A Deeper Look into Ma-ai

Space: “The final frontier”.
But I mean another kind of space. I mean Ma-ai.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

Ma-ai is defined as space, distance, reach or interval. When I was beginning Aikido, my partner and I used to stretch out our arms in full extension and touch fingertip to fingertip. And that was that. Ma-ai was that simple. Then we would proceed to practice our strikes and tai-sabaki drills, stop when the teacher signaled to stop, measure fingertips then begin again. In our pairwork, the teacher would come around and remind us to be always aware of our safe distance, our Ma-ai.

In my trying to understand the concept and practice of Ma-ai, the elements of not only distance, but also speed, timing, and reach also came up. These elements define Ma-ai, but still, there is more to it than that. Because Ma-ai also expands and contracts. Because Ma-ai is also dependent on intuition for intent. Isn’t there Ma-ai in personal space in relation to safety too?  What exactly, then, is Ma-ai? 

Back to Basics

In Aikido, Ma-ai is the proper distance between you and  training partner, that he has to take a step to complete the distance to be able to reach you. But now, I have come to realize that it is in fact, not as simple as the definition given to me many, many years ago.

Motohiro Fukakusa Shihan; 35th Anniversary of the Hong Kong Aikido Association.

Motohiro Fukakusa Shihan; 35th Anniversary of the Hong Kong Aikido Association.

Ma-ai is the interval between parties, the distance of engagement; in other traditional martial arts like kendo and karate,  it is the spatial relationship between oneself and the opponent, and is usually classified into three kinds, dependent on the distance as the sole parameter for the time it would take for one to reach the other with his blade or strike:

Tō-ma- the long interval or distance, where it would take you further and longer to reach your opponent,
Itto-ma– the one step – one sword distance, where it would take just a step and a slash to reach your opponent, and;
• Chikama– the short distance, where you are already within each others space.

Ma-ai in Speed and Timing

Aside from physical distance, one’s Ma-ai is also dependent on the speed of each of the participants as well as how they time their movements.  Sometimes, in my mind, I picture two equally skilled swordsmen in a frozen -in-time face off, each of them waiting for the right time and each equally hoping, he will be the faster.  The faster and more well-timed his entry or attack, the more chances he will have of  overcoming the other.


At other times, I also imagine a different scenario: Imagine yourself as a swordsman fighting a duel with another swordsman whom we know is younger, faster, and more skilled than you are. Doesn’t his Ma-ai seem bigger than yours?

Speed and Timing, and our understanding and capacity for it in relation to the attacker affects our Ma-ai as well.

Ma-ai Contracts and Expands

Ma-ai stretches, expands and contracts.  This is dependent on the reach of the weapons we are holding and the capacity for speed and timing both parties have in a given martial encounter. When you are holding a sword and your partner is empty handed, both your personal space and reach are totally different.

Bukiwaza; Morihiro Saito Sensei

Bukiwaza; Morihiro Saito Shihan.

The one holding a sword would have a longer reach, and the empty-handed one a shorter reach. Knowing this, both  sides adjust so that each maintains  a safe distance. As an application, in the case of a bat-wielding assailant and a sledge-hammer wielding opponent, their Ma-ai would also have to consider the heft and damage and speed with which they can wield their weapons.  (I’m just playing around with scenarios in my head, I’ve never seen these two people in a real life face off.)

This concept also extends to the actual application of techniques. For example, in the engagement of  a throwing technique in Aikido, we lead our partner to open up a space for us to enter. As we move, we already set them up for the throw.  Here, we are actually using our understanding of how Ma-ai contracts and expands to our advantage.  The awareness of  its perimeters allows us to constantly keep ourselves almost within reach but just a hair out of reach, so that their intention to get to us is not broken.  We use that intent to connect with them, leading them into the ideal situation for us to throw them.

When you have a great partner who understands this, you both enjoy the game of leading, setting up, trying to break out of the set up and afterwards, you both enjoy a good laugh.  I love it when this happens!

