Budo Bits: The Care and Keeping of Your Uke

We, the martial arts players of the world, have two significant roles in our practice: Tori and Uke. Granted, I am using Japanese terms because I study a Japanese style; you are free to insert whatever terms you use that are relative to mine. For clarity’s sake, the tori (取り) is the “defender” who uses prescribed movements (kata), responses if you will, to an attack perpetrated by the uke (受け) in a very specific manner.

In other words, two people engage in simulated combat for the sake of gaining the muscle memory needed. There’s plenty of debate about what kata is and what kata means to the martial arts players, and if you’re already getting into a heated discussion in your head with me about that topic, go run some laps, or better yet do horse stance for 15 minutes.

Osoto gake practice in the morning

Each player engaging in kata is putting themselves in harm’s way on purpose but with a gargantuan amount of trust. This trust is special and unique to the world because the tori’s movement is usually devastating and could permanently damage the uke or cause death if taken too far. Generally, the uke’s role is to “receive” the technique. Preferentially, the uke does this in a flowing and skillful manner. Effectively, it’s the uke’s job to offer a reasonably adequate attack and to properly receive the tori’s kata. This looks like proper ukemi (falling) technique, allowing the tori to position the uke’s body in uncomfortable ways, sometimes receving blows to certain parts of the body, and generally be a crash test dummy.

That’s me getting my arm twisted and shoulder crushed into the mats. It hurt just enough.

It is my opinion that one hallmark of a mature budōka (I’m going to define Budōka {武道家} here as one who is at home within the structure of Budõ) is self-control. Self-aware budōka’s minds are connected to their bodies; they have good proprioception (awareness of where you are in space), and therefore can choose how much force to apply in various parts of kata. Joint manipulation, locks, strikes, throws if done correctly, and to the fullest are life-altering and devastating to the uke. Some throws in my art are meant to dump someone on their head. For obvious reasons, we mitigate neck injury and head trauma by changing the practice of the throw enough to avoid serious injury, but without sacrificing technique. But, we do it without limiting the depth of the technique. We walk a razor’s edge protecting our uke’s life and limb, and using correct technique.

Conking my uke on the head…no.

Given the genial nature of mature martial artists, all pain, given and received, is accepted as crucial to the heart of what we do on the mats. However, there is a gigantic elephant in the room that all players must acknowledge when applying pressure, pain, and power to their movements; the tori can cross the line into abuse. By abuse, I mean putting unnecessary force into the technique, thereby damaging one’s uke. There are bruises and there are BRUISES. As a good friend likes to say we give each other bruises for funsies, not in a mean way, or in a weird sadistic manner. Rather, blocking a strike the creates a bruise on the receiver’s arm by virtue of knuckle meeting flesh at a higher-than-normal velocity. It’s part of the game we play. It takes self-control to not break your uke’s arm by slamming into it with your fist at ludicrous speed or twist their arm. Sincere budōka take care of their uke. We don’t abuse their willingness to work with us by damaging them. This means knowing when enough is enough. If your uke is rubbing the part of their body, that you are repeatedly striking, that should be a clue to lighten up. If they say “OW!” or look like they’re in pain, put your brakes on, dude! If they’re tapping out, but you’re still applying pressure, let go of them! If you don’t, you become the worst kind of budōka: an abuser. We, the sincere budōka, don’t like abusers. We don’t want you to work with us because we can’t trust you.

As tori, it is YOUR job to make sure you keep your uke safe as you apply your technique to their body. They are trusting you to not take it too far. Pay attention, adjust your strength and power, maintain adequate control, do what you need to do to be sincere and honest in your technique. Take care of your uke, and we won’t have a problem.

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Created by Keiko Kunio

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