The role of uke, the person on the receiving end of the aikido technique, is often misunderstood. In some cases, it’s even looked down on. The reason for this is the fact that the original role of the uke, to assist the performer, the shite, while he or she demonstrates or practices a technique, has changed dramatically over the years.
This was a gradual and natural change, going hand-in-hand with other transformations, such as the technical shift of aikido from the aggressive, direct and weapon-related Daito-ryu style, to the round, soft and empty-handed practice we observe today. Through these changes, aikido technique lost many of its martial components, focusing instead on beauty and flow, becoming an art form rather than a fighting system.
The evolution of aikido, from uke’s perspective, meant that taking falls and receiving locks had to adapt and become the art of the ‘supporting act,’ one that serves as an extension of shite’s artistic expression. A good uke is the master of reading shite’s intentions and reacting in a spectacular fashion.
However, being on the receiving end of the techniques shouldn’t be mistaken as a passive practice. On the contrary, a good uke, as I learned during my first two years at the Yoshinkan Aikido Honbu Dojo, sometimes has the ability to direct and control the outcome of the techniques. In my opinion, uke is the ultimate manifestation of the aikido principle of using the opponent’s power in order to overcome an attack, so much so that in some instances, the roles of uke and shite are totally reversed, and there is no telling anymore who leads and who follows whom.
When I became an assistant instructor at the Yoshinkan Aikido Honbu Dojo, one of my main responsibilities was to serve as uke to all the higher ranking instructors. I say responsibility, but it probably should be better described as a privilege. Taking uke meant one could experience, first hand, the way an instructor performed a technique – the perfect way to learn and progress.
Since I was the lowest grade, I had to take uke for all instructors during class, and at demonstrations, obediently join any teacher who requested my services, allowing them to throw, pin-down, smash and smack me without a word of complaint. I found that many of the teachers had Jekyll and Hyde personalities, mostly very friendly, while turning into tyrants with borderline psychopathic tendencies as soon as they stepped onto the mats.
Oyamada sensei was the first instructor from whom I served as uke at a demonstration. The occasion was Kagami Biraki, (‘opening the mirror’), a ceremony to mark the beginning of the year. Oyamada sensei, a stocky and powerful man in his mid thirties, had an outrageous hair style that made him look like he had just been electrocuted. He was a chain-smoker, as were many of the other instructors, and used to be a math teacher before becoming a member of staff at the Honbu Dojo. Oyamada sensei was always very friendly towards all foreigners. He could converse fairly well in English, was very knowledgeable of world affairs, and was even keen to learn a few words in Hebrew. David, my partner at the course, taught him a couple of sentences, one of which was, ‘I am a baby.’ Oyamada sensei, despite knowing the meaning, kept repeating that phrase over and over again.
Early morning on the day of the demonstration, Oyamada sensei came and sat by me in the kitchen. He seemed obligated to have a serious talk about the coming event. He looked very nervous, maybe because it was the rst time he had to demonstrate his skill in front of a large audience.
“I want to have a smooth and gentle performance,” he told me. “I want to demonstrate calmly before Kancho Sensei. Can you do a very relaxed uke?”
“Sure,” I nodded. “I’ll be as relaxed as possible.”
He smiled, tapped me on the shoulder and walked off.
Since I participated in two other parts of the demonstration, I already felt very tuned-in and up for the job when the final act, the instructor’s performance, arrived. Oyamada sensei, being the lowest grade of the Japanese instructors, was the first to demonstrate. He walked to the center of the mat, and I came running from the other side to meet him.
We bowed to each other, and I remember telling myself to be relaxed and calm as I grabbed his wrist and prepared for the first throw. What happened next was anything but relaxed and calm. Oyamada sensei, maybe nervous by the presence of the many spectators, or maybe because he was simply trying to prove himself worthy amongst the company of his superiors, went berserk on me.
It felt like he was trying to rip my arms out of their sockets, with every throw trying to dig a hole in the mat with my body. Before long he was out of breath, perspiration covering his face and there was a tinge of purple to his complexion. All in all, the performance was as smooth as a bed of nails and as calm as an earthquake. When the demonstration was over, Oyamada sensei came over with a smile pasted on his face.
