by Dave Lowry
When one considers it is really only a short, round stick of wood, it is even more intriguing to ponder what an elemental gap the hardwood jo has filled in the history and evolution of the martial disciplines of Japan. The long sword or katana, was the central arm of the Japanese warrior throughout most of his reign, and is undoubtedly the most highly developed in its application. The spear, dipped, according to Japanese mythology, into the vast misted emptiness of space by a primeval god and lifted out to drip from its point the droplets of firmament that became the islands of Japan, has almost a religious connotation attached to it. And the bo, or long wooden staff, is the most archaic of weaponry in Japan. In comparison, the humble jo seems quite plebian. And yet, the jo possesses many of the attributes of all three of these revered arms: the slashing stroke of the katana, the thrusting reach of the spear, and the reversible striking power and indestructibility of the bo. It is little surprise that, for all its simplicity, once its development began, a forest of schools and masters soon sprang up to further refine and perfect the jo as a formidable weapon.
To trace the history of the short stick in combat in Japan would be an impossible task, dating as it must, from the moment a prehistoric aborigine there snatched up a piece of dead wood to use. In Japan, with its many oak and cedar forests, this opportunity must have come early and often. There is no evidence, however, of a systematized method of combat with the short wooden staff until the Muromachi era (1336-1600), when the rapidly develop ing samurai class began to incorporate it into the first of the traditional ryu.
When the samurai wielded the wooden staff, though, he chose almost exclusively the bo, a weapon of between five and seven feet in length, virtually ignoring any kind of shorter stick weapon. Just why the jo was neglected is a mystery, although some guesses can be ventured. First, the length of the bo made it an extremely effective polearm against other long weapons like the spear and naginata, both of which were in popular use at that time. In fact, in many schools of classical bujutsu the bo is gripped and manipulated in a manner very similar to techniques with those two weapons.
Early ryu which maintained bojutsu in their curriculum included the Katori Shinto-, the Kashima Shinto-, and the Takenouchi-ryu. Their waza emphasized the length of the bo, striking from a distant range or using the bo as a fulcrum, swinging it at a terrific speed that could shatter bones as well as the strongest steel sword. By the end of the feudal era it is estimated that over 300 ryu had made bojutsu a part of their training, and even those bugeisha from styles which did not feature the bo were made familiar with its employment and the best defenses against it.
The typical bo usually labeled a rokushakubo, measured about six feet in length, which must be compared to the average height of the Japanese male at that time, more than a foot shorter. “Rokushaku” denotes a measurement: a shaku is roughly equal to the American foot, and roku is “six.” The weapon was slightly more than three-and-one-half centimeters in diameter. Most were maru-bo, or circular. The hakaku-bo, however, was octagonal, and its angular edges made it viciously effective when unleashed against an unprotected target, since they cut along with the strike. Occasionally too, the length of the ho was inlaid or banded with strips of iron or other metal. This increased the strength of the ho considerably. Most techniques for countering the bo by the well-trained swordsman involved his using the katana to slash at the wooden bo at an angle that would hack through it, cutting the bo down and significantly reducing its effectiveness. With the protecting bands or strips of metal, the weapon was much more difficult to chop or cut and the bojutsu exponent was at a better advantage in the encounter.
Perhaps the short staff would have remained much as it was, a fuzoku bugei, an auxiliary weapon of the warrior’s arsenal, never given the recognition of other, more finely crafted arms, had it not been for the burning ambition of a single man.
Gonnosuke’s Shindo Muso-Ryu
Muso Gonnosuke Katsuyoshi was born in the 16th century in Japan. It was an age when the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu was in the process of unifying the entire nation under his domain, a time when feudal lords fought viciously among themselves, a time when the martial arts underwent a dramatic trans formation that resulted in an unprecedented refinement of technique and training methods. Numerous ryu were founded, based mostly upon improving the concepts of more ancient schools, and others were more fully codified. It is not coincidence, considering the violence of the era and the opportunity for fighting, that a majority of Japan’s martial arts masters lived during this period.
