Westernized as jiujitsu, this is the ancestor art to the modern arts of judo, Brazilian jiujitsu (BJJ), sambo and several others across the world. While there are many who believe jujutsu was originally solely a grappling-based combat system, it is actually a full-form self defense system. It was developed during the age of the samurai and, as such, necessitated being effective against an armed and armored opponent. Though we do not wear much armor today, it is still a viable martial art and a deadly form of self defense.
A Brief History
It is believed that travelling monks from both China and India had begun spread their teachings throughout Asia long ago. With them, they brought their unique martial arts style in which diverting or manipulating energy was the focus. To evade or parry strikes and segue into throws and grappling exchanges allowed for more peaceful ends to otherwise violent situations. These monks brought their art to Japan and were fundamental in creating one of the most prolific and influential forms of self defense the world has ever known.
Jujutsu was developed during the Age of Warring States (Sengoku period) in Japan, this period consisted of majority unrest and war in which the samurai ruled as the fighting elite. In contrast to Chinese martial arts of the time, jujutsu was meant to be more grappling-based because of the armor traditionally worn in battle. Much of the techniques revolved around pins, throws and joint-locks while using the enemy’s energy against them. Much like the “kung fu”, jujutsu was meant to describe the pedagogy and not what is taught. Instead many schools (ryu) and techniques (jutsu) were referred literally such as taijutsu (body art), kenjutsu (sword techniques), and grappling (kumiuchi).
It wouldn’t be for another hundred years until jujutsu developed even further during the Edo period wherein samurai had begun to decline and war was more modernized. Jujutsu techniques began to see more fluid motions and the incorporation of strikes and even pressure-point attacks. In the late 1800s, a man named Jigoro Kano had begun to develop a more “civilized” version of jujutsu. A derivative that would be more inclusive and could be used as a form of peace on top of being a system of combat. His art, judo, would flourish from that day even becoming a well-received Olympic sport and is practiced throughout the world. However, other popular arts have also come from jujutsu teachings, such as bartitsu, aikido, and hapkido.
Although the derivatives focus quite a bit in grappling, there are still remnants of jujutsu-style strikes and throws in each art. These modern martial arts may soon lack the rich history and understanding of true jujutsu in time but there are still the few in each that continue to spread the teachings just as the age-old monks did in the long-ago. Regardless, jujutsu is still used throughout the world as a form of self defense as well as combat. Much of its techniques and systems are taught to military and police from the United Kingdom, Russia, Brazil, and of course Japan. With both its descendant arts as well as the modern jujutsuka (jujutsu practitioners), jujutsu will never die.
What Sets Jujutsu Apart
Jujutsu is said to have come about from the teachings of monks and this is very believable when one considers the primary philosophy of jujutsu. To yield to an opponent’s force and manipulate their attack to cause their downfall, this is the mantra of jujutsu. There is no formal rank structure for jujutsu and much of what is taught and practiced was based on experiences in battle. Each training session would simulate a real battle with the finishing moves being omitted or lessened in degree to allow for safer practice. Though free-sparring was uncommon, it was still used as this was the best way to improve conditioning, endurance and timing.
Jujutsu was designed for an unarmed or unarmored person to be able to defeat an armed and/or armored foe. As striking against armor was both ineffective and ill-advised, grappling was the way to go. However, strikes and even a light weapon could be used as a form of distraction or leverage. During the Sengoku period, armor was heavy and thick, rendering small weapons like hand-clubs and knives virtually ineffective unless targeted at weak-points in the armor such as joints. Throws and pins would often be used because it was seen that the armor could restrict some movement when on the ground and often in close-quarters combat, samurai would lose their primary weapons because of the fact that those weapons required a lot of space to be used effectively.
During the Edo period, the decline of samurai led to the rise of more pinpoint strikes such as nerve pinches and more fluid techniques such as wrist locks and foot sweeps. Regardless of the lack of armor or weapons, jujutsu still relied heavily on grappling with strikes being more of a finisher or as a means to open up for throws or submissions. This is a more modern take of the art as techniques of this time were meant for civilian life instead of for the bushi (warriors).
Jujutsu for Self Defense
The samurai are regarded as one of the deadliest and most honorable caste of warriors the world has ever known. There is a reason jujutsu was their preferred style of close-quarters combat; it was literally built for warriors by warriors. No matter which style is learned, Sengoku or Edo, both are viable as a combat system because both were and are used to defeat a more armed opponent. While the weapons may change, the philosophy remains the same and the techniques will adapt. Like other martial arts, jujutsu has a focus and that focus is energy. To stop or oppose an attack was seen as futile because of the collateral damage, especially when facing a better-armed opponent. But to yield to such an attack and divert the incoming energy, that is far better at manipulating and trapping the attacker.
The effectiveness of this art can sometimes be challenged because of the lack of strikes or the age of the art, but there is a reason it has survived so long. Samurai and the Japanese as a whole often pride themselves in efficiency and perfection, jujutsu was and still is a very efficient combat system. There are techniques for blades, for bludgeons, for punches and kicks. The most basic principles teaches you how to accept force and flow with it; with one of the first lessons being how to fall or roll properly. Anyone who has practiced this concept (it is very relevant in judo, aikido and BJJ) will tell you just how life-saving learning how to fall properly is. I need not tell you how powerful jujutsu can be, I only state that we have so many other arts that have built their foundations of the teachings and techniques of jujutsu. The only flaw in learning jujutsu is finding a legitimate school that teaches not just the techniques, but also the philosophy, the way of life that is jujutsu.
As a life-long martial artist and a brown belt in BJJ, I believe jujutsu to be the mother of all grappling arts, but I fear for its future. Jujutsu techniques will never die out, they’re just too effective for nearly all forms of up-close fighting. It is the pedagogy that has suffered and may continue to suffer. It is the concept of yielding, accepting, that may die out. The primary philosophy of jujutsu is to yield to force not just in combat but in life, to not be forceful or too forward. Too often, I’ve seen people believing in the art of jujutsu while simultaneously defeating its purpose. Too often, I’ve seen people who practice the art without understanding the art. This is my biggest issue with modern jujutsu and its descendant arts, the techniques are there but the teachings are not, and that will be the true end to jujutsu.