The jo; the short staff; a long stick. Not sharp but blunt. It can’t cut a limb off, but it can bludgeon and injure one, rendering the limb useless. However, several direct blows to the head could have a grave outcome as well. The jo is a weapon wielded in aikido training. But what do aikidoka use it for and what does it symbolize? Is the jo more of an accurate representation of the art than compared to the more popularized katana?
Like the other wooden weapons within aikido’s training context – the bokken and tanto – the jo is used as a teaching tool to better enhance the empty hand portion of the art. By observing the lengths of the jo, bokken, and tanto, each assumes a role of conveying the useand power of proper distance. At a glance, one can quickly tell that the jo, being the longest, is designed to help supplement an aikidoka’s understanding of greater distances; specifically, those that may be outside the aikidoka’s physical reach, yet not beyond his/her sight or feel. With jo in hand, an aikidoka can learn how to hold an adversary at bay while keeping themselves away from potential danger. Similarly, be it empty handed or with a weapon, the aikidoka can extend their focus and concentration furtherwhile remaining balanced and in a strong position, perhaps even seeing a negative situation long before it happens and allowing it to pass or avoiding it altogether, and if need be, confronting it in aikido fashion. Such awareness can prevent potential harm to fall upon the aikidoka and, therefore, avoids being caught off guard or confused when the situation becomes too close for comfort.
There are multiple ways to hold and present the jo compared to the bokken or tanto. The aikidoka can hold the jo like a sword or a spear, grasp it in the middle, using both ends as both a defensive and offensive tool, or hold it at both ends, using the middle as a block, parry, or even a controlling or trapping component. The front is the back, and the back is the front. There is no top or bottom to the weapon. The uses and combinations are infinite.
Various common traditional practices for the jo exist in aikido. The first is solo kata – pre-arranged patterns and various forms of grips and strikes; the individual honing of the general mechanics of the weapon. The second is paired practice, kumi jo, where both uke and nage have the jo and partake in offensive and defensive maneuvers; a choreographed set of moments that help develop timing and distance while executing the mechanics learned in solo practice. There are also jo tori, unarmed defenses against the jo, and lastly, jo nage, where nage, using the jo, throws uke, who attempts to grab the weapon from nage. As mentioned previously, all these aspects of practice can help facilitate an understanding of the weapon and of the spacing between uke and nage as well as respective positions to their surroundings. Additionally, these aspects and understandings hammer home the general mechanics of where, when, why, and how to block, strike, parry, or evade. Moreover, paired practice with the jo may help develop a stronger connection to the weapon and to one’s partner, paralleling the connection that aikidoka look to keep during empty-handed techniques.
As is the case for paired practice, for both aikidoka, uke and nage, while being in their respective roles, each learns different lessons while partaking in the same exercise. Nage learns how to move the jo correctly and efficiently when someone is grabbing for or holding onto the weapon, as is the case in jo nage training. Nage also learns how to physically move while having the jo in hand, thereby reinforcing the movement and footwork from empty hand training. Similarly, uke learns how to flow with nage, following the direction(s) of movement and energy as nage attempts to dispatch uke. In a complimentary approach, uke learns how to commit to his/her attack, causing nage’s response. And again, both nage and uke learn proper distance and mechanics to both executing technique and taking proper ukemi.
The jo, in essence, represents the physical manifestation of the art and philosophy of what aikido was designed to be. While it’s widely accepted that aikido is based on Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu and that, in turn, is based on sword movements, there are limitations to what one can do with a sword. There are basically two general outcomes when wielding a sword: the first is to kill, and the second is to maim. These two options do not seem to fit squarely into the overall philosophy and ideology of aikido, though a valuable weapon for training, its lack of flexibility thereby suggests that the sword may not be as good as analogy as first considered for aikido principles.
But what can an aikidoka do with a jo? As mentioned at the beginning of this editorial, it is possible to both strike and maim with a jo strikes, but, also as mentioned above, one can keep an opponent at bay without inflicting pain or injury; one can manipulate joints and apply non-lethal pressure on different parts of the body, resulting in an off-balancing of uke and minimizing injuries, especially when compared to the sword. Additionally, the jo does not have one set way or method on how to hold it, as does the sword. This versatile nature of the jo represents the versatility and adaptability of aikido and its way of thinking, thus, its philosophy has a broader scope. Therefore, based on such assessments, the jo is more like aikido than the sword. Fixed positions, limited perspectives, and minimal options with the sword prevent technique and in turn, the art from being applied to different situations. The sword is a powerful weapon and great training tool. Its presence in aikido symbolizes the devotion of those who came before and the impact it had on a culture, as does the jo. The jo itself represents the maturation of not only an art form but of a people to be thoughtful, compassionate, and flexible. This is what aikido is and what it was meant to be.
To learn more about aikido and it’s history in America, click here.