Translation Of Uke

Tricia Duggin 009


Translation Of Uke

“You win battles by knowing the enemy’s timing, and using a timing which the enemy does not expect.”

– Miyamoto Musashi

Iaido is the ancient samurai art of self-defence where you draw the sword immediately against an enemy’s sudden attack to win at the moment the sword leaves the sheath.  I was taking my weekly private lesson with Sensei and working on application to the basic Seiti Kata….

“Uke Nagashi!” Sensei called the name of the third kata.  Wearing a hakama requires quite a bit of skill.  Hakama sabaki is hakama (the Japanese divided skirt trousers) ‘skill’ and using the hands to part the legs as you kneel and not kneeling or standing on the edges of the hakama as you move are all required skills for performing Iaido kata.

I knelt down utilising those skills, straightened my head and back and opened my zanshin(awareness) in readiness for any attack.  I heard the whispering slide of Sensei’s sword as it left the saya(scabbard) and I knew he had raised his Iaito (practice blade) over his head and was advancing to attack in a downward cut.

There was just a hint of the gentle slide of Sensei’s feet as he used the traditional suri ashi (‘sliding step’) of the samurai swordsman as he entered my peripheral vision and began the downwards cut to my head.

I rose drawing my sword over my head to meet the oncoming cut, there was a ‘clang’ sound as the swords met and I spun to deliver the coup de grace cut to the side of Sensei’s neck and down to his hip with a satisfactory ‘swish’ as my sword cut the air.

Sensei had grown up in Japan after the Second World War, practicing Kendo in secret in the street with sticks until it was legally reintroduced to the country, when he trained with top masters in the Muso Jikiden Ryu system, he was ingrained with the skills and art of Budo.

He looked at me and grunted.  “Uke…” was all he said.

Hai Sensei!”  I replied thinking that I’d blocked his sword wrong.

We repeated the process again with another ‘clang’ and another terse “uke” from Sensei…

On the third occasion an exasperated Sensei asked “what do you think uke means?”

“Block Sensei,” I answered.  I had taken my original schooling in Karate where the word uke had invariably been translated as ‘block’ so jodan uke was ‘head block, and so on.  I had trained in many different Karate schools and had never heard it described differently

“Ahhhhh……. Now I understand why you keep hitting my iaito” he said.  “Uke means to ‘receive’ – the opposite to ‘block’…. With uke you invite the opponent in to your space to deal with them.  In fact you shouldn’t really even touch my blade, your blade is a guard as you turn under my cut and simultaneously cut me.

How could this happen?  How could this word be so mistranslated from the Japanese Karate Sensei that came to our shores?  The sad fact is that their English was virtually non existent and it was left to English instructors to give words to what they were shown, this mistranslation had now led to generations of people practicing the OPPOSITE to what was intended!  How many other terms have been given opposite or misleading translations?

Sensei’s voice broke into my reverie…..  “What do you think the other word in the title of the kata – nagashimeans?”

Feeling somewhat perplexed as my many years of understanding Japanese budo terminology from karate was turned on its head I embarrassingly replied “moving to the side?”

“No…….” said Sensei sounding just a little frustrated at my ignorance.  “If you placed a stone in the middle of the stream, the flowing water would meet it, flow around it at the closest point and return to the line of flow behind it, nagashi means ‘to flow’ in that manner, you should move closely around my blade and cut me behind it in the same way, thus the kata is called uke nagashi…..”

At that point I could have fallen on my sword, my interpretation was to block, move to the side and cut.  No wonder I was getting it wrong!

Sensei could not understand the astounding effect this lesson had on me.   Driving home it was like my mind was on broadband.  Jodan uke, to ‘receive and deal with an attack to the head’ NOT ‘block’ it!  I went through every uke I knew and my new found knowledge turned it on its head!

Luckily I’d also been training in Tai Chi and was ‘pushing hands’.  This I now knew was a form of uke, to meet, stick, follow, redirect and negate.  Whilst driving home that day and during a sleepless night that followed I devised a push hands system for the 4 karate uke’s introducing the principles of the 3 dimensional ‘wedge and ball’.

Funakoshi Gichin the Founding Father of Japanese Karate had said to “think of your opponent’s hands and feet as swords” and the full gravitas of that statement was just beginning to dawn on me…… What had we missed?

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