Wednesday, 10 March 2010
Ukete and Semete in karate
The word uke means to receive. The kanji character (above) for uke depicts two hands, one reaching down, the other stretching up, and between them is placed the character for "boat." This "conveyance of goods from one person to another" became, over the centuries, the kanji to indicate the act of "receiving."
It appears that the word ‘uke’ is used differently in different martial arts. The most common understanding of the roles of uke and tori is found in jujitsu where uke provides the initial attack and then ‘receives’ the self defence technique from tori. The same is true for aikido and judo.
In karate the situation is different. The terms uke and tori are not generally used to describe the two opponents in a combat situation. They are not used in my club and I have not found reference to them in any karate text book. In Ian Abernethy’s book Bunkai Jutsu he just refers to the ‘opponent’ and in Lawrence Kane and Kris Wilder’s book The Way of Kata, they refer to the ‘defender’ and the ‘attacker’.
Apparently the correct terms to use in karate are ukete (defending, or receiving, hand) and semete (attacking hand). This immediately puts them the opposite way round to uke and tori. That is ukete is equivalent to tori and semete is equivalent to uke.
It took me a little while to get my head around why it should be the other way around in karate compared to other martial arts but I’ll try and explain.
In karate the word uke is often used to mean block, as in age uke (upward rising block), uchi uke (across block) and soto uke (inward block). However there is much controversy in karate about the role of blocks. Many people say that blocks in karate katas are not intended to be blocks but a way of receiving an attack in order to seize the initiative and take control of the situation. Remember the word uke means to receive. According to Kane and Wilder the word ‘receive’ implies active ownership. This ownership means that when the ukete (defender) receives (and owns) the aggressor’s attack he can use an uke technique to either defend (by deflecting or re-directing an incoming strike or applying a lock) and/or counter-offend (e.g. by using an age uke to strike under the aggressor’s jaw) and thus bring the conflict to a swift end.
Karate is conceptually different to some other martial arts in that it is not entirely defensive. In jujitsu and aikido all techniques are defensive – they are designed to stop the attacker by locking or throwing them to the ground. Karate is both a defensive and attacking art – it is based on the premise of ‘one strike, one kill’ and supports the use of pre-emptive striking as a method of defence. Though other arts do use striking techniques they are generally just used as ‘weakners’ to soften the opponent up before the lock or throw is applied. In karate the strike is the definitive technique used to bring the conflict to a swift end.
To summarise: In most Japanese martial arts the term uke applies to the person initiating the attack and then ‘receiving’ the defensive technique from tori. In karate the term ukete is used to describe the person ‘receiving’ the initial attack from semete and controlling the fight using uke techniques in either an offensive or defensive way.
However, the terms ukete and semete are not commonly used in karate clubs and it is difficult to find references to them in the literature. The terms ‘attacker’, ‘defender’ or ‘opponent’ are more commonly used.
Do you use the terms ukete and semete in your karate club?
The Way of Kata by Lawrence A. Kane and Kris Wilder. YMMA Publication Center
Bunkai-Jutsu by Ian Abernethy. Neth Publishing
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.