Uke is a Japanese word referring to the receiver of a technique. The person doing the technique would be considered either the nage (投げ “thrower”?), tori (取り “grabber”?) or shite (仕手 “doer”?). For the rest of this article I’ll just refer to this person as Shite.

Being a good Uke is not easy. As a novice one might think all they had to do was grab or punch and not get hurt by Shite in the process. Being a good Uke means that you are attacking for real. If you don’t attack for real how will someone learn to counter a real attack?

When practicing for proficiency, “for real” may mean full speed, or full force, but usually it means with the correct intention and body mechanics, regardless of speed and power. Proper intention will result in a more realistic attack, while teaching both uke and shite important lessons beyond the physical.

Intention

By the term “Shite Uke” I refer to a person who is supposed to be acting as Uke, but are really in Shite mindset; trying to learn the technique, correcting the doer of the technique, or maybe not being present and just going through the motions of Uke.

When I am Uke for a senior teacher I often find that I have no idea what technique was just done on me. Part of this stems from Shite having developed a subtle technique, but another part of it is me focusing on the job at hand. I’m not trying to figure out what Shite is doing, at least not mechanically. I am giving them my best attack so that they get the best practice, and at the same time I try to stay aware of and try to catch the feeling of the technique as Uke. Then when I become Shite and practice the movement I can try to emulate what I felt (or didn’t feel) essentially translating the “feeling” back to the physical mechanics of the technique. Once I have the mechanics down, I again try to apply the technique with proper feeling. Without this feeling it is just a dead technique.

Often, junior students avoid being Uke for senior students due to fear. Fear of being injured or just doing something wrong. But being Uke for a more experienced practitioner is very important and is really a gift. Senior practitioners have way more control over their movements than a novice, so you are much less likely to get hurt by them. If all you do is practice with people who are as good or worse than you, you will not improve. In a real fight it doesn’t matter how many techniques you know or can apply in the dojo. A large part of your response will be based on your emotional training. Simply put, how you have trained your fear. So many people come to the dojo to train, and then avoid their fears! Would you rather wait until you are attacked on the street to train your emotional response to fear?

Mechanics

For safety reasons many martial art systems will practice striking techniques against an opponent from outside of real striking distance. In this way they may develop attributes such as speed and intention, but this method of training does not train you for real fight distancing. In the Bujinkan system, distance is one of the key elements to successfully applying technique, so instead we strive to maintain a realistic distance, and slow down the movements as needed to learn effectively and/or to stay safe.

The problem with slowing down is that we are more likely to lose flow. “Flow” is what happens when you are applying yourself to a movement with intention, such as in a real fight. You don’t stop to think. You are totally in the moment. Slowing down a technique allows you enough time to think, which may be necessary to learn a new movement, but once the mechanics are learned thinking must cease so that we can practice flow. This begins a higher level of ability for both Uke and Shite. As Uke we don’t have time to think how to roll or fall or it’s too late and injuries are more likely to happen. You have to get to the point where you just do, and to get here you must practice being Uke.

Moving Forward

When I was a younger practitioner I couldn’t wait to be Shite. Being Uke was just something you had to do to help your partner until it was “your turn”. But as I now understand the role of Shite and Uke they are both equal in importance to practice. In fact being a good Uke may be MORE important than being able to apply a technique as Shite. As Uke you get to practice getting hit, thrown, and pinned. You get to learn where the weaknesses are in techniques and with different sized opponents. Don’t be a Shite-Uke! Embrace Uke skills (Ukemi) and you will improve your overall practice.

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