Monday, September 14, 2009

"Ju" (Part 1)

Due in part to the popularity of mixed martial arts events, jujutsu has become a word that most Americans recognize. Different images come to mind depending on one’s experience with the term. Some ideas come from spectators of mix martial arts events; others come from students of jujutsu that are at various points along their journey in the art. What does the term really mean?

In 1953 James M. Mitose wrote a book titled “What Is Self Defense? (Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu)”[1]. The term “ju” is sometimes translated as “gentle”, but anyone who has seen or participated in a jujutsu training session would probably protest that connotation. If not "gentile", what does “ju” mean then? “The Modern Reader’s Japanese-English Character Dictionary” by Andrew Nelson received the 1969 Prize of the Society for the Promotion of International Cultural Relations award and translates the term “ju” to include, “softness” (Nelson, 1988, p. 645).

Does that imply that the technical skills of jujutsu are “soft”? For clarification on this, one can refer to The Wordbook of Seizan-ryu, a collection of kanji and translations specific to Japanese martial arts, which provides the following on the term jujutsu: “presumably, this term was originally meant to describe the art in contrast to ken-jitsu (swordsmanship), bo-jutsu (staff fighting), etc., that is, in general ‘un-armed’ fighting. This use of the word goes back at least to the late 16th century and Yagyu Munenori (and probably earlier). Much later, Kano-sensei glossed it to mean natural, efficient, ‘inadvertent’ movements and techniques, gentile in the sense that the art follows natural laws” (Roemer, n.d., p. 56). Perhaps one of the easiest definitions to digest, and use for the ideas that follow is that “ju” is, “soft, flexible, malleable or supple” (Pauley, 2009, p. 61).

Far from an etymological skirmish between various translations of the term, there are some common themes that unite these definitions. To begin with, there are the concepts of economy and naturalness that colors these definitions. There is also a an emphasis on efficiency without imposed effort or undue energy that is implied. Students of the martial arts realize that it is often difficult to articulate some of the terminology used within their studies as these qualities just mentioned are qualities of being or terms associated with an experience as opposed to analytical articulation for the sake of semantics. “Ju” is a quality that is requires a certain level of training, skill and experience in order to be present. In other words, a specific technique is not necessarily “ju” in nature simply because a variant or semblance of the technique exists within a jujutsu system’s curriculum. Furthermore “ju” is a quality that can be present outside the settings of a dojo. Personal development expert Anthony Robbins asks, “Have you ever had the experience of being on a roll, the feeling that you could do no wrong? A time when everything seemed to go right?...Maybe it was a time when you amazed yourself by doing something …” (Robbins, 1986, p. 35).

The experience that Robbins describes is something that most martial arts students can relate to. It is the moment when a particular movement feels effortless. As a teacher with over a decade and a half of teaching experience, the author personally enjoys the moment when a student completes a technique and remarks, “Wow, that was easy!”. That experience is the quality of “ju”.

The purpose of the next series of articles is to set the environment for these moments to occur with greater ease. “Ju” requires an internalization of the basics. Internalization is not a linear process. In other words the more you work on the basics, the better the basics get. One does not reach a destination point where one “has it”. And, like all physical skills, the basics are perishable as anyone who has had a lengthy break in training can attest to. The concept for students of all levels to remember is that the better the basics are internalized, the more smoothly they can be applied.

The concept just mentioned can also be extrapolated into all areas of life. This is a key perspective to adopt if one wishes to have one’s training positively impact one’s total quality of life. Every aspect of life, whether you define the role in terms of occupation (student, employee, or business owner for example), relationship (friend, parent, or husband for example), personal goals (health, finance, or time management for example) or any other way of grouping one’s roles and responsibilities, has a set of “basics” that, when internalized correctly, increase the efficiency of one’s efforts by corresponding to a natural order that produces a certain outcome. The value of internalized basics will be discussed in the next article. Until then, continue to train hard and enjoy the journey!


Colorado Academy of Martial Arts. (n.d.) Seizan-ryu Tangoshu “The Wordbook of Seizan-ryu”. Littleton, CO: Roemer, Roland S.

Mitose, James M. (1980). What is Self Defense? (Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu)(2nd Ed). Sacramento, California: Kosho-Shorei Publishing Co. (Original work published 1953).

Nelson, Andrew N. (1988). The Modern Readers Japanese-English Character Dictionary (26th Ed). Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Co. (Original work published 1962).

Pauley, Daniel C. (2009). Pauley’s Guide: A Dictionary of Japanese Martial Arts and Culture. Dolores, CO Anaguma Seizan Publications.

Robbins, Anthony. (1986). Unlimited Power. Fawcett Columbine, New York: Ballantine Books.
[1] Note to the reader – the terms “Kenpo” and “Kempo” as well as “Jiu-Jitsu” and “Jujutsu” illustrate the difficulty in romanizing the sounds of Asian languages. Kenpo and Kempo are the same terms as are Jiu-Jitsu and Jujutsu.