Wado Ryu & Jujutsu

Wado Ryu Karate and Jujutsu.

When Wado Instructors are asked to describe the essence of their style of karate to new beginners, or to any prospective initiate, or just to the curious bystander, they have a tendency to give the familiar stock reply. “Wado is a blend of Okinawan karate and Japanese Jujutsu”. When pressed further, explanations tend to dry up.

Even the authors of the official literature fall back on the easily available but sketchy profiles of Hironori Ohtsuka founder creator of Wado Ryu Karate-Do. There always seems to be an assumption that western students of Wado karate will fill in the gaps for themselves, and these gaps are often cultural gaps. I am certain that students in the west have a tendency to regurgitate “facts” and take them to be truths.

The historical facts behind the creation of what we now practice as Wado karate are generally thin, particularly when we consider that here is a style/school of karate that was only officially created about sixty two years ago and whose founder died in 1982. This historical information is our joint martial cultural heritage and warrants serious study. The following information barely scratches the surface of a very complicated series of circumstances; of a collision of cultures, historical epochs and meetings of remarkable men.

Hironori Ohtsuka founder of Wado Ryu Karate-Do first came into direct contact with Okinawan Karate upon his introduction to Okinawan master Gichin Funakoshi in 1922 and parted ways with Funakoshi in 1935. By any standards this is a remarkably short time to master the principles of Okinawan Shorin Ryu karate (later transformed into what we know as Shotokan karate).

Although Ohtsuka Sensei never claimed to have mastered the system and by his own admission felt a need to amplify his knowledge of kata and other technical aspects by learning from other Okinawan masters, namely Kenwa Mabuni and Choki Motobu. It must be remembered that Ohtsuka Sensei did have a peerless background in traditional Japanese martial arts, and it was this background that undoubtedly enabled Ohtsuka to be receptive to the Okinawan principles of combat and to absorb the techniques of karate. (It would be interesting to speculate if Funakoshi saw 29-year-old Hironori Ohtsuka, master of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu, as instrumental in helping him to create a toehold for what was in some quarters considered a foreign art within the hierarchy of the ultra nationalistic Japanese martial arts community.)

What do we know about Hironori Ohtsuka and his achievements in the traditional Japanese martial arts before his meeting with Funakoshi?

Before we explore Ohtsuka Sensei’s pedigree in this area, it is worth looking briefly at traditional Japanese Jujutsu.

Ohtsuka Sensei practises Idori

A photo of Hironori Ohtsuka founder of Wado Ryu Karate and his son practising Jujutsu.
Photo courtesy of “Wado World”

Kihon Gumite

Ground control from the Kihon Gumite of Wado Ryu karate.

Traditional Japanese Jujutsu.

The general perception of Jujutsu is that it is the forerunner of its more sanitized and homogenised descendant Judo; a highly specialised form of unarmed grappling utilizing principles of yielding and redirecting energy against an attacker.

In the west this view is reinforced by the preponderance of “modern” Jujutsu clubs, who by and large teach sequences of techniques or tricks to throw, disable or lock the opponent.

Ostensibly numerous teachers of modern Jujutsu claim to be teaching self defence for a modern age, and as such turn their backs on many aspects of traditional Japanese Jujutsu, discarding what they consider to be anachronistic, as well as those aspects that they simply don’t understand. Naturally one cannot help wondering what else was thrown away with the bathwater?

Traditional Ryu-based Jujutsu has a different flavour to it, and goes beyond the mix ‘n’ match approach of modern Jujutsu.

Because of the complex history of the warrior arts in Japan, traditional Jujutsu schools frequently felt it important to retain their attachment to the bladed weapons; sword, short sword or dagger (in some cases the iron fan!) They did not consider this aspect of their training as outdated, or hold on to it out of a sense of some kind of nostalgia. To the traditional Japanese Jujutsu Master many of the key principles of their art were inherited from the sophisticated development of swordsmanship. These involved qualities and characteristics forged in the crucible of hundreds of years of close range warfare. E.g. principles of movement, anticipation, strategy, as well as metaphysical and esoteric aspects found within many Ryu.

Unarmed grappling was an essential skill in the Warriors arsenal. The politics of this skill involved such scenarios as; how to survive an encounter in which the warrior has lost his weapon and has to grapple with an armed or unarmed adversary – common in a number of sword schools. Also defences in situations where the wearing of weapons is forbidden, for example within the confines of the Imperial Palace. There were numerous strategies for preventing an opponent from drawing his weapon, as well as tactics for the reversal of the situation.

Naturally, emphasis changed as history changed and tactics and techniques that were designed for the battlefield had to be refined and adapted to suit comparative eras of peace. During the Edo Period Jujutsu took on the more defined outwards appearance of an empty hand civilian skill (as opposed to a military skill.) However, understanding of the bladed weapons remained a crucial part of the training. It is no coincidence that in some circles modern Aikido, an art developed out of Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu is sometimes referred to as “fencing without the sword”, as hand movements, angles of entry and footwork deliberately mimic the actions of attack and defence with the long or short bladed weapons. This is the same in many Jujutsu schools.

Another aspect of traditional Jujutsu was Atemi Waza and other forms of attacking vital points or anatomical weak points. Although this skill only really came to the fore in the times of peace (as with the above mentioned Edo Period) when fighting in armour became less of an issue. There were two sides to this particular coin; Masters who specialized in this section of their art were usually also skilled in reversing its effects. Knowledge of resuscitation (Katsu) seemed to be the antidote to the black art of Atemi Waza and many Jujutsu teachers were healers, or practitioners of Chinese medicine and/or bone setters (as in the case of Ohtsuka Sensei.) (Several years ago I witnessed an impressive example of this method of resuscitation by a Japanese Wado Ryu Sensei on a fighter knocked unconscious by a kick to the sternum.)

These skills are either closely guarded or lost and long forgotten, or paid lip service to. I always found it strange that Ueshiba Sensei, founder of Aikido said that Aikido was 90% Atemi, and yet today’s practitioners barely give a passing nod to this aspect of their art.

In conclusion, it would be a mistake to think that Traditional Japanese Jujutsu is simply a matter of locking and throwing. It is a multi-facetted fighting system with its roots embedded firmly within the rich soil of Japanese Martial culture. Jujutsu systems include an enormous range of skills, from the purely practical, to sophisticated understandings of matters psychological and spiritual.

Ohtsuka Sensei’s Jujutsu.

It is well recorded that Hironori Ohtsuka’s exposure to Martial culture started at a very early age. At the age of four he began training in Jujutsu under the guidance of his mother’s uncle Chojiro Ebashi. He then furthered his Jujutsu skills by entering the Dojo of Tatsusaburo Nakayama (1870-1933). It was under Nakayama that Ohtsuka began his study of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu.

To understand the background of the relatively new school of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu it is necessary to examine briefly the history of its progenitor, the main root, the ancient Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu.

The History of Yoshin Ryu.

Yoshitoki Akiyama was the founder of Yoshin Ryu (lit. Willow heart/spirit school) Jujitsu. In 1530, when he was young Akiyama went to Tientsin, a coastal town south of Peking, China, where he set up a practise of medicine and herbal prescription.

During this stay he studied Chinese techniques of resuscitation based on acupuncture from a Taoist mendicant named Huei-To. He learned a total of twenty-eight methods of resuscitation called in Japanese Kappo, as well as Atemi Waza, methods of striking to vital points.

Akiyama returned to Shikoku, Japan, where he took in students and taught his methods of “Shuhaku Jutsu”. But his techniques were so violent, crude and limited in number that his students quickly left him.

Disillusioned he went on a one hundred day retreat to the Shinto Tenmangu monastery at Tsukushi to pray to the Tenjin of Dazaifu.

During the bleak winter he meditated, trained and tried to perfect his Art. On his final day he noticed snow on top of a willow tree. From this experience he developed the key point of the Yoshin Ryu style. He noticed how the Willow tree yielded to the elements of nature with a natural swaying movement thus avoiding any damage to the delicate branches. Larger, sturdier, unyielding trees had their branches ripped off by the weight of the snow. Out of this he developed the three hundred and three natural movements of the Yoshin Ryu style.

Examination of the technical content of Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu has always created a problem for researchers. There are two main reasons for this. The first being that like all traditional Ryu the style evolves and changes with each generation, and also; without documentary evidence reconstruction of techniques is at best guesswork. (Scrolls of transmission were handed down from Master to disciple in which techniques were listed or described, but their description is couched in such obscure and indecipherable language as to make them almost unreadable.)

Ohtsuka Sensei’s teacher,Tatsusaburo Nakayama.

In 1905, aged thirteen, Hironori Ohtsuka entered Shimozuma middle school where he trained under Tatsusaburo Nakayama Sensei, who was a Kendo Instructor at the school, as well as an Instructor of Jujitsu. At that time it was not unusual for a Kendo Instructor to train in Jujitsu in order to obtain a bonesetters licence.

Tatsusaburo Nakayama obtained his bone-setting licence after training in Shindo Yoshin Ryu, but he was originally a student of Jikishin Kage Ryu swordsmanship. We know from Ohtsuka Sensei’s own account that it was Nakayama’s personal interest and specialization in striking techniques that sparked off his own personal odyssey, and ultimately led him to the door of Gichin Funakoshi.

What is Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu?

Shindo Yoshin Ryu is a branch or development of Yoshin Ryu. It came into existence through one man, Katsunosuke Matsuoka (1836 – 1898). Matsuoka originally studied Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu in the Dojo of Hirotsuke Totsuka, he was also a student of Jikishinkage Ryu Kenjutsu (swordsmanship) and Hokushin Ittoryu Kenjutsu as well as being a certified as a teacher of Tenjin Shinyoryu Jujutsu in 1855.

