“Sometimes you’re in a fight and you keep hitting the other guy with your right hand ‘cause that one’s usually the strongest. Then, they start to figure it out so you hit them with the left and that’s called strategy!” Towers in Space.
Randori used to be about fighting a group of attackers. Today it is usually just to show that a student can respond to freestyle movements with little time to think about their responses.
Jiyu waza is difficult, and therefore often watered down for safety. Many schools have taken safety concerns to the extent that learning how to deal with more than one committed attacker is not part of the practice. Two attackers working together are much, much harder than one actual attacker with three people standing around at a safe distance waiting their turn. People like to have a plan, so there are old strategies that get trundled out to deal with a far too modern situation.
I have heard many students and teachers say, “Run to the side of the room” without having a clear idea why. The concept is time honoured, and very powerful when used properly. This is battle strategy, and all strategies can be countered or used wrongly and all strategies will need to be abandoned or changed as the situation changes. The original strategy was for dealing with people moving in a definite formation. It usually has no purpose in modern randori where the attackers are trying to do the exact opposite of formation fighting.
Strategies from years ago are influenced heavily by rank-and-file swordsmanship. The sword is held in the right hand, with the scabbard on the left. Several people can do shomenuchi or tsuki for hours and not worry about cutting their fellow soldier to their left or their right. The sword moves in a small corridor.
Side to Side motions cut the people you are trying to fight alongside, which lead to doh cuts and yokomenuchi attacks either being excluded or modified (done at a sharp diagonal) so that you didn’t destroy your own line of defense. When you are in formation, you really cannot run left or right to dodge an attack. The wings of the formation have some leeway to their open side but the whole formation cannot be brought to bear.
There were no left handed swordsmen until the Europeans started dueling, and paired weapons were for use in a free-for-all or against a group; they were not used in a front line. Someone using a weapon in their left hand while standing beside someone trying to use a weapon in their right would lead to the two soldiers cutting each other. Someone with an empty right hand with a right handed swords man on their right leaves a gap in the front line – a full charge would not meet a weapon at that spot. This is especially true for Roman sword and shield techniques; one could fall on the shield and find an opening. On the other side, the soldier’s weapon hands have been cut. As the shield bearer’s fly around, they cut each other in turn. One attacker has opened up a gap in the frontline three people wide in a second. Left handed people are definitely unlucky for the entire medieval military.
With cavalry, to attack their flank meant to strike a larger target. Facing a horse head on meant to be facing a smaller target, and even if you dealt a killing blow a one ton armoured Clydesdale with an armoured rider was going to land on top of you.
When charging, the cavalry saber was used to slash up and down, while the lance was used to puncture straight forwards. A horse could not change direction easily in the middle of a charge, nor could the rider attack directly sideways without a great deal of specialized training. So, eventually this evolved to chariots with two riders (one driving, one using a bow and arrow) and eventually tanks with independent drivers and gunners in one vehicle (groups working in concert).
When a medieval soldier broken through the front line or outflanked the enemy, that person could attack the front line from behind. The front line could not turn away from the opposing front line they faced without being stabbed in the back, but they could not individually defend against being stabbed in the back by the people who were behind them. In chess, this is why a pawn that makes it to the far side of the board becomes a queen. The balance of power is tipped greatly when the front line is breeched.
Aircraft fly in formation, because like the sword bearing soldiers, pilots attack forward. When aircraft fire in formation, the largest possible target area gets attacked while lessening the risk to the individual planes. Small aircraft are vulnerable from behind and from the flanks. Larger bombers have free turrets that are independently operated, but this is an example of a group working in concert. Formation was still held so that friendly fire did not decimate the attacking force, and it still allowed for more even bombing while making sure no one ran into bombs deployed by their own force. The original idea of aircraft in war was a method to outflank the ground troops, bombing them from above and attacking them from vectors they could not defend against. Air superiority has decided every major conflict since.
The modern rifleman also fires in a specific direction, and if working in a group can’t fire in every direction without killing his fellow soldiers. The flanks are the most vulnerable part of a fighting force. The Aikido maxim about going to the side is to learn about the vulnerability of the flank. When the flank is attacked, the other members of the front line cannot turn and attack without risking cutting their own, or exposing their own personal flank to the opposing force.
The irimi technique is very much about finding the individual’s flank and blind spot, a flanking maneuver does the same thing for a larger fighting force. As Musashi said, fighting one to one or ten thousand a side is the same. To face a group in a tight line formation, the flanks are the safest spot for the nage and the easiest place from which to control the pace of the fight.
Trying to outflank your attackers and failing to do so can happen. If the room is too small, your uke can get to the wall sooner than you can. If they anticipate the strategy, they will be stretched across the room or leaving the center open. If they are far away from you, they can respond to your actions easily and run you down. They have time to adapt if you have committed. As we don’t require it of uke today, they probably will not even advance in a linear formation. We’ll correct them if they even try. So, you can’t respond like you expect them to move in this fashion.
Running to the side of the room leaves you surrounded if everyone is moving at a different speed and hoping to ‘wait their turn.’ You’ll get past one person and maybe the second and the rest will be in position to corner you. Like all battle plans, you can spend months planning, but it comes down to a couple of seconds before you engage. You need to be responsive.
If you have run to the side of the room against the wall and not ended up at the rear of a line then you’ve become trapped as you can only move in a 180 degree area (you can’t run through the wall), and can only move forward. This is a problem for Aikido practice, particularly for nice people who try to avoid irimi and would never risk hurting their partners. In a real situation you would throw someone against the wall, or into another person. You do not want to do this in practice with friends, so therefore you cannot tenkan unless you control your technique. You can only safely drive a person backwards with irimi techniques provided this won’t cause a collision. Your options are very limited, and your attackers are in a good position to predict and respond to your choices. Or, a choice you make causes someone you should be looking after to have an injury.
The same situation can happen with individual throws anywhere in the room. You have to make sure that the throw’s vector is not straight down. Not only is this weaker and potentially lets uke back into their strength; if uke falls they will probably land in contact with you or very close to you. You have lost a direction to travel in, and now you need to run away. To throw someone on the ground at your feet is much the same as being up against the wall – you don’t want to step on someone you are practicing with, and you don’t want to throw your training partners on top of each other. You have a very restricted window of safety before the uke on the ground can get up, and they may still be holding you for the other attackers to finish you. In the dojo and the real world this means both a delay in your ability to respond and a restriction in your available responses to the next attack. In the real world, the hope is that the straight downward force will seriously injury the attacker, and throwing a second person on top is even more damage to both. You still need to get clear of that area very quickly.
Are you involved in many “accidents” in regular practice? If your ukes are colliding with people or the walls of the dojo or falling off the mat you need to wake up. You’ll never handle two attackers in the environment if you are too inwardly focused to safely handle one attacker. Know what space you have to work in. See the people around you. Know where the mats end and the walls start, even when you’re the one being thrown. The most basic level of awareness needed for good randori starts in everyday basic practice.
While we don’t practice fighting as a cohesive group, the group will spontaneously try to encircle you, charge you, or block you. Even when not working together, the group will adopt a triangle, a square or a circle in relation to you. Use straight lines with circles, and circle triangles and squares. Treat the group as one unified whole, even when then members of that group do not think that they are. They are unified in their objective and their training in the dojo. Accept controlling a group as possible, and you will find a way to make it happen. See several people as an individual, and do nothing different than you would in dealing with an individual. Explore classical techniques – they were made for dealing with groups of attackers. There is nothing new to learn in being able to control a group, only something new to accept.