In our lineage the weapons training is a derivation from Kazuo Chiba Sensei (February 5, 1940 – June 5, 2015) who learned the systematized forms from Morihiro Saito Sensei (March 31, 1928 – May 13, 2002) at Iwama (see below). The details of the connections is better kept as kuden, but suffice to note that others have influenced the nuances of our ai-ki weapons and I personally am catholic in my learning – always eager to steal from the best.
One of the most important concepts to learn in Aikido is that of ki-musbi (to tie spirits together). Ki-musubi is a wonderful gestalt term referencing the entirety of the encounter but perhaps too broad for my reductive methods of understanding.
So how does a reductive-pragmatist understand the concept? I look in part to those who lived by their skill and I have mentioned George Silver a few times in class. George Silver (ca. 1550 – 1620s) wrote a manual called Paradoxes of Defence wherein he discredits the rapier as an inferior weapon but more specifically references the use of “true times.”
There are 3 specific “times” – the time of the hand, the time of the body and the time of the foot. It is worth taking the time to read and come to understand Silver’s concepts. As always – it is far easier to convey in person and in class – but the principles are as follows: the hand moves more quickly than the torso which is again quicker than the foot. Think of the amount of mass each element must move and it should become obvious – the foot must move the entire body mass, the torso must move all the mass from the torso from the waist up, but the hand only need move the mass of the arm.
These lessons are still readily observed in modern fencing where the principle of a lineal thrust is still taught in the sequence of weapon, hand, body, foot. Watch any well executed lunge and notice that the tip is first extended to the target (acquisition) then the arm is extended (keeping the threat moving first and forward), then the torso leans in (giving added mass to the weapon), and then finally the front foot moves forward extending the entire body toward the target (adding momentum). While this sequence describes a lunge, the principles are the same for any action.
It is easy to see the intentions of an inexperienced practitioner because they typically move the feet first, telegraphic intent well before any threat is presented. As a simple example, focus on shomenuchi where uke delivers a descending overhead strike to nage’s head. If done in the time of the foot, uke will move the foot first thinking it necessary to plant the weight to then deliver a powerful stroke with the torso and arm through the weapon. The sequence is therefore, foot, body, hand. Nage will be able to easily enter with a straight thrust (time of the hand) because uke has telegraphed intention and not presented a convincing threat to nullify nage’s ability to respond. Silver calls this “false time” because uke has started the action with the wrong sequence, allowing nage to enter without fear. If this description isn’t clear – it will be easily shown in class.
A simple table – expanding Silver’s concept of “times”:
Weapon beats hand
Hand beats body
Body beats foot
However, when uke attacks in true time, then the shomen strike starts from the kissaki – the sword tip is moved first (weapon), the hand/arm accelerates the sword (hand), the tanren is engaged (body), and finally the foot moves uke toward nage (foot). Because the weapon is presenting the threat and simultaneously guarding uke, nage must respond to the weapon in the same time – i.e., because uke has attacked in true time (hand first) nage cannot defeat uke simply by using a superior time.
Because there is no superior “time” that nage can employ, in Aikido we look to perfect the encounter with a unification of “times” – both uke and nage are responding in true time, equal sequences of movement, that then lead to the harmonization of movement, ki-musubi. This is most readily shown in the sixth kumi-tachi which is also known as otonashi-no-ken (the sword of no sound) or more commonly in our dojo simply as ki-musubi exercise. The importance of the exercise, once the basic kata (sequence of movement) is internalized, is to move beyond the rote pattern and to actually harmonize in time. And most importantly, the harmonization should not be the result of well scripted choreography but rather because of the binding of each other’s intentions – each discrete motion must be a targeted kill stroke that is then neutralized in concert then leading to the next sequential action.
Please understand that this exercise, I believe, represents Aikido’s ultimate goal – the beauty of the encounter (because there should always be an aesthetic element in an art) is the instantiation of silent and seamlessly integrated intentions.
