Tag Archives: Ninjitsu

I’ve always had a respect for several martial arts but I’ve always really liked the improvisation styles of Bartitsu and Jailhouse Rock and some of the old school pugilist styles of fighting. Could some of these styles be of equal of greater advantage to superior fightings like ninjitsu and okichitaw or are some styles considered superior for a reason?

Well, this list is jumbled.

We’ll get back to those in a second. The short version, which we’ve explained before is that martial arts are developed for different purposes. They can exist as practical combat arts, where the goal is to dispatch your foe. They can exist as sports, either to promote competitive combat, or simply for exercise. They can exist as exhibition forms, which are designed to stun an audience with amazing displays and intricate choreography.

Some martial arts cross all of these, others exist in one or two focuses exclusively. Just like the martial arts themselves, some martial artists, cross between these. To some extent, the outlook of the martial artist is almost more important than the intent behind the style. Someone who has trained in a practical form is more likely to find practical elements when studying a sport form, and someone who studies for exhibition will be better suited to extrapolating how to make a martial art look it’s best, and can turn around and incorporate that.

Incidentally, when we get people asking about dancing and fighting… dancing isn’t a martial art, but it is a form of physical exhibition. Cross training in dancing won’t help you fight, but it can help you make your martial arts look better. Which, if you’re an entertainer (be that an actor, stunt performer, or even a competitive sport fighter) can be a real asset to your career.

Jailhouse Rock is an Elvis song, not a martial art. To be fair, it is also a catch all term for martial arts practiced in prisons. You’ll see some adaptation to the various styles in question, to account for the environment they’re used in, but, at it’s core, this is simply a way of saying, “they took a martial art, and then used it, in prison.” Beyond that, it’s basically impossible to make any generalizations about it as a unified thing, because it’s not one martial art, it’s, literally thousands of different practitioners, unified only by their incarceration.

Jailhouse Rock, can refer to self taught fighters, who don’t know what they’re doing, it could refer to martial artists with multiple belt ranks in different styles, or it could refer to individuals with military training. Rather obviously, none of these three things will look like the others. It can also result from different martial artists, in prison, working together and learning from each other. At which point, knowing who was involved would tell you a lot about how effective their resulting style would be. But, there is no one martial art there.

Bartitsu is really interesting. The cliche about Asian martial artists being highly secretive and refusing to train outsiders is one that has some historical basis. Before the 1940s and ‘50s, it was very rare to see a westerner who had received training in any Asian martial arts. Usually this gets presented as simple racism, but there were practical considerations as well. Sharing martial techniques with outsiders (any outsiders, not just Europeans) meant they now had the opportunity to reverse engineer and develop counter techniques.

A partial exception to this was E. W. Barton-Wright, who, in the 1890s, spent several years living in Japan before returning to England. Barton-Wright had, evidently, gained the opportunity to study Judo and or Jujitsu during his time in Japan, and on his return, began adapting some of their techniques into British boxing, European fencing, and (possibly) several other European martial arts. He eventually convinced several Jujitsu practitioners to come to his school in London, and act as instructors. All of this, before 1905. He named the resulting martial art after himself, adding the -itsu suffex to the first syllable of his surname.

Part of the reason this is significant, and really interesting is, between 1900 and 1950, almost all of the core Japanese martial arts (Judo, Jujitsu, Aikido, ect.) died off. The post war martial arts are reconstructions, but it’s not quite the same thing. Much like modern HEMA, modern Jujitsu isn’t the martial art that was actually used in historical warfare. It’s also important to note that the modern forms of Judo and Jujitsu were not the martial arts that Barton-Wright studied.

What also makes Bartitsu interesting is, there’s the distinct possibility it survived. While Barton-Wright stopped teaching in the early 1900s, several splinter schools may have preserved the techniques. It’s hard to know with certainty how accurate they are to the original martial art, and there is an open question if the modern version of Bartitsu is a revival, or a reconstruction. But, it is an interesting subject.

Bartitsu is also, almost certainly, the martial art that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle referred to in Sherlock Holmes (specifically The Adventure in the Empty House). Though Doyle misspelled it “Baritsu.”

Ninjitsu is a rarity. This is one of the few Japanese martial arts that survived the 20th century, basically, unmolested. Historically, ninjas had a very specific role in Japanese society, and due to considerations resulting from that, it managed to survive.

Modern Ninjitsu isn’t that different from the historical forms, and this is a martial art that is designed with the idea that you need to kill your opponent front and center. Actual Ninjitsu training includes elements designed to remind the practitioner about the importance and value of human life. And it’s really important to understand that actual practitioners aren’t kill crazy assassins. But, they have studied a martial art that’s designed to kill.

This puts Ninjitsu in a really strange, and somewhat unique place, among martial arts; it’s a traditional martial art that hasn’t been defanged, and in many ways is more akin to modern practical martial arts. It’s also one of the few places where you can get a good look at pre-war Japanese martial arts, particularly in the variation between different schools.

Okichitaw always saddens me. Anyone who’s followed us for any length of time has probably picked up on my general philosophy that people are stronger when we learn from each other. That sharing and spreading information is, on the whole, a positive. If we fear what we don’t know, and the old Star Wars chain of emotions holds true, then learning about, and from, others is probably the single most important step towards building a better world.

It’s also why I almost never use the term “cultural appropriation.” You learn, adopt what works; the people you interact with do the same; and everyone is enriched by the experience. And, very importantly, you don’t learn nearly as much if you stay inside your box, and only interact with people who have the same views and backgrounds you do. You need to get out there; interact with people who’ve had vastly different experiences; and get to know them.

As someone who has spent some time studying First Nations myths and culture, there’s a real tragedy that almost nothing of the Native American civilizations has survived. That includes the martial traditions, that we know existed, because of preserved stories.

Martial traditions can be a very important component of understanding the culture that created them. You can extrapolate the cliche of, “you never really know someone until you fight them,” into a real logical process. Seeing how someone fights, what they prioritize, and how they approach combat, can teach you a lot about what they value socially, and as a person.

The problem is, that Okichitaw is not a First Nations martial art. It is an adapted hybrid of Japanese and Korean martial arts. Ironically, if you asked me and Michi to pool our training and create a new martial art? The result would (probably) be almost indistinguishable from Okichitaw’s hand to hand techniques. It bills itself as a revival of the Cree martial arts, but what it is, in fact, is Judo, Taekwondo, and Hapkido put in a blender.

I have a lot of respect for what George Lepine is trying to do with Okichitaw, and I really do applaud the attempt. But, the result? That’s really sad to me. It’s sad that (to my knowledge) none of the First Nations martial traditions were really preserved. It’s sad to see someone, particularly someone as well educated in martial arts as Lepine is, appropriating another martial art and saying, “yeah, no, this is good enough.” It’s a tragic punctuation of the history of the First Nations. This is one more example of someone expunging elements of First Nations culture in favor of “superior” foreign civilization. Parts of their identity that were already almost in danger of being lost, are now, thanks to Lepine’s good intentions, probably gone forever. It’s a tragedy of good intentions.


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“Practical” Combat

Let’s talk about “practical” for a second. In the world of martial arts, and really everything associated with combat, “practical” is a loaded term; it refers to any style or weapon that’s intended for actual combat. It’s distinct from sport or non-combat martial arts, like Tai Bo. In the case of weapons it distinguishes between actual combat weapons and display weapons, like the rainbow knife on my desk.

So, if you’re asking, what’s the most effective combat style, then, whatever fits. There are plenty of active combat forms available to civilians, and military or police characters will know their organization’s hand to hand form. It’s not uncommon for police to actively start looking into other martial arts as a result of their training. Similarly, as I recall (and I could be wrong about this), it’s fairly common for military personnel in overseas postings, to pick up local martial arts and bring them back.

Generally speaking, practical styles split into two families, with a lot of crossover; subdual and lethal. Subdual styles involve restraining the opponent, and holding them in place, usually via joint locks, throws and holds. Most police hand to hand forms, and almost all self defense training are focused on subdual.

Lethal styles are ones that involve quickly breaking someone so they stop screaming and thrashing. Almost all military styles fall into this header. Some exceptions are Chin Na and modern Systema, which borrow heavily from subdual techniques. Where most subdual forms are content to lock a joint, lethal styles will frequently follow with a break.

If your character is a civilian, then you’re probably looking at any of the modern self defense schools. It is probably the most prolific, practical martial style today, and easy to explain in a character’s back story.

If you’re looking for something slightly more obscure, then Krav Maga or Muay Thai are both options. But, Krav Maga is about a decade out of date from the actual military form, and Muay Thai is technically a sport form. Granted, that sport involves tagging someone in the kidneys until they piss blood and die, but still.

If your character is in one of the few places in the world where they can get training in it, Systema’s also an option. In its modern form, it looks more like a subdual form, but it is quite lethal. Unfortunately, it also means your character needs to have come from someplace with a large Russian population. If the character is American, that means : Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Seattle, or Miami.

Finally, if you’re willing to do some research on your own, there are a number of Ninjitsu schools in the US. Functionally, it’s not really that different from any other Japanese form, except that it hasn’t been defanged into a sport form yet. Just make sure, if you go this route, to make that completely clear to the reader.