The Origins of British Jujitsu

The origins and development of British Jujitsu

I have studied jujitsu for some years now and with the current sabbatical opportunity, I decided to look into jujitsu.  Specifically the jujitsu we do, but also the origins of jujitsu in the UK.  At this point can I just say that this is not an academic paper, I've written an academic paper and, whilst this sort of looks like one, it is in no way accurate enough and I have not been as rigorous as I would need to be for this to be held up and scrutinised properly.  That said I would like to thank the people at E-budo for their help, where I have been able to I have indicated the pages where I learnt the relevant information.  Any mistakes are my own and not theirs.

This is a very tricky subject clouded by ego, lies, half truths, political motives and generally the fact that not enough people wrote things down, which is very unhelpful for a historian, but there you go, some people have no thought for posterity.  That aside, I've had fun researching this and any alterations that need to be made, please do not hesitate to contact me.  At the bottom is a section that will have relevance only to those in Fudoshin, the club I currently study at, please feel free to ignore it if you have no interest in our small corner of the jujitsu world.  That said, let's begin...

To begin, we need to say what jujitsu is.  Jujitsu, everyone will tell you, is the unarmed combat art of the Samurai of Japan and the word means, “The Gentle Way”, the idea being that one could use an attacker's strength against them.  The meaning of the word jujitsu is true, but to say it was the unarmed art of the samurai is less true: there were many unarmed arts used by the samurai, most of which were used for when the samurai was in battle, he had lost his weapon and was being attacked by someone with a weapon.  Over time these arts came to be known under the catch all name of jujitsu, but there were many different schools which placed different emphasis on certain aspects of the unarmed art.  These schools were called Ryu and the most successful one ever was one started by a man called Jigoro Kano. 

At this point most people will immediately point to that Kano invented Judo, which he did, but only because he took the best bits from the different jujitsu styles he studied and changed them in one important way.  Kano's two main styles of jujitsu were Tenjin Shin'yō-ryū , which emphasised disruption of the opponent's balance and flowing technique and Kitō-ryū, which taught using kata and often practised in full armour to simulate the battlefield. 

Kano took these two styles and his experiences elsewhere and formulated his own school, calling it Kano Jujitsu, as that was what it was then, a form of jujitsu.  At that time randori was rare in jujitsu schools with teaching being confined to kata; Kano emphasised randori so that the students could have a feel for how the technique actually worked.  In 1886 the Tokyo metropolitan police force held a competition to see which jujitsu school would teach its officers; with its emphasis on randori and free sparring Kano jujitsu mopped the floors with the other jujitsu schools.  For the next 8 years Kano jujitsu dominated the other jujitsu schools in all competitions, the only upset was a school called Fusen Ryu.   Fusen Ryu was challenged by Kano jujitsu and they decided upon a new strategy: going to the ground.  Kano's jujitsu was all about throws, the second the matches started the Fusen Ryu players would lie on their backs, suicide in real life street fighting, but this was a competition, so what the hell?  The Kano players then jumped on them and were eaten alive by the superior Fusen Ryu ground fighting skills.  It was the first loss suffered by Kano jujistu in 8 years, and Kano being Kano, he went off and learnt everything there was to learn about ground fighting and then incorporated it into his jujitsu, [1]

So, the question has to be, why are we discussing Kano Jujitsu and not our jujitsu?  Well, my research, and the central argument of this article is that our jujitsu is a form of Kano jujitsu, which is to say it is a judo of sorts.  But, please, bear with me as there's a few strands we need to tie together.  Jigoro Kano is one strand, another is a man called E W Barton Wright.

