“The Origins of Modern Aikido: The Shomenuchi Dilemma” by Stanley Pranin


“If you want to know how aikido techniques changed
after the war, here is a good place to start!”

stanley-pranin-thumbnailLast year I published an article that dealt in some detail with the Shomenuchi Ikkyo technique of the prewar era. It discussed an earlier approach to doing techniques from the the shomenuchi (overhand strike attack). Several examples consisting of photos of Morihei Ueshiba and Gozo Shioda were presented. The thrust of the article was that it was important that nage (the person applying the technique) initiate the encounter in order to preempt a high-speed attack by uke and avoid a collision, something decidedly against the principles of aikido, the “art of harmony”.

Now, please have a look at the two photos above that depict Koichi Tohei, 10th dan. These photos are the start of the Shomenuchi ikkyo technique described in Tohei Sensei’s technical volume “This is Aikido” published in 1968.

Let us make some observations about these two photos. First, in photo #1, Tohei Sensei (nage) is standing in hanmi awaiting the shomen attack. His uke — Seishiro Endo — has launched a shomenuchi attack. Allowing for the fact that the photos may be artificial in that they are posed, we must still deal with the reality that nage has only a minute time frame to respond to uke’s attack that is already in progress.

Next, look at photo #2. What is described as a blend could equally be construed as a collision between nage and uke as their arms traveling in direct opposition make contact. In fairness, let us quote part of the description of the beginning of this technique from the book which describes the thinking behind this approach:

Although you throw your partner with an ikkyo much as you do in the kata-tori ikkyo…., since, in this technique, his attempted strike moves downward, it is easy for you to collide with his strength and difficult for you to force him down backward. The irimi here, therefore, consists of turning your partner’s strength against him…

Maintain a mighty outpouring of ki from your hands and swing your arms up…

If you’ll take the trouble to read the earlier article I mention, you will realize that a totally different approach is used. Nage is proactive and initiates the movement thus effectively neutralizing uke’s shomenuchi attack altogether and eliminating the risk of collision alluded to above.

shomenuchi-ikkyo-3Although Koichi Tohei began his training at Morihei Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo in 1940 when the war between Japan and China was already in progress, he is recognized as one of the foremost figures of postwar aikido. His curriculum was broad, well-organized and presented in a number of early aikido technical books. Within the Aikikai system, the other approach to aikido techniques which bore many similarities with Tohei’s aikido was the less rigorous and losely developed system of the Founder’s son Kisshomaru Ueshiba. This is one of the reasons Tohei Sensei was accorded the position of Shihan Bucho — chief instructor — of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. He was recognized by most as the superior technician at the Aikikai.

What was taught at the Aikikai from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s ending with Tohei Sensei’s departure from the Hombu Dojo in 1974, was something of a composite of the curricula of Tohei and Kisshomaru that coexisted. Many uchideshi and students practicing at the dojo during these years had extensive exposure to both systems, some favoring one over the other.

By comparing the approaches to dealing with shomenuchi attacks described in this article and the preceding one, you will gain a glimpse of the rather dramatic differences that existed between the two methods of practice. The prewar art was more martial, proactive and assertive while the postwar approaches of Tohei and Kisshomaru placed little emphasis on the martiality of technique and focused more on the art’s philosophy and its use as a vehicle of personal and health development. This had a great deal to do with the tenor of the times, Japan then being a defeated nation occupied by foreign troops.

I will contine spending time systematically going through some of these differences in technical and mental approaches in an effort to delineate more clearly how aikido evolved from the prewar period through modern times. I submit that such studies can have profound implications in understanding the art’s orgins and also may suggest many modifications and improvements that can be made to current practice methods.



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  1. Bob Molerio says:

    The root of Shomen uchi ikkyo is Daito -ryu’s Ippondori.

  2. As a 25 year practitioner of Shin Shin Toitsu Aikido I can certainly say that Koichi Tohei Sensei did emphasize initiating the first action in any attack. I learned this in lessons directly from him and in reading his books. I realize that some do not acknowledge that this action is happening or has an effect because it is not visible to the naked eye. This action is the same that appears as the very first instruction in many of the techniques listed in O’Sensei’s technical manual ‘Budo’. “Fill yourself with ki and invite your opponent to attack.”

    • Glonnell says:

      Yeah, in the first picture above it looks as though Tohei-shihan is standing composed in perfect balance and creating a space for the attacker to move into. Is that what you mean?

      In YouTube video “Koichi Tohei – ki aikido 3/5 Fundamental Concept Principle” at minute 6:43, sensei drops his center right after the uke (Endo?) begins his attack, and then he almost appears to stretch up and forward to meet the strikes as they comes down (at least that’s how it looks to me!). Is that a part of it?

      A minute later he demonstrates the technique more closely using the rowing motion which along with Kokyu dosa (tanden ho) is key to practicing ikkyo. What, if anything, is he trying to show regarding initiating the attack?

