O-Sensei’s Shomenuchi Ikkyo: The old way… or the right way? by Stanley Pranin


“Overlooked minutiae illuminate the Founder’s genius!”

This photo has enormous significance as a technical reference. Taken in 1938, it shows a much younger Morihei Ueshiba beginning to execute what we would today call shomenuchi ikkyo omotewaza. What will appear odd to many present-day aikidoka is the fact that the Founder is initiating the technique.

For most practitioners, common sense dictates that uke will initiate the encounter, with tori (= nage) responding. Yet if we consult O-Sensei’s 1938 Budo manual, we find the following description of the commencement of this technique:

Tori: Step forward with your right foot and strike directly at your opponent’s face with your right tegatana and punch his ribs with your left fist…

Uke: Receive your opponent’s right tegatana with your right arm.

One might be tempted to point out that this was the prewar version of the technique that was superseded in the modern era. This is certainly true. However, Morihei continued to teach shomenuchi ikkyo in this manner during the Iwama era following the war. It was the Aikikai — headed by Kisshomaru Ueshiba and Koichi Tohei — that altered the practice of this core basic technique. In contrast, Gozo Shioda’s Yoshinkan Aikido continued to follow O-Sensei’s original teaching after the war.


What can we make of this seemingly counterintuitive approach of Morihei to one of aikido’s most important techniques? Think of it this way. If uke attacks using shomenuchi, it is symbolic of a sword attack. An expert wielding a sword can generate tremendous speed. If tori stands directly on the line of attack and waits for uke to strike, he will be late… and dead! So, in this situation involving a strike, O-Sensei clearly specifies that tori initiates the attack, which makes perfect sense from a martial standpoint.

Think of the further implications of this approach. Aikido is often described as a self-defense art. Normally, people think of this to mean that a person waits for an attacker to initiate, and then responds using a defensive technique. The problem with this view is that it fails to take into account the speed of an attack or the surprise factor, and the near impossibility of managing a successful response within such a limited time window.

Another dimension worth mentioning is that one might be called to action to defend or save a third party, perhaps a loved one, in a dangerous situation. You might call it an instance of “defense by proxy”, but it definitely falls within the scope of martial arts. It’s worthwhile taking the time to think things through both from the practical and moral standpoints before accepting truisms at face value.

The average practitioner might think that the detailed examination of old documents such as these is overkill. Yet, these exercises enable us to reconstruct the Founder’s thinking with regard to technical matters, and consequently give a deeper insignt into his larger martial arts philosophy.

This photo depicting the next stage of the shomenuchi ikkyo omote is another of the unpublished photos not used in the final 1938 publication.

This photo depicting the next stage of the shomenuchi ikkyo omote technique is
another of the photos not used in the published book.

There is one other interesting sidelight to the story that the above photo tells. At first glance, one might surmise that this photo appears in Morihei Ueshiba’s 1938 “Budo” book. O-Sensei looks the same, the uke is one of the three who appears in the old book. What’s going on here?

Those who are detail oriented may notice that the resolution of this image is much higher than the other photos published in “Budo”. Another thing is that the form factor of all the “Budo” photos is square, while this is rectangular. I am making an educated guess, but I believe that this is an unpublished photo that was not used in the “Budo” manual when it appeared.

A third image from this same sequence not published in "Budo"

A third image from this same sequence left out of “Budo”

As a result of the detective work of one of my researcher colleagues, several more of these formerly unknown photos have been unearthed. To this day, I have seen about 15 of them, several appearing in John Stevens’ “The Secrets of Aikido”. This would suggest that the Ueshiba family has in its possession a collection of these rare, unpublished photos, until recently unknown.

Each of these wonderful images has a technical story to tell. It’s strange, rather miraculous, that we now have access to a few of them more than 70 years after the fact. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes my historical researach so enjoyable.

I would like to gratefully acknowledge Sakura Mai for having posted the images used in this article on Facebook.


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The Morihei Ueshiba Founder’s Course is O-Sensei’s video legacy starting in 1935 and covering a span of 34 years until just before his passing in 1969. Besides the more than 30 films of the Founder, the course includes three rare audio interviews of O-Sensei with complete subtitles. These are wonderfully intimate conversations with the Founder that convey his bright personality, playfulness and sincerity. In addition, the course includes a series of video documentaries by Stanley Pranin on the life of the Founder and the spread of his art worldwide.


