Yawara Means

By Eric Minck

Yawara is a particular pronunciation of a Chinese ideograph or symbol picture that is used in various Asian martial arts. Strictly speaking, it is a logograph – a representation of a word or meaningful unit of language. However, in the context of martial arts, it represents an idea more than just a word, hence the term ideograph is probably more appropriate. A professional linguist might argue this point, but one good strike would settle the matter.

 This is a calligraphic rendering of the yawara ideograph.

Chinese characters are called hanzi in Mandarin. The hanzi were imported and modified by Japan and Korea, among other Asian countries, making them the most widely used writing system in the world and the oldest system in continuous use through all of human history. In Japanese they are called kanji, and the Koreans call them hanja. In the USA, we usually use the Japanese term, because kanji is the least unfamiliar of the three.

In Chinese dialects, a single character can have many meanings, sometimes distinguished by pronunciation, but more often by context. All Asian languages have become increasingly phonetic as a result of contact with the West, computerization, etc. The yawara pronunciation has generally been assigned to the symbol standing alone, and this association persists today.

If the yawara symbol is combined with other characters, its pronunciation changes dramatically. We will focus on the Japanese martial arts use for the sake of simplicity. In Judo and Jujutsu (Jujitsu), the ju- sound is the pronunciation used for the same character as that pronounced yawara when standing alone. The kanji has been called the “heart” of Judo. Years ago Jujutsu was called Yawarajutsu. Now the term yawara is applied to entry level training in anatomy, stance, balance, leverage, locks, and escapes.

Turning from pronunciation to what the symbol means, we enter an increasingly grey area. The most common literal translation is “soft,” the appropriateness of which to an obviously hard stick is not immediately apparent. Other translations include: yielding, pliable, flexible, and gentle. Clearly, this does not seem to be improving. One would think we were talking about bathroom tissue instead of a defensive device or a martial art.

The -jutsu in Jujutsu translates as “art” or “technique” or maybe even “style.” Jujutsu was developed by samurai during Japan’s feudal period as a way of defeating an armed and armored opponent when one did not have the matching offensive and defensive devices. The “secret” was to use the opponent’s force to his detriment, rather than trying to meet it head-on. Successful combat in such circumstances relied instead on joint locks, pins, throws, and perhaps a small weapon. Jujutsu means something like “unarmored art.” Similarly, Judo means something like “unarmored way.”

There is a sweet, “secret” appropriateness to the yawara character. It would be recognized for what it is in all three (and more) Asian languages, and, although speakers of each language know perfectly well what Judo and Jujutsu are, probably none of them would associate the stand-alone symbol with the martial arts. It would be seen as a common-use sign for softness. If Charmin sought an Asian market, that would be the right character to emblazon on the packages. Thus, the character pronounced as yawara suits the properly “hidden” nature of a yawara stick, as it does not whisper or even imply “weapon.” Does that make it a ninja weapon? Of course not. Ninja hid in shadows and hid all sorts of weapons.

When Prof. Frank Matsuyama appropriated yawara in 1948 to describe his vision of a palm or pocket stick, he did not do it thoughtlessly. He wanted the connotations of “martial” and “lesser weapon” for his own satisfaction, and he knew that his intended Western audience would have no idea of what the word meant and certainly would not associate it with bathroom tissue. Did he actually think all these details out consciously? Probably not, but who knows? In short, he did the best he could, and in retrospect, it passes muster.

At this point in time, yawara is sort of an orphaned word being frequently abused by a careless and clueless market. What is meant by the term yawara stick? “Unarmored stick” would be the closest real meaning, and this implies no metal while strongly suggesting wood. “Un-weapon stick” would be a good metaphorical approximation. Ultimately, it means what we make it mean going forward. Meaning can be gained in translation as well as lost. The philosophy and conduct of yawara stick users will, in the final analysis, determine what a yawara stick means.