Ma-ai and Intention

lovehateMa-ai can also determined by how you understand intent. When you know you will be safe, your Ma-ai gets shorter. When you sense harmful intent, you keep a controlled and well monitored distance, preferably longer and further than the reach and speed of the other being in question.

So, you have family, who you know will always be there for you, love you, care for you.  Your Ma-ai keeps them as close as you want them to be.  You have work mates, they watch your back or stab you in the back, depending on your work relationship with them and you adjust your distance with them, too.  You have the cat-calling strangers who stand on the corner, and you hold on to your mace and give them a wide berth.

Sensing Personal Space and  Safety

In animal behavior and human psychology, the levels of how close a person can get to another person or being is dependent on how safe the other feels within the company of that person. That is Ma-ai, too. This is the concept of personal space. Have you ever been in a very crowded train? How did it feel being squeezed in with total strangers?

Crowded Tokyo Subway. Photo Credit: Michael Wolf

Crowded Tokyo Subway. Photo Credit: Michael Wolf

I remember in the classroom, one of my teachers managed our unruly class of young adolescent 14 year old girls through intimidation by proximity.  If she even suspected something fishy, she would situate herself right beside the suspected perpetrator of mischief.  It worked. She was a wonderful teacher because she excited our minds and made us want to learn more, yet also maintained discipline without breaking our spirit.  This simple tactic is still being used everywhere.  The police presence in the current neighborhood where I live now, is a reflection that Ma-ai in this form still works.

It does not seem positive to exert mental intimidation and use the role of fear to expand Ma-ai, but because it does happen, and it is being used, I guess, I have to consider it just to be fair.  There are some areas where you are not allowed to enter due to safety reasons.  Areas so heavily patrolled and secured that it makes you wonder, “what’s in there?”

There are people who have “levels of security clearances”, too.  Some can enter restricted or intimate space, and others cannot.  For safety reasons, of course. In a way, being able to isolate and distance these areas are ways Ma-ai is used to manage and restrict access.

woman-readingIn trying to look at maintaining distance, I too have to consider the emotional connection or disconnection of people.

There also exists “the me time”.  you know, that time when you just want to be left alone.  This usually happens when you are pondering some great question or enjoying a moment of precious solitude.   This is important, too,  and our life partners understand that sometimes, we just need to disconnect from the world and be alone with our thoughts, musings and day dreams.  Or when I need to write about something, I like to be all alone. This, also is a part of Ma-ai, for me.

I have no capacity to become a veterinarian.  The reason being, I would break every time I lose a patient. I admire the professionals and their nurturing and caring for the weak, the sick, and the disadvantaged.  They have reached a level of maintaining a distance that would also protect them from breaking every time they lose a battle with disease, a patient, a charge.

Then, there are the naturally existing creatures who are just inherently wild.  Wild things that will not be tamed would maintain a wider circle of awareness and guardedness than a pet. Here, too, is seeing an awareness of Ma-ai in action.

“But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love; let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls” Kahlil Gibran

“But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love; let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls”
~Kahlil Gibran

The way I understand it, Ma-ai is the sum total of all these elements so that we have a harmonious space to live in. But, even still, I do not think it is as simple as that. It is a good definition, but I found it wanting. There was that niggling feeling inside me, like a wriggling worm of a feeling that still there is more to Ma-ai. After much thinking and re-thinking about this concept, it finally dawned on me:

Perhaps, Ma-ai is a relationship.

Yes, it is basically simply stated as distance, but it is also affected by your relationship with the other, it is about you and about the other, your circumstances individually, together and toward each other. It is your connection as a whole.

In understanding Ma-ai as a relationship of people and space, when I roll this idea around in my head, practice maintaining Ma-ai with this in my heart, mind and soul- I feel at peace with it. Maybe, personally, this is the right definition of Ma-ai for me.


(Please also see: “Balance“)


Home Land


Lush and green, Quilted
Rice paddies and Sugarcane fields.

Wet and humid
Mountains, jungle-dressed.
Green Land and Blue Sea.

