Feel the intent

Kenji Tomiki, Goshinjutsu-nyumon

“Is the lack of attack a specific feature of Aikido?”
When explaining the term “Sen”, it often happens that confusion arises in the use of words. This is the case with, among others, “Taking the initiative in Japanese Budo” or “The lack of attack in Japanese Budo.” Confusion often arises between the term SEN and the moral aspect when one applies a technique in Japanese Budo.
Normally, when using a budo technique, there may be a fear of killing or seriously injuring the opponent. Therefore, in a modern rule of law, one should not use this martial art power, except in case of legal self-defense or in a situation that is difficult to avoid. From this sense it is said that SEN (initiative) is the first movement in Budo. However, in case one cannot help but defend oneself, it is allowed to use SEN (sen no sen & sensen no sen) techniques instead of go no sen techniques. Especially when one is attacked by a large number of opponents, it is traditionally said that one may use a self-preservation offensive (SEN) to narrowly escape fatal consequences.
In other words when using Budo techniques one cannot ethically apply SEN, but in principle one cannot stop considering SEN either.

Saya no Uchi

“Saya no Uchi” means to keep Katane inside of sheath, which means dominate the opponent without pulling out Katana from sheath.

Akira Hino

To perform an action you must have the intention to do so. Intent is a concept that sometimes causes confusion in the mind of a beginning practitioner.
Most of the time, a beginner carries out moves with the intention of having victory in a fight. The intention must be to make an efficient movement (technical, waza) and not to lose the struggle.

When you look at how to introduce “intent” into the training, you will find many explanations about the meaning of the “words” defining this concept.
The following are most frequent examples.

  • 意 (I) feelings, thoughts, meaning – mostly used in combination with another kanji (意図 – ito or 意向 – iko
  • 先 (Sen) line, initiative

Unfortunately, the correct methods to practise the concept of intent are seldom explained.
To establish a practical methodology, we need a few tools:

  • Creating an image in the brain
  • A body ready for immediate action through the creation of “Mushin mugamae”
  • Understanding Sen as a strategy

Sen’s main cases

The opponent has the intention to attack you as a basic idea.
Sen is a strategic technique for taking the initiative when you feel the mental image of opponents and see the impact on the opponent’s physical movement. We can discern three significant situations. In the first 2 situations, the opponent can still change their mind and physical action if you don’t have perfect control of the situation.
When an opponent passes a certain line or the case of situation 3, there is no more chance of drastically changing the trajectory of the attack. If you’re not in control, you’ll lose.

Having a “sen” situation does not imply that you will win. A perfect “waza” is the proper addition to any of the sen situations.

先々の先 Sen sen no sen : Controlling the opponents chance. Image in the brain and start of attack.
先 の 先 sen no sen対の先 tai no sen : Image in the brain and physical attack.
Make a decisive attack, which impacts faster than their waza.
後 の 先 go no sen or ato no sen : is a ‘strategy/technique, it is best described as ‘the post initiative attack’.

Edo, a time of peace

In Edo epoch when people enjoyed peace it had a serious meaning and consequence to pull out Katana. Because it was strictly prohibited to pull out Katana to use it, and once one did it, it might cause even a death penalty with being taken away all the property.
Accordingly it required a serious preparedness in the mind to pull out Katana.
Understanding what might occur as a consequence in his and also his family’s life, one should have a serious preparedness in his mind to pull out Katana.

Akira Hino

While samurai had privileges in Japanese society, removing the sword without threat was a grave crime. The art of Iaido (Iaijutsu) still has the concept of Saya no Uchi, retaining the sword in the sheath.

No matter how strong or how evil the persons we come across, we must not draw our sword, nor let him draw his. We must not cut him, nor allow him to cut us. We must not kill him nor do we let him kill us. By reason kindly persuade him to change his ways to become a better person. If, at the very last, after all your efforts, he won’t listen to you, then send him to his maker and destroy him completely.

Muso Shinden Jushin Ryu Iaido no Seishin (精神)

A practical way to learn to use intent.

The use of intention has two aspects to take into consideration.

