“Sunao – Being honest in training,” by Stanley Pranin

“Finally, Sensei shouted, ‘Stop that stupid training!'”

When I trained in Iwama under Morihiro Saito Sensei many years ago, every so often he would say something like, “Sunao ni keiko shite kudasai” (Practice with an honest mind) to admonish students to practice sincerely and in a spirit of cooperation. An example would be when he saw a student resisting another’s attempt to perform a technique using his foreknowledge of the technique being practiced.

“Sunao”… Honesty, sincerity

Let’s assume that we are practicing tai no henko. I know that nage will be pivoting to the outside while extending his arms in front of his center. Instead of merely grabbing his hand firmly, I lift it up forcibly to prevent him from turning and executing the technique. What I have done is simply to take advantage of the prearranged nature of practice to thwart nage’s attempt to perform the technique. I am not being “sunao” or honest in my training. Such an action on my part would be entirely self-defeating and a show of disrespect to the teacher. If I were to lift uke’s arm upward in tai no henko, he could simply continue the upward movement and swing his arm towards my face to throw me down.

The following was a true story that occurred at the Iwama Dojo many years ago. I was practicing with a strong partner. Every time, he would use his knowledge of the technique we were practicing to block my movement. This of course was a cause of frustration to me. To make a statement, I proceded to block his technique in the same manner, but only once to prove a point. He continued every time to stop me, and from then on, I just resigned myself to continue until the end of class vowing to never train with him again.

I knew that Saito Sensei was watching us as we continued in this manner, and I saw him becoming upset out of the corner of my eye. Finally, Sensei shouted, “Dame! So iu kudaranai keiko yamero!” (Stop that stupid training!). We all sat down while Sensei exploded at my partner. He explained that anyone can block a person’s technique if they know in advance what they intend to do. That this kind of training totally defeats the purpose of practice and that one cannot progress by training this way. Sensei then proceded to ban my partner from practice at the dojo. The man was totally humiliated and immediately left the dojo with his head hanging down.

Sensei eventually let the man back after about a month. From that point on, he trained in a respectful way and became an exemplary student. I trained with him several times after that and it was an enjoyable experience. He later established his own dojo and is still active.

Dr. Kenzo Futaki (1873-1966)
Dr. Kenzo Futaki (1873-1966)
Let me give one more example drawn from aikido history. This one is a humorous story that shows another instance of someone not being “sunao.” It has to do with the famous Professor Kenzo Futaki who was a devoted student of Morihei Ueshiba during the Kobukan Dojo period in the 1930s. Futaki Sensei was known affectionately as “Dr. Brown Rice” for his strict macrobiotic diet.

One day Professor Futaki said to Ueshiba Sensei, “Sensei, I am going to attack you with a bokken. Can you escape from my attack?” Sensei answered smilingly, “Anytime.” When the professor used to attack Sensei from the front during demonstrations, Sensei always evaded to the left. So this time, he anticipated and decided to make an attack to the direction in which Sensei always evaded. As a result, Professor Futaki’s attack missed Sensei again, because Sensei did not move. The professor of course admitted his defeat.

When Professor Futaki asked Sensei how he could tell the direction of his attack, he responded, “Your mind had already flown to the right. Your empty-spirited body made that attack ever so slowly!”

From “An Aikido Life — Chapter 8” by Gozo Shioda

In this case too, the befuddled professor believed he could outwit Ueshiba Sensei because he thought the latter would move in a predictable way. However, the Founder was extremely astute and immediately sensed the ruse. Dr. Futaki was not being “sunao” when he attacked with his bokken.

I will finish up with one other example of how the lack of an honest spirit in training led to the end of two promising aikido careers. On my first trip to Japan, there were two foreign men that often trained and hung out together. They were both ranked about 2nd dan at the time. They could often be seen practicing together after class and really mixing it up.

Years later, I happened to ask a mutual friend what happened to these two men as I had not seen or heard about them for a long time. He said that both had stopped aikido altogether because of their frustration at not being able to make techniques work on each other. They did not practice aikido with an honest mind. To my way of thinking, they had totally misunderstood the importance of honest practice as the correct way to develop good aikido skills.

I think it is important for teachers to grasp this often misunderstood point and regularly explain to students why their future progress hinges upon adopting an open, honest mind in training, what the Japanese call “sunao na kokoro.”

