Learning about the sense of distance

Some months ago I was interviewed by an education magazine for parents of students.

During the interview with the press, we talked about how in recent times many children have had trouble with not being able to cope with stress.  They give up easily when faced with important tasks, and are often unable to communicate well and form relationships. As a result, they seem to lack enthusiasm, both at school and in daily life.

When forming relationships it is important to be able to have a good sense of distance. One of the factors in Budo (martial arts) is to be able to maintain a safe distance from our partner, in order to protect one self. This “safe distance’ is called “ma ai”. In Shinshin Toitsu Aikido practice we define “ma ai” as follows:

1)      A distance where you are unable to reach the opponent unless a step forward is taken.

2)      A distance when you see the opponent’s face, you can also see the entire outline of the opponent’s body.

3)      A distance in which you are able to maintain a calm state of mind.

If you are unable to achieve even one of the above points, it is not achieving “ma ai”.

When you are closer than the safe distance, you are inside “ma ai” and when you are further than the distance, you are outside “ma ai”.

To not be able to maintain “ma ai”’ not only means that you are unable to protect yourself, but also that you may pose a threat to, or simply make it uncomfortable for, your partner. When you meet someone for the first time and you have not yet formed a trusted relationship with that person, to enter into their “ma ai” is considered impolite in Japan. 

If you are able to have an appropriate sense of distance in daily life, you will be able to communicate and form good relationships with others.

We should all check to see if we are managing to keep “ma ai” in our daily life.

For example when shaking hands with someone, the distance for it is always within the “ma ai”. In fact, the act of shaking hands is actually getting closer to the inside of the other person’s “ma ai.” However, from the other person’s point of view, it is welcoming to their “ma ai,” since, when shaking hands with someone, there is a demonstration of your trust.

People who do not understand this sense of distance, when introducing themselves for the first time, will usually approach people with abrupt suddenness in trying to shake their hands. If you actually try it, it is easy to understand the uncomfortable feeling caused by this kind of action. When meeting someone for the first time, it is best to greet/introduce oneself outside of the other person’s “ma ai” first, (this helps indicate that you are a safe person), then step into the person’s “ma ai” and offer to shake hands. This is proper manners.

The other day it was reported on a program on NHK (Japanese news broadcast) that children nowadays have difficulty understanding and having a sense for “ma ai.” As stated above, this can result in them not being able to form strong and lasting relationships with others. There is a saying, “a hedge between keeps friendship green.” In any kind of close relationship, it is necessary to have a good sense of distance at times. Unfortunately, it seems that children nowadays are unaware of this practice.


Most children spend their time focusing on their studies so that their opportunity to interact with other people is minimized, and this makes their understanding of creating and judging safe distance less. This can be a serious problem. In order to go out into society and make a living in the future, studying should not be the only priority for these children. Being able to form relationships with people around them and communicate well is also very important.

In school, children form many relationships with other children around the same age. In Shinshin Toitsu Aikido children classes, they not only interact and make friends with other ages but also have a chance to practice and experience other aspects of human relationship with older and younger generations.

Older children learn to look after the younger children, the younger children learn to respect as well as learn from the older children. Children of all ages can then be able to learn about forming relationships and as well as sensing appropriate distance.

Learning how to sense and judge a safe distance is also very important for adults as well.

When studying martial arts (budo) becoming stronger both physically and mentally is of course necessary during training.  But it is also important to learn about basic relationship skills, like “ma ai”. By learning these skills, we are then able to become more confident in practice as well as in daily interaction with many different people and their different characters.

We should all put into practice the principles we learn from dojo into our daily lives.