The Uke-Tori Relationship

In my style of martial arts there is an important partner-training connection. I refer to this as the Uke-Tori relationship. This is, of course, named for the title of the two partners.

Uke (受け), correctly pronounced “oo-kay,” but commonly pronounced “oo-key,” references the attacker. Uke roughly translates to “receiver” or “the one who receives.” Therefore an Uke is the one who initiates the attack and then receives the technique from the person defending. An Aikido master by the name of Gary Boaz defines Uke as “The one who suffers for the sake of learning.” A definition I adopted almost immediately once I heard it, because it fits so well.

Tori (取り), pronounced “tor-ee,” refers to the person who is defending the attack. Tori roughly translates as “to take.” The Tori takes the attack and then successfully finishes the technique.

When it comes to the partner training of practicing kata self-defense or individual locks and grappling, the partners interchangeably take on the roles of Uke and Tori. This is the Uke-Tori relationship. However, this relationship is more than just one person attacking and one person defending. It is a relationship where both people give, take, and communicate so they can both learn effectively. And each one needs to take care to not injure the other.

There are several levels to learning and practicing self-defense. On a fundamental level, a student needs to learn the proper “textbook” movement of the technique. This includes proper hand placement, pressure point targeting, how the opponent is supposed to move, and how they are to move with their opponent. This is to be done slowly with no resistance. The designated Uke would not grab with an iron grip, nor would they punch fast and hard. At the same time, the Tori would not be striking hard or taking the Uke to the ground swiftly.

At the fundamental stage, the goal is for the Tori to move through the technique correcting themselves as they go to make sure they have the proper movement and positioning. The Uke’s job is to simply go with the flow and give feedback to the Tori on what they are experiencing. In addition, there should be at no time an Uke would need to tap because there should be no extended pain placed upon them. If we were to put a percentage of speed and power to this level it would be in the range of about 5 to 10 percent.

Taking practice to the next step, we move into the 25% speed and power range. At this point the Tori should know the proper mechanics of the application. They should know the location of points, how to step and move, and have some expectation of how the Uke should be moving as well. The Uke speeds up their attack and gives a bit more resistance, but not enough for the Tori to completely fail. In turn, the Tori speeds up their defense. Like before, the Uke should be giving feedback to the Tori on how the technique feels. Yes we want the Tori to be successful, but if they are way off base, they need to know so they can be successful.

As we move up the percentage scale of speed and power, our next step is 50%, then 75%, and 100%. Each time the Uke attacks faster, harder, and with more resistance. With the Tori defending faster, harder and with more energy. If a Tori begins to stumble and repeatedly makes mistakes, the energy level and speed need to be taken down a notch or two so the Tori can get back on track. It’s part of Uke’s job in giving feedback to point this out. It would be a mistake to believe the more speed and strength a Tori puts into an application will make the application more successful.

There is a level of practice that exists after the fundamental stage, but somewhere between the above mentioned percentage levels. I like to call it the “Don’t Let Me” level. This is where the Uke grabs or strikes and gives 100% resistance, but the Tori does not necessarily respond with the 100% speed and power of the technique. This is very much a level of control. Depending on the application, the percentage of speed and power from the Tori will rise and fall so as to not hurt the Uke. Yes, there will be a bit of pain involved, hitting pressure points and nerves hurt. The Uke might even end up with a bruise, maybe even the Tori. But the goal of breaking bones or killing does not exist. At the same time, the Uke is giving feedback, like always. This feedback might even be in the form of taunting. It is feedback nonetheless.

As speed and power to the attack and defense increase, the Uke is to give more resistance. When the Tori strikes a point or nerve, the Uke may or may not show a textbook dysfunction. This is because everyone is built differently and not everyone will react exactly the same. As stated before, an Uke’s job is to give feedback. If the Uke is not susceptible to a point strike, the Tori needs to know this so they don’t continue to beat on a point that won’t work. If it does work, then they need to know they are activating it correctly. This is also a good reason why you should work with as many people as you can.

The Uke-Tori relationship is the core of studying self-defense applications. It is this give, take, and communication partnership that helps each person learn and grow and become a better martial artist. It is this reason why I say, “Play, have fun, always be good to your Uke” Because we learn better when we play. If we are not having fun, what’s the point. And we want to be good to our Uke because they are the ones suffering for the sake of our learning.