Japan – Language, Etiquette, and Culture in Aikido

This is the tenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

J is for Japan.

Aikido originated in Japan. Japanese tradition, language, and culture influences everything about the art – the names of techniques, the design of the dojo, the way we address each other, etiquette and attire, even the relationships between junior and senior students, and our teachers.

Japanese Words in Aikido.

At the dojo you will hear a lot of Japanese words used – for the names of techniques, weapons, and parts of the dojo. We also use a few traditional Japanese words when addressing each other. You do not need to speak Japanese to train in Aikido, and you’ll find you can pick up the words we do use pretty quickly.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Domo arigato gozaimashita, Sensei.”
[DOH-moh ar-ee-GAT-oh go-za-ee-MAHSH-ta, SEN-say]
“Thank you very much (for what you’ve just done), Teacher.”
We say this when we bow out at the end of each class.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I have written a handful of posts introducing some common Japanese Words in Aikido, with more topics planned.

The Aikido FAQ offers a very complete Aikido Dictionary.

Here is a lovely article on some interesting words that give us insight into the Japanese Culture:
11 Beautiful Japanese Words That Don’t Exist In English
Untranslatable words from Japan, the polite and nature-loving country

Mind your manners.

In Japanese martial arts, rei-gi [RAY-ghee], or etiquette, is an important component of the practice. You will find most dojo observe somewhat different standards of behavior than you’d normally see in the outside world.

Some customary manners in the dojo come from budo [BOO-doh], or martial tradition. Dropping down to sit on the floor in seiza [SAY-zuh], on our knees, is done left-knee first, and rising is done right-knee first. These conventions, similar to mounting a horse from the left side, were necessary when wearing a sword on the left hip. We can’t draw our sword easily (or safely) if we have our left knee up, blocking it.

Other rules are passed down through common Japanese culture. These include taking our shoes off when we enter the dojo, or being careful not to sit with our feet sticking out in front of us. We bow when we enter the dojo, at the beginning and ending of class, and before and after we train with our partners.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Etiquette and courtesy are things we should be giving to everyone, those above us and those below us. The most senior, accomplished and masterful martial artists I have encountered are also the most courteous, patient, polite, respectful and forgiving. They have learned and internalized the lessons present in the forms of etiquette and politeness that we use during practice. When they bow, it is not an empty gesture because that is what is expected from them. It is a meaningful symbol of what they think and feel.”
~ Peter Boylan, The Budo Bum
Budo Begins and Ends with Rei

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On the surface, these may seem like just prescribed actions – things we do because we’re expected to. But on a deeper level they indicate thoughtful, deliberate respect and commitment. In some cases, such as bowing, the action gives us a moment to settle and consider what we are about to do. For instance, bowing on entering the dojo not only demonstrates respect for the place and the community, but also indicates that we are entering a space, physically and mentally, separate from our day-to-day life outside.

Each dojo will observe traditional etiquette more or less strictly. When you begin training, watch the senior students to see what they do. Sometimes, someone will tell you directly what you should do, and sometimes you will be expected to catch on eventually by observing others.

Here is an excellent post on the broader meanings of etiquette in Japanese martial arts and culture, Budo Begins And Ends With Rei, by Peter Boylan, The Budo Bum.

Here’s a great, and humorous, overview of etiquette in Japan, with links to additional information:
Japanese Etiquette 101 – How to Save Yourself from Embarrassment in Japan

It’s a Japanese Thing.

Some things are quite different from what Westerners are used to. Japanese culture is more focused on the group than the individual. Direct confrontation is avoided. Communication can be subtle, especially when there is disagreement.

Here in Southern California, we generally tend to be rather egalitarian. Everyone addresses everyone else by first name. People wear casual clothing almost anywhere. Social status can be subtle, and people aren’t automatically afforded more respect – actual or demonstrated – just because of wealth or seniority. We’re pretty relaxed. But in the dojo, things are a bit more formal. We are less rigid than some dojo, but even so, hierarchy is something people are conscious of. We address our teacher as “Sensei,” never “Hey Dave!” We defer to students of higher rank, and would not dream of questioning or correcting them outright, especially in front of others. However, like in Japanese culture, all people are respected, and not judged to be greater or lesser just because of position.

