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A Brief History Of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: From Japan, to Brazil, to the United States

What Is Jiu Jitsu?


Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), a martial art that emphasizes ground fighting and submission holds, has risen from its humble beginnings to become a global phenomenon. Its roots can be traced back to the samurai of Japan, evolving through time and across continents, adapting and refining into the sport we recognize today. BJJ's journey from the battlefields of feudal Japan to the mats of modern dojos around the world is a testament to its effectiveness, adaptability, and the cultural exchanges that have shaped martial arts throughout history. This blog post will delve into the origins of Jiu Jitsu in Japan, the creation of Judo and its transformation into a global martial discipline, the socio-economic forces that led to Japanese immigration to Brazil, and how these events collectively influenced the rise of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. We will also explore the spread of Jiu Jitsu in America before the term "Brazilian" was prefixed to it, highlighting the pivotal role of the Gracie family, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and the subsequent explosion of local competitions and gyms that have popularized this martial art across the United States.


The Origins of Jiu Jitsu in Japan


Judo Class in Ancient Japan

The roots of Jiu Jitsu—or jūjutsu, meaning "gentle art" in Japanese—lie deep within the martial traditions of feudal Japan. Originally developed for samurai warriors, Jiu Jitsu encompassed a variety of techniques designed for close combat, including joint locks, throws, and strikes. These techniques allowed a warrior to defend themselves without weapons, proving invaluable in situations where swords could not be drawn or had been lost in battle. The adaptability and efficiency of Jiu Jitsu made it a cornerstone of samurai combat training.


As the era of the samurai waned with the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century, Jiu Jitsu faced a period of decline. The shift towards a more Westernized, peaceful society meant traditional martial arts were no longer as relevant to daily life. It was during this time of transformation that Jigoro Kano, a young man with a deep respect for martial traditions, emerged as a pivotal figure. Kano sought to preserve the essence of Jiu Jitsu while adapting it to the changing times. In 1882, he founded Kodokan Judo, a martial art that focused on the principle of "maximum efficiency, minimum effort" (Seiryoku Zen'yō) and "mutual welfare and benefit" (Jita Kyoei). Judo was designed not just as a form of physical education, but as a way of life, emphasizing discipline, respect, and personal growth. Kano's view's are best represented very well in his book, Mind Over Muscle.


Kano's Judo quickly gained popularity, becoming a symbol of Japan's modernization and cultural pride. By emphasizing randori (free practice) and shiai (competition), Judo distinguished itself from the traditional jūjutsu systems, which were often taught in a more rigid, kata (form) based format. This evolution marked the beginning of martial arts as a means of personal and physical development, beyond mere combat training.


The Creation of Judo and Its Philosophies


Judo in the Olympics

Jigoro Kano's establishment of Judo was revolutionary, not just in the techniques it refined or introduced, but in its underlying philosophies. Kano believed in the development of character through Judo, advocating for a balance between physical education and moral virtue. This holistic approach was encapsulated in his two guiding principles: "maximum efficiency, minimum effort" and "mutual welfare and benefit." The former principle taught practitioners to use leverage and timing to overcome opponents, promoting efficiency in both martial arts and daily life. The latter emphasized cooperation and respect, advocating that the benefits of Judo training extend to society at large.


Kano also played a crucial role in the internationalization of martial arts. He was instrumental in getting Judo included in the Olympic Games, a testament to his vision of Judo as a global sport and educational tool. His efforts laid the groundwork for the global spread of Japanese martial arts, influencing not just the development of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but the entire landscape of modern martial arts.


Japanese Immigration to Brazil


The early 20th century saw a significant wave of Japanese immigration to Brazil, a movement driven by both push and pull factors. In Japan, rapid modernization and population growth had led to unemployment, poverty, and land scarcity. Meanwhile, Brazil sought to increase its agricultural workforce to cultivate coffee, its major export commodity, after the end of slavery in Brazil.


The Brazilian government, along with private enterprises, encouraged Japanese immigration by offering subsidized travel and land for farming. This mutually beneficial arrangement led to the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in Brazil in 1908, marking the beginning of a significant cultural exchange that would eventually introduce Judo and Jiu Jitsu to Brazilian shores.


As the Japanese community in Brazil grew, they brought with them their traditions, customs, and martial arts. Among these immigrants was Mitsuyo Maeda, a Kodokan Judo expert who had traveled the world demonstrating his skills. Maeda's journey to Brazil was part of a larger Japanese effort to spread their culture and martial arts globally. Settling in Brazil, Maeda became instrumental in the cross-cultural exchange that led to the birth of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.


