Why The Name “Gentle Rōnin?”

I started training jiu-jitsu at a crossroads in my life. I’m on the verge of change while forging my own path forward.

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Miyamoto Musashi Slashing a Tengu (1865) woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitosh

I’m about to graduate from university, and after three years of going back to school I am pained with wanderlust, I want to relocate (at least for a bit), and I want to start working professionally.

Meanwhile I have totally fallen in love with jiu-jitsu and I don’t want to stop training.

Life sends obstacles ~ Forming our priorities ~ Action shapes our fate

Jiu-Jitsu is the gentle art because it uses intelligence and technique to conquer even the strongest foe.

The restlessness in my heart, my uncertain future, and my inability to commit to an academy long-term makes me identify with the wandering warrior-poets of feudal Japan: the Rōnin.

Hence the name.

Samurai Grappling

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Jiu-Jitsu has its archaic origins in the lethal grappling techniques of the Samurai, who used joint locks and chokes to subdue and kill their heavily armored enemies. Proficiency in grappling was invaluable when both warriors were thrown from their horses and fighting on the ground. These techniques were most widely used by Samurai in the Sengoku period (1467 – 1603), though in truth Jujutsu is older than that.

“Jujutsu” is the Japanese romaji spelling, and refers to traditional Japanese Jujutsu, differentiating it from the modern Japanese/Brazilian hybrid martial art of Jiu-Jitsu.

Jujutsu is ancient. It is not actually a single martial art, but rather a consolidation of various grappling and submission martial arts indigenous to the islands of Nippon.

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Chinese and Okinawan martial arts like Kung fu and Karate focused on striking, which would prove ineffective to a heavily armed and armored Samurai warrior.

Japanese martial arts prioritized chokes, joint locks, throws, and holds, using leverage and submissions to disarm and defeat much stronger opponents.

The consolidation of Japanese grappling arts into this old style of jujutsu is called Nihon koryu JuJutsu, and was developed during the Muromachi period (1333-1573). It enabled a warrior with little or no armor, like a worker or farmer, to defeat a heavily armed and armored warrior, like a Samurai.

With the effectiveness of jujutsu undeniable, the Samurai adopted it into their training, practicing old forms of the art where they deflected and disarmed opponents wielding knives and spears with various throws, holds, chokes, and joint locks.

Samurai Jujutsu practitioners further developed the martial art during the the bloody and chaotic Sengoku period, when they utilized it on the battlefield in their near-constant fighting with other Samurai clans.

Jujutsu was born from war. It originated as an art of resistance, later to be used as a tool of feudal warfare.

Most fights go to the ground
so learn to take down and control your opponent
and you will never be defeated.

This same tactical principle is why today jiu-jitsu is so effective in street self-defense and competitive mixed martial arts today.

There is a modern reverence for the cultural example of the Samurai and their warrior code of Bushido: a set of eight virtues for warriors to live by. In Jiu-Jitsu circles there is a natural affinity for the virtuous warrior archetype, who serves society by protecting it. However this idea of the Samurai is largely mythologized in fiction, film, and revisionist history.

Samurai were disciplined warriors, protectors, scholars, and artists, who revered honour, duty, and loyalty above all else. Yet they were also a noble-born warrior caste that enforced a hierarchical and tyrannical social order through a military dictatorship and a permanent state of martial law.

No Lords. No Masters.

A Samurai without a master was known as a Rōnin, which translates to ‘drifter’ or ”wanderer.’  A trained warrior left to their own devices, without a master to serve nor a duty imposed upon them, was an unpredictable person.

Distrustful vagabond, revolutionary warrior, or ruthless mercenary?

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Most Samurai who became Rōnin did so by falling out of favor with their master, the death of their master, or in rare cases like Sakamoto Ryōma they left on their own volition.

Sakamoto Ryōma was a democratic activist and revolutionary who became one of the founding fathers of modern Japan.

Educated and radicalized in the social upheaval of the Bakumatsu period (1854-1867), he left the Tosa clan which he was sworn to, and traveled West across Japan, operating under an alias while working to overthrow the military dictatorship of the Shogunate.

Intelligent, cunning, and a trained warrior, Sakamoto evaded capture by Tokugawa agents, Bakufu government authorities, and Shinsengumi secret police as he traveled across Japan. Sakamoto formed his own private navy and trading company, Kameyama Shachū. In the resistance against the Shogun, Sakamoto found allies in the rivaling domains of Satsuma and Chōshū.

Sakamoto, a neutral third party, negotiated the Satchō alliance, which united Satsuma, Chōshū, and Sakamoto against the Tokugawa Shogunate. Armies of rōnin from Satsuma and Chōshū formed the ranks of resistance against the Tokugawa, along with warriors, workers, and sailors. Sakamoto’s navy provided military support.

Sakamoto Ryōma was short lived yet profoundly influential, as is the fate of a revolutionary warrior. He was assassinated by pro-Shogun agents on his 31st birthday, December 10th, 1867. He would not live to see a democratic, modern, and sovereign Japan, yet his legacy endures to this day. His writings were foundational in the construction of the Meiji Constitution, the formation of the Meiji Parliament, and the democratization and modernization of Japan.

Samurai Idolatry

The Samurai’s benevolence is largely mythology and fiction, yet their cultural example of disciplined scholars and warriors is a noble and honorable one, and has a lasting impact on our culture today.

Samurai, through their rigorous training and studies, are still regarded as a pinnacle of human development. They are even the inspiration for the Jedi Order in the Star Wars films, and their legendary katana swords are just as mysterious and compelling as lightsabers.

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Samurai are revered in Jiu-Jitsu culture not only for the historical and cultural connection, but also the value that master-student lineage has, and the loyalty to Jiu-Jitsu mentors, dojos, and schools of affiliation that permeates throughout Jiu-Jitsu culture. It’s not uncommon to see Samurai helmets or sheathed katanas on display in Jiu-Jitsu academies.

I have a lot of affinity and reverence for the academy I chose. There is something invigorating about surrounding yourself with peers on a shared journey, each committed to learning and self-development, forming this infectious inspiration that lives in the walls and the mats of the school you choose.

A disconnect people outside of martial arts have with the master-student relationship is being hung up on that word “master.” In martial arts, your master is not you lord, like in Samurai times. You do not bend to their authority on all things, but what you submit to is their authority of the martial art you have dedicated yourself to.

They are a master of the art while you are a novice. Humility for your own lack of ability is essential for progressing, as is listening to your coaches and trainers, and respecting the mastery of the art that their dedication and hard effort has earned them.

In this time of revolutionary sentiment and the galvanization of working people, the mythologized cultural example of the Rōnin, as nomadic rebel warrior-poets, is a more worthy archetype to revere than the dogmatic Samurai, who slavishly served their warlord masters. However, considering the popular concepts of both Samurai and Rōnin are heavily inspired by fiction, both cultural examples offer something of value to the jiu-jitsu practitioner.

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