Other cultural aspects carry over as well. Classes begin and end on time. We all help maintain the dojo – it’s not something we leave for “someone else” to take care of. When in doubt, err on the side of being too formal. Sincere demonstrations of respect go a long way.

This site gives a set of good, basic Guidelines for Viewing Classes at a Traditional Dojo (scroll about halfway down the page):

This funny and interesting article covers some points you might notice about Japanese culture:
24 quirky cultural tidbits about Japan from this Westerner’s perspective, by Benny Lewis

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

How To Learn to Count Out Loud to 31 in Japanese, Under Pressure, and with Distractions

When I tested for 2nd kyu, almost a year ago now I was required to demonstrate the 31 jo kata. The 31 jo kata is a flowing series of 31 techniques with the jo, a wooden weapon that looks essentially like a rake handle. There are strikes, thrusts, blocks, and parries. The kata is sort of a pantomime of one side of a hypothetical fight against someone else similarly equipped with a jo. It’s a fairly long and complex weapons exercise. The idea of the exercise, which was created by Morihiro Saito Sensei, is to demonstrate proper form and energy throughout (that is, crisp technique, good posture, and relaxed-but-focused movement and breathing). To be successful we have to understand how to do each movement well, and also memorize the order of the whole thing.

As part of training for that I had to learn to count to 31 in Japanese. We count the numbers of the techniques out loud, in front of everyone, as we do each movement of the kata. For others who will be testing for 2nd kyu, I will share here how I learned to do the counting.

It’s easy to find information on numbers in Japanese. The sounds of the words are easy to make, and the rules for combining the numbers above 10 are very straightforward. It’s not even a little bit confusing to understand it. Anyone can look up “how to count in Japanese,” and have that information in seconds.

But you may have noticed that I didn’t call this “How to Count to 31 in Japanese.” Instead, I called it “How to Learn to Count Out Loud to 31 in Japanese, Under Pressure, and with Distractions.” There’s a bit of a leap between “OK, I looked it up, and I understand how this counting thing works,” and actually being able to do the counting, out loud, in front of people, while performing the 31 jo kata. It’s a different thing altogether. There’s a rhythm to the techniques, and you have to say the words on time. Everyone is watching. Pressure? Distraction? Heck yeah! In the spirit of “train like you fight, and fight like you train,” I came up with a way to learn to do the counting that simulated that pressure, in a distracting environment.

Before we can do that real-life counting practice, though, we still need the basic info – the “How to Count” part. So let’s start there. If you are already confident that you know how to count, you just don’t feel comfortable doing it out loud under pressure, jumped down to the next section, “Now, Out Loud, Under Pressure, with Distractions.”

Begin with Counting to 10

In Japanese, just like English, there are words for the numbers one through ten. To get through the teens, twenties, and thirties, we add a prefix of sorts. So it’s very similar to saying “twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five” in English, but even easier because there are no weird exceptions, like “eleven, twelve, thirteen.”

Here are the counting words for one through ten (spelling varies, and you can ask your dojo mates to help you with pronunciation):

1 — ichi — [ee-chee]

2 — ni — [nee]

3  san — [sahn]

4  shi — [shee] (note that yon is not used for counting)

5 — go — [goh]

6  roku — [roh-koo]

7  shichi — [shee-chee]

8   hachi — [hah-chee]

9 — kyu — [kyoo]

10 — ju — [joo]

Since we will use these words for the first ten numbers over and over,, they are the ones we really need to have down cold. Memorizing them is the first step.

Begin by reading them out loud several times, in order, to get familiar with the sound of them:

Ichi, ni, san, chi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju. Again…

Next, try to do a couple at a time from memory. So, look at a pair first, and then look away and say them both:

Ichi, ni.
San, chi.
Go, roku.
Shichi, hachi.
Kyu, ju.

Now try bigger chunks:

Ichi, ni, san, chi.
Go, roku, shichi, hachi.
Kyu ju.

The sounds should start to feel familiar, like hearing a familiar song in another language, even if you don’t understand all the words.

See if you can do all ten from memory. If you can’t yet, that’s OK, just back off and do smaller chunks again.

Ichi, ni, san, chi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju.

Keep working on that until you can say all ten. Take your time. Keep practicing until you can reliably count to ten from memory. We’ll wait here.

Got it? Great!

