Often in Aikido practice we neglect the atemi or do a half hearted attempt at it merely ‘acting it out’. The views of atemi’s role in Aikido is quite varied. Some feel that atemi is not required in Aikido and proper body movement and timing is all that is needed in Aikido. Others feel that Aikido without atemi is ineffective in a real fight. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between in that atemi is indeed very important but should not be relied on exclusively much as one should not just rely on Aikido ‘techniques’ exclusively without the use of atemi (which can be also considered as Aikido techniques).
It is interesting to note that O-Sensei, the founder of Aikido has often been quoted to say
“My technique is 70 percent atemi (striking) and 30 percent nage (throwing).”
Gozo Shioda, the founder of the Yoshinkan Aikido school repeats this
“The founder, Ueshiba Sensei, said, In a real battle, atemi is seventy percent, technique is thirty percent. The training that we do in the dojo is designed to teach us various sorts of techniques, the correct way to move our body, effective ways of using our power, and how to create a relationship with the other person.”
“Atemi is virtually omitted in Aikido training on the ground that a preliminary blow should not become a matter of predominant concern. However, there are quite a few cases in which the meaning of a technique becomes incomprehensible if the attendant atemi is left out. I suggest therefore that study should be made as to when atemi should be delivered in the execution of a technique and cases of it’s omission.”
My own understanding is that we cannot be over-reliant on atemi as a ‘fix it’ for ineffective techniques but we should make every opportunity to practice it in our daily training. Often the most difficult part of Aikido is not the actual technique itself but the entry, blending and getting uke in an ideal position to carry out the technique.
When learning basics, to simplify matters, we often teach it without the atemi. Basic techniques are on their own ineffective and are merely stepping stones to understanding Aikido movement and techniques. However these basics form the very foundation of your Aikido and should not be neglected! However, once you are familiar with the basic technique, you should try to spot atemi opportunities and make it a habit to apply atemi where possible so that in a real situation it happens without thinking.
George S. Ledyard post an excellent an article on atemi here and I summarize and extract some portions below
He breaks down atemi into three different types:
A Strike as a Technique in Itself:
For example karate, boxing, and striking arts where the strike itself is the technique and causes the damage. This is contrary to Aikido principles since it usually involves serious injury to the opponent and is to be used as a means of last resort.
A Strike as a Means to Facilitate Another Technique
This is very common in Aikido practice where the atemi distracts the opponent and shifts his attention to the atemi rather than the technique in which you are performing. The atemi occupies his ‘mind’.
Some atemi is based out of pain of the strike which according to George, is unreliable to a determined attacker and I have to agree with my experience in boxing. People who are determined to get you expect to get hit a bit and will just ignore it and continue with their attack.
Another atemi merely changes the structure of uke to put you in a position to execute your technique, for example strikes to the back of the thigh to affect a resistant uke’s balance.
The “Not Striking of Striking”
This is perhaps the most interesting use of atemi.
The strike needs to be just fast enough that the attacker can not avoid or block it but is just slow enough that the attacker can respond to it by breaking his posture and taking a fall in order not to be hit. The emphasis on this type of interaction is unique to Aikido. It is actually a valid martial interaction in a type of coded form. An uke trained in the use of strikes as throws will be airborne the instant the strike is perceived.
This can give an onlooker the impression that the attacker is throwing him self. At that point he either decides what he is seeing is bogus and involves the cooperation of both partners or, if mystically inclined, he believes that he is seeing people being thrown energetically, without the need for actual physical contact or force. In fact on one level each of these points of view is true but not for the reasons they would think. The point is that here we are looking at a form of Aikido interaction which doesn’t normally exist outside of the dojo. If one tried to throw an untrained partner without touching him it would merely manifest itself as a strike which hit. The partner would not understand that the agreement exists that I run the strike in just such a way that there is just one “out”, to take the fall.
It is the timing and intention that differentiates the “Not Striking of Striking” and “Strike as a Technique itself”.