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Suki, 隙: part 3

December 2, 2010

This is a short series about openings/opportunities in aikido and other martial arts.

Part 1: introduction, openings in others

Part 2: from the opposite perspective: openings in ourselves

Part 3: off the mat, vulnerability and compassion

Part 3, off the mat

The reader will already appreciate that some of the technical points from the last parts can be applied outside of the physical practice of aikido.  In this final part will look at some to our life outside the dojo.    We will skip through:

  1. a recap of the previous parts
  2. arousal
  3. zanshin, with Takeda as an example
  4. Tohei leather jacket
  5. leaving openings
  6. empathy


In the previous two parts we discussed openings from a technical point of view.  These included:

  1. Types of opening
  2. Where openings come from
  3. Exploiting openings
  4. Closing openings (avoidance)
  5. Irimi
  6. When closing openings fails (evasion)
  7. Fall back plans
  8. Deliberately leaving openings


All of this is worthless if we are not appropriately engaged to be aware of what’s happening around us.  As humans our level of engagement, also known as arousal in sports psychology fields, varies.  There is an optimum level of arousal for the performance of different tasks.  Defining this optimum level is both personal and situational (Stepahn Kesting’s blog has a good series about this optimum level

Initially our arousal in the dojo swings between too high (panic) and too low (distracted) to perform properly.  With familiarity we become less prone to panic.  A harder problem to identify is when arousal is dipping too low.  This is particularly likely to happen between bursts of activity e.g. between techniques. Some dip in arousal is natural but in budo this should be managed; we cannot assume the situation is safe.  A considerate training partner will show us when our awareness has dropped too low, waking us up.


After victory, tighten your helmet chord.

This attitude of enduring awareness is referred to as zanshin or lingering spirit.  It is evident in both our physical and mental attitude.  An example of awareness is Takeda Sōkaku, the Daito-ryu teacher of Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei.  Reports of his constant vigilance go as far as always having his food tasted for poison and carrying a sharpened pair of metal chopsticks with him.  He appears to have been paranoid in an way that was old-fashioned, even for that time.

The leather jacket

Two generations of student later Kochei Tohei had an incident with a leather jacket [1]. The story is dealt with in depth in many other places but here’s a brief version.

Tohei went to Hawaii to help spread aikido outside of Japan.  He came back to Japan with a leather jacket.  At the time leather was expensive in Japan and a whole jacket made of leather was a real luxury.  One day Tohei discovered his jacket had been stolen.  He went into the training hall and berated the uchi-daeshi about the incident, suspecting one of them to be the thief.  O Sensei came into the hall when this was happening, on hearing the story he reprimanded Tohei for leaving the opening and creating a thief.

The Japanese word for invincible, 無敵, literally no enemy, echoes this idea.  Instead of destroying your enemies, do not let people become enemies.

These two stories parallel minimising openings in ourselves and our training partners in aikido practice.

Leaving openings

Constantly closing openings is like the trade-off between armor and manoeuverability.  The “letting go of four hands” in the Book of 5 Rings dramatically abandons a defensive position to snatch victory.  An off the mat parallel to being armored but immobile may be the cliché of being “emotionally unavailable.”  Let’s continue the theme of generations in the Daito-ryu family by consider the following written by Ellis Amdur of his aikido instructor, Kuwamori Yasunori.

What was so marvelous about the man was that, in a world where such sensitivity was anathema, he was not afraid of the pain of loss. He never pretended he was above it all. He never hid in the subtle cowardice of non-attachment. Once, drinking with a then in-house disciple of Honbu dojo, a rough, hard man, Yasunori spoke openly of something personal. His friend recoiled in horror, saying, “How can you say that to me. You’ve revealed your weakness, and you are at my mercy.” Yasunori laughed and said, “I’m not afraid that you know who I am.” His friend could not handle this, and their relationship cooled. [2]

There was an opening of revealing a weakness but there is some benefit to being open with your friends.  How often do we hide in the “subtle cowardice of non-attachment?”  I know that I have regrets about more than one of these cowardly acts.  Yasunori was only able to be open because he was secure, this reminds me of the seanfhocail Is cuma le fear na mbróg cá leagann sé a chos, or the man with boots doesn’t mind where he puts his feet.

Another story from the same article also deals with managing openings:

For several months I lived in the Kuwamori home, above the dojo. The first night, spreading my futon beside that of its head instructor, I said in halting Japanese, “Goodnight sensei.” He turned on the light, and looked at me, and in careful, broken English said to me, “Don’t call me sensei. You call me by my name—Yasunori. I can’t be called “sensei” by someone who sleeps next to me. Think of me as your older brother. Find your sensei somewhere else. You understand? Goodnight, Ellis.”[2]

How easy it would have been to follow the norm of having Amdur call him sensei.  Defining the relationship as brotherly was different from the safer more traditional one.  How different is this to carrying sharpened metal chopsticks?


In many aikido techniques tori matches uke’s movement and shares uke’s perspective.  During a technique tori often faces the same direction as uke, “seeing what uke was looking at,” either shoulder to shoulder or looking over uke’s shoulder.  Even with strikes we rarely block the strike directly like the cartoon image of karate.  Matching the motion of uke is expressed in brushing past or cutting up in time with uke’s action.  Beyond the introduction phase sensitivity to uke’s condition is needed.  We need to know where our partner is weak to execute effective technique.

Understanding others is needed for empathy, empathy is needed for compassion.  “Budo is compassion” makes sense in this respect.


At a first approximation martial arts is about recognising and exploiting openings in others.  To do this well we need to look at openings in ourselves.  Since we are similar to our partners there is a lot of transfer between these two areas.  We do not need to close every opening in ourselves, and sometimes there are advantages in vulnerability.

The age we live in allows us to be more vulnerable than in the history of some disciplines we study.  We should neither throw out all the lessons from that time nor ignore the advantages of living in today.  These lessons can be applied outside the dojo.

Acquire the skills to keep us safe; open yourself so love can flow through.


Brene Brown: The power of vulnerability, a talk on TEDtalks I saw today, sums this up really well.
TEDxKC – Brené Brown – The Price of Invulnerability, is also good and covers much the same issue from the opposite angle.



  1. Pranin, S., Don’t make a thief! Aikido Journal.
  2. Amdur, E., Oniisan. Aikido Journal.

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