By Chris Johnston
Originally posted on June 8, 2021 on the Shindokan Martial Arts School website: https://shindokan.ca/?p=695
There is a photo that hangs unassumingly in the living room of one of today’s top Yoshinkan Aikido instructors. In a social media world awash with depictions of self-aggrandizement, one reason that this photo stands out is because you are not likely to find it online. It is one of my favourite martial arts photos. In fact, when I first saw it I was so captivated by it that there may have been some collusion and conspiracy involved in my acquiring a copy of it for myself and a few others. The photo was taken during the 1993 All Japan Yoshinkan Aikido Demonstration and it depicts Robert Mustard Sensei taking uke for the formidable Takeno Sensei. In it, the two figures are at quite a distance … Mustard looking as though he is just about to launch a fearsome attack and Takeno standing serenely, like a cobra waiting for the prey to enter the kill zone. What I love about the photo is the intensity, the sense of imminent potency, the full commitment and the composed self-reassurance. Of course, it was taken during a demonstration so Mustard was fully giving himself to his teacher, but I have no doubt that, were this on the street, only a complete fool would have even thought about breaching the distance that separated the two.
It is this — the distance — that I would like to explore here. Japanese martial arts refer to the distance between opponents as “ma-ai.” It is a fundamental strategic concept that in spite of, or perhaps because of, its apparent simplicity, should give us pause to look for deeper lessons. Shioda Gozo’s often-quoted phrase — Aiki Soku Seikatsu (合気即生活) or “Aikido and Life Are One” — tells us that as we look we are likely to find something to not only deepen our understanding of our own training, but to apply more broadly to our day-to-day existence.
At its most basic level, ma-ai refers to the physical distance between two opponents: that space or interval which separates two combatants or training partners. In Japanese martial traditions, the concept is further delineated into three classifications: “tō-no-ma” (遠の間), “tsune-no-ma” (常の間), and “chika-no-ma” (近の間).
In our Yoshinkan training, tō-no-ma (far distance) is considered a distance from which neither partner is a danger to the other. The next closest ma-ai would be tsune-no-ma. This is not to say that we have little to learn from this distance, however. We can still initiate movements and postures to invite the opponent to engage with us in certain ways — or not to engage with us at all. In this way, we can be one or two steps ahead from a strategic perspective.
In our weapons training, we try to cultivate an understanding of this distance in our practice of the jo (short staff). The effective range in kumijo is similar to tō-no-ma, and by coming to a familiarity and comfort with this distance we hope to improve our ability to use it to advantage in our empty-handed Aikido training
The term “tsune-no-ma” literally means normal or ordinary distance. This is the distance prior to actual physical engagement. From tsune-no-ma, one training partner would have to step forward to be able to physically engage the other. It is a relatively safe distance from which each partner is out of harm’s way. In Yoshinkan Aikido, this is the distance at the beginning of a technique when both partners are standing in kamae. It is roughly two metres or six feet apart — the length of one tatami mat.
Tsune-no-ma is also the distance from which we face our partners at the start of kumitachi training with bokken (wooden swords). In this position, both partners are full of potential and brimming with restrained vigilance. The application to sword training gives rise to another name for this distance: “Ittou Issoku” (一刀一足), meaning literally one sword, one step. One step is all it takes for one to cut the other.
In our practice, this kamae distance — tsune-no-ma — is the distance from which the command “Sekkin!” (接近) is given. This command literally means to move closer to the point of touching. That is to say, it is a command to move from tsune-no-ma towards, but not quite into, chika-no-ma (close distance). This distance is a kind of preparatory zone in which the intensity of the technique is heightened and the immanent physicality of the technique becomes more palpable.
Once the training partners cross into chika-no-ma they are into the heat of battle. This is the distance of contact and engagement and the physical execution of techniques. It is the distance at which our training first teaches us to become aware of and sensitive to our partner’s intent. We perceive this from their movement, from their tension and from the way they resist or struggle. Chika-no-ma is also the distance at which we develop a sense of our partner’s kuzushi — the point at which they become unbalanced. This is a critical point to understand because it is the point at which they lose their own physical and psychological strength. As such, it is the point within chika-no-ma that the initiative of the engagement changes. The opponent moves from a posture of aggression to one of neutrality or, even better, one of dependence. In other words, the opponent comes to a point of relying on us to maintain any sense of stability. Without us, they would quite literally fall to the ground.
For those who train regularly with the aid of weapons, a deeper grasp of chika-no-ma is forged through the use of the tanto (short sword or knife). When both partners use the tanto, the distance of engagement is chika-no-ma. Neither one needs to step forward in order to be dangerous to the other.
In reality, ma-ai is never static — as the partners engage with each other, it changes continuously. The formalization of tō-no-ma, tsune-no-ma and chika-no-ma in our practice is merely intended to help us gain knowledge of their existence, comfort with their repercussions and skill in their manipulation. It is this insight and skill that we hope to bring to bear in our jiyu-waza or free-style training. In my opinion, skillful jiyu-waza in Yoshinkan Aikido is the ultimate display of mastery over ma-ai. It is what makes good jiyu-waza such a pleasure to watch and it is what makes bad jiyu-waza so difficult to bear.
Of course, the above discussion is based on a purely physical interpretation of the distance between two combatants. But there are far more interesting and perhaps insightful lessons to learn when we look at ma-ai from a psychological perspective.
