As I enter into my 18th year of training, I find myself searching for the many seemingly small components of Aikido techniques. One of these components is the use of atemi. In my opinion, atemi has become one of the lost components of Aikido. But you may ask yourself, what is atemi and is it really part of Aikido?
In order to answer this question, you must first understand what atemi means. Atemi literally means strike, but in Aikido it has a more specific meaning and usage. Atemi is used to strike at your partner’s openings, not to inflict injury, but to take your partner’s mind and affect or lead your partner’s ki. In Aikido, energy is neither lost or destroyed. It is merely transferred from one person to the other. Many times, it is the use of atemi that allows this transference of energy. And it is during this time that the nucleus of the technique is formulated into what will become the moment of victory over transgression. Saotome Sensei taught us that “every throw you do is a strike which you are choosing not to do.” In other words, in Aikido practice, atemi can be implicit rather than explicit.
“What forces an opponent to keep his energy dispersed so that you can apply a given technique is the possibility at any instant that nage can throw an atemi.” This quote was posted by Sensei George S. Ledyard during a discussion about the importance of atemi. The dispersal of energy that Saotome Sensei speaks about is the moment when you lead your partners ki, at which time his mind and body are separated from his ki. It allows you to take his ki, the moment of the transference of energy, and redirect it as you see fit. This is a much different concept than merely throwing a strike to hurt your partner or to even simply disrupt his attack. It goes beyond this idea. To disrupt his attack would mean to conflict with it. This is not Aikido. Rather, the use of atemi allows you to join him, to join his energy and to become one with him in that very moment. It is through his own aggression and ill intent that he separates himself from you, thus causing his own ruin.
Another aspect or view of atemi is that it is also used to project the energy of an attacker. This is evident in techniques that are seen as touchless throws. When the attacker strikes, the nage can enter with an atemi, and with perfect timing, gather the energy of the attacker, redirect it, and project it in several other directions. You can view videos online and see O-Sensei doing such techniques. Therefore, you should understand that atemi doesn’t always mean that there must be contact. There is a plethora of information on atemi available online. You can read many articles from students of O-Sensei on the subject of atemi. This information will give you insight into the true meaning of atemi from a physical, psychological and physiological viewpoint. The use of atemi should be an very integral part of your Aikido training. It should be practiced daily and taken seriously as a very important aspect of budo.