  • The intention of the opponent
  • Your intention

While many important “sensei” speaks of “Mushin mugamae”, a phrase often translated as empty mind and empty posture. Unfortunately, by using the word “empty” the concept becomes more cryptic.
Mushin mugamae is all about how to handle your emotions. The physical aspect is merely the result of mental thoughts.
If you can control your emotions, you can use your energy to build an image of what you will do next. This image with control of your emotions and energy can be referred to as intention.
In some cases, you can even conceal your intention from your opponent and it is called “Mushin mugamae”.

Now the question is how to control your emotions and energy. There are several practical exercises and methods for obtaining “Mushin mugamae”.
My favorite one is “ritsuzen” or standing as a tree. While we are standing, we can visualize moving images, relax our thoughts, relax the physical body…
Another major method is slow motion training. It makes us conscious of the energy and strength needed for our movements.
And lastly, I want to add a breathing system to slow down all the functions of your being. Hachi danken is a system like this.

The basic idea is to silence the conscious mind (ego) and let the unconscious mind overtake your thoughts and body. See “The Science of Training”
The unconscious requires, of course, input and this is the goal of basic training. The basic training must be done properly, otherwise the input will not be effective enough and the use of the unconscious mind will not produce the correct output.

Sense the intent of the opponent.

To understand the concept of “sen” one must sense the intention of an opponent. This is only possible when you have the ability to “Mushin mugamae”. When nothing troubles you, your mind is open to the slightest signs of your opponent’s attack.
Of course, like most skills, you need a lot of training to become effective in feeling the enemy’s intention.

Sen – Bujutsu no gokui
The ultimate in martial art

A victory comes down to carrying out a successful attack without giving the opponent a chance to launch an efficient attack. In kenjutsu one has to fell the opponent without being felled, in judo one has to throw without being thrown. But since both think to be first (SEN), the victory is not an easy thing and hence “the elderly” (our predecessors) studied this aspect very thoroughly.

Because Aikido kata (formal exercises) largely consists of go-no-sen techniques, one might say that Aikido is only a form of self-defence (goshinjutsu), where the concept of go no sen is at the center.
Kenji Tomiki formulated “Kyogi Aikido”, a sparring method with Aikido techniques to easily introduce a practical approach to the concept of sen no sen and sen no sen.

The “randori no kata” is a collection of techniques that can be used in a safe way in free sparring. Here is a sample of the atemi-waza section. Atemi in the Tomiki Aikido syllabus is centered around attacking the weak dynamic parts of the opponent’s body.

Ki Ken Tai Ichi – A gate to Sen no sen

Ki ken tai ichi is an expression often used in Japanese swordsmanship and it means “to synchronize the movements of ki, ken, and tai”.

  • Ki: The energy you need to engage in action. Basically, we can tell that by creating an image in the brain, we are mobilizing energy to perform an action.
  • Ken: The weapon we will use following the creation of an image. It can be a sword, a stick or whatever body part appropriate as a weapon.
  • Tai: The technique expressed through physical action.

In the example below, a soft tanto is used as an offensive tool. Ki ken tai ichi is performed by a strike to the chest. The front foot and soft tanto must be synchronized when hitting the chest. When there is no picture of the strike in the brain, Ki ken tai ichi is not carried out and the strike will be considered inefficient.

Toshu or unarmed defender need to feel the intention (image) of the opponent to perform an effective neutralisation and counter-attack. The synchronization takes the same steps as Ki ken tai ichi.


This strategy is often used in Aikido training. This looks very simple when you understand the concept of sen. The challenge of go no sen is the ability to be patient and wait for the opponent to cross the line of no return. If you are unaware of the intent, you will always lose.
Don’t forget, it is a state of mind and it controls the attacker even before he begins to move.

A quest for life

Sometimes people ask me what I like about martial arts. The answer is straightforward: to become better than yesterday.
Of course, aging is a factor to bear in mind and that is “a game breaker”. What you can do when you are under 20 will no longer be the same when you are 50.
Finding a way to become better than yesterday is a path filled with obstacles and the end is for everyone the same.
Becoming better than yesterday?
Maybe the answer is somewhere in the world……. Other questions may come up… Who cares…..
I “feel better” than yesterday.

Eddy Wolput