and to do it their way, even when it’s what the teacher has asked the class to consider.

        Also, some who decide they don’t want to take ukemi for you just because your a lower grade, usually either because they know they can stop you or they are just not interested in helping you develop.

        I think that it’s because each of us has a different attitude towards practise and sadly there are those with an ego or who are stubborn in their ways, I try to avoid those partners who I feel will be deliberately awkward with me for their own gratification. Definitely talk with your teacher about this and he/she should be happy to help.

      • There is also a reason to do this, however, a clear explanation of the why is in order, IMO. For the 2-1 kyu ranks area, that person is at a point in their practice when they meed to learn to, as O’Sensei says, “flow like water” around resistance and not just power through it. Dan ranks giving resistance at specific times is necessary to do this. It is for the improvement and growth of the kyu ranks. If a 1st kyu performs a shihonage on me, for example, and allows me to stand up with my balance regained before throwing, then I am going to drop my center and give them some resistance to work around.

        Is your uke helping you or hindering you?

        Who is it that you are really frustrated with?

        Find the resistance in your self and adjust accordingly before blaming others for not playing nice. If you are unsure what’s going on and why, you are certainly entitled to ask!

      • Benjamin Hegenderfer says:

        I also have met the “tough guy with the ego” and every time it came to be an issue, I bow out and change partners. If your Sensei is really teaching correctly, then doing this will be recognized and appreciated. Appreciated because you’re simply saying that you aren’t ready to receive that level of aggression. The guy still even a year later hasn’t changed and had injured several people, but not me, and that’s what counts. My advice would be to change dojos and find a group of people who are “true” practitioners with good intentions and hearts. People seem to forget that we practice to improve ourselves and our friends in the Aikido family, and the belt holds your pants up, it’s not a license to injure the people around them who are also on the same journey. Once you find the right group, it changes and you’ll feel better, train better, and much longer.

      • Shotokido says:

        Julian, I used to train with a small group and we were deliberately difficult with each other in many instances, not as a matter of ego, but because we wanted to ensure that we were using proper technique and ki, rather than brute force. In fact, one of our group was a huge (think Sumo wrestler sized) man whom we regarded as the ultimate proving ground for technical proficiency and use of ki, because there was no way to muscle him to the mat. If you threw him, you KNEW that you were practicing the throw as it should be done, and that applied outside of the controlled conditions of the dojo, it would be effective.

        Perhaps the higher-ranked members of your dojo are refusing to take a fall as a matter of ego, stubbornness, or even personal animosity toward you. Whatever THEIR reasons, it doesn’t matter. The fact is that they are providing you with an opportunity to perfect your technical skill and to develop your ki in the practice of Aikido.

        Yes my friend; they are HELPING you, even if that is not their intention!

        You see, you don’t NEED them to “take a fall.” When you perform with technical accuracy and focused use of ki, they will HAVE TO fall.

        Let them be your way of measuring your own progress and proficiency.

        • in complete agreement with Shotokido. each hurdle we encounter on our life is in fact an opportunity to jump higher

      • The technique must be executed properly. To fall out of something without being compelled is dishonest and is bluntly discouraged at our dojo. How will you learn if everyone compliantly rolls out of incorrectly executed throws? If you ever have to use it in a real situation you might find yourself in trouble if you employ an incorrect technique. I too used to get frustrated when I failed a technique but I know it was my own ego and not that of my sempai that was the problem.
        Your focus at the moment is on the wrong thing which is a perceived slight or persecution, switch it to learning and you will enjoy your aikido more.

  3. David Buhner says:

    This might be a good opportunity to mention the need for uke to always be taking the correct ukemi, in particular for uke to learn how to step back with the outside foot and actively bring his/her own hand to his/her shoulder in shihonage. Beginners are always surprised when I tell them that while nage is practicing the throw, that uke is supposed to be practicing the fall, that is, that there is a correct form for uke just as there is for nage. The first dojo I was a member of (I have recently moved cross country and had to change both dojo and style) instruction in proper ukemi was a routine part of teaching each technique.

  4. Great points! 20 years ago on my first encounter with Aikido, and when I also quit it, I met students who were not protective… I was new, but still held a black belt in karate, so all I saw was opening after opening after opening. I did not see the point in allowing my body to get injured when I could see so much fault in how practice was.

