Understanding the difference between traditional Jujutsu, modern Jujutsu and Aikido

Understanding the difference between traditional Jujutsu, modern Jujutsu and Aikido

As an Aikido practitioner, my experience with Aikido and other martial arts has been a long road. As a young man, I looked to martial arts hoping to find a way to defend myself, and prove myself as a competent martial artist. First, I studied Aikido and found it lacking, as many have, and I moved on to modern Jujutsu (BJJ). When I eventually found that lacking, I moved to traditional Jujutsu, hoping that it would finally answer the questions I had. Once again, though, I found myself dissatisfied. After studying three different arts that were respected by many, why couldn’t I find what I was looking for? After some time thinking about these arts, I finally realized that each art is complete in its own way, and I didn’t need to pit them against each other or try to find the “best” one. This article will explore these three systems, what they have in common, where they differ and why all three are necessary to be a well-rounded martial artist.

There are three closely related practices revolving around grappling that all originated in Japan. These three systems are often compared, confused, and misunderstood: modern Jujutsu (Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu etc.), traditional Jujutsu (Takenouchi Ryu, Yoshin Ryu, etc.), and Aikido (Aikikai, Iwama, etc.). Each of these systems revolves around grappling, but their specific interests and approaches to grappling differ greatly. By understanding these differences, it is easier to see practicality and function in all three. Before delving into the differences of these systems, however, it is important to clarify some history.

The history of traditional Jujutsu, modern Jujutsu, and Aikido

The origin of all of these systems can be found in Japanese Jujutsu- which has no single origin but was a general term used for the kind of grappling soldiers would use on the battlefield. Battlefield grappling was commonly called Yawara (柔), Jujutsu (柔術), or Kumiuchi (ち ). While historically all three have been used to describe battlefield grappling, the term used most commonly today is Jujutsu. The exact origin of the word is not known, but is often attributed to Sekiguchi Ujimune Jushin, the founder of Sekiguchi Ryu, who used the term in 1630 AD. The word Ju ( 柔), means flexible, yielding, supple, or soft. The use of the word is often attributed to a classic Chinese saying “Ju yoku sei go” or, “softness controls hardness well”. This alludes to the idea that something soft can control something hard. However, others have suggested that the saying does not mean to be soft oneself (which in Japanese would be “Yawaraka”), but instead means to soften one’s enemy, which would be “Yawaragu” (to make soft). No matter the exact origin of the word, Jujutsu became the popular term for this kind of battlefield grappling in Japan in the 17th century.

As Japanese civilization became more peaceful, the fighting samurai of Japan found themselves with little work to do. The skills of a battlefield soldier were no longer necessary and many of these old soldiers found themselves out of work. These samurai began to find other occupations, including teaching martial arts to civilians. There is a poem written in 1875 from Saigo Tanomo (Aizu chief military councilor) to Sokaku Takeda (founder of Daito Ryu Aiki-Jujutsu) that translates to something like:

With the beginning of the Meiji period, the age of the sword has ended, and no matter how skilled a swordsman might be, he can no longer make any mark and will amount to nothing. Therefore, it is time to pursue and make your way with Jujutsu.

This was the time when we saw the very beginning of what became modern Jujutsu. No longer were battlefield grappling skills necessary- instead, regular people wanted to learn how they could defend themselves in their civilian lives. Many of the close quarters skills of Jujutsu were ideal for handling civil disputes, and many samurai became teachers of this budding art.

In February of 1882, Jigoro Kano opened the first school of his modernized Jujutsu variant which he called “Judo”. Dr. Jigoro Kano was a student of traditional Jujutsu, which he modified into a western style sport competition, by taking the techniques of traditional Jujutsu and modifying them specifically for unarmed one-on-one grappling matches.  He popularized his art by making sure his school was represented in the Jujutsu challenge matches that were popular in Japan at the end of the 19th century. Kano was very interested in modernizing Jujutsu and making it more “Western” in nature. His modern Jujutsu school (which he named “Kodokan Judo”) did very well against the other Jujutsu schools under a one-on-one unarmed grappling rule set. This was probably due to the fact that Kano was a very intelligent man who recognized the most successful training methods and techniques for this new emphasis on unarmed grappling. This quickly made Judo very popular among non-military citizens of Japan. By June 10, 1886, Kano had opened a large school in the Tokyo police headquarters and the die was cast for modern Jujutsu.

