As pleased as I was that the newspaper in town did an interview with me about Jiu-Jitsu, I was surprised to see the spelling that the writer chose to go with. Here is the article. Thanks to Michael de los Reyes for the interview and keeping pretty accurate with my answers (only paraphrasing mildly):

click to enlarge the article

So why “jujitsu” and not “jiu-jitsu?” Or why not one of the countless other ways of spelling it? And where did these permutations of the spelling come from? Here is a great explanation of it for those of you interested:

Modern understanding of the nuances of language translation has improved greatly since the first contact between English and Japanese speaking people. We now know that the accurate spelling of these characters are jujutsu
Ju, and
Not JIU and not JITSU.

That combination of kanji characters therefore makes the word: Jujutsu (jujutsu). That’s just a fact!

Now that we have clarified the spelling issue, we still have the problem of pronunciation. As I have said, there are variations in the sounds used in languages that often pose problems in trying to properly pronounce foreign words. Such is the case with the pronunciation of Jujutsu.

First, notice the macron (bar) over the “u” in “Ju”, indicating that it is not the typical English pronunciation of the vowel. Just as these symbols are used in a dictionary to clarify proper pronunciation, the macron is used here to indicate specifically how a native speaker of Japanese would pronounce the word for the particular kanji character.

In this case, the proper Japanese pronunciation is an elongated “u”, or more specifically, “u-u”, as if repeating the “u” a second time. You might say it is truly a “double-u” (w). Of course, it would make no sense to write it “Jw“, or even “Juu”, so it is written “Jjujutsu“, with the macron.

[Side Note: Based on its name, “double-u”, and the shape of the character “w“, one could logically assume that centuries ago, this “u-u” sound used in Japanese was the same exact pronunciation used for the English “w“, but let’s not get side-tracked.]

The closest approximation to the Japanese “u”, or “u-u”, would be the sound of the “oo”, as in “cool”. Unfortunately, many interpreted the “u” to be the same as the English pronunciation of a “long u”, resulting in a sound like the “u” in “unit”, making Jjujutsu rhyme with few, leading to jiu. (or it could be jew-jitsu, the Hebrew martial art.) but as we now know, that’s just wrong.

The second kanji character has been determined to have the spelling (and pronunciation) of “Jutsu”. Notice there is no macron over this “u”, so it does not carry the same sound as the “u” in “Ju”. As we have seen (or heard), the double “u” is longer than our “u”, but, the single “u” is actually shorter (that is, more abrupt) than ours. We would typically pronounce the “u” in a word like this as the “u” in “cut”, but this sound is much too gutteral for the correct Japanese pronunciation, and should be closer to the “u” in “put.” However, the short Japanese “u” is very abrupt, making it sound almost like an “i”, as in “hit”. That is where we got “Jitsu”.

That is an excerpt taken from Basically, the explanation of why Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is spelled this way is due to the most common spelling of the word around the early 20th century. And why is it that I always capitalize each “J” in the word? Because it is that important to me. It is like capitalizing “God.”
Hope you enjoy the article.

Now go train!

  1. Ben Shelby says:

    Wow! That’s really interesting stuff. What would be the IPA symbols for JuJutsu I wonder. I feel stupid that I’ve been pronouncing it wrong all this time.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I’m always interested in the origins of terms like this. I have noticed a lot of references to Japanese Ju Jutsu spelled like that and BJJ spelled Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It’s strange how languages are adapted across cultures and times and how each language seems to borrow and adapt from others.

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