    Now I am fortunate to practice in a Dojo where safety is crucial. If someone breaks my wrist, my learning ends, and vice-versa.

    I think that very basic karate techniques can be lethal. Same goes for aikido. Practice with safety in mind is very important, thus any Uke who feels his body is being pressured to the point of injury, should have the courage to refuse to be bullied.

    Even now, when my body says – too much pain – I stop practicing for a while to take care of myself if need be. If and when there is an instructor whom I like a lot, but his technique hurts me. I end up not taking those classes.

    For the macho people who believe that pain is a measure of good and efficient technique, no reasoning will suffice. Uke must be the wisest, always, and remember that – when he/she turns into nage.

    Hurting a human body is the easiest thing. Anyone can do it with just little effort. Keeping it safe is hard.

    Martial Arts are no longer for killing people, in most part. When practiced in a Dojo, they are for the betterment of both Uke, and Nage.

    My 2 cents..

  5. PS:

    The article on Aikido and injuries is excellent. Many thanks!

  6. Take a look at the Shihonage Rod Kobayahshi developed in Seidokan Aikido. Notice that nage turns a full 360 under uke’s arm and drops straight down. This is a much safer practice than the usual 180 turn with an angular cut. You may also note that he mentions the “dead angle” which is what you called the throw zone in an earlier post:

  7. So true, and done all over the world by incompetent and/or senior Aikidoka who may feel their position threatened by you.

    I had my elbow so damaged once by an Englishman who was a senior instructor in Fukuoka, Japan. He felt threatened by my presence in the dojo, and the fact that the Japanese students were turning to me for advise. He did an elbow smash on my arm, which made it impossible for me to pick up half a glass of water, or my children with that arm, for over two years.

    So completely unnecessary, but so common.

    So against the teachings of O-Sensei, but so typically human. Bruised ego, pride, and perceived status in the dojo.
    Protect yourselves, at all costs people.

    Do not put your total trust in someone else. Put it in yourself, and protect yourselves at all times.

    Enjoy the journey

  8. We all have to work the next day :)

  9. nga pham says:

    Dear Sensei Pranin,

    I have practiced Akido so my daughter has partner. My father-in-law, is the direct student and training partner of the Head of the 7th generation of Tai Chi Praying Mantis (Chiu-Chuk-Kai or Trieu Chuc Khe (Vietnamese name)) when his teacher conducted the private lessons, instructed his students very detailed movements when they wished to become the instructors. He told us that there are a lot of differences between the instructors and high-ranked students. He instructed his students where the hands, feet, arms have to be so the techniques can work. So if the instructors just show the techniques and students copy then there is the chances that injuries will occur. I never see a lot of injuries in the dojo when people walked with red tapes on their shoulders, knees, elbows, etc. I don’t buy the idea that practice makes perfect since if you practice wrong perfect is a dream.

    Thansk and have a good evening.


  10. Shiho-nage can cause death or serious injury if practiced in certain ways. This knowledge alone should make any moral person squirm. They might even have serious misgivings about continuing their aikido practice. It might be an idea to point out in greater detail the various forms of shiho-nage out there, and to figure out which ones exactly cause death. I have tried many systems and they all insist on throwing the person down. I would like to suggest that the very idea of ‘throwing’ might be misguided. If we define a ‘throw’ as ‘someone being led to the floor, or finding themselves on the floor — via an unbalancing movement (kuzushi) — then perhaps we would not need to be in a hurry to apply shiho-nage, a high version of that technique, or even think of pushing through the resistance, as someone pointed out. What if shiho-nage was smooth and designedly safe unlike the arm-breaking aiki-jujitsu version. In other words, we’d have to emphasize the finesse of the thing and perhaps all the techniques are the same, if we have this ‘one thing’, the question is: ‘what is it..?’

  11. Take a look at the hands in the color foto at the beginning of the article, then compare with the O Sensei foto from 1936 inside the article.
    The practice in the color foto is unsafe. Tori is relying for the throw on his right hand (of which we can only see the thumb that he is grasping with his left thumb ). Actually the main hand for shiho-nage is the inside hand, in this case tori’s left hand. The thumb of tori’s left hand should be on the heel of uke’s right thumb under his hand for a safe grip. O Sensei is showing the correct hand position. Slightly enlarging the pictures we can see this clearly.

  12. In every form the only thing that is really important is balance breaking. Not the throw…

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