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Distance Learning: The Concept of Maai
Part 1: Distance, timing, and reach are universal characteristics of combat.
Guide James Hom (5' 7" tall) closes the gap against 6' 5" partner Abdoulaye Fofana.
 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Maai
• Part 2: Reactionary Gap
• Part 3: Maai Drills

When you're exposed to many martial arts you begin to identify the universal elements that are common to all styles. One such element is maai, the Japanese term for the integration of distance, timing, and reach. Controlling these three attributes of combat is essential for victory.

Is maai really that essential? I asked someone who definitely knows: my grandma-in-law.

"Distance and timing are absolutely important," counseled 84-year old Junice Mori, cofounder and former president of the United States Naginata Federation (USNF). Grandma Mori recalled an occasion where control of maai proved more important than technique. "I was just a shodan (first-degree blackbelt) when we visited the other naginata sensei in Japan. But because I had trained in western fencing, I had practiced my distance and timing. I did ok against the women from Japan--nobody scored on me."

Maai is not just the distance of physical space between you and your opponent. It's also timing: who can close that distance first and strike before the other can block successfully. Reach, either innate because of one's limbs and height, or through possession of a long weapon, changes maai.

Diane Skoss, author and publisher of the excellent Koryu Books guides to traditional Japanese martial arts, explains it thusly: "It became clearer soon after when I ran into my friend Bill, who is over six feet tall, in the company of his girlfriend, who is five foot nothing. If the two of them were to stand side-by-side facing me, at (Bill's) arms length away, I would be fully within Bill's maai, and just outside of his girlfriend's. They would both be in my maai. If Bill took one step back, he might very well be out of my maai, yet I would still be within his."

Maai is also important in the defensive tactics concept of reactionary gap.

Next page > Reactionary Gap > Page 1, 2, 3

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