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What Is Jujutsu? A Short History in Ancient Martial Arts

When we hear the name jujitsu nowadays, the average person will immediately think of Royce Gracie, Brazilian Jiu-Jutsu, and mixed martial arts. But when we ask questions involving self-defense , specific distinctions begin to form:

  • Grappling techniques in a standing position other than throws? Where was that practiced?

  • Where did defending against weapons originate from?

  • If Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu doesn't teach defense against weapons, then what type of style did?

The Beginning

The history of jujutsu as we know it, is believed to have began post-feudal Japan during the Nara period (c. 710- c. 792).

Known as the “art of suppleness”, the style of jujutsu was once composed of hundreds of different schools of martial arts, with the emphasis of leveraging the strength of an opponent against themselves. It’s believed that this form was born from the necessity to defend oneself from the samurai, who were known for being well-armed and armored (thus, rendering strikes to the body ineffective). This resulted in an expansive close-combat science focused on disarming or incapacitating an opponent when used defensively, or subduing and killing when used offensively. Hundreds, if not thousands of techniques, were developed and taught through different jujutsu schools, which included ways of defending against weapons such as swords, spears, and various pole arms. Many of these techniques included sweeps, throws, joint locks, pressure point manipulation, weapon disarming, choking, strangulation, throws, and grappling on the ground (for short periods of time).

Some schools, such as the Hyoho Niten Ichi-Ryu sword style founded by Miyamoto Musashi, further refined these techniques through mastery of weapons such as the jitte. In fact, proficiency of the jitte was encouraged through his lineage, as many jujutsu techniques could be applied with the use of this defense-focused weapon.

"The jitte was a formidable weapon when an adept of the sword used it on the field of battle because he could be sure of a solid defense with this weapon in one hand while he wielded his sword with the other. During the era of feudal peace, the jitte was used principally as a defensive weapon to make an enemy capitulate without killing him. That is why the art of the jitte is a part of jujutsu, an art of bare-handed combat containing techniques to immobilize and capture an adversary." (Tokitsu, Kenji. Miyamoto Musashi. Massachusetts: Weatherhill 2005.)

As the modern era began to dawn on the world of martial arts in Japan, much of the methods of combat lost their relevance. Highly significant weapons such as the katana were no longer permitted to be used in Japan, which led to a major identity crisis for the samurai and the Bushido code. As a result, and in order to continue the lineage of martial arts such as jujitsu, the countless schools composed of this philosophy would combine into two main styles. The first is what became known as Aikijujutsu (the precursor of Aikido, which was founded by Morihei Ueshiba), while the second school became what we know of today as Judo (founded by Kano Jigoro). While the former school held to the traditions of the ancient past, with many techniques that still prove to be lethal, the other became recognized as the sport of throwing.

It wasn’t until Mitsuyo Maeda, a student of Jigoro, toured through Central and South America during his career as a judoka (practitioner of Judo), that the concept of jujutsu was brought to Brazil. During his time there, he would teach judo to Carlos & Helio Gracie, which would eventually lead to the birth of Gracie Jiu-Jutsu. This new system of martial arts gave birth to modern day Brazilian Jiu-Jutsu, and took the throws and sweeps of judo even further by incorporating an even greater focus on grappling on the ground. The result of this philosophy proved to be devastating against opponents who had no prior knowledge to how to defend themselves on the floor (as demonstrated by Royce Gracie during the dawn of the Ultimate Fighter Championship).

Final Thoughts

Today, the world widely recognizes the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and its effectiveness both in sports and one-on-one confrontations. How many of the ancient techniques of Japanese jujitsu varies, and remain with but a small number of schools in the world today. With all of this considered, this brings many questions to those seeking to learn how to defend themselves:

  • Is it practical to learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for a street fight?

  • Is it effective to fight on the ground if multiple assailants may be within the area?

  • Additionally, do the "ancient" self-defense techniques in the world of jujitsu still hold weight in the world of today in a real life threat, outside of a ring or an octagon?

As many martial art styles fade into history, new and improved techniques continue to rise up to the occasion of the challenges we face tomorrow. We as martial artists hold a responsibility to not only cultivate the skills and techniques taught to us, but to be able to pass the baton to the next generation. This includes, above all else, what forms the core virtues modern of martial arts:

  • Self-discipline

  • Honor

  • Respect

  • Consistency

  • Motivation beyond the Self

  • Building a good character

  • Refining one's technique

  • Mental focus

  • Remaining humble

More than ever before, it's become vital for each of us to not only incorporate these values, but to also learn how to defend ourselves, tackle the challenges with our mental hygiene, strengthen our local communities, and gain a better grip on our physical health.

Regardless of which style we choose today, what matters is the impact it will leave both in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

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