The aikido technique, omote and ura, against basic attacks

Shihonage ("four directions throw") is one of the throwing techniques in aikido. The video above shows it against basic grip and strike attacks. Explanations below.

       Shihonage ("four directions throw"), one of the basic aikido techniques, is connected to the Japanese sword arts. That's indicated already by its name. There is a sword exercise called shihogiri ("four directions cut"), practiced a lot in the sword arts. You make four cuts, turning your body between them to cover the four main directions — forward, back, left, right, not necessarily in that order.

Like the Sword

It is possible to make the shihonage throw in four and more directions, but that's not the main point in its relation to the sword arts. It's how you do the throw — your movement is just about the same as when cutting with the two-handed sword, katana. You lift the sword right over your head, and you cut by swinging it down right in front of you. And that's pretty much it.

       When you lift the sword, you actually push it forward, which will by extension lead it up. The same thing when you cut. It's an extended forward movement that leads the sword back down to its initial position, which is chudan kamae ("middle level guard"). That's with the sword held in front of your belly, a few inches below your navel. It's the preferred guard in kendo and other Japanese sword arts. The famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi called it the field marshal of guards.

       So, the basic movement of the sword cut and the shihonage throw is the same: Push forward from chudan kamae until your hands are over your head (jodan kamae, "high level guard"), and then push forward from that stance until your hands are back to chudan kamae in front of your belly.

       Nothing is more important in the Japanese sword arts than being centered. Your movements initiate in tanden, your body's center, and they return there at the end. It's never more clear than in the chudan giri cut, described above. Also in between, all through the technique, your hands stay connected in the sword grip and move in front of you, not to your sides at all. You work from your center and stay in front of your own body's vertical middle.

       That's also the most important thing exercised in the shihonage throwing technique — working from your center, and remaining in you vertical middle as your hands go forward up and forward down. Therefore, practicing sword movements with the shinken live blade or the wooden sword bokken helps you improve your shihonage — and the other way around.

       The shiho doesn't necessarily mean you have to do all four directions, although it's good to learn. It is about how you make your turns — in cutting with the sword as well as throwing in aikido. Turns must be sharp and centered, or the movement is weak and unbalanced.

Omote — Ura

Shihonage can be done both omote (front) and ura (back). These opposites have wide and intricate meanings in the Japanese language, but in aikido it mainly refers to the angle of your approach to the technique. In omote, you move in front of the attacker, quite visible to him or her. In ura you step behind the attacker, getting out of his or her view.

       Compared to sword cutting, omote is 90° to the side, either left or right depending on what side of the attacker you entered in your initial taisabaki evasive movement. Ura is a 180° turn to the back — either clockwise or counter-clockwise, depending on what side of the attacker you go to at first. So, doing both omote and ura on both sides of the attacker, you are indeed doing shihonage, the four directions throw.

       Some say that omote and ura have slightly different qualities and characteristics, the former being more direct and the latter more yielding. I'm not sure about that. Like the sword cuts, they should be done with equal swiftness and spirit. The whole idea with practicing shiho giri with the sword is being able to cut in any direction, with the same efficiency. That should go for shihonage, too.

Mae or Ushiro Ukemi

You can make shihonage so that the attacker falls forward at the end, or backwards. That's mae ukemi and ushiro ukemi. When done with a forward throw, it's usually high, making the attacker practically fly over your head. This fancy falling may be one of the reasons many aikido students prefer this kind of shihonage. I don't.

       I have two main reasons for choosing the backward fall, which is what I show on the video. One is that the attacker must be quite skilled at ukemi to handle that throw without risk of getting hurt, even more so if it should be enjoyable in persistent practice. The other is that in the mae ukemi solution, you must allow the attacker to turn towards you, which increases the risk of a counter-strike.

       In the ushiro ukemi solution, you can throw people with very varied force and speed, to adapt smoothly to their prowess at falling. And all through the technique you can keep the attacker at an angle where he or she can't reach you with an additional attack.

       Well, this is my choice. Others may have good reasons for choosing differently.

Gyakuhanmi katatedori

Gyakuhanmi katatedori is when the attacker grabs your wrist, either left hand on your right or right hand on your left. It is the attack form most commonly used in shihonage practice, because the entry into the throw is the least complicated here.

