“Feeling” maai and suki

February 14, 2010

Two terms Illustration of maai in kendofrequently heard in Japanese martial arts are maai, meaning distance or timing (literally “interval”) and suki, meaning a gap, commonly in attention, but also in stance, guard, etc. The image to the right illustrates the concepts – the left-hand swordsman has created a suki by lowering his sword, and the right-hand swordsman has moved into it. The attacker is exactly at his maximum effective range (even allowing for the chopping cut one can perform with a shinai) – two inches farther away, and the cut would miss. He has chosen his optimal maai to strike without being struck.

Understanding maai and suki are necessary in order to fully grasp intent. It’s not enough for me to intend to attack, intend to move forward, intend to occupy your space. My intent needs to be expressed in my actions in order to have an effect, or it’s just positive thinking.

I use the concept of an “attack surface” to visualize this. The attack surface is the surface of the volume around your body in which you can attack. In other words, it’s your maximum range at every point. This obviously depends on your position – with sword extended high as in the right-hand swordsman’s stance, the interesting piece of his attack surface (the front) forms a triangle with the tip at his sword point and the sides curving outwards (as his downward cut could curve to the side). The left-hand swordsman’s attack surface, in contrast, forms a sort of cone with the tip out beyond his sword point (because his arms are not extended), and sloping back towards his body in all directions (because any cut he performs will necessarily be shorter than his maximum thrust). I’m focusing on the swords here, but the attack surface also includes possible motions of the body, such as a kick with the front foot.

If my attack surface does not impinge on your body, that means that I can’t hit you with a single motion. Therefore, you know that you’ll have at least a fraction of a second to adapt to my movement before I can reach you, so you don’t necessarily have to adjust to whatever I’m doing right now. On the other hand, if some part of you is inside my attack surface, that part is in immediate danger, so you have to move – either to remove it from danger, or to guard against the threatened attack. I control my attack surface using maai – the distance between us, plus my stance, determines the shape of my attack surface. Because I can force you to move by changing the shape of my attack surface (even without actually attacking you), I can, in principle, control your actions strictly via maai.

However, we haven’t yet considered suki. While I’m manipulating you by playing with maai, you’re obviously trying to do the same thing to me. Assuming roughly equivalent skill, we end up with a shifting play of “forces” occupying the space between us. I can create a perceived force upon you by altering maai to threaten some part of you, the same way that a chess player can force a reaction by placing his opponent’s king in check. Similarly, you can resist this force by adjusting maai to ensure that you can react to the threat. Until one of us makes a mistake, nothing will happen (note – attacking when there’s no opening is making a mistake!) This mistake is suki. It’s about intent – each of us needs to continually adapt our intent so as to flow with the forces generated by changing maai. The instant one of us fails to adapt, there is a suki, a gap, and if the opponent is sufficiently alert, he will move into this space and strike.

In the image above, we may assume that the left-hand swordsman created a suki. The right-hand swordsman was in a threatening posture, probably jodan (with sword held overhead), and the left-hand swordsman did not correctly adapt to the change in maai by either stepping back, raising his sword, or establishing a counterpressure (say, by extending his sword point a few more inches towards his opponent’s belly). The right-hand swordsman, perceiving the suki, struck, and connected without being struck himself. He is clearly vulnerable to a thrust to the belly, but by understanding his opponent’s maai, he knew that he could execute his attack without being countered.

At a sufficiently high level of skill (which I don’t claim to have achieved, though I can sometimes “see” it from where I’m standing), this becomes almost telepathic. Two swordsmen may face each other, hardly moving, for long periods (by which I mean seconds or minutes – the stories about swordfights lasting for hours or days are only legends, unless both combatants were not only hopelessly incompetent but also tremendously unlucky). Every so often, one will shift his stance minutely, and the other will instantly, to all appearances simultaneously, counter with a similarly minute shift. Each knows that an attack made now would be fatal, so neither can move. Finally, one will fail to adapt, probably by the barest fraction of an inch, or even by just a twitch of the eyes indicating a lapse of attention, and the other will strike with full confidence that he is safe, at least for that fraction of a second.

Without intent, a swordfight (or any other fight), degenerates into what amounts to wild flailing, with neither opponent having any idea whether any given attack will be successful or even not suicidal. Under conditions like these, victory can be achieved only through luck, and relying on luck will quickly get you dead.


One comment

  1. Outstanding description of maai and suki! When I watch expert kendo players their movements and adjustments are too fast and skillful for me to detect all the time. Sometimes strikes seem to appear out of nowhere.

    I love kendo because it seems simple in concept yet provides endless space for improvement.

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