Both Katsuyoshi and Gonnosuke are popular names used by samurai families at that time, and so we can assume he was of samurai heritage. In addition, records state that Gonnosuke entered the Katori Shinto-ryu and later on, the Kashima Shinto-ryu. He was schooled in the full range of teachings of both these ryu. Had he not the familial background to permit him to train in the traditional warrior arts, he would not have been admitted to either ryu.
Gonnosuke took a special interest in the bojutsu of the Katori- and Kashima-ryu, excelling in the teachings of both styles. He then traveled to Edo (present-day Tokyo), where he entered into the customary rite of musha shugyo. The word refers to the practice of visiting numerous dojo and masters of different schools, and requesting instruction or openly challenging. Musha-shugyo could be hazardous of course; even the best martial artist undergoing it would collect his share of injuries. But it was an excellent way to test one’s skill and to learn as much as possible about the strategies of other styles of martial art.
Gonnosuke must have been extraordinarily able with the bo, for he met a number of exponents of assorted ryu and was not defeated in any matches. He also took the opportunity to train in several of their dojo, always refining his art. It was during this period of musha-shugyo that Gonnosuke met the swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.
There must be a dozen or more accounts of the climactic battles between Musashi and Muso Gonnosuke, most of them based upon little more than the vivid imaginations of fiction writers. Aside from the kodan (oral folktales), there is scant information about the duels. One source is the Niten-Ki, a biography of Musashi which mentions their initial encounter. The Niten-Ki is a collection of anecdotes told about Musashi by his followers and acquaintances. It was not compiled into book form until several years after Musashi’s death. Its rendering of the conflict must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.
According to the Niten-Ki, the first match between Muso Gonnosuke and Musashi occurred while Musashi was staying near Kofu, just outside Edo proper. Musashi was sitting in a garden working on a bow he was making from a length of mulberry wood. Without warning, Gonnosuke approached and, dispensing with an introduction or even a bow, he shouted a challenge at Musashi, immediately swinging his bo in a potentially lethal attack. Without so much as rising from his seat, Musashi countered, avoiding the bo and striking Gonnosuke smartly with the unfinished piece of wood in his hand. The book records this incident as having taken place after Musashi’s renowned battles with the Yoshioka family and before he became a retainer of the Hoso kawa clan, which would place it circa 1610. Musashi would have been in his early 20s; Gonnosuke about the same age.
For the young warrior Gonnosuke, the ignominious defeat must have been crushing. Re was not injured, save in his pride, but his belief in his skills with the bo doubtless had been shattered. Chagrined, he retreated to Kyushu, the southernmost island in the Japan archipelago which, during Gonnosuke’s time, contained wild and uncivilized frontiers. Gonnosuke secreted himself at Homan-zan, a mountain in the northern part of Kyushu, surrounded by deep forests, smoking hot springs, and rock-strewn ravines and gorges. He filled his days with meditation and severely taxing practices with the bo, undergoing austere religious rituals as well. After a period of this monastic existence, Gonnosuke was visited with a dream.
Gonnosuke ascribed to his dream a divine manifestation. Such heavenly visions were far from unheard of in the martial arts of ancient Japan. A number of ryu had been founded, according to their scrolls and oral traditions, by masters who received enlightenment from the gods in the ways of combat. It is a phenomenon that goes as far back in history as the Minamoto general Yoshitsune, who was tutored in the craft of warfare by tengu (winged mountain sprites) who revealed principles of combat to the warlord when he was still a child. Usually, this sort of divine inspiration was commemorated when the master named his newly-born style, affixing tenshin sho or tenshin shoden to its title. The words indicate that the fundamentals of the art are the result of tenshin, a “divine presence.”
The details of Gonnosuke’s dream have been preserved, although anyone expecting enlightenment upon its revelation is apt to be disappointed. “Maruki wo motte, suigetsu wo shirei” (take a log and take control of the vital elements) is the way Gonnosuke himself described it.
Abstract as this divine command might be, it was the inspiration that encouraged Gonnosuke to re-evaluate his weapon. He promptly removed several centimeters of its length and began to take an entirely innovative approach to its use. This event marked the birth of the Shindo Muso-ryu, and the beginnings as well of the jo.
Gonnosuke referred to his art as Shindo Muso, or the Divine Way of Dream Thought. Training alone, he amassed a body of strategies with the shorter stick which were specifically designed to counter the strengths of the other weapons of the bugeisha(particularly the sword) and to exploit their weaknesses.
With this knowledge, Gonnosuke left his mountain hermitage in search of the man who had so easily beaten him. He did not have far to look, for Musashi had also come to the island of Kyushu, where he was employed in the ser vice of Lord Hosokawa. Once again, Gonnosuke came to Musashi seeking a match. The two engaged in a furious fight. There is no way to be sure exactly what technique Gonnosuke used to defeat Musashi, but Musashi was thoroughly and convincingly beaten, for the only time in his life. Japan’s most celebrated and colorful swordsman was bested by the art of the simple stick.
If Gonnosuke were a man of lesser quality, he would no doubt have advertised his victory and accumulated a fortune by teaching his art. The years of self-imposed exile, though, had changed his personality in some way. Once he’d proven the efficacy of his new art, he was content to retire quietly. He accepted a position as a teacher of martial arts with the Kuroda clan of Kyushu. To a select and very limited number of his students he revealed the art of his jo, but the Shindo Muso style remained a matter of okuden (secret teachings).
For several centuries, the secrets of jojutsu were handed down carefully and kept from the rest of the world. Along the way, a number of expert bugeisha who were initiated into its teachings added their own contributions, and the Shindo Muso style of the jo was augmented by methods from the Shinto ryu of swordsmanship, as well as by ryu dealing with the sickle and chain, and techniques of binding an opponent with a short length of cord (hojojutsu).
Further evolution of the jo however did not occur through the efforts of Shindo Muso-ryu alone. Martial scholars estimate that nearly 350 other classical bugei-ryu subsequently adopted various jo techniques in their schools. The methods of classical jojutsu, contained within the kata of these ryu, are in credibly diverse, dealing with every possible situation in which the practitioner might find himself. As with any traditional koryu, most techniques with the jo features movements designed to counter an attack by a swordsman, the katana being the principal weapon of the feudal martial artist. But within these kata too, are a multitude of techniques to be used in confined spaces, against multiple opponents or when encumbered in armor.
Once Gonnosuke had proven the efficiency of the shorter staff in combat, his methods underwent experimentation and alteration. A substantial interest was shown by some bugeisha in further exploring the possibilities of this un pretentious weapon. They evolved a multitude of arts employing sticks of graduated sizes. Most notably, those which have survived into our century in a recognizable form include the han-bo and tanjo. Both these staffs are shorter even than the jo and may be manipulated in ways to trap an opponent’s at tacking limb or weapon, bind him, or administer a collection of painful and incapacitating joint locks. Of course, they could also be used to strike or thrust, as with the longer jo. Because of their convenient length, they were adopted in various forms by police departments in Japan and used along with the jo in riot-control situations and other confrontations where firearms would be unnecessary or unwarranted. The selective means of transmitting the art of the jo however continued until early in the present century. Under the tutelage of Hanjiro Shirata, the 24th headmaster of Shindo Muso-ryu, a bugeisha named Takaji Shimizu began training in jojutsu in 1907. In 1914, he was granted a full menkyo (license) to teach. Shimizu, who was also an expert in a variety of other classical combative arts of Japan, researched the techniques of jojutsu extensively. In 1927, at the request of the National Police Agency in Tokyo, he and Ken’ichi Takayama, another master of the ryu, demonstrated jojutsu as a possible aid to law enforcement officers. Their methods were implemented, and Shimizu was appointed an instructor to a police unit specially selected to learn the art. This sub-specialty of jojutsu is referred to as keijojutsu – police stick art.
It was not until the 1950s that jojutsu was taught to members of the general public, and even then, qualifications for entrance to its dojo were strict and new students somewhat limited in number. In the early 605, after much consideration and study, Takaji Shimizu decided to change the name of his art from jojutsu to jodo. The name reflected a number of alterations Shimizu had made in the art. He had eliminated from regular practice (but not from the curriculum entirely) a number of techniques that could have been dangerous to less-skilled practitioners. He instituted training in designated basic movements to further refine the teachings, and most importantly, he directed the art of the jo into a Way, a budo, meant not primarily as a means of combat but as a discipline by which to strive for self-perfection.
Today, the jo is practiced by exponents in nearly every corner of the world. It is a noble example of how the values of the classical budo, can benefit a modern society, retaining the strengths and profundity of another time.
The third major influence on the art of the jo came with the teachings of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of modern aikido. In many ways, Ueshiba’s aiki-jo is the most eclectic application of the short staff. It is also the most popularly taught form of the jo, practiced by thousands of aikidoka all over the world.
Ueshiba was born in the 15th year of Meiji (1883), long enough ago that much of his martial arts education came under the instruction of bugeisha who’d had occasion to put their skills to practical effect. Sickly as a child, he soon developed a passionate interest in the classical martial arts. Throughout his early years, he apprenticed himself to a number of jujutsu and fencing masters, and trained informally as well in the arts of the spear and halberd.
A man with deep religious convictions, Ueshiba eventually mingled the theologies of Buddhism and native Shinto to explain the strategy and philosophy of a new form of budo he created during the first part of the 2Oth century. Along with an explanation of the rationale of his budo, which was a morality based upon mysticism, he included an approach to combat (or to avoiding it) which stressed a physical and mental center that could be directed to control oneself or others. His aikido was essentially circular in nature, not, it is important to note, in the sense of evading an attack, as is commonly thought, but rather in the sense of entering directly against it and countering with any of several circular projections.
One of the outstanding characteristics of Ueshiba’s combative philosophy was that the principles of his aikido were universal truths. They could be applied to physical self-defense as well as in dealing with others to create a more harmonious society. Likewise, he reasoned that a neutralization of a single opponent was no different than that of overcoming a dozen enemies. Too, Ueshiba maintained that those techniques which could be executed empty handed could also be performed with a weapon in one’s possession. The principles of movement from the hips, centering one’s strength, and so on, were exactly the same with a sword or a staff, or without either. To improve the skills of his disciples, Ueshiba demanded rigorous practice with the wooden sword, or bokken, and exercises with the jo.
Aiki-jo, as Ueshiba Sensei’s method may be called, is an eclectic form. Like the exercises he introduced with the bokken, they do not belong specifically to any single ryu. The techniques of the jo which are taught in most aikido dojo are an amalgamation, not intended to represent any style or preserve a single combative tradition, but to illustrate the principles of aikido as they may be applied with a polearm. Too, the student is schooled to regard the jo as an extension of his arms and body, and so he treats it not as a separate entity, but as an extension of the normal motion of his body. There is scarcely a single precept of aikido which cannot be demonstrated with the jo and through its implementation many ideas can be more adequately expressed or studied. It was a maxim of Ueshiba’s that when an aikidoka was having difficulty with his taijutsu (empty-handed forms), he should turn to the use of the bokken or the jo to gain a different perspective.
The founder of aikido called upon his expertise in sojutsu (spear art) to formulate his aiki-jo, but he insisted that the actual length or particular type of polearm was not important. For this reason, there are photographs of him performing the same techniques he taught with the regular jo, wielding a spear, or a spike-like pole used in hunting wild boar, and with staffs of differing lengths. For Ueshiba’s aikido, the principles of movement and the stability of the center were what mattered.
Today, in the jodo of Shindo Muso-ryu, in the jojutsu of the various koryu in Japan, and in Ueshiba’s aiki-jo, the art of the jo is maintained and nurtured. It has survived considerable and far-reaching social changes in Japan and has even been exported to other countries. As well, it is the only weapon that has survived to be practiced, without alteration in its forms or appearance, in all three versions of the martial arts and Ways: classical bojutsu, classical budo, and the modern or shin budo. Not, upon reflection, an unworthy accomplishment for an ordinary stick of wood.
Copyright ©1987 Dave Lowry. All rights reserved.