Japanese history can be divided into eight periods:

  • The Ancient period, before 650 A.D
  • The Nara period, from 650 to 793 A.D
  • The Heian period, from 794 to 1191 A.D
  • The Kamakura period, from 1192 to 1336 A.D
  • The Muromachi or Ashikaga period, from 1337 to 1563 A.D
  • The Azuchi or Momoyama period, from 1564 to 1602 A.D
  • The Edo or Tokugawa period, from 1603 to 1867 A.D
  • The Modern or Meiji period, from 1868 to the present

The first account of jujitsu-like tactics in Japan dates to the Ancient period. In the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), a historical writing, there is an account of Nomino-Sukune wrestling with and finally kicking to death Tajima-no-Kehaya. This battle, which took place in 23 B.C., is usually credited with being the origin of sumai, a combat form of sumo wrestling that developed into several empty-hand styles of combat, jujitsu among them. 

During the Nara period, sumai and sumo were supported by the imperial family. These forms developed further in the Heian period and began to be used in conjunction with weapons, primarily the bow, spear, and sword. Atemi, the art of striking vital points of the body, was practiced with the butt ends of these weapons in close-quarter fighting. These techniques became a part of what would eventually be called jujitsu. Daito Ryu Jujitsu (or Aikijujitsu), a martial tradition (or ryu) that emerged during the later part of this period is the foundation on which modern aikido is based. 

During the Kamakura period, Japan's feudal era, the military class (or bushi) accelerated the development of grappling techniques, which are an important part of jujitsu. These techniques, used when the major weapon was lost, involved close-quarter fighting, especially with knives or short swords. Yoroi kumi-uchi was a form of grappling used against an opponent wearing full armor. Although these techniques were developed for armored combatants, the principles were readily transferable to unarmed and unarmored combat. 

The Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu was founded in the 1400s during the Muromachi period, making this tradition one of the oldest (and most influential) martial systems in Japan. It contained a form of grappling called yawara-ge ("peacemaker") that could be used independently of weapons, although it usually involved weapons such as the kodachi (a short sword) and was not preferred to the use of major weapons. Miyamoto Musashi, Japan's great swordsman, studied yawara-ge, to which he attributed his great skill in kakushi-jitsu, the art of using small, concealable weapons. Another martial system, the Muso-Jikiden Ryu, included 100 techniques for fighting in armor that were collectively called yawara-gi ("meekness"). Again, these techniques could be applied with or without a weapon. All of these arts contributed to what we today call jujitsu.

The Development of Jujitsu in Unarmed Combat

From 1467 until 1574, primarily during the Muromachi period, continual civil wars stimulated the development of all military arts. The techniques that would later become jujitsu were still secondary to the use of weapons, although they continued to augment the close-quarter use of weapons. For example, the Takenouchi Ryu (or Takeuchi Ryu), founded in 1532, included in-fighting techniques against an opponent clad in the light armor of gauntlets and leggings. These jujitsu-like techniques were called kogu soku or koshi no mawari (literally, "around the hips"). 

The Azuchi or Momoyama period was relatively peaceful. Presumably, empty-hand techniques continued to be developed. The term kumi-uchi eventually became the term for all the empty-hand arts of the period. 

The Edo or Tokugawa period was an important time for jujitsu. Commoners were prohibited from carrying weapons, so they turned to empty-hand forms of combat. During this period, the term jujitsu became associated with these forms and replaced the term kumi-uchi in general use. But commoners lacked the martial experience-the expertise with weapons from which the unarmed arts developed-and the instruction necessary to create combatively sound systems. These common forms of "jujitsu," such as they were, soon became the practice of criminals and of the nanushi, the "bouncers" in houses of prostitution. The bushi (or soldiers) continued to practice their fighting forms, but these were kept secret within the ryu, which was often restricted to family or clan members. Some schools of jujitsu also became more aesthetic during this time: they began to develop the practice of the art as a value in its own right, as a form of philosophical and spiritual discipline, as well as preparation for combat. 

