Which is it? Jūjutsu, Ju-Jitsu, or Jiu-Jitsu.

Why are there different spellings for one word?
It makes sense to us that there should only be one ‘correct‘ translation with all others being ‘incorrect‘. The idea that multiple spellings can all be right seems counter-intuitive yet nearly every variation has been used to some degree at different times in history. All of them are correct and incorrect at the same time, and the reason why is surprisingly more complex than you might expect.

To explain why we have written two answers; A short version for those of you in a rush to get an answer, and a long version that tries to explain it all in better detail.

The short answer.

  • Both Japanese and English are complex languages that have evolved over time. Both languages have a ‘standardised’ or ‘official’ version of the language which is taught in schools and used by people today.
  • There are two methods for translating from Japanese to English. One which takes how a word sounds in Japanese and matching it to the appropriate English letters, while the other does the opposite starting with English sounds and matching them to the appropriate Japanese letters.

So if there is standard Japanese, standard English and official methods of translation, then surely there must be an official and definitive answer, right?

That would be too easy.

The first problem is which system of translation to use. The Japanese government’s official method is the ‘Kunrei-shiki’ system, which gives us “jyûjyutsu“. Most other parts of the world on the other hand use the ‘Modified Hepburn’ system, which gives us “jūjutsu“.

Secondly we have to consider when the translation took place. When the American’s landed in Edo bay (modern day Tokyo) in 1853 there weren’t any direct methods of translating Japanese to English. Instead they had to use Dutch, Chinese or Russian as a ‘middleman’ language. It wasn’t until the Hepburn system was first introduced in 1867 that direct Japanese to English translations could take place.

In short, the translation you got depended on when the translation took place, who translated it and which method of translation they used. As a result we have a myriad of different spellings, some of which went on to be associated with specific types of Jujitsu.

  • Ju-Jitsu” or “Jujitsu” is most often used in Europe to refer to the traditional Japanese martial art.
  • Jūjutsu” is preferred in the Americas when referring to the same art.
  • Jiu-jitsu” is most associated with the modern Brazilian martial art ‘Brazilian Jiu-jitsu‘, which itself is actually an offshoot of Judo.
  • Jyûjyutsu” isn’t really used in the martial arts community, but it has seen some use in academic and historic circles.

The long answer.
While this is the long answer it is still somewhat condensed to give you a broader idea of things. There are three main facts to consider here. How the English and Japanese languages work, how they are transliterated and regional variations to those transliterations. We will start with how the languages work.

1) Some basics on languages.
Scripts are the sets of written characters (letters) that make up an alphabet, and multiple languages may use the same script(s). For example English, French and German all use the Latin letters A-Z alongside the Arabic numerals 0-9. Many European languages use Diacritics which are the various symbols used above vowels to indicate a different vowel quality. For example, the letter ‘a‘ might become ‘à‘, ‘á‘, ‘â‘, ‘ã‘, ‘ä‘, ‘å‘ or ‘æ‘. Diacritics aren’t commonly used in English but they are in French and German.

Generally speaking, the languages’ with larger scripts have more phonemes, which are the perceptually distinct units of sound in a language that distinguish one word from another. In other words, every letter will have it’s own unique sound, and some letter will get combined to add more sounds. For example, “c” and “h” can become “ch“.
All languages will have common phonemes that are used frequently, as well as lesser used phonemes that aren’t. While two vastly different languages may share some phonemes, there will be some that are more common in one language than the other, and some phonemes may be missing entirely from one of the languages.

English has just one script, but Japanese has three scripts; ‘Kanji‘, ‘Hiragana‘, and ‘Katakana‘. To quote Wikipedia:

The modern Japanese writing system uses a combination of logographic kanji, which are adopted Chinese characters, and syllabic kana.
Kana itself consists of a pair of syllabaries: hiragana, used primarily for native or naturalised Japanese words and grammatical elements, and katakana, used primarily for foreign words and names, loanwords, onomatopoeia, scientific names, and sometimes for emphasis. Almost all written Japanese sentences contain a mixture of kanji and kana. Because of this mixture of scripts, in addition to a large inventory of kanji characters, the Japanese writing system is often considered to be one of the most complicated in use anywhere in the world.

Another helpful resource on this matter is this video by Academia Cervena:

Direct link for mobile readers – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7a8OjvViwE

If it wasn’t clear from the quote or video, the Hiragana and Katakana are both in effect scripts dedicated to phonemes. This means that it is easier to transliterate words written in either Hiragana or Katakana into another language. But what about words written in Kanji? After all, “Jujitsu” is a noun so it would be written using Kanji. Thankfully any word that is normally written in Kanji can also be written in either Hiragana or Katakana, by in effect spelling it phonetically then matching those sounds to the appropriate English letters.

2) Transliteration, Romanisation and ‘Rōmaji’.
Let’s start this off by clarifying the differences between Translation and Transliteration:

  • A translation tells you the meaning of words in another language, for example that “道場” means “training space“.
  • Transliteration changes the letters from one alphabet or language into the corresponding, similar-sounding characters of another alphabet. So for example that “道場” is pronounced “dōjō“. Transliteration doesn’t tell you the meaning of the words, but it helps you pronounce them.
  • Romanisation or Latinisation is specifically transliterating a language into the Roman/Latin script, which is what English uses.
  • When Japanese words are romanised, we call those words ‘Rōmaji‘ as they are ‘Romanised Kanji‘, though this term applies equally to Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana. In fact all three of these words are Rōmaji themselves.

In the short answer we said that there are 2 main methods of romanisation, but the more accurate answer is that there are two families of methods, with a few additional methods that have been invented in more recent years. For the sake of this essay though we will only focus on the main two, The ‘Hepburn’ system and the ‘Shiki’ system.

The Hepburn system:

  • Traditional Hepburn – This was first used in 1867 by American James Curtis Hepburn when he published the first modern Japanese-English dictionary. This 1st edition did not provide any instructions on how to romanise words. It was not until the 3rd edition published in 1886 that the formal Hepburn system was introduced to the wider public. It did so by matching English phonemes to Japanese script.
  • Modified Hepburn – In 1908, the ‘Society for the Propagation of Romanization‘ led by educator Kanō Jigorō, published a version of the Hepburn system with updated revisions, which is known today as the “modified Hepburn”.
  • Revised Hepburn – Later in 1972 a revised version of the system was introduced, updating with the times to reflect contemporary usage. This version did not see any widespread use due to the overwhelming popularity of the Kunrei-shiki at this point, and was eventually retired in 1994.
  • This system was not officially used by the Japanese government until 1945 (using the ‘Modified’ system) when it was imposed on them by the occupying American forces after Japans’ surrender at the end of World War 2.
  • For some added confusion, the 1908 ‘modified’ system is sometimes called the ‘revised’ system, which means it is often confused with its later 1972 variant.

The “Shiki”* system:

  • Nihon-shiki – First developed in 1885 by Japanese physicist Professor Tanakadate Aikitsu, it was implemented as a replacement to the then unpublished Hepburn romanisation system. Unlike the Hepburn system, the Nihon-shiki matched Japanese phonemes to the English script. “Nihon-shiki” translates to “Japanese style“.
  • Kunrei-shiki – In 1930 the Japanese government set out to pick an official method of romanisation, eventually deciding in 1937 to use an updated version of the Nihon-shiki system, which became known as the “Kunrei-shiki” system as “Kunrei-shiki” translates to “cabinet order style” (as in ‘the government mandated style‘). This new system was updated to reflect the then contemporary language used amongst the Japanese populace, and was in use between 1937 and 1945.
  • In 1954 the Japanese government re-adopted the Kunrei-shiki, and it was updated again to match the contemporary usage of the time. As it is also ‘the government mandated style‘ it shares its name with the previous Kunrei-shiki, though they are in effect 2 slightly different versions.
  • The Nihon-shiki was never used by the Japanese government as an official method of romanisation, but a large number of private industries and companies adopted it to help facilitate international trade.
  • * This family of systems is not actually called the “Shiki” systems, as we have established that “shiki” means “style“. We have only used this term to group the Nihon-shiki and Kunrei-shiki systems together.

We mentioned earlier that any word that is normally written in Kanji can also be written in either Hiragana or Katakana, by in effect spelling it phonetically then matching those sounds to the appropriate English letters. It follows therefore that how a Japanese person pronounced a word influenced how they spelt it as well. Which brings us to the 3rd factor – regional dialects.

