I’ve written mostly about philosophical aspects of jujutsu, so I’d like to focus now on a physical element. While I have studied striking arts like kung-fu and karate (and I love them), most of my training time has been spent doing jujutsu and aikido. What I’ve noticed in both these arts (particularly in aikido) is that atemi, which is integral to effective technique, tends to be forgotten in practice.
Atemi, in my opinion, is not something you should wait to practice. For example, when teaching Katate Hazushi Ichi, the first technique on the Yawara list, the first-timer should be instructed, after freeing him- or herself from the grip, to perform a knife-hand strike to the throat or a hammer-fist blow to where the plates of the skull intersect. Clearly these are only two of many possibilities. Experiment, when appropriate, with different strikes, but do something. The problem with waiting to include atemi until the practitioner has some gross understanding of the technique is that the atemi has not developed with everything else. Avoid telling yourself you’ll include it when it’s needed—because you won’t. When reacting to conflict we do what we’ve trained. If you’re training involves throwing floppy, half-assed punches, then that’s most likely what will happen for real. Certain aikidoka see atemi as incongruent with aikido philosophy, and to those people I suggest adopting total pacifism. Combat, like pacifism, requires commitment, and just doing either one halfway is dangerous. Yoga (which I also really enjoy) would probably be more appropriate.
So why is atemi important? One reason is attitude. Again, take Katate Hazushi Ichi. Performed sans atemi, the overall feeling is one of escaping. Prey escapes. I don’t want to be prey, so rather than defend myself, I’m going to attack my attacker. This is a vital mentality to adopt in jujutsu. Jujustu means “the soft art” due to the non-resistant flow of the movements, not because the techniques leave your attacker unharmed, possibly refreshed. Another reason to include atemi is that strikes, even glancing ones, hinder an attacker’s focus, which makes executing a choke, throw, or a bone break much easier. The atemi should fit the technique—remember to avoid clashing with uke’s strength or momentum. For example, a groin kick will most likely double a person over making him vulnerable to falling forward, but trying to throw him on his back will most likely require you first to directly overcome his forward momentum.
I encourage you to strike early and often when training, and do so with a kiai and focused intent. Root down and generate power from the hips when striking. Use your elbows, feet, knuckles, head, etc. Experiment until atemi becomes second nature. Oh yeah, don’t forget to have great time.
“Both the reverse punch and the front punch should be practiced with the feeling that the attack is executed primarily with the hips and lower abdomen rather than the arms and legs.”