The Origins of Modern Aikido: The Shomenuchi Dilemma by Stanley Pranin

“If you want to know how aikido techniques changed
after the war, here is a good place to start!”

Stanley Pranin (1945-2017)

Over the years I have published a number of articles that deal with the Shomenuchi Ikkyo technique of the prewar era. I have mentioned an earlier approach to doing techniques from the shomenuchi (overhand strike attack). I particularly like to stress the importance of nage (the person applying the technique) initiating the encounter in order to preempt a high-speed attack by uke and avoid a collision, something decidedly against the principles of aikido, the “art of harmony”.

Please have a look at these two photos that depict Koichi Tohei, 10th dan. These photos are the start of the Shomenuchi ikkyo technique described in Tohei Sensei’s technical volume “This is Aikido” published in 1968.

Koichi Tohei performing ikkyo from his technical manual “This is Aikido”

Let us make some observations about these two photos. First, in photo #1, Tohei Sensei (nage) is standing in hanmi awaiting the shomen attack. His uke — Seishiro Endo — has launched a shomenuchi attack. Allowing for the fact that the photos may be artificial in that they are posed, we must still deal with the reality that nage has only a minute time frame to respond to uke‘s attack that is already in progress.

Next, look at photo #2. What is described as a blend could equally be construed as a collision between nage and uke as their arms traveling in direct opposition make contact. In fairness, let us quote part of the description of the beginning of this technique from the book which describes the thinking behind this approach:

Although you throw your partner with an ikkyo much as you do in the kata-tori ikkyo [….], since, in this technique, his attempted strike moves downward, it is easy for you to collide with his strength and difficult for you to force him down backward. The irimi here, therefore, consists of turning your partner’s strength against him…

Maintain a mighty outpouring of ki from your hands and swing your arms up…

Morihei Ueshiba advocated a totally different approach. The Founder stated that nage should be proactive and initiate the movement thus effectively neutralizing uke‘s shomenuchi attack altogether and eliminating the risk of collision alluded to above.

Morihei Ueshiba performing ikkyo from his technical manual “Budo”

Although Koichi Tohei began his training at Morihei Ueshiba’s Kobukan Dojo in 1940 when the war between Japan and China was already in progress, he is recognized as one of the foremost figures of postwar aikido. His curriculum was broad, well-organized and presented in a number of early aikido technical books. Within the Aikikai system, the other approach to aikido techniques which bore many similarities with Tohei’s aikido was the less rigorous and loosely developed system of the Founder’s son Kisshomaru Ueshiba. This is one of the reasons Tohei Sensei was accorded the position of Shihan Bucho — chief instructor — of the Aikikai Hombu Dojo. He was recognized by most as the superior technician at the Aikikai.

What was taught at the Aikikai from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s ending with Tohei Sensei’s departure from the Hombu Dojo in 1974, was something of a composite of the curricula of Tohei and Kisshomaru that coexisted. Many uchideshi and students practicing at the dojo during these years had extensive exposure to both systems, some favoring one over the other.

By comparing the approaches to dealing with shomenuchi attacks described in this article and the preceding one, you will gain a glimpse of the rather dramatic differences that existed between the two methods of practice. The prewar art was more martial, proactive and assertive while the postwar approaches of Tohei and Kisshomaru placed little emphasis on the martiality of technique and focused more on the art’s philosophy and its use as a vehicle of personal and health development. This had a great deal to do with the tenor of the times, Japan then being a defeated nation occupied by foreign troops.

Morihei Ueshiba advocated a totally different approach. The Founder stated that nage should be proactive and initiate the movement thus effectively neutralizing uke‘s shomenuchi attack altogether and eliminating the risk of collision alluded to above.

I will continue spending time systematically going through some of these differences in technical and mental approaches in an effort to delineate more clearly how aikido evolved from the prewar period through modern times. I submit that such studies can have profound implications in understanding the art’s origins and also may suggest many modifications and improvements that can be made to current practice methods.


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  • My personal experience is that setting up a shomen will elicit a defensive response. I did it once successfully on the street. My opponent, one of a group of teenagers was armed with a pipe. Speeding up my walking pace, irimi and shomen caused him to flinch away. He had expected me to square off and fight with him. I didn’t actually hit him. I was past him and his friends were amused. Situation neutralized.