E W Barton Wright was a railway engineer and when Meiji era Japan was building its rail roads and modernising itself, he was there building railroads and learning jujitsu.  He studied Shinden Fudo-Ryu jujitsu and Kano jujitsu and returned to London in 1898 to show off his skills.  He wanted to combine jujitsu with other arts he had studied (Savate, fencing, wrestling) and called his new mixed martial art Bartitsu.  Such was the impact that it was even mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes story.  After performing numerous displays in music halls and fairs, he opened his school in 1901.  He invited teachers from all over the world and held classes in different arts with the idea being to master them all to use them against one another.  He even held women's self defence classes (which the suffragettes loved, including one of their number called Edith Garrund who went on to teach her own classes and formed Emily Pankhurst's bodyguard squad).  Unfortunately Wright argued with his other instructors and the club ended up closing down, the jujitsu instructors ended up starting their own schools whilst Wright stopped teaching self defence.  He died penniless at the age of ninety, although he is now recognised as a pioneer in the art[2]

Two of the instructors that Barton Wright brought over with him were Sadakazu Uyenishi and Yukio Tani, apparently trained at the "Handa School of Jiujitsu" in Osaka.  Once they separated company with Barton Wright they set up their own jujitsu school called The Japanese School of Jujitsu, based in London[3].  One of their top students was Jack Britten, who went on to set up the Alpha Jujitsu Institute in Liverpool, competing with the Kara Ashikaga school under Gunji Koizumi.  For the next few years there was a flowering of jujitsu in Britain with many individuals taking up the art and passing it on.  The next watershed moment was the founding of the Budokwai in 1918 by Gunji Koizumi with Yukio Tani as the first teacher.  The Budokwai was a martial arts school based in Lower Grosvenor Place and taught jujitsu, kendo and other Japanese arts.  It also put on lectures and seminars about Japanese culture.  Two years later, in 1920, the Budokwai sent a telegram to Tokyo asking if the Kodokan, Kano's main school, could send a Kano Jujitsu instructor.  Kano himself promptly turned up in London, awarded Koizumi and Tani their second dans and absorbed them into his jujitsu school.  The Budokwai of London was now teaching Kano Jujitsu as opposed to regular jujitsu, and when the name Judo finally became common place, that is what they became known for.  Part of the problem is that, during this time period the terms judo and jujitsu were interchangeable, as they were seen as the same thing and, in many ways, were the same thing.  This has, of course, led to certain problems for historians. 

Liverpool also had a third jujitsu school, Skyner's Jujitsu under a man called Gerald Skyner who had been a student of Mikonosuke Kawaishi whilst he was teaching jujitsu in Liverpool.[4]  When Kawaishi left for London Skyner set up his school.  Liverpool, it seemed, was the second home of jujitsu in the UK after London, but whereas London came under the sway of the Kodokan and judo, Liverpool kept to the old terminology. 

WWI and WWII further confuse events as many, many young men ended up being taught Army Combatives, much of which was based upon a watered down version of jujitsu.  Post WWI jujitsu in the UK underwent a resurgence under several new homegrown teachers such as Percy Longhurst, William Garrud and his wife Edith (who owned her own jujitsu dojo and taught the suffragettes!) W. Bruce Sutherland, W. H. Collingridge and Emily Watts.  They established the British Jujitsu Society, which may have been set up as a reaction to the Kodokan absorption of the Budokwai. This particular strand of British Jujitsu continued quietly until 1985 when they put on a display at Battersea Park for Prince Hironomiya of Japan[5].  When I return to the UK, I do intend to try and track them down. 

WWII is, I would argue, the real point at which British Jujitsu becomes its own thing: the British Armed forces needed an effective and easy to teach close combat system to teach its troops and it turned to two men to create the syllabus: W E Fairbairn and E A Sykes.  Both were seasoned veterans of the Shanghai Municipal Police, with Fairbairn having experience of Kano Jujitsu and 33 years experience in the police whilst Sykes was an expert sharp shooter.  Fairbairn created his own martial art, Defendu, and published a book on it[6]; Defendu being designed for police work and riot control.  In 1940 they were commissioned into the British Army and set about teaching Fairbairn's Close Quarter Combat, which was a modified version of Defendu designed for the battlefield as opposed to police work.  Reading his book on the subject (Get Tough) with a knowledge of the British Jujitsu syllabus one can see that many techniques come direct from Fairbairn[7]; and his style is essentially a dirty Kano jujitsu, or Judo as it was increasingly known as. 