3) The internal language barrier.
At this point we should clarify the difference between ‘languages’, ‘dialects’ and ‘accents’, and for this we’ll use this video by Babbel:

Direct link for mobile readers – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxR2188FvLE

Japan did not have a standardised form of Japanese when the Americans landed in Edo Bay (modern day Tokyo) in 1853. Depending on how you count dialects, there were between 14 and 47 dialects of Japanese spoken in Japan. The main differences between the dialects are generally matters of pitch accents, use of inflections, vocabulary and the use of particles. There are instances where they differ even in how they use vowels and consonants.

All languages evolve over time with regional accents developing around large population centres such as towns and cities. As the people in a country move around and come into contact with others from neighbouring regions, so does the way they use language. These will generally merge into a common language. Japan is no different in this regard however it was common in feudal Japan for the local Diamyō (lord) to restrict the movement of people to and from other fiefs.

Japans landscape and climate also hindered this process. With over 6,000 mountainous islands travelling between territories was hard enough before you remember that the country is susceptible to a variety of natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis (another Rōmaji word), typhoons, and mud slides.

These combined factors made travel in the then undeveloped country very hard. As the local dialects could not merge into a common language, each region developed its own form of the language, which led to the high number of them present by 1853. Neighbouring prefectures (states) were often able to communicate with each other, while prefectures on opposite sides of the country would have difficulty. To use English counties as an example, a person from Cornwall would be able to communicate with someone from Devon, but would struggle to communicate with someone from Norfolk or Yorkshire.

Attempts were made in the late 1800s to standardise Japanese writing, including various reforms being introduced in 1900 but those reforms were abandoned by 1908. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 1940s that Japan gained a nationalised standard form of writing came into effect. The regional dialects were grouped together into 7 major dialects, with ‘standard Japanese’ being one of them. At this point in time the Hepburn system was the ‘official’ system in use, though even then it was not used by everyone. Various private industries and government departments were already using variations of either the Hepburn or Shiki systems to conduct business and trade.

The end result?
This all means that between 1853 and 1946, nearly 100 years, if you were to ask a Japanese citizen to transliterate a Japanese word into English, the answer they gave you would depend on where in the country they lived, when that person went to school, and what industry they worked in. And to some degree this is still the case.

While standard Japanese is now in place and the Kunrei-Shiki is the official system in Japan, both the Hepburn and Kunrei-Shiki systems are still in use today. Each has it’s strengths and weaknesses for both native Japanese speakers and foreigners learning Japanese. The Kunrei-Shiki tends to be favoured by Japanese people learning to speak English while the Hepburn system is favoured by those learning Japanese. The Nihon-shiki has traditionally been used by businesses that conduct international trade, though over time it’s use has faded in favour of updated systems.

Part of the reason the Nihon-shiki held on for so long was due to the financial cost to a business of retraining its staff and updating all of their formal documents used for trading. Many businesses simply ignored the official Kunrei-Shiki as the old Nihon-shiki systems are very similar so it was seen as ‘good enough’ to use the older Nihon-shiki.
This could be compared to the use of Imperial units of measurement in the UK despite the fact the UK government switched to the Metric system in 1985. People stuck with what they already knew and were familiar with, rather than learning a new system.

And as we said the Kunrei-Shiki is the official system in Japan, but other countries still use the Hepburn system instead.

Does it matter?
Depending on who you ask it either does or does not matter, as some people care about ‘correct’ usage more than others. As we discussed before certain spellings do get used in certain areas to refer to specific things, so occasionally there is a right spelling to use, especially when comparing more than one type of Jujitsu.

One point of contention that emerges when discussing Jujitsu is weather or not to use separate spellings to differentiate between ‘Koryū‘ and ‘Gendai budō‘ versions, as these are legally defined and protected in Japan. As a reminder, “Koryū” translates to “old school” and is used to refer to any historical style of martial art that existed before the Meiji Restoration of 1868. A “Gendai budō” is any “new school” created after this time, even if the syllabus taught is identical to that of an koryū school. By this definition, the WJJF is a “Gendai budō” style.

There are arguments to be made that because the ‘Hepburn’ system is the most commonly used system for translation globally, that it is the de facto method and thus the one that should be used. The counter argument to this is that the ‘shiki’ system was designed by the Japanese which gives them an inherent authority on the matter as no one knows the Japanese language like the Japanese people themselves.

In the end, the only advice we can give is to go with the consensus in whatever forum you find Jujitsu being discussed. If people want to argue about spellings, you can now educate them or simply direct them here.

Further reading: