August 31, 2009

Soei Nage

It would seem that every culture has created its own form of martial art, sometimes by pure invention but most often by the modification of pre-existing forms from other cultures. The earliest origins of formal martial arts are disputed--with some claiming that India is the source of both Greek and Chinese martial arts (and we know that Japanese arts come from China) while others posit a separate lineage for ancient Greek style of fighting. The more modern forms of grappling--Russian sambo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Judo--have better documented histories and clear lineages (Japanese judo being the origin of the other two I listed).

The martial arts with which I am familiar are high school wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and judo (the Costa Rican flavor). Some judokas will claim that all judo is the same judo, but this does not negate the fact that there exist regional differences. The Russians are known for powerful explosive judo that begins to look like Greco-Roman wrestling (watch their kata garumas) while the French are known for leg sweeps and large leg movements. The core principles of judo persists though. Judo is fight for balance. Your weight needs to be balances better than your opponent and your body needs to be in the proper position to capitalize on this different in balance (between you and your opponent). The grip work with the gi is aimed at unbalancing your opponent. The movement work with your feet is mean to transfor your weight without disrupting your own balance so that you can move into position without sacrificing your own weight distribution.

Position is of paramount importance and it is what allows a smaller, weaker opponent to defeat a larger, stronger opponent. The force of gravity acting on the larger body is leveraged to the advantage of the smaller, more skilled judoka. Take the ippon soei nage for example. This throw awards the advantage to the shorter judoka due to the place of the smaller judoka's body as a fulcrum over which the lever of the larger judoka will move. Here is a video that demonstrates a series of soei nage throws, varied from one another by the grip and arm positioning.

The tori (the judoka performing the throw) must place his or her hips beneath the center of gravity of the uke (the judoka being thrown) to perform the the throw with maximum effect. There is first the unbalancing of the uke to the front and up, then an entry, then the throw, all completed with explosive movement that does not allow the uke to recover from the initial unbalancing.

The techniques here are not confined to judo. We may take balance, position, and explosive movement in a metaphoric sense when speaking of business or politics or in a more literal sense when theorizing about warfare. Indeed, the maneuver theory of warfare, used to great effect in the American invasion of Iraq is an example of these same principles put to use. The enemy's command and control structure is targeted, speed and communication are emphasized over the winning of decisive pitched battles, and the redloyment (rebalancing, we could say) of assets to target the off-balance opponent are key.

The juggernaut of the United States military, the most modern and and one of the best trained in the world, employed technology and the strategic lessons learned from centuries of decades of warfighting to unbalance the Iraqi army and keep it that way, but smaller, weaker forces have followed the precepts of maneuver warfare and the wisdom of judo many times in the past century while on the other side of assymetrical warware. Mao's famous dictum, "The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue" is a classic example of keeping a more powerful enemy off balance.

I believe that the application to armed conflict of this doctrine (both strategic and tactical) of balance and movement is sufficiently clear and that I have belabored the point enough. But I would like to end by suggesting that you consider the allegorical implications of this strategy in other areas of your life and in the world around you. Like the skillful soei nage practitioner, if you drop beneath the wary gaze of your opposition and insert yourself beneath his or her center of gravity, so to speak. Don't meet force with yet more blunt force but rather with redirection over a central point of rhetorical rotation. As you might imagine, I prefer subtly to choleric shouting, and I would recommend the same for you as well.

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