Jo: The Combat Weapon of Japan and Okinawa
Dr. William Durbin
The most famous story regarding the use of the weapon called the Jo, goes something like this, there once was a great master of the Bo who decided to challenge the great swordsmaster Miyamoto Musashi to a duel. This master, Gonnosuke Muso, had trained in Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu and Kashima Shin Ryu, and was involved in a Musha Shugyo, a warrior's journey of austere training. In this type of journey, a warrior would visit other martial arts schools, practicing their art and many times fighting challenge matches.
Just as Musashi had never been defeated, neither had Muso. Though he would have practiced all of the warrior weapons in the two Ryu in which he trained, his weapon of favor was the Bo. It is said that during this period of time he was the greatest Bo master of all.
As he and Musashi battled both men were of such extreme skill, that neither had a definite advantage. Musashi was using his two sword technique, while Muso was using the traditional moves of his weapon, using primarily the circular strikes, saving the thrusts for a surprise attack, should the opportunity arise. In the more poetic accounts of the confrontation, the battle swayed back and forth. More realistic accounts seem to suggest the actual fight took place in seconds.
It is said by some, that during this battle Musashi caught the Bo in his special technique Juji Dome, the cross block. This rendered Muso helpless, giving the swordsmaster the victory. According to some sources, during this exchange the Rokushaku Bo was broken, losing nearly two feet, leaving the weapon slightly longer than four feet. Muso is reported to have stood helpless with the shattered weapon in his hand.
Since the battle ended with the Bo being destroyed and Muso's fighting capability neutralized, Musashi decided to let him live. It is said that Muso continued to travel, though not engaging in any more challenges. His spirit broken, Muso journeyed, trying to comprehend how he had lost the battle. As a reminder of his defeat, he continued to carry the broken Bo, constantly analyzing the confrontation.
It is said that during his wandering, he ran into a Yamabushi, itinerant Buddhist's priest, who advised him on martial arts skill and strategy. The Yamabushi also counseled the warrior to spend time in prayer, seeking the wisdom of the gods. Thus Muso traveled to Mount Homan, where he spent more than a month in prayer and meditation. One night he was visited by a divine being who taught him how to use his broken staff with some unusual and strategic moves. Upon awakening, Gonnosuke Muso began training with his weapon, now calling it a Jo. Combining the unique divinely inspired techniques with those of the Naginata (halberd), Yari (spear), Ken (sword), and Bo, he created his own version of Jojutsu.
Muso then asked Musashi for a rematch and with the versatility of this weapon defeated the swordsmaster in equal combat. Once again it is recorded that Muso parried the swords of Musashi aside, executing what could have been a fatal thrust. Even as Musashi allowed him to live, Muso reciprocated, and it is said that the two men became friends. Musashi even helped the new Jo master obtain a teaching position with the Kuroda family, teaching his own style of Jojutsu, now called Shindo Muso Ryu.
While Shindo Muso Ryu is the most famous system of Jojutsu, it is by no means the only style, or even the oldest one. The Jo is one of the traditional weapons of both Japan and Okinawa. While Shindo Muso Ryu has an exact length, which is just over four feet, many styles allow any weapon from three feet long to a little more than four feet in length to carry the name Jo. Probably the most famous modern style which teaches the Jo, is none other than Morihei Ueshiba's Aikikai Aikido. Many traditional aspects of Jo training are carried on in the Aikikai, from the perspective of not only learning the use of the weapon, but the Jo dori, stick taking, skill which allows an empty hand person to not only defend against the Jo, but be able to take the weapon away at the same time. Even in his eighties, Morihei Ueshiba continued to train in the art of the Jo and from the films available, it is easy to see that his skill was simply amazing as he whirled the weapon around in a free style form.
Kiyojute Ryu Kempo Bugei counts among it's traditional weapons the Sanshaku Jo and the Yonshaku Jo, three foot and four foot variations respectively. The greatest aspect of the Jo is that all the moves of the four weapons mentioned earlier, apply equally well to the weapon. The moves which can be performed with the Bo, form the foundation of the weapon. However, with it being smaller, the hands slide from end to end as the circular strikes are employed.
The thrusts and circular parries of the spear are applied to the Jo when one end is held, while the other hand is used to aim and manipulate the striking point. There is a special slide and hand change which can be used to shift the hands on the Jo in true Yari style.
Next the unique circular striking techniques of the Naginata may be applied to the Jo, using the simultaneous hand sliding techniques of the longer weapon. This can be very unnerving and an element of surprise to an attacker who does not comprehend the use of the Jo, or that aspect which is derived from the Naginata. This maneuver allows the defender to strike with the same end consecutively, while making the assailant wonder where the strike is coming from, and if the aggressor does perceive the nature of the attack, then the defender can quickly shoot in a strike with the other end as well.
As effective as the Katana is, though without a cutting edge, the Jo is just as deadly when used with the same movements as the sword. The traditional sword grip on the Jo makes for a very powerful striking attack. It is also possible for the hands to just slide down the length of the weapon, to the other end, to achieve the Gyakute Mochi, reverse hand grip, which is extremely effective in it's own right.
Any one of these weapons techniques applied to the Jo would make an extremely effective fighting style, but the advantage of the wooden weapon is that all four can be used interchangeably, allowing for a versatility of application which makes predicting what movement will be next, impossible to achieve. An assailant attacking a master of the Jo is completely at a loss as to what angles to defend, or what strategy to be prepared for, and yet there is still one more set of techniques, which can be used with the Jo.
The divinely inspired techniques of Gonnosuke Muso are actually taught in most styles of Jojutsu, but they are relatively unique to the Jo itself. These are the palm down, lateral slide methods. In this concept, the Jo is held with both hand holding, palm down on the stick. There are certain unique blocks used from this grip and the hands can slide on the weapon allowing either end to be used in a striking manner, or with thrusts.
Thus there are five sets of techniques which can be used with the Jo, making it one of the most versatile of traditional martial arts weapons. Better still, the techniques of the Jo are also the techniques of the Tsue, or walking cane. As people get older, they many times fear that they will be preyed upon by the criminal element of society, and that they will not have the health and strength to defend themselves. There are also times when someone is injured, such as having hurt their leg or hip, that a cane can be an asset when walking. With proper Jo training, and an understanding of vital point striking, a person can apply their own walking stick effectively to their defense. It is possible to walk about well armed, with a totally legal item, without attracting attention to that fact, by simply carrying a cane.
It should also be noted that many umbrellas, brooms, and mops, are sturdy enough to be used in self defense situations. Because many of these items are shorter than the typical Shindo Muso Ryu Jo, it would be well for the martial artist to train with the Sanshaku Jo and the Yonshaku Jo of the Okinawan tradition.
Always remember that a weapon is only as good as the person holding it, thus if you want to be able to use a Jo, as well as, all everyday weapons which conform to it's configuration, it is important to train hard. In the Kiyojute Ryu, the Okinawan tradition of mastering empty hand techniques, and then applying them to all weapons is practiced, but it must be emphasized that only by spending actual hours working with a specific weapon can it ever be mastered. The Jo is a marvelous weapon and can be of practical use in self defense. It is hoped that this article will create an interest in this truly grand traditional weapon and that martial artists will seek out competent instructors of the Jo to receive proper training.