The Jo is a Japanese weapon, a short wooden staff with round cross-section, roughly 50 inches in length and an inch in diameter. (There are variations in the dimensions.) In Japan they have been traditionally made of white or red oak. It is one of the simplest of the weapons that are still studied as part of Japanese kobudo, or weapons training. (The exact translation of “kobudo” is “the old way of the warrior.”) My research has not uncovered any Okinawan roots to the modern Jo, so I will consider it strictly a Japanese weapon. (Of course, practically everywhere in the world, wooden sticks of varying sizes were no doubt developed and used as weapons beginning in ancient times.)
The kanji for “Jo” is understood by modern speakers of Japanese to mean walking stick or cane, as in something one uses to support oneself or, interestingly, for doling out corporal punishment. This gives some hint as to what makes the Jo perhaps a more practical weapon to study in modern times than, say, a sword or a 6-foot staff.
This is not to say that a sensei can use the Jo to punish his students! However, it is one of the weapons used by Japanese riot police. The police combat system using the short staff is called kei-jo-jutsu. It was created after World War II, during the American occupation, as part of a larger adoption of techniques from the martial arts to help police cope with the large amount of violent crime in the chaotic wake of the surrender.
Unsurprisingly, the Japanese have some mythology associated with the origins of the Jo and techniques for wielding it. It is said to have been devised by a samurai named Muso Gonnosuke Katsuyoshi, According to history, he met the legendary swordsman and all-around expert in fighting strategy Miyamoto Musashi in a duel around 1610 and was soundly defeated (although not seriously hurt). He then retreated to the mountains to meditate and reconsider his fighting methods. After 37 days, while praying before a shrine, he collapsed and received a divine visitation (in the form of a child) who gave him the inspiration for creating a fighting system based on a short staff. He later founded a school dedicated to the art of the short staff, called Shinto Muso-ryu jojutsu, which exists to this day.
One version of the story says that Gonnosuke and Musashi met a second time, this time with Gonnosuke prevailing in the duel, using the short staff. This story is apparently only promoted by Shinto Muso-ryu schools; all other accounts of Musashi say that he was never defeated in a duel.
Today the vast majority of Jo practitioners do so through aikijo, which is the use of the weapon in conjunction with aikido practice. The founder of aikido, Ueshiba Morihei, developed a series of techniques using the Jo that help to reveal errors in his students’ practice, and provide an opportunity to apply the principles of aikido using the staff as an extension of the student’s hands and arms. Aikijo also includes paired practice and kata. Here’s a fun 1-minute example:
The Jo is a great weapon for karate students to learn and practice with, for several reasons. One is that its relatively small size and weight makes it easier for smaller or weaker people to wield effectively. It also requires less floor space to practice than, say, a longer staff or a naginata. Its techniques are similar to those used with a sword, spear, and club. But its light weight and blunt edges mean that it can more easily be used in a non-lethal manner, to block or trap or temporarily disable an attacker or attackers. As with aikido, it can also be used as an extension of one’s arms to improve techniques and body movement (tai sabaki).
Another advantage is that, in a dire situation in which actual weapons are not at hand with which to defend oneself, things like a cane, walking stick, or tree branch can also be wielded using Jo techniques.
For these reasons, Shuto Karate Club-Sellersville children’s class will soon be learning the use of the Jo.