Japanese unarmed grappling arts have been around for a very long time. The first references to such unarmed combat arts or systems can be found in the earliest so-called historical records of Japan, the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) and the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), which relate the mythological creation of the country and the establishment of the Imperial family. Other glimpses can be found in the older records and pictures depicting sumai (or sumo) no sechie, a rite of the Imperial Court in Nara and Kyoto performed for purposes of divination and to help ensure a bountiful harvest. These systems of unarmed combat began to be known as jujutsu, among other related terms, during the Muromachi period (1333-1568), according to densho (transmission scrolls) of the various ryu-ha (martial traditions, "schools") and historical records.
Some define jujutsu and similar arts rather narrowly as "unarmed" close combat systems used to defeat or control an enemy who is similarly unarmed. Basic methods of attack include hitting or striking, thrusting or punching, kicking, throwing, pinning or immobilizing, strangling, and joint-locking. Great pains were also taken by the bushi (classic warriors) to develop effective methods of defense, including parrying or blocking strikes, thrusts and kicks, receiving throws or joint-locking techniques (i.e., falling safely and knowing how to "blend" to neutralize a technique's effect), releasing oneself from an enemy's grasp, and changing or shifting one's position to evade or neutralize an attack.
From a broader point of view, based on the curricula of many of the classical Japanese arts themselves, however, these arts may perhaps be more accurately defined as unarmed methods of dealing with an enemy who was armed, together with methods of using minor weapons such as the jutte (truncheon), tanto (knife), or kakushi buki (hidden weapons), such as the ryofundo kusari (weighted chain) or the bankokuchoki (a type of knuckle-duster), to defeat both armed or unarmed opponents. Furthermore, the term jujutsu was also sometimes used to refer to tactics for infighting used with the warrior's major weapons: ken or tachi (sword), yari (spear), naginata (glaive), and bo (staff).
These close combat methods were an important part of the different martial systems that were developed for use on the battlefield. They can be generally characterized as either Sengoku Jidai (Warring States period, 1467-1568) katchu bujutsu or yoroi kumiuchi (fighting with weapons or grappling while clad in armor), or Edo Jidai (Edo period, 1600-1868) suhada bujutsu (fighting while dressed in the normal street clothing of the period, kimono and hakama).
Although these arts are most commonly referred to under the general rubric of "jujutsu," there were many different names for these types of techniques and tactics, varying from ryu to ryu. Hade, hakuda, jujutsu, kempo (Sekiguchi-ryu, Araki-ryu, Seigo-ryu), koppo, kogusoku, and koshi no mawari (Takenouchi-ryu and Yagyu Shingan-ryu), kowami, kumiuchi, shubaku, tode, torite, yawara[jutsu] (Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, Tatsumi-ryu and Shosho-ryu), and yoroi kumiuchi (Yagyu Shingan-ryu) are a few of the words that were used over the years. In some traditions, such as the Takenouchi-ryu and Yagyu Shingan-ryu, more than one term was used to refer to separate parts of their curricula. Each of these words denotes systems with different contents or slightly varied technical characteristics.
Regardless of where they live, people spend a great deal of time developing and perfecting methods of using weapons for hunting and fighting. If successful, personal experiences and insights (often gained on the battlefield) help individuals to establish particular "styles," "schools," or "traditions"--in Japanese, the bujutsu ryu-ha.
Compared with the empty-handed fighting arts of neighboring China and Korea, Japanese jujutsu systems place more emphasis on throwing, immobilizing and/or pinning, joint-locking, and strangling techniques. Atemiwaza (striking techniques) are of secondary importance in most Japanese systems, whereas the Chinese ch'uan-fa (J.: kempo) emphasize punching, striking, and kicking. It is generally felt that the Japanese systems of hakuda, kempo, and shubaku display some degree of Chinese influence in their particular emphasis on atemiwaza, while systems that are derived from a more purely Japanese source do not show any special preference for such techniques, but will use them as and when appropriate.
There are several reasons why Japanese arts developed in this way. First, there was a major change in the conduct of warfare during the Sengoku Jidai compared with that of earlier times. Fighting was typified by large-scale engagements on the battlefield. Bushi, dressed in armor, fought all over the place in a melee situation--not the sort of conditions where striking an enemy with one's fists or feet would be effective. The close quarters tactics of the day called for closing with the enemy, throwing him down, and taking his head.
Another reason for the secondary emphasis on atemiwaza in Japanese systems is the fact that, even when one's opponent is not wearing any sort of protective equipment, it is difficult to defeat (by killing or incapacitating) a trained fighter with one blow; under these circumstances, failure is more likely than success. If your attempt fails, the enemy will use the weapon he carries to cut you down. The most important thing, then, is not to allow him to use his weapon. If it is a sword, then you must be able to control his right hand and prevent him from drawing it, or, if he manages to draw it, you must be able to stop him from using it against you. Commonly seen examples of these kinds of techniques can be seen in Kime no Kata (Forms of Decision) in nukikake (Sword Unsheathing), and kirioroshi (Downward Cut), judo techniques based on the older jujutsu forms of the Tenjin Shinyo-ryu. On the other hand, if you are the one with the sword (or other weapon), you must be able to free yourself from your enemy's grasp, open the distance, and bring an effective counterattack to bear, a tactic that occurs in a number of the techniques in Yagyu Shingan-ryu.
Thus, close quarters grappling skills were essential for both the shogunate law enforcement officers and for warriors, to enable them to overcome an opponent when unarmed or armed only with a "minor" weapon. In fact, there were times when using one's own weapons was either difficult or impossible. A bushi would generally resort to his sword when threatened, but there were some situations in which he was not permitted to use it. One example was in a lord's castle. This was the cause of the events recounted in "Chushingura" (The Story of the 47 Ronin), where Lord Asano draws his short sword within Edo Castle and attempts to cut down Lord Kira for having insulted him. This was a major offense, punishable by death, and his life and domain were therefore forfeit, leading to the famous vendetta.
Another typical use of jujutsu by warriors was when a high-ranking warrior was attacked by one of lower status. In such a case, even if the low-ranked warrior, an ashigaru (foot soldier, the lowest level of bushi) for example, were to attack, say, a general, with a drawn sword, it would have been unseemly for the higher officer to use a weapon against such a common person; thus warriors also needed to be able to control and subdue such opponents in a manner befitting their status.
In future columns, I will discuss several jujutsu ryu, both those developed for use on the battlefield during the Sengoku Jidai (Takenouchi-ryu, Yagyu Shingan-ryu, and others) and ones that were created during the 250-odd years of peace under the Tokugawa bakufu (military government), such as the Yoshin-ryu and Tenjin Shinyo-ryu. There are a number of very important differences between them and they're worth exploring.