柔術 is often rendered in English-speaking countries (and France, Germany, and Brazil) as "jiu-jitsu" or "ju-jitsu", even though the actual Hepburn romanization is "jūjutsu".

Wiktionary's page on 柔術 writes:

柔術 (hiragana じゅうじゅつ, rōmaji jūjutsu, historical hiragana じうじゆつ)

The historical hiragana here explains how we get the "jiu" in "jiu-jitsu", but then shouldn't it be jiujiutsu, not jiujitsu? Does rendering it as "jitsu" have any basis in historical Japanese pronunciation or orthography, or is it a corruption by speakers of European languages?

3 Answers 3


I'm not very familiar with the diffusion process of jujitsu, but the practice to read 術 somewhat like じつ exists(ed) in the traditional Tokyo dialect.

Japanese WP says:

  • 「じゅ」が「じ」、「しゅ」が「し」に転訛する。(例)準備→じんび、美術→びじつ、新宿→しんじく、趣向←→嗜好

This is a well-known phenomenon: //u// in Eastern dialects is generally unrounded, so a weakened //ju// could be indistinguishable or even merged with //i//, under the influence of the palatal //j//.

Since the modern standard language is based deeply on the native Tokyo pronunciation in phonetics, this feature has been near-officially received in Standard Japanese. However, along with the decline of "pure" Tokyo accent, the pronunciation has almost faded out even in Greater Tokyo in our generation (together with 鼻濁音 etc). I myself only occasionally hear such accent from senior speakers (≧ 50s?).

I found a document that NHK (the national broadcaster) decided to abandon a recommendation that tolerated the shift of //ju// to //i// (originally defined in 1960).

Thus, it is quite possible that those who disseminated jujitsu actually pronounced the word in that way themselves, and so is it transcribed naturally.

  • Very cool background, and many thanks for the link to the NHK page. Jun 26, 2019 at 21:03
  • As noted in the comments on another post, this Tokyo-dialect merger of じゅ and じ seems like an extension of the so-called 四【よ】つがな phenomenon, where //i// and //u// are perceived as allophones (essentially, equivalent sounds) in some words. See also the "Yotsugana" article on Wikipedia. Dec 16, 2020 at 21:43

The history of the character's readings

Let's look at the historical and reconstructed pronunciations of 術:

Old Chinese reconstruction:

Middle Chinese reconstruction, the hypothesized source of modern Chinese dialectal readings, and Japanese and Korean borrowed readings:

  • //ʑiuɪt̚//*

Modern Chinese dialects:


  • //sul//


  • じゅつ //d͡ʑut͡su//
    The goon (the older reading)
  • ずち //zut͡ɕi//
    Alternative goon reading (very rare, I don't think I've ever encountered it)
  • しゅつ //ɕut͡su//
    The kan'on (a slightly more recent borrowing)

Almost all of these are centered on a core vowel value of roughly //u//. Even the outlier Cantonese has an //o//, a back-of-the-mouth sound not too far from //u//.

Phonology, and some of what happens when words are borrowed

In the modern English term jiujitsu, we have a long vowel in the first syllable, and a short vowel in the second. The stress is also on the first syllable, leaving the second syllable a bit lax.

Unstressed vowels in English have a tendency to gravitate towards the front of the mouth, often producing actually-spoken vowel values like [[ɪ]] (the short "i" like in hit), [[ɛ]] (the short "e" sound like in bed), or [[ə]] (the so-called "schwa" sound like the "u" in but or the initial "a" in about). So a shift in the pronunciation of this unstressed second syllable in jiujitsu is not surprising.

The う in Japanese, meanwhile, has an //u// sound that is more towards the front of the mouth, and less open, than the English //u//. Strictly speaking, phonologists sometimes transcribe this as [[ɨ]] or [[ʉ]]. This sound, especially when short, may come across to English-speakers' ears as something closer to that short [[ɪ]] like in hit. So that short う sound in the じゅつ of じゅうじゅつ, when heard by an English speaker, is predisposed to gravitate towards a short [[ɪ]], producing the odd jiujitsu or jujitsu spellings we see today.