Not long after, Judo competition became hugely successful in Japan and quickly got the attention of the west. Judo instructors were requested abroad, and the Kodokan was happy to send out representitives. One of those represenitives, Mitsuyo Maeda, eventually ended up settling in Brazil and was befriended by the Gracie family. This, of course, lead to the development of Brazilian Jujutsu. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, like Judo, focused on unarmed one-on-one sport grappling, but where Judo specialized in stand-up grappling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a live art specialized in grappling on the ground. Both of these styles are hugely successful examples of modern Jujutsu.

Like Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Aikido had its start in traditional Jujutsu. Aikido was founded by a man named Morihei Ueshiba. Ueshiba was the student of several traditional Japanese martial arts, but was particularly fond of Jujutsu. He fought in some challenge matches and gained a reputation for being very skilled in Jujutsu. In 1925, Ueshiba fought his famed challenge match with a swordsman using a bokken (wooden sword), while he himself didn’t use a bokken. While accounts of this match vary, it was apparently a very long bout that ended in the swordsman throwing down his sword and quitting out of frustration. After the match, while Ueshiba was pondering what happened, he had a great revelation which helped him understand a new approach to martial arts. This approach was not about attacking and overcoming those trying to harm him, but instead focused on making it impossibly difficult for them to do damage to him. While Ueshiba was a practitioner of Jujutsu, this experience led him on a new path to develop a martial art that wasn’t about defeating others, but instead about making oneself unbeatable. Ueshiba passed his ideas on to his students, who systematized his ideas and pursued many different focuses and interpretations of Aikido. However, each of those students’ lineages still hold this idea of nonresistance as key. These students spread this unique idea of nonresistance in martial art and it was quickly embraced by the world.

Context and ‘effective-ness’

All three of these systems focus on grappling of Japanese descent. However, they each have a distinct specialization. Traditional Jujutsu focuses on armed grappling (as one would see on a battlefield), modern Jujutsu on unarmed grappling, and Aikido on “anti-grappling” (not letting the attacker control one). Depending on where one’s interests lay, one or another of these systems may seem more important or effective than the others. There is a great interest today in unarmed grappling and many believe systems like Judo and BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) to be superior. Sport competitions often seem to prove this to be true as they focus on one-on-one unarmed grappling. However, other professionals like law enforcement, security and military often find more application in traditional Jujutsu and Aikido, many of them citing on-the-job experiences where they used training from these systems. So why is there such a disparity in what is “effective”? Understanding what distinguishes these systems will help us understand what it means for a martial art to be “effective”.

One of the most important things to talk about is live training. Live training is a practice where those training go full speed, or very near full speed and actively work to overcome the other training partner(s). Matt Thornton, in “”, argues that:

An Alive training method must incorporate Movement, including spontaneous footwork and the active resistance and intent of all parties during drills or sparring; Timing, in which there is no “predictable rhythm… pattern, [or] repeatable series of sets” which would lead students away from acquiring applicable skill; and Energy, the practice of committing, with intent and realism, a given technique during sparring, “bag work.

When discussing which type of system is best, it must be understood that there are two parts to martial study. One part is the syllabus of the system- what kinds of techniques, tactics and strategies it employs, and also the methods by which one trains those techniques, tactics, and strategies into the unconscious mind. When talking about training the unconscious mind, live training is superior to all other training methods. Static forms are undoubtedly valuable, but without live training that one finds in something like sparring, students of the system will not ever learn how to actually apply the system. If the system one trains in does not have some form of live training, they will be at a serious disadvantage. Technique selection and refinement is much better when one is able to use live training to test out and improve their techniques. Modern Jujutsu lends itself to this kind of practice very well, as its unarmed nature and sport-like qualities make understanding how to train like this very simple. Traditional Jujutsu and Aikido have a lot of work to do in this area in order to catch back up to modern Jujutsu.

While many traditional Jujutsu and Aikido practitioners might be interested in live training, it is not as simple as copying the methods of live training used by modern Jujutsu. Live training methods must be tailored to the context of that particular system. Attempts to simply copy the methods of live training found in modern Jujutsu will lead practitioners of the other systems to believe that the techniques found in modern Jujutsu are simply the best to use, because they are custom made for that situation. If traditional Jujutsu and Aikido are going to add live training methods to their systems, these live training methods will be unique to the context of each.

