Kūki Yomu: Can You Read The Air?

From Shiro Kuma by kumafr

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This is my third trip to Japan this year, and Sensei is still developing the concept of control through Mutō dori. The type of control he is able to apply to his opponents is not mechanical, but mental. And when there is physical contact, it is only with the twist of a few fingers.

Often Sensei controls with the tip of one finger; other times, he is not even touching the attacker. But this one is so stressed that he freezes like a rabbit caught in the headlights of the car.

In many occasions, Sensei has been using the word “Kūki” to explain how he is controlling the opponent. (1) My friend, Peter Torngren from Sweden, told me about  a specific Japanese expression: “Kūki Yomu” or “to read the air”, that explains this.

The full sentence is “Ba no Kūki wo Yomu.” It is “understanding the situation without words” or “sensing someone’s feelings.” It is a critical concept for understanding Japanese culture. The literal meaning is “reading the air.” (2)

When Sōke meets the attack, he “reads the air” and reacts to control the opponent. This typical Japanese trait is often difficult to grasp for a Westerner. In Japan, you have to develop a new skill and know when “it is the time.” To find the “good moment” is something we are not used to doing in Europe. We often privilege direct speech and answers.

Here, in Japan, you have to read the atmosphere in order not to make a mistake. This is the same in a fight. And I tend to believe the centuries of wars, have helped the Japanese to develop this ability. On the battlefield, awareness is an asset.

Many times I came here with a question to Sensei, that I couldn’t ask. Because it was never the right moment. In Budō, this capacity creates a natural set of reactions. Your body reacts naturally without strength or thought. This is the “zero state” we learned a few years back. In the “control”, Hatsumi Sensei plays with Uke, like a cat with a mouse. And at times, it seems he is not interested in the attacker, that he chooses to ignore him. (3)
Uke is so focused on sensei’s reactions that he is unable to move.

I cannot do it yet, and, apart from Sōke, no one can. Control is not something you decide. It emanates from you and forces the attacker to reconsider his actions.

Everything is Genkaku, an illusion (see the previous post). You don’t do anything for Uke to be unable to react. But it should be something natural, undecided.

If you fail to understand Kūki Yomu, you will remain “kūki ga yomunai”, “someone unable to read the situation”. (4)
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1 空気, Kūki: air; atmosphere; mood; situation
2 Kūki Yomu: https://en.m.wikipedia.org
3 空気扱い, Kūki atsuka: treating (someone) like they are air; ignoring (someone)
4 空気が読めない, kūki ga yomunai: unable to read the situation; unable to pick up on the mood (e.g. of a conversation)