Jujutsu: the “Gentle” Art?

When I started training, my teacher did not use a specific name for the style of martial art he was teaching. But anything we did without weapons, if he gave it a label, he would call jujutsu.

At the time, my teacher could have called whatever we were doing anything he wanted; I would not have cared.  As an 11 year old boy in the 70’s, I had no clue about different martial styles. I hadn’t even seen a Kung Fu movie yet.

All I knew was that my teacher was Japanese, and that the techniques I was learning looked like stuff I had seen in The James Bond movie “You Only Live Twice.” That’s all that mattered to me.

It is hard to imagine now, in the era of the Internet, but in the early 1970’s it was extremely difficult to find any information about martial arts styles, history, or techniques. It was even harder to find information about jujutsu.

This was especially true for me:  an 11 year old boy with a mother who not only had no clue what the martial arts were, but mostly likely would have thought them too violent to let me train in or learn about (much of my early training was done secretly, with my mother believing I was spending time at a friend’s house, which was partially true).

Unlike the proliferation of schools nowadays, even finding a martial art school in San Francisco in the 70’s was tough. I don’t even remember knowing anyone who studied martial arts at the time, Excepting the boxing school a few blocks from my house, I didn’t know any martial art schools near where I lived—and believe me I was trying hard to look.

Even the local bookstore, which I went to often, didn’t have a martial arts section, and rarely carried anything on the topic.  When they did have something, it was usually some pocket-sized book written by Bruce Tegner, or a reprint of an older self-defense manual with cheesy hand drawn pictures. It was pretty worthless stuff–no offense to Mr. Tegner.  Though I do give him credit for writing a book on vital point striking, which was my first English-language resource for these methods.

* * *

I wasn’t even able to find a copy of Black Belt Magazine, until the late 70’s when Grandmaster Brendan Lai (of Seven Star Praying Mantis Kung Fu), opened his martial arts supply store on Mission Street. This store was only five blocks from my house, and it soon became my hub for martial arts related materials.

I do not know how much of my spare pocket money I spent there, but there always seemed to more books than I could afford.  I was often kicked out of the store for spending too much time reading a book or magazine instead of making a purchase.

If he had known that many years later I would open my own martial arts school almost next door to his store, perhaps he would have been more accommodating. Maybe he also would have accepted my request to train in his style–but that’s another story.

As excellent a resource as Brendan Lai’s Martial Arts Supply Store was, he focused on books and equipment for Chinese systems.  He rarely had books on other styles. Furthermore, many of the books he carried were written in Chinese and were of little value to me except for the pictures.

Still, I did manage to find many interesting books about Chinese arts covering topics such as Chin-Na (techniques of catching and locking), Shuai Jiao (wrestling), and Chinese broadsword.  These styles, if I may dare to say so, appeared to have similar fundamentals to what I was learning; although I never would have said that to my teacher—heaven forbid.

While Chinese topics clearly dominated the inventory, every now and then a book about Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, or even Ninjas would appear on the shelves. These were a welcome change, and offered me some insights to other arts and training methods.

Unfortunately, they were still not what I was searching for. I wanted books about Jujutsu, and it seemed like those did not exist.  It was frustrating. If I could find books on all these other arts, why couldn’t I find what I was searching for. It had to exist, didn’t it? Was Jujutsu even a real art?

* * *

I was further frustrated and perplexed when I was still unsuccessful in my goal during my rare trips to Japantown, a place where one would assume books on Japanese martial arts would be readily available.  I was able to find more texts about Aikido, Karate, Kendo, Kenjutsu, Samurai History, and even Ninjutsu in Japantown, but still nothing specifically about jujutsu.

In fairness to the Kinokuniya Bookstore, when I went to Japantown with my teacher, I rarely had an opportunity to search for books.  We usually went either to watch Japanese movies or so my teacher could meet up with friends.  In either case, my teacher expected me to sit quietly, eat whatever food was provided, and be his errand boy when he needed something.

Many readers may wonder why my12-year-old self didn’t just ask my teacher more questions. That would of course have been the reasonable thing to do.

In the early years of my training my teacher rarely spoke to me.  He was more intent on figuring out how to make me quit than on teaching me.  On the rare occasions when my teacher did speak to me, it was very hard to understand him.  His English was poor and he had a heavy accent–which would drastically vary depending on his desire to communicate with me.

No matter how little I was able to comprehend him, I didn’t dare ask him to repeat himself. That would just frustrate him, often leading to a needlessly hard training session.  On the other side, I’m not sure how much my teacher understood when I talked to him either; he would often just look at me with a blank stare or frown and walk away.

Needless to say our exchanges weren’t very in-depth, or informative. In fact, I’m sure I frustrated the hell out of him by often saying “yes sir” after he had explained something, and then doing something completely different than what he had expected of me.

The result was that even from my teacher, I was not able to get any information about Jujutsu.

* * *

Now ,I’ve never been known for giving up when I set my mind to do something.  I bugged my local librarian for over two years about this topic.  The, finally, two books about Jujutsu appeared at our local branch. Yeah!!!