Distinctions between modern and traditional Jujutsu

It must be understood that traditional Jujutsu had a very long period of development and was tested and perfected on the battlefield. When Judo was first invented it seemed that Kano had improved on the system of Jujutsu. However, what he actually did is focus more heavily on what had previously been a less important aspect of traditional Jujutsu- unarmed one-on-one grappling. He eliminated many technical aspects that were important to traditional Jujutsu and had his students focus only on the techniques for one-on-one unarmed grappling. He created a practice that allowed his students to use live training methods to help them master these techniques. When older Jujutsu systems where pitted against this new system that was better streamelined for unarmed one-on-one grappling in unarmed grappling matches, Judo generally won out. Traditional methods of Jujutsu came from the battlefield, where they were facing a context much different than they were facing in these unarmed sportive matches in which Kano’s approach showed itself to be more successful.

In Judo, techniques focus much more on core control, and much less on arm control than do traditional Jujutsu schools. Core control, such as a standing clinch or body to body ground pin is a far superior way to control the opponent’s body, when compared to attempting to control opponents through their arm. Traditional Jujutsu schools focus more on arm and wrist controls and less with body to body control than does modern Jujutsu. The favoring of arm control in traditional Jujutsu is done because battlefield grappling dealt with armed opponents, while Judo players do not. Even though modern Jujutsu and traditional Jujutsu are both grappling systems, the presence of a weapon changes the way one must apply technique. Wrist techniques are of no importance in Judo as they do a poor job of controlling the opponent’s body. However, wrist techniques in traditional Jujutsu are of great importance because they enable direct weapon control, disarms and give the ability to damage the wrist, elbow and shoulder joints, taking away their opponent’s ability to manipulate weapons.

As Judo has continued its evolution, there has been more and more emphasis in competition on body control and less emphasis on appendage control. This is because the appendage controls are not as useful as direct body control for their modern application of unarmed grappling. This same evolution can be seen in historic German wrestling manuals. As German grappling called “Ringen” left the battlefield and became a sport focused on one-on-one unarmed grappling, there was a de-emphasis on hand and arm control, and an increased emphasis on body to body and leg holds. While Judo has only recently (just over a hundred years) been removed from battle field grappling, Ringen had several hundred years to develop. It seems the longer a grappling system is kept away from weapon conflict, the less arm control will be seen in successful technique. This can also be seen in Folk, Freestyle, and Greco-Roman wrestling; these modern systems focus mostly on body to body control and much less on arm control. This is because all of these systems share an interest in unarmed grappling and not armed grappling. If a weapon is present, the arms must be accounted for first and the body second, failure to do this will end in the practitioner being mortally wounded. This is the opposite in modern sportive grappling systems, where the hands and arms are generally considered to be of little importance and gladly released to gain better body control. While there are still many useful arm techniques for unarmed grappling (Seoi Nage, whizzers, arm drags, two-on-one) they are of much less importance in unarmed grappling when compared to armed grappling. Techniques that involve hand and arm control might be of more use to modern law enforcement or security officers, as the context they are in often requires them to deal with armed attackers. If traditional Jujutsu focused more on live training, few professionals of this type would choose modern Jujutsu over traditional Jujutsu- as their context requires a skill set better represented by traditional Jujutsu.

Many think that hybridizing traditional Jujutsu and modern Jujutsu will improve them. Hybridizing techniques and training methods from modern Jujutsu to traditional Jujutsu is not ideal, because of the context of each system. Modern Jujutsu focuses on unarmed grappling while traditional Jujutsu focuses on armed grappling- these different contexts require different technical syllabus, and different live training practices. One cannot simply hybridize these two systems to get a better result, they require separate training methods for each. This hybridization with modern Jujutsu techniques and live training methods will also not yield good results for Aikido, as it has its own unique context.

Distinctions between Aikido and Jujutsu

Unlike both traditional and modern Jujutsu, Aikido’s context is not about physical domination- instead is it simply about self-protection. Ueshiba, commonly known to Aikido students as “O-Sensei” had a unique and innovative approach to martial arts. A system based on pure defensive action, it is often heard in Aikido circles that Aikido has no attack. O-Sensei can be quoted as saying:

In Aikido we never attack, an attack is proof that one is out of control. Never run away from any kind of challenge, but do not try to suppress or control an opponent unnaturally. Let attackers come any way they like and then blend with them. Never chase after opponents. Redirect each attack and get firmly behind it.