White sand and black shores
White crested waves
Draped on pink and coral sands.

Brown people singing
Sweet songs
Of love, family, life.

Volcano riddled
Earthquake region.

Flooding and typhoon region.
Strong people smiling
Thru it all.

Wandering souls.
Come home.

Musings on Psychology: the Onion, the Book, and the Window

Would you prefer to be compared to an onion? A book ? Or a window?

I have been brushing up on a few basic Psychology 101 comparisons regarding people and their psyche. We can be compared to onions, books or windows. I am assuming, of course, that most of us are familiar with these tools but for the sake of those who are not, let me review them anyway.

  • The Onion

People and situations are compared to onions because of its layers. When we look at the structure of the onion, it is comprised of layers. On the outside and surface of the onion we see what the elements have done to it.

We see dry flaky skins or skins with a healthy looking shine to them. When we choose onions for cooking, we choose them based on what we see outside. We look for good color, unblemished or uncut and well hydrated surfaces. Ever notice that the flaky onions in the grocery boxes where we can pick and choose are the ones mostly left behind? But sometimes, even an onion with a flaky dry exterior still has a perfectly flavorful and totally usable interior. (These onions are a misleading lot!) Anyway, a person is sometimes compared to an onion because of its layers. The more we get to know a person or a situation, the more we peel away from the surface of that which we see, towards the heart of the matter, which we don’t often see.

Red onionsMy officemates know nothing about my contributions to this blog, or the things I do on
the mats, for Aikido and peace work. They are my co-workers. We work well together, I like them and they like me, but they can only see what I choose for them to know and see. That’ s all. I could safely estimate they probably know only a very small aspect of who I am, even if they know I can be trusted and depended on all the time, anytime. That’s the way I like it. But the closer we grow together, another aspect of our person and character are revealed. And another layer of our onions is peeled away as we move through our job together.

In Peace and Conflict Studies, one of the approaches to difficult people and situations is by understanding the model presented by the onion. We have to keep opening up the layers to be able to dig deep into a person’s motivations and intentions or a problem’s underlying causes so that we will be able to deal with them comprehensively and competently.

  • The Book

pagesIn the book model, however, we have no layers. We have pages. There is the top and outer cover, which may or may not be indicative of its contents; and there are pages upon pages to be read and understood before you finally get to the end of the story or the book and finally have a firm grasp of the data contained within its pages. The further you progress in the leafing and reading through the book, the more comprehensive your understanding. You have to be patient and keep on reading until the very end.

  • The Window

And then there is Johari’s window. The window is another tool and another theory towards understanding yourself and others. It is divided into four parts.

windowThese four parts are:

1. The Known Self
(you and everybody else know who this is, for example: everybody knows who likes to wear leopard print leggings)

2. The Hidden Self
(Only you know about this aspect of yourself, it is your secret self, for example: the kind who likes to dance to Wham’s Buttercup song in the shower)

3. The Blind Self
(The person the others know and see, but you don’t, or maybe you deny it, refuse to acknowledge its existence, for example, your self body image is fat but others know you are voluptuously deliciously curvy)

4. The Unknown Self
(The self you and others still don’t know about but might discover later on: enter the PhDs, the analysts, hypnotist, psychic and medium)

These three are just some of the most common tools we employ to try to box and classify people and situations in our quest for more understanding, so we are able to work with them. Have you ever consciously applied any of these tools towards yourself, something or someone?

 I have a beef with these tools. I don’t want to be compared to an onion, even if its approach seems effective. Neither do I want to be compared to reading a book, even if it fosters patience and tolerance. And I don’t want to be compared to anybody’s window. Or be an onion on a book framed by a window. Nah.

It is good to remember that we have these tools on hand to try to gain an understanding and maintain harmony and peace among ourselves and the world around us. Psychology gives us a workable platform to deal with the known and the unknown of a person’s psyche. (Did you know that in some schools there exists two Psychology programs? One is the Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and the other is the Bachelor of Science in Psychology. )

But, I believe we can never be totally and accurately analyzed. Yes, some agencies might be able to draw up a psychological profile on us, but we are people. We evolve everyday. The human spirit cannot be contained or quartered into sections of a peel, a page or a windowpane.

