Japanese Martial Art — Jodo
By Jeff Broderick.
Jodo is the art of fighting with a 4-foot round wooden staff, using techniques to defeat an opponent armed with a sword. The characters in the name 杖道mean “the way of the stick.” Along with kendo and iaido, it is one of three martial arts governed by the All-Japan Kendo Federation. Of the three arts, Jodo is by far the rarest and least well-known. In fact, it is quite unusual to meet a Japanese person who has ever heard of it!
There are many ryūha (martial traditions, or styles) that taught jōjutsu, the use of the staff, but today Jodo is essentially synonymous with the art that developed from Shintō Musō-ryū jōjutsu. The founder of this art was Musō Gonnosuke, a samurai of the early 17th century about whom little is known. It seems, however, that Gonnosuke embarked on a martial pilgrimage where he traveled the country challenging prominent martial artists. At some point, he met the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, who easily defeated him. Gonnosuke retired to a Shintō shrine to practice and refine his art. Legend has it that he received a vision which inspired him to create techniques using a 4-foot staff to defeat a swordsman. He is then said to have challenged Musashi to a rematch, which he won, although other sources say Musashi never lost a duel.
In any case, Gonnosuke’s art was impressive enough to let him become a martial instructor to the Kuroda clan of Fukuoka. Jōjutsu became one of the arts taught to the clan samurai, and was especially valued because while it could be lethal, it could also be used to subdue a swordsman without killing him. By the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912) the art was practiced by only a small number of people in the Fukuoka area. The 25th headmaster, Shimizu Takaji (1896-1978) moved to Tokyo where he greatly popularized the art and worked to get it incorporated into the All-Japan Kendo Federation where it was renamed Jodo.
What Happens in Training?
Beginners start by learning the 12 kihon, or basic forms. These are the various strikes, blocks, locks, and throws that are the “building blocks” of the jodo forms. Kihon are usually practiced solo, but there are also ways to practice in pairs where one person uses a jo and the other partner uses a bokutō (wooden sword); these help the beginner implement the basic forms with the correct distance and timing. The terminology for these roles are uchitachi (“striking sword”) and shijō (for the jo side).
Once a certain familiarity with the kihon has been achieved, the learner will be introduced to the Jodo seitei-gata, a set of 12 standardized forms for use within the All-Japan Kendo Federation. One partner (generally the senior of the pair) will use the bokutō while the junior member uses the jo. In order to learn both roles, once the trainee has achieved some skill performing the jo side, they will switch weapons and practice the sword side, as well.
Beyond the 12 seitei-gata, there are over 60 koryū or “old style” techniques from the Shintō Musō-ryū tradition. Whether the emphasis is placed on practicing these koryū techniques or upon the seitei-gata will differ from group to group, but practicing the seitei-gata tends to make up the bulk of Jodo training within the Kendo Federation.
Competitions and Gradings
Jodo competition takes place between 2-person teams doing the same, pre-decided forms. 3 judges observe both pairs and determine which team demonstrated the best techniques. Generally, the pairs will perform 3 techniques, switch weapons, and then perform 3 more techniques in order to show their mastery of both weapons. Competitors are separated by level, but men and women compete on an equal footing.
Gradings are similar to competitions but with an important difference: you do not pick your partners. Challengers are put in order by age, and you perform techniques partnered with the person before you, and with the person after you, switching weapons mid-way to demonstrate your ability with both the jo and the sword. Similar to kendo, grades run from 1-kyū to 1-dan, 2-dan, 3-dan, and so on, up to the top grade of 8-dan.
In jodo, the goal is to defeat an opponent armed with a sword. In practice, the opponent uses a wooden sword, but in principle they are wielding a razor-sharp katana. The jo is simply a round stick, but its very simplicity means that it can be used in a great variety of ways. It can be held similarly to how a sword is gripped, or with the front hand rerversed. It is long enough that it provides a significant advantage in reach over a sword, but it can also be held at both ends, meaning it can be flipped end-for-end. It may be used both to strike and to thrust, and it is made of hard and durable white oak, making it almost impossible for a sword to cut through it. On the other hand, katana could bend or break when struck from the side. Jodo techniques take advantage of the jo’s strengths and the sword’s weaknesses, allowing the jo side to defeat what, at first glance, would seem to be a much more dangerous weapon.
Why Practice Jodo?
There are numerous reasons to practice Jodo, but here are some of the most common:
- Jodo teaches many of the same skills as kendo, such as distance and timing, but in a framework of kata practice. This allows practitioners to refine their skills through intensive practice.
- Jodo teaches how to make use of a weapon’s particular advantages in order to defeat a different weapon. In particular, Jodo teaches how to defeat a sword, so this makes it an attractive art to practice in conjunction with a sword art, such as kendo or iaido.
- The history of jōjutsu dates back over 400 years, and participating in this cultural heritage helps maintain this valuable and traditional samurai art form.
- For self defense, using a stick is far more practical than many other weapon arts. Skills learned in jodo can be applied to canes, umbrellas, or almost any long-handled object, making it a very applicable art for protecting oneself.