To begin, let’s take tsune-no-ma as a point of reference. When we talk about this distance we say that it is typically a “safe” physical distance of two metres between two opponents. It is important to note, however, that this is merely an objective observation. It is disassociated from both of the combatants as though it were made by a distant observer watching a static situation. As such, it bears all the limitations inherent in such a disconnected view. It is neither part of the story nor can it tell the whole story.
What really matters in this story are the participants and their own subjectively perceived states. While they may look safe from the outside, one participant may know that he is in trouble and the other may be fully aware that she has the advantage. One’s physical command of the situation may be overpowering and the other may “feel” as though they could easily be struck down from this distance. One may “think” that the other’s prowess and superior training might allow them to cover the distance far faster. One’s mental and spiritual presence in the moment may be overwhelming and the other may “sense” their inferiority. All this is to say that the distance — ma-ai — between two opponents is more than simply a physical measurement. It is actually a complex and dynamic subjective construct that results from the perception of the combatants in time and place. It is more truthfully a psychologically perceived state.
As such, if one partner can lead the other to believe something, they can actually manipulate the ma-ai without changing the physical nature of it. In other words, what ma-ai is for one, it may not be for the other. This idea is summarized in a famous quote from Sun Tzu in The Art of War:
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
The importance of this psychological aspect of an encounter cannot be overstated. Skilled students of the martial arts all appreciate and employ this knowledge to their advantage. In fact, if you have trained for any length of time you have likely been witness to the psychological manipulation of ma-ai in action. You may have seen a senior practitioner “make” a less experienced person move in a certain direction or in a certain way with very little apparent physical effort. You may also have witnessed a case where one of the combatants is seemingly under such pressure that they are unable to move at all — a metaphorical sitting duck.
One of the things that makes this such a high-level skill is the variability of the individual subjectivity that influences this psychological state. Simply put, what does “far” mean? What does “close” mean? For one person these ideas mean one thing and produce certain internal states and reactions. For another person, they can mean something altogether different. This is further compounded by the inclusion of the endless variations produced by the changing nature of place as well as time. While the actual coming together of two individuals can produce different perceptions and reactions depending on the place of their encounter, the dimension of time can further impact and complicate this variety. This is to say that when the same individuals come together at different times, their perceptions of distance, and their reactions to it, are also different. Since the “myself” of last night is not the “myself” of this morning, the interactions between myself and others will also differ from one timescape to the next.
The top teachers who have achieved this level of understanding have a habit of leaving the rest of us confounded time and time again. Their demonstrations serve to guide us towards understanding that successfully judging these psychological variations in your opponent can lead to advantage in the encounter. They also serve to show us that only a lifetime of training can lead to the full mastery of these subtleties of ma-ai.
In the martial arts, ideas such as those discussed above are important because every martial art integrates either an actual or an implied combative encounter. This is true, even in Aikido. While some may argue that the participants in Aikido are not actually trying to defeat each other, in the Yoshinkan one person is certainly trying to execute a technique in such a way that it would be effective against the other. As students learn and develop their insight and their ability to manipulate the physical and psychological aspects of ma-ai, they become far more effective at achieving this goal, even as they come to rely far less on the purely physical aspects of the art.
It is my own firm belief, however, that in our training we must maintain the additional goal of applying these martial concepts beyond the dojo. In this way, we better ourselves as individuals and positively impact others in the world around us. Ma-ai is a classic example of a martial insight that can easily and very successfully be applied to our daily lives since, in truth, every human interaction involves the concepts of ma-ai on some level. Whether it be physical, psychological, spiritual or emotional, all human interactions are impacted in some way by the distance between oneself and others. Our ability to realize this and to skillfully apply our understanding throughout our interactions will define each of our relationships with other people. Some people do their utmost to maintain tsune-no-ma, a safe distance which preserves the dignity of both partners and avoids messy emotional entanglements. Some use ma-ai to win at any cost. Still others use ma-ai it to find mutual benefits for everyone involved in the interaction. And others will see a grand big picture — a long game — allowing others in the interaction to gain in the face of what might presently seem like their own detriment.
Whether ma-ai is skillfully applied through psychological pressure to “close the distance” and create action or even fear in someone else, or through spiritual welcoming to draw the other person in, its use can be a powerful interpersonal tool. As martial artists, we should be aware of its fluidity, its timeliness and its potential impact. We should use it to be sensitive to the needs of others — the sensitivity we first encountered as beginners within chika-no-ma.
We should also use our understanding of ma-ai to be more self-reflective. We should be aware of the influence of ma-ai upon ourselves as we interact with the world and others within it. If we can be sensitive to ma-ai, perceive it and be open to its influence, our understanding may help us to control our own reactions to situations as they develop and impact us.
This brings to mind another famous quote. Epictetus, a Greek-born slave during the Roman Empire who lived between 50-135 AD and who deeply influenced the Stoics, stated:
“It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude towards it; you can either accept it or resent it.”
It seems to me that this was the insight that was captured and is now ever so casually on display in the photograph I wrote about earlier in this piece. In every sense, Takeno Sensei is showing his full mastery of ma-ai. With Mustard Sensei about to launch a fearsome attack, Takeno Sensei is calm, coiled and unperturbed. He is taunting Mustard, inviting him in — you can almost hear him thinking: “Irasshai!” The end result was inevitable.
Chief Instructor, Shindokan Dojo
Aikido Yoshinkai Canada