Enriching a Basic and Applied Science of Atemi: The Role of Joint-Attentional Saliency and Relevancy in Aiki

Triangle Circle Square V (Roy Æ Hodges; sealed with pen name 牙王)

According to popular Aikido lore, atemi is a large portion of Aikido. Gozo Shioda (1996) had written that, “the founder, Ueshiba Sensei, said, ‘In a real battle, atemi is seventy percent, technique is thirty percent’” (p. 24). Considering divine (i.e., kami) origination of aiki[do] and its founding via Morihei Ueshiba’s eclectic life (e.g., budo, politics, military, instruction, spirituality, religion, home ownership, family), it is worth considering additional perspectives of aiki through a lens of facilitated joint attention (Bruner, 1974; Lewis, 1969; Scaife & Bruner, 1975), and subsequent effects.1Joint attention is also present between masters (i.e., wisdom) and students (i.e., perception), across short to far temporal-spatial distances; it is evident in boxing teaching/learning as well (see Okada, 2013, pp. 391–400).

First, this article will familiarize a reader with principles of joint attention based on recent psychological literature. This is critical as atemi, in practice, is an exercise in “shifting” social attention (martially, socially etc.). Second this article will cover the etymology of atemi. An etymological perspective grounds a framing of sociological concerns (i.e., psychological need <valence increase|orbital configuration>) of utterances lifted from one sphere at a point in time and space and dropped into another sphere at a different point in time and space between communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). This is a practice well informed by linguistic anthropology.

Finally a discussion will be offered, as to what specifically is attended to, inclusive of subsequent reverberations of atemi, jointly is where martial efficacy is evidenced. This goes without saying that the analysis is offered sans social desirability for internalizing popular objectivated ideologies of what attitudes (i.e., cognitions, affects, behaviors) a budoka should/could embody as these are influenced by multicultural variance. This is where the journey will begin, though in reality, the author had practiced aikido more directly prior under the guidance of Mitsugi Saotome, Shihan, and other direct students.

Joint Attention

Joint attention had been defined as “aware[ness] of the object or event as the focus of the other person’s attention (Hobson, 2005, p. 185). While clear and easy to understand, a definition and measurable operationalization of joint attention and its development is subject to debate. An object may be at any phase of temporality (e.g., future, present, past), imagined (or not), inclusive of self (or other), or any matter of cognitions (Reddy, 2003). Joint attention may be facilitated by bottom-up (e.g., salient stimuli) and top-down (e.g., control, regulation) processes (Brinck, 2004; Kaplan & Hafner, 2006).

Curiously, salient, and relevant to this present study is a concept of full jointedness, wherein there is a shared awareness not only of the object, but also a sharing of attitudes toward an object (Hobson, 2005, p. 185). Hobson enumerated three ways of this jointedness in (a) congruent focus, (b) congruent antecedent cognition, and (3) congruent effect (p. 5). Essentially in these three ways, are found a mutually shared attention driving saliency (past/antecedentss), mutually shared attention itself (present/behaviors), and attention’s mutually shared effects (future/consequences).

Development of social attention is asserted to be contingent on individual attention (Sipisova & Carpenter, 2019), wherein individual attention engages “with the environment from a first-person perspective only” (p. 261). Subsequent individual attention, Sipisova and Carpenter’s typology of social attention encompasses (a) monitoring, (b) common, (c) mutual, and (d) shared attentions (pp. 261–264). Unlike first-person individual attention, and third-person monitoring and common social attention, mutual and shared social attention are second-person. It is this unique second-person relationship wherein the final two types are deemed joint-attention; there is a “direct, reciprocal, and engaged second-person relation with [another]” (p. 267; edits for readability). Attention is evidenced to “shift” between types of individual-social attention along a scale of jointness.

Monitoring Attention

In monitoring attention, an individual takes “a third-person, observer’s perspective on a second individual, and attends to what the other person is attending to” (p. 261). This form of social-attention oft leads to observable changes in monitor behavior. Individuals monitored may manipulate attention of a monitor through (a) increased sensory saliency to the monitor (e.g., increasing threat evaluation, increasing illocutionary force) and (b) unidirectional pointing (e.g., behavioral prompting, illocutionary proposition). Austin’s (1962) speech acts have been merged in example as these offer a bridge to kotodama (i.e., spirit of words).

Common Attention

Common attention is where each individual “take[s] a third-person, observer’s perspective on the other, more or less simultaneously attending to the same thing, but also that they are attending to each other’s attention to the thing” (p. 262). Common attention is when (a) objects of attention are salient/public, (b) each individual perceives the other individual’s attention as relevant, and (c) each individual perceives that their own attention is relevant and salient to the other.

Mutual Attention

Mutual attention is where each individual “engaged in a second-person relation to each other, while they are more or less simultaneously attending to the same thing, such that both of them directly experience each other attending both to that thing and to their own attention to the thing and each other” (p. 263). The prototypical case offered by Sipisova and Carpenter is “eye contact” about the object, otherwise known as “attention contact” (Gómez, 1996). A second prototype is mutual touch (Botero, 2016). Saliency and relevancy is again core to this additional form of joint attention in facilitating “reciprocal and reactive information about their attention” (p. 263). In mutual attention the awareness of each other’s attendance comes after attending to the same sensory object.

Shared Attention

Shared attention builds on mutual attention, in that there is intentionality in communicating objects of attention and/or their shared attention to it (p. 263). The goal in shared attention is to bi-directionally share focus of attention (Gilbert, 2007), and it need not be verbally confirmed (Sipisova and Carpenter, 2019, p. 263).

The Scale of Jointness

“Shifting” between individual attention, through monitoring, common, mutual, and shared attentions occurs as mentioned prior, through changes in saliency, goals, “common grounds”, contingency and timing, perceptual space, behaviors, individual differences, and relationship closeness (Sipisova and Carpenter, 2019). The awareness of another’s attention is also subject to levels of certainty.

Now, having covered concepts related to individual-, social-, and joint- attentions, the value of the scale of jointness is directly applicable to the principle of atemi in the manifestation of aiki. That individuals “shift” between these forms of attention is contingent on respective causes of each attentional type. Specifically to atemi, the common interpretation experienced is that it is related to strikes to the body, however in etymology, and a knowledge graph of it across various cultures, atemi is much more than mere “strikes to the body” and requires clear atemporal perception on the appropriation of these “strikes” with respect to future recursive effects influencing of attitudes (i.e., cognitions [i.e., thoughts], affects [i.e., feelings], and behaviors [i.e., [[STATIC]] ]). And now to continue to the etymology of atemi.

Etymology of Atemi

The initial ideogram 当, is related to its simplified Chinese character 当, yet traditionally had been written 當 (“當”, 2023). This character has numerous interpretations, yet each interpretation when sorted on a Glasserian sorting table exhibited a characteristic of joining (i.e., 合). Of interest is the Korean interpretation of “appropriate”, as Korea facilitated the importation of Chinese characters to Japan. That said, the Japanese language predates this importation, and carried its own signification. However, amongst individuals developing not only martially, but also scholarly, artistically, aesthetically, and in many spheres of life, it goes without saying that etymology is a frequent refrain of study, and carries and influences application.

Charles Muller’s (2008/1993) Digital Dictionary of Buddhism offers the basic meaning of 當 as “should be”. Senses mean “granted”, “deserve”, “what is right according to reason”, and carried senses of future tense (i.e., will be, will), and a having to do, should do, ought to do. In this, reflections of Korean forms of an appropriation may be inferred. There is also a logical sequence sensed in “then, at that time” and “in the presence of, in the place, in, at”.

The next ideogram is 身, relates to the body, and is contrasted with mind (Muller, 2018/1993). This character is highly contextual with respect to Confucianism, and carries specific interpretations dissimilar in Buddhist literature. Without going into great detail, there is an entire application of Buddhist perspective to 当身. Suffice to say, 身 simply means body, though in some perspectiveless “perspectives” is devoid of self.

It then is reasonable to interpret 当身 as more than just strikes to the body, or impacts, but what is right according to the reasons that said body had presented. 当身, or better yet 當身, is that rapid reconfiguration of spacetime matterenergy geometries that rapidly and in some instances explosively changes said configuration. However, the point here, is that atemi is concomitant kairos, that right timing wherein A affects B rightly, in [through] the future.

Atemi therefore is not a strike in the present, it is a strike delivered into the future [across time]. Thus, with this etymology, enjoined with an analysis of joint attention, a discussion may be entered. For this is the literature that strikes across the future, passed.


