Do, Jutsu, and Invented History in Japanese Martial Arts

9 Feb

On a discussion forum, I recently tried to clarify some common misunderstandings people have about traditional Japanese martial arts, particularly the difference between older arts – which are often classified with the “jutsu” suffix, i.e. ju-jutsu, kenjutsu, etc. – and more modern arts classified with the “do” suffix such as judo, kendo or karate-do. I thought some might find the information of value (plus I was just too lazy to come up with something original for this blog post). So I’m reposting an edited version here for those who take an interest in martial arts history…

      The old “do”/”jutsu” method of classifying Japanese martial arts has never really been exact. Probably a better method is to refer to “koryu” and modern Japanese martial arts. Koryu arts are essentially “old school” styles, ones that were founded before the late 19th century (some people use the Meiji Restoration of 1868 as a cut off date). There are really only a handful of koryu arts still in existence and almost all Japanese martial arts you see practiced nowadays can be considered “modern” arts. This includes judo, which was based on several koryu ju-jutsu styles but also had some small influence from western wrestling; most ju-jutsu styles, which are often some combination of koryu ju-jutsu, judo, karate and aikido; as well as Japanese karate-do and aikido themselves. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is actually based on judo as taught by a Japanese immigrant named Maeda in the early 20th century, though the terms judo and ju-jutsu were often used interchangeably in the west in those days. Maeda was also a professional wrestler and likely included some catch wrestling techniques in what he taught his Brazilian students. Aikido comes from the older aiki-jutsu, which is usually classified as a form of koryu ju-jutsu though there is much debate as to whether its roots really are that old.
      It should be noted, most of the oldest koryu ju-jutsu styles – ones which go back several hundred years and sometimes went by other names such as yawara – were not usually intended to be done exclusively with bare hands. Rather, they were meant to be used only in emergencies if you lost your weapon or, more likely, as a means of temporarily stunning or restraining an opponent so you could better use a weapon on him. It was only when Japan was united under the Tokugawa shoguns and these arts were no longer being used on the battlefield that purely empty hand styles of ju-jutsu began to become popular. It should also be noted, older, more “combative” arts do not necessarily translate as more effective. While styles that include sporting competition may have removed some of the more dangerous techniques from their repertoire, they also afford the student the opportunity to test the techniques they do learn by going full bore (at least in the case of judo and BJJ) against an uncooperative opponent, which has generally proven to be a more effective means of developing practical skills than static drills.
      As for the terms “jutsu” (often claimed to represent the more combative aspects of Japanese martial arts as personified in the term “bujutsu”) and “do” (supposedly more representative of the spiritual elements of the arts reflected in the more modern term “budo”), as I pointed out, the classifications have never been quite exact. The head of one of the oldest koryu kenjutsu styles of swordsmanship, the Ono Ha Itto Ryu, kept referring to his style as “budo” and talking about spiritual development when I interviewed him (this concept does go back to at least the early 17th century in certain koryu arts). Meanwhile, some arts created in the 20th century, such as the modern Japanese bayonet fighting used in WWII, are clearly battlefield arts with less emphasis placed on spiritual development. As to the whole concept of “budo” this has been a widely misinterpreted facet of the Japanese martial arts.
      The sort of new age, self-actualizing image we have of budo nowadays is really a post-WWII creation. There is an excellent term used by some historians called “invented history” which is now gaining ground among serious martial arts historians. Essentially, most of what we think of as the traditions and history of martial arts have been misconstrued or just made up and passed off as legitimate history (the same could probably be said for many other fields of history as well). Most of the serious modern research seems to indicate that the concept of budo in the Japanese martial arts was first popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Japanese government officials who were interested in turning the country into a modern industrial and military power. They actually based much of budo on 19th century European ideas of physical education in the promotion of nationalism. As such, budo became closely linked with Japanese fascism. But these roots were often forgotten or disregarded, particularly in the west, after WWII.
      Finally, martial arts/methods are about far more than just the Japanese styles. Of course, almost all of these non-Japanese arts have their own invented history as well.

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One Response to “Do, Jutsu, and Invented History in Japanese Martial Arts”

  1. Kate Andrews February 11, 2013 at 11:38 am #

    Reblogged this on MMA, Wrestling, Comic and Gaming News.

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