Facing the knife

By Gerald Lopez on April 30, 2021
Facing the knife—called tanto—for the first time is awe-inspiring. It can mean we have progressed enough in our practice to be given the responsibility, which itself is gratifying—or horrifying, depending on our relationship with knives.

We start with a wooden knife, with a matte sheen and rounded curves and edge. This is reassuring, yet it can invite us to be complacent.

An experienced instructor will remind us, “Treat a wooden knife like a real knife, then you can treat a real knife like a wooden one.”

When uke attacks, the presence of the knife is felt throughout the technique; we follow it wherever it goes. The technique takes on a new meaning, and there may be confusion and awkwardness for a while as we coordinate moving the attacker’s body, while at the same time moving the knife hand to the point where it can safely be disarmed.

It is a different experience for uke as well, perhaps initially an increased sense of power, which dissolves as nage skillfully draws them in, then perhaps uneasy uncertainty as to where the knife will end up.

A tanto can be 30 or more centimetres long, and should have an absolutely razor-sharp edge. I think that, no matter how often we have practised with a knife, when a blade is unsheathed on the mat, the senses heighten and the air becomes electric.

Alleged knife experts on the Internet claim that there is no real defence from knife attacks and that the best thing is to run. As an aikidoist, avoiding a conflict feels like an ideal solution; however not all situations are ideal. This is where all the hours of training were for—are we able to maintain a calm yet alert, resourceful state?

If we have to face a situation, maintaining safe distance—ma-ai—is essential. Keeping one point (centred), the body-mind senses the situation, and the thousands of bits of incoming data are processed at the speed of light. We don’t know what we will do until the moment of action. But I believe the body-mind always knows there are options, and responds spontaneously, if we don’t get in the way.

Remember that, in a flash, the attacker could find himself on the ground with his own knife embedded in his own throat. Or it might be his lucky day, and the aikidoist will merely pin him down and put the knife safely away.

Facing a knife on the mat, one learns the finer points of the techniques. While practising for a grading, I committed a common kotegaeshi error of trying to turn the knife hand with my forward hand, which slipped off uke’s hand and the razor-sharp blade sank into my palm. My blood started spilling all over my hakama and the mat. The instructor continued the practice until I had completed my routine. I now understand the reason for turning the knife hand with my other hand.

On my actual grading, the uke was my teacher’s assistant. I had never done knife practice with him, never mind being attacked by him. He was tall, broad, with wild woolly hair, and, on that day was dressed in immaculate white gi and hakama. He took the knife and held it behind him, hidden, and came to ma-ai position in front of me. As the technique was called out, I struggled to process the words, and had only got half-way when he leapt at me and the blade flashed into my view. I spun round, somehow my hand alighted on his wrist, and I swung my hips back again, pointing the blade tip towards his face. He reflexively turned his head away as his legs went out from under him. In about one second, I had completed a kotegaeshi. Every subsequent attack of his was as fresh, vital, sincere, fully committed, explosive, dangerous. I felt honoured to have received such awesome attacks.

A fine knife commands respect, and demands complete mind-body coordination in practice. This is why the knife and the sword have a special place in aikido. To practise with knife, wooden or steel, takes the awareness of both practitioners to new heights. It reminds us of the reality of the practice, where it comes from. A good instructor will remind their students of this reality often, and aim to encourage that heightened awareness in regular practice. This awareness is called extending ki.

Article written by Gerald Lopez

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