Jujitsu was also simply called yawara during the Edo period. In the late 1600s, the Sekiguchi Ryu included a style of yawara based on sumo and suitable for use with weapons. The Oguri Ryu, founded in 1616, included techniques called wajitsu (the art of softness). These techniques were modified from those of yoroi kumi-uchi to be used against opponents wearing the street clothes of the Edo period. The Nagao Ryu included what it called taijitsu (body arts), a general term for empty-hand techniques that became popular among commoners in the period. This ryu was also noted for its kakushi-jitsu techniques.

The Development of Jujitsu as a Philosophical Discipline

Kito Ryu jujitsu was founded during the Edo period. This ryu, a system of combat-effective techniques, both armed and unarmed, is the foundation for much of Kodokan Judo, including modern sport judo. Eventually, the techniques became aesthetically oriented. Terada Kan'emon, the fifth headmaster of Kito Ryu, founded Jikishin Ryu jujitsu after he retired from the Kito Ryu. He is credited with the first use of the word judo and with establishing the practice of empty-hand techniques as a discipline with philosophical implications. 

In the early 1800s, Iso Mataemon founded the Tenjin Shin'yo Ryu. This ryu was completely devoted to jujitsu and emphasized atemi (strikes) and kata (form) in mastering the aesthetic and combat applications of jujitsu. From this time on, many martial arts also began to incorporate the concepts of Zen Buddhism into their teachings, thus formalizing the practice of the art as a philosophical discipline directed toward the Zen concept of enlightenment. Thus, kyujitsu (archery) began to include the practice of kyudo, an art devoted entirely to the discipline of drawing the bow and releasing the arrow, not necessarily to accurately placing arrows in a target. (In kyudo, the arrow is usually released into a target only two meters away.) So, too, did kenjitsu (sword-fighting) begin to include kendo (fencing with bamboo staves, now a competitive sport), and iaijitsu (drawing and cutting with the sword in indoor and urban settings) begin to include iaido (the art of sword drawing for form and technique). In contrast to the strictly martial orientation of the "jitsu" traditions, the "do" disciplines added a strong focus on how the art was practiced, in addition to (and sometimes instead of) the martial applications. 

The golden age of jujitsu lasted from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s. After this time the combat-effective forms of jujitsu rapidly disintegrated. Still, during this period, 725 different martial ryu included techniques that might be called jujitsu. 

In 1882, shortly after the beginning of the Meiji period, Jigoro Kano founded Kodokan Judo. Professor Kano studied many of the old jujitsu schools and became proficient in the Kito Ryu and Tenjin Shin'yo Ryu. Jujitsu was still associated with criminals and cheap exhibitions of fighting "skill." Professor Kano was principal of the Tokyo Higher Normal School and the first president of the Japan Society of Physical Education, in addition to being a jujitsu master. He made jujitsu a respectable form of physical education that was eventually taught in public schools throughout the country. He eliminated the obviously dangerous techniques, modified others so that they could be practiced safely, and developed a curriculum for teaching the techniques that resulted in what is called Kodokan Judo. Although he is remembered more for his development of sport judo, he also preserved many of the older jujitsu techniques. These techniques are still taught to higher-ranking students. He also established the ranking system used by many martial arts today, that of the kyu-dan (class-grade) system of 10 kyu or student ranks, which are generally indicated by colored belts or by colored tabs on belts, and 10 dan or black-belt instructor ranks, which are usually distinguished by different markings on a black or a red belt. 

Professor Kano adopted three ways to practice his system. First was kata (literally, "dance") or prearranged techniques to be practiced unhurriedly, smoothly, and gracefully to develop skill and coordination. Second was randori (free play), a more rigorous form of practice in which two partners helped each other to learn in a friendly exchange of throws, holds, chokes, and joint-locks. Third was shiai ("battle") or competition with rules. It is said that kata trains the body; randori trains the mind; and shiai trains the spirit.