One of our ongoing R&D initiatives is to explore the design space around aikido-based techniques and training methods to respond to a knife attack (tanto-dori). Tanto-dori has been an integral, but not heavily emphasized component of Aikido since since the early days of the art. It’s not a major focus for most aikido practitioners. No martial art can excel at everything and each style (and dojo) has its areas of specialization.
In light of the technical challenge of seeking effective aikido based responses to more realistic and sophisticated knife attacks and the pervasive nature of knives in today’s society, we’ve been excited to explore this niche area in greater detail. Especially since we have the privilege of being able to learn from some of the world’s finest knife technicians.
One such individual is Jeff Imada, a martial artist master that has trained directly under Guro (Sensei) Dan Inosanto for over four decades. Jeff has trained in a wide range of martial arts, but has deep specialization in Filipino arts that have very mature knife and dual weapon wielding systems. Jeff’s attacks and offensive tactics look nothing like what we’ve all seen in traditional aikido-based knife practice.
If you don’t have time read this entire post, you must at least watch this video. You’ll see how a basic aikido-based disarm works against a skilled knife fighter. It doesn’t end well for me.
Keep in mind that Jeff Imada is a legendary martial arts master with over 45 of experience. The average knife wielder won’t move like this, but the video reveals a stunning display of what the weapon can do.
It’s too early in our research to have any kind of well-formulated aikido-based techniques or training methods to share. However, we do feel confident outlining some general principles that may provide valuable context for tanto-dori practice in the dojo and may save your life if you ever find yourself facing a real attacker with a knife.
Thoughts on Traditional Aikido Knife Defenses
Traditional aikido knife disarms are usually based on attacks that would symbolize a samurai using a tanto to penetrate an opponent’s armor. In these training forms, the attacker generally makes a single committed cut or thrust along one of three lines of attack – a shomenuchi cut, a yokomenuchi cut, or a thrust. After a single attack that conforms to one of these three lines of attack, the nage (defender) will usually move off the line and transition directly into a joint lock based disarm or throw, like kotegaeshi or gokyo.
We believe these training exercises are useful and do have value. They teach timing and entry angles and build the skill to transition smoothly into a range of techniques. These exercises also enhance our empty handed movements. However, expecting a real knife attack to conform to these attack patterns can lead to highly undesirable outcomes – whether from a skilled or unskilled opponent.
Here are four general principles to be mindful of for aikidoka seeking a deeper understanding of the nature of the short blade:
1. Escape is the Best Option
A knife is a very difficult weapon to defend against. It’s elusive and deadly. Those who have deep experience with the weapon always highlight the risk of a knife encounter and tell defenders they can expect to be cut.
It’s important to realize the controlled and engineered nature of our knife disarm practice methods. These training methods have value in the context of our overall development as aikidoka, but don’t be overconfident in your ability to get a disarm to work against an active opponent. If the option is available, running is almost always the best choice.
2. Don’t Force a Disarm
When defending against a knife, don’t focus on a disarm. Disarms are high risk and low priority. Higher priority objectives are to isolate the weapon away from your vital areas and to gain initiative over the opponent via atemi (vital point strike) and / or kuzushi (balance breaking). Disarms should be attempted only when an opportunity presents itself, in the flow of the engagement.
“Don’t chase after something that’s not there.” – Jeff Imada
3. Don’t Fixate on the Weapon
A common mistake when facing an armed opponent is fixation on the weapon. Having tunnel vision and focusing exclusively on a weapon causes one to lose sight of other threats (like a grab or strike) and to compromise their situational awareness.
At higher levels as aikidoka, we practice tachi-dori – sword disarms. From this practice, we know that fixation on the blade can cause positioning and timing errors. The issue is even more magnified with a knife because it’s a one-handed weapon. The attacker’s other arm is free to attack, defend, or pro-actively shut down your defensive responses.
While awareness of the weapon is imperative, it’s just as important to track the opponent’s entire body. This insight brought about a paradigm shift for me.
4. Expect Non-Standard Lines of Attack
If you’re only trained to defend against an overhead strike or a 45 degree angle or straight thrust, you may have problems dealing with an untrained attacker’s wild strikes or a trained attacker that has fluency with 12 or more lines of attack – some of which create very surprising attack vectors.
Our Raw Research Material
In an effort to promote knowledge exchange, we’ve decided to begin making some of our raw research material available in The Lab, a new section of Ikazuchi.TV One of the pieces of source material we’re now contributing to The Lab is a video with Jeff Imada sharing kali-based insights and principles of knife disarms.