Okinawan Totejutsu & Japanese Jujutsu

On the Evolution of Japanese Martial Arts

Okinawan To-te Jutsu: “The Art of Chinese Hands”

When people think of “traditional Japanese martial arts,” they usually think of karate. However, karate is not technically Japanese in origin. Karate was developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom, on the Ryukyu Islands. The largest of the Ryukyu Islands is Okinawa, which happens to be the same distance from Japan as it is from China. Historically, the Ryukyu Islands had their own unique language and religion, distinct from Nihongo (the Japanese language) and Shinto (the Japanese religion).

Karate is largely based on Fujian styles of Kung Fu. One of its biggest influence is White Crane Kung Fu, which was developed by a female Chinese martial artist named Fang Qīniáng. Many of the kata (forms) in karate are basically the same as the forms practiced today by kung fu practitioners in the Fujian province of China. The Bubishi (“the Bible of Karate”) is merely a translation of the Wubei Zhi, a Chinese text compiled in the Ming Dynasty in 1621. Karate’s roots in White Crane Kung Fu are why you see a lot of animal-type movements in karate (e.g. snake hand, chicken head, crane stance). However, the fancy techniques generally get left out in practical application in competition and sparring. Karate takes the form of kickboxing for sparring and competition purposes. Karate involves fancy high kicks and a lot of striking, but not much grappling, throwing, or ne-waza (ground techniques). The video below shows what traditional karate looks like.

The term kara-te (空手) means empty-hand, signifying that it is a way of fighting without weapons, but that is not actually the original name of the art. The art developed on the Ryukyu Islands during the Sho Dynasty, which banned weapons in 1477. In the 1390s a group of Chinese families had moved to Okinawa and started teaching Chinese martial arts there. Okinawan karate developed from these Chinese martial arts and was originally referred to as to-te (唐手) or “Chinese hand.” The first character 唐 designates the Tang Dynasty (唐朝) of China. In 1609, Japan conquered the Ryukyu Islands and incorporated them into its own empire. In the 1930s, the Japanese government, through the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, officially recognized the Okinawan fighting system as a Japanese martial art. However, because the character 唐 can also be pronounced kara in Japanese, the government changed the name to kara-te and changed the spelling from 唐手 (“Chinese hand”) to 空手 (“empty hand”). Practitioners of the art willingly adopted the neologism because Japanese nationalism made it difficult for one to identify as a practitioner of a Chinese martial art in imperial Japan. The only problem with this neologism is that Ryukyu totejutsu (“the Ryukyu to-te style”) to which kara-te refers actually includes the use of many weapons and wasn’t predominantly an empty-handed art. In fact, Okinawan karate includes many weapons and the techniques used with weapons are the same as those used in Wu Zu Quan (“Five Ancestors Fist”) kung fu.

It is interesting to note that Tang Soo Do, a related Korean martial art, is written with the characters 唐手道. The first two characters are the same as the old Okinawan spelling of karate. The last character 道 (do) means “way.” The translation is “Tang hand way” and the art is often described as “Korean Karate.” Won Kuk Lee, the founder of Tang Soo Do, was actually a student of the Okinawan karate master Gichin Funakoshi. Because of Japanese anti-Chinese sentiments, the term Tang Soo Do became less popular during the Japanese occupation of Korea. The first character 唐 (Tang) was replaced with 跆 (tae, “stomp”) and the art began to be called Tae Soo Do (跆手道). Then, in the 1970s, it became popular to replace 手 (soo, “hand”) with 拳 (kwon, “fist”), giving us the more familiar term Tae Kwon Do (跆拳道). Below is a video of Tang Soo Do in practice.

Here is a video showing a demonstration of several White Crane Kung Fu techniques, many of which are still found in modern karate:

For more info on the Chinese, rather than Japanese, origins of karate, you can check out Jesse Enkamp’s YouTube series Karate Nerd in China.

Traditional Japanese martial arts, however, are quite different from Okinawan karate. Japanese martial arts come from the days of the samurai. There are the weapon-based fighting systems, like bojutsu, kenjutsu, and naginatajutsu. Then there are the Japanese hand-to-hand combat styles, known as taijutsu (“body skills”). Unlike karate, traditional Japanese arts tend to focus more on throws, chokes, joint locks, and immobilizations and less on striking. The subset of taijutsu that I am most interested in is jujutsu. I will not be covering the other varieties of taijutsu in this article (e.g. ninjutsu) nor will I discuss the weapon-based fighting systems of Japan.

Classical Jujutsu: Takenouchi, etc.

The oldest form of jujutsu (柔術) is Takenouchi-Ryu, which was founded by Hisamori Takenouchi in 1532. This form of jujutsu is still practiced to this day. The video below shows a demonstration of this classical form of jujutsu.

Over the centuries, various different versions of jujutsu developed, such as Yoshin-Ryu, Tenjin Shinyo-Ryu, Kito-Ryu, and Daito-Ryu. The videos below show some of these various forms of jujutsu in practice.

You will notice that these classical forms of jujutsu, while focusing on throws and locks, do include some striking.

Modern Jujutsu (Part 1): Kano, Gracie, & Bravo

In the late 19th and early 20th century, various modern versions of jujutsu developed out of classical jujutsu. These forms of jujutsu started to look a little different compared to the classical forms of jujutsu.

