A BRIEF HISTORY OF JUJUTSU
By Mark Barlow
Whether it's spelled Jujitsu, Jujutsu or Jiujitsu, the "gentle art" can be traced back several centuries. While there are records of combative grappling going back as far as 750 A.D., these ancient forerunners of Jujitsu were crude in comparison. Kumi-uchi,or grappling in armor, is mentioned in a 13th century Buddhist text and other Jujitsu-like systems such as Yawara, Wajutsu, Taijutsu and Torite were other names used for the predecessors of Jujitsu.. Initially, Jujitsu was not seen as a stand alone art but rather as a complement to weapon skills. It was intended for use when the warrior's primary weapon was unavailable and when faced with an armed opponent.
During the Kamakura period (1185 - 1333), grappling began to receive greater attention due to the frequency of conflict and the increased probability of facing an opponent one on one. Over the next few hundred years, Jujitsu was battle-tested time and time again and proven to be an invaluable tool for the fighting man. Unlike the familiar pins and holds of today, Jujitsu was initially designed to overwhelm and destroy an enemy, not restrain him. During the centuries of almost constant warfare, there was ample opportunity to test an individual's and success was ultimately decided by survival.
Samurai of pre-Tokugawa Japan were required to be adept in a vast range of combat skills. Kyujutsu, kenjutsu, bajutsu and sojutsu were among basics, these being the techniques of the bow and arrow, the sword, horsemanship and the spear. These skills were part of a vast array of bugei or martial arts, essential to the style and tactics of combat in feudal Japan. The term bujutsu also means martial arts but came into use much later and tends to be used today when listing such non-sport arts as iaijutsu, aikijutsu and kenjutsu. Under a daimyo or within a family clan, instruction was offered to retainers or family members in the weapons and skills needed to adequately prepare them for combat. Different ryu focused on various aspects of close quarter fighting. Some concentrated on throwing while others emphasized jointlocks, strikes or bone-breaking. There were hundreds of different styles and almost as many theories and applications of grappling.
With the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate and the unification of Japan in the early 1600s, battlefield combat all but ceased and opportunities to test weapon against weapon became rare. During this two and half centuries of peace, Jujitsu reached its zenith. This is often called the "Golden Age" of Jujitsu.
The general peace of the Tokugawa era allowed Samurai the luxury of concentrating on one or two areas of combat. Iaijutsu is a prime example. There is little need for the "fast draw" in a battlefield situation but in the confines of the marketplace or gambling hall, the ability to draw and cut in one motion could mean the difference between life and death. On the other hand, some bugei began to lose their practicality. Kyujutsu became less concerned with accuracy and more focused on the "rightness" of the shot. Eventually, many bugei became budo. This change from "jutsu" to "do" often resulted in systems choosing to look good rather than fight well. Some budo was modified into a sport while others became a form of "meditation in motion".
When the shogunate put restrictions on fights to the death using weapons, Unarmed combat became more common and Jujitsu ryu flourished. As government officials frowned on deaths in the dojo, Jujitsu techniques began to shift from lethal to crippling and restraining. During this period, merchants and other non-Samurai began to learn Jujitsu. As only the Samurai were allowed to legally carry weapons, Jujitsu appealed greatly to the masses. Unfortunately, this quickly led to the watering-down of Jujitsu as moderately qualified Samurai taught non-Samurai and completely unqualified non-Samurai developed their own systems. While Jujitsu reached a wider audience than ever before, a rowdy element began to be associated with Jujitsu in the public's mind.
By the mid end of the Tokugawa era and the opening of Japan to the West, Jujitsu had gained a reputation as an anachronistic bully's art, something people of quality did not practice. Oddly enough, Jujitsu owes much of its survival to Jigoro Kano and Kodokan Judo. Kano studied Kito Ryu and Tenshin Shinyo Ryu as a young man and in 1882 developed the budo form of Judo. Emphasizing the principle of Sieryoku Zenyo (maximum efficiency with minimum effort), Kano and his senior students (many already expert in other Jujitsu ryu) created perhaps the most structured martial art ever seen. The yudansha/mudansha ranking system, colored obi, judogi and ukemi were all developed and refined by Judoka.
With the rise of Judo, most Jujitsu ryu slipped into obscurity and died away. A few ryu continued to maintain small dojo but the majority could not continue to exist without the continued influx of new students. The Japanese media of the time touted Judo as the supreme evolution of Jujitsu and portrayed Jujitsu as archaic and impractical and the public saw Judo as further proof that Japan was a modern nation ready to take its place on the world stage. Jujitsu faded away in Japan but was kept alive and viable by Japanese immigrants in Europe, the South Pacific, South America and North America. Except for a very few, the remaining Jujitsu ryu observed Jujitsu's success and borrowed freely from the Kodokan.
Thanks to the Japanese who left to settle elsewhere, Jujitsu was the first Japanese martial art introduced to the West. Today, almost all military and police empty hand techniques are, in some way, attributable to Jujitsu. Jujitsu deserves respect not only as the parent art for most of today's Japanese martial arts but as a supremely effective and practical method of self defense.
Mark Barlow began his training in the mid 1970s under Soke Marshall. Barlow Sensei has spent the last quarter century training in various Japanese grappling arts, holding Black Belts in Kodokan Judo, Shodokan Aikido, Tomiki-Ryu Aikido, Jikishinkage-Ryu Aikijujutsu, and Seki-Ryu jujutsu and designated successor of the leadership of Akayama Ryu jujutsu. Along with teaching traditional jujutsu, Barlow Sensei is also a member of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers and is certified as a Defensive Tactics instructor. Barlow Sensei is a member of the United States Martial Arts Federation and currently resides in Orange Beach, Alabama.