Matsuoka was very active in the 1850s when Japan had a problem with an internal war and had a great deal of practical fighting experience. He also trained in the official school of the Edo Bakufu which was called the Bakufu Kobusho. During peacetime they trained in Jujitsu one day in ten, but the usual training was with sword and spear.

It was in 1864 that Matsuoka formed his own style of Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu, calling it Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu. The “Shindo” in the first instance meant “new”, thus Shindo Yoshin Ryu was “New willow spirit/heart school”. It was later that the character for “Shindo/New” was changed to “Shindo/Sacred”, resulting in “Sacred willow spirit/heart school”.

It is said that Matsuoka considered the Yoshin Ryu as too passive, and wanted to add ideas gleaned from his experiences in other martial arts schools, (not just Jujutsu) thus elements of strategy and technique came across from his knowledge of schools of Kenjutsu.

It is interesting to note that an identifiable characteristic of the old Yoshin Ryu was its emphasis on striking; a cry back to it’s deeper roots in Tientsin in China, and how ironic it was that in a subsequent generation it was Hironori Ohtsuka who squared the circle and married a Yoshin Ryu offshoot to an essentially Chinese based striking art.

Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu went through further generations before the torch was finally passed to Hironori Ohtsuka. The next generation was Matakichi Inose (1852 – 1921) and finally Ohtsuka Sensei’s teacher Tatsusaburo Nakayama (1870 – 1933). Naturally each generation spawned its own offshoots, but very few survived the social turmoil and changing climate in terms of modernization of the Martial Arts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

What about the content and character of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu? It is said that present day Wado Ryu Karate has influences from Yagyu Ryu Kenjutsu as well as from the short sword techniques of Toda Ryu. At which particular point these influences entered the system is open to speculation.

With Yagyu Ryu Kenjutsu we can identify movements similar to the body evasions used in what we now call Nagashizuki, and the redirecting hand techniques echo similar techniques in Toda Ryu. It is entirely possible that it was Ohtsuka Sensei who adapted these techniques from his exposure to various Ryu-Ha in his early career. But also the sword-school influences of Nakayama, or teachers from a previous generation, cannot be discounted as other possible sources. It needs the resources of dedicated and committed researcher to untangle that particular web.

In reality Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu was quite a unique blend. The qualities that the founder, Matsuoka, brought together from his rich experience of martial tradition had never been merged into one unified system before. Of the component parts of Shindo Yoshin Ryu, Tenjin Shinyo Ryu Jujutsu, although combatively effective positive and direct, lacked the subtlety of Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu. Add to the mix the further sophistication of the psychological and metaphysical elements of the Hokushin Itto Ryu and Jikishin Kage Ryu and other schools of swordsmanship and the combination has real depth and potency.

Wado Ryu Karate and Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu.

To aid closer examination and attempt to isolate Shindo Yoshin Ryu elements it may be useful to look at what Wado Ryu has that other styles of karate have not.

If we examine the other karate styles originating from the same lineage, i.e. the Shorin Ryu/Shurite styles from Okinawa and explore the differences between Wado and it’s nearest relations it may be possible to identify some of the various influences and component parts (including Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu). However this is not as simple as it looks. The Shotokan karate that is practised today is not the same Shotokan/Shorin Ryu that was taught to Ohtsuka Sensei by Gichin Funakoshi. Changes and modifications have occurred. Japanese, as opposed to Okinawan cultural and social influences have altered the flavour and emphasis of practise. Naturally this has affected the philosophies of all of the surviving modern styles of karate.

At a basic level it could be said that Wado Ryu karate looks pretty much like any other style of karate – to the untrained eye the ballistic qualities of its kicks and strikes look not dissimilar to Shotokan or Shitoryu. It is only when Wado Ryu is viewed at its highest level that the differences become more obvious. Subtleties would be overlooked by the casual observer, who would notice the more upright stances, but miss the variety of short direct strikes, the entry of attack to the weakest angles, the slippery evasions, the balance breaking and control of the opponent. Our “casual observer” would of course notice throws; as in Kihon Gumite numbers five and ten, and immediately declare that what they were seeing was Jujutsu, but would perhaps fail to appreciate the subtleties of Kihon Gumite number eight, or Kumite Gata number ten.

What we see in the previously mentioned Kihon Gumite and Kumite Gata is the operation of Kuzushi or “balance breaking” which is a fundamental principle of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu (as well as other schools of classical Jujutsu). Its subtlety is easily missed. It is easier to “feel” the technique rather than attempt to appreciate it as a detached observer. Again, here we see evidence of a correlation between the finer skills of Japanese Budo. The old tradition of teaching was less verbal, not relying upon detailed description, almost bypassing the verbal. Teachers of traditional Jujutsu took Uke for their students, allowed their students to execute the technique on them. This enabled them to gain direct physical feedback of the student’s physical technique and its effectiveness and the spirit/energy use behind that technique.