Fairbairn's system spread through the British army, leading to many soldiers having at least a passing acquaintance with it, an acquaintance they would have carried through into civilian life.  This coupled with the learning of Asian martial arts whilst on shore leave led to a certain amount of cross fertilization which we shall return to later.  As a side note, Fairbairn and Sykes went on to design the British Commando knife, that symbol that still so dear to the hearts of the British Commandos that some martial arts organisations want to use it as their symbol too. 

WWII ends, many soldiers return to civilian life and at around this time the waters become muddy once more.  We have the strand of the Budokwai, which was now a Judo school; we have the British Jujitsu Society, which never grew to real prominence; we have Liverpool's Alpha Jujistu Institute (which passed from Jack Britten to Mick Walsh and is now in the hands of Dave Williams[8]); and we have many soldiers returned from war with army combat training. 

At this point we need to introduce Vernon Bell. 

Or maybe we don't. 

Vernon Bell is the man who introduced Karate to Britain, he also had Dan grades in judo and jujitsu; unfortunately his jujitsu grades look a little suspect as the person he claimed to have awarded them to him was not in the same country as Bell at the time[9].  But Bell did do a lot of work to promote karate in Britain, he is also, it seems, one of the first of the “dodgily dan graded” jujitsu practitioners, and there will be many who follow in his footsteps. 

Another man of interest is one Harry Hunter, who taught Super-jujitsu[10].  Hunter learnt his jujitsu whilst stationed in Japan with the British Navy in 1904.  He became the self styled “Jujitsu Champion of Europe”[11].  At some point it seems that he taught William Green jujitsu and Mr Green would then go on to teach a man called James Blundell. 

James Blundell is important to us as it is through him and his actions that a lot of the threads of British Jujitsu start to come together. 

During his youth, Blundell became a merchant marine and whilst in Singapore he found a Chinese man named Mr Kim who taught him jujitsu[12].  I am not making this up, he claimed that a Chinese man taught him jujitsu.  All reference to this strange lineage has been removed from the BJJAGB website[13] (the BJJAGB grew from the organisation Blundell founded, but we'll return to this later), but the information is still out there[14].  What he likley had was some form of judo and experience of the army combatives taught by Fairbairn (which were themselves judo influenced). 

At this point things become very murky indeed.  At some point Blundell formed the BJJA and at some point later Robert Clark and Richard Morris joined him, creating a syllabus that was clearly judo influenced with some army combatives and other wrestling aspects.  Robert Clark studied under Jack Britten at the Alpha Jujitsu Institute and left him to join with Blundell, no doubt bring some of his learning with him.  The initial BJJA formed in the 1950's, but by 1979 Robert Clark was the chief Instructor, Richard Morris was chairman and James Blundell was the Soke[15].  The WJJF (World Jujitsu Federation) was formed at this time, with the BJJA being its British branch.  This area is particularly troublesome as there are so many different versions of events that it is difficult to piece together what actually happened.  Robert Clark was also the WJJF international coordinator, so the two organisations may as well have been the same thing under different names. 

The BJJA/WJJF grew massively and its syllabus came to be seen as “jujitsu” and was called Juko Kai or Juko Ryu.  Ju from judo and Ko from Karate, in itself it was a mix of judo, combatives, aikido, some Alpha Jujitsu, Karate, and wrestling.  At some point the term “jikishin” was also used.  The syllabus seems to have been mostly the creation of Clark, but Blundell and Morris had a hand behind it also.  Cross pollination with European martial artists led to the syllabus becoming known throughout Europe, particularly Italy as the WJJF had a strong foothold in that country; Giacomo Bertoletti, an Italian, was the WJJF's president. 