In the 1890s, Kano Jigoro developed Kano-Ryu Jujutsu — more commonly known as Kodokan Judo. This developed out of Yoshin-Ryu, Tenjin Shinyo-Ryu, and Kito-Ryu. Jigoro developed judo as a more competitive version of jujutsu, and shiai (contests or competitions) became a central part of judo practice. Classical jujutsu often had a ritualistic approach to practice, where practitioners would memorize techniques and practice them against a non-resisting “opponent.” Judo introduced contests in which the judoka would have to pull off their jujutsu techniques against resisting and combative opponents. This pressure-testing made judo more efficient than older forms of Japanese jujutsu. However, under Kodokan rules, players are stood up after a short time on the ground. While Kodokan Judo does have ne-waza (ground techniques), the focus is on standing techniques and throws. The video below shows some Kodokan Judo.

A variation of judo known as Kosen Judo developed as a result of an alternative set of rules used in competitions at the Koto Senmon Gakko (Colleges of Technology) in Japan. The Kosen rules do not allow the referee to stand up the players after going to the ground. If the fight gets taken to the ground, it remains on the ground. Consequently, Kosen Judo focuses a lot more on ne-waza (ground work) than Kodokan Judo does. Below is a video that shows Kosen Judo in practice.

In the early 1900s, Mitsuyo Maeda, an expert in both Kodokan Judo and Kosen Judo, traveled the world doing public demonstrations of judo and challenging practitioners of other arts. During his travels, he made his living as a prizefighter. Below is a video about Mitsuyo Maeda.

In 1917, Carlos Gracie saw one of Mitsuyo Maeda’s demonstrations in Brazil. Carlos and Hélio Gracie went on to learn a blend of Kodokan and Kosen Judo from Maeda. The Gracies went on to found there own jujutsu school and issued the “Gracie Challenge,” challenging practitioners of other forms of martial arts and wrestling to fight them in a vale tudo (full contact, few-rules) match. These vale tudo matches allowed the Gracies to pressure-test and perfect their art. Thus was born Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, which went on to be popularized by the UFC when Royce Gracie, one of the smallest fighters in UFC 1, dominated the competition. Below is a video clip of some highlights of Royce Gracie doing Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (AKA Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu).

In 2003, Eddie Bravo, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert, founded 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu, teaching a non-traditional version of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu based around the rubber guard. The rubber guard is a position in which one controls the opponent on the ground using the legs in order to free up one’s hands to strike, transition, or submit the opponent. The 10th Planet system is a unique form of jujutsu with many submissions that are not seen in other forms of jujutsu. Below is a video of Eddie Bravo explaining his system to Rickson Gracie.

Within the 10th Planet gyms, jiu-jitsu is still evolving, as Eddie Bravo’s students come up with new submissions that actually work in competition. Here’s a video of Ben Eddy using one of these new submissions.

Modern Jujutsu (Part 2): Aikido & Hapkido

In the 1940s, two new modern forms of jujutsu developed out of Daito-Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu. The first form is Hapkido, which was developed by a Korean Daito-Ryu practitioner named Choi Yong-Sool. This art differs somewhat from classical forms of jujutsu, but still looks very similar to them. Below is a video showing a Hapkido demonstration.

The other variation of jujutsu to be developed by a Daito-Ryu practitioner in the 1940s is Aikido. Aikido was developed by Morihei Ueshiba after Word War II. Morihei Ueshiba had been influenced by Shingon Buddhism and Shinto in his youth and converted to the Omoto-Kyo religion around 1920. His religious beliefs combined with the horrors he witnessed during World War II led him to become a pacifist. He developed Aikido as a non-combative martial art, emphasizing his religious belief in the need for universal harmony. Striking and ne-waza (ground-techniques) are entirely removed from the Aikido jujutsu curriculum. Because of the pacifist philosophy behind it, traditional Aikido is a non-combative and non-competitive martial art. This means that Aikido lacks any sort of pressure-testing. Rather than an effective martial art, Aikido is a ritualistic and spiritual art that flows and is quite beautiful to watch but is difficult (if not impossible) to apply in most real combat situations. While Aikido is, to a great extent, a form of jujutsu, it differs greatly from traditional jujutsu. The idea of the te-gatana (hand-sword) is central to Aikido and a lot of its movements are based on motions from Japanese sword-fighting. Additionally, Aikido, unlike traditional jujutsu, does not apply pressure on joints in directions in which they don’t naturally move. This is because the Aikidoka is concerned with protecting the attacker as well as himself. Below is a video of an Aikido demonstration.

In the late 1960s, an Aikidoka named Kenji Tomiki wanted to introduce Aikido to the Japanese universities. However, the universities were not interested in having a non-competitive and non-sport art taught to their students. Kenji Tomiki decided to create a set of rules for sport that would allow for Aikido techniques to be used in a competition. The spin-off of Aikido that developed as a result of application in the sport world is known as Shodokan Aikido, which takes the form of grip-fighting. The rules are quite different from those found in Judo, as no ground fighting is allowed whatsoever. Striking, clinching, and holding for extended periods are prohibited under Shodokan rules. Below is a video of some Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructors and a former traditional Aikido instructor commenting on a video of a Shodokan Aikido competition.

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