The Rise of Jiu Jitsu in Brazil


Mitsuyo Maeda's arrival in Brazil in 1914 was a pivotal moment in the history of martial arts in the country. Known as "Conde Koma" (Count Combat) in the fighting world, Maeda was a direct student of Jigoro Kano and had adapted his Judo expertise to excel in no-gi (without the traditional uniform) combat, a style more akin to the ancient Jiu Jitsu. Maeda's demonstrations and fights across the Americas had garnered him fame and respect, and upon settling in Brazil, he began teaching Judo.


One of Maeda's most eager students was Carlos Gracie, the eldest son of Gastão Gracie, a Brazilian scholar and politician who had helped Maeda establish himself in Brazil. Carlos, along with his brothers, notably Helio Gracie, adapted and refined the techniques taught by Maeda to suit their physical attributes and philosophy, focusing more on ground fighting and submissions. This adaptation process marked the birth of what is now known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ).


The Gracie family's dedication to developing and proving the effectiveness of their martial art led to the establishment of the first Gracie Jiu Jitsu academy in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s. The Gracies issued the famous "Gracie Challenge," inviting practitioners of other martial arts to fight in order to prove the superiority of BJJ. These challenges, along with the Gracies' participation in no-holds-barred matches, helped to popularize BJJ across Brazil. The rise of Jiu Jitsu in Brazil is explored in the Opening Closed Guard, which presents a series of interviews between Robert Drysdale and prominent members of the Jiu-Jitsu community in Brazil.


Early History of Jiu Jitsu in America


Before the term "Brazilian Jiu Jitsu" became a hallmark of martial arts recognition, Jiu Jitsu and Judo had already established their roots in America, brought over by Japanese immigrants and itinerant martial artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These martial arts found initial footholds within Japanese-American communities and among a modest group of American aficionados. This period of cultural and martial arts exchange, however, was impacted by geopolitical and social dynamics, notably the "Gentlemen's Agreement" of 1907 between the United States and Japan.


Aimed at reducing tensions between the two nations, this agreement resulted in Japan agreeing not to issue passports to its citizens for travel to the U.S. as laborers, effectively curtailing the influx of Japanese immigrants. This reduction in new arrivals contributed to a slowdown in the spread of Japanese martial arts, including Jiu Jitsu and Judo, as fewer practitioners were entering the country. Consequently, the perception of Jiu Jitsu in America before the Brazilian influence took hold in the 1990s was largely confined to its representation in popular media and its application in law enforcement and military training, rather than being widely recognized as a sport or a comprehensive martial art system.


The Rise of Jiu Jitsu in America and the Gracie Family’s Role


The real catalyst for the rise of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in America was the establishment of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993. The UFC was conceived as a no-holds-barred fighting tournament to determine the most effective martial art in real combat situations. Royce Gracie, representing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, won the first UFC tournament, showcasing the effectiveness of BJJ against larger and stronger opponents. This victory was a turning point, sparking a surge in interest in BJJ across the United States.


Following the UFC's success, the Gracie family and other Brazilian practitioners began establishing BJJ schools across America. The efficiency and practicality of BJJ techniques, particularly for self-defense and mixed martial arts (MMA), led to a rapid increase in its popularity. Competitions and tournaments began to emerge, further institutionalizing Jiu Jitsu as a sport and martial art.


The internet played a significant role in BJJ's expansion, allowing for the sharing of techniques, competition footage, and instructional videos. This digital proliferation, coupled with the continued success of BJJ practitioners in MMA, solidified Brazilian Jiu Jitsu's status in the martial arts community.


Today, BJJ is a cornerstone of MMA, a popular fitness and self-defense method, and a competitive sport with a global following. The Gracie family remains influential in the BJJ community, but the art has grown beyond any single lineage or association. BJJ gyms and schools can be found in nearly every major city around the world, each contributing to the ongoing evolution of this dynamic martial art.


A History of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu


The history of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a story of cultural exchange, adaptation, and evolution. From its origins in the samurai traditions of Japan to its development in Brazil and explosive growth in America, BJJ has become more than just a martial art—it's a global community that embraces continuous learning, self-improvement, and respect for others. As BJJ continues to evolve, it carries with it the legacy of its founders and the countless practitioners who have contributed to its rich history. Whether on the mats of a local gym or of an international competition, the spirit of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu endures, uniting people across the world in the pursuit of mastery, camaraderie, and the gentle art.


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