How Japanese Jiu Jitsu Became Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)

Jiu Jitsu is a grappling based martial art. The term Jiu Jitsu can be confusing as it has been used over time as a blanket term to describe many different grappling martial arts including Judo. In fact at many stages throughout history the term Judo and Jiu Jitsu have been used interchangeably.

Although the exact origin of Jiu Jitsu is hard to define, we can be sure that all forms of the martial art can be traced back to Japan. In ancient times Jiu Jitsu was the the fighting style of the Samurais. Now people train Jiu Jitsu as a way of learning self defense skills and staying fit.

Today when we hear the term Jiu Jitsu it is usually used in reference to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is because Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) has become massively popular due to its promotion by the Gracie family and its use in MMA and the UFC. In comparison the growth of Japanese Jiu Jitsu has stagnated somewhat as people continue to favor what is seen as the more modern martial art of BJJ over traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu.

However in terms of technique and skill the difference between the two is negligible. Most of the core techniques in Brazilian Jitsu can be traced back to Japanese Jiu Jitsu.

Samurai’s & Ju Jitsu

There is no record by which the origins of Jiu Jutsu can be definitively established. We do know that the grappling style that went on to be known as Ju Jitsu in later years came into being somewhere in the Daimyo feudal period in Japan between the 14th– 16th Centuries.

It was initially adopted by the Samurais who required a closer fighting style which allowed them to defeat armored opponents.  The Chinese striking styles were ineffective against these opponents and and an even closer range style of fighting was required. As a result the Samurai began adopting throws, chokes, and joint locks.

Ju Jitsu experienced a further evolution during the Japanese Edo period (1603 – 1868). During this period swords and other weaponry were banned in an attempt to reduce civil unrest after a prolonged period of turbulence. This ban led to an increase in the popularity of unarmed combat. Numerous systems of Ju Jitsu began to flourish again as the samurai sought out skills to defeat unarmed and unarmored opponents.

However Jiu Jutsu experienced a major decline during the Japanese Meiji Restoration (1868 – 1912). In this period the Emperor was once again in power and an imperial edict was put in place making it a crime to practice the martial arts of the Samurai. As a result the practice of Ju Jitsu was pushed to the fringes of society where it was often practiced underground until the ban was lifted in the mid-twentieth century.

Kano Jigoro and the Kodokan

Kanō Jigorō was born in 1860 during the Meiji restoration era during a time when Ju Jitsu was considered to be outdated and irrelevant. Kano was slight in stature and was regularly targeted by bullies. As a result he sought out martial arts as a way of defending himself. He showed interest in learning Ju Jitsu but was discouraged by his father who suggested he do a modern sport instead. Despite this advice he sought out a Ju Jitsu teacher and began training with Fukuda Hachinosuke while in college.

Kano was a avid learner and sought out other fighting styles such as sumo and western wrestling in an attempt to boost his grappling skills. This motivation to constantly improve his skills led to the creation of his own system of grappling. Even though his system was mainly based on Ju Jitsu techniques, he chose this name Kano Judo to avoid association with the out of fashion Ju Jitsu.

“By taking together all the good points I had learned of the various schools and adding thereto my own inventions and discoveries, I devised a new system for physical culture and moral training as well as for winning contests”

The word about Kanos new fighting system spread quickly as his students regularly won matches against competitors from other dojos. As the popularity in Japan increased Kano decided that he wanted to export Judo to other nations of the world. To achieve this he sent some of his best students around the globe on Judo ambassadorial missions. One of these students was Mitsuyo Maeda.

While Kudokan fighters were mostly known for their throws there was also a significant ground fighting element to the martial art. This element of Kudokan Judo was referred to as Kosen Judo or Newaza. Kano felt that Kosen Judo was superior for competitions but that throws were better for self defense and a better representation of his art. In order to protect the purity of Judo Kano encouraged Kosen Judo to be practiced separately and rules were later put in place. Kosen Jiu Jitsu continued to be taught by Kano’s students and would later form the basis for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Mitsuyo Maeda

Mitsuyo Maeda was one of the students who formed the 2nd generation of students of Kano’s Kudokan. After trying his hand at sumo wrestling he decided to begin training at the Kudokan after hearing about the success stories of Kanos students over other athletes from rival Dojos. Despite being only 5ft 5in in height Maeda excelled in Judo and when Kano came looking for students to send to the U.S. to demonstrate his martial art, Maeda was a natural choice.

In 1904 Maeda set off on his travels with with Tsunejiro Tomita and Soishiro Satake. They first arrived in the US and began doing demonstrations at colleges. In the years that followed he traveled to Cuba, Mexico, and Central America. Maeda would regularly challenge and compete in exhibitions with fighters from different fighting styles. Maeda would also visit England, Portugal, Spain, and France before settling in Brazil for 7 years.

In 1921 Maeda opened his own Judo academy in Brazil. At this stage he had built a reputation as a great fighter in Brazil and many people were eager to learn from him. He was also known for his work helping the Japanese and Brazilian governments with the settling of many of the newly arrived Japanese immigrants in Brazil.

Introduction to Brazil

In 1917 in the city of Belem Maeda was approached by local businessman Gastao Gracie who was eager for his son Carlos to begin training. Carlos took his first lesson at 14 and spent the next 8 years learning from Maeda. At this stage in his life Maeda had accumulated a vast knowledge of grappling knowledge from his time spent travelling the world. It is believed that he taught Carlos a combination of Judo, traditional Jiu Jitsu, catch wrestling and other grappling skills.