  1. Self-defense, or more properly, self-protection, is not belligerent, but it is certainly not passive. Waiting is suicide. The self-protective behavior or sequence of behaviors begins well before the motor actions of the other person. These may include adjusting the physical space, gesturing, or verbal intervention (de-escalation, re-direction, reframing, warning, etc.). Aikidoka (and others) become weirdly legalistic in interpreting “defense.”

    • With respect I would suggest that aikido is more than de-escalating or avoiding conflict. Terry Dobson wrote two books. The first is still available “Aikido in Everyday Life – Giving In To Get Your Way”. Excellent. I recommend it. Somehow I never saw the second, “When Push Comes To Shove”, but have spent almost 40 years working on that. It’s really hard to break our basic habits of social interaction, the first book. The second is complementary. Obviously I’m strange enough to find it fascinating. While I owe much to my very brief dojo acquaintance with Dobson Sensei, I probably owe more, in the everyday life department, to his book.

  2. I see Aikido as an interaction between people. Who initiates the conversation depends on the circumstances. An attacker may rush in unannounced, forcing me to respond by blending, capturing center, and turning the attack around.

    Often in more predictable forms practice I move towards my partner by extending my arm, or by trying to strike the person’s body or face. This sets up a situation that favors the successful completion of my technique. I do not intend to harm my partner but if they do not react to the offensive move they will be hit.

    Passiveness is not a trait of Aikido. Offense does play an important part in this non-violent defensive art. A true conversation implicates both parties, speaking and listening. Hanging a wrist off of your forearm in front of your waist and expecting someone to grab it is ineffective at best. If action is needed move in and strike. This is the dynamic of Aikido.

  3. Stan and I had a long email chat on this, which at his request I’m pasting in here.

    Agreed. I can understand why, though. Timing is more than critical. Tori has to be moving on intent… that means seeing intent and discerning true intent from a feint. I’m not sure I can do that 100%, let alone teach it. So, how do you scale that up with teaching staff who have each been studying for 10 or fewer years? Saito Sensei came up with a reasonable compromise, though I admit my prejudice, by starting everybody with kihon waza. Pre-war the solution was to consider aikido to be “post-graduate”. The few who came in the door didn’t have to be taught basic stuff like attacking (or defending), and some got how aikido is different from either. The difference is important, but working on that separates us from other martial arts and underlies, imo, a lot of the chat about aikido and its martial applicability. If fact, if you aren’t inspired to transcend dojo teaching, perceive intent and seize the initiative leading the engagement down a path of your (pre-conscious) selection, your martial efficacy is likely to be limited.

    On 3/31/14 10:27 AM, Stan wrote:
    > O-Sensei did indeed make a change to the nikyo footwork, but it was the Aikikai that abandoned the practice of tori/nage initiating the execution of shomenuchi, thus greatly diluting its effectiveness.
    > On 3/31/2014 10:10 AM, charles wrote:
    >> Yet, according to Rick Rowell, the Japanese studied wounds received in combat and found, surprise, that most of them were from thrusts. Unsurprising given the number of spears on any period battlefield. but spearmen were 2nd class samurai…
    >> I wonder if the 1938 photo reproduces a formalism (style) that was later discarded, a bit like the post-war change to nikyo footwork?
    >> Sincerity. If you do it outside the dojo sincerity may easily end in a strike. Make it good.
    >> On 3/31/14 10:02 AM, Stan wrote:
    >>> I agree. It’s just that the Japanese tradition is deeply steeped in the sword mentality. I personally do it more like a thrust. But it has to be done with total sincerely to induce a flinch reflex. Then the technique becomes easy.
    >>> On 3/31/2014 9:24 AM, charles wrote:
    >>>> Yup. The problem of course is that shomen-uchi takes a lot of time compared to shomen tsuki. Richard Burton had a simple diagram of how point beats edge in his “Book of the Sword”. It’s pretty easy to visualize how ai-uchi by shomen tsuki becomes ikkyo. It’s also easy to visualize how shomen-tsuki v. shomen uchi in ai-timing yields ikkyo (or lots of other things). That which is depicted here is going to take some consideration.
    >>>> On 3/31/14 9:15 AM, Stan wrote:
    >>>>> My understanding is that this is the practice of a shomenuchi technique, ergo the shomenuchi attack on the part of O-Sensei.
    >>>>> On 3/31/2014 9:10 AM, charles wrote:
    >>>>>> On 3/31/14 8:52 AM, Aikido Journal wrote:
    >>>>>>> What will appear odd to many present-day aikidoka is the fact that the Founder is initiating the technique.
    >>>>>> What challenges my imagination is using shomen uchi rather than some sort of tsuki.
    >>>>>> – chuck

