What's in a name: the "do" and "jutsu" debate


I have often read in recent years about the difference between a school practising "karatedo" and a school practising "karatejutsu".

"Do" (道) of course means "way". This is a philosophical term referencing Daoism/Taoism as well as being a more practical, everyday noun (it could simply refer to a pathway or road). As with any Chinese character (hanzi or kanji), there are mulitple meanings, often simultaneously applicable. "Do" is commonly used as a suffix in naming multi-faceted traditional Japanese activities that are analogous to both traditional Western rituals/ceremonies and performance arts.

"Jutsu" (術) on the other hand means technique, method, spell, skill or trick. It is often used as a suffix in naming a practical activity (eg. battōjutsu (抜刀術) meaning "the method of drawing a sword").

Accordingly it is ofen said that "karatedo" best describes karate as an activity that is largely ritualistic or artistic in nature; ie. where these are the primary motivations behind its practice. Conversely, "karatejutsu" is said to describe karate when it is used as a practically-focussed civilian defence system.

On today's forums there is no shortage of alternately (a) derision about "karatedo" as just an impractical art form "for art's sake" and (b) resistant defence from traditionalists who take umbrage at their chosen activity being denigrated.

Is it even accurate/possible to divide karate schools neatly into the "do" and "jutsu" categories? If so, at what point does a school fall from one category into another? In other words, how useful are the suffixes "do" and "jutsu"?

I thought I'd start by detailing my own use of "do" and "jutsu":

I call my school/system a "do" (muido or wu-wei dao). I intend this reference to encapsulate not only the physical fighting techniques that form part of the school's curriculum, but also its philosophical underpinnings; its credo as well as its approach to the pscyhology of conflict management. In picking a label for my school it accordingly seemed fitting to choose one that had a wider meaning. Ending the name with "do" or "dao" seemed particularly apposite given my own predilection for Daoist philosophy.

However in describing the karate component of the wu-wei dao "system" I have used the label "karatejutsu" (ie. the method of karate).

I feel that the use of "do" and "jutsu" in this way is entirely appropriate. I am not troubled by any apparent conflict.

However am I just creating a "false duality"? Is it possible that these labels create a divide that simply doesn't exist? To quote my highly esteemed colleague on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum, Victor Smith:
    "Somehow I've always felt karate was stronger without the duality of the Japanese concepts of Do and Jutsu.

    I've always felt both therms explained a theoretical world that doesn't exist."
I can see his point. The problem that exists in relation to the labels "do" and "jutsu" exists with any name/label.

I think this is what the author/s of the "Dao De Jing / Tao Te Ching" (道德經) meant with the opening words of that classical Chinese text: "The Dao (way) that can be named is not the nameless".

Labels define but as a natural consequence they also limit. For example, in laws we don't talk about "defining the boundaries" of a national park etc. for nothing. The moment we describe the boundaries of the park, we are circumscribing it; ie. we are limiting it.

The names of activities "chado" and "shodo" (the art of calligraphy) are labels that describe a kind of ceremonial/ritualistic performance and a visual artform. The labels describe those activities from a traditional Japanese perspective. However it remains true that a person engaging in chado is also drinking tea; a person engaging in shodo is writing. They are doing these things whether it is an artform or not.

If you choose to examine karate from the perspective of traditional Japanese arts you might use the suffix "do" as your label. If you are using karate to prepare for civilian defence or for a full-contact competition this label might seem inappropriate; it won't match the perspective from which you are examining the activity.

Now just because an activity can be either a "do" or "jutsu" depending on who is looking at it (or how the same person looks at it at different times) does not negate the usefulness of those labels. In other words, just because a label is "limiting" doesn't mean we can't/shouldn't use it.

Rather, we use labels as a shortcut for describing our perspective. It would be cumbersome to communicate without such shortcuts. After all, life would be very tiresome indeed if we could not use the word "psychology" as opposed to "physiology" (even though everything "psychological" is an electro-chemical process and is accordingly "physiological").

One just has to keep in mind that the activity being described is not limited by those labels; all that is limited is the reference by the person at that point in time. If we understand what the person means by using the label, then we are able to communicate with that person. We don't have to go a step further and accept that the person's perspective is the only valid one.

For example I might look at a school and describe its students as training in "karatedo", intending to convey my impression that the purposes behind the training seem similar to those of a chado ceremony or the preparation of a shodo scroll. Someone else might then come along and note the practical fighting skills of the students of that school; he or she might validy describe their training as "karatejutsu".

So something does not have to be a "do" or a "jutsu". It can quite easily be both. If you want to limit the scope of your own reference you will do so by using the appropriate term, but, as I have said, this doesn't limit what you're observing. You can look at the summit of a mountain from the north, south, east or west face - or anywhere in between. The summit remains the summit. Any of the descriptions from the various faces is limiting and insufficient to describe the totality. Yet each of the descriptions is entirely valid. And each can apply simultaneously.

So it is with "karatejutsu" and "karatedo".

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic