“The sword was to be far more than a simple weapon; it had to be an answer to life’s questions”
Musashi – Eiji Yoshikawa

What is a Martial Art System? A Definition

Martial art systems are more than simply collections of techniques. For example, Koryu (ancient) systems have (i) a history and traditions; (ii) a lineage of Headmasters or Soke; (iii) are internally consistent in that they have principles that cohere and work together in the application of strategy, technique and generation of power; (iv) have specific combat strategies (heiho) that complement their system principles; (v) have guiding philosophies and an ethical code of conduct, and (vi) have a system for teaching and transmitting their deeper levels of knowledge (through shoden, chuden and okuden forms, for example). So, to be defined as a system an art must possess more than a list of techniques.

The literature (Cunningham, 1996; Draeger, 1973, 1974; Mol, 2001) suggests that for a system to be considered “traditional” it must originate, derive or be embedded in one of the following three categories below:

Group (I): Pure Classical Systems

Pure Classical Systems trace their origins in Japan as far back as the 9th or 10th centuries but did not begin to be reliably recorded as systematized forms until the 15th or 16th centuries. Included among the earliest systems are Daito Ryu, Takenouchi Ryu, Tagaki Ryu, Tenjin Shinyo Ryu, Kito Ryu, Sekiguchi Ryu, Seigo Ryu and Yoshin Ryu, among others.

Group (II): Classical Systems with Hybrid Branches or Derivations

This category includes Pure Classical Systems which underwent various merging and/or variations/distillations prior to, or after the 1868 Meiji Restoration (which saw the end of the Samurai Era). One example is Tenjin Shin Yo Ryu which was blended from Yoshin Ryu and Shin No Shindo Ryu. Thus, included in this category are examples of Classical Hybrid Systems that underwent further development in the pre Meiji Period as well as the “modern” era (post 1868).

Group III: Modern Era (Post Meiji) Classically-Based Systems

Modern era classically-based systems were introduced or developed after 1868. Such systems are anchored, or have strong ties and links to one or more classical systems and traditions (or classical hybrid systems) through philosophy, principles, etiquette, dress, goals, Japanese terminology and methods of training and dojo practices. Traditional Judo (not Olympic or modern competitive judo) can be described as a classically-based modern era (post Meiji) hybrid martial art whose origins are primarily Kito Ryu and Tenjin Shinyo Ryu Jujutsu. Ueshiba’s Aikido is another such example. We would also add in this group various Western modern (Gendai) jujutsu systems that attempt to adhere faithfully to various classical traditions and hybrid forms. These may also be considered to be traditional systems and fall in Group III of our classification system.

While the primary focus of all traditional jujutsu systems is combat and self defense (no rules) we must include the philosophy, principles, strategy, etiquette, dress, goals, Japanese terminology and methods of training and dojo practices in order for a system to qualify as traditional. We see it as a total package that reflects a merging of technique, strategy and theory/philosophy and traditions. And, because of the mostly deadly nature of the techniques contained in such jujutsu systems no sport competition is possible, nor is it encouraged (unless we are prepared simply to teach only those techniques that are legal in competition, which ultimately leads to the deterioration of the original parent system).

Some Modern Applications

In the modern era (post 1868), and especially after World War II, traditional jujutsu systems have inspired and/or given rise to a number of modern derivatives whose primary focus is competition, self defense, modern day combat, and the like (see diagram). These forms of application are not to be viewed as traditional jujutsu systems because in their application they include only a portion of the parent system, or systems, that they come from. They are to be viewed as pieces of a larger picture. If they eventually grow and develop into “total packages” that are internally consistent they may be eventually viewed as “systems”, complete unto themselves. However, such systems are not to be confused with traditional jujutsu systems which seek to adhere to their articulated philosophy, strategies, Japanese terminology, dress, and the like, as we’ve identified below in our list of Eight Major Characteristics of Traditional Systems. This of course does not make such modern applications less valuable or worthy of study. On the contrary, they are designed to reach specific objectives and address specific goals such as handgun disarming, developing competitors, self-defense and the like. These are valuable skills and objectives and serve important needs for society. We just can’t call them traditional jujutsu systems.

Jujitsu (note spelling) for combat, sport and self defense has clearly defined short term practical purposes (e.g., handgun disarming techniques for police officers) and is often taught in modules of short duration (3-12 weeks, for example). In sport jujitsu the training period and competitive life of the athlete may last several years, but even this phase comes to an end when the athlete’s competition days are over. Either way the path is a very short one, and the goals are practical and narrowly defined (e.g., competition and winning medals and trophies).

Traditional systems, on the other hand, are seen as lifelong paths of study whose goals go well beyond combative, sport or self- defense applications. In addition to combat and self defense such paths stress personal growth, the development of personal insights and understandings, the activation of inner sources of power (e.g., psychological empowerment) the development of self discipline, honor, rectitude and loyalty, and the perfection of character.

Below, we list eight major defining characteristics of traditional jujutsu systems:

Eight Major Characteristics of Traditional Systems

1. They fall under one of the three categories stated earlier in this paper. That
is, they are pure classical systems; they are classical hybrids or they are
classically based.

2. They have clear or at least identifiable lineages.

3. They possess a history and traditions. These include the use of Japanese terminology.
For example, practitioners of traditional systems practice in what they call dojo, not gyms or studios; teachers in traditional systems are called Sensei, not Coach; techniques are referred to by their names in Japanese to maintain and convey as much of the original intent as possible. This may also include such details as the spelling of their systems with a “u”, not an “i” as in “jujutsu” and not jujitsu, ju-jitsu or jiu-jitsu. In fact, today most traditional systems spell their name with a “u” and this is also seen in bujutsu, kenjutsu, ninjutsu and taijutsu.

4. Traditional systems have clearly defined philosophies, dojo practices and etiquette. For example, jujutsuka in such systems dress in a manner that reflects their Japanese origins and/or traditions (no fancy patches or advertising logos on their gi, and for males, the wearing of t-shirts under the gi is not permitted). Jujutsuka in traditional systems typically wear only one or two patches (and some systems have no patches at all) that help identify their system/organization and/or possibly a licensing designation (e.g., a menkyo patch). Traditional jujutsuka always wear zori to and from the mat out of respect for the dojo and for their fellow practitioners.

5. They employ traditional principles in the practice and execution of technique and strategy. These include the study of concepts such as ma-ai, irimi, sen, heiho, and others.

6. They promote and license their jujutsuka in a manner consistent with their origins and/or traditions. That is, some employ the Renshi, Kyoshi or Hanshi system in combination with or without modern2 conventional ranking systems (kyu and dan grades); others also license their practitioners using the menkyo system in combination with modern conventional ranking.

7. Traditional systems possess a theoretical/philosophical/technical and strategic basis
contained in written transmissions (Densho) that are handed down from Soke to Soke. In the modern era we no longer employ scrolls unless we practice one of the original pre-Meiji Classical Ryuha (or their classically-derived hybrids) which have been handed down from one Soke to another. However, modern day classically-based systems, if they are to be defined as traditional in nature, also possess modern day Densho which lay out the theoretical, philosophical and technical foundations of a system. These may be located on websites, in books and in various other modern day data storage and retrieval formats.

8. Traditional systems serve as lifelong paths that, in addition to combative skills and
strategies, stress higher goals and values (e.g., honor, responsibility, rectitude, loyalty and the perfection of character) and aim to take the student beyond the skills and techniques of fighting. The long term goals of such lifelong paths therefore require a long term commitment to the art and its ways and practices. Typically, practitioners of traditional systems stay in the art for most of their lives while participants in sport jujitsu (as is also the case with modern sport judo) often quit when they are no longer able to compete.


In summary, for a jujutsu system to be considered “traditional” it must originate, derive or be embedded in one of the following three categories:

(i) Pure Classical Systems.
(ii) Classical Hybrid Systems.
(iii) Classically Based Systems.

Further, classical jujutsu systems comprise more than a collection of techniques and fighting strategies. Traditional systems possess theoretical, philosophical and strategic foundations which are handed down from Soke to Soke and serve as the guiding and strategic principles of the system. Therefore, we do not consider modern jujitsu derivations that focus solely on sport, defense or combat applications as traditional jujutsu systems even though their techniques may derive from traditional systems, because they are often devoid of a classical guiding philosophy, theory or principles.

Background Sources

Cunningham, S. The Root Arts of Judo. <http://unm.wsrjj.org/roots.htm>, 1996.

Draeger, D. F. Classical Budo: The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan
(Vol II). New York, Weatherhill, 1973.

Draeger, D. F. Modern Bujutsu & Budo: The Martial Arts and Ways of
Japan (Vol III). Tokyo, Weatherhill, 1974

Henshall, K. G. A Guide to Remembering Japanese Characters. Tokyo,
Tuttle, 1988.

Lowry, D. In the Dojo: A Guide to the Rituals and Etiquette of the
Japanese Martial Arts. Boston: Weatherhill, 2006.
Lowry, D. Bokken: Art of the Japanese sword. Ohara, Back Belt
Books, 1986.

Mol, S. Classical Fighting Arts of Japan: A complete Guide to Koryu
Jujutsu. Tokyo, Kodansha, 2001

Musashi, M. Book of Five Rings. New York, Overlook Press, 1974
Skoss, M. Jujutsu and Taijutsu. <htttp://www.koryu.com/library/mskoss8.html>,

Watson, B. N. The Father of Judo: A biography of Jigoro Kano.
Tokyo, Kodansha, 2000.

Yoshikawa, E. Musashi. Tokyo, Kodansha, 1995. Translated by Charles S. Terry, p. 595

1 Most traditional systems (though not all; see Danzan Ryu Jujitsu, for example) spell jujutsu with a “u” and not an “i”. In this paper we adhere to this distinction and use the term jujitsu when referring to sport jujitsu, self defense or combat jujitsu applications. In this regard we adhere to the Romaji classification for the romanization of the Japanese language which specifies that jutsu means art while jitsu means truth (see Henshall).

2 It should be noted that pre-Meiji systems did not use the modern conventional ranking system of kyu and dan grades.

• The senior author may be reached at ayiann@unm.edu

Acknowledgment: We wish to thank Carl Hayes and Ben Bergwerf for valuable suggestions and comments.

V5.0, February 7, 2010

For comments, feedback or just plain criticism, you can reach me at: ayiann@unm.edu

Andrew Yiannakis, Ph.D.
Founder and Soke, Wa Shin Ryu Jujutsu
Research Professor, University of New Mexico
7th Dan Jujutsu (USJJF)
6th Dan Judo (USJJF)

Linda Yiannakis, M.S.
4th Dan Traditional Kodokan Judo (USJJF)
4th Dan Jujutsu (USJJF)

Research Professor, University of New Mexico
Copyright (C) 1995, 2000, 2009 by Andrew Yiannakis, Ph.D.
V5.4, 11-20-2009