Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Proto-Kuzushi - The Origins of Off-Balance

Welcome to the dojo. For the last few years, I've been exploring the relationship between judo, aikido, iaido, jodo and kendo - and some other arts.

In 2006 I visited an archeological museum in Taiwan, where I found an ancient terra cotta camel that had been traded there - which tells me that the trade routes across Asia, the different versions of the 'Silk Road', didn't necessarily start and end where I would have thought. Today, I'm of the opinion that we can translate this same concept to our martial arts training - and to the history of the development of off-balance.

The principle of kuzushi, or off-balance, is vital to many modern martial arts. In kendo, for example, one player lunges forward with a mighty yell, while the other recoils in defense (or takes a whackin'). When I tried it, I spent a lot of time on my heels, trying to back-pedal out of the kill zone (I'm not a very good kendo player). It may not be readily apparent to the casual observer, but off-balance plays a major role in the kendo attack.

The principle of off-balance isn't always taught in aikido schools, except in Tomiki aikido, which is heavily influenced by judo. In Tomiki aikido, the judo/jujutsu off-balance is key to the proper execution of most techniques.

But where did this principle develop? Where did it come from? There will be some (including most of the sensei whom I've met) who'll tell you that it's an exclusively Japanese creation. They say that, although the basics of jujutsu were imported from China by way of Korea in the 15th century, the off-balance principle was only added once the art was sufficiently codified by the early Japanese masters. Of course, there are also people who'll tell you that jujutsu, like the Japanese language, was handed down from the gods.

Check out the Chinese art of shuai jiao (fast wrestling). It's basically a Chinese version of judo, only much older, and much less refined. It's fairly obvious, from my perspective, that elements of jujutsu could have been developed from shuai jiao. I say could have been, because there are significant differences between the two, even on a fundamental level.

Shuai jiao is a very old art, and elements of its throwing curriculum outdate Japanese jujutsu. But where did it come from? This is only speculation on my part, of course, but through the sanda connection, one might make the argument that shuai jiao developed from throwing techniques evident in old Shaolin forms.

Now, I know what you're thinking: Here we go again with the "All Roads Lead to Shaolin" thing. Right? Well, no. It can be argued that Shaolin was a stepping stone for what we call the martial arts on their way from India to America, if you like to see it that way (I certainly do). Shaolin gets a lot of credit in my book, but was hardly the birthplace of the ability of one human being to throw another human being to the ground. What I'm saying here is that it may be that the Shaolin monks developed - or at least codified - a version of off-balance techniques that eventually became the nucleus of modern "ju" arts.

Does this make modern arts like jujutsu, judo and aikido any less Japanese? Of course not. Nor does it steal anything from their credibility as martial arts. But the human body only moves in a finite number of ways, and it only makes sense that people were throwing each other around in other places and at aother times, in much the same way in which we do it now. Before researching the matter of off-balance in the softer martial arts, I never would have thought to look for connections between modern aikido and old Shaolin. And although I'm only speculating on those connections now, the implications are - at least for me - intriguing.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Trouble with Jutsu: Just Spelling It is an Art

Welcome to the dojo.

I'm seeing a lot of Jutsu lately. From traditional Japanese "Samurai Jujutsu" to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (to the often gaudy websites of those claiming lineage in "authentic ninjutsu"), jutsu is suddenly everywhere.

I guess for me, it started in my early teens, with the ninja fad of the 1980s. Everyone who was anyone in the martial arts was suddenly all about the ninja and their shadowy art, ninjutsu. But sometimes it was spelled ninjitsu, sometimes ninjutsu, and sometimes hyphenated (nin-jitsu). It was all very confusing for a guy like me, whose spelling skills were only passable in English - and who, at the time, had little opportunity for real research into such matters.

So what's the difference? What's the correct spelling? Well, like any other American martial artist in the past 20 years, I've seen and heard every possible angle. Once - and this was recently, mind you - I got an interesting explanation from a so-called "shihan" in jujutsu (his website also called it the "Gental Art," telling me that he, an American, can spell it correctly in Japanese but not in English). He said that "jitsu" means with weapons, while "jutsu" means without. Or was it the other way around?
Of course, this is pure rubbish, and anyone claiming the title shihan in any Japanese martial art should know better than that. Further, this goofy explanation of the difference between jutsu and jitsu was one of the bases for my conclusion that this guy was a complete charlatan and was probably not worthy of a green belt in any real jujutsu program.

The real difference between jutsu and jitsu is this: THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE. It's just a quirk of language.

See, the real word in Japanese is not pronounced "jutsu" or "jitsu" at all. It looks like this: 術, and is pronounced "jts". That's it. Jts. Now, if you were going to use the English alphabet to spell out a word that has no sounded vowells, how would you do it?

In Japanese, such words aren't unusual or particularly troublesome. As there's no hiragana character for just j, the Japanese use the character for "ji", combined with "yu" to form a "ju" or "jyu" sound. Either way, the "u" or "yu" isn't pronounced - only the "j". Likewise, the "tsu" comes out like "ts", again omitting the "u".

You can see how it would get confusing. But on our end, it's really quite simple. Many English transliterations of Japanese words use the letter u to assist with spelling and to fill out the word, thus the spelling jutsu. I can only assume that the spelling jitsu came from some attempt at pronunciation of jutsu.

In the case of Bazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you probably have to factor in some quirk of the Portuguese language as well.

But either way, you're not wrong. A word whose proper spelling contains no vowells at all can't easily be misspelled, can it? At this point, it's the meaning that stumps people.

See, jutsu doesn't mean art (although its original Chinese counterpart pronounced "shu" actually does mean art). It doesn't mean technique, either. Jutsu is actually a practical skill, whose study and application have taken on art-like qualities. I would liken the idea, as I understand it at this moment, to driving a car. Some people could call it an art, while others would say no such thing. But it's definitely a well-honed skill that has taken on some aspects of art-hood.