  4. I think the basic principles of attack are often misunderstood. If someone gets involved in any kind of conflict, it should be clear from the circumstances who is the aggressor and who is the one who must protect himself. In aikido like in many other martial arts we can find the three principles of timing go-no-sen (reaction: defender moves after the attacker), sen-no-sen (action: defender moves at the same time as the attacker) and sen-sen-no-sen (anticipation: defender moves before attacker). We are told, there is no attack in aikido. That’s true, but nage’s initial movement in shomenuchi is not intended to harm (attack) the opponent rather than to force his reaction (raise his arm to block) and to gain control at the earliest stage. The opponent will not be seriously hurt but only got under control and somehow fixed, to prevent him from any further violent behavier. Usually we distinguish between shomenchi (nage initiates) and shomenuchikomi (uke attacks). In shomenuchikomi omote movements are very dangerous, because the timing is difficult and there is a big risk for nage to injure himself while moving into the attack. Ura movements are no problem.

    • Good points, Thomas.

    • i liked what You wrote, Thomas.
      From my point of view, once the adversary challanges you by placing himself in front of you, the attack has begun. The aikidoka brings it out by taking the next initiative. This results in placing the attacker in a defensive position: the roles change. This is only possible, of course if there is a will to enter a real fight from the attackers’ side. You can then use his spirit/will and apply meaningful techinques.

      This is what I teach here.

      The attacker, who wanted to surprise us, is himself surprised. The energy one puts forth in the first movement must be superior to what the attacker would expect. This is to be demonstrated through your eyes, your powerful action and your kiai. No exhitation must happen. The decison must be pure.

  5. I would also like to annotate the pictures shown above. When nage initiates the shomenuchi movement it’s wrong to raise the hand above the head to strike down. This will create an opening for uke to enter with a counterattack. Instead the shomenuchi atemi should be done in a straight movement from nage’s center to uke’s face. The raised hand position in the pictures would better refer to shomenuchikomi, where uke is attacking.

  6. Jim Klar says:

    At one of the dojos I trained at in Japan 20 years ago, they had Nage initiate the attack in the practice of more than a few techniques. They were affiliated with Osaka Hombu, tracing their lineage to Tanaka Bansen Sensei. I have never gotten a satisfactory answer about the split between Osaka Hombu and Tokyo Hombu, perhaps you can enlighten us?

  7. Dan Caslin says:

    Hikitsuchi Michio Sensei also, citing O-Sensei, would have nage exclusively initiate or preempt uke in shomenuchi ikkyo.

  8. I like Nisho’s approach to this problem: tori should apply an irimi that is both offensive and defensive, making a moral choice whether to apply the atemi or to use it to shape uke and to establish the timing and rhythm of interaction. As Nishio points out, it is the raising of the sword that establishes uke’s intention to strike. By that time tori should already be controlling uke’s movement — a blended timing that avoids the 1-2 rhythm of parry-strike. At best, I think it should be difficult to determine who moved first, tori or uke.

  9. Minoru VOIRON says:

    To a beginner, as I am, in Aikido, what is the most remarkable on this picture is not the initiative taken by O-sensei as Tori, but his very hands with vigorous fingers.
    It’s because we’ve all learnt that O-sensei was such a man as finely mastered the technique to get completely relaxed, and that it was why his partner as Uké would hardly feel muscular force from Tori.

    In fact, my remark here is to say the difficulty I still have particularly in executing the role of Uke, whose physical and/or mental state may or may not be different from that of Tori. How should it be, if different? To be relaxed, it’s not sufficient to simply remove the muscular force of our body, I’ve the impression from my short experience. Otherwise, it becomes a jellyfish dance on the wave, we encounter sometimes on the Tatami mat, isn’t it?

    Can anyone enlighten me on the point ?

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