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‘Jiu Jitsu? I’m going to learn Jiu Jitsu?’

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Once upon a time, whenever anyone talked about self defence or martial arts, Jiu Jitsu is what came to mind. It turned stoic cowboy Shane into that much more of a mystery, The Saint, The Champions and The Protectors would never have vanquished so many badly-wigged stuntmen without it and even Dan Dare, pilot of the future, waxed lyrical about it to the Mekon’s green hordes. But then along came Bruce Lee and overnight Kung Fu became the internationally approved answer to the question ‘what martial art can you think of?’ Jiu Jitsu virtually disappeared from the collective consciousness.

Yet now, it’s making a comeback thanks to the growing realisation amongst many that if a martial art is taught to just about every special forces group around the world, from the SAS to the Green Berets, it might actually work.

Jiu Jitsu (aka Ju Jutsu, Ju Jitsu or even just Jitsu — it roughly translates as ‘the gentle art’) is the granddaddy of most of the Oriental martial arts. It was originally devised by Japan’s Samurai in case they were attacked after losing their weapons. When the emperor banned their weapons, unarmed combat became an art in itself.

Nowadays, the chance of your being taught one of those original styles of Jiu Jitsu are about on a par with your meeting a Samurai. Jiu Jitsu has adapted to the changes in weaponry and culture that London and the 21st Century have brought. So, while you’ll still learn to defend yourself against a sword (still making the news headlines as the number one weapon of choice amongst the violently nutty), it’s mainly because you can use some of the same techniques against someone with a baseball bat.

In sharp contrast to the hundreds of organisations that manage karate and the like, there are only a few large groups that are dedicated to Jiu Jitsu in London, making the search for a club a bit easier for those who, like me, suffer from CBA (can’t be arsed) syndrome and don’t want to go on a magical mystery tour of every single youth club and sports centre in London. The World Jiu Jitsu Federation and the Jitsu Foundation are the main two. In the interests of fairness and balance, I’ve decided to focus on the second organisation and completely ignore the first one.

The majority of the Jitsu Foundation’s clubs are in universities and colleges, although there are plenty for normal people dotted around London — from Richmond in the west to Elephant and Castle and the University of East London in the east. Usually, there’s a mix of ages in the clubs. Taking part consists of simply turning up in loose clothing and either watching a training session or taking part.

So how is Jiu Jitsu different from karate, kung fu, et al? Sensei (that means ‘teacher’ for those of you whose Japanese is a bit rusty) Peter Hamer has been studying Jitsu for eight years after studying aikido for three and now runs City Jitsu Club near the Barbican. ‘I wanted to know what would happen if a technique went wrong. Aikido doesn’t really have any back-ups, whereas Jitsu always has an alternative.’

The ‘gentle art’ gets its name from the philosophy of using an attacker’s strength or speed against him. So if an attacker just grabs your wrist, you don’t punch him until he’s bleeding from every orifice (he might just want to know the time). On the other hand, if they come at you with a machete, you might want something a bit safer than a Judo throw.

You start, though, by learning ‘falling’ (how to stop yourself getting hurt if you fall over or are pushed) and some basic self-defence techniques. In contrast to some arts, it has a cooperative training system where students take it in turns to practise a technique, rather than sparring against one another. It also has very few ‘kata’: say goodbye to visions of your doing ‘wipe on, wipe off’ for days at a time.

The beginners I talked to found their initial sessions more fun than they expected, although CBA sufferers found it a bit more energetic than they thought it was going to be. One woman was surprised to discover that most of the men didn’t have “rampant testosterone poisoning”.

From there, you learn a whole range of defences ranging from releases from wrist grabs through to ways to counter multiple armed attackers. Jitsu takes the throws and groundwork of judo (an oft-quoted statistic is that 90% of fights in real-life end up with both people grappling on the floor), the punches and kicks of karate and the locks and evasion techniques of aikido, mixes them all together and spits out something that is actually pretty effective and will give you a knowledge of anatomy that will scare most doctors.

But what it won’t do is teach you how to break bricks, do flying kicks that put you into orbit or even fight like Keanu Reeves. “We have had some people turn up because they saw The Matrix where Keanu ‘learns Jiu Jitsu’,” says Sensei Hamer. “They soon realised that it wasn’t what they thought it was…”

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