If I had the choice, I would choose William’s comparisons.

the clover tooWilliam Shakespeare compared Juliet to the sun rising in the East, and Romeo to a rose. And then, William Wordsworth compares Lucy to a “violet by a mossy stone, half hidden from the eye. Fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky”

I digress. But, what I’d really like to know is where our Bills belong. In the science of psychology, or in the art? And yet, they are poets, not psychologists or profilers. They’re very eloquent to fully capture in verse how being human is totally complicated, very prismatic and ever fascinating. I believe they can capture the human spirit much more easily than an onion/ book /window model can.

So, what are you going to compare yourself to? An onion? A book? Or a window?
(A sunrise? A violet? A rose? or a star?)

An exercise in “W”


What War does not wreak havoc
on this World of men
Wantonly wanting more space, more water, more land?
What war leaves widows wailing on the parched sand,
Blood-stained by husbands, brothers, daughters and sons?

What War leaves wandering orphans
Waiting for parents who will never come home?
With Wondering eyes no longer innocent,
But old and tired and robbed of Will?
What Written Word can Wrest a Peace from War-torn kingdoms
Shred by Greed and Evil-ness, indeed?

Forge on ahead, grieving widows and wives,
The Woman is the key to land and home.
Lay Waste a World of War and choose, instead,
By sheer force of Will, a World of Peace.

(Please also see: “Youth“)

Aikido and the Two Faces


Aikido in general has both the seen and unseen qualities. This can be referenced to the Japanese society where it sprung from. In Japan, there is a cultural behavior so enmeshed in their collective psychology that they even have terms uniquely for it: Honne and Tatemae. In Japan, her people have two faces: the Honne ( 本音) and Tatemae (建前). Honne is a person’s true intent/feelings/desires, while Tatemae is the behavior and opinions one displays in public. Honne is what is hidden from the eyes of the society, the inner self, while Tatemae is what is shown, an ideal of a person that is publicly revealed. In western culture, this may be close to the Freudian Psychoanalytic Concept of the Id, Ego and Superego: the id being Honne and a mix of the Ego and the Superego being Tatemae, or the Jungian Archetypes of the Shadow as Honne and the Persona as Tatemae. It is close but not quite. The difference is because the concept of Honne and Tatemae is not purely a result of the psychological faculties alone, but it also encompasses, and to a greater extent, the cultural-anthropological circumstances of the Japanese people. In Japan, there is a saying:


“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”


Expounded, this means that the Japanese people function as a collective, as a group, with a group identity. The nails sticking out are criticized, looked down upon, and corrected. (Reference here: Otaku Culture and Wa Principle of Japanese culture). So for a Japanese to function in Japan, that person should act out his respective function in society as society deems it proper for him to act. This is because of the belief that group harmony is of more importance than individual desires. Hence the Tatemae is born: conformist, upright, and sensitive. and from this birth, its twin face, the Honne also comes into light: rebellious, passionate, improper and suppressed. This is truly a wonderful cultural uniqueness.  It is from this cultural trait that they have maintained unity as a people and flourished as a nation. It is because of this that the Japanese are earnest, even-tempered, and harmonious. The trick is to get to understand the Honne beneath the mask of the Tatemae.

images (3)

So it is with Aikido: What is seen is not everything. The rest is buried within the movement, unexpressed, unseen, but is vital. What is the Honne of Aikido that makes this Budo what it is? What in the technique is not being shown explicitly but implicitly? How can we focus on what we can’t see? In my opinion, ukemi may have the key to this. It is true in our art, that what cannot be seen can be felt. In the same manner, to understand Honne is to not only look at the Tatemae, but also to dig at the heart of what is really felt.

(Please also see: “Zen Fable: The Marvelous Techniques of the Old Cat (Neko no Myojutsu)“)