“Scientific Ragging”: The New Jiu-jitsu (1904)

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Friday, 26th October 2012

An anonymous commentary on the potentials of jiujitsu from “The Outing” magazine, dating to 1904:

WHO would have said three years ago that a remote Eastern nation would become an arbiter between the athletic aims of the two extreme nations of the West? But some such relation as this is set up by the Japanese protest against the American exploitation of jiujitsu. Directly the art was discovered it was seized upon in America, advertised, practised and explained in a number of books. The explanations certainly exceeded the art, of which the scope and wonders have been greatly misrepresented, and in giving Jiu-jitsu a flair, which made it the fashionable spectacle in Paris as in New York, abstracted at the same time its chief merit. Jiu-jitsu may be an art, almost a science; but above all it is a game, and the exploiters of it have done the harm to it that they have done to other athletic games in emphasising its spectacular and combative advantages. Jiu-jitsu professionals, skilled after the fashion of ” the magnetic lady” who set silly London gossiping some years ago, will soon be a regular part of music-hall performances. This does not much matter, but it is less endurable that a game which might be a real boon to town-dwellers should be spoiled by sham gymnastic exponents who take themselves more seriously than they deserve.

For an athletic nation we are curiously backward in what may be called palaestral games. Fencing has its eminent devotees. Mr. Egerton Castle, umpiring at a bout in Gray’s Inn Gardens, where a bundle of foils leaned against the leaning catalpa, is a spectacle full of the savour of the Middle Ages. The two straightest backs in the House of Commons were trained on fencing. Captain Hutton has from time to time inspired different schools with his zeal for foils, single-sticks, broad-sword and buckler, quarter-staff, two-handed sword, or case of rapiers. Nevertheless, fencing and the sister games languish in England. They are not popular amusements, and the desire to take them up possesses very few of the many town-immured men and women who lament daily their need of exercise. On the whole, the gymnastic peoples are not the athletic. The Japanese dislike sport on the whole. The Germans prefer to develop chest and arms rather than legs; the English neglect the torso. Perhaps the French are more naturally proficient at both athletics and gymnastics than any people, except the Americans, whose competitive genius is overmastering.

Beyond all question the Japanese are the greatest gymnasts in the world, and have been for years. Two forms of wrestling, Sumo and jiu-jitsu—the first chiefly professional, the second both aristocratic and democratic, have long interested the bulk of the nation. Sumo has been regulated by a Gild of its own which is recognised by Government, used for police purposes, and exempted from taxation. The Gild has schooled its members into the strictest loyalty to the canons of art and etiquette in the same way as the Rugby Union in England, though more precisely and dictatorially, as befits an institution long and officially established, which holds its public examination and publishes its class-lists. Sumo in Japan is the counterpart, with many necessary deductions from the strictness of the analogy, of the Football League in England. It is professional, a spectacular rather than a popular game, and its players need great physical development.

Jiu-jitsu has other qualities, and these seem to me to bring it a long way ahead of any gymnastic game we have in England. And it should be English, for it is no more or less than the science of “ragging,” the exaltation of a rough and tumble, the impromptu wrestling which everyone practices and enjoys from infancy till the age when the sinews creak. It is the only game common to the nursery, the school, the university, the office, and it is greatly improved as a mere amusement by some application of science. The Japanese have especially associated the game, since its emergence in the seventeenth century, with military training, and its superiority to the stiffness of much army gymnastics

does not need argument. But the question now is not whether Woolwich or Osborne should engage a Japanese instructor, but whether many active men who cannot keep their muscles from rusting might not with advantage take their opportunities of scientific ragging in off hours. Its reputation has been spoiled by American over-emphasis. The art includes, of course, instruction in the coup-de-grace, in blows, or rather taps, and falls, and locks, and grips which can incapacitate and break limbs; but its points as a game are quite independent of such violent usage of anatomical knowledge.

The game has the minimum of paraphernalia, can be played in a small space;can be learnt, at least in rudiments sufficient for extracting amusement, from a book. It depends, unlike most gymnastics, on nimbleness more than muscle, and balance, not power, is its key. It is the fashion now to claim moral attributes for games, and the disciples of jiu-jitsu have made the common mistake. But after all “the art of self-defence ” — in England a technical phrase unfortunately restricted to boxing — deserves its constant epithet “noble”; and the jiu-jitsu game, which begins with the art of falling happily and conquering from an inferior position, has a clear symbolic claim to a moral quality. Physical inferiority tends to moral subserviency to the bully; and now no swords are worn and sticks are flimsy, jiu-jitsu is almost the only game which can teach the punier people to flourish in a fight.

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