The Skills and Language of Jujitsu.

I’ve been slowly, very slowly, grinding through a grading for third bar brown belt during Pando. I finished it recently, after submitting a series of essays on theory. Since they’ll never be published anywhere else, I thought I’d set them loose here.

To a novice stepping onto the mat for the first time, or a visitor to the dojo who arrives with no experience of the combat arts beyond the choreographed fantasies of Hollywood, even the simplest jujitsu lesson can appear to be shrouded in arcane magic.

The strangeness of it is overwhelming.

Small women appear to lift large men over their heads and fling them across the room. Those thrown crash to the ground with enormous booms and strange cries, but quickly get back to their feet as though they were no more inconvenienced than a man who sat down in the wrong chair and had to move again.

The exotic moves, the inscrutable rituals, the odd, fluid blur of motion that transforms an attacker with a knife or an axe into the victim, suddenly facedown on the floor and gesturing frantically for the pain to stop, these can all appear to the untrained as dark and inexplicable goings-on. After six months on the mat, however, they are reduced to the sometimes confusing and frustrating, but ultimately knowable techniques of the art.

It is understandable that some might mistake the technical building blocks of a martial art—the kicks and punches, the throws, the strangles and holds and so on—for the required skills. After all, students and teacher alike spend many years practising particular movements over and over again. Many judo and jujitsu dojos will even mount instructional posters on the walls for students and teachers to refer to when, say, learning the throws for a grading. The curricula and grading protocols of every art, especially in the west, lay out increasing numbers of increasingly complicated techniques that all students must learn before they can move on to the next rank.

While these functional proficiencies might look like the core skills of a martial artist, there is another sense in which they are simply the expression of qualities rooted more deeply in psychology and attitude and spirit than the rote acquisition of fast twitch muscle memory.

What might these qualities be, for a jujitsu practitioner?

Flexibility is one. And not simply the flexibility required to strike the side of an opponent’s head with one’s foot in a crescent kick. Agility is not purely physical. Whether confronting an aggressor on the street, assisting with instruction in the dojo, or simply receiving that instruction from teachers and more senior students, the student of jujitsu cannot respond with rigidity.

For instance, street attacks are chaotic and unpredictable yet they occur within a legal context that is essentially fixed. The targets of violence are as constrained by law as the perpetrators. As difficult as it can be to de-escalate a confrontation that has progressed to physical combat, if the application of a technique—for instance the deflection of a punch and the sweeping of a leg—leads to the attacker reassessing their intentions, the defender must likewise have the flexibility to reduce the violence of their own response. Defenders who don’t master this skill risk becoming defendants in later criminal proceedings.

Flexibility under training conditions can mean something else again, but it asks of the practitioner a similar openness of mind. He or she may have stepped on to the mat intending to focus on a particular technique or skill-set required for an upcoming grading, or simply because they felt the need to improve their waza in an area of weakness. Instead of attending to that matter, however, they find themselves asked to instruct a new student in the basics of self defence. Or a senior instructor may have developed some new technique they wish to fix in their own minds by instructing the class as a whole. To commit to the art is to commit to adaptation and agility of mind, not just body.

Jujitsu is for life and over decades of practice, students and teachers will train with uke of various skill levels, backgrounds, body types and motivations. The whole time they must remain open to new techniques, to these different partners with different attributes, and they must continually adapt, improvise and overcome challenges ranging from the simple to the extremely difficult and complex.

It can seem counterintuitive, weak and even absurd, for example, to respond to violent force with softness and a light touch, but one of the core principles of the art assumes that we do not respond to strength with strength, or a straight line assault with a counterassault of equal but opposite force.

Attackers are rarely smaller and weaker than their victims and there is nothing to be gained by trying to match an aggressor blow for blow. This principle, of meeting hard with soft, might be expressed in a caution against striking the thick bone helmet of the human skull with a fist, which is itself hard, but easily broken. Or the same principle might manifest as a refusal to rise to the taunts of an aggressor wishing to provoke a fight. The ability to react in such a fashion is less a simple motor skill, like a throw or a kick, than it is way of being-in or seeing-the-world differently.

Every martial art is a language, with its own vocabulary and grammar. Like all the languages of humanity, the martial arts are rooted in and carry the forms of the cultures from which they grew. To practice a combat art is in many ways similar to learning a language. The student passes through a number of stages as they develop their skills. They proceed from the laborious rote learning of singular words, or simple gross motor movements, to eventual fluency, perhaps even poetry.

In jujitsu, a martial language with deep roots in the blood-soaked provinces of feudal Japan, the new student learns the most basic defensive techniques in the same way a language student acquires the first awkward verbs and nouns of a foreign tongue, by continual repetition of the simplest and most useful elements.

To instruct a group of white and yellow belts in Nage Waza, the throwing techniques of jujitsu, is to teach a very basic lesson in balance and body movement. The new students understand very little to nothing of the most basic and archetypal throws—hip, shoulder, reaping—nor how to safely fall when thrown. Their technical shortcomings are limiting, but so too are their emotional and intellectual deficiencies. Witnessing an instructor or a senior student executing a seemingly complicated throw with apparently violent results, they do not know what to think or how to feel about the inevitable moment when they will be asked to do such a thing.

At this early, primitive stage then, the simplest elements of the technique are shown; how to off balance an opponent, and how to move to effect such an unbalancing. The student might spend many hours learning to ‘enter’ the throw, to take their partner, the uke, to the point of unbalancing, without ever executing the final technique.

As they become a little more fluent, as they develop their skills, the student moves closer to speaking the language of the art. When their balance and, just as importantly, their feeling for the balance of their training partner has advanced sufficiently, they finally execute the technique and make the throw. At this stage they are ready to improve their basic understanding and skill sets. A shoulder throw might be taught as a defence against a punch, instead of a series of barely connected movements executed from a static start. This period of enhancing basic skills also opens up pathways to slightly more challenging throws in which the tori uses uke’s body position and moment to better execute the throw much with less effort and muscular strength.

By now the vocabulary of the new martial artist has expanded to dozens of words and simple phrases spoken in the various dialects of the art. Nage waza, Atemi waza, Shime waza, tai sabaki, kuzushi and so on. They are ready to move on to advanced instruction, where skill development becomes more fluid, and the exchange between attacker and defender a more fluent conversation. The higher grade student learns to adapt on the fly, countering and combining techniques into longer and more complex chains of motion. The principles of the art are revealed at this stage, hidden within the most basic techniques, but invisible and unheard until the student has been taught to recognise them.

The eventual–but not final–stage of development of jujitsu arrives when the practitioner speaks and thinks in the language of the art without conscious effort. The skills developed over many years are not now consciously called forth. They are as much a part of the martial artist’s neuromuscular architecture as breathing is part of his or her autonomous nervous system. The art effectively speaks for itself through the body of the student.