Jujutsu (柔術, jūjutsu), literally meaning the “art of softness“, or “way of yielding” is a collective name for Japanese martial art styles consisting of grappling and striking techniques. Jujutsu evolved among the samurai of feudal Japan as a method for dispatching an armed and armored opponent in situations where the use of weapons was impractical or forbidden. Due to the difficulty of dispatching an armored opponent with striking techniques, the most efficient methods for neutralizing an enemy took the form of pins, joint locks, and throws. These techniques were developed around the principle of using an attacker’s energy against him, rather than directly opposing it, and came to be known as jujutsu.
There are many variations of the art, which leads to a diversity of approaches. Jujutsu schools (ryū) may utilize all forms of grappling techniques to some degree (i.e. throwing, trapping, joint locking, holds, gouging, biting, disengagements, striking, and kicking). In addition to jujutsu, many schools taught the use of weapons.
Today, jujutsu is still practiced both as it was hundreds of years ago, but also in modified forms for sport practice. Derived sports forms include the Olympic sport and martial art of judo, which was developed from several traditional styles of jujutsu by Kano Jigoro in the late 19th century; and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which was in turn derived from earlier version (pre World War II) of Kodokan judo.
Jujutsu was first developed by Samurai. Fighting forms have existed in Japan for centuries. The first references to unarmed combat arts or systems is in the earliest purported historical records of Japan, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), which relate the mythological creation of the country and the establishment of the imperial family. Other glimpses can be found in the older records and pictures depicting sumai (or sumo) no sechie, a rite of the Imperial Court in Nara and Kyoto performed for purposes of divination and to help ensure a bountiful harvest.
There is a famous story of a warrior Nomi no Sukune of Izumo who defeated and killed Tajima no Kehaya in Shimane prefecture while in the presence of Emperor Suinin. Descriptions of the techniques used during this encounter include striking, throwing, restraining and weaponry.
The term “jūjutsu” was not coined until the 17th century, after which time it became a blanket term for a wide variety of grappling-related disciplines. Prior to that time, these skills had names such as “short sword grappling” (小具足腰之周, kogusoku koshi no mawari), “grappling” (組討 or 組打, kumiuchi), “body art” (体術, taijutsu), “softness” (柔 or 和, yawara), “art of harmony” (和術, wajutsu), “catching hand” (捕手, torite), and even the “way of softness” (柔道, jūdō) (as early as 1724, almost two centuries before Kano Jigoro founded the modern art of Kodokan Judo).
Today, the systems of unarmed combat that were developed and practiced during the Muromachi period (1333–1573) are referred to collectively as Japanese old-style jujutsu (日本古流柔術, Nihon koryū jūjutsu). At this period in history, the systems practiced were not systems of unarmed combat, but rather means for an unarmed or lightly armed warrior to fight a heavily armed and armored enemy on the battlefield. In battle, it was often possible for a samurai to be unable to use his long sword, for various reasons, and be forced to rely on his short sword, dagger, or bare hands. When fully armored, the effective use of such “minor” weapons necessitated the employment of grappling skills.
Methods of combat (as just mentioned above) included striking (kicking and punching), throwing (body throws, joint-lock throws, unbalance throws), restraining (pinning, strangulating, grappling, wrestling) and weaponry. Defensive tactics included blocking, evading, off-balancing, blending and escaping. Minor weapons such as the tanto (dagger), ryufundo kusari (weighted chain), kabuto wari (helmet smasher), and kakushi buki (secret or disguised weapons) were almost always included in Sengoku jujutsu.
In later times, other koryu developed into systems more familiar to the practitioners of Nihon jujutsu commonly seen today. These are correctly classified as Edo jūjutsu (founded during the edo period): they are generally designed to deal with opponents neither wearing armor nor in a battlefield environment. Most systems of Edo jujutsu include extensive use of atemi waza (vital-striking technique), which would be of little use against an armored opponent on a battlefield. They would, however, be quite valuable in confronting an enemy or opponent during peacetime dressed in normal street attire (referred to as “suhada bujutsu”). Occasionally, inconspicuous weapons such as tantō (daggers) or tessen (iron fans) were included in the curriculum of Edo jūjutsu.