Consideration of the scale of jointness of Siposova and Carpenter (2019) is compelling and offers a rich signpost within which to point out phenomena that occurs in such a short span of time, not coding it necessarily (unless basic science or applied science in the form of technology is at play), but to invite the reader to study it with greater sensitivity and resolution to illuminate its saliency and relevancy (et voila).

Disconfirming Immediacy of Joint-Attention to Reveal Aspatiality/Atemporality in Atemi

Sipisova and Carpenter’s interpretation that an exchange of letters is not a form of shared attention, is easily disconfirmed. This interpretation is akin to elementalism in psychology, for what is sensory stimuli transducted, but a “letter” wherein afferent neurons “pivot” toward efferent where there is a spatial-temporal gap (i.e., light cone) regardless of distance? Asserting a boundary of “acceptable” joint-attention is akin to early assertions of intelligence and lack of it related to racial inventions. Thankfully psychology had moved beyond elementalism. Just see joint attention for what it is, functionally, behaviorally, cognitively, multiculturally, and superpositionally.

Whether microseconds or epochs, joint-, social-, and individual- attentions, are real to imagined. That someone attending to a salient threat, infers a threat through conceptual memos, descriptive press, or a well placed strike is of no matter. What is more important is the attendance to threat saliency. This threat saliency may be developed through any matter of ecological, biological (e.g., genetic, epigenetic, evolutionary), psychological, and sociological forces.3 The threat itself may be imagined by the conceiver/descriptor days or years earlier, and attendance to it imagined by the perceiver days or years later. Time and space, therefore are merely [<a|e>fferent] buffers, offering power inverse squared effects, mitigated by informational preservation via kinetic to potential forms of energy (e.g., speech to word, jab to feint, feint to [redacted]).

A Synonymous Relation of Atemi & Aiki

Upon social attention considered, as applied in terms of martial efficacy, had been the consideration of an etymology of atemi. It is important to note here, at this exact moment, that these are not mere words laid down in a vacuum, but through decades of experience, wherein one of those decades had been spent in deep study of atemi itself. Such is the benefit from studying with a master of shifting social attention whether through strikes, techniques, or through varying powers of speech and gestures (and many other forms of behavior modification).

That atemi’s ideographs contain an entire world of operationalization and definition related to facing, bearing, withstanding, resisting, undertaking, managing, taking charge of, working, serving, matching equally, equalizing, just at the same time/place, meeting, happening to, to be, ought, should, judging, sentencing, gapping, spacing, breaking etc. (“當”, 2023). In these, functionally, is a joining (i.e., 合). Therefore, it is evident that the practices in experimenting with intent, joint attention, and joint action of aiki will be, is, and had been a study of phasic shifts in attention, wherein attention’s relation to intention is connected. Intention—that subtlest of cognition pre-linguistically shaping/guiding action (i.e., kamma).

A Selfless Strike Allocated Across Spacetime

Essentially, it seems that 當 allocates what will be. In this, one can see senses paired with bu (武). To this end, one’s entire being/body/kaya halts aggression. Taking an enlightenment perspective, this entire being, halts samsara’s aggression, “with its churning waves”, drawing liberation for limitless beings nearer (in the future [i.e., next turning]) rather that driving it away further (in the past [i.e., dark times]). These “strikes” alter the course of future events, not present ones. In a skilled master, though the present or near present interpretations may not make sense (i.e., skillful means), deep penetrating wisdom arranges recognition and recall in the future through atemi’s spatial-temporal penetration from the present, now passed. In this way atemi is atemporal—study this well.

To these ends, it is evidenced, that the peak of basic and applied science of bu is not only in individual, self-other, we-they, brand-consumer interactions, but in topological spaces of human emotion [subject to stress] and perception [subject to strain], sans divisions of beings aforementioned. It is therefore asserted that when these divisions are no longer attended to, a better and more fitting social living is enjoined, based in emotional-perceptive attention, wherein human needs are more directly attended to rather than attachment to oughts/shoulds of selves/others.

It is love guided by compassion that accelerates the positioning of the hydraulic jack of a well formed body posture collapsed and instantaneously jacked to insert [redacted] into the insertion points of tendons in such a way to pull the facia through the side, back to the spine, down the hips and calves, down to the leg and ankle, to the edge of the foot, and toe, in order to “retract the claws” of aggression—in the future. In this, there is an evaporation of a “next move”.

This is the study of atemi, the immediate arrival in such a position that the “other” experiences anti-habituative relevant [threat] saliency halting a field of next moves. This threat may be love itself, it may be compassion, it may be democracy, and it may be that soft power that Ghandi had employed with British aristocracy—strategies and tactics leading to a pervasive social embarrassment to override bystander effects, beauty bias, stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, and so much more.


Atemi comes in limitless forms, countless as the drops of the universe’s seas, and limitless as the grains of the universe’s deserts. To a master of aiki (i.e., wisdom applied), the shape is formed immediately by highly attuned individual, social, and joint-attentions. It changes in varying intervals and velocities, depending on aggression’s layers of integrations/differentiations immediate. In this method, the master directs attention not to replicate Mertonian strain adaptations, nor to morality, but to that which is services genesis of an, not the, immediate continuously non-replicative creative adaptative morality—direct perception/emotion itself. This atemi is limitlessly inclusive and respectful of individual needs for significance (see significance quest theory [SQT]; Kruglanski et al., 2022), autonomy, relatedness, and competency (see self-determination theory [SDT]; Ryan & Deci, 2000), and a constellation of human needs.

Atemi as Kofu-an-Toku

Atemi, properly placed, not used, is as a living Kofu-an-Toku, a signpost pointing to its own recursive aggression reduction. Reductions of aggression nearly unseen in moments spanning a spark gap—pop—gone. This is why in some methods, right view is the forerunner of the path (e.g., Buddhism). Atemi is the lightning bolt, the flower twirled, the rap of a staff, or the gentle breeze, depending on piercing perception, under the blade (i.e., non), that awakens enlightened attention, and though it is brief, there is accumulation.

Fields of Atemi

To these ends, the author invites the reader to study, and apply atemi, in nin. And… the only way to do that is to manage flow, wherein skill is developed within a narrow band of just out of reach challenge. It may be scary, it may be nerve wracking, and it may be perceived unsafe, but there are mitigations. In a time where psychology is trying to illuminate “resiliency”, good luck with the “fear hierarchy” that atemi assists with. In enlightenment, it’s all uphill from here—and it is joyous (hats off to Camus [1942]).

There is saliency, and there is relevance—indeed (it’s worth looking up the etymology of indeed). It is worth exploring for any budoka (i.e., martial artist), and researcher of individual-, social-, joint- attention, and fully jointed attention. In the observation and study of atemi, it is important to approach it with zanshin (i.e., lingering mind). Zanshin allows recollection and recall of atemi’s joined effects not only immediate, but also its joined effects reverberating across time and space. Herein wisdom empowers the brake and its release (etc.), against fields of time and space (i.e., atemporally, aspatially). Yet this study does not end here, or here. For the master is eclipsed by a greater mastery of the interference patterns of atemi fields—in full jointedness—this may very well be a wisdom of what in Aikido lore is shobu aiki.


1 Originator and founder here is used in the context of scientific discrimination between originators and founders. While Morihei Ueshiba, O-Sensei, had been and continues to be described as the founder of aikido, it is important to point out that O-Sensei had not proclaimed himself the creator of it—this origination is of kami (i.e., 神). Originators, while chiefly responsible for “discoveries”, said discoveries are occasionally integrated, explained, and proselytized by founders. According to Schultz and Schultz (2016), founding requires “deliberate and intentional act[s]” (p. 65), “vigorous promotion, or selling, of the idea” (p. 65), and something to “push against” (p. 75). For example, while Wilhelm Wundt is considered the founder of psychology, Gustav Fetcher and many others originated psychology. This can be seen in modern psychology as well. Martin Seligman is considered the founder of positive psychology, yet Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi is credited by Seligman himself as its principle/leading researcher, and thus Csikzentmihalyi may be considered its [co-]originator. O-Sensei essentially pushed against prior well accepted interpretations of martial concepts, its training, and pedagogy, redefining and promoting a different perspective of budo, and thus meets scientific historiographic criterion of a founder. That said, with piercing wisdom, the founder is in the interference, sans self, sans other, etc., wherin this reaches convergent validity with recent findings of psychology, sociology, and biology.

3 This threat saliency may be developed through any matter of ecological, biological (e.g., genetic, epigenetic, evolutionary), psychological, and sociological forces[, include of further systemic forces as a result of their ability to accelerate/decelerate [REDACTED] ].


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