I’m going to use the Romanization of “ju” for this, not “jiu”. The character in question is 柔. The reason is, it doesn’t matter, both jujitsu and jiu-jitsu are really 柔術. So when I say jujitsu in this post, you can feel free to have that include BJJ.
My understanding of the character and its meaning comes from various white guys much like myself trying to explain conceptually what judo/jujitsu is. The literal translation comes out as “gentle”, which is where we get the terms “the gentle way” and “the gentle art”. I don’t speak/read/write Japanese to know if that’s correct or not. What I do know is that “gentle” is a misnomer. It may be the literal translation, but some things don’t translate. A great example of this is to plug “schadenfreude” into Google translate. Schadenfreude apparently translates to “glee”, or if we want to be literal it’s “harm joy”, but when we do a dictionary look-up we get something along the lines of pleasure as a result of someone else’s misfortune. The closest thing we have in English is “sadism”, but even that isn’t the same thing.
So what is this concept of “ju” that doesn’t translate, or what’s a better English equivalent at least? Mark’s definition was that “gentle” is the opposite of “hard”, and it’s not the concept of being gentle, it’s the concept of doing something in the way which isn’t hard. So in that sense “lazy” or “easy” would be closer in meaning. Greg’s definition was that ju is the concept of “giving way”. For reference about what “giving way” seems to mean, you can check out the Wikipedia article about soft and hard martial arts. “Yielding”, well, it certainly is a lot closer than “gentle.” I really don’t like the notion of soft and hard martial arts because people get super sensitive about if their art is soft or not. “Soft” is another one of those misnomers for ju. When I think “soft” I think blankets, not triangle chokes.
My favorite interpretation to date is the notion that “maximum efficiency, minimum effort” is the concept of ju. To me, that’s the closest word we have in English – efficient. Jujitsu should be the “arts of efficiency” and judo the “way of efficiency”. The emphasis is on redirection, parrying, taking advantage of instants, and efficient movement. Think about BJJ, doesn’t “efficient” describe what we’re always trying to work toward? The jujitsu isn’t the submissions or even the positions, it’s all the stuff in between, and the difference between someone who’s okay and someone who is phenomenal is the efficiency of their control and transitions. I don’t care if you’ve got the best damn osoto gari in the world; if you don’t have an efficient way of setting it up, it’s never going to work.
When someone shows you an armbar from closed guard where they first transition to butterfly guard and then setup a sweep to fail to go for the armbar, your first question should be why they didn’t just throw the leg over and do a plain-old armbar from closed guard to begin with. There’s something Jesse from LapelChoke posted awhile back:
Did you ever roll with an old school black belt? They will pwn you with stuff you learned your third week, because in our new school Jiu Jitsu ways we tend to forget that guys like Royce beat multiple dudes in one night with armbars and RNCs. Here we have a super simple and effective knee tap sweep from half guard. You probably know everything here, now chain it together.
Jiu-jitsu is a game of fundamentals. In my opinion, a proper translation would do a lot for the community in terms of remembering their roots and knowing what to focus on. When I look at the overly complicated guards and submission setups of today all I can think is “that’s a hell of a lot of jitsu with absolutely no ju.” It’s the same for the Olympic level judo where people just stall out and play the rules.