What is Jutaijutsu? Is it like Jujutsu?

Jujutsu, which you might have heard of, translates as the “gentle art.” Tai is Japanese for body, so Jutaijutsu is the “gentle art of moving your body.” This is about the idea of using your opponent’s energy to your advantage, going with the flow rather than resisting, staying flexible in dealing with new situations – both mentally and physically. To an observer, Jutaijutsu might not always look particularly “gentle,” since we do sparring and some of our techniques can be quite impactful. It is more about versatility, understanding situations and staying flexible in your response.

Other differences are that Jujutsu is a modern competition discipline developed in the 19th and 20th centuries – it has a point system and organized competition structures with agreed-upon rules. Jutaijutsu is quite different in that it does not focus on competitions at all. It does not provide an external incentive structure in the form of championships, titles etc., but focuses only on students’ and practitioners’ individual journeys, their improvement and the continuous expansion of their physical and mental limits. Brazilian Jujutsu, which might be familiar as well, is yet another, more modern form of Jujutsu that focuses almost exclusively on on-the-ground grappling techniques and has become an integral part of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Summarizing broadly, it is the product of more classical Jujutsu mixed with street fighting techniques, developed by a Brazilian family enterprise.

Jutaijutsu is a niche discipline that has not been popularized similar to other styles, and is more comprehensive, versatile and less specialized. It encompasses all sorts of free fighting, has a broad range of grappling, striking, kicking and leverage techniques and uses a range of traditional Japanese weapons such as sticks, wooden swords, tonfa (pair of short wooden sticks with handles, used by many police forces up to this day), sai (pair of metal forklike weapons used to disarm opponents with longer weapons such as sticks or swords), or naginata (long bladed weapon used to fight opponents on horseback) to name a few. The actual fighting is preceded by a solid grounding in mastering one’s one body (hence the “tai” in Jutaijutsu), getting to know oneself as well as being able to read situations, environments and people. At the beginning of each students’ journey, fighting is a less important aspect of the practice, and many other facets such as stamina, orientation, bodily control, strength, use of the senses, flexibility and balance are trained and developed in group exercises that are often playful and exploratory. For that reason, no two practice sessions are the same. One-on-one fighting situations begin as stylized and choreographed exercises, and as students gradually gain experience and mastery of their movements and strength, become gradually freer and more open to improvisation. At advanced, black-belt levels, sparring and fighting becomes free and semi-contact (no protective gear is worn), but practitioners exercise control over the impact of their strikes and techniques so as not to seriously harm each other.

Historically, all these disciplines come out of similar fighting traditions reaching back to the Japanese middle ages and the age of the Samurai. In their evolution, they have been reinterpreted multiple times, and influential figures such as Jigoro Kano, the inventor of Judo, have taken a joint heritage of fighting traditions and techniques, developed a particular curriculum out of it and made it suitable for what they saw as the requirements of their times. For Kano, this was building a physical exercise and way of life that could be taught in all Japanese schools and imparted not only fitness, strength and stamina but also values such as mutual respect, introspection and internal reflection (along with Japanese nationalist ideas). Similarly, modern Karate was codified and popularized at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century by Gichin Funakoshi and others, alongside Kano’s efforts to diffuse modern Judo. Karate fused local Okinawan fighting traditions with Kung-Fu styles imported from China. Funakoshi played an important part in spreading it as a modern discipline throughout all of Japan. He and Kano were in contact and exchanged ideas – this is how the white uniform (gi) we usually associate with martial arts today ended up in Karate as well. Kano had established it, along with the coloured belt system from white to black that denotes students’ level of expertise, as the standard uniform for Judo, and Funakoshi adopted it for Karate as well. Today, it is used in many other martial arts, such as Aikido, Jujutsu and also in Jutaijutsu.

As noted above, the joint heritage of fighting traditions that Jutaijutsu and many other disciplines come out of, reach back to the time of the Samurai. But what does this mean? Was there one single style that the Samurai used to fight, and do certain martial arts practice it while others don’t? That is a very complex and much-disputed topic for another blog post! Suffice it to say here that there are hardly any clear distinctions between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ martial arts, and many traditions are in fact quite recent re-inventions put in place with particular purposes in mind. As we saw with Kano, his establishment of modern Judo called upon older traditions and reinterpreted them in a modern framework that responded to particular needs – modernizing the Japanese state while creating a joint identity that set Japan apart from the West and enabled it to withstand the pressure created by the competition within the modern nation-state order, among other things. It is therefore not straightforward to say that any particular martial art completely embodies the traditional styles of the Samurai – the privileged warrior class that developed within a strict caste system in Japanese society and came to adopt and embody very particular values that were forged by the particular social system it was part of. Many of these values, such as very particular notions of honour that valued loyalty over one’s own life, are today anathema to the way we live. Yet other ideas, such as the ability to evaluate situations independently, take decisions based on one’s own evaluations, and follow through on principles and ideas, are helpful and even somewhat underprivileged in our current society that places enormous value on how others view and perceive us. This is where martial arts play an important part and have much to give, then as now, to their students and practitioners.