Why Do You Take Ukemi?

photo by rick manwaring
Bujinkan ukemi doesn't look impressive. It's not supposed to. It has other goals.

In my Tuesday night class we were studying koshi kudaki. There are many levels to studying such a simple looking technique. First you need to understand the attack which is normally a type of hip throw like o goshi or harai goshi. As we were studying the attack, one of the students who also studies Judo was taking proper Judo ukemi. I suggested to him that this was creating a bad habit. His ukemi looked great, so what was bad about it?

It is important when studying any martial art to understand the goal of the study. In many modern arts, the goal is sport. In sport, there are judges to determine points or winners. But the judging gets more insidious. Your teacher naturally judges your form or technique. Your fellow students judge as they watch you. You even judge yourself. All this judging creates an impulse toward pretty form. Clean moves. Flashy kicks or throws. Satisfying slaps on the mat during ukemi. Even tapping out becomes part of the aesthetic.

Then ukemi training becomes very formal and repetitive to develop form and instant response.

None of this is real. It is all set up under false conditions that would likely never occur in combat. Hatsumi Sensei says,
"Don't take ukemi. When you take ukemi you create openings. In the moment you think, "I have to take ukemi here," you're actually open because your mind is occupied with something else. Don't take ukemi. Just let it happen. For example, if you use your hands in taking ukemi, you won't be able to use weapons against your opponent and you'll be killed as a result. You're occupied."
Bujinkan ukemi is more about natural response in the moment. It has few flashy moves and is not a big crowd pleaser at martial arts demos.

The Bujinkan sometimes faces criticism in the martial arts community because it doesn't have this aesthetic appeal. People don't understand what they are looking at. It is often hard even for experienced Bujinkan students to understand what Sensei is doing even as he does it right before their eyes.

What are some of the goals with our ukemi?

One is safety for the uke. Being able to survive being kicked, punched thrown, grappled, stabbed, shot at… whatever the situation demands. Survival ukemi isn't showy. And no two incidents look alike. In many martial arts dojos you walk in and find students all falling the exact same way repetitively. In Bujinkan classes, rarely do you see any pair of students falling or taking ukemi the same way. Training cookie cutter, repetitious ukemi can build bad habits that can get you injured.

Another goal of our ukemi is escape or evasion. You won't see this in any competition. So the training that sports martial arts do also has this large gap or absence in their curriculum. And, the ukemi they teach may be corrupted and dangerous because of this.

A third important aspect of our ukemi is countering. Often, the ukemi is the counter. Sports martial arts do have this but their end goal is different: i.e. pleasing judges (or the audience), a tap out or submission, maybe KO). These end goals again corrupt the use of natural ukemi that is a very powerful tool for countering.

Our ukemi has other goals as well like kyojitsu, searching and situational awareness, or accessing weapons.

Natural ukemi rarely looks impressive. It looks sudden, clumsy, chaotic or when done superbly, just blends with the attack to appear like nothing at all. But if it meets any of the above goals, then it was correct ukemi.

Hatsumi Sensei says,
"Those who take ukemi as Budoka are just amateurs."
For those of you who study arts besides Bujinkan, please ask your self next time you hit the mats: Why fall this way? Why be thrown this way? Why slap the mat? What is the purpose of your ukemi?


Mike Brown

I am sorry, but you don't know what you are talking about. You state in your post that more or less ukemi as practiced in martial sports such as Judo develops "bad habits" in so much as the ultimate goal of ukemi is to "impress". As a 10 year practitioner and competitor of Kodokan Judo, I will tell you that this is absolute nonsense. The goal of Judo ukemi; the ONLY goal of judo ukemi is to ensure that uke is not harmed. That's it.

You seem to believe otherwise based on what? One of the reasons you list that I find most alarming is that somehow having Judo instructors inspecting and correcting poor ukemi as some insidious method of causing Judo ukemi to be practiced for the sake of looking flashy?

1. I have no idea how you came to that conclusion...as ukemi has to be the least flashy
aspect of Judo nage-waza
2. Ukemi, like the 40 official throws of Judo nage-waza follows a template. There is a reason for this. Judo's success is owed to standardization. This standardization along with regular pressure testing of techniques is what contributed to Judo supplanting Japanese jutusu as the national(Japan) un-armed fighting art. In application techniques are practiced differently than the template....but that is not the point...the point is that the template teaches the student the physical foundations of the technique..this is the reason why Judoka often find Bujinkan nage/ne/kanketsu waza largely as a joke.....none of you seem to understand the physics of the techniques..this is largely due to obsessing over "feeling the technique" and lack of pressure testing.

Also, I would like to address this notion that "concentrating on ukemi causes openings"...again...nonsense. If you have ever practiced Judo for any considerable length of time...you don't "think" about ukemi... in fact..after the first week of practice..you are not thinking about it at all....because you are using it about every 20 seconds...it becomes second nature....even if you are concentrating on ukemi..there isn't much you could do otherwise..you are being thrown because your opponent maneuvered you into an inferior position in the first place..so your options at that point is to take the fall, safely, or try to spin out of it and run the very real risk of serious injury.

So in closing.....Hatsumi, if he really believes that those who practice ukemi are amateurs(I highly doubt he does) then I must conclude that he hasn't a clue of what he is talking about.

Bujinkan Santa Monica

Thank you for that thoughtful comment Mike. The fact that you start out your comment declaiming my ignorance means I hit a nerve!

You mentioned that "Judo's success is owed to standardization," and this to me is where the problem lies. I welcome you to experience your Judo ukemi with an experienced Bujinkan student. That experience would say more than my blog post ever could, as well as be a great learning opportunity for us both.

Your characterization of Bujinkan people not understanding the physics is just wrong. What I really don't understand is how the sport of Judo can be misconstrued as real combat.

These kind of discussions will never be settled on the internet or in blog posts. If you enjoy your training that is what is most important.

I value your opinion and your experience as a Judoka. I also definitely have respect for the art and science involved in your sport. In my own opinion however, the sport of Judo and combat cannot reasonably be compared.

Hatsumi Sensei trained in Judo many years prior to meeting Takamatsu Sensei. He definitely has expressed the opinion I posted above about Judo ukemi.


Nice ukemi Michael.

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