lee Understanding Ukemi (Falling Techniques) By Brandon Lee It appears clear that there has been a misunderstanding on the role of ukemi and the meaning of ukemi in Judo, which leads me to inevitably conclude that the true concept of Judo as conceived by Kano Sensei, has been misunderstood, even distorted, by some judokas world-wide. My intention in writing this article is to answer some questions raised by Gerald Lafon in his article titled "Turnouts: Unorthodox Ukemi."1 In the following, I will discuss the definition and the role of ukemi, the origin of ukemi, the difference between ukemi and bogyo, the dangers of turnouts, the case of Kyuzo Mifune, and, finally, the meaning and the true spirit of Judo as conceived and intended by Kano Sensei.

Definition and Role of Ukemi

Ukemi, itself a question to many, has a very simple explanation. Ukemi in a literary sense means "receiving body or self." In the simplest terms possible, the "uke" part of ukemi as in Tori and Uke means "receiving" and is a person who is on the receiving end of throw. It is always used in a passive sense. Mi means "body or self". In this case, self is the better translation. In his Kodokan Judo, Kano Sensei states "before practicing throwing techniques or engaging in randori, it is imperative to master ukemi, the technique of falling safely."2 So, ukemi means "falling safely" when one receives a throw. Simple logic testifies that one should master it before throwing a partner or taking on free practice. Herein, the question is raised as to what is "falling safely." I conclude that "falling safely" is the technique that must incorporate the least chance for injury.

ukemi Understanding Ukemi (Falling Techniques) By Brandon Lee

In his article, Gerald Lafon not only doubts the effectivness of the Kodokan ukemi, but also asserts that the turnout methods which he employs are definitely safer. This is a serious mistake. First of all, the law of nature says otherwise. When an object falls to the ground, the more area of impact it has, the less damage it receives. It is a simple principle of physics. Second of all, of the human body, the largest, safest part to fall on is the back. I have never seen anyone getting hurt in Judo falling properly on the back. On the contrary, there have been many injuries, even deaths, when people tried to consciously or unconsciously resist falling on their back. Third of all, a cat has nothing to do with ukemi. If one looks at the anatomy of cat, he will notice the cat’s spine is round unlike the human being’s. Falling onto the back would mean a fatal injury to a cat. It must do everything not to land on its back. But, we, as human beings, do have a choice to land on our back and, indeed, can do so very safely.

Origin of Ukemi

Another point which Gerald Lafon fails to realize is that the original ukemi methods are not restricted to falling on one’s back and that the Judo techniques are not some overnight products. First, mae ukemi does not require falling on one’s back. In mae-ukemi, one falls forward on his forearms and the palms of the hands. It is, without a second thought, the most strenuous ukemi. After five times of this, the skin of the elbow will become red and ten repetitions of it will relocate, at least, some of the skin to the judogi. It requires strong upper body muscles, especially shoulder, back and stomach muscles. It is certainly not for beginners and taught at the advanced stage of ukemi learning. Second, falling on one’s back and rolling over the back in Judo as well as in other martial arts is not without reason. It is not a guess work nor accidental. It is human instinct and experience. The history of Judo spans some one hundred twenty years, but Judo techniques which derived from jujitsu are much older than that. The Judo techniques that are practiced today are at least one thousand years of accmulation of knowledge and experience, and over the centuries has evolved into a science.

roll2 Understanding Ukemi (Falling Techniques) By Brandon Lee Please, examine this personal experience, an example of human instinct. I was umpiring a junior high school tennis match. In the middle of a point, this student had to dash to the front to get to the ball. In doing so, he lost partial control of his body and fell. However, his fall did not result into a clumsy sprawing, but rather a "controlled movement." He did something which resembled zenpo-kaiten, a forward roll. He did not win the point, but got up without being hurt. The point of this example is quite simple. The tennis player had never practiced Judo before and may not have even known what Judo was. Somehow, he managed to roll on his back and saved himself from any injury. I am sure that he could have sustained serious injury, had he fallen squarely to the front. I do not perceive it as pure luck, but rather human instinct for the young player to save himself from imminent danger. Falling on one’s back or rolling provides the safest way to handle the situation when one must fall. On the contrary, turnouts such as a headroll or a handstand open door to serious injuries on Judo mats and provide even greater chance for injury on the uneven outdoor terrain.