Another seldom-seen historical side is a series of techniques originally included in both Sengoku and Edo jujutsu systems. Referred to as hojo waza (捕縄術 hojojutsu, nawa jutsu, hayanawa and others), it involves the use of a hojo cord, (sometimes the sageo or tasuke) to restrain or strangle an attacker. These techniques have for the most part faded from use in modern times, but Tokyo police units still train in their use and continue to carry a hojo cord in addition to handcuffs. The very old Takenouchi-ryu is one of the better-recognized systems that continue extensive training in hojo waza. Since the establishment of the Meiji period with the abolishment of the Samurai and the wearing of swords, the ancient tradition of Yagyu Shingan Ryu (Sendai & Edo lines) has focused much towards the jujutsu (Yawara) contained in its syllabus.
Many other legitimate Nihon jujutsu ryu exist but are not considered koryu (ancient traditions). These are called either Gendai Jujutsu or modern jujutsu. Modern jujutsu traditions were founded after or towards the end of the Tokugawa period (1868), when more than 2000 schools (ryu) of jūjutsu existed. Various traditional ryu and ryuha that are commonly thought of as koryu jujutsu are actually gendai jūjutsu. Although modern in formation, very few gendai jujutsu systems have direct historical links to ancient traditions and are incorrectly referred to as traditional martial systems or ryu. Their curriculum reflects an obvious bias towards Edo jūjutsu systems as opposed to the Sengoku jūjutsu systems. The improbability of confronting an armor-clad attacker is the reason for this bias.
Over time, Gendai jujutsu has been embraced by law enforcement officials worldwide and continues to be the foundation for many specialized systems used by police. Perhaps the most famous of these specialized police systems is the Keisatsujutsu (police art) Taiho jutsu (arresting art) system formulated and employed by the Tokyo Police Department.
If a Japanese based martial system is formulated in modern times (post Tokugawa) but is only partially influenced by traditional Nihon jujutsu, it may be correctly referred to as goshin (self defense) jujutsu. Goshin jujutsu is usually formulated outside Japan and may include influences from other martial traditions. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which was developed from judo, but with greater emphasis on ground grappling (ne waza), is an excellent example of Goshin Jujutsu.
Jujutsu techniques have been the basis for many military unarmed combat techniques (including British/US/Russian special forces and SO1 police units) for many years.
There are many forms of sport jujutsu, the original and most popular being judo, now an Olympic sport. One of the most common is mixed-style competitions, where competitors apply a variety of strikes, throws, and holds to score points. There are also kata competitions, where competitors of the same style perform techniques and are judged on their performance. There are also freestyle competitions, where competitors take turns attacking each other, and the defender is judged on performance.
Japanese jujutsu systems typically place more emphasis on throwing, immobilizing and pinning, joint-locking, choking, and strangling techniques (as compared with other martial arts systems such as karate). Atemi-waza (striking techniques) were seen as less important in most older Japanese systems, since samurai body armor protected against many striking techniques. The Chinese quanfa/ch’uan-fa (kenpo or kung fu) systems focus on punching, striking, and kicking more than jujutsu.
The Japanese systems of hakuda, kenpo, and shubaku display some degree of Chinese influence in their emphasis on atemi-waza. In comparison, systems that derive more directly from Japanese sources show less preference for such techniques. However, a few jujutsu schools likely have some Chinese influence in their development. Jujutsu ryu vary widely in their techniques, and many do include significant numbers of striking techniques, if only as set-ups for their grappling techniques.
In jujutsu, practitioners train in the use of many potentially fatal moves. However, because students mostly train in a non-competitive environment, risk is minimized. Students are taught break falling skills to allow them to safely practice otherwise dangerous throws.
