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Jiyu Waza, Randori, and the Space Between

Jiyu Waza, Randori, and the Space Between

The terms jiyu waza and randori have different meanings for different groups, even when they practice the same martial art. In this article, I present a way to conceptualize them for aikido practice in relation to one another by contrasting their most salient features.

The ideas presented here are drawn from the teachings of great instructors. I have compiled and combined in this post what I understand at this early point of my practice. I am grateful to Robert Zimmermann Shihan, Claude Berthiaume Shihan, Robert Saad Shihan, David Halprin Shihan, David Farrell Shihan, and Don Dickie Shidoin for their teachings on randori and jiyu waza. Please bear in mind as you read this that any misunderstanding, any muddiness or fuzziness, is a reflexion of my own misunderstanding of their teaching.

My purpose in writing this article is to share my own evolving thoughts on these concepts. I believe developing a clearer understanding of the differences between the two can help aikidokas in their practice. Please read this as a work in progress and a way to engage a broader community of practitioners in discussion; never as an attempt to deliver an authoritative account of how things ought to be.

To distinguish between jiyu waza and randori, I suggest to first examine their purposes in a way that differentiates the two. Later on, we will try to see whether those purposes are truly distinct or at odds.

Jiyu waza is free practice. It is generally done with one uke, but it can also be done with many. The types of attacks are generally prescribed, either precisely (e.g., shomenuchi), broadly (e.g., any strike). Yet, sometimes they are not (e.g., any attack). Nage’s response in jiyu waza is to perform any technique that is appropriate to the attack, the main focus being on the attack and the single attacker delivering the attack. Randori, on the other hand, typically starts with nage sitting in seiza a few paces away from a line of three to five ukes. At the signal of the nage, all the ukes rise and rush forward to attack. There are no prescriptions for mae or types of attack, except perhaps standing clear of the ukes as they are thrown left and right.

Jiyu Waza as Controlling One Attacker at a Time, Focusing on Technique

In Jiyu waza one uke attacks at a time. As I understand it, jiyu waza, is first about performing a technique in relation with uke’s attack. During the practice of jiyu waza, nage’s intent is to perform correctly varied and efficient techniques. The selection of techniques is based on what transpires during the interaction between uke and nage. Once a technique is performed, another uke steps forward and attacks, becoming the new focus of interaction. Therefore, jiyu waza emphasizes the relation between nage and a single uke and there is minimal emphasis on the group of ukes, as they attack in sequence.

Randori as Controlling Multiple Attackers Simultaneously, Focusing on Position

In contrast, randori emphasizes the relation between nage and the group of attacking ukes. To manage multiple attackers simultaneously, nage focuses on positioning, at the expense of varied techniques. Technique remains important, but the criteria for selecting techniques now prioritize position. Nage and the group of ukes no longer make decisions based solely on the interaction between nage and the attacking uke, but on the perceived patterns of positions and directions of all ukes, instead of the one attacking at the moment.

Exploring Randori: Implications of Focusing on Position

So far, I’ve used jiyu waza as a contrasting light to understand randori. I’ve defined randori mainly through its similarities and differences with jiyu waza, namely focus on position or technique. These differences leave a space between the two practices. Within that space lies the combination of both priorities, position and technique, which I will explain further on. But before doing so, I first wish to explore further the practice of randori.

A focus on position with regards to the group has implications for movement and technique. Alternate criteria are now being used in the selection of techniques. Behind these criteria is a concern for time and space. One criterion is to avoid getting surrounded. Generally, this is done by remaining on the edge of the group or by moving quickly in a direction so as to line up ukes as they try to reach you.

Another criterion is duration. Techniques that require less time to perform will generally be favoured during randori. One way to understand this criterion is to use an analogy. When juggling two balls with two hands, one has time and can keep a ball in hand without throwing it back up. Add a third ball, and the two hands must now deal rather quickly with the balls, as there is always one ball on its way down. When facing multiple ukes, the more time you take to perform a technique, the more time every uke has to stand up and move towards you. In other words, the more time you take, the more ukes you face at any one time.

Duration is balanced by two criteria: displacement and space-making. Displacement describes the span of space traveled by nage during a technique. A long duration technique might be a bad choice in terms of duration, but if it allows nage to cross over a large amount of space and end up in a safer place, it can still be a good choice. In other words, move across the mat. Try to avoid moving only to stay in one spot.

