Jodo: The Art of Stickfighting

On Friday afternoon in Hyatt International South, Jason Hughes and his martial arts students, Mari Baker, Tammy Cleaveland, and Don Roberts, presented the history and techniques of Jodo, a stickfighting discipline. Jodo differs from quarterstaff or bo staff fighting in that the stick is shorter than a conventional staff.

Photo by Brandilyn Carpenter

Jo Jutsu is the art of the staff, the first weapon used by humanity. Jodo is based in part on that and dates to the 1600s. Miyamoto Musashi, who lived from the late 16th to the mid-17th centuries, was the archetypal samurai. He began training around the age of sixteen and later wrote the Book of Five Rings on swordsmanship. After concluding his service as a samurai, he went on a musha-shugyo, or warrior’s journey. This was a tradition followed by masterless samurai, or ronin, in which they traveled the countryside challenging headmasters of schools to duels. Musashi was undefeated in sixty duels. He was famed for the technique of using a long sword in his right hand for offense and a short one in his left hand for defense.

Musashi owed some of his success to his ability to game his opponents, often by showing up so late for the duel that his opponent was agitated by this rudeness. He also liked to arrive at the site early and position himself so the sun rose over his shoulder, shining into his opponent’s face and blinding him for a crucial instant as the duel began. One opponent tried to preempt this strategy by arriving early and taking the position with his back to the east. When the sun rose, Musashi turned his sword to reflect the light into his opponent’s face, blinding him.

In 1610, Musashi fought Muso Gonnesuke, who was also undefeated. Muso used a bo staff in his duels. Musashi defeated him by using an X block with his two words but, out of respect for him, spared his life. Muso went into seclusion to reflect on his defeat. In a dream, two spirits called forest children advised him, “with a round stick, find the solar plexus.” He devised techniques to counter a swordsman and to defeat the X block using a shorter staff. In their second encounter, Muso prevailed and returned the favor of sparing his opponent’s life.

For three hundred years, Jodo was taught within the Kurodo clan only. In the mid-20th century, however, Shmizo Sensei, the twenty-fifth headmaster opened the teaching of jodo to anyone who wanted to learn instead of reserving it for members of the clan. Jodo was seen as a way of attaining enlightenment, to make oneself a better person. The sixty-four katas, or choreographed training exercises, were reduced to twelve. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police, who guard the royal palace, now learn jodo.

The most famous American practitioner of jodo was Donn Draeger, a US Marine stationed in Japan after World War II. He was the first non-Japanese to demonstrate Judo in the Olympics and helped the discipline become an Olympic sport. He founded hoplology, the study of human combat behavior and performance.

After discussing the history of the discipline, Hughes and his students demonstrated various katas, which often involved the staff deflecting the sword and thrusting toward the chest.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. She's the author of The Herald of Day, the first book in the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy, and the Light Mage Wars paranormal romantic suspense novels. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she writes the Outcast Station space opera series.

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