It seems clear that when devising Wado Ryu Karate, Ohtsuka Sensei implemented numerous modifications to the practical use of Shindo Yoshin Ryu techniques within the Wado Ryu. Some of these modifications involved a slight shift in emphasis based on very practical considerations.

For example; the change in attire.
Old style Jujutsuka wore the Hakama (long divided skirt), as traditional dress during training, the reason being that swordsmanship was often taught alongside Jujutsu. The Hakama was discarded in favour of the light cotton Do-Gi adopted from Judo which as Karateka we wear today.

Although wearing the Hakama gave a certain amount of freedom, there were particular problems to be considered. Within Wado karate we still hear reference to “Hakama Sabaki” or “Hakama management” as an explanation for certain foot movements, i.e. manoeuvres that minimize the possibility of stepping on the hem of the Hakama and thus limiting free movement. It is peculiar that this practise persists even though generally we have discarded the Hakama.

The demands of old style Jujutsu training and the auxiliary skills also required the Jujutsuka to wear a different style of belt, essential to the correct etiquette and manipulation of weaponry. Ohtsuka Sensei often insisted on wearing his belt with the ends tucked over, a throwback to dress considerations more suited to older style training attire perhaps.

Tantodori (Knife defence), Idori (kneeling defence), Tachidori – Shinken Shirahadori (sword defence).

Tantodori (knife defence) Idori (kneeling defence) and Shinken Shirahadori Dori (Sword defence) are generally regarded as the most easily identifiable aspects of modern Wado Karate to correlate with Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu. Although it possible that second generation Wado Senseis have added their own particular ideas or spin to these techniques and other advanced pairs work (creditable in its own way, as these developments are inevitable.)

It is a tribute to the genius Ohtsuka Sensei that the skills utilized within Tanto Dori, Idori and Shinken Shirahadori are inseparable from the general thread of principles running through the Wado karate syllabus from 8th Kyu all the way up to the senior level.

Present day Wado Karate.

It is clear that Wado Ryu practitioners are the recipients of a unique cultural and martial heritage. A heritage based upon a series of unique blends which occurred at different times in history.

Pure Shindo Yoshin Ryu jujutsu is almost impossible to find. It exists in isolated pockets, but in a different way exists within modern day Wado Ryu karate. It is still there, so much so that recently the present Grandmaster of Wado Ryu, son of the founder, Hironori Ohtsuka II, taught aspects of the Art as a discrete discipline on a visit to the UK, which was well received by senior practitioners of Wado karate.

In closing I would like to give the final words to the late Yukiyoshi Takamura, head of the Takamura Ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu, a branch of the Ryu descended through from Shigeta Ohbata. Who said in Aikido Journal 117, Autumn 1999:

The Wado-Ryu Jujutsu Kempo headquarters dojo still teaches Shindo Yoshin-Ryu in Tokyo. I understand that Shindo Yoshin-Ryu does not generate much interest within the Wado-Ryu now. This is too bad as Wado-Ryu founder Hidenori Otsuka held a Menkyo Kaiden in Shindo Yoshin-Ryu. He received his license from Tatsusaburo Nakayama Sensei around 1921.”

“My grandfather knew Otsuka only slighlty but thought highly of him. He was a man of exceptional reputation.”

“I hope that Wado-Ryu does not loose its Jujutsu roots which makes it one of very few karate styles to have a Bujutsu heritage. I know some Wado-Ryu dojos that still have a Jujutsu influence as in earlier times. Kozumi Sensei came to me in 1968 from Wado-Ryu with excellent jujutsu skill. Many years later, one of our present senior instructors, Toby Threadgill Sensei, came to me from a Wado-Ryu sensei named Gerry Chau with equally impressive Shindo Yoshin-Ryu knowledge. It is regretful that this has now become the exception. Sport karate matches seem to drive the future of Wado-Ryu away from its Jujutsu roots. It would be good news to hear that this impression is incorrect.”

I would like to acknowledge the influences of various researchers and sources which have enabled me to piece together the information for this article.

The Article itself is by no means a complete history of the Shindo Yoshin Ryu, or Wado Ryu karate, for that we need better qualified and more heavyweight researchers to collect the information while it still exists, but I hope that it is a beginning and encourages others to take a serious look at the roots of Wado.

Thanks to my Senseis, Shiomitsu HanshiSugasawa Sensei and to information placed in the public domain by David Maynard and Shingo Ohgami, and thanks to Toby Threadgill of the Takamura Ha Shindo Yoshin Kai.


© 2001 All rights to this article reserved T. Shaw