Closing up the loose ends: “More on Aikido’s Shomenuchi Dilemma” by Stanley Pranin

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba has overcome an overhand knife attack by initiating and delivering an atemi

Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba has overcome an overhand attack by initiating and delivering an atemi

“To overcome the thesis presented here, you must explain how a motionless person can recognize an attack, devise a plan, spring into action, and overcome a high-speed attack in less than a second.”

Yesterday’s blog on the “Shomenuchi Dilemma” generated a good deal of commentary among Aikido Journal readers, especially on Facebook. There were those who agreed with my thesis — actually points stressed by Morihei Ueshiba, Morihiro Saito, and Shoji Nishio in their aikido instruction.

Still there were those who sidestepped the main point. A powerful shomen attack by an uke does not allow nage who is standing still to respond in time. The window of opportunity to analyze, initiate a move, and execute a counter-movement is too limited. This argument was ignored altogether by many of those offering comments.

Some opined that the purpose of this exercise is to blend with the overhead attack. Yes ideally that would allow nage the possibility to gain control over the encounter. This ignores the fact that nage who is responding only after uke’s attack doesn’t have enough time to blend. Look again at the two photos: nage is motionless and uke is at the halfway point of delivering his shomenuchi attack.

Another viewpoint expressed was that nage is not clashing against uke’s shomenuchi but rather that his left hand is moving up to blend with uke and then control the movement. I would agree that in a slow motion scenario this might be possible. But we’re not talking about a slow motion scenario but rather a high-speed overhand attack.

Still another comment was that the arms of nage and uke were not on a collision course and that the photos, being static, gave a misleading impression. I granted that the photos were “posed” and therefore lacked the dynamism of a practice session, but read again Tohei Sensei’s explanation:

… 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…

This is of course the objective and theoretically possible, but only against an uke delivering a slow-speed attack. If uke attacks powerlully, with full intent, and nage stands waiting for uke to initiate, nage will be overcome by the overhand blow because he has too little time to respond. He has an impossible disadvantage to overcome.

This is why Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba — echoed by Morihiro Saito — stressed the importance of nage initiating against a shomenuchi attack rather than responding.

If you think you can overcome and reverse a powerful overhand attack starting from a motionless posture, please watch this video by UFC Champion Chuck Liddell:

And for a humorous look at the result of a powerfully delivered shomenuchi, check this out:



Now Mobile Friendly! Watch these videos for insights into
solving the technical problems that hold back your progress!

Click here for information on Stanley Pranin's “Zone Theory of Aikido” Course


  1. Scott Burke says:

    “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”

    Fair enough question, I’ll bite. First I would turn to the main authority on our art, the founder Morihei Ueshiba. What does he say to do when confronted with a shomen strike?

    I have a copy of Budo next to me here, not the special edition one. A friend ran off with that years ago, no the John Stevens edition. So, page 41 of the Stevens translation of Budo
    First, let’s review.
    Tori: Step out on your right foot and strike directly at your opponent’s face with your right te-gatana and punch his ribs with your left fist. (The punch is not shown)
    Uke: receive your opponent’s attack with the right arm.

    To save space I won’t go into the description of ikkyo, but as we can see O’Sensei describes initiating the attack. The discussion has been focused on whether this form of pre-emptive strike existed in Aikido, it does and here’s the proof. Now we turn the page.

    When your opponent strikes first with shomen, turn around the attack with irimi-tenkan, use your right hand to receive the blow, and then control your opponent as described in No. 5. (Not illustrated)

    Interesting, now it appears that O’Sensei was indeed teaching how to deal with strikes initiated by Uke in the prewar era. His description makes no mention of speed or timing, let’s remember that for a later point.

    Technique 7 begins with the following description.
    Tori: Fill yourself with ki and invite your opponent to strike with shomen.
    Uke: Raise your right te-gatana high, step forward on your right foot, and deliver a shomen strike.

    Those are just two instances in Budo, the pre-war instructional manual of record, where the founder talks of what to do when uke strikes first. So now we have a changed premise, allowing uke to attack first is not a strictly post war development, and O’Sensei advises irimi-tenkan as a way of coping with said first strike shomen attacks.

    But here’s the question I have. How do we know that we’re doing our shomen attacks correctly in the first place. We raise our hand up as if we’re imitating a sword strike and strike down with the knife blade of the hand. Yes, the outside of the form does indeed look like that. What did O’Sensei say about it?

    Opening my copy of Budo to page 33, I see that O’Sensei has left written instructions on how to strike in Shomen. There are no pictures in this section. Quoting now, “in order to deliver a devastating blow to an enemy, one must be enlightened to the principles of heaven and earth.” Oh, I recognize this part. He continues “one’s body and mind must be linked to the divine, and there must be a perfect balance between the manifest and hidden, water and fire.” Yin and yang. This is straight up internal power instructions, Heaven and earth, fire and water. “Heaven, earth, and man must blend together as a single unified force- in this case a te-gatana…”

    These are O’Sensei’s instructions on how to execute a shomen strike. He goes on for a great deal longer, and his description of proper attacking with power are essential to doing the technique correctly. Any discussion of how to deal with such a strike must include an understanding of what a proper shomen strike entails. I’m just a novice in this area, but I can certainly recommend a very good teacher of internal skills who can provide excellent instruction in the heaven, earth, man model and how it fits into shomen training. Because, even as O’Sensei says in Budo, page 51 “Training in Aiki. Through the virtue of training, understanding of aiki is acquired naturally. Precise instruction must be imparted orally.”

    Now, to address the other question. “To overcome the thesis presented here, you must explain how a motionless person can recognize an attack, devise a plan, spring into action, and overcome a high-speed attack in less than a second.”

    I am not at the point in my training where I can do this yet, probably not for some time, heh heh, but it is a goal to work towards. Some thoughts I have kicking around in my head.

    How can one recognize, devise, spring into, and overcome, in less than a second. I will be so bold as to say, that when you have an aiki body, you won’t have to worry about any of those things.

    There are lots of different expressions of power through the body, but the one I’ll come back to is the one Hikitushi Sensei mentions in one of the AJ interviews: Inryoku attractive power. This “power” is in reality a physical a skill in which contact with an opponent creates a stickiness and a lagtime in their response to your actions. Every response your opponent gives is late to the game, they try to counter and end up face first in your attack with you “actively” doing very little. It has nothing to do with speed or timing either, it simply is the way one’s body has been reset by training.

    Lets take a look at the implications of this through the lens of Go no Sen, Sen no Sen, Sen Sen no Sen. (I have to wrap up soon, set to host a children’s BBQ in a few hours so I’ll keep it brief and really simplified.) More or less what we are contending with is the following.
    Go no Sen, late to the attack
    Uke attacks, nage reacts/responds to the attack.
    Sen no Sen, attack at the same time
    Uke attacks, nage attacks at same time. Swords are locked like Basil Rathbone and Erol Flynn, arrhhh!
    Sen Sen no Sen, pre-emptive strike
    This time Nage attacks and uke is forced into responding to the attack.

    Now, let’s rewrite the engagement with the application of Inryoku in Nage.
    Go no Sen, late to the attack
    Uke attacks, uke makes contact with nage. Uke is absorbed by Inryoku.
    Sen no Sen, attack at the same time
    Uke attacks, nage attacks at same time. Nage makes contact with Uke and Uke is absorbed by the power on Inryoku. Goodnight Basil.
    Sen Sen no Sen, pre-emptive strike
    This time Nage attacks and uke is absorbed by the power of Inryoku.

    With an Aiki body, Bujutsu body, whatever, none of the Sen series makes a lick of difference because ultimately Uke cannot put force into you to affect you. Note, this is within the context of the Aikido model of shomen attacks and not necessarily free fighting, which is another matter entirely and despite the fact that I can bust a few skulls when needed, I’m a lover not a fighter. I’ll leave that analysis to actual fighters who can use aiki in free for all conditions.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts at the kitchen table on my first cup of coffee. I hope this spurs some productive discussion and not a flame war.

    • Excellent summary of the contents of “Budo”, one of our main sources. The point you make about tenkan is that O-Sensei performs an ura or outward turning movement is uke initiates. I am speaking out against attempting an entering movement against an uke who has initiated the attack. It can’t be done successfully done unless uke attacks slowly and with weak intent. Basically what I am stating is an indictment of poor practice habits that have become very common and established in the aikido world and seldom challenged.

  2. Hello,

    Again I would like to emphasize the fact that practice on the mat needs codes and that codes are involved in both situation (initiating / waiting). In my opinion, it is very important to understand the codes – that most of the time – give the school you’re part of his very identity.

    Again (and again), as an uke “blending” the attack of tori in ai hanmi and leaning backward is a code (well two codes by the way). I don’t mean it’s not good, I mean it’s a code, a way to learn.

    If it’s about saying who is the more martial, the more realistic, the best… I can’t contribute. For sure, I don’t want to be the one telling Kondo sensei that his way is bad, because he waits for the attack ! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PmhwHst4po ; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0az6iuLOCo (34.50).

    I am not ignoring the points Mr Editor make. I am just trying to say that a way of practicing doesn’t have to erase another. Isn’t it interesting to study different things ? To be efficient in a lot of situations.

    I had the chances to be taught different solutions to deal with a shomen uchi attack. Initiating (as Pranin sensei shows us), acting at the very beginning of the attack by controling the elbow (as Kondo sensei but it’s also a trademark of Chiba sensei and the Birankai), striking (Nishio sensei demonstrated it wonderfully – thus he was not initiating…) etc. Since I am not, at all, a sensei I feel I can’t be the one explaining the fine details of all these ways.

    Thank you for giving the opportunity to question our practice.

  3. guy manners says:

    Keeping my thoughts simple – in a realistic situation, the Shoumen strike may not be seen far in advance; it may not be the first movement; or Nage may be slow in realising the danger. So you may be able to make a pre-emptive strike (of which many versions are possible) – or you may be able to meet it in the middle – more limited – or you may see it late and be forced to go with it in an Ura-type turning technique (as straight confrontational resistance would not be a good idea unless your attacker is weak and light, unarmed and untrained).

    That’s why we practice different techniques; initiating the attack is not always possible; in fact it’s not really the most dangerous situation, and actually almost leaves the realms of self-defense and becomes simply fighting.

    The later you leave your defensive reaction, the more committed the attacker is (I won’t say Uke as this is for a real attack) – and thus less flexible in direction, technique and intent – even to the extent of how much force and speed is behind the attack as he accelerates into the moment of contact.. If you try a pre-emptive strike a fraction of time too early, you change from being Nage to uke and the original attacker may well (as he changes from attacker to victim) have time to use an Ura type technique against you.

    Think of weapons; the only way to avoid being cut with a sword (in Shoumen-uchi) is to leave your movement until after the time that uke has total commitment. Move too early, he will adjust, and follow you.

Speak Your Mind