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Jutsu or Do?

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Martial Arts of Japan

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by Lynn Reafsnyder

This is a question that seems always to be on peoples’ minds and there are as many definitions as there are instructors. Many will call their arts something-jutsu or something-dō and never really understand what they are saying.

To begin to understand these terms we must go to the kanji, or character, used for each. In the reference Kanji and Kana by Hadamitzky and Spahn, the kanji for Jutsu is defined as art, technique, means or conjury. The kanji for , [], michi: means street, way or path. Right away we can see that there are some differences in meaning.

It is clear that the use of -jutsu indicates the concept of an art or something that implies the use of a technique. In other words, physical actions. On the other hand, -dō makes us think of a direction or way of thinking; it is a more cerebral connotation.

Of course, it is not all that simple, but let’s take a look at what these simple definitions mean when applied to what are usually called martial arts (bujutsu) these days. First, let’s make it clear that “martial” actually means military. Thus martial arts are military arts. Here we can see that anything that does not emphasize actual fighting must by elimination be something else.

When an art is used in combat, whether on the battlefield or by someone who is under attack, the nature of the art, of necessity, must be that of actual physical techniques. If, however, the art is intended for competition or exercise we should no longer consider it a martial art. If the art is exclusively for social or personal improvement, again, it should be defined as something other than a martial art.

So it seems the key here is the term, martial.

Can we find a suitable word to replace the martial in martial art? That something is either an art for use in real fighting, or it is not, is too narrow a definition. Some arts I don’t consider martial can be used with limited effectiveness by a few especially skilled practitioners, should they become involved in a fight. While I may get some argument on this statement, I believe that although modern aikidō is based on a martial art (the jūjutsu of the Daitō-ryū) it really can’t be defined as a martial art. Most forms of modern aikidō fair very poorly as fighting arts. I consider most modern aikidō to be more properly termed a form of exercise (and excellent in that regard), or a system of philosophy, but not really a martial art.

What about those arts we refer to, in general, as karate? Here we see people punching and kicking at each other, but does the activity qualify as a martial art? The fact is, many forms of karate are actually sports and are designed for competition. There are still some styles of karate intended to be combat systems, and we should term those systems designed for combat karate-jutsu.

How about arts like jūdō? Clearly, today’s jūdō is not a fighting art, but in fact a sport. In comparisons between the original form of jūdō and today’s form we can see marked differences in the art. While it is not a martial art these days, at one time it was, because it was derived from jūjutsu and arts employed by civilian police in Japan.

So, should we label those arts we define as non-martial arts as forms? Not really. We find ourselves missing a piece of the puzzle. As noted, means “a way or path,” which implies a personal search or direction. The fact is that any martial art (bujutsu), when fully lived by someone for their entire lives, may in some cases become a dō — for that individual. Today, if an art has the -dō after the name we can consider that the emphasis of that art is no longer combat but rather personal or social development (as found in modern aikidō).

Does all this mean that sport arts should have some other term? Not an easy question. I think we should give some consideration to this possibility, however. A good beginning would be to remove the term martial from any description of any art intended for social or competitive use, and limit use of that term to those few arts today that truly emphasize application in combat. (Which would be only a handful, though once again we get into the problem of what each system, or even instructor, would define as combat.)

As can be seen, the question of the use of the term jutsu or is complex and rooted in the dichotomy of tradition and modernism. Perhaps what we should do is use “jutsu” with those arts clearly descended from fighting arts and that still emphasize the combat reality of their arts, and use “dō” for those arts which are descended from “jutsu” arts, but which today are used for sport and personal development.

We must also distinguish non-traditional, non-Japanese arts (developed, say, in the last 75 years) that emphasize combat through use of different, non-Japanese terminology.

If an art is intended for sport, personal development, or simple exercise, the term martial should not be used.

A simple enough concept perhaps, but marketing still seems to get in the way. If all of us in the various traditional arts were to make an effort to maintain such a stance perhaps, in time, some changes will take place.

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