Counting Through the Teens and 20s

So far, so good. What you are probably experiencing now is that you can say all ten words, in order, but maybe you have some pauses where you have to stop and think about what’s next, or if you get distracted you might get lost and have to start over. That’s OK for now. You are in the right place to begin working on counting out loud, smoothly, under pressure, with distractions.

If you don’t really have the first ten numbers down yet, go back and work on that a little more. You will use the same 10 numbers three times through, the first time, counting to 10, then through the teens, and again through the 20s. So you want to have them clearly in your mind. Don’t worry about being fast or fluid yet.

We will be going out for a walk, with no notes, so you have to have this in your head first. (Well, you could take along a cheat sheet, but the idea is to be doing it without looking, as quickly as possible.)

Lucky for us, counting in Japanese is really simple and repetitive. To get the words for eleven through nineteen, we start with “ju” (ten), and add the same numbers above, like this:

11 — ju-ichi — [joo-eech] — ten-one

12  ju-ni — [joo-nee ten-two

13  ju-san — [joo-sahn ten-three

14  ju-shi — [joo-shee ten-four

15  ju-go — [joo-goh ten-five

16  ju-roku — [joo-roh-koo ten-six

17  ju-shichi — [joo-shee-chee ten-seven

18  ju-hachi — [joo-hah-chee ten-eight

19  ju-kyu — [joo-kyoo ten-nine

Twenty through 29 follows the same pattern. For twenty we start with “ni-ju” (two-ten), like this:

20  ni-ju — [nee-joo two-ten

21  ni-ju-ichi — [nee-joo-eech two-ten-one

22  ni-ju-ni — [nee-joo-nee two-ten-two

23  ni-ju-san — [nee-joo-sahn two-ten-three

24  ni-ju-shi — [nee-joo-shee two-ten-four 

25  ni-ju-go — [nee-joo-goh two-ten-five

26  ni-ju-roku — [nee-joo-roh-koo two-ten-six

27  ni-ju-shichi — [nee-joo-shee-chee two-ten-seven

28  ni-ju-hachi — [nee-joo-hah-chee two-ten-eight

29  ni-ju-kyu — [nee-joo-kyoo two-ten-nine

And finally, we need to get to 31 (you’re on your own if you want to continue after that):

30  san-ju — [sahn-joo three-ten

31  san-ju-ichi — [sahn-joo-eech three-ten-one

So, now you have the words. Ready? Go! Oh wait, now we have to do the whole “learning how to count out loud, under pressure, with distractions" thing.

Now, Out Loud, Under Pressure, with Distractions

If we practice counting at a relaxed, random pace, in the comfort of our own homes, we might be unpleasantly surprised when our accounting skills fall apart on our exam. With this exercise we will simulate the real-life atmosphere of an exam situation, but starting in a very slow and easy way. Just like learning to play a musical instrument, we need to start with a rhythm slow enough that we can be successful. As we become more skillful, we can increase the rhythm a little at a time. We could use a metronome, like musicians do, but I have found it easier, more fun, and more relevant to the testing situation to use the body as a metronome. And how will we do that?

Let’s go for a walk.

If you have a place already that you are comfortable walking, great. If it someplace you walk regularly every day, like walking to and from the bus, even better. Distractions are a good thing — we don’t want this to be too easy — but don’t let your practice distract you from being safe. Remember to keep an eye on your surroundings, look out for traffic, and so on.

Set out at a comfortable and steady pace. Notice the rhythm of your walk — step, step, step, step — right, left, right, left — one, two, three, four. That’s a good four beat rhythm for us to start with. Began counting, saying each number on the first of the four beats: “Ichi (step, step, step). Ni (step, step, step). San (step, step, step)…” if you are musically inclined, you can think of this as “Ichi-2-3-4, Ni-2-3-4, San-2-3-4…”

Try counting to 10 at that pace several times. Once you are comfortable doing that, try continuing through the teens and 20s, and on to 31. You are bound to get stuck here and there, or find that there are a few places that are problems for you. If you find you are running into trouble in the same place over and over, start from two or three numbers before that, and just practice those few numbers until you feel more comfortable. Then go back and see if you can do all 31, keeping with the same slow pace, every fourth footstep.

Without tripping or running into mailboxes or other people, try to continue your counting even when there are distractions. There will surely be distractions during your exam, so you want to get comfortable dealing with them now.

Once you are able to count fairly reliably at that pace, without rushing, or making too many mistakes, try counting every three footsteps: “Ichi (step, step). Ni (step, step). San (step, step)…” If this is too difficult to do smoothly, go back to every four footsteps for a while. As with our Aikido techniques, we don’t want to rush. If we practice being hurried and sloppy, we will get good at being hurried and sloppy. Instead, we’d like to be good at being relaxed and smooth, so that’s what we need to practice.

Don’t increase the pace too quickly. This took me many days of walking during my lunch hours. Only go faster in your feeling very confident, even a little bored, at the slower pace.

If you are doing well counting in threes now, you can try twos — saying the number on every other stepI — either every right foot, or every left foot. That’s getting pretty quick now. You can begin to imagine how you would count like this as you are doing the 31 jo kata.

When you are ready, try counting on every footstep. Realize that this is twice as fast as the previous step, so it’s quite a leap. You can always go back to every other step if this is too quick for you at this point.

When you can count to 31 reliably, on the beat, with every footstep, walking around outdoors in a distracting environment, you will probably find it easy to count as you do the 31-count exercise you have been practicing. Congratulations, and I hope you do great on your exam!

More Counting Exercises

Here are a couple of other things you can try, which can make it easier to remember the Japanese numbers:

  • It can be easy to get in a rut of counting, almost as if the counting words were lyrics to a song in another language. We can recite them based on their sounds, but don’t really have a clear understanding of what they mean. To get more familiar with the Japanese numbers, try the same exercise as above, but count only by the even numbers. And then try accounting by the odd numbers. If you’re feeling really brave, try counting backward.
  • When you are learning the numbers 1 through 10, get in the habit of identifying any single digit you see by saying the number in Japanese. At the beginning, don’t worry about saying the actual value, just recite each of the digits. For instance, if you see the number 739, you could say “seven three nine” in Japanese: “shichi san kyu.” Realize, of course, that this is not the same as saying “seven-hundred-thirty-nine.” You are just identifying each digit. This exercise turns ATM receipts, grocery store shelves, and road signs into flashcards, so you can practice everywhere you go.

Searu. Clarity.

I came upon this footnote yesterday, about the Japanese word “saeru”:

“*note: saeru is clarity, and Harry Watson notes that the word has strong poetic force, and says the best way to think of it is in relation to the clarity of the moon on a cold autumn night.”

The specificity of meaning really struck me. What a beautiful image. “Clarity” alone is OK, but each of us might make up in our mind’s eye something different that it means for us. I might envision a turquoise beach in a cove, where I can see all the way down to the white sand beneath the lapping waves. You might see a perfect crystal bowl, with sparkling facets splitting the sunlight into rainbows on the dining room walls.

Saeru: The clarity of the moon on a cold autumn night.

It’s easy to picture the outlines of trees against the sky, and sharp shadows on the colorless ground. We can feel the chill in the still air, which smells vaguely of damp earth. Searu. Clarity.

In class we are sometimes given an element to explore. Sensei will call out a word: Earth, fire, water, wind, smoke, life, steam… We try to manifest the feeling of the word in our Aikido. It helps us access new energies within ourselves that we may not have realized we possessed, or maybe have been afraid to show. A heavy, deliberate person might find a new lightness through being smoke for a few minutes. One who is quick and forceful might discover that they can flow and relax when embodying the character of water.

The meaning of each word is intentionally left open to interpretation. Water can smash to splinters boats left resting at their docks, tumble cheerfully with a invigorating whoosh over rocks in a riverbed, or trickle gently into a pool in a desert canyon, and it can change from one moment to the next. It’s left to each of us to discover water for ourselves.

Other times, we choose our own qualities to work on: Grounded, direct, decisive, compassionate, loving, fluid, patient, passionate, honest, whole, committed, light, joyful, playful, solid, free…

For me, it helps to have a specific, vivid image in mind. When I first started training I really had trouble being compassionate in the way Sensei referred to as “ruthless compassion.” I was unfamiliar and uncomfortable being powerful, clear, and direct. It felt mean-spirited and intrusive. Not nice. Brutal. Rude. It was difficult for me to access ruthless compassion. But then I found an image that really worked for me: A veterinary assistant. Picture a caring, kind, decent person safely but decisively restraining an animal that needs help. Not mean or brutal at all, but clear and direct. Loving, even. And the animal usually feels safer and calmer when handled that way. With that image I was finally able to start exploring the idea of “You, on the ground now, and stay there,” without feeling like a jerk about it.

That’s why I love that definition of “saeru”. It conveys enough information that I can see and feel it. When I’ve worked with qualities in my Aikido practice I’ve usually had some vague image in mind, but the words alone elicit nothing in particular. I haven’t been really conscious of the importance of getting a specific picture, but I think it would be helpful for me to do that.

I’ll play with this idea more as I train. Not just “fluid”, but fluid like smoke dancing upward from from a stick of incense in still air. Joyful as a Golden Retriever racing after her tennis ball again and again. Grounded like an ancient Oak tree rooted between huge granite boulders. Vivid, specific, and clear.


The quote at the beginning of the post was from a website shared on Facebook by Keith Larman, a professional sword polisher: http://www.nihonto.ca/go-yoshihiro/

Keith commented, when I mentioned liking the quote (which was only tangentially related to what Keith had been sharing about in the first place), “Yeah, Harry has it right on this one. Saeru carries some powerful meaning in this context. And Harry “Afu” Watson is the guy who translated a massive set of works on antique swords (the Nihonto Koza) years ago. A wonderful old Marine who has made life so much easier for those of us whose Japanese ain’t that great… :)”

Weapons Words – The Big Picture

Weapons work shares many words with open-hand training, but weapons also have a lot of words of their own. There are a bunch of numbered things, too, and those can be really confusing until you have a sort of framework for understanding them.

So here are some words about weapons stuff, starting with the basics. There will be another couple of posts going into jo words and bokken words. Often you’ll hear technique names with the numbers in Japanese. That will be another post, too.

I’m just going to cover the wooden weapons we use in regular training here. Maybe we’ll look at katana, shinai, iato, shinken, and other weapons words later.

The Sticks

Jo – The longer straight one that looks like a rake handle.

Bokken – The somewhat shorter one with a little curve to it, like a sword. Also sometimes referred to as just ken. You’ll also hear tachi in the names of bokken or sword exercises.

Tanto – The little one, about the size of a hunting knife.

The Kinds of Things We Do with Sticks

One of the most confusing things for me, when I was first trying to figure this stuff out, was sorting out the kinds of things we were doing. Not the specific instances, but the groupings. One exercise would be a suburi, another would be a kata, sometimes we practiced awase… I couldn’t figure out what was what.  It’s hard even to describe. Let’s just get right to it.

Suburi are discrete techniques, or very small groups of techniques, that you do by yourself. They are the very first things you learn.

They are like learning words or phrases in a language. You’ll put them together later to form more complex expressions and conversations.

You will see the suburi referred to in numbered groupings, like the “20 jo suburi” or “ken suburi 1-7” For some reason the jo suburi have names, and the bokken suburi are numbered. We’ll get into those in detail in a couple of other posts. 

Kata are sets of techniques, still done alone, strung together in a prescribed way, each flowing into the next.

If we stick with the “suburi are like words” concept, kata are like poems. You memorize them and recite them. Like reciting poetry, everyone will have their own subtle ways of expressing kata, but we don’t change the words.

You’ll hear numbers when talking about kata, too. The “31 jo kata” is everywhere – it’s a string of 31 movements. You’ll also see the 13 jo kata, which has 13 movements. No reason you couldn’t make up your own, either, but mostly we practice the set ones handed down to us. There are bokken kata, too.

This is where the numbered stuff starts to get weird. The jo kata are made up of the number of techniques in the name: 13 jo kata, 31 jo kata, etc. But the bokken kata are numbered: bokken kata 1, bokken kata 2, etc.

But back to the kinds of things we do…

Awase are prescribed sets of techniques that you do with a partner. One partner in an awase does a familiar suburi or kata, and the other partner does the appropriate techniques that complement it. These are basic exercises to learn timing and distance when working in relation to another. The suburi you have been learning will begin to make more sense in the context of practicing awase.

If suburi are words and phrases, and kata are poems, then awase are very simple conversations, the kind you learn when studying a new language. “Good morning.” “Good morning.” “Where is the library?” “Is there there, on the left.” “Thank you.” “You are welcome.” Very simple, perhaps a bit formal, and not quite how a real conversation might go, but a necessary step in becoming fluent. 

