Understanding Initiative – The Principle of Sen

retaking the initiative - naginata

We live in a cause and effect world, and combat is no different. Combat is a chain of causality. Cause and effect follow each other in another endless dualistic cycle. The concept of Initiative (Sen) as it relates to combat is something worth considering. Sen can mean to precede, precedence, prior, future, or ahead. It has variously been described as Initiative in Budo terminology. To Initiate – to cause or facilitate the beginning of.

What is Initiative?

Several questions immediately come to mind about Initiative:

  • What is the purpose of initiative?
  • Is there advantage or disadvantage to taking the initiative?
  • Do you have to move or attack first to have the initiative?
  • How do we regain the initiative if we have lost it?

I am going to suggest that the purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage over your opponent. Conventional thinking suggests that by taking the first step\move (initiative), your opponent is forced to react to you and abandon his own plans at least temporarily. Initiative seems to indicate that by pre-empting your opponent’s actions, you have a higher probability of winning.

Like Boyd’s OODA loop, if you can get inside the opponent’s decision cycle, you Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act faster than your opponent. Which puts him on the defensive, gives him less time/fewer options to react while giving you more freedom. In other words, you spend more time shaping the engagement in your favor and your opponent spends more time detecting and reacting to your initiatives.

Several cycles of this type of engagement, with each one giving you greater and greater freedom of action while reducing that of your opponent, would make it appear that taking the initiative has significant advantages.

Of course, your opponent is trying to do the same to you; like trying to force each other into a corner. If you are in the corner, you have fewer and fewer directions to move. You want freedom in both space (to be able to move) and time (to decide when to move). In the corner, your opponent dictates your movement options and he has a wider grasp of time (he can choose to keep you in the corner, wait for reinforcements, or force you to fight until you are destroyed, break out, or surrender).

Therefore, it would seem that the answer to the first question above is that the purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage in the physical dimensions of time and space, mentally, and spiritually while reducing that of your opponent.

Do We Always Need the Initiative?

However, what about the second question? We can see some advantages to taking the initiative, but what about the disadvantages? If we equate initiative with attacking, we are in for a surprise. If we move against a prepared opponent, he will be ready to exploit the Gaps (Suki) inherent in our movement (Ugoki no Suki) or technique (Waza no Suki) that he can anticipate.

For example, if the attack is weak (slow, uncoordinated or at the wrong time), or anticipated (the defender plans for it, or actually depends on it for his reaction), then moving first is not necessarily an advantage.

Attacking is only one of several options to gain freedom of action, but if you are in a corner, it may be the only one left. Winning not only involves attacking, but setting up other opportunities. With an opponent trying to do the same to you, the goal must always be to react or initiate in such a way as to recapture Opportunity and/or Advantage by exploiting Gaps (Suki). A good pool player not only makes his shot, but also sets up his next shot to increase his opportunities and maintain the initiative. If he cannot make the next shot, he tries to place the cue ball in a position that makes it very difficult for the opponent to sink the next ball.

Western military science has always asserted that defense is a stronger form of combat because the attacker is required to move and strike—activities which trade off against each other and expose inherent Kyo-Jitsu cycles that can be exploited. There are many examples in Eastern martial traditions that espouse “Waiting” (Tai). “Be struck to win.”

Some martial styles have predominately advocated one or the other, but in reality there has to be a balance between offence and defence. There is a time and place for each. Higher-level Budo concepts such as the idea that offence and defence are the same thing will be discussed later (Chapter 13 – Kogeki Bobi).

Does Initiative Mean Moving First?

Initiation (Sen) and Attacking (Kogeki) are not the same thing. Like a chess player, you can strategically shape the chess board before the final engagement. In modern parlance, it is called preparation of the battle space, and starts long before the first bullet is fired. To put this into an example of a one-on-one engagement, imagine walking down the street heading to your car after seeing a movie and ahead of you are two unsavory characters.

  • You have already been proactive (taking the initiative) by studying your style of martial art and learning how to fight.
  • You have situational awareness (Kan) to determine that things are potentially shaping toward a bad situation.
  • By moving across the street to a well lit area with several other people, you are less likely to be isolated, position yourself in an advantageous position before any potential combat, and more importantly, dislocate the preferred environment of the opponents.
  • You can elicit support from allies, other people, or get the phone out of your pocket and dial 911 without hitting the send button yet.
  • You can determine which of the two opponents is the highest threat, and target any significant weaknesses of the opponent.

With the above scenario, you have been taking initiative without ever attacking and increased your probability of a better outcome than if you did nothing. You are already applying one of the three main methods of retaking the initiative from your opponent. You are mentally moving faster than your opponent and that leads to tactical speed. So, in answer to our third question, you do not have to attack first to have Initiative.

Because combat is dynamic and fluid, you are not always going to be in a position of maintaining the initiative. Your opponent may be faster, stronger, or have a particular technique that is very strong. You need to dislocate his strengths and apply yours to his weaknesses (Kyo) at the right time. There are several fundamental ways in which the Initiative (Sen) is recaptured during actual combat, and they all involve time. So now we can move on to the fourth question we have postulated about Initiative (Sen). How do we regain the initiative if we have lost it?


Excerpted from Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell.