The Old Jujitsu Schools

The best way to understand modern jujitsu schools is to first look at old jujitsu schools. By old school, I mean those that have been in existence for more than 100 years and are able to trace their method of instruction back to Japan's feudal era. Many may claim this ancient heritage, but few can actually prove it.

Jujitsu schools

The term Jujitsu is a common English spelling of the Japanese word, "jujutsu" (click on this link for more on correct spelling). It means, literally, technique or art (jutsu) of suppleness, flexibility, pliancy, or gentleness; all varying renditions of the ideogram "ju". All these terms, however, represent a single principle; a specific way of using the human body as a weapon in unarmed combat.

Various techniques can be applied in accordance with this principle. In fact, each one of the many old jujitsu schools whose names are still familiar today, interpreted the principle in a highly individual way. Each endeavored to keep its methods strictly secret, but in time, those methods became the distinguishing characteristics of that particular school of jujitsu.

According to certain authorities, the name jujitsu, and possibly the art itself, as we know it, appeared during the early seventeenth century. It is referred to in books dealing with the martial arts of that period, such as the Bugei Shogen and Kenpo Hisho. Prior to that, references to unarmed combat went by names such as gusoku, kumiuchi, yawara, wajutsu, taijutsu, taido, and so forth.

[Side Note: For more information on the "Evolution of Unarmed Combat in Japan", click on this link.]

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The Principle of Jujitsu

The principle of ju, as applied to unarmed combat strategies, consists in adapting quickly to the tactical maneuvers of an opponent. One must move in a specific way designed to utilize the opponent’s maneuvers and the force (momentum) behind them to subjugate him or, at the very least, neutralize his attack.

In order to grasp the concept of ju, you must first understand that any attempt to meet a force (attack) with a weak or inferior force (defense) will surely result in failure. To meet a force with equal force will result in a stalemate. So, the only way to defeat an opponent using force is to ensure you have superior force. The question is, how can you be sure your force is superior? The answer is, you can't!

Therefore, jujitsu techniques avoid meeting force with force. Instead, they employ movements that are circular and angular, rather than direct linear movements, with the defender moving out of the initial line of attack. This causes the opponent to overextend himself, thus taking him off balance. You may then use his own momentum against him. Thus, it is essential for the student to learn to sense the direction of his attacker's power in order first to avoid it, and then to use it.

Jigoro Kano, founder of the modern sport of Judo (based on the principles of ju), describes ju in this way:

"To understand what is meant by gentleness or giving way, let us say a man is standing before me whose strength is ten, and that my own strength is but seven. If he pushes me as hard as he can, I am sure to be pushed back or knocked down, even if I resist with all my might. This is opposing strength with strength. But if instead of opposing him I give way to the extent he has pushed, withdrawing my body and maintaining my balance, my opponent will lose his balance. Weakened by his awkward position, he will be unable to use all his strength. It will have fallen to three. Because I retain my balance, my strength remains at seven. Now I am stronger than my opponent and can defeat him by using only half my strength, keeping the other half available for some other purpose. Even if you are stronger than your opponent, it is better first to give way. By doing so you conserve energy while exhausting your opponent."
(Kodokan Judo, 1986)

[Side Note: For more information on Judo and its relation to the old jujitsu schools, click on this link.]

The vital question was always: "Does it work; is it effective in combat?" The answer was concretely provided by the results of individual duels and public competitions among the members of the various jujitsu schools. The harshness of these encounters and their frequently lethal conclusions are vividly portrayed in E. J. Harrison's work, The Fighting Spirit of Japan:

"In those days contests were extremely rough and not infrequently cost the participants their lives. Thus, whenever I sallied forth to take part in any of those affairs, I invariably bade farewell to my parents, since I had no assurance that I should ever return alive. Competitions were of such a drastic nature that few tricks were barred and we did not hesitate to have recourse to the most dangerous methods in order to overcome an opponent."

Such a process of qualification (one might say elimination) through practical testing, insured a continuous striving to perfect both the tactics and the strategic ways of employing them. It also established the reputations of those schools where that strategic perfection was highly pronounced. There were innumerable jujitsu schools which developed extremely effective methods of combat through the skilled adaptation of the principle of ju to their techniques. The following are mentioned prominently (among many others) in chronicles dealing with Japanese martial arts as having been notable jujitsu schools: the Tenjin-Shinyo ryu, the Takenouchi ryu, the Daito ryu, and the Kito ryu.

[Side Note: Ryu is the Japanese word for school, method or style.]

Tenjin-Shinyo Ryu

Particularly famous for its various techniques of percussion (striking; punching and kicking), of painfully immobilizing joint-locks, and of strangulation, the Tenjin-Shinyo jujitsu school is generally considered to have been the result of a fusion of two ancient schools, the Yoshin ryu and the Shin-no-Shindo.

The origins of the Yoshin ryu are still the object of much debate. Many believe the founder of the art to have been a certain Akiyama Shirobei Yoshitoki, a physician of Nagasaki who went to China in the seventeenth century to deepen his knowledge in the field of medicine. While there, he was exposed to Chinese martial arts and to their main principles of percussion.

In time, he developed about three hundred techniques of combat based upon the principle of ju (suppleness), as indicated by the name he gave his method: yo meaning "willow," and shin meaning "spirit" or "heart." The image of the flexible, swaying willow which snaps back even after the fiercest hurricane, served to confirm, even if indirectly, Chinese influence upon that school of thought in Japan which held the principle of non-resistance to be superior to all others.

The founder of the other jujitsu school, the Shin-no-Shindo, is said to have been Yamamoto Tamizaemon, of the Osaka police, who added other techniques (particularly those of immobilization) to the already impressive repertoire of the Yoshin ryu. Both schools were finally unified, becoming a systematic whole under the Tenjin-Shinyo name in the late seventeenth century, through the efforts of Master Yanagi Sekizai Minamoto Masatari (also known in his later years as Master Iso Mataemon), whose astonishing feats of prowess in the art of unarmed combat (particularly in the use of techniques of percussion) fill many vivid pages in the literature of the martial arts. He is said to have been a remarkable jujitsu master, thoroughly versed in the practice and theory of unarmed combat.

Takenouchi Ryu

Jujitsu schools

The school known as Takenouchi ryu is still active today in Japan, having been guided by one successor after another for twelve generations. It is generally held to have been founded by a samurai of high rank, Hisamori (later and better known as Takeuchi Toichiro), sometime between 1526 and 1546. Takeuchi is said to have developed a substantial number of armed and unarmed martial arts techniques where he emphasized the use of immobilization (osae-waza), which were organized systematically into five "keys" or groups (go-kyu).

Takeuchi taught these and other "keys," as well as techniques of combat based upon the use of daggers (all particularly effective at close range). The techniques of his school proved to be extremely effective, and countless warriors flocked to his dojo. According to the scrolls and manuscripts (makimono) which form the records of this jujitsu school, Takeuchi's son was requested to perform techniques from his father's program of instruction (which included more than six hundred techniques) before Emperor Gomizuno (1611-29). After the performance, the emperor bestowed upon the art the title of "supreme and unsurpassed art of combat" (hi-no-shita toride-kaizan).

[Side Note: Dojo is the Japanese word for school. Do means "way", and jo means "place"; the "place for learning the way".]

Daito Ryu

One of the most intriguing of the old jujitsu schools was the Daito ryu. According to some, this school dates back to the Kamakura period. The school itself was reportedly founded by Minamoto Yoshimitsu (d. 1120), better known in various Japanese epics as Yoshitsune, the most famous samurai in all of Japanese history. The art was supposedly practiced by the warriors of the Minamoto clan for several centuries before being inherited by the Takeda family (part of the military clan of Aizu).

Daito ryu Aikijutsu

Others link the beginning of the Daito ryu even earlier, to the sixth son of Emperor Seiwa, Prince Sadasumi, who lived in the ninth century. However, there is only one problem with this impressive history…

There is no credible documentation dating it before 1895. It is not unusual in the Japanese tradition to proclaim an ancient date and naming a famous person as founder of a school, in an effort to lend greater credibility to its teachings.

Even more interesting than its fanciful heritage, is the Daito ryu effort to further distinguish itself from other jujitsu schools by claiming it taught a superior form of jujitsu called aikijutsu! The Daito ryu described this art as the technique (jutsu) of harmonized (ai) spirit (ki). The term aiki (like ju) also indicates a principle; a way of using the body as a weapon of combat.

The central idea of aiki, was that of using the coordinated power of ki (intrinsic or inner energy) in harmony (ai) with the various requirements and circumstances of combat. By blending one's own strategy with the opponent's, it was possible to achieve full control over him and over the encounter, thus achieving the primary purpose of combat: the opponent's subjugation.

How the concept of aiki was actually embodied in the allegedly ancient techniques of aikijutsu practiced by the Daito jujitsu schools, we have no way of knowing today. No one in recent times has ever been able to rationally explain how the concept of blending (aiki) is fundamentally any different from the concept of suppleness (ju)!

The fluid beauty and impressive efficiency of the method, however, are evident in the modern interpretation of techniques practiced in its schools today. If one watches these techniques being performed in combat against one, or several opponents, with weapons or without, it is not difficult to understand why, in earlier times, some considered aikijutsu to be an art of combat superior to jujitsu. But the fact remains, it is not a conceptual difference of the basic principles of jujitsu, and is just another style of unarmed combat.

Kito Ryu

The Kito ryu merits a particular place in the doctrine of unarmed combat because of the esoteric elements evident in its method. Its formal, and often complex exercises (kata) have been faithfully preserved by the modern inheritors of the Kito ryu. Some of the available records relate the origin of this jujitsu school to a Chinese method of combat based upon the principle of ju, as explained and illustrated by Chen Yuan-Pin (better known in Japanese records as Gempin) to selected warriors of the seventeenth century.

A former dignitary of the Chinese court, Gempin had visited Japan in 1621, and then settled there permanently in 1638 in order to escape the rising power of the Manchu dynasty. Gempin is said to have instructed three masterless warriors (ronin) in a method of "seizing a man" which he had seen practiced in China. These men continued their studies of Gempin's method in the Kokusei monastery in Azabu and apparently grasped its central principles quite well, because they were said to have subsequently founded their own jujitsu school, the Kito ryu.

Another interpretation of material available on this subject, however, indicates that the founder of Kito ryu was not Gempin, but a certain Terada, a samurai in the service of Kyogoku, a daimyo (war lord) closely associated with the Tokugawa. His method of combat, usually performed in full armor (or in formal robes reminiscent of armor) were centered mainly upon the projection (throwing) of an opponent down onto the ground.

In observing the sequences of a number of the formal exercises of this school, one is immediately impressed by the smooth fluidity of its application, seen not only as a "supple" (ju) blending of strategies, movements, and actions with those of an opponent, but as an even more comprehensive blending of the self with the whole environment. You may note that this is the same concept that Daito ryu claimed to be their exclusive invention of aikijutsu. The fact is, they were all working to expand and perfect the concept of ju. Actually, all of these jujitsu schools showed only minor differences in technique and strategy.

Many other reputable jujitsu schools have existed for centuries. This includes the powerful Sekiguchi ryu which traced its roots back to the seventeenth century, the Yagyu-Shingan ryu of the Date clan (which is said to have included over two thousand combat techniques in its program), and the Juki ryu of Sawa Dochi, as well as their various branches and affiliations. Their steady progression of teachers and disciples, are listed in the doctrine of Japanese combat as all having been primarily inspired by the principle of ju.

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Modern Jujitsu Schools

The heritage of the old jujitsu schools continues in many of the modern schools. Over the years, the techniques of a school were often absorbed by and merged with those of other schools, thereby creating a strictly correlated whole (notwithstanding the veil of secrecy with which each school attempted to enshroud its method). Eventually, these schools were blended to a point where all were teaching pretty much the same techniques.

Traditional Japanese Jujitsu continues to be taught not only in Japan, but in jujitsu schools around the world. As with any art, it is possible to diverge into areas that have nothing to do with the original concept, in this case: the principle of ju. However, many have not lost sight of the importance of not only preserving the principles of ju, but actually advancing the study in order to meet the changing needs and threats of modern society.

Do you want to learn a Traditional Japanese Martial Art?

If so, then you will want to learn more about the different forms of martial arts that have actually continued to improve over time. "Complete" martial arts have all of the tools necessary to be able to evolve and adapt with the times. Follow these links to learn more:

  • Budoshin Jujitsu - Budoshin Jujitsu Schools (Dojo) are the very best martial arts schools you can find. These martial arts schools offer more than most jujitsu schools; they provide complete martial arts instruction.
  • Budoshin Schools - Find Jujitsu schools in your area. Click on this link to find a Budoshin Jujitsu school near you.
  • Zentai Kenpo - Kenpo is the "common" form of Japanese unarmed self-defense. The training is less formal than traditional Jujitsu, and has a greater focus on striking techniques.
  • Combat Jujitsu - Combat Jujitsu is used by US Military Special Operations Forces! It is the deadliest martial art known to man, and would certainly be classified in the category of Extreme Martial Arts.

Mark A. Jordan
Rokudan (6th Degree Black Belt)
Budoshin Ju-Jitsu

References for "Old Jujitsu Schools":
Kano, Jigoro - Kodokan Judo; Kodansha International; 1986.
Ratti/Westbrook - Secrets of the Samurai; Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1973
Harrison, E. J. - The Fighting Spirit of Japan; W. Foulsham & Co., Ltd., London
Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

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