The two simplest are left awase, and right awase. Then there’s a little more number weirdness… You’ll hear the “5th awase” and “7th awase” mentioned. These are just partner practices incorporating the 5th and 7th suburi. (There are no 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 6th awase.)

Kumitachi and Kumijo are partner practices that more closely simulate an actual fight, using the bokken and jo, respectively.

The distinction between awase and kumitachi/kumijo seems fuzzy to me. There is a partner practice based on the 31 jo kata, for instance, that I see referred to both as the 31 jo awase and 31 kumijo.

A Last Comment on Numbers You’ll Hear

The numbers for suburi have nothing to do with the numbers in the names of kata.

When you see “20 jo suburi” or “ken suburi 1 through 7” those are just describing which ones we’re talking about. If you have to do the “bokken suburi 1-5” on a test that’s just the first five descrete bokken techniques. Saito Sensei created a set of 20 jo suburi for us to practice. They are 20 separate exercises.

The 31 jo kata, on the other hand, is a single flowing exercise incorporating 31 movements. Note that the 20 jo suburi are not the 1st 20 movements of the 31 jo kata. They are completely separate things.

Some Examples

If, like me, you need to see stuff to understand it, here are some of my favorite examples to get you started. Each link here will open a YouTube video in a new tab or window. Remember that each dojo will do things a little differently.

Lewis Bernaldo de Quiros of Takemusu Aikido Kyokai Nederland:

Jo suburi 1 through 20ken suburi 1, 2, and 3, and ken suburi 4, 5, 6, and 7 (solo)

The 6 jo kata13 jo kata, and 31 jo kata (solo)

Miles Kessler Sensei:

5th ken awase and 7th ken awase (paired, from 5th and 7th ken suburi)

31 jo kata (solo) and 31 kumi jo (paired)

Morihiro Saito Sensei:

31 jo kata (solo) and 31 kumi jo (paired)

6th Kyu Words

This post is meant to help beginning students listen for, and understand, the technique names we hear in class (especially those on our 6th Kyu exam), and to give those names a little context. “Katate-dori shihonage omote” can sound a little overwhelming if you don’t know how to break it down! 

[First, a reminder: Here is an introduction to my Words posts, if you haven’t read it yet.]

Please don’t rely on anything in this post as information about what’s on the test, or about how to do anything. You can find our actual test requirements in the Aikido of San Diego Dojo Handbook. If you train at another dojo, a lot of this may be helpful, but your test will likely not include the same set of techniques, and some dojo have other names for these things. So use this as a starting point for learning to listen for the words used in your own dojo.

At this point I’m going to keep it simple and stick to only what I hear them called in daily training. You will see various spellings and ways of writing these words. I’m using hyphens here to make the parts of the words more obvious (like mune-tsuki), but you will often everything run together (munetsuki).

OK, let’s get started…

Words for Attacks

There are really only three things we do most of the time; we grab, we strike, and we punch. So we have only three core words to deal with. Each one has some additional words we use for specific cases, but basically there are three words for attacks: dori, uchi, and tsuki



A grab. We grab lots of things in lots of ways. Straight and cross-hand, grabbing one or both wrists, grabbing with one or both hands, and grabbing from the front, or behind Nage’s back.

Luckily there is only one grab name you need to know for your test, the straight-across (not cross-hand) wrist grab, katate-dori. We’ll do more grab words in another post!



A strike. We have two common kinds of strikes: shomen-uchi, and yokomen-uchi

Shomen-uchi [SHOW-men OO-chee] is a straight strike to the center of the head, at the forehead. Yokomen-uchi  [yoh-KOH-men OO-chee] is an angled strike to the side of the head, at the temple or neck. Men means head, sho is center, and yoko means side. In open-hand techniques these strikes are done with the blade edge of the hand. You can also do shomen-uchi and yokomen-uchi with the bokken and jo.

Shomen means the center of the head. You will also hear it in the context of “the shomen,” which is the place at the front-center of the dojo where the picture of O-Sensei is. 


[tSKEE or SKEE In a complete technique names you will often hear the initial “t” from this word as though it were the last letter of the word preceding it.]

A thrust or punch. Not something you have to know for the 6th kyu exam, but you’ll hear it in class. The punch we do most in class is mune-tsuki [moo-NET-skee], a punch to about the solar plexus, where the ribs and belly meet. Lots of other kinds of punches to leave for later.  