  • 2
    I would say jiu jitsu with the accent seen here: /dʒuːˈdʒɪtsuː/ Maybe that's my American English accent.
    – Leebo
    Jun 25, 2019 at 23:07
  • @Leebo, interesting, I'd more often heard it like //ˈdʒuːdʒɪtsuː//. Grew up close to Washington DC. I'd be curious if that's a shift after borrowing? It seems that the pitch for the Japanese term is either pattern 0 (no downstep, first mora low pitch, the rest high and gradually falling) or pattern 1 (first mora high pitch, then a downstep and the rest low). From what I've seen, pattern 1 often parses to English speakers as stress on the first syllable. That said, the second syllable is still short, which might be enough for the shift, regardless of stress. Jun 25, 2019 at 23:41
  • Ah, I grew up in Connecticut, though I have no particular affinity for martial arts, and thus didn't really discuss it particularly often. I'm not sure if there are any regional trends.
    – Leebo
    Jun 26, 2019 at 0:35

Pronunciation of じゅ

In Japanese, the "u" vowel /ɯ/ has a centralized allophone [ɨ] (sometimes written [ɯ̈]) when occurring after /z/ and palatalised consonants /Cj/.1 This is 'halfway between' the standard Japanese vowels /i/ and /ɯ/ (and close to the English vowel /ɪ/ in e.g. hit).

Hence じゅ is commonly realized as [d͡ʑɨ] (as opposed to [d͡ʑɯᵝ]). It may be because of this (and the contrast of its shortness with the first 'stronger' うう in 柔) that some romanizations of the early 20th century transliterated the word as jitsu.

As broccoli forest notes, the Shitamachi dialect fronts [d͡ʑu͍] to [d͡ʑi], and in the Tōhoku dialect /i/ and /ɯ/ are neutralized generally.

  1. One encounters a centralized allophone [ɯ̈] after /s/, /t/, /z/, and after the palatal consonants (Cy), for example in the word gyuunyuuo 'milk' [gjɯ̈:njɯ̈:].
    The Phonology of Japanese, Labrune (p.25)

Early romanizations of 柔術

Note that while the Hepburn romanization jujutsu was established as early as 1872,2 this was not an ubiquitous system at the time, and even less so in works printed outside of Japan. The earliest English references to jujutsu appear in the Japan Weekly Mail, where it is spelled jitsu:

Jiu jitsu (wrestling) is also taught, but not much practised by gentlemen.

This article also contains reference to a number of other Japanese disciplines, all with the same spelling: Gei jitsu, Ba jitsu, Ken jitsu, Ho jitsu, San jitsu.

While there was a mix of jutsu/jitsu spellings in the 1880's and 1890's,3 a number of popular English books on the subject were published around 1900 which used the jitsu spelling:

Looking at the google n-grams data, it appears this is around the time that this orthography began to gain widespread usage outside of Japan:

enter image description here

  1. Jū-jutsu, ジウジユツ, 柔術, n. The art of wrestling, or throwing others by sleight.
    Syn. yawara, jidori, sumōtori.
    Wrestling, n. Sumō, jidori, yawara, jūjutsu
    Japanese-English and English-Japanese Dictionary by J. C. Hepburn (1872)


As you speculate, before the widespread adoption of Hepburn the expected form jiu was indeed occasionally used:

Chin-jiutsu-sho.......... 陳 述 書

The Chrysanthemum, Volume 1 (1881)

| Jiutsu-gawa, 76, 491.

... the Japanese wrestling game of jiu—jiutsu, which physically demonstrates that if you yield at opportune moments you may turn your adversary's force to your own end and advantage.

With the quickness that came of long training in the “Jiujiutsu” school he ran in under the weapon and knocked out his adversary's wind with his head, catching him round the waist and throwing him heavily backward.


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