In jujutsu, there are five main sectors (“arts”) of training. The first, the Art of Blocking, is used to defend against attacks. The second, the Art of the Fulcrum Throw, is employed in modern judo. The third, the Art of the Non-fulcrum Throw is employed through throws that involve little or no contact with the opponent. The fourth, the Art of Escaping (Hakko-Dori), is very crucial in many styles of Jujutsu. The fifth, the Art of Striking (Atemi-Waza), is used more by modern jujutsuka who do not employ body armor.
Although there is some diversity in the actual look and techniques of the various traditional jujutsu systems, there are significant technical similarities common to all schools:
- Students learn traditional jujutsu primarily by observation and imitation of the ryu’s waza.
- The unarmed waza of most schools emphasize joint-locking techniques (kansetsu waza), that is, threatening a joint’s integrity by placing pressure on it in a direction contrary to its normal function, aligning it so that muscular strength cannot be brought to bear, take-down or throwing techniques, or a combination of take-downs and joint-locks.
- Sometimes, atemi (strikes) are targeted to some vulnerable area of the body; this is an aspect of kuzushi, the art of breaking balance as a set-up for a lock, take-down or throw.
- Movements tend to capitalize on an attacker’s momentum and openings in order to place a joint in a compromised position or to break their balance as preparation for a take-down or throw.
- The defender’s own body is positioned so as to take optimal advantage of the attacker’s weaknesses while simultaneously presenting few openings or weaknesses of its own.
- Weapons training was a primary goal of Samurai training. Koryu (old/classic) schools typically include the use of weapons. Weapons might include the roku shaku bo (six-foot staff), hanbo (three-foot staff), katana (long sword), wakizashi or kodachi (short sword), tanto (knife), or jitte (short one hook truncheon).
Schools and derivatives
Because jujutsu contains so many facets, it has become the foundation for a variety of styles and derivations today. As each instructor incorporated new techniques and tactics into what was taught to him originally, he could codify and create his own ryu (school). Some of these schools modified the source material so much that they no longer considered themselves a style of jujutsu.
Circa 1600 AD there were over 2000 ryu of jujutsu in Japan and there were common features that characterized most of them. The technical characteristics varied from school to school. Many of the generalizations noted above do not hold true for some schools of jujutsu. Old schools of Japanese jujutsu include:
- Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu
- Hontai Yoshin-ryu
- Kashima Shin-ryū
- Kukishin-ryū 
- Kyushin Ryu
- Sekiguchi Shinshin-ryu
- Tenjin Shinyo-ryu
- Yagyu Shingan Ryu
- Yoshin Ryu
Derivatives and influences
Some examples of martial arts that have developed from or have been influenced by jujutsu are: Aikido, Bartitsu, Hapkido, Judo (and thence Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Sambo), Kajukenbo, Kapap, and Kenpo – as well as some styles of Japanese Karate. The Wado-ryu school of Karate, for example, is considered as a branch of Shindō Yōshin-ryū Jujutsu which has received strong influences from Okinawan Karate.
Some schools went on to diverge into present day Karate and Aiki styles. The last Japanese divergence occurred in 1905 when a number of jujutsu schools joined the Kodokan. The syllabi of those schools was unified under Kano Jigoro to form Judo.
Jujutsu was first introduced to Europe in 1899 by Edward William Barton-Wright, who had studied Tenjin Shinyō-ryū and Shinden Fudo Ryu in Yokohama and Kobe, respectively. He had also trained briefly at the Kodokan in Tokyo. Upon returning to England he folded the basics of all of these styles, as well as boxing, savate and French stick fighting, into an eclectic self-defence system called Bartitsu.
Modern judo is the classic example of a ‘sport’ that derived from jujutsu and became distinct. Another layer removed, some popular arts had instructors who studied one of these jujutsu derivatives and later made their own derivative succeed in competition. This created an extensive family of martial arts and sports that can trace their lineage to jujutsu in some part.
The way an opponent is dealt with also depends on the teacher’s philosophy with regard to combat. This translates also in different styles or schools of jujutsu. Because in jujutsu every conceivable technique (including biting, hair-pulling, eye-gouging, etcetera) is allowed (unlike, for instance, judo, which does not place emphasis on punching or kicking tactics, or karate, which does not heavily emphasize grappling and throwing), practitioners have an unlimited choice of techniques.
