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In Shorinji Kempo instruction we are often told to practice a counter with a specific timing. These timings are named as follows:

go-no-sen, block and then counter attack, (usually requires unbalancing the opponent to work well)

tai-no-sen, simultaneous block and counter attack,

sen-no-sen, last moment pre-emptive attack.

Are these concepts common to Japanese martial arts? Does the interpretation change across styles?

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Judo definitely uses "go no sen" and "sen no sen" in the same maner.

In martial arts, one player takes the initiative sen to attack.

Responding to that attack after it is initiated is go no sen, 'after the initiative', and is typical in Japanese martial arts training, particularly classic swordsmanship - your opponent raises their sword to attack, then attacks, typically stepping forward and swinging their sword forward in a downward arc. Once the attack is initiated, the defender steps off the line only after the attacker has committed to the attack and the sword begins its downward stroke. Watch a mongoose fight a cobra - the mongoose carefully gauges the distance, and is just fast enough to dodge the cobra's strike and bite the cobra at the base of its head, but always waits for the cobra to commit to and initiate a full strike. With the proper spacing interval maai you don't have to be faster than your attacker, just prepared and able to move with purposeful alacrity. The proper spacing gives you time to react effectively after the attack begins.

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Sen no sen is taking the initiative with the attacker's initiative - again, in swordsmanship, say the attacker readies his body for the attack by raising his sword into position to strike / but the defender takes the initiative to use that moment to attack (in military terms, a spoiling attack) before the sword begins its downward arc. As the original attacker is focused on executing their own attack, it is all the more difficult to counter, as it is impossible to attack and defend simultaneously.

As does Kendo:

"Sen no Sen" is that you know what your opponent is going to do so you will strike before your opponent moves.

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"Go no sen" is that you know what your opponent will strike, so you let them strike and then you strike.

Lastly, it's also used by karate:

To start from the beginning, let us look at go no sen. Go means "after." Go no sen is the timing that is often used in budo when responding to an attack. In aikido, an example would be stepping to the inside of the line of attack, parrying the attacking hand and executing shihonage when defending against yokomen uchi. In aiki-ken it could be exemplified by migi awase, with uke tachi stepping off the line of attack to the right and counterstriking with shomen uchi. In migi awase, we move in harmony with the attacker, but it is the attacker that is taking the initiative in the attack and we are mirroring his or her movements.

Sen no sen means before the attack. Sometimes this timing is also called mae no sen, mae also meaning before. Sen no sen implies that, for example in weapons practice, uke is aware of uchi's intention of attacking and right at the time when uchi is starting to attack, steps in and stops the attack. This could be exemplified in aiki-ken by the movement in which uke tachi steps directly in with tsuki at the moment when uchi tachi lifts his sword up to strike shomen uchi. This movement can be seen beautifully executed by O-Sensei in many of the old films. In aiki-jo, the movement in kumi jo number eight is a good example of sen no sen: uchi is standing in tsuki no kamae, as is uke. Uchi does hayagaeshi, intending to attack with yokomen uchi. As uchi steps forward while lifting the jo up and around in jodan gaeshi uchi, uke slide-steps straight in under uchi's jo, thrusting directly forward at uchi. In tai jutsu, the outward parry used against yokomen uchi is a good example of sen no sen: as uke lifts his hand up over his head and starts to swing his handblade forward in yokomen uchi, nage slide-steps forward to the outside and stops uke's hand before it gains too much momentum.

As a bonus, that document also opens with a mention that Aikido recognizes the terms, but does not consider them part of the art, since one should not anticipate the attack.

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  • Interesting, what about Tai No Sen?
    – Huw Evans
    Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 15:31
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    @HuwEvans: Yes, although the definition seems to vary more. Commented Jul 13, 2023 at 17:51
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    @HuwEvans The three kinds of initiative already part of Kano's book are go-no-sen (counter-initiative), sen-no-sen (pre-emptive initiative), and sen-sen-no-sen (steering the opponent's initiative as one's own). Judo does not use tai-no-sen as such as a term but tai-sabaki as a means for expressing forms of initiative. Since Kano was well-read and menkyo of two different schools of classical Japanese Jiu Jitsu I would guess that this is the traditional Japanese way. Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 17:18
  • @PhilipKlöcking In shorinji kempo the terminology is almost purely for striking techniques. We think of the soft juho techniques in different terms because the idea is that we don't choose to engage in grappling unless we are forced to... Or unless the opportunity is created.
    – Huw Evans
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 20:49
  • Also worth noting that while Kano predates So Doshin and also most of the other Japanese styles he was an innovator in his own right. I wouldn't like to say for sure that he hadn't invented this terminology.
    – Huw Evans
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 20:54

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