by Diane Skoss

My cousin, who runs a karate school in San Jose, California, says that the one who controls the distance in an encounter is the one who controls the situation. One of the shihan of the Japan Aikido Association, when asked about how, using aikido, to deal with a karate practitioner, replied simply, "Maai."

We've all heard similar statements and all have been admonished during training to be aware of the maai, often translated as combative engagement distance, but perhaps more accurately rendered "combative interval." When I first heard the word in a Tomiki aikido dojo in the U.S., I thought it referred to a simple spatial relationship-the distance at which I could, in a single movement, reach an opponent with my attack. Conversely, I also discovered, it was the distance at which an attacker could reach me!

What I didn't quite get at first was the extent to which this was not one, but two, sometimes vastly different, distances. When my then training partner, Meik Skoss, casually remarked, over coffee and donuts after jukendo (bayonet Way) training one morning, "Of course, you know that my maai in relation to you, will always be different from yours to me--even though the distance between us is constant," I nodded, and pretended to have the foggiest notion of what he was talking about. It became clearer soon after when I ran into my friend Bill, who is over six feet tall, in the company of his girlfriend, who is five foot nothing. If the two of them were to stand side-by-side facing me, at (Bill's) arms length away, I would be fully within Bill's maai, and just outside of his girlfriend's. They would both be in my maai. If Bill took one step back, he might very well be out of my maai, yet I would still be within his. These differences are naturally based on the length of each individual's arms and legs. Two more elements, speed and timing (hyoshi) can also affect the effective combative interval. What it all adds up to, is judging the constantly changing maai, different for each individual and each type of attack, is incredibly complicated. And of course, our teachers tell us, we must learn to make this evaluation virtually subconsciously and instantaneously.

One major benefit arising from training simultaneously, at least for a time, in a number of different weapons systems, is a certain mental flexibility regarding maai, which I believe takes longer to develop to an equal level when studying only taijutsu. For example, in aikido each encounter is utterly different, because each individual's body is unique, and we must make a series of minute adjustments to take utmost advantage of the maai and make it work. This is virtually impossible for the beginning student to grasp, and many systems have implemented a more basic, static style of training, so that students can get the hang of techniques before being confronted with the full complexities of maai. Training in a weapons system, however, introduces a weapon, which is generally of a uniform length. My naginata is the same length as Meik's naginata, and while differences in reach and ability to cover distance still matter, they matter less and are easier to isolate. The compensations one must make are clearer to see when training with various partners because of the constant of the weapon.

Studying in several different weapons systems then, gives one the chance to work on different maai, as defined by the length of each weapon. More importantly, it teaches flexibility and awareness. Earlier this year, I began going to jo training immediately after practicing Toda-ha Buko-ryu naginata. At first, when I began to use the jo, I would find my hand sliding off the end-I wanted more jo-and I would drop one end of my weapon. I quickly decided this was a bad idea, and rather than relying on a physical memory, or lapsing into habit, I began to turn on a constant maai monitor-before doing any technique, I would mentally check the length of my weapon. When I started to learn tanken (short sword) after several years of juken training, my thrusting attack was simply too shallow. My body knew quite well how to do a thrust-but only with a weapon the length of a bayonet.

These days I train in empty-handed techniques, and with tanto, tanken, tachi, jo, juken, naginata, and yari, and I can switch between the various maai (which are really all the same, but that's another story for the future, when I figure it out) with a reasonable degree of accuracy and efficiency. As a result, I feel much more comfortable and confident in dealing with the ever changing maai of taijutsu.

Copyright ©1994 Diane Skoss. All rights reserved.

Classical Japanese Martial Arts
Last modified on January 4, 2018
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Classical Japanese Martial Arts