In most systems of budo, it takes two people to train. On one side is the person studying the technique or kata. The other person is not the teacher. The other person is their uke 受け. Having a good uke to train with is as important as having a good teacher. The problem is, a good uke can be as difficult to find as a good teacher.
Uke is your training partner. Just as in most things budo, there really is no consistency of terminology. So aikido and judo use uke 受け. Kenjutsu systems often use uchitachi 打太刀. Another terms you may hear are aite 相手 or partner. You might sometimes hear teki 敵 or enemy, but that’s not accurate or appropriate when talking about the people you train with.
For the person doing the techniques, I’m partial to the judo term tori 取り, because it implies taking form from chaos (randori anyone?). For now, I’ll use tori to indicate the person doing the practicing.
I’ve see lots of descriptions of good ukes, such as : “provides committed attack,” “Gives sincere attacks.” I don’t find these descriptions very helpful. What’s a “sincere” attack? On the other side, why does an attack have to be committed to be effective. Believe me, even a half hearted attack with a sword or knife or crowbar will do plenty of damage. I’ve heard people say that uke has to understand why he has to lose in practice. The problem with that is that this is practice. There is no winning or losing. If people are caught up in worrying about winning and losing during practice, they’ve missed the point of practice.
I’ve written before about what a good uke is, and I’ve seen other good writings on the subject. Steve Delaney has an excellent article. What is missing seems to be direction on how to be a good uke or uchitachi. Hopefully we can get a conversation going.
The first thing a good uke does is understand that this is not a fight and it’s not a competition. This is often overlooked or underemphasized by teachers. We have to emphasize to students that this is practice，keiko 稽古, renshu 練習. This should help to get rid of some of the ego I see floating around so thickly in many dojo. As soon as people learn enough to be able to hinder or stop tori’s technique, they do. That’s not practice anymore.
Uke’s job is to facilitate their partner’s training. That means giving them access to their body so they can complete the technique or kata being practiced. If uke makes it so difficult that tori can’t do anything, it’s not practice. On the other hand, if uke is so limp that tori can do anything without effort or challenge, that’s not practice either. Uke’s job is not to give committed, or sincere attacks. Uke’s job is to give appropriate attacks.
Once people understands that this is about learning and not competing or showing how strong they are, they can start learning how to be an uke. Good ukes don’t just attack. If the attack is a strike, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all attack. What is an overpowering and uselessly powerful attack on a beginner, may be ridiculously over-committed and telegraphed for a senior student. In both cases, the attack is wrong.
Being uke is a significant job and it takes far more thought and effort to do properly than most people give to it. It seems simple. Whatever the designated attack is, uke does. Boom. Simple. Wrong. Uke starts with the designated attack, and then decides how much warning she will give. Will she telegraph the start of the attack so tori has lots of time to react and adjust, or will she hold back all indication of the attack for a while. A big, telegraphed attack is great for beginners and public demonstrations, and just about nothing else. As tori becomes more and more capable, uke has to consider tori’s ability and make the attack more and more difficult to detect.
Once the attack has begun, how fast should it be? If tori is a beginner, or if the technique is unfamiliar, slow it down a few notches. As tori demonstrates the ability to handle a slow attack, then you can pick up the speed a little to the point where tori has to work at doing it right. Not too much though. If uke attacks so fast that tori can’t do the technique properly, it’s not practice anymore. Practice means doing it right. Forcing tori to work beyond their ability is stealing their practice time from them. If tori can’t do the technique under the conditions uke provides, uke is wasting tori’s time.
This applies whether the attack is a strike with the hand, grab on the wrist, a cut with a sword, or blow with a stick. If the attack is a grab, grab with what you think is an appropriate amount of force. If tori can’t do the technique, let up a little until she can. If she can do the technique, add a little more to the grab, or ask if she would like a stronger grab or more resistance. I’ve got enough experience that I can manage my own training. I’ll tell my uke, “Please be stiffer at that point.” or “Please resist a little more.” or whatever is necessary to raise the difficulty of the technique for me to a point where I am being challenged and can practice the element that needs polishing.
This sort of communication is, to me, essential for good training and learning for both tori and uke. Particularly when it is a senior tori working with a junior uke, this kind of communication gives the person learning the uke role the feedback she needs to become a better uke. Many dojo, whether aikido or judo or other art, don’t take the time to train people how to be uke. This feedback is important, and ukes need it. I appreciate all the times I have been uke and my teachers or partners have told me what I needed to do to be a better uke at that moment. It has helped me learn a lot about being a good uke.
Uke is a tough job. We have to think about it. We have to give the right attack, at the right speed, and in the right place. This is another important aspect of being uke that I don’t think gets enough attention. Whether the attack is a strike with the fist, a thrust with a knife, a sword cut, or a blow with a stick, it has to be accurate. Tori is trying to learn how to deal with an genuine attack. If their uke only offers attacks that would never be on target because they don’t want to hurt tori, they’re already hurting her. This sort of attack robs tori of the opportunity to learn real maai, or spacing. Pulling your attack short, or swinging to one side, doesn’t help tori learn anything. If you are worried about hurting tori, attack more slowly, but keep it accurate. Once you’re confident tori can handle the attack slowly, pick up the pace slightly. Keep doing this, always maintaining the accuracy of your attack, and you’ll find out what tori can handle without hurting her.
I often read in aikido circles that people want “committed” attacks. What seems to be meant by this are what I would describe as off-balance, over-committed attacks. Uke seems to be throwing themselves at tori instead of attacking. Just because you are attacking doesn’t mean you have to give up the balance, posture and structure that you train so hard to develop. The first problem with this is that you rob tori of the chance to learn to break your balance. That’s a really important lesson, absolutely fundamental in judo. When you’re working with a beginner, you don’t go all out resisting their efforts to take your balance, but you don’t attack without any balance either. They have to have the opportunity to practice taking your balance.
Once students get past the initial phase of learning, then uke can attack with a more and more stable structure, giving tori a consistently more challenging kuzushi puzzle to figure out. Again, don’t be impossible, just be challenging enough that tori has to work for it. This requires uke to consider what they are doing. What lesson is tori working on? Will it help tori if uke maintains the same level of stability and increases the speed, or will it be better if uke slows down a little and increases their structural stability? Being uke isn’t easy, and sometimes it helps to ask tori “How do you want this attack?”
Once you get comfortable with varying the speed and intensity of your actions as uke, and you’re working with an experienced tori, you can start messing around with the rhythm as well. I think my seniors enjoy pulling this one on me. They will subtly change the rhythm of their attack, drawing me into attacking a half step too early, or waiting a heartbeat too long. Either way, they’ve got me. If I attack too soon, uke evades and there is nothing for me but empty air. Wait too long, and I find a sword tip a millimeter from my nose before I can do anything.
This is great practice for more advanced tori, and it does require an advanced uke as well. This is what any uke should be striving towards though. Tori can’t learn effectively without a good uke. To be a good uke, you have to constantly be considering how you should attack to give tori the best learning opportunity you can. Uke controls the speed, the intensity, the strength and the rhythm of the training. This means that on every repetition uke has to think about how fast, how intense, how strong and what rhythm the attack should be. Uke should never attack on auto-pilot. Every attack has to be a considered for tori’s benefit (and uke’s safety. Attacking on autopilot is a good way for things to go very wrong for uke).
Uke’s role may be even more important than the teachers when it comes to how well tori learns things. The teacher can demonstrate and correct, but it is with uke that tori does the homework where the real learning takes place. Uke has a huge amount of responsibility. It’s not enough for uke to just throw out whatever attack is called for without thinking about it. Uke has to chose the right mixture of technical elements so tori can get the best, most focused practice on the elements that particular person is working on. This means considering how fast or slow the technique should be. How much should uke telegraph the attack so tori learns to read uke’s body better? How strong should uke be in this case? Is tori working on smoothing out their technique, in which case fast but not overly strong attack might be called for. Or is tori working on refining balance breaking or initiative stealing, which might mean they want a slower but more solid, stable attack from uke. Every tori is working on different things and needs uke to adjust their attack to the individual tori. Individual tori work on a lot of different areas too, so uke has to adjust not only from tori to tori, but from moment to moment as the same tori works on different aspects of their technique.
Being a good uke is at least as important an role as that of the teacher, and requires as much focus and attention to what you are doing as being tori does. Please make the effort to be a good uke. Your training partners will appreciate it, and you might even find that the effort put in makes the rest of your technique better as well.