      I’m being genuine when I ask for details about the way that Tohei-shihan initiates the technique. Not everyone who reads and trains in this stuff has the blessing you’ve had of actually training with O-Sensei’s Great Student! :)

      • I have made a very limited point which many of the commentators here ignore altogether. If you wait standing motionaless for uke to attack you powerfully with an overhead shomenuchi attack, your chances of successfully dealing with such an attack are virtually nil because of the limited time frame to respond. I have made the statement about 10 times already. If you believe it is possible to do so, let me know how you manage it.

        • Actually, I feel I directly answered your limited point and only your limited point. But as I stated before….

          “I realize that some do not acknowledge that this action is happening or has an
          effect because it is not visible to the naked eye. ”

          There is a difference between standing dead motionless and what I describe. It is a very active process.

          Not sure how to share this with you other than in person, along with some trial and error together. But here is an attempt in another context. Let’s say you want to open a new account at a bank. Scenario 1: You research the available accounts online and pick the one you want ahead on time. You walk in and ask to open that kind of account. Scenario 2: You go into the bank and ask a staff member to explain the various accounts to you. Then you select one and then open it. In which scenario will you leave the bank more quickly? I think most people would say scenario 1. The action I am describing is similar to the bank scenario 1 but obviously involving mind-body and future motions. Basically you are ahead on your partner before they even begin the strike.

          I know you have recently called into question the authenticity of some quotes that are attributed O’Sensei. I am going to share some quotes from John Stevens book ‘The Art of Peace’ that are basically talking about the same action or spirit that I am referring to you. You can certainly let me know if you feel these quotes are authentic O’Sensei quotes or not.

          Page 96 perhaps illustrates the essence best.

          “Seeing me before him, the enemy attacks, but by that time, I am already
          standing safely behind him.” (D: Or in this case I have already raised my

          Other examples….
          Page 100:

          “Do not stare into the eyes of your opponent, he may mesmerize you. Do not fix
          your gaze on his sword: he may intimidate you. Do not focus on your opponent
          at all: he may absorb your energy. The essence of training is to bring your
          opponent completely into your sphere. Then you can stand just where you like.”

          Page 92:

          “One should be prepared to receive ninety-nine percent of an enemy’s attack
          and stare death right in the face in order to illuminate the Path.”

          Page 80:

          “If your heart is large enough to envelop your adversaries, you can see right
          through them and avoid their attacks. And once you envelop them, you will be
          able to guide them along a path indicated to you by heaven and earth.”

          Page 75:

          “The techniques of the Art of Peace neither fast nor slow, nor are they inside or
          outside. They transcend time and space.”

          Page 98:

          “Your spirit is the true shield.”

          Page 101:

          “Even the most powerful human being has a limited sphere of strength. Draw
          him outside of that sphere and into your own, and his strength with dissipate.”

          Thank you.

          • Thank you for your efforts to explain your viewpoint with which I am familiar having practiced with Tohei Sensei, various Aikikai instructors, and with Morihiro Saito Sensei for several years. The problem is not a theoretical one as I see it. It’s a problem of the poor practice habits that are repeated over and over and become de facto standards. Waiting for uke to strike with shomenuchi and then colliding with him to execute ikkyo is an example. This can be achieved only if uke’s attack is slow and lacking in intent. This is my main point.

      • Glonnell:

        Thank you for your questions. It’s a bit hard to explain nuanced physical things on the internet but I’ll do my best to answer your questions.

        “Yeah, in the first picture above it looks as though Tohei-shihan is standing composed in perfect balance and creating a space for the attacker to move into. Is that what you mean?”

        I would say the 1st picture is an artifact of being a training manual so that the reader can visualize the attack. I think the true picture number 1 would have both participants with their hands down at hip level. Afterwards both would raise their arms nearly simultaneously. I agree that Tohei Sensei appeared to have a decent balance. Inside his mind he would have been welcoming the attack and filling himself with the ki needed for the coming movement. All before partner budges. Leading rather than reacting.

        “In YouTube video “Koichi Tohei – ki aikido 3/5 Fundamental Concept Principle” at minute 6:43, sensei drops his center right after the uke (Endo?) begins his attack, and then he almost appears to stretch up and forward to meet the strikes as they comes down (at least that’s how it looks to me!). Is that a part of it?”

        The process begins before any motion happens at 6:43. The dropping of center and raising of hands is when he starts doing what he has already set up ahead of time. Leading rather than reacting. Yes, Endo Shihan.

        “A minute later he demonstrates the technique more closely using the rowing motion which along with Kokyu dosa (tanden ho) is key to practicing ikkyo. What, if anything, is he trying to show regarding initiating the attack?”

        At 7:16 he starts showing Ikkyo Undo exercise. This is an exercise that is intended to develop muscle memory in how to move with good stability.