“Thank you,” he said and added, to my sheer bemusement. “It went very smoothly.”
“Yes, Sensei. Very smooth and very relaxed.” All in all, I found the whole ordeal rather amusing despite the fact I was hurting for a few days after that.
It was not always that the odd change of character came into play through aggressive behavior. Ando sensei, for example, who must have been one of the kindest and most attentive teachers in the Honbu Dojo, had a unique personality change as soon as his foot hit the tatami. It looked as if he had slipped into a tough suit that detached him from the nice person he had just been. He would narrow his eyes as he surveyed the room, like a gun fighter in a Western movie, and a nervous twitch would appear at the side of his mouth. When he performed, especially jiyuwaza (‘free techniques’), he would add encouraging sound effects to his movements. It seemed as if he was in a world of his own. I once took uke for him at a demonstration and was quite amazed by how hard it was to maintain connection with him. He would move ahead of me, sometimes miles in advance. When I did finally catch up with him, he would start the throw but in the middle, would suddenly stop or pull away, focusing on his posture rather than completing the lock, leaving me to finish the breakfall on my own.
Some instructors surprised me due to the differences in the ways they behaved toward different uke. Nakano sensei, for example, a sixth dan instructor at the time, was a man feared by most students and by most lower grade instructors alike. Many suggested he was similar in character and techniques to the formidable former head instructor of the Honbu Dojo, the Black Prince himself, Takeno sensei, a man who reigned over the school with an iron st and terrorized, smashed and injured many of the students and instructors. Whenever Nakano sensei stepped onto the mat, his back straight, his eyes piercing and a healthy dose of gel in his hair, students backed away, careful to keep a fair distance from the hard-looking man. Even when he laughed, Nakano sensei sounded scary, his deep loud voice roaring and echoing from the walls.
Naturally, I was aware of his reputation, but I must confess I never suffered any abuse, verbally or physically, from him. In fact, he treated me with kindness and respect from the first day I entered the Honbu Dojo. I remember how, while having a drink with all the instructors a few days before my course began, he declared in his loud voice in front of everyone, a glass of beer in his hand, that I would successfully complete the course without a shadow of a doubt. During my course, on the occasions when my knee had swollen up, he would help me up and take me to the office where he would treat it with ice packs, once even carrying me from the mats.
When I became an instructor, he made sure I would get paid and even pushed for my promotion when all the senior foreign instructors had left the Honbu Dojo, each for his own reason, leaving me to deal with the Kokusai Senshusei course and the gaijin class. When I would take uke for him during a class, he was always very respectful of my body, never trying to hurt or cause me any harm. It was only when the ‘All Japan Demonstration’ came about and he asked me to be his uke with Mori sensei, that I first became a little worried.
There were two good reasons for the notion:
The first was the way he asked me: “Don’t hit too hard,” he said. “I want a smooth and relaxed performance.” The words he used were far too close to the way Oyamada sensei had declared his intentions at my first demonstration.
The second reason was when Mori sensei came to me straight after Nakano sensei asked us to be his uke.
“I was his uke before,” Mori sensei whispered and looked quite terrified. “He is violent and dangerous. I hope we don’t get injured.”
As it turned out, there was no real cause for concern. Nakano’s demonstration was as smooth and as relaxed as he had promised. I was injury free and very calm when Mori sensei came to check on me at the end.
“How was it?” he asked.
“Terrible,” I lied, feeling uncomfortable to tell the truth at the sight of his bruised and beaten face.
Clearly, another fine example of a Jekyll and Hyde phenomenon, but in this case a split personality towards different uke.
Very few instructors remained the same on and off the mat. The three that I can think of were Payet sensei, who maintained his math teacher/space cadet personality, Chida sensei, the constant enigmatic philosopher and Yasuhisa Shioda sensei, who always looked unengaged and uninterested.
Being a zealous student of the art, I paid little attention to the personality or change of personality of the instructors. I learned from all, progressed and gained knowledge with each and every performance.
I must confess, however, that there was one time where I felt concerned when an instructor came and asked me to be his uke.
That instructor was Chino sensei.