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Initiative, kuzushi, and lapses

My blogospheric buddy, the Aikidokie from Muskogee recently posted this great post on the Controlling Whack of Peace and Harmony.  But you know, Japanese is a tricky language.  How do you know that should not be translated as "The Harmonious Whack of Peaceful Controlling," or maybe even something like, "Love busts in?"
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Anyway, There's a lot of principles/ideas/jargon in the Japanese martial arts that a lot of times us Westerners seem to mis-understand, mis-appropriate, or conflate (myself more than anyone, I'm sure), and some of these terms Okiedoka either mentions or suggests.  Things like...

  • disbalance (kuzushi)
  • initiative (sen)
  • weakness or opening (suki)

These are all sort of different things that work together to be one very confusing, almost numinous idea.  I thought I'd discuss today how I understand/misunderstand/divide these concepts.

Initiative is primarily a timing or rhythm concept.  Basically who gets to take the first turn to do their thing.
Different sensei have discussed a three-part model of initiative...

  • pre-emptive timing - I take my turn before you have a chance to take yours
  • in-time - you and I act at the same time
  • responsive timing - I let you take your turn first so that I can counter your actions.

In my mind, I sort of divide it into a five-timing model

  • pre-emptive timing - To me, this is sort of a-hole or bully mode - but I guess all is fair in a fight, right?
  • provocative timing - I act on you in order to get an expected response that I know how to deal with.
  • in-time - This is difficult to do - We both take our turn and I hope to come out on top just because my action is better than yours.
  • responsive timing - There's this eternal debate about whether the guy that wins the initiative has the advantage or if the advantage actually lies with the defender or responder - the second to move.
  • victim timing -  You act upon me and I hope to be able to survive/endure long enough to eventually get a turn.


As children we are taught to take turns - I go - you go - I go - you go.  But in a martial sense, we would like to use our turn to accomplish something while at the same time depriving the other guy of his turn, so we get to take this turn and the next one and the next one...  So, how do we deprive the opponent of their turn?
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Kuzushi is typically thought of as dis-balancing the opponent or disrupting his structural integrity so that he begins to fall.  Some of my senseis have said before, "Kuzushi is anything that forces the other guy to take an unintended step."  This sort of confounded me when I was thinking of kuzushi as unbalancing uke, but when I began thinking about initiative events, If you can cause the other guy to take some random, unintended step, then he just used his turn to do nothing, so it's your turn again.
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There is also this unending debate about whether kuzushi is a thing that uke does to himself or if it is a thing that tori does to uke.  Is tori learning to recognize states of kuzushi in uke and time his turns accordingly, or is tori doing something to uke to weaken uke and make him lose a turn?  Potentially both, but this provides an opportunity to talk about a third martial arts concept.
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Suki (gap or lapse or opening).  I usually think of suki as any momentary lapse of attention or mis-positioning that I have done to myself that has cause me to be open to the opponent's attack.  Basically suki is when I offer the current turn of initiative to the other guy because of some weakness in myself.  Kuzushi, on the other hand, is when I do something to take the turn from him.
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Interestingly, it appears to me that folks from grappling-type aiki- or ju-jutsu (like those descended from kito-ryu) tend to be obsessed with the kuzushi idea, while folks from a more striking-based aiki- or ju-jutsu  (like daito- or tenjin-shinyo)tend to jive better with the suki idea.  But they are just different facets of the same thing.


photo courtesy of Paco PH

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Patrick Parker
www.mokurendojo.com