Learning to be able to create that ideal encounter does require the polish from constant training, but also of what Silver would call “perfect understanding.”
Tempo is not well explained in Aikido – ironically because of the focus on ki-musubi, or matched times. Because Aikido’s goal is that unified movement, most students never learn the tempo of combat. The concept of a beat and a half-beat are as critical in combat as is the feint to draw the opponent off time. In class, I demonstrate the concept of tempo and beats by moving away from a ki-hon presentation of technique by showing it as a bunkai (application) or with a different rhythm – breaking Aikido’s smooth lines into a staccato found in Karate. My intention is to expand the understanding of the movement patterns so that they are perceived as what they are – universal lines of motion. Most recently in class I demonstrated how ikkyo omote is the same when applied from shomen, or tsuki, or ai-hanmi katatedori. But I also demonstrated how ikkyo omote is the same movement as what a Karateka would know from one-step kumite as a chudan block followed by a chudan tsuki or what in sword and dagger play would be a sombrada followed by a dagger thrust. The lines of movement are universal, just played at different tempos and ranges. The single biggest problem in learning a martial art (and I fault/include myself in this generalization) is understanding the art as a collection/compendium of techniques. This of course is fostered in the hierarchical nature of the testing requirements, each rank requires cumulatively more techniques to be mastered and demonstrated for proficiency. Perhaps there isn’t a better method to transmit the art, but I think it can lead to years of myopia. We perceive the encounters as discrete techniques and rarely progress to the universal lines. Universal sounds grandiose, but I steal that term from Master at Arms James A. Keating. “Universal” in his presentation is not to imply an arrogance of understanding, but to key us to the fact that given the limitations of the human body, there are a highly delimited number of ways that humans move. Every culture may put important flavors on the methods but given the way the human body is constructed we have universal limitations and therefore will all move through space and encounter each other on the same planes of action. It is an amazingly liberating and productive concept to re-frame the skills you have been learning and mastering for years. For me, I am trying to steal as much from his conceptualization of a universal framework and show the connective links – presentations from karate or kenpo for the staccato rhythms, sword and dagger for the integrated (wheeling) planes of engagement – to illustrate the concepts that may otherwise remain hidden in the art of Aikido.
Returning to the basic 8 cuts
Recall that this diagram is illustrative of the eight universal planes showing lines of engagement from the viewer’s perspective on the vertical axis. This same diagram is also constantly on the horizontal axis. Specifically, at the center of the circle is nage’s body and its perimeter is described by one sweep of nage’s extended weapon (shikko).
The lines now represent angles of engagement – so, as an example the basic line of return for shomen uchi ikkyo would be (using the labeling of the diagram) uke attacks on line segment AE and nage returns on the line segment EA – both play the same line just different vectors. As a generalization, I submit for your consideration that all basic techniques (ki-hon waza) are played on the 180 degree line – irimi or ura – both are played 180 degrees in relation to the original line of attack. Think gyaku-hanmi tenkan, irimi entries: both place nage parallel to uke (180 degrees from nage’s original position).
Now the more advanced line of play tends to be 45 and then ultimately 90 degrees to uke’s initial line of engagement. I have demonstrated this from ai-hanmi katatedori ikkyo as a progression in arc of movement. So uke attacks on vector AE and nage returns on FB or ultimately on GC. The reason for the 90 degree angle as the more advanced is uke cannot “take ukeme” from that line (come to class if you don’t get what I mean here).
These diagrams can become increasingly esoteric in their presentation (almost becoming a fetish) but I remind you all of them to help visualize the universal planes of action and engagement, as a visual mnemonic or framework to help organize your techniques.
The perimeter therefore defines nage’s space of action defined within the time of the hand (q.v. George Silver). Our ability to act and re-act is extended in space by changes in weapons (e.g., the empty hand is the shortest radius, then the leg, then a dagger, then a short sword, etc.) but typically extensions of action in space limit our ability to act in time.
If you haven’t already read this – Chiba sensei’s article on weapons training in Aikido is a seminal piece.