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A brief history of Jiu-Jitsu

Last Updated: 13.04.19


In its modern form, jiu-jitsu originates from Japan, despite the fact that its origins can arguably be traced to the Buddhist monks of India. Designed as a close-combat fighting style for the Japanese samurai who might have found themselves disarmed and on foot, as totally opposed to their legendary image of heavy, armed soldiers on horseback, jiu-jitsu is a form of martial art whose purpose is to defeat an armed and/or armoured opponent without using a weapon or using just a short weapon.

The following lines will provide you with a brief history of jiu-jitsu so that you can better understand its origins and style of combat.

The history of jiu-jitsu practice began around the Sengoku period of the Muromachi period, using a combination of various martial arts to employ in close combat situations on the battlefield where weapons were ineffective.

As opposed to China or Okinawa, which relied heavily on striking techniques, Japan accentuated through jiu-jitsu a form of hand-to-hand combat centered on throwing, immobilizing, joint locks and choking, striking being ineffective on an armored enemy.

Another reason for the use of these tactics was that the samurai’s armor restricted his mobility and agility. Takenouchi-Ryu, one of the original forms of jiu-jitsu, also taught the art of parrying and counter-attacking long weapons like swords or spears with the aid of a dagger or another small weapon.

In the context of the history of jiu-jitsu in japan, it would continue to evolve during the Edo period in the early seventeenth century, its evolution being facilitated by the strict laws imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate.

These laws drew heavy inspiration from the learnings of Neo-Confucianism, which advocated the significant reduction of war. As a direct result, weapons and armor became simple decorative objects, with hand-to-hand combat flourishing as the main form of self-defense; in consequence, new techniques were designed, to adapt to the changing situation of unarmored opponents.

Towards the eighteenth century, however, the number of striking techniques that had been introduced in jiu-jitsu was significantly reduced, with strikes meant to distract or unbalance the opponent, creating a favorable situation for a joint lock, strangle or throw. Interestingly enough, during the peacetime of that period, the numerous jiu-jitsu schools would challenge each other to duels, this practice becoming rapidly a popular pastime in which no fatalities occurred, accidental or not.

Another point of interest is that the actual term of “jujutsu” was not coined until the seventeenth century, after which time it started to be used in describing a wide variety of grappling-related disciplines and techniques.

In jiu-jitsu, the basic methods of attack include hitting or striking, thrusting or punching, kicking, throwing, pinning or immobilizing, strangling, and joint locking. The classic warriors took the time and care to also develop effective methods of defense, including parrying or blocking strikes, thrusts and kicks, receiving throws or joint locking techniques (for instance, falling safely and knowing how to “blend” to neutralize a technique’s effect), releasing oneself from an enemy’s grasp, and changing or shifting one’s position to evade or neutralize an attack. The word “jujutsu” can be separated into two parts: “Ju” is a concept, whose meaning is “to be gentle,” “to give way,” “to yield,” “to blend” or “to move out of harm’s way.” “Jutsu” is the principle or “the action” part. In Japanese, this word denotes science or art.

Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, jiu-jitsu had become fractured in several styles; still, the element of unity continued to be represented by the different hand-to-hand combat techniques used.

During the 1880s, a young jiu-jitsu practitioner named Jigoro Kano developed his own school of martial arts which stressed the full-power practice against skilled and resisting opponents, a deviation that later evolved into what would become judo. The effective start of the history of Brazilian jiu-jitsu was marked by the opening of the first jiu-jitsu / judo school in 1909, by Geo Omori.

In November 1914, a student of Kano named Mitsuo Maeda arrived in Brazil at the behest of his master, being aided by local politician George Gracie; as a token of gratitude, Maeda taught Carlos, George’s son, jiu-jitsu. Carlos had witnessed a demonstration by Maeda in 1917 and had decided to learn judo. After learning for a few years, Carlos shared his knowledge to his brothers, with whom he opened the first jiu-jitsu academy in Brazil in 1925.

Carlos and one of his brothers, Helio, refined the art of jiu-jitsu by focusing on submission ground fighting, which allowed a smaller person to defend and defeat a larger attacker successfully. The actual reorientation of judo towards a form of jiu-jitsu centered on ground fighting, dubbed the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, was the merit of Helio, which was unable to perform many judo moves that implied direct opposition to the strength of the opponent.

The Gracie family wasn’t the only lineage for the development of Brazilian jiu-jitsu thanks to Maeda; another direction originated in the work and teachings of another one of his disciples, Luiz Franca, who had studied with Geo Omori, as well.

In the early 1990s, a descendant of Carlos, Rorion, moved from Brazil to Los Angeles, hoping to popularize his family’s fighting system in the United States. Together with Art Davies, he succeeded in bringing the mixed martial arts style in the spotlight, especially after his brother Royce defeated four opponents during the first edition of the “Ultimate Fighting Championship,” an event organized by Rorion and Art.

Today, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the most popular and fastest growing martial art in the world, with thousands of jiu-jitsu academies spread across the globe. As a sport, the first governing body was the Jiu-Jitsu Federation of Guanabara. The most renowned body is currently the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Foundation, which runs yearly competitions; another prestigious body is represented by the Sports Jiu-Jitsu International Federation (SJJIF).



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