Not all jujutsu was used in sporting contests, but the practical use in the samurai world ended circa 1890. Techniques like hair-pulling and eye poking were and are not considered conventionally acceptable to use in sport, thus they are not included in judo competitions or randori. Judo did, however, preserve the more lethal, dangerous techniques in its kata. The kata were intended to be practiced by students of all grades, but now are mostly practiced formally as complete set-routines for performance, kata competition, and grading, rather than as individual self-defense techniques in class. However, judo retained the full set of choking and strangling techniques for its sporting form, and all manner of elbow locks. Even judo’s pinning techniques have pain-generating, spine-and-rib-squeezing and smothering aspects. A submission induced by a legal pin is considered a fully legitimate way to win. Kano viewed the safe sport-fighting aspect of judo as an important part of learning how to actually control an opponent’s body in a real fight. Kano always considered judo to be a form of, and a development of, jujutsu.
A judo technique starts with gripping your opponent followed by off-balancing the opponent, fitting into the space created, and then applying the technique. In contrast, kuzushi (the art of breaking balance) is attained in jujutsu by blocking and then parrying or deflecting an opponent’s attack in order to create the space required to apply a throwing technique. In both systems, kuzushi is essential in order to use as little energy as possible during a fight. Jujutsu differs from judo in a number of ways. In some circumstances, jutsuka generate kuzushi by striking one’s opponent along his weak line. Other methods of generating kuzushi include grabbing, twisting, or poking areas of the body known as atemi points or pressure points (see kyusho-jitsu) (areas of the body where nerves are close to the skin).
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) was developed after Mitsuyo Maeda brought judo to Brazil in 1914. At the time, judo was still often commonly referred to as “Jiu-Jitsu”, which explains why this derivative of judo is called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu rather than Brazilian Judo. BJJ dominated the first large modern mixed martial arts competitions, causing the emerging field to adopt many of its practices.
A Japanese-based martial system formulated in modern times (post Tokugawa) that is only partially influenced by traditional Nihon jujutsu, is correctly referred to as goshin (self defense) jujutsu. Goshin jujutsu is usually formulated outside Japan and may include influences from other martial traditions. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, although derived originally from Kodokan Judo, has evolved independently for many years, and could be considered an example of Goshin Jutsu.
After the transplantation of traditional Japanese jujutsu to the West, many of these more traditional styles underwent a process of adaptation at the hands of Western practitioners, molding the art of jujutsu to suit western culture in its myriad varieties. There are today many distinctly westernized styles of jujutsu, that stick to their Japanese roots to varying degrees.
There are a number of relatively new martial systems identifying themselves as jujutsu. Since they are created in modern (gendai) times, they are often referred to as gendai jujutsu.
Some of the largest post-reformation (founded post 1905) jujutsu schools include (but are certainly not limited to these in that there are hundreds (possibly thousands), of new branches of “jujutsu”):
- Danzan Ryu
- German Ju-Jutsu
- Goshin Jujitsu
- Hakko Ryu
- Hakko Denshin Ryu
- Hokutoryu jujutsu
- Jukido Jujitsu
- Ketsugo Jujutsu
- Kumite-ryu Jujutsu
- Miyama Ryu
- Sanuces Ryu
- Senso Ryu Aikijujutsu
- Shorinji Kan Jiu Jitsu (Jitsu Foundation)
- Small Circle JuJitsu
- World Ju-Jitsu Federation (WJJF)
Sport jujutsu is an official sport of the World Games and comes in two main variants: Duo (self-defense demonstration) where both the tori (attacker) and the uke (defender) come from the same team and demonstrate self defense techniques, and Fighting System (freefighting) where competitors combine striking, grappling and submissions under rules which emphasise safety. Many of the potentially dangerous techniques such as scissor takedowns, necklocks and digital choking and locking are prohibited in Sport Jujutsu. There are a number of other styles of sport jujutsu with varying rules.