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29s Comments

  1. The word sunao was frequently used in the Yoshinkan when I was doing my uchideshi stint there in the 60s. Apart from the “honest training” meaning it also can mean “obedience” and, as such I feel is open to abuse when used in the sense of unquestioning military-style obedience to authority.

  2. Similar silliness (or egotism) can show up in other martial arts as well when an arrogant or clueless student does not know the difference between “practicing a technique that will later materialize spontaneously under the specific conditions the uke was instructed to imitate” and free-style spontaneous testing randori practice. Very well-described and appreciated, Stan.

  3. IMHO there is a flip side to this. We must also be honest to give our partners genuine physical feedback. I believe it is dishonest to simply fall over or give my balance away because that is what is expected (absolute beginners excepted). I try to adopt a neutral or passive resistance, simply maintaining my balance and gripping in a consistent way. This is also honest and cooperative training.

  4. All of my Aikido life have I met people who, thinking it was the right thing to do, pre-empted techniques and tried to counter and stop you. If you do perform Aikido techniques properly, whilst drawing their strength into your centre, or even reversing the technique according to their intention, they will always fail.

  5. I’m scratching my head to find where in the article I suggest that one should “simply fall over or give my balance away because that is what is expected.” Maybe I’m missing something…

  6. But Sensei Stanley, what if you are honestly grab by very strong man and tehnique does not work? It is not good for ego of older students who think that uke is just a figure in their training. As i see, if you do kihon it’s normal that sometimes you cannot do technique, but in ki no nagare uke cannot be that strong as in kihon because he is in motion. I train KI Aikido and sometimes I want strong uke in kihon just to see how my technique working in static (of course i train just 10 years and I’m beginner). Because that i like Sensei M. Saito very much and his presentation in kihon, and I try to study and practice some of Iwama techniques.

  7. Thanks for this article. I also believe this kind of honest training is essential, but not easy. Yes, some people resist to make it harder for the other, but others to dishonest things to “help”. For me, it is a fine line to give the partner the attack he needs, to be honest, not to resist, but also not to be too gentle.

  8. This wonderful article brings back the joy of training in Iwama with Morihiro Saito. As beautifully described in your story he demanded every student, regardless of size or rank, train honestly, intensively, and safely. He was known for his power and vast technical knowledge, but to me his greatest legacy was instructing us in HOW TO TRAIN.

  9. Unless you pre-agreed to practice kaeshi waza, this kind of behavior is egotistical and stupid.
A senior should modulate his receiving to stimulate the junior’s development.
But then again aikido, because it is too much practiced collusionally by dancers with no real life experience, is more afflicted with egotists and fools than all the other martial arts together.
And so, much like the idiots that speed on the roads because they’ve never seen the results of crashes, or had to scrape bodies off tar working in emergency services, are thus afflicted.
This malaise comes from lack of awareness of the very real risks of stupidity.
Any good sensei worth his salt will do EXACTLY what Saito sensei did, and this fast, before incident.
I refer to: “Rules During Training” by Morihei Ueshiba- RULE 1) Aikido decides life and death in a single strike, so students must carefully follow the instructor’s teaching and not compete to see who is the strongest.


    There are NO EXCUSES EVER for training unconsciously, arrogantly or stupidly. EVER!!


  10. I have had to address this recently with several of my deshi. One is a young teen that is as strong as a bull, he thinks it’s his job to force you to get him down by blocking the technique. I gave him the same speech Saito sensei gave your partner minus sending him home since he wasn’t trying to be ugly with his partner, he thought in his young mind he was helping. The other problem is deshi afraid to get thrown so they take a dive before partner barely starts the technique. I remind them the danger here is that they are giving partner a false sense of security because they are doing the technique for them. Both of these problems can and should be addressed quickly and sometimes we may have to do what Saito did and suspend the student from training if it isn’t corrected.

  11. Sensei,
    I wasn’t meaning to imply that at all. I was simply meaning to highlight that along with being overly resistive the other extreme is to be overly compliant.

  12. Thank you, Stan, for a very interesting contribution and the discussions triggered. My short experience was sufficient to me to get aware of the curious custom observed in aikido: practice in pairs Tori-Uké (except in Randori) and that often with favorite Ukés. I got conscious also of the issue in aikido training attitude: blocking (preventing the Tori from performing his Waza) vs anticipation (making choreographic sport instead of a martial art).

    So, I wonder if the issue can be improved appreciably by training in triplets, composed of 2 Ukés and 1 Tori, instead of the traditional one in pairs. Given a waza, the Tori receives a first attack from one of the 2 Ukés, then a second from the other Uké, who chooses at his inspiration one of the 4 varieties (right/left side and positive/negative form) of the waza, then the 1st Uké comes back with a 3rd attack of his choice in the varieties, followed by the 2nd Uké bringing a 4th attack of his own choice. Thus the 1st series is over, and the 2nd series runs in the same manner but with one of the (old) Ukés in the role of the (new) Tori. In this way the 3 series composed of 12 exercises complete a round of practice on a single Waza. The merit of this training scheme consists in richer attacks and less possibility of anticipation. It goes without saying that both partners try to aim each time a little bit higher level against his partner’s to make him progress, for example, the Tori uses less and less muscle force exerted in performing a waza, while the Uké puts more and more intention in his attack.

    Finally, I’d be very grateful if you can help me in the comprehension of the last phrase quoted from Shioda sensei’s book, “Your empty-spirited body made that attack ever so slowly!” Is it related, in essence, to what Kuroda Tetsuzan sensei explains on his “Inner sight”, in your interview recently reported by AJ newsletter (Aug 26) ? Could you comment these a little more?


  13. Minoru,

    Thank you very much for your feedback. I really would like to see a video of what you are suggesting. The concept you mention is very intriguing to me. It’s just hard to visualize based on words. If you have some footage of you doing this drill, I would love to see it. Very original!

    I’m just looking at the sentence of Shioda Sensei as you reproduce it. I believe he is referring to an empty, listless attack without energy that is basically a waste of time for both uke and nage, or tori, if you prefer.

  14. The practice in triplets? Having tried it several times in our dojo with my French camarades in hakama, I personally was rather satisfied and there was no objection from them. It improves something in human relation when “sunao” must be claimed, I believe.

    Not having the book, I thought that it was an answer of O-sensei that Shioda sensei was quoting in his book. Isn’t it ? Maybe I’m wrong.

    Thanks anyway,

  15. In reading the Japanese dictionary description of “sunao”, I find myself puzzled and a little confused. I know full well that we quite often take “poetic license” with words that have other meanings in common. It would be interesting to explore how this different use of the word “sunao” can be attributed to both O Sensei and to Morihiro Saito Sensei.

    The Sanseido New Concise Japanese-English Dictionary translates the word “sunao” as “obedient, meek, docile and tractable”. If this is what was meant, then the Uke’s responsibility appears to be one of submissively responding to the directions given by the nage, which I have never believed it to be.

    While awaiting a more definitive response from the readers, it is my opinion that much of the controversy regarding Uke’s apparent subservient behavior, along with Nage’s responsibility for martial integrity, is the result of misconceptions over the essence of Aikido’s purpose and intent for the masses. I would like to opine that there may be two major divisions of aikido training.

    There is the “Theoretical Aikido” phenomenon, where principles, accepted non harmful practices, and genuine good will to all practitioners is the norm. This seems to be what most dojos hold as desirable to ensure student safety, and to attract a wider range of potential students.

    There there is the “Applied Aikido” perspective, where proven efficacy of techniques, and a tradition of being true to “old school” standards of “hard training” and acceptable “injury counts’ are the norm. I believe that neither perspective is inaccurate, but I do believe that both are incomplete.

    Only O Sensei, and precious few others, were able to genuinely and successfully incorporate both goals in their training and in their respective behavior. All others that I have observed were either committed to one or the other schools of thought and action.

    Perhaps the needs of modern society demands a kinder, gentler approach to all forms of martial arts practices, and I can accept that this is a good thing. Of course, I do not believe that we can call these forms of training “martial arts”. Neither would I be willing to call those who favor “Applied Aikido” to necessarily be considered genuinely “martial” either, as too many rules, regulations, laws and public opinion would not allow it to become accepted practice.

    Modern Aikido remains a work in progress, and we need to keep our minds and options open, and allow the natural evolution of the Founder’s original blueprint to take place over time.

  16. I clearly the defined how I meant the term “sunao,” which was the sense that Saito Sensei meant it, in my article. One of the main meanings of “sunao” is pure, in this case purity of intent.

    If we are practicing shomenuchi and you come with a munetsuki or other attack in an attempt to fool me or gain an advantage in training, you are not being sunao. The whole purpose of practice is lost and no progress can be made because we no longer have agreement about the basis of training. Sunao doesn’t always mean “docile” or “subservient” which have negative connotations. It can also be used in a positive sense as it is here.

  17. Sincerity is rooted in the motivation behind the intention:

    What is uke’s motivation behind his behavior?

    Is he mindfully giving me the best attack — according to my level — in order for me to practice my best technique within my limits in a spirit of mutual welfare?

    Or is he there just for himself regardless of each other’s level, just waiting for his turn to do the technique?

    Regardless of the motivation behind their behavior, our best teachers are those who give us a hard time. They are the ones who prepare us for real life situations. If we let aversion towards such people take over then we loose our opportunity to train ourselves to respond to real life situations where escaping is impossible.

    Patrick Augé

  18. Even though it is not pertinent to the topic above, some may find this interesting:
    [in a way it is related, though]

    Recent experiments prove that it is possible to know beforehand what decision the brain is going to make. This has several implications but, for the moment, could it be possible that the Founder could actually do this, truly, for a part of his life?

    “Your mind had already flown to the right. Your empty-spirited body made that attack ever so slowly!”

    This quote is from above. But if you visit the site, Butterflies Are Free do Fly and check this small video, you may wonder…
    Indeed, in this experiment, it was possible to find out 6 seconds in advance what decision the brain was going to make. 6 seconds in terms of Budo is endless time. If the founder indeed had this capacity, how did he develop it or was he born with it?


  19. I disagree with your simile there, the point of cooperative compliance between uke and tori is to harmonize. and that’s what Aikido really means. Not to mention that it’s for the uke’s safety to absorb the Tori’s technique.

    Also you are free to ask questions, that’s what the instructors are there for. No one is saying that you have to be completely obedient like a soldier but then no one is saying you should be completely disobedient either.

    I suppose it depends on the instructor would have some sort of militaristic attitude when teaching. And I’ve experienced with one which ended up for him to leave the club because of that attitude and his political preaching.

  20. In karate training too, it is important during practice of ippon kumite, kihon kumite and gihon kumite that uke preforms his technique flawlessly and honestly in order for his practice partner to be able to perfect their technique.
    It is something I stress when teaching.
    Thank you for posting this fine article.

  21. Pingback: Sunao no keiko. Un entrenamiento en Aikido sincero.

  22. Habits are hard to break Sensei. Stories get built around what we do in training. We come to train after a hard day’s work or leaving our long suffering family at home or elsewhere. We only have so much honest and good attention. Then the habits come back that make training less onerous, go quicker. Go easy, think about dinner, remember work … Every now and again my Sensei, Sensei Higgs, as my uke, stays stiff and I can do nothing. He then corrects my outlandish practice and then, even when he is stiff, I am able, by moving my body correctly, and with minimum force, to move his hand and take his balance. And he always says “Wasn’t that easier than what you were doing?” And it always, always is. Another coin drops into my understanding-bank and my eyes open a little bit more.

    The other point I wanted to offer is the value, in this area of the discussion, of the competitive version, Shodokan, or as some say Tomiki version (which Tomiki did not want it named). I refer to the element of knowing what is coming and working against it. Not like kaeshiwaza – which are refined forms, but the randori form. I find there is something profoundly grounding, humiliating at times, when aikido does not work at all and my partner and I are simply wrestling and may as well be doing judo. However, as I become more refined and my teacher lets me in on more and more of what he already knows about randori competition, I find first one and then another way to unbalance my opponent. And the only way for it to happen with any finesse is to have good maii which is often way to close for comfort. In that position I am also far more vulnerable. But the fun stuff may happen. It is certainly not effortless but it allows me to really see how to use my strength with my opponent’s strength. I think I have always wanted it to be effortless – like the kung fu gymnasts in the movies make it all look like. I know this isn’t approved of by many here but

    Thanks again Sensei Stanley

    Peter from Brisbane

  23. Hi Stan,

    When I began Aikido (around 1973), my first teacher was Kanai Sensei who quite often invited visiting teachers. At one such time, Chiba Sensei (my second teacher) showed up to teach a class. We had a student who was a long time Karate student who often practiced Aikido with us. When he had a chance to train with Kanai Sensei I would often see Kanai struggle applying some techniques with this very strong karate student. When Chiba Sensei taught the class this student decides to try the same resisting technique on him. He stopped the class, had us all clear a space, took two bokken from the wall, and asked the student if he was there to practice or challenge? Chiba through down a bokken waiting for his answer.

    At that time, cooperation in practice was often misunderstood as a weakness in Aikido, and I would see from time to time challenges in practice.

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