“Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face.” — Mike Tyson
We’ve noticed great interest within the aikido community in the strike deflections and hand movements developed at Tenshin Dojo in Osaka, Japan and later popularized by Steven Seagal and Haruo Matsuoka in a series of major motion pictures.
With Haruo Matsuoka Sensei as our Chief Instructor, we have unique insight into these movements and thought we’d share some of our thoughts on the technical details of these deflections and covers.
In the 1970’s Seagal Sensei transitioned from Ki Society style movements to a radically different style of aikido. Matsuoka Sensei was an integral part of this technical transformation in the early days of his aikido training. To the best of our knowledge, these signature hand movements were developed at this time and inspired by sword-based deflections.
Over the last 40 years, these hand movements have been subtlety but importantly refined to increase their effectiveness and efficiency through use of proper body structure.
At Ikazuchi Dojo, we view these deflections as a practical and reliable way to clear strikes or grabs launched from a well-balanced attacker. They provide an alternative and complementary response to traditional aikido strike defenses
Here, we’ll take a look at one of the most common hand movements used in this system of deflections. This movement is generally used to protect against a strike or grab targeting the upper part of the body (mid-chest to top of head).
This hand movement provides a distinct set of advantages when faced with a direct, dynamic attack:
- Flexible: Reliably fields any overhead or forward-projecting attack. If you see a hand flying towards your face and execute this cover, you’re likely to clear the attack. The movement also requires little to no modification to work against a blunt weapon attack (tire iron, beer bottle, etc.)
- Positional Dominance: Moves the nage (defender) into position to enter the attacker’s blind spot / flank, safely outside of the range of a kick or strike from the other hand.
- Reliable: Works smoothly and consistently against forceful attacks. A skilled 120 lb. woman should have no problem deflecting a full force strike from an attacker twice her size.
- Tempo Gain: The covering movement itself is a set-up for a range of throws and atemi. You accomplish two things at once when executing this movement: defense and set-up for throw or control.
No movement is without flaws, or ideally suited for every situation. This deflection is no exception. While it’s a reliable and useful technique, it has weaknesses. Here are some of ones we’ve become aware of:
- Does not immediately break the attacker’s balance (kuzushi). It’s imperative this be done immediately after the deflection via a throw, atemi, or a movement from the nage’s supporting hand. It’s always preferred to break the attacker’s balance with your first movement, but this is sometimes a tradeoff worth taking if you need to deal with a fast strike from a well-balanced attacker. As an exception to the rule, Matsuoka Sensei can now execute this cover and break the attacker’s balance immediately, but no one else in the dojo can do it yet.
- Fails against strikes in a horizontal plane. This particular cover works very well against almost any overhead or forward-projecting attack. It can be adapted to deal with a yokomenuchi attack or punches thrown in a range of vectors, but the geometry of the movement breaks down when facing a strike in a near horizontal plane (like certain types of hook punches). We have other hand movements to deal with that attack vector, but it’s important to point out that against a horizontal plane strike, this movement fails or turns into a crude, high-impact block.
This cover can be used to launch a devastating atemi to the attacker’s face in the form of an open hand strike with the blade of the hand, a hammer fist, or a strike to the eyes with the fingers. The deflection can also be used to transition into a range of traditional aikido throws and controls including iriminage, kotegaeshi, kaitennage, and kubishime.
Ikazuchi Dojo uses many drills and practice methods to develop competency with this deflection. Following are a few ways we cultivate skill with the movement:
- Menuchi-undo: This basic hand movement exercise, along with its multi-direction variants (zengo-undo, happo-undo) is often practiced in our warm-ups. This exercise builds neuromuscular competency with the movement so it becomes hardwired into reflexes. If you have to think about how to defend against a strike, it’s too late. We want this movement burned into muscle memory.
- Basic Form Development: We emphasize development of proper form for the cover and the supporting hand which acts as a tool to clear and check the attacking hand. Detailing the nuances of the form are outside the scope of this post, but we typically start by training against a shomenuchi attack. This traditional aikido attack is unlikely to be encountered in the real world (unless there’s a stick or blunt instrument being used as a weapon). However, the attack is an excellent learning tool as it uses a clean line of attack (exactly vertical) and a failed cover results in a far less serious injury than a punch to the face.
- Reflex and Adaptation Drills: Once the basic form is learned, we encourage students to practice covers against rear and lead hand attacks, first in sequence and later in a free form manner. After a level of competence is reached, we also practice covering against a range of attacks in an unscripted way. For example, reflexively adapting the angle of the cover to deal with a shomen, yokomen, or tsuki to the face. We recommend a slow practice that gradually builds speed as competency is gained. We find we make the most progress when working in a zone where we make mistakes about 20-30% of the time with unscripted attacks. If you get it right all the time, you’re not learning. If you fail too often, you’re practicing too fast. When training this way at intermediate levels, we either use a highly skilled uke or create a bit of extra distance to the target to avoid getting hit when training errors occur.
- Technique Application: This cover is an integral part of many of our throws and is practiced as a component of our regular technique training.
Many aikido practitioners have been inspired by this deflection and have now added it to their training curriculum. Copying forms seen in films or video by sweeping the arm through space will provide a functional cover. However, seeking the subtle details of the deflection will result in a dramatically improved movement. Areas we’ve been paying attention to in this regard include:
- Body structure: Aligning the skeleton to most efficiently receive and project force. The wrist of the covering arm should be in horizontal alignment with the shoulder. If the deflecting hand is too far inside or outside the shoulder when it encounters a powerful attack, the cover is likely to collapse. I’ve experienced this personally when fielding attacks from Matsuoka Sensei or seasoned karate practitioners. Additionally, the forearm should be slightly rotated outwards so the ulna bone avoids direct contact with the strike. Without this adjustment, the cover is likely to result in collision and impact that can bruise the arm and result in a loss of balance and structural stability.
- Supporting hand: The non-covering hand plays a very important role in this deflection. Typically overlooked, it can be used to prevent follow-up attacks, destabilize the attacker’s body structure, and set up the conditions necessary for a throw to work reliably.
- Movement path efficiency: Winding up the hand before covering or making any extraneous movement will slow the cover and reduce its chance of success against a skilled striker. Raising the covering hand too high or too wide can leave openings and slow your next action (atemi or throw). For example, when dealing with an overhead strike, the covering hand should be raised so the wrist is at eye level. This ensures that even with a weapon, the attack always clears your head. However, with a forward projecting strike like a punch to the face, this is not necessary and the additional time it takes to raise the wrist past the level of the striking hand gives up precious time with no benefit.
Here’s a short video of Josh Gold sharing some of the technical details of the deflection and associated atemi with Mark Cheng (off-screen). This was filmed during part of Mark and Josh’s ongoing knowledge exchange program. You can read more about Mark and Josh’s cross training here.
We are delighted to see the aikido community actively experimenting with these movements and evaluating their suitability for a range of applications. We’d love to hear any feedback or insights others have gained through the practice of this cover. We hope these details may spark new thinking, research, and applications.
Our thanks to Josh Gold for contributing another excellent article. The original article is hosted at the Ikazuki Dojo website.