  • In the second photo of Tohei Sensei he is clearly open to attack from uke’s left hand. A strike to the tip of the liver at this point would certainly drop any one using this technique. I traveled to many dojos in my 40+ years of the study of Aikido and found many Senseis don’t include the martial aspect of the Art. I am deeply thankful that when I first started Aikido in a garage in Monterey that the Sensei taught atemi and weapons training as the roots to this fine Art. Many dojos I studied in during my dojo hobo days were very offended if I would mention the importance of weapons techniques or use atemi to separate uke’s mind from his body to off balance him before executing a technique. In a dojo near Santa Barbara that displayed Tohei Sensei’s photo I was asked to leave the mat for using a pinning technique that is used in most every other dojo I had ever trained in when attacked with a Shomenuchi ikkyo. When I took up the practice of Aikido I was interested in self defense so the budo aspect of the Art amazed me and still does to this day. It is sad to see a lot of what is being taught as authentic Aikido looks more like a dance class where the martial techniques have been abandoned completely.

    Thank you Stan Pranin Sensei for your years of dedication to this magical art of Aikido, I truly love to read your daily articles and continue to learn something new daily from your teachings.

  • For me there is a paradox in this thinking. If you “preemt” a strike, it simply means you are attacking. Certainly you may have defense in mind and this is your defensive strategy (tori sees that Uke is about to attack him). But whatever morals lie behind it, surely, in terms of movement, Tori is still attacking? Even the phrase generally used is “preemptive attack” not “preemptive defence”.

    So if Tori “preempts” with Shomen Uchi – Uke would just defend with Ikkyo……. roles are revesed, and the technique is still, that one attacks with shomen uchi and the other waits…

    As to the problem of waiting for the attack, well, firstly, thats the difference (even legally, in some cases) between self defense, and fighting. We practice self defence.

    Secondly, of course if Tori waits, then “….a collision….” is possible, but we practice, to become better and do the technique correctly – if done correctly, the downward movement , has not yet got much speed, or ukes weight behind it, so the elbow is still bent, and high – thus the force is converted to a rotational movement (by the downward Cut action of Toris leading arm, and the extension of the following arm to Ukes elbow,) and if the timing is correct, there is no collision. If the timing is wrong, then Tori needs to practice more…

    And if tori is late in his/her reaction, then the Ikkyo would be performed as Ura, also avoiding collision, as in the case of the pictures above of Koichi Tohei. Or if really too late, then Ikkyo in this way is simply not a recommended technique and Tori would perform Iriminage (etc) instead…?

  • I was taught (by an Iwama style teacher) that nage should not wait for uke’s shomenuchi downstroke, but blend with uke’s initial upward movement. This is, in effect, giving a rising shomenuchi which then induces uke to lift his own arm in defence. But nage’s hands are now in a position to extend that upward movement into ikkyo.

    Thus, although uke starts the attack, he then has to change his attack (whatever it was going to be) into a shomenuchi style defence. This seems pretty close to what O Sensei is doing in the book.

    Perhaps it is misunderstanding of this point which has lead to the prevalence of shomenuchi attacks in Aikido training. My own view is that in a street fight it is unlikely that an unarmed attacker would use shomenuchi. I think we should train to deal with straight and hook punches, rapid jabs, slaps, and shoves much more.

    But those who have greater experience and knowledge of street fights should correct me if I am wrong about this.

  • The time I used a version of this was in working corrections. Aggressive inmate, when he put up his hands in the typical “american” streetfighter/boxing guard that most adopt. I used the raising of his hands to enter and took him down with ikkyo.

    He “attacked” first by taking up the stance. His posture/attitude said “fight”. I believe that my taking control of the situation and ending it with no punches having to be thrown was what O’Sensei meant by a preemptive defense.

  • Shomenuchi Dilemma…?

    Initiating the «attack» (technique) sometimes is perceived as an act of «aggression» and incompatible with Aikido morals or philosophy… Perhaps because Aikido is defined as «defensive» or «art of peace»… But defensiveness means not being inactive. Watching those rare film documents of O-Sensei, what sticks out is that O-Sensei always moves first. He’s perceiving and seizing Uke’s mind and power, sometimes even before Uke is acting physically. From the practical side, the best time to control power, is before power can manifest itself. The stronger power becomes, the harder you can control it. Just physics…

    I don’t see any dilemma initiating the «attack» in Shomenuchi Ikkyo. In fact, I believe that Tori initiating the technique, is a very essential (strategical) teaching, to understand Aikido’s full potential better. Every body movement is motivated by mind-intetion. Initiating the technique as Tori, means to interfere Uke’s intention to attack, just before his acting. Controlling Uke before he moves… Irimi! Done well, Uke is in a strong Kuzushi backwards, unable to react. As shown in O-sensei’s picture at bottom (Noma Dojo?).

    I think that Tori initiating the technique, as discussed here, is advanced Irimi stuff, because very mental in nature. I mean it need’s a certain mental state or requirement, to be confident enough to enter before the «attack». Beside, doesn’t this sound familiar? Isn’t Tori initiating the technique, a great example of Sen-sen no Sen…?