A Couple of Ways of Doing Techniques: Front, and Rear

Most techniques have several variations. Some have inside and outside versions. At least one I can think of has four directions (more on that later). Many have a front or rear version. Front is omote, and rear is ura. These are easy to remember because omote/front are longer words, and both have a “t” in them, and ura/rear are shorter, and both have an “r” in them.



Front. Notice when your partner is standing in hanmi (the basic stance in Aikido) that even though they are facing you their hips and body are oriented more to one side. That’s their front, or omote side. When you do the omote version of a technique you begin by entering to the front side of your partner (more or less).



Rear. Their backside. The side with the shoulder blades, hindquarters, heels, etc. When you do the ura version of a technique you begin by entering to the rear side of your partner (more or less).

On the 6th kyu test there are two techniques (ikkyo and shihonage) where you will be demonstrating both the omote and ura versions.

Speaking of Ikkyo…

Technique names ending in …kyo [kyoh] are pinning techniques. You’ll hear these names on the mat: ikkyonikkyosankyoyonkyo, and gokyo. They are all pinning techniques. If you take off the …kyo part, you end up with roughly counting to 5 in Japanese: ichi, ni, san, yon,* go. (Four is also sometimes “shi.” We’ll get to that.) So they are pinning techniques one through five. Simple, huh? You’ll see the same counting pattern later, in weapons techniques.

The only one on the 6th kyu test is ikkyo (both the omote and ura versions).

Speaking of Shi…

Remember that four is sometimes yon, and sometimes shi. The 6th kyu test includes the technique called shihonage (both the omote and ura versions). Shiho means four-direction and nage means throw.  

So, Getting Back to "Katate-dori shihonage omote"

The complete names we use on the mat carry a lot of information, but they really are simple. The patterns is attack (where & how) > technique (description & type) > variation. So katate-dori is the attack, shihonage is the technique, and omote is the variation. Cool, right?

Breaking it down further, we know that dori is one of the three kinds of attacks: a grab. Katate is straight-across to one wrist. So the attack, katate-dori is a one-handed, straight-across grab to the wrist. Awesome. Next?

Shihonage, we know is a throw (nage), and we just learned shiho means four directions. So it’s a four-direction throw (we’ll leave the details of all the directions for another time!). But at least we know it’s a throwing technique. And…

The variation is omote, or front. So the entry for this technique goes to the front of our partner. 

Let’s try another one: Shomen-uchi ikkyo ura. Here, you figure it out:

How will your partner attack? Will it be a grab (dori), strike (uchi), or punch (tsuki)?

And where will the attack be directed? At the shomen, right? Remember what that is? By now you should be able to say “my partner is going to attack by _____ing me in the ____.”

So, what kind of technique is this? Ikkyo, sure. So it’s a kind of technique that involves what? It’s not a throw (that would be -nage)… It’s a _____ing technique. And a hint: There are five of them. Which one is this? #_____.

And don’t forget the variation: Ura. So your entry to the technique will be in what direction? “I’ll start by entering to the ______ of my partner.”

Got it?

OK, here’s the whole answer: Shomen-uchi is an attack the front-center of the head. Ikkyo is the first pinning technique. The entry is to the rear of your partner.

Try this with more technique names you hear in class! 

A Few More Words to Know



Ukemi is what you do when you are Uke [OO-kay]. (The other person is Nage [NAH-gay]. Ukemi includes providing the attack your partner needs so they can practice a technique, and then safely receiving the throw, pin, or whatever they do in response to your attack. The ukemi skills on the 6th kyu exam are forward and backward rolls.



Technique. You will hear this in a lot more contexts, but in day-to-day training we mostly use it for freestyle, or free technique, called jiyu-waza [GEE-yoo WAH-zuh], and for techniques done from the kneeling position (seiza [SAY-zuh]), called suwari-waza [su-WAR-ee WAH-zuh].

tenkan / irimi

[TEN-kahn / ee-REE-mee]

These are the entering and turning movements we do at the beginning of most classes, and they are part of most techniques. Here are some tricks for remembering the words: Tenkan (with a “t”) involves turning (with a “t”). Irimi, at least to me, sounds like “excuse me,” and looks like what you would do if you were sliding past someone in a row of theater seats or a narrow hallway.

kokyu dosa

This is the seated (in seiza) exercise we do at the end of many classes, where your partner grabs your wrists (usually, but not always, both wrists), and you tip them sideways. Kokyu, to the best of my understanding, refers to breath or breathing, and dosa is an exercise (as opposed to a technique). 

tai no henko

I’m afraid I’m no help at all on this one, and I forget the words every time I try to describe this. It’s the blending exercise we often do at the start of class, where your partner grabs one wrist (katate-dori again!), and you enter and blend with their energy by stepping and turning (tenkan) alongside them. If you think of a good way to remember the name of this, let me know!

