In this article, the grappling systems used in Japan throughout history will be spelled as jujutsu. I will use jiujitsu when referring to the Brazilian form of the art.
It’s odd to discover that there are many similarities between the original Gracie Jiujitsu academy structure and koryu (the old Japanese fighting systems). They both placed strong emphasis around discipline and severe training conditions that, although sometimes harsh, forced the student’s attributes to come to the forefront. The more intelligent and stronger a student, the more successful they would be. Particularly at their beginnings, strong familial bonds and strict loyalty to the group were at the core of these systems. When we analyze our own art or grappling in general, when we study it’s rich history and it’s characters, we need to understand where our roots lie, namely Japan. Everyone who does BJJ knows about Mitsuo Maeda and the Gracies. But how many know about the very foundations of the art and where it was developed?
History And Foundations Of Grappling In Japan
BJJ is in essence modified judo, and in turn judo is a modified form of what the Japanese call jujutsu. BJJ has always been unique in a way, and as of late taken on even more of its own distinct character. It is now quite different from judo both philosophically and technically. There are innumerable ways in which individual technique can be set up of course, but pretty much all of the joint manipulations, and chokes we do in our BJJ training can be found in judo, and many of them in koryu, as well. The grappling arts were developed in Japan early in its history, although its exact origins aren’t known. It is not the creation of a single person, but the culmination of generations of knowledge. One of the earliest stories throughout history involving grappling centers around a fight on a beach in Japan, where one of the combatants was thrown to the ground, and then kicked to death. In time, various other names were applied to grappling arts, with each emphasizing different aspects of the art. Perhaps the oldest precursor of modern day BJJ was the Japanese art of yoroi-kumiuchi.
Developed ad hoc during the late Heian and early Kamakura period, yoroi-kumiuchi was a grappling methodology for battlefield use. It was developed and designed specifically for use against a man in the Japanese style of heavy armor. Warriors used the way individual parts were tied, connected and fastened to set up their various technique. The basic premise of yoroi-kumiuchi was simple: close distance, grip, balance break (if possible), and stab. There was very little if any technique based around fighting on the ground, other than single knee pins to set up a stab to finish someone off. Going to the ground is a bad choice to make on a battlefield for obvious reasons.
An interesting facet of grappling in Japan, and an aspect that would continue to be a factor in how finishing techniques would be set up and applied in its entire history, is its limited but very specific use of strikes. It was not used in yoroi-kumiuchi due to the armor covering the abdomen, the groin, and typically the face of a heavily armored enemy. However, lower ranked foot-soldiers wore
much more limited armor, so elbows and hammer fists were used, mainly used to get to the end result (e.g. a joint lock, a sweep or throw, or to allow one combatant the time to draw his short sword and stab the other). There was no concept of “fighting dirty”.
The Japanese warrior class, commonly referred to as the bushi (or in later eras, samurai), emerged sometime in the 12th century. In this lawless period, various provinces were administered by a nobility who was often absent, instead choosing to live in mansions in the capitol to be nearer the center of government. Due to constant raiding by bandits and other smaller renegade warrior groups, the nobles hired out the policing and guarding of their lands to warriors whom they paid in stipends. These bushi were responsible for purchasing and maintaining their own weaponry and armor, and for training themselves and/or the men they commanded. As fighting was mainly cavalry based, they primarily trained with bow-and-arrow. Their horses were small and tough, similar to present-day Mongolian ponies. It must be emphasized that grappling on a battlefield was rare. In addition to mounted archery, footsoldiers used a glaive polearm called a naginata, or another similar weapon called a nagamaki, and in later centuries, spears called yari. The longsword (tachi) was, more or less, a sidearm, of secondary importance.
Due to the rapid and sudden nature of how fighting and battles would often erupt, there was required a high level of readiness and professionalism on the part of the bushi. The martial arts of Japan, jujutsu and grappling included, were originally developed further back in history for warriors, by warriors, to defeat an enemy, not for spiritual development or other philosophical ideals. Of course, there were no weight classes, and physical strength was highly respected and regarded. The word jujutsu itself means “art of flexibility”, but this is not a physical flexibility. We commonly now refer to Brazilian jiujitsu as “the soft or gentle art”, but this is not what the original Japanese expresses. The flexibility is a mental flexibility, a mental awareness and calmness. It is the ability to adapt and have the mental flexibility required to defeat the enemy. It’s difficult to explain martial arts history in Japan without deviating into the world of the sword and spear, and even though grappling was rare, it played a role in training due the fact that it did sometimes happen, though usually by accident. In the heat of battle, it’s not uncommon to trip or fall and within this brief moment, an enemy had an opportunity to finish you off. Anything which was a possibility could not be overlooked.
In addition, one form of grappling, sumo, became a popular skill to practice as a pastime amongst the men stationed out in the periphery. This was not modern-day sumo, the professional sport, with a ring and elaborate ritual. This was simply belt wrestling—first man to touch any part of the body other than the bottoms of his feet lost. It was great conditioning, and it contributed directly to skill in yoroi-kumiuchi. The bushi who trained and developed these arts were quite different from what we have now become accustomed to associating with samurai. Rather than stiff formal people, who ritualized everything they did, bushi of this period were, strangely enough, were closer to the Vikings in lifestyle, attitude, education, and philosophy of life. They were an often illiterate, obdurate, and hot-headed type of individual, who prized familial and personal honor and solidarity of the group above everything else. But most importantly to our study, they also were dedicated to their profession and craft.
In time, as the nobles continued overindulging in alcohol and focusing on vain pursuits like writing poetry and collecting art, the bