A short piece discussing the role of uke, the receiver of the technique, in training. This originally appeared in jujitsu pioneer Geroge Kirby’s Kokoro newsletter in October 2018 issue.
Uke – the “attacker,” the “opponent,” or the “one who is being thrown” – is the counterpart role of nage/tori, the one who performs the technique/throw. During the role as uke, many practitioners will zone out, allowing nage to proceed with the technique, unaware and unengaged, simply going through the motions while waiting for our turn to be nage. As a result of this disengagement, many lose a good portion of the training – an important part of training. To embrace the role of uke is to understand the technique at completely new depths which produces a multitude of avenues to enhance our role as nage.
Uke translates as “to receive,” but what is uke receiving? Uke receives not only the technique, but information and insight about the technique. In other words, uke flows with the lead and movement from nage’s response to uke’s initial and possible subsequent attacks. If engaged, this then allows the practitioner in the role of uke to better “feel” the technique. This “feeling” is not the formulaic “I attack then I fall down” routine many practitioners unintentionally adopt, nor is it some magic or mystical power. It is actively participating and observing the ups and downs, the timing, the strengths and weaknesses, and the balance and off balances in not only nage’s movements, but in uke’s own movements as well. This is formidable knowledge and insight to the technique that many of us often unknowingly gloss over or miss completely. Being uke enables the practitioner to become aware of their situation right at the point when the attack is committed. This active engagement and observation provides two pieces of vital information to uke; it helps understand the “how and why” to the movements in the role of nage in relation to the attack, and it creates a level of situational awareness that may open uke to the possibility to escape or counter. Knowing these two pieces of information presents multiple avenues for the practitioner to further and deepen their understanding of the technique.
The practice of henka waza is a great exercise to better understand the role of uke. In henka waza, or freeform technique, nage transitions from one technique to another, possibly revolving through the same four or five techniques, creating a steady flow between themselves and uke. During the drill, uke must be aware of nage’s movements and flow to not only remain safe but to observe the “how and why” of each technique; every movement has a possible and alternative outcome and every movement sets up the next movement. Throughout the exercise, nage normally begins with techniques they already have in mind. After performing those four or five techniques, nage sometimes stumbles on what technique to do next. Nage, in an effort to expand their general repertoire of techniques, can slow down the movement or stop at any point in one technique and observing the current position. This can provide nage with a broader perspective of the technique(s).
The practitioner shifts perspectives when they switch to uke. By understanding one’s current body position and balance while as uke, the practitioner peers through a window where additional techniques can appear. Such techniques, in theory, could be endless. When this uke changes roles and again becomes nage, they become open to the endless possibilities of technique before them. Nage’s perspective allows the practitioner to see only one portion or half of the technique while uke’s perspective allots for the other half, completing the circle, and allowing the practitioner to view the technique as a whole – as complete. Thus, to understand the technique is to understand the perspectives, or halves, of both uke and nage.
Both practitioners can take henka waza to another level by applying reversals on each other in kaeshi waza. In kaeshi waza, or counter techniques, each practitioner must be actively aware of the other’s movements, timing, space, and position if they are to apply a reversal or counter. Like the henka waza exercise above, each practitioner can begin slow and stop at specific points of the technique(s) until they gain the basic timing and flow of the exercise. Much like the exercise before, nage, after being uke, should have a wider perception on the techniques than before. After such an exercise, the practitioner should see that the roles of uke and nage are but one side of the same coin, emphasizing the importance of both and the balance and sensitivity each provide – one does not exist or properly function without the other
Sun Tzu, author of the famed book Art of War, wrote to know and understand both oneself and one’s opponent, one can be victorious in battle. It is the same concept when approaching the roles of uke and nage; each enhances the other. The idea of yin and yang comes to mind, just like light would be nothing without dark and vice versa, one cannot have nage without uke or uke without nage. If we forget and neglect to understand and explore the role of uke, then we lose a good chunk of our learning; we are not learning the whole art, system, or style that our instructors look to teach us. Understanding uke creates a better performing nage, which allows for an endless cascade of discovery and understanding of the countless techniques in judo, jujutsu, aikido, and other martial arts. This, in turn, creates a well-rounded practitioner, one who understands the essence of uke and nage and who can function well in both roles and multiple situations.