At some point in the early 1980's, a link was made with a man called Rod Sacharnoski who founded and runs the Juko Kai organisation[16]. Sacharnoski's credentials are, at best, dubious, and he claims to have training in “Okinawan jujitsu”, something which I've never heard of as Okinawa has no jujitsu heritage to speak of.  Anyway, moving away from his inflated titles, brushes with fraud and attempts to intimidate people[17],.  There was some element of cross pollination between Juko Kai and the BJJA/WJJF, apart from the similar names to their styles there is also the Combat Ki aspect; Sacharnoski teaches Combat Ki, which are the Ki breathing techniques taught in the Ishin Ryu syllabus. The merger ended badly with Robert Clark and Sacharnoski falling out over Clark using Sacharnoski's name on certificates and some other fraudulent behaviour.

Eventually, the BJJA/WJJF split completely, apparently not over Clark's alleged misappropriation of insurance money, but that probably did not help matter much.  With the split in the organisation numerous other splinter groups formed, each with a similar syllabus (the Juko Ryu Syllabus) albeit tweaked or adjusted depending upon the instructor's preferences.  Central to these syllabi are the Kodokan judo throws (with some variations); judo ground work (which, we know, came from Fusen Ryu); weapons work (normally a straight baton, and a collection of Okinawan, not Japanese, weapon katas/techniques); occasionally some bad iaido; some punches and kicks from Karate and some unrealistic blocking techniques.  There is also a tendency to assume that one will only ever be attacked with a swinging right haymaker or a lunge punch that will be left in position for the defender to apply a wrist lock/ take down to. 

From the BJJA we have the WJJF, The World Kobudo Federation (WKF), the Jikishin Jujitsu Association, and the BJJA(GB) to name but a few.  The BJJA(GB) is currently the  governing body for jujitsu as recognised by Sport England, although it's power over other non member jujitsu clubs is non existent.

But to return to the central investigation, the jujitsu practised by the majority of people in the UK is not, in fact jujitsu at all but a sort of judo/karate cross breed given a reasonably good PR start in the 70's thanks to Kung Fu craze.   It's not Kung Fu, but it is something and many elements of it do work.  Where it needs to go in the future is probably to return to the ideals of British jujitsu's first practitioners, Tani and company, with stronger training regimes and more alive techniques that do not rely so completely on uke compliance. 

So we keep using the name jujitsu for this particular branch of the martial arts, if it is not in fact Japanese jujitsu?  Well, there is a clear Judo link, which is a form of jujitsu in itself; but beyond that the meaning of the word jujitsu is, “the gentle way”, and the core of the syllabus is an attempt to use an attacker's energy against them, to become pliant and gentle in the face of opposition.  Anyway, we don't ask the Brazilians to start referring to their art as Brazillian Judo, do we? 
Okay, this bit is a thought from James P; are there any martial arts that do not have a slightly muddy history?  Are there any where there is not a bit of bullshit involved? 

Perhaps this is the difference between Western and Eastern arts: the Western arts went down the sport route (boxing, fencing, javelin, archery, shot put, discus, show jumping, wrestling) rifle shooting) whereas the Eastern arts stuck at being arts for a little bit longer before becoming sport (judo, karate-do, etc.).  Maybe because they stuck to their guns (heh) a little longer, they've kept their mystique and their... attraction.  And with it the need for some mystery.  As things have come to the West, is it no the case that we've come to love the mystery and nonsense above the actual use and core of the arts?  Is this why there are loads of 10th Dan Soke Grand Masters who know little about actual combat?  They've gone for the mystique as opposed to the core behind the mystique. 

Humm, it bears thinking about.  

Anyway, anyone know of any martial arts where there is no murky background?  

Now for the Fudoshin section -

Under Mark Thomas Sensei, we broke from Ishin Ryu and two years down the line our own syllabus has changed considerably, and probably will continue to change for some time till we get it looking like something that works well.  Our syllabus is a derivative of the  WJJF syllabus, with Pell Hanshi's own twists.  Having looked at what led to British jujitsu as it is now, my next task will be to investigate the Ishin Ryu syllabus in greater detail, something which should be an interesting little journey for obvious reasons. 

[1]    Abernethy, Iain, Bunkai Jutsu (Chichester: Summersdale Publishers, 2004), p 185
[17]  Go to, type his name into the search bar and read.  It's shockingly familiar.