This brings us to the other criteria that serves to balance duration: space-making. I call space-making the creation of space around nage as a result of an uke’s movement during a technique. As an uke is moved as a result of nage’s technique, he occupies a body of space that keeps shifting. As an uke gets thrown, the roll takes a great amount of space. By performing broad, dynamic, and circular movement, as well as long throws requiring ukes to roll or breakfall, a nage creates a zone of protection that keeps ukes at bay and provides nage with more time.

Finally, ukes can serve as obstacles to one another. This is certainly true not only when they roll and make space, as I’ve mentioned above, but also as they simply stand between nage and ukes. I call this criterion shielding. Shielding means that nage positions an uke in a way that shields him or her from the others. The simplest shield is a static shield, where uke is stopped between nage and the other ukes (hostage taking, so to speak). Shielding can also be dynamic. I see two ways for techniques to provide dynamic shielding. The first is when nage makes uke spiral around him or her, making it very hard for the other ukes to approach. When combined with a technique that has great displacement, this can be very effective in minimizing opportunities for attacks, while improving positioning (iriminage ura comes to mind). Another way to create dynamic shielding is for nage to follow the path of uke’s roll. The result is that uke’s fall creates a path for nage to move safely along, while the other ukes scramble out of the way. This last example can then turn into a static shield if nage manages to keep uke from getting up from his fall and moves behind (this looks like a hockey defence player standing for a short moment behind his goal, choosing which way to go).

Taken together, these criteria compete with others usually used in determining which technique to perform as a result of the interaction between nage and uke. They should generally lead to quicker techniques that lead to great displacement along the edge of the group, and long throws. When combined properly, they also allow longer and more complex techniques to be performed, as nage takes advantage of the time and space created.

These criteria can be translated into a set of advice, which I’ve often heard my teachers mention in one form or another:

  • Move on the edge;
  • Line up ukes;
  • Choose quicker techniques;
  • Move far while performing techniques;
  • Throw far and towards the other ukes;
  • Use ukes as shields.

This set of advice comes with the usual caveat: don’t always follow those rules; break pattern when needed. For example, crossing the center is fine; staying there is perilous.

The Space Between: Morphing One Onto the Other

Though jiyu waza and randori are distinct, there are ways by which one can morphe into the other. This is unfortunate when it happens by accident, instead of intentionally. Based on the distinctions I’ve laid previously, this can be understood as a drift in focus: losing focus on varied and effective techniques in jiyu waza, or losing focus on positioning in randori.

This can happen for a number of reasons. In randori, nage can lose mobility because he or she gets tired, performs too many long techniques, fails to create space, or simply loses track of the group of ukes. A sort of tunnel vision takes over and nage only perceives and manages one uke at a time. Nage gets boxed in, stays in the center of ukes, and performs one technique after another. When this happens, randori becomes jiyu waza. In jiyu waza, it is somehow the opposite. Things don’t slow down, but become hectic. Speed increases, techniques are repeated, rushed, and get simpler as the line between jiyu waza and randori fades away.

Interestingly, in my experience, randori generally settles into jiyu waza as a result of nage’s actions. Nage slows down and randori becomes jiyu waza. On the other hand, jiyu waza escalates into randori as a result of ukes’ actions. Ukes rush their attacks and fail to give the distance required for jiyu waza. The latter is in my opinion worse than the former, especially during examinations, as nage is robbed of the opportunity to demonstrate his or her progression during jiyu waza.

The Space Between: Jiyu Waza and Randori Becoming One

So far, the discussion of the space between jiyu waza and randori has looked at how one can turn into the other. This is generally unfortunate and accidental. Instead, let’s look for a point of equilibrium in the space between jiyu waza and randori, where the two foci become balanced, where nages focuses on both technique and positioning, where the many ukes are treated as one group.

There is no real reason why one can only focus on either technique or position rather than on both, except perhaps practice. Practice, practice, and more practice. As proficiency develops, practitioners can work towards combining the two foci into one practice where positioning and techniques are both prioritized. But what does it mean to prioritize two things? Does it make even sense? I’d argue that it does, if nage sees the many ukes as one group and applies aikido principles to the collective instead of the one.

How do you understand the practice of jiyu waza and randori? Is your experience or your understanding different than mine? I would be more than happy to hear more thoughts about those two practices and how to develop practitioners’ skills.

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