Whew! That seems like a lot for what looks like a very short test, but because it’s all new there’s a lot to learn. I hope this helps you notice and understand these words when you hear them in class.

As always, you can always go back and read all of my Aikido Words posts any time you like (the list will continue to grow).

Words: Huh? What’s Everyone Saying?

[An introduction to my Words posts, if you haven’t read it yet.]

Everyone’s first few days (weeks? months?) of training can be disorienting and overwhelming. You need to learn how to dress yourself, how to sit, how to stand… Acck! You also hear a lot of new words – Japanese terms and phrases. When I was hearing them for the first few times I couldn’t even make sense of them enough to remember them so I could look them up later.

Here’s a huge tip: Almost every dojo, including ours, has a list of common terms in the dojo handbook! Be sure to look there – it’s very handy. Ours can be downloaded as a PDF from the Membership page of the Aikido of San Diego website.

For my first Words post, here are some you will hear in every class. They are mostly the same from dojo to dojo. You’ll be saying them often, too. Here goes:


[OWN-ah-GAH-ee-shee-mahs  Note that the “u” at the end is silent. A good way to remember it is that it sounds a little like “Oh my gosh, a mouse!” To help with spelling, remember that it starts with “one”.]

You will hear and say this at the beginning of class, when Sensei and the class all bow to each other, and when you approach another student to ask them to train with you (you both say it). I’ve heard several interpretations of it. Whatever the exact translation, in practice it is a polite request which functions as “would you please train with me?" 

Domo arigato gozaimashita

[DOE-moe ahr-ee-GAH-toh GO-zah-ee-MASH-ta  When I have heard native speakers say it, it sounds like there is a comma after domo, like this: "Domo, arigato gozaimashita.”]  

Everyone says this when Sensei and the class bow to each other at the end of class. It means “thank you very much for what you just did.”

Arigato means thank you.

Domo is an polite, formal intensifier, like adding “very much” in English, except it comes first (like muchos grácias in Spanish).

Sometimes, informally, you will hear people just say “Domo” by itself. In that context it’s used like “thanks.”

Gozaimashita places the thanking in time, relative to the action. Roughly it’s used like, “for something you’ve already done.” Here you are thanking someone for having just trained with you.

You may have also heard “gozaimasu” [go-ZAH-ee-mahs, silent “u”]. That’s used when thanking someone for something they haven’t done yet. Like “Would you pick up some milk at the store? Thanks!” It’s also used for something that was just done, sometimes, so you will hear people saying it at the end of class, too. 

A Few Words

Several people have asked me recently about some of the words we use at the dojo. I’ve sent them some info privately, but what the heck, I might as well share with everyone. 

It drives me nuts to not understand what’s being said. Even worse, to use words I don’t understand, repeating them by rote. So I’ve tried my best to make sense of the terminology around Aikido. In most cases the explanations I give will simply be my own understanding of the meanings, tricks I use for remembering them, etc.

Some of the things I intend to cover include

  • Numbers and counting-related words
  • Attack and technique-related words
  • Names of things
  • Weapons technique names
  • Commonly-heard Japanese greetings and phrases

These posts will be as accurate as I can make them, but will all be informally based on my own very limited understanding. I will try to give some indication of how sure I am of what I’m saying, and if I’m just plain wrong please tell me so (and if appropriate I’ll go back and correct things). Any pronunciation tips I give will only be for how I’ve heard them spoken in the context of training, not The Correct Japanese Pronunciation. In no case should anything in these posts be considered authoritative. I do hope it will be helpful, though!

When I know of solid sources of information I will point those out. There are a few very good books, websites, and podcasts, both for learning Aikido-specific terminology, and for learning to speak Japanese.

I will tag each of these posts Words so you can click that tag after each post to see more posts about words. You can also go directly to a page here that will catalog all my posts about Aikido terminology.