In Aikido the idea is not to “get” your attacker, but instead to not allow them to “get” you. Aikido’s predecessor, traditional Jujutsu, does not have this same philosophy, and neither does modern Jujutsu. This makes hybridization of Aikido with other Japanese grappling arts nearly impossible.

Because Aikido is so closely related to traditional Jujutsu, and the concept of not attacking one’s attacker (asymitry) is a hard concept to understand, those trying to work with Aikido as a “martial” art usually practice the system like traditional Jujutsu. Further complicating the issue, because current martial arts culture is preoccupied with unarmed one-on-one grappling, Aikido students attempt to apply what basically amounts to traditional Jujutsu in a context involving primarily unarmed grappling. This is a very poor fit and yields problematic results. Adding to all this difficulty, Aikido students do not have a serious live practice that keeps them informed about how to apply their system in the proper context. All of these factors lead to two separate camps of Aikido practitioners. One group is essentially practicing traditional Jujutsu (these are often known as “Hard Aikido” styles), but attempting to use this traditional Jujutsu type practice for unarmed one-on-one grappling. Conversely, the second camp, often called “Soft Aikido” styles, try to adhere to the philosophy of nonresistance and no attack, but have no live practice, so they have no real way to manifest this philosophy into martial application.

I have spent a lot of time studying all three of these systems. I enjoy that modern Jujutsu delivers exactly what it says it does, is a fun practice and has application in unarmed grappling, which has some practical use in conflict. The commonality of live practice in modern Jujutsu makes the general level of practice high, and because the idea of unarmed grappling is so apparent, most people can quickly understand how modern Jujutsu might be useful to them. On the other hand, traditional Jujutsu has material that I personally find much more useful when I think of actually defending myself. It’s hard for me to picture many situations, outside of sport, that I would be defending myself unarmed. As someone concerned with personal safety, I am almost always armed, so it is unlikely that I will be unarmed in a conflict. I also expect anyone who is serious about attacking me to be armed. If I had to grapple with someone in a self-defense situation, I’m sure there will be a weapon present. Overall, I find traditional Jujutsu techniques more practical, which is why I personally prefer traditional Jujutsu to modern Jujutsu. However, my traditional Jujutsu includes live training- which is indispensable.

As practical as I find both of the above systems, I find Aikido most practical of all. The general philosophy of not attacking people fits my civilian lifestyle best. Also, because Aikido is focused on anti-grappling, it is the only art of the three that allows for multiple attacker situations- which I personally find to be a very real threat. Though most Aikido schools don’t have a reasonable way to understand Aikido as a martial art (because of its lack of a useful live practice), the potential for Aikido is great, and much more useful in the modern world than either modern or traditional Jujutsu.

If you take the time to understand all three of these system types, I think you too will grow to appreciate them each on their own level and realize that all three hold practical promise. I think it is very easy for modern Jujutsu practitioners to criticize traditional Jujutsu and Aikido- and in many ways they have a point- traditional Jujutsu and Aikido are not good at unarmed one-on-one grappling. However, I think if modern Jujutsu practitioners would start to open up to these other ideas (armed grappling and anti-grappling), they could find other areas of training they may be interested in. Similarly, if traditional Jujutsu and Aikido practitioners would stop trying to morph their systems into something they are not, and work on good live training methods, I believe they would find more personal contentment with what they are practicing.

2 Replies to “Understanding the difference between traditional Jujutsu, modern Jujutsu and Aikido”

  1. Very insightfull, thank you very much!
    Given that you have a broarder expertise, how would you describe the functionality of Aikido in defending against strikers (boxer, kick-boxer, TKD…)
    Cheers Tom

    1. This is an interesting question and can be answered in a number of ways. First if an Aikido student, without any previous training entered into a boxing, kickboxing or Tae Kwon Do tournament against an experienced opponent, they wouldn’t stand a chance. Aikido is not a boxing style art, thus it’s students have no ability in this realm.

      However I will assume you are asking the question- how would they do in a situation that is not happening in the context of a sport specific match. In this situation everything is dependent- Aikido does not teach the kinds of distancing taught in boxing systems, and is not asymmetrical in nature (meaning we are not trying to hit them like they are trying to hit us). This means that unless a boxer runs us down, we wouldn’t be in their ideal range- so if they can run us down first, and force us into their range, they will have a superior skill. However are weapons at play? If so, it is unlikely that any school of boxing will stand a chance against the force provided by the weapon. Lot’s of things to consider in this question.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *