By Muromoto, Wayne
This article first appeared in the "SMAA Journal" Volume 24, Issue 3.

Have you heard of ai-uchi?

It’s often used in kendo; fencing with bamboo staves, but you may hear it in old-fashioned karate schools. Ai-uchi, to most practitioners, simply means two sides strike each other at the same time, so their points cancel each other out in a contest.

Sasama Yoshihiko, in Zusetsu Nihon Budo Jiten, offers a more in-depth definition. One old meaning of the term is actually a kind of gang-tackling an enemy. When two or more people attack a single enemy at once, it is called ai-uchi, the ai (meaning “mutuality”) now meaning “group” attack. Like a kind of “swarming” used by police to subdue an unruly prisoner. Old records document instances of sannin-ai-uchi (three against one) and two against one attacks on the battlefield, in which groups of two or three footmen gang up and take down one samurai.

But the meaning of most importance to martial artists is the concept of ai-uchi as “mutual strikes.” Your strike hits the opponent the same time as he strikes you. So theoretically, both of you die. 

There are a number of things to consider concerning ai-uchi. In a sportive contest of point-taking, like kendo or karate, it's a lot of fun to just go at it and strike the opponent without fear of much bodily injury, thanks to rules and protective gear. But the samurai were a conservative lot. Their philosophy of fighting and combat—which may surprise modern day martial arts people who strut and preen about their willingness to fight with anybody—was very, very reserved. 

Their conclusions were that there were three things that can result from a real battle, and two out of three were very, very bad. The good result is if you win and the other side dies. The really bad result is if the other guy wins and you die, and finally the third is still bad news for you; ai-uchi is when both of you kill each other off. 

Now, two out of three chances of killing your enemy might not be bad if you're fighting to defend someone else, and you're willing to sacrifice yourself to save your lord and/or loved ones from the enemy attacker, as long as you destroy the other guy. But in terms of self-preservation, these are really lousy odds. 

So really, philosophical warriors, who thought about the consequences a lot, were quite reluctant to engage in real combat at the jump of the hat. Even if they were technically very good, there's no telling what chance and luck may bring to you . . . you could slip on a banana peel, for example, and so the lousiest warrior for the other side could take your head. If he did have to go into battle, the classical warrior was pretty much resigned to accepting the fact that the odds were two to one that he'd be dead come the next day, all other things being equal.

There is another concept concerning ai-uchi, though, which should be considered. That is, if you and the opponent strike each other at the same time, then the best possible outcome of this unfortunate instance would be that you come out a little better than the other guy. “If he cuts your skin, cut his muscle; if he cuts your muscle, cut through to the bone . . .” goes the saying. This cannot be concluded in modern sportive duels in kendo or karate, but think about it. If one person can break a makiwara punching stand's solid wooden 2 X 4 in half with his punch, and the other person can barely punch through a paper bag, in modern karate-do sparring if the two of them struck each other at the same time, it would be ai-uchi. 

Both points are equaled out. But if it were for real, one person would be out cold, and the other person would have barely felt his opponent's blow. 

Another saying that Sasama quotes is also quite colorful. “If he cuts your arm, cut off his neck.” Whew. But that's the meaning. If you enter into battle, and you have ai-uchi, you may be bloodied, but you can salvage something if you can enter the engagement and cause greater damage to the other side. In modern strategic theory, this may be likened to engaging the enemy, because you think you can bloody him more than he can hurt you, according to your capabilities and attrition rate. 

Say you have overwhelming firepower. You can maneuver to outflank the enemy and obtain every advantage, which one might say is a philosophy of outmaneuvering and unbalancing. But if you and the enemy meet on a field of battle, and he attacks you at the same time you attack, you will probably absorb some losses. But if you can destroy the opponent, whacking him harder than he whacks you, you will win the day. So, in this battlefield ai-uchi, you will accept some losses with the intention of inflicting a lot more losses on the enemy as both of you attack at the same time. 

In real life terms, perhaps it means that no matter what, you win some, and you lose some. And sometimes you get just as much as you give. Or more.

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