“Go no Sen” — The Path to Defeat by Stanley Pranin


“O-Sensei introduced confusion and sensory overload in the mind
of his attacker, thus completely dominating the exchange.”

stan-pranin-closeupThe term “Go no Sen” is frequently used in Japanese martial arts as part of a theoretical framework to describe a particular circumstance where an attacker initiates a martial encounter. One definition of “Go no Sen” might be “to regain the initiative after being attacked”. Thinking this through for a moment, what must be true in such a case?

To begin with, the attacker has chosen the timing, circumstances, direction and intensity of his offensive move. The person on the receiving end is forced into a defensive mode. In that an attack involves rapid aggressive motion, the time remaining for the defender to respond may be measured in milliseconds. For this reason, the defender’s odds of safely emerging are greatly reduced. This is why I dislike describing aikido as an “art of self-defense”.

Of course, unskilled practitioners of martial arts are rarely able to escape the world of “Go no Sen” in their practice. They have yet to develop the ability to initiate their response earlier, before the attack has gained momentum. They are psychologically overwhelmed by the ferocity of a determined attacker. Nor have they reached an even higher level of skill where they can assess, control and neutralize a potentially violent encounter before its physical manifestation.

Is there no place for “Go no Sen” practice in our training? There decidedly is. In fact, it cannot be otherwise. Practicing against a prearranged attack and learning the mechanics of a particular technique are necessary to build basic skills. Such training is appropriate especially at the beginning and intermediate levels of aikido training. Yet It is common for advanced practitioners and instructors to never venture beyond this defensive mindset. I believe we must at some point transcend the dimension of “Go no Sen” to tap the art’s higher potential.

Recently, I watched a video clip of a legendary aikido shihan and was surprised to observe that he was responding to attacks by uke. This was possible only because the attacks were weak and slowly executed. Such performances may look very good, even amazing, to the casual observer. But a high-level martial artist would recognize that such a response would not serve well in a violent scenario, particularly involving one with an element of surprise.

O-Sensei initiating shomenuchi while
executing atemi. Uke: Gozo Shioda

Contrast this to what Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba would show in his demonstrations. O-Sensei would execute feints, give verbal commands, offer a hand or shoulder, shift his weight to and fro, execute atemi and kiai, etc. He introduced confusion and sensory overload in the mind of his attacker, thus completely dominating the exchange. For this reason, observers often commented that his demonstrations were “faked”! My take is that he set the stage so that no effective attack was even possible. O-Sensei enveloped his uke in an energy dimension where no aggression could arise. Uke was psychologically and physically neutralized.

Think about O-Sensei’s admonition on shomenuchi attacks recorded in his 1938 training manual titled “Budo”.

Initiate the movement by advancing with your right foot while vigorously extending your right tegatana into your partner’s face, and at the same time, execute an atemi to his side with your left hand.

This is not the description of a scenario where uke attacks. Nage is the initiator and overwhelms uke with a vigorous attack to the face accompanied by a rib strike. This may seem counterintuitive in the thinking of most aikido practitioners. I recommend that you reflect upon this deeply and consider its far-reaching implications.

Michio Hikitsuchi, 10th dan

Michio Hikitsuchi, 10th dan

The late Michio Hikitsuchi, 10th dan, describes this line of thinking using these words:

I am always going first. I am moving forward first everytime.
I initiate and let him take my hand. I initiate and let him grab me.
It never happens that he grabs me first, after which I start to figure out what to do.
I am always going first. I must not wait for the other person to act.

I sincerely believe that an awareness of the existence of this higher world of interconnectedness with others, and how it can be cultivated in our training is the key to reaching aikido’s most advanced state of “Takemusu Aiki”, O-Sensei’s most enduring legacy. To remain mired in the world of “Go no Sen” is to embark upon a certain path to defeat.


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  1. Dear Stanley,

    I cannot agree more that developing the sense and timing of moving before the attacker is set or upon you is key to being able to subdue an uncooperative opponent. Like you say, in the beginning we need to let the attack happen first and work out the mechanics of doing the technique after the fact. This process involves tehodoki, tai sabaki/kuzushi, tsukuri and kake. Drilling this over and over again is the way we devleop muscle memory and improve our timing and execution. Eventually we move without consciously thinking about it.

    I would add to your comments that doing randori with your partners who are being uncooperative and attacking randomly is the best practice to develop this sense. Moving when you don’t know what the other person is going to do is a lot different than when you do know, and especially when they are planning to throw you and not get thrown. In my experience, my first reaction is usually the best, but many times I will miss the timing and we get tangled up. It is at that moment that if you are able to switch the technique midstream and change directions, that this is where I get most of my successful throws. A good attacker will also be trying a technique and following with a second/third/fourth technique, as well. So the practice becomes kaeshi waza; like 2 cats in a tussle where at the end one ends up on top of the other.

    It is a beauty to watch this sort of exchange, and interesting to note that half the time it ends up on the ground with a pin and submission as the final note. There are, of course, limits as to the intensity level of randori, and that safety is also an issue. We are not out there to kill each other, but rather to help each other improve by giving enough challenge to make sure a technique is really working. It is the duty of sempai to work with kohai to give them this challenge and to push their envelope to the edge so that they will improve at their pace and within their limits.


    Ken Teshima

  2. Elegantly written.
    Regarding the use of the term ‘self-defense’ I would also say that when one is in a very high state of awareness of the intentions of an attacker that ‘drawing them out’ under conditions you can ‘control’ is a very high level of self-defense, the highest being to have such a presence that the attacker never attacks because S/he perceives the futility of attack before making contact. This doesn’t work on folks who are heavily impaired by drugs or psychosis.
    HOw do we move beyond ‘stimulus-response’ Aikido in daily practice? Is ‘living Aikido’ really the incorporation of a strong presence wherever we go, whatever we are doing which is so effective we never have to use techniques?

  3. Could not agree more about waiting for an attack reduces greatly one’s chances for defense. I do believe however that aikidoka should work all four defense / attack timings:

    Sen no sen (before the attack)
    Tai no sen (during the attack)
    Go no sen (during the impact of the attack)
    Machi no sen (after the impact of the attack)

    Beginners may work more with “Go no sen” and “Matchi no sen” as is written in the article while advanced students focus more on “Tai no sen”. Whatever you level of Aikido though, do not ignore the importance of working with the entire array of timings, you never know when it can come in handy.

  4. As a practical matter, attackers have a plan. There are all sorts of stories about plans of battle or war. At the one-on-one level, don’t conform to their plan. You should always have your own plan – irimi. That isn’t part of many attackers’ plans… Defeat their plan. At that point you may get to a higher victory, defeating their mind. You may not have to defeat their body.


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