       In omote, you step to the side to get out of the line of attack, the initial taisabaki evasive movement with which every aikido technique should start. You also turn your body a full 90° to extend your arms forward up right in front of you. The square angel to the line of attack makes a perfect compromise between you and your attacker. If you go in closer to the attacker (a narrower angle than 90°), you risk stabilizing the attacker enough to resist your entry. If you go further away from the attacker (more than 90°), you don't turn his or her body enough away from you to avoid a strike with the other hand.

       This 90° angle is very important in shihonage omote. It doesn't have to be exact, of course, but the more precise the better.

       The timing is such that the moment you have turned your body 180° after the entry step, you should be able to throw. In the sword arts, you should be able to cut immediately after turning. This means you should be at the jodan kamae guard, hands over your head, when you've finished the 180° turn. No later.

       In gyakuhanmi, your grip on the attacker's wrist is just with one hand — in the solution I show on the video. There are variations. That one hand, though, should grab the wrist much the same you grab a sword. A lot can be said about the sword grip, more than there is room for here. But think about it. The closer your shihonage grip of the attacker's wrist — whether with one hand or two — is to the way you should grip your sword, the better.

       It's with this grip you control the attacker's angle to you, and keep the attacker's elbow away from your face, which is a good precaution. It's also with this grip you can control exactly where the attacker falls — and how.

       Just like in the sword arts, the most important finger in your grip is the little finger. That's what you should focus on. It's the finger that needs to hold on the tightest. In the throw, you should even squeeze it a little extra, to create the initial forward down movement that is the actual cut in the sword arts.

       You are the strongest when both your hands stick together, even if just one of them grabs the attacker's wrist. Don't let the other hand move away to your side. That risks tilting your whole body to the side, and you will not be centered. Better to stick to the two-handed sword grip form, as much as possible.

       In the throw, don't steer the attacker's arm away from his or her body. That's dangerous and extremely uncomfortable for the attacker. Aim behind the attacker, so that his or her arm moves in a way natural and comfortable for the joints. It should be like you give the arm back to the attacker, but behind him or her.

       If you don't plan to follow up with an osae pinning, you can release your grip of the attacker's wrist when he or she is falling to the ground. That should be approximately when your hands are back at chudan kamae, in front of your belly.

       Don't step forward with the leg furthest from the attacker, when ending the throw. That's a weaker position than when your closest leg is forward. The attacker might pull you down. Also, with the wrong leg forward you are less protected from strikes and kicks.

       In ura, you start with a small step forward to the side, with the foot closest to the attacker. It's the irimi (inward) step. The angle of the foot should be with your toes aiming approximately towards the toes of the attacker's foot. That's to prepare for your turning at the next step, which would get so much more awkward if your foot pointed towards the attacker's back. If you are sloppy with this, your knees might at length take a beating. To spare your knees, try as much as possible to make your feet point in the same direction as your knees do. That's a good rule for all aikido techniques — actually for all body movement.

       At the same time as the initial irimi step, turn your hand to bring the attacker forward along the line of attack. That's the aiki blending with the attack. Without it, breaking the attacker's balance is so much more difficult, as is the continued movement of the shihonage technique.

       Your other hand should start to apply the grip on the attacker's wrist, in a turning movement as you begin to extend forward up. This affects the attacker's whole body, as can be seen in the video.

       As you take the tenkan step outwards and around, you continue to extend your arms forward up. Keep them in front of your middle all through. Don't let your grip on the attacker's arm sway out to your left or right side. Then the attacker might be able to stop you.

       As with omote, when you've made the full turn you should immediately be able to do the throw, the cutting with the sword. There is a rhythm, timing, to this, which is not that easy in shihonage ura. But practice makes perfect.

       The steps in shihonage ura are pretty much irimi-tenkan. Forward and around, 180°. It is possible to do this technique quite fast. But to make your body learn and improve, you should also practice it slowly.

       In my comments below on the other attack forms, I won't repeat the points made above.

Aihanmi katatedori

Aihanmi katatedori is when the attacker grips your wrist with the same hand, right hand on right wrist or left hand on left wrist. Although this is usually less practiced in aikido than gyakuhanmi, it is the most common relation between combatants in almost all martial arts. They have the same side forward. That's why I think it should be given a focus in aikido at least parallel to that of gyakuhanmi.

