“To conquer by yielding”; Lafcadio Hearn on jiujitsu

An excerpt from Lafcadio Hearn’s “Out of the East: Reveries and Studies in New Japan”, 1895.

Man at his birth is supple and weak; at his death, firm and strong. So is it with all things. . . . Firmness and strength are the concomitants of death; softness and weakness, the concomitants of life. Hence he who relies on his own strength shall not conquer.


Kazo and Iwao, Hearn's eldest children, at jiujitsu practice.

There is one building in the grounds of the Government College quite different in structure from the other edifices. Except that it is furnished with horizontally sliding glass windows instead of paper ones, it might be called a purely Japanese building. It is long, broad, and of one story; and it contains but a single huge room, of which the elevated floor is thickly cushioned with one hundred mats. It has a Japanese name, too, — Zuihokwan, — signifying The Hall of Our Holy Country; and the Chinese characters which form that name were painted upon the small tablet above its entrance by the hand of a Prince of the Imperial blood. Within there is no furniture; nothing but another tablet and two pictures hanging upon the wall. One of the pictures represents the famous White-Tiger Band of seventeen brave boys who voluntarily sought death for loyalty’s sake in the civil war. The other is a portrait in oil of the aged and much beloved Professor of Chinese, Akizuki of Aidzu, a noted warrior in his youth, when it required much more to make a soldier and a gentleman than it does to-day. And the tablet bears Chinese characters written by the hand of Count Katsu, which signify: Profound knowledge is the best of possessions.

But what is the knowledge taught in this huge unfurnished apartment? It is something called jiujutsu. And what is jiujutsu ?

Here I must premise that I know practically nothing of jiujutsu. One must begin to study it in early youth, and must continue the study a very long time in order to learn it even tolerably well. To become an expert requires seven years of constant practice, even presupposing natural aptitudes of an uncommon order. I can give no detailed account of jiujutsu, but merely venture some general remarks about its principle.

Jiujutsu is the old samurai art of fighting without weapons. To the uninitiated it looks like wrestling. Should you happen to enter the Zuihokwan while jiujutsu is being practiced, you would see a crowd of students watching ten or twelve lithe young comrades, barefooted and barelimbed, throwing each other about on the matting. The dead silence might seem to you very strange. No word is spoken, no sign of approbation or of amusement is given, no face even smiles. Absolute impassiveness is rigidly exacted by the rules of the school of jiujutsu. But probably only this impassibility of all, this hush of numbers, would impress you as remarkable.

A professional wrestler would observe more. He would see that those young men are very cautious about putting forth their strength, and that the grips, holds, and flings are both peculiar and risky. In spite of the care exercised, he would judge the whole performance to be dangerous play, and would be tempted, perhaps, to advise the adoption of Western “scientific” rules.

The real thing, however, — not the play, — is much more dangerous than a Western wrestler could guess at sight. The teacher there, slender and light as he seems, could probably disable an ordinary wrestler in two minutes. Jiujutsu is not an art of display at all: it is not a training for that sort of skill exhibited to public audiences; it is an art of self-defense in the most exact sense of the term; it is an art of war. The master of that art is able, in one moment, to put an untrained antagonist completely hors de combat. By some terrible legerdemain he suddenly dislocates a shoulder, unhinges a joint, bursts a tendon, or snaps a bone, — without any apparent effort. He is much more than an athlete: he is an anatomist. And he knows also touches that kill — as by lightning. But this fatal knowledge he is under oath never to communicate except under such conditions as would render its abuse almost impossible. Tradition exacts that it be given only to men of perfect self-command and of unimpeachable moral character.

The fact, however, to which I want to call attention is that the master of jiujutsu never relies upon his own strength. He scarcely uses his own strength in the greatest emergency. Then what does he use ? Simply the strength of his antagonist. The force of the enemy is the only means by which that enemy is overcome. The art of jiujutsu teaches you to rely for victory solely upon the strength of your opponent; and the greater his strength, the worse for him and the better for you. I remember that I was not a little astonished when one of the greatest teachers of jiujutsu (1) told me that he found it extremely difficult to teach a certain very strong pupil, whom I had innocently imagined to be the best in the class. On asking why, I was answered: “Because he relies upon his enormous muscular strength, and uses it.” The very name jiujutsu means to conquer by yielding.

I fear I cannot explain at all; I can only suggest. Every one knows what a “counter” in boxing means. I cannot use it for an exact simile, because the boxer who counters opposes his whole force to the impetus of the other; while a jiujutsu expert does precisely the contrary. Still there remains this resemblance between a counter in boxing and a yielding in jiujutsu, — that the suffering is in both cases due to the uncontrollable forward impetus of the man who receives it. I may venture then to say, loosely, that in jiujutsu there is a sort of counter for every twist, wrench, pull, push, or bend: only, the jiujutsu expert does not oppose such movements at all. No: he yields to them. But he does much more than yield to them. He aids them with a wicked sleight that causes the assailant to put out his own shoulder, to fracture his own arm, or, in a desperate case, even to break his own neck or back.

With even this vaguest of explanations, you will already have been able to perceive that the real wonder of jiujutsu is not in the highest possible skill of its best professor, but in the uniquely Oriental idea which the whole art expresses. What Western brain could have elaborated this strange teaching,— never to oppose force to force, but only to direct and utilize the power of attack; to overthrow the enemy solely by his own strength, — to vanquish him solely by his own effort? Surely none! The Occidental mind appears to work in straight lines; the Oriental, in wonderful curves and circles. Yet how fine a symbolism of Intelligence as a means to foil brute force! Much more than a science of defense is this jiujutsu: it is a philosophical system; it is an economical system; it is an ethical system (indeed, I had forgotten to say that a very large part of jiujutsu training is purely moral); and it is, above all, the expression of a racial genius as yet but faintly perceived by those Powers who dream of further aggrandizement in the East.

(1) Kano Jigoro. Mr. Kano contributed some years ago to the Transactions of the Asiatic Society a very interesting paper on the history of Jiujutsu.

The remainder of Hearns’ essay considers jiujitsu as a metaphor in ethical, political and other spheres.

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