        Please keep in mind this was shot in the 1950’s? (I believe). Tohei Sensei continued to develop his technique, his ability to explain difficult concepts and his teaching skills for another 50+ years. People who didn’t have much contact with him after the 1970s missed out on perhaps 35+ years of his efforts to get his own experience of Aikido across. Thank you and best wishes.

        • Glonnell says:

          I just want to make sure I say thank you for your detailed explanation! I don’t want to assume that I’ve already done so (i.e. in reply to “How…Tohei intercepted…”).

          Arigato gozaimashita!

    • Glonnell says:

      In other words, what is the sensei in this video saying? YouTube: “06.1.2 – Shomenuchi ikkyo irimi i tenkan”

  3. Hello,

    I had the opportunity to attend a seminar given by Tada shihan yesterday and the day before (what an amazing vitality !). He clearly initiated during shomen uchi practice. He even initiated for yokomen uchi explaining that it was as if tori was attacking uke with a straight punch, uke having to get off the line to counter-attack to the side of the head/neck.
    As you know, Tada sensei is considered “post-war”.

    There ‘s no absolute. It’s about the choice you make as a practitionner.
    Is waiting a mistake ? It depends of course. You don’t always decide in an “off the mat” situation. That’s why I believe initiating is not more martial “par essence” because our practice needs codes. So codes are still involved. When you read Budo or watch the videos of the very precise Saito Morihiro shihan, you see that uke receive the “blow” with the same hand (I mean uke’s right hand receive tori’s right hand = ai hanmi) and lean backwards. It’s a code. Those practicing western boxing or kung fu would demonstrate other possibilities (and other codes).

    Conclusion ? Why not practicing both ?

  4. guy manners says:

    My thoughts.

    Shoumen-uchi is 3 movements – raising the arm (and elbow), starting to bring the elbow down, and extending the arm.
    Blending can occur at any point in the attack by Nage remaining calm and relaxed, and mindful of his opponents movement and direction.
    Ikkyo (omote as shown) can be achieved if Nage’s arm has not yet started to properly extend (with much force).
    If nage reacts late (through whatever reason), so the forearm is descending with force, Nage’s arm should not collide with Uke’s – Ura technique can be used to blend.

    This is not just for the mat; this is realistic for combat also.
    Fast attack/late reaction – Uke attacks (right) – nage raises right arm at an angle, supports defence with left hand (at the elbow) so there is a little deflection and to create and maintain distance from his body, and turns Tenkan (ura – blending). Uke is drawn forwards and around (circles!).

    To achieve Ikkyo a little earlier in the attack, Uke’s arm may have started to fall, but the main speed/force is achieved by extending the arm – thus the elbow moves much slower than the fore-arm. Ikkyo is acheived by the turning motion of the fore-arm (pic2) thus Nage blends with the fore-arm, and merely slows or stops the movement of the elbow with a circular motion (depending on the relative height). No collision. Nage can turn a little, Uke is rotated down.
    Or, early enough, Uke’s elbow is still rising, so again – no collision – Nage can push directly against it to raise it whilst turning the forearm down, taking Uke off balance backwards.

    I see no problem with the idea of blending, in realistic shoumen-uchi attacks.

  5. As a practitioner of aikido for over a decade, I’ve been influence by O Sensei and what aikido promotes. I’m currently writing a comic book that features a superhero who’s power is developed and perfected thanks to aikido. I was inspired by O Sensei’s quote, “Seeing him before me, the enemy attacks, but by that time I am already standing behind him.”


  6. Andrew Bedford says:

    Hi All,
    I just wanted to add a little something here, what all the commentators seem to have missed and it is a gaping black whole in the effectiveness of the way Tohei Sensei is demonstrating this technique in the picture.

    The simple yet blatantly obvious fact that uke is able to punch Tori anywhere from the face, to the sternum and downwards to the Hara, if Uke had a weapon say a knife or broken bottle and used a shomen uchi attack to disguise that he had a weapon the effects would be even more devastating.

    I aggree with O-Sensei, Saito Sensei and you Stan, that you must initiate and forestall the attack, not to cause injury but to gain the advantage and make the other person reveal his true intentions.

    The use of this method of technique is not only dangerous to Tori but to uke too, the danger of using too much force to make the technique work is very high because of the imprecise nature of having to react. This could cause an arm, collarbone or elbow bone to break, this is far from the Ideal Aikido!

    Initiating the attack is by far the safest all round method and the initiating of and by itself is also likely to stop the altercation altogether. See, if one suspected truthfully you were about to be attacked, the surprise of calling out a person in this manor is psychologically devastating to a would be attacker (how did he know I was going to attack?) and in an instant victory is achieved.

    I remember reading a quote from somewhere it goes something like this “The Ancient Samurai graveyards of Japan are full of people who waited!”

    Just something to think about.

    Andy Bedford

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