Both books were small paperback texts, sloppily printed on brittle brown paper, with awful hand drawn pictures.  Yet, though poorly produced, having them in my hands was like finding gold to me at that time.  Even to this day, I remember how excited I was to find them, and how I couldn’t wait to read the books cover to cover.

And then, in the fist paragraph of the first page of the first book, got the shock of my life.  The book said that “Jujutsu” can be translated as “The Gentle Art”.

“Gentle Art!” I had been training for over two years and there was nothing gentle about it.  In fact, it hurt a lot: my joints were twisted and torqued; I was choked; I was thrown to the ground–and all the while I was being kicked, kneed, elbowed, and punched.

There had to be some mistake. I could not imagine that Samurai would have done a “gentle art.”  They were warriors, great fighting men who would throw themselves on their own sword to save their honor. What would be the use to learning something “gentle,” when it came to fighting on the battlefield.

I was quite plainly flustered.  But still, eager to learn, I checked the books out, and read them cover to cover–repeatedly.

In the end, these books were not very informative; but they were about Jujutsu and that’s all that mattered. They proved that Jujutsu was real, and the techniques were often similar enough to what I was doing that I could relate to them.

In a few, rare cases, they helped me understand some piece of the puzzle I had been unable to get from my teacher, whether by his omission or our inability to communicate fully.

I also carefully studied the hand drawn diagrams.  Looking back, this was really a waste of time.  As you can see by the pictured examples, essential steps needed to make them work were left out.

* * *

They say that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.  Armed with my new-found books, there was a part of me that really wanted to show them to my teacher and ask stupid questions like “when do I get to learn this?” or, worse yet, “why do they do it that way and we do it another way?”

More importantly there was that nagging question why Jujutsu was called a “Gentle Art.”

Fortunately, common sense prevailed–by which I mean that my sense of fear won out.  I did not tell my teacher about my discovery or ask him any questions related to the books; it just wasn’t worth the risk. I knew my place in the school, and that at any time I could be told to never come back. I had seen such things enough times to know how moody my teacher could be, and that he wouldn’t give anyone a second chance.

I certainly hoped my teacher would never find out about the books.  But it would not make this a particularly interesting story if he had not.  Nor would it be believable that a thirteen year old could keep a secret, and fully fight the urge to ask questions.

I cannot remember why I took the books to class, or what led up to my teacher finding them.  Chances are that he saw them while I was doing my homework–this was required before we were allowed to train and was often done at his house.  I carried these books in my backpack everywhere I went for several weeks, and would read and reread them on my long bus ride home.

However it happened, it happened.  I mostly remember the embarrassment of being caught with them and the fear of what was going to happen next.

To my surprise, and totally out of character for him, my teacher was not upset at all.  He was actually sort of amused.  To say I was dumbfounded would be an understatement.  I had prepared for the worst, and it didn’t come.

Anxious to know why I wasn’t facing the hailstorm I had anticipated, I watched my teacher flip through the pages of the books several times with a smirk on his face.  After several minutes, which seemed an eternity, he handed the books back and told me that they were not worth the paper they were printed on.

Looking at the books today, I have to agree, though both have a place on my bookshelf.  But, at the time, these books meant a lot to me.  How could they be so worthless?  Did he not realize how hard it was for me to find them? I had to know why.

His answer was short and simple: “In time you will understand.”

What?  That’s no answer, or at least not enough of one for a 13 year old.  I needed to know more.

There was nothing but silence.

“Sensei, may I ask one last question?” I inquired in the most respectful tone I could muster, thinking I had now overstepped my bounds. Time seemed to stand still.

After what seemed forever, my teacher gave a nod of approval.  I finally asked him the one burning question I had had since I first opened the books. “Sensei, why do they call Jujutsu a ‘Gentle Art’ when it hurts so much?”

I think that was the first time I ever saw my teacher smile–at least at me–and the first time we had a real conversation. It was certainly the first time he invited me to eat dinner with his family, and it marked an important milestone in our teacher-student relationship.

* * *

I wish I could say that I remember our conversation word for word, but the truth is that I do not.  I do remember that it gave me my first real insights into the concepts and principles of Jujutsu.  The gist of that discussion is something I try and instill on every new student who enters my school.

The lesson that day was simple.  Jujutsu is a “gentle art.”  It is a very gentle art.  However, that gentleness is for the practitioner, not the person receiving the technique.

Traditional Jujutsu is all about obtaining maximum results with minimal effort or force. It’s about yielding to ones’ opponent, and redirecting their force to gain the advantage. Jujutsu is about being pliant.

The “gentleness” comes from learning to flow and blend with one’s opponent so precisely that the techniques seem to work without any effort.

Put another way, your movements are so gentle that they are imperceptible; they cause a reaction that your opponent can’t become aware of, or counter, until it’s too late.

Then again, as Harry Lord, the author of “Lighting Ju-Jitsu” stated, “as for Ju-Jitsu being a ‘gentle art,’ you can mark that down to the diabolical Japanese humor.”

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