Jujutsu, the current standard spelling, is derived using the Hepburn romanization system. Before the first half of the 20th century, however, jiu-jitsu and then jujitsu were preferred, even though the romanization of the second kanji as jitsu is unfaithful to the standard Japanese pronunciation. Since Japanese martial arts first became widely known of in the West in that time period, these earlier spellings are still common in many places. Ju-Jitsu is still a common spelling in France, Canada and the United States while Jiu-Jitsu is most widely used in Germany and Brazil.
Some define jujutsu and similar arts rather narrowly as “unarmed” close combat systems used to defeat or control an enemy who is similarly unarmed. Basic methods of attack include hitting or striking, thrusting or punching, kicking, throwing, pinning or immobilizing, strangling, and joint-locking. Great pains were also taken by the bushi (classic warriors) to develop effective methods of defense, including parrying or blocking strikes, thrusts and kicks, receiving throws or joint-locking techniques (i.e., falling safely and knowing how to “blend” to neutralize a technique’s effect), releasing oneself from an enemy’s grasp, and changing or shifting one’s position to evade or neutralize an attack. As jujutsu is a collective term, some schools or ryu adopted the principle of ju more than others.
From a broader point of view, based on the curricula of many of the classical Japanese arts themselves, however, these arts may perhaps be more accurately defined as unarmed methods of dealing with an enemy who was armed, together with methods of using minor weapons such as the jutte (truncheon; also called jitte), tanto (knife), or kakushi buki (hidden weapons), such as the ryofundo kusari (weighted chain) or the bankokuchoki (a type of knuckle-duster), to defeat both armed or unarmed opponents.
Furthermore, the term jujutsu was also sometimes used to refer to tactics for infighting used with the warrior’s major weapons: katana or tachi (sword), yari (spear), naginata (glaive), and jo (short staff), bo (quarterstaff). These close combat methods were an important part of the different martial systems that were developed for use on the battlefield. They can be generally characterized as either Sengoku Jidai (Sengoku Period, 1467- 1603) katchu bujutsu or yoroi kumiuchi (fighting with weapons or grappling while clad in armor), or Edo Jidai (Edo Period, 1603- 1867) suhada bujutsu (fighting while dressed in the normal street clothing of the period, kimono and hakama).
The Chinese character 柔 (Mandarin: róu; Japanese: jū; Korean: yū) is the same as the first one in 柔道 (Mandarin: róudào; Japanese: judo; Korean: Yudo). The Chinese character 術 (Mandarin: shù; Japanese: jutsu; Korean: sul) is the same as the second one in 武術 (Mandarin: wǔshù; Japanese: bujutsu; Korean: musul)
Heritage and philosophy
All Japanese jujutsu schools have cultural indicators that help give a sense of the traditional character of the school.
- The type of keikogi or training suit worn, which is usually plain white, often with a dark hakama (the most colorful uniform might be plain black or the traditional blue of quilted keikogi).
- Lack of ostentatious display, with an attempt to achieve or express the sense of rustic simplicity (expressed in such concepts as wabi-sabi in Japanese) common in many of Japan’s traditional arts.
- The use of the traditional (e.g., Shoden, Chuden, Okuden, Kirigami and menkyo kaiden levels) ranking system, perhaps as a parallel track to the more contemporary and increasingly common dan-i (kyu/dan) ranking.
Japanese culture and religion have become intertwined into the martial arts. Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism and Confucian philosophy co-exist in Japan, and people generally mix and match to suit. This reflects the variety of outlook one finds in the different schools.
Jujutsu expresses the philosophy of yielding to an opponent’s force rather than trying to oppose force with force. Manipulating an opponent’s attack using his force and direction allows jujutsuka to control the balance of their opponent and hence prevent the opponent from resisting the counter attack.
The Japanese have characterised states of mind that a warrior should be able to adopt in combat to facilitate victory. These include: an all-encompassing awareness, zanshin (literally “remaining spirit”), in which the practitioner is ready for anything, at any time; the spontaneity of mushin (literally “no mind”) which allows immediate action without conscious thought; and a state of equanimity or imperturbability known as fudoshin (literally “immovable mind”).