Carlos would soon became the best student in the academy and at the age of 22 decided that he wanted to pursue a living teaching Jiu Jitsu. His first students were his younger brothers: Oswaldo, Gastao, George and Helio Gracie.

Hélio Gracie, was the youngest of the brothers but sickness and frailty meant that he was initially unable to train. The legend goes that one day when Carlos was late for class that Heilo offered to step in and teach. Despite Heilo’s lack of experience the students preferred Helio’s Jiu-Jitsu and instruction to that of his brother. Heilo would continue to teach but found many of the techniques he knew hard to execute in sparring. To overcome this problem he began adopting the techniques he had learned to be more effective for his slight stature. The legend has it that this is how Gracie Jiu Jitsu came into being.

Maeda also taught a number of other students Jiu Jitsu while in Brazil including Luiz Fanca. Fanca along with Oswaldo Fadda are also credited with the creation of BJJ.

The amount of innovation that Gracie and other students applied to Maedas teachings is a source of constant debate in grappling communities. However there is no doubt that Heilo and his sons successfully systematized the ground fighting aspect of Kudokan Judo. This was pivotal to the success and growth BJJ would experience in later years.

 Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

In 1978 Rorion Gracie brought Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and his fathers (Heilo Gracie’s) legend with him to the United States. He settled in Southern California and soon began inviting people to train with him in his garage. It was not long before he had set up his own Jiu Jitsu academy and invited his brothers Rolyer, Rickson and a number of their students including a 17 year old Royce Gracie.

Rorion Gracie

Rorion was one of the founders of the UFC and wanted to select a family member to represent Gracie Jiu Jitsu in the first tournament. There was some surprise when his 26 year old nephew Royce Gracie was selected. This was because Royce was slight in build and unassuming compared to some of the other available Gracie fighters. Royce went on to win UFC 1 and the manner in which he easily controlled and defeated much larger opponents caught everybody’s attention. This was a pivotal moment in the history of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

After UFC 1 Brazilian Jiu Jitsu experienced a massive surge in popularity with people eager to learn the skills that Royce showcased. Gyms across the USA started to pop up with Southern California in particular experiencing a boom in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

The increased popularity of BJJ led to the formation of the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu federation (IBJJF) in 2002 by Carlos Gracie Jr. This organisation runs several of the largest BJJ competitions in the world and their rules is the standard ruleset used in sport BJJ today.

Today there are BJJ academies in nearly every country of the world. In the United Arab Emirates BJJ is considered to be the national sport thanks to support from Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, a member of the ruling Al Nahyan family.

The culture of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu shares many similarities with surf culture. The term BJJ lifestyle is used to describe a laid-back way of living that is made richer by the friendships and health benefit that come to us through Jiu Jitsu.

Nogi BJJ and Submission Grappling

In recent years Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has separated into Gi and Nogi. The Gi is the name of the traditional uniform (kimono) that is worn while training. Some schools such as Eddie Bravos 10th Planet have developed a style of BJJ that does not wear the Gi at all. This type of BJJ is commonly referred to as Nogi and has seen a sharp rise in popularity in recent years thanks to MMA and submission grappling events such as the ADCC.

Nogi Jiu Jitsu has a greater focus on wrestling and submissions. Many submissions that are illegal in Gi Jiu jitsu such as heel hooks are favored in modern nogi BJJ. Today most BJJ academies offer classes in both Gi and Nogi with many of the same techniques taught in both classes.

Japanese Jiu Jitsu

Japanese Jiu Jitsu is still taught today but there is a huge variation between what you can learn in each academy. The techniques in Japanese Jiu Jitsu can cover throws, submissions, striking, ground positions, Kata, and drills similar to Aikido. What you learn can vary a lot from academy to academy and very much depends on the instructors own experience.

Japanese Jiu Jitsu is also a lot more traditional in its approach to martial arts.  For example there is more significance attributed to bowing and showing respect to instructors and the dojo.

The wide variation of techniques and skills required has in many ways hindered the popularity of the martial art. Many of the techniques taught in Japanese Jiu Jitsu have their own dedicated martial art and people often prefer to try and master one element of fighting rather than many styles at the same time. The lack of a strong regulating body such as the International Judo foundation or the International BJJ federation has also been to the detriment of the martial art. However there is no doubt that Japanese Jiu Jitsu is the parent of BJJ and Judo and that the majority of techniques in these martial arts can be traced back to Japanese Ju Jitsu.


14th- 16th Century. Daimyo feudal period: Japanese samurai develop Ju Jitsu to defeat opponents at shorter ranges.

1603 – 1868. Japanese Edo period: A ban on weaponry leads to an increase in the popularity of Ju Jitsu.

1868 – 1912. Japanese Meiji Restoration: Samurai teachings are banned by the emperor resulting in a massive decline in Ju Jitsu.

1882. Kudokan Judo founded: Kanō Jigorō starts his own dojo teaching his new martial art of Judo.

1914. Maeda arrives in Brazil: Kano’s student travels to Brazil during his journey to spread the art of Kudokan Judo.

1917. Maeda begins teaching Carlos Gracie: Carlos is the first Gracie to learn Judo/Jiu Jitsu

1978. Rorion Gracie moves to the USA: Rorion Gracie sets up the first Gracie academy in California

1993. Royce Gracies wins UFC: The world is introduced to BJJ.

2012. IBJJF established: International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation is established.

Present Day: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is more popular than ever. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is taught in the traditional Gi and without (Nogi).

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