Jiu Jitsu: The corkscrew, nail file and can opener of martial arts

Some martial arts specialise and some want to do everything. Like an over achieving school child, or a student of PPE, some martial arts just can’t be contained to just one area. Jiu Jitsu is one such practice; Japanese Jiu Jitsu that is, rather than its flamboyant Brazilian cousin. Jiu Jitsu offers it all; it grapples, strikes and locks. It offers a Swiss army knife of options to any practitioner, like Mary Poppins it has a bag of tricks that can keep on giving. It is the original form, the Samurai practice that gave birth to Karate, Judo and Aikido.

In a post Shogun age, the average samurai found it difficult to keep up his nine to five, while at the same time specialising in every form of combat. It could be done – sure – but to what standard? The demand was there for specialisms and the market provided. Karate took the strike techniques, Judo focused on throws and grapples, and Aikido locks and pressure point attacks; and still more things were forgotten entirely, dismounting an opponent from his warhorse becoming less of a necessity in high-rise Tokyo – which frankly is too bad.

Jiu Jitsu appealed to me because it was a complete martial art. It offered it all and I was eager to learn. On arriving, we were broken off into pairs. First was a bit of back-to-back wrestling, my German sparring partner was pallid and held eye contact for disconcertingly long periods of time. Next, we had to wrestle bottles from our opponents’ hands using a simple dis-arming motion. Running at an opponent waving a plastic bottle felt slightly ingenuine; it put me in mind of a Monty Python sketch in which instruction is given on self-defence from assailants brandishing different items of fruit. “First of all you force him to drop the banana; then, second, you eat the banana, thus disarming him.” Finally, it was how to defend against strangulation…and, sadly, I was paired with the starey German. Needless to say, he was in his element.

The class felt disjointed and just didn’t flow. I was been instructed to deal with specific actions, in a specific context, that may, or may not, occur. This could be useful, I don’t know, but the beauty of a martial art is the application of core principles. Wing Chun is such a stripped down practice that these principles immediately make themselves known. A principle of architecture is that you should be able to understand the layout of a building from the doorway; I’m not sure I could summarise the principles of Jiu Jitsu now.

The problem with mastering an art, which encompasses such a broad spectrum, is that it is incredibly demanding and takes a long time. I discussed this on the subject of Shaolin Kung Fu; it is very difficult to get to a high level in all these different forms. They were divided with good reason. A Swiss army knife promises much, but fails to deliver completely. Part of the reason this martial art splintered in the first place was that it didn’t easily fit with modern demands. Few people are in a position to dedicate their whole lives to mastering such a broad base of arts. A Samurai is now a rare ideal.

But complete martial arts do have one irrefutable advantage over the others – they are complete. Jiu Jitsu offers it all. If you are prepared to serve your time developing these disparate activities, then ultimately they will form together in a meaningful and comprehensive way – at least that’s the theory. Until then, there is a lot of fruit to disarm.

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