Difference between Ukemi and Bogyo

Having looked at the definition and the role of ukemi, let us now determine if the term, unorthodox ukemi, is the right term for turnouts as Gerald Lafon describes it. As discussed above, ukemi means falling safely, and always indicates passivity. Uke receives Tori’s throw and falls, and, indeed, safely. Do the turnouts meet the basic requiments to be considered as an ukemi technique? The answer is a definite "no." Bogyo should suffice to describe turnout techniques. Turnouts are, without a doubt, defensive actions. Uke refuses to receive Tori’s throw, thus, evading Tori’s throw, takes Tori’s role, and "culminates in counter-attacking" as Gerald Lafon himself described it. Uke is not Uke anymore. Uke does not fall. How can it be ukemi? It is clear that turnouts are not ukemi and, henceforth, should not be called ukemi. They are defensive actions, Bogyo.

Dangers of Turnouts

Gerald Lafon mentions headroll as one of the turnout techniques. This is extremely dangerous. The IJF contest rules prohibit this type of action when it is initiated by Tori. The contestant will receive hansokumake( and will be disqualified for the entire tournament) if he tries to headroll in executing, for example, uchimata or forward or backward kataguruma with the exception of forward knee stand kataguruma. Of course, the rule is not confined to these two techniques. It is about the principle of the headroll. Any throwing techniques involving movement which would endanger the players’ spinal verterbrae will be penalized by hansokumake.(Article 27, d, xxx). Uke’s headroll is currently permitted. But, make no mistake. It is not because it is safe. Sometimes, uke has no choice but to fall on his head during the flurry of contest. It is sometimes extremely difficult for referees and judges to determine between accidental and intentional headroll in uke’s case. However, the IJF rules clearly discourage this type of action from uke. The Appendix to Article 20-Ippon reads "if one of the contestants deliberately makes a "bridge" (head and heels in contact with mat) after having been thrown, although he may have avoided the necessary criteria for ippon, the referee may nonetheless award ippon or any other score he considers the technique warrants, in order to discourage this action." In any case, it is discouraged and prohibited due to the potentially fatal danger.

The IJF’s cautionary actions do not stop there. The Article 27, Clause xxviii which handles hansokumake reads "to make any action or injure the opponent especially the opponent’s neck or spinal verterbrae, or may be against the spirit of Judo." According to 1994 version of IJF Contest Rules, this was penalized by keikoku. Apparently, they noticed the seriousness of the matter and decided that it is to be direct hansokumake. It also specifies that any intention by Tori to throw Uke not "cleanly" onto his back but to the front will be penalized by hansokumake (Article 27, Appendix xxix). The Article 27, Clause xxv also reads "to reap the opponent’s supporting leg from inside when the opponent is applying a technique such as haraigoshi etc." Such acts will be penalized by keikoku. It all clarifies the dangers of falling onto the front or onto the head.

In a study conducted in 1981 regarding Judo fatalities, Dr. Koiwai reports five deaths due to brain injuries and four due to cervical fracture-dislocations.3 In the article, he states that "…if the rules are strictly enforced and if the contestants are aware of these dangerous techniques, serious injuries can be prevented…they (Judo instructors and officials) should be familiar with the latest contest rules. Their teachings should conform to the safety standards emphasized in proper throwing, falling, and holding techniques."4 Although this study is confined to the fatalities, we should also pay attention to the injuries less than death. We know that there have been many players who became unconscious or could not continue to fight after falling on their head or trying a headroll. The long-term effects of these injuries have not been studied.

Another dangerous technique of turnouts is the handstand. Gerald Lafon shows a one hand handstand when attacked by ogoshi or ukigoshi as an example. Here, what he fails to show is what happens when Tori continues to turn and fall on Uke. Often, that is what happens. Tori will not just stand there during kake in contest or in randori. He will use his body and weight to complete the throw and fall on Uke. If Uke tries a handstand resisting the throw, a broken arm is most likely what he takes home with. In 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Yoshida of Japan, a former world champion, completely broke his arm in trying to escape an uchimata attack from Honorato of Brazil. He was doing a one hand handstand which is identical to the drill described by Gerald Lafon. Now, why would anyone try to do it to himself, whether it be a headroll or it be a handstand? Does he do this because he does not want to concede a score or rather because he does not want to lose a match? Perhaps, it is because he does not want to lose a tournament? If so, it is time to go back and re-examine the meaning and the true spirit of Judo. Certainly, it is not about winning a contest.

The Case of Kyuzo Mifune

Now, let us look into the case of the great master, Kyozo Mifune. Mifune Sensei was a very small man, even for the Japanese standard. He was at the most 5’ 3" tall and weighed less than 130lb. Needless to say, he received the best instructions from the best to begin with and trained everyday life-long. I must also believe that he was greatly talented, because, otherwise, he could not have been the master he was. What he accomplished in bogyo skills along with in other areas of Judo is a wonder. How many people are fortunate enough to have what Mifune Sensei was given with? Now, let us get to the point. Can a 6’ tall, 200 pounder do the same bogyo techniques which Mifune Sensei was able to do? The answer is an absolute "no". It is like a 6’ tall 200 pounder will not be succesful in marathon, or a 5’3" tall, 130 pounder will not be succesful in a 100 meter sprint. Sure, one can try, but it will be time much wasted.

The turnout skills are against the Judo principle and all beginning students of Judo should be taught the sound Kodokan ukemi techniques. The learning of Judo should follow a simple progression. One learns to throw by being thrown and he learns to defend by learning to throw. Therefore, before learning throwing techniques, one must master ukemi. Also, before learning defense, one must learn to throw. Defense skills come at a later stage of Judo study and they come naturally when one becomes proficient in ukemi and nage waza, and through many sessions of randori. It is a natural progress. No one would teach or let a one-year-old baby run or jump. It is against the nature. You would be swimming against the tide–a total waste of time and energy! A student of Judo has a better plan for his time and energy. Instead of spending energy learning these turnout techniques, he learns to fall properly and to throw. In it, he would learn to defend, and, indeed, more safely.

roll1 Understanding Ukemi (Falling Techniques) By Brandon Lee


A Judo Sensei teaches many things, but not some skills to win a competition. He teaches patience, perseverance, hard work, and value through Judo training and guides his students in life. All these teachings and elements may lead to a winning in contest. But, make no mistakes. It is only a by-product of his teachings and student’s learning, not the goal in any sense. Gerald Lafon mentions a caption displayed on a French TV program. The caption reads "the goal of Judo is to fall on feet." I have never heard such a ludicrous statement in my life. Yamashita in his recent speech at the Japan International Tournaments held on the 13th January 2002 spoke on "Judo Renaissance" based on Kano Sensei’s ideal. Kano Sensei wanted all the people of the world to enjoy Judo and laid stepping stones for this. Since then, many students of Judo followed his foot steps and achieved his goal of spreading Judo throughout the world. But, sadly, many have forgotten the true meaning of Judo as conceived by Kano Sensei. Even sadder is that some are never taught what Judo really is. Many believe that Judo is a sport and the goal is to win just like football or tennis. Or, some separate one Judo from the other, namely sport Judo. It is not so. Judo is Judo. There should be only one Judo. That is Judo created by Kano Sensei.

In concluding this article, I would like to quote one of Kano Sensei’s notes and share the insights of Tadao Otaki and Donn F. Draeger on the tendency of the modern-day Judo.

His (Kano Sensei’s) notebooks are replete with critical observations which are applicable today.

"Not all those practicing Judo are doing it in earnest as a means of promoting physical education…. Special attention must be paid in order not to over-exert any part of body. The formation of untoward habits or functional disability must be carefully avoided. In order to practice Judo as a means of physical education, special attention must be paid to the care of the health."

Modern-day Judo training, in disregard of Kano’s cautions, has come to have only the purpose of developing contest skills and the contest champion. By such a deliberate narrowing of the founder’s intention for Judo, untold harm is done to its practioners. Not only are the trainers unable to get the fullest benefits from Judo, but often they suffer injuries. Only when the emphasis on contest Judo is lessened and returned to its proper perspective, as intended by the founder, will Judo function as healthful physical education.5

Gerald Lafon in his conclusion writes "the history, pedagogy and the rules of sport Judo indicate turnouts are a valuable skill." The truth of the matter is that the history, pedagogy, the rules of "sport Judo", and the spirit and the teachings of Judo indicate the contrary.


1. Gerald Lafon, "Turnouts: Unorthodox Ukemi", This article can be reached in the competition research and technical papers section of the Judo Information Site at JudoInfo.com

2. Jigoro Kano, Kodokan Judo (New York, Kodansha International, 1994) p 45.

3. E.K. Koiwai, "Fatalities Associated with Judo," This article can be reached in the competition research and technical papers section of the Judo Information Site at JudoInfo.com

4. E.K. Koiwai, "Judo safety in individual and dual sports," Sports Safety Series, Monograph No.4, AAHPER Publications (1977) pp 37-42

5. Tadao Otaki & Donn F. Draeger, Judo Formal Techniques: A Complete Guide to Kodokan Randori No Kata (Boston, Tuttle Publishing, 1983) p 25.