Atemi – 当て身

The blog has been flatlining. My bad. Basically, Masters level research requires more time than I had anticipated, and I still don’t know if the reports I submitted will be marked favourably by my tutors or not. Well, I enjoyed writing them and learnt much from the exercise so that’s a good thing but the blog has been suffering in the meantime, so here I am to write a bit more, this time about the word “Atemi” which is used often in Aikido to refer to a strike.

The reason I include the kanji is to try to tease out more the nuance of the term, if indeed that is at all possible in translation. My own Japanese is very limited and though I have a friend to consult with who I consider to be practically fluent, there may be numerous errors in my translation (and I may even intentionally bastardise translation in order to make more novel interpretations of the term) so please bear with me on that count.

So “Atemi” or 当て身. The first kanji comes from “ataru” 当たる which is most commonly used “to strike”. Simple enough. But further to this, it is my understanding that this particular term can also be translated as “to be struck”. It could be argued that this is a simple alteration in context, that the meanings shift to the appropriate register as necessary, but I do not wish to follow this line of thought. Instead I would like to probe what happens in meaning when the two meanings are conflated. If 当たる is both to strike and be struck simultaneously, what interpretations of 当て身 can that lead to?

One interpretation could be that to strike is at the same time to be struck, that an intent to inflict injury is to cause the self harm. It’s not too much of a stretch to see how this might apply to the idea that Aikido philosophically is about non-conflict and non-resistance. But I feel that the rhetoric of martial arts as self-improvement rather than desire to harm is a somewhat hackneyed and ultimately uninteresting approach, given that it appears in multiplicity across many different (some would argue all) martial arts, hence I will not pursue that angle any further either.

What I am more interested in is how the idea that to strike is itself to be struck tends towards an aesthetic of equilibrium, of equivalence. If each strike produces in its very own being a return strike which cancels out the original then what is the final result of 当たる? It is not, in this case, to demonstrate the futility of striking in the first place, as that tends back towards the aforementioned rhetoric of non-conflict, but to illustrate the very corporeal sensation of striking and of making contact. The return strike I characterise not as a retaliation but as feedback, the physical feedback one receives during an impact. Those involved in contact-based martial arts should be familiar with the sensation I describe, that of the weight of one’s own strike rebounding, the weight of the struck body impacting on my striking limb. When I hit my partner, my opponent, my punching bag, the weight, shape, size, balance, centre of gravity, texture, hardness, in short, the whole physicality of that target strikes back. My target’s physicality is registered through my body as I strike it, that is how I mean to interpret “ataru” 当たる as both striking and being struck. It is through this reading that another meaning of the term can be expressed: ataru – to be in contact.

When I strike and receive physical feedback from my target which relays to me the entirety of that target’s physicality, that description only remains so long as I maintain a link with the target, so long as I can continue receiving the haptic signals from their body. This requires contact, hence 当たる is not just a moment of striking, but a moment in which a striker and a struck body are connected, are put into contact, at which point it is irrelevant who struck whom. Each body receives a physical, haptic feedback from the other and in the sense of striking each other, become both striker and struck at the same time. The two are brought to an equivalence, they are put in contact with one another.

This may sound especially resonant to those familiar with the vast swathe of Aikido talk out there. Indeed, “contact” is a very common term in Aikido, but the nuance I am trying to bring to it here is that it is not simply a matter of physical touch, but a state in which the two bodies in contact are open and responsive to one another, a state in which the two bodies are able to be receptive to each others’ balance, movement, tension, position, etc. It is a state which Endo Seishiro might describe as “atari” 当たり, which here I choose to interpret in the sense in which it is used in fishing: a successful bite. That is, the bodies are connected inseparably like a fish on a line. There is a tension, a balance of forces between the two which must be constant and responsive like the craft of a fisherman reeling in his catch. In short, there must be “Aiki”, a non-resistive play of forces which together make up 当たる as contact.

But this is only half of the equation. The second part of “Atemi” 当て身, “mi” 身 we have not yet looked at. 身 is simply translated as “body”. In that sense “Atemi” becomes “a strike on the body” or “contact with the body”. This is quite a fruitful interpretation given that it is in line with our reading of “ataru”. In addition, this way of characterising the term also includes the idea of “Atemi” as a potentially lethal strike, such that if the term were used imaginatively to refer to an armoured foe, a strike directly on their unprotected flesh would qualify as one of precise, focused, violent intent. However, I consider this reading a somewhat bastardised one, which is not to say that it is invalid, but only that it somewhat skirts a nuance of 身 as I understand it.

Here I must credit my Japanese-speaking friend who informs me that the nuance of 身 is such that it refers not so much necessarily to a physical body as “the self”. Once again pursuing the reading strategy of conflating the two meanings, I thus understand 身 as the fully embodied “self”, the entirety of a corporeal identity.

I find that this nuance much better suits the interpretation of “Atemi” I am gesturing towards. For “Atemi” to my mind should be a strike which contains damaging and sometimes lethal potential but most importantly should affect the entirety of your partner’s body and intent, either through pain or reflexive response to the strike itself. This kind of strike serves as an opening motion to creating contact, which is the most important point to be developed and the very heart of Atemi.

So anyway, that’s one of my ways of interpreting Atemi and one which I find most useful in applying strikes of that sort. Please forgive me the bastard translation, though one could argue that there is no translation which is not in some form bastardisation, that’s another discussion entirely.

Thanks for reading!

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