       In shihonage, you will need to grip the attacker's wrist with the hand he or she has grabbed. That's the reason for the initial spiral movement with the hand you can see in the video. It is to apply the "sword grip" to the attacker's wrist. The spiral move allows you to do this rather comfortably.

       In omote you should at the same time do the side step, which is with your back leg in aihanmi. Otherwise, it's the same as in gyakuhanmi.

       Also in ura you need to start with your back leg, which does the irimi entrance to the side step. remember the correct angle of the foot. The rest is the same as in gyakuhanmi.

Shomen uchi

Shomen uchi is the downward strike that resembles the basic men sword cut, as seen in kendo. The attacker should not shift front hand in the strike. The front hand in the beginning should be the striking hand. Otherwise, with a two-handed sword, you would strike your own head. Try it — carefully — with a bokken and you'll see. To keep the resemblance to the sword cut, it's good for the attacker to keep the other hand slightly behind, all through. Don't let the other arm just hang by your side. It's a rotten kamae, guard, and it's a very weak attack.

       In both omote and ura, shihonage starts with a short irimi step to the side of the attack line and a taisabaki turn of the body. At the same time, you make a parry movement with your arms, similar to uke nagashi in the sword arts. Turn your hand so that the fingers point backwards and make a curved movement with the arm, sort of like whisking the attack on. It's not to parry the strike, but to get in contact with the attacking arm safely. Don't try to stop the strike, but follow smoothly until it ends. In shomen uchi, that should be at about neck height.

       Your other hand follows shortly behind, and then it extends to take over the contact with the attacker's arm, leading it down and around. In that sweeping motion, you grab the attacker's wrist with both your hands.

       In omote, make sure to take a big step to the side in order to have room for this sweeping movement with the arms, and to decrease the attacker's balance further. In ura, you start the tenkan step as you hold the attacker's arm down, extending your arms forward up as you are on the other side of the attacker.

       I have to say that shihonage ura is rather awkward on striking attacks, since it means you change the direction you turn, and thereby also almost return to face the attacker anew. Omote is definitely safer and easier to do. One way to improve the efficiency of ura is to take big steps leading the attacker on much more than shown on this video. But still, it remains inferior to the omote solution.

       So, in ura in particular, make sure to have a good grip with both hands on the attacker's wrist, in order to control his or her whole body movement.

       The way you do shihonage on shomen uchi attacks is also how you do it on jodan tsuki, a strike to the face.

Yokomen uchi

Yokomen uchi is a strike to the side of the head. Like shomen uchi, this is mainly a sword attack. But the shihonage technique is the same on unarmed side strikes, like shuto to the temple in karatedo, or the hook and swing in boxing. In the basic sword style attack, the forward hand is the striking hand. The attacker should not shift hands in the attack, because it is very impractical indeed with a two-handed sword.

       Shomen uchi attacks usually start with an aihanmi relation between tori and uke, defender and attacker, which means they have the same leg forward — right or left. But in yokomen uchi, this is reversed, gyakuhanmi, so that opposite feet are the closest — right to left or left to right. That's the basic initial stance in aikido practice. It's not the law. Still, we stick to this in the video, for the sake of clarity.

       In both omote and ura shihonage starts in the same way. You take an irimi step to the other side of the attacker than the one of the hand he or she attacks with. Get in close to the attacker, to avoid the strike even if it is armed, like with a knife.

       At the same time as you step in, you make a double-armed parry that is very similar to a double uchi uke in karatedo. The hand by the attacker's face is atemi, the strike aikido mainly uses for distraction and to limit the attacker's ability to counter. It can be done as an uraken strike with the back of the hand (the knuckles, to be precise). In aikido practice, though, it is not to hit but to create a reaction.

       Your other hand takes contact with the attacker's striking arm and extends it. It's not a block of the strike, but a way of leading it on — forward instead of to the side. So, your arm should be relaxed and the movement soft. Your hand should be angled outward, to increase the contact and control.

       Your arms should move simultaneously in this entry, extending equally from your center. Otherwise you become unbalanced, and your arm movements become less effective.

       Next, in omote, you move out and swing the attacker's arm around as seen on the video, grabbing the wrist with both hands on the way. After that, it's the same as previous versions of shihonage.

       In ura, after the entry step, you bring the attacker's arm down to step around it to the other side with a tenkan move. Just as with shomen uchi, the ura version is rather awkward. Omote is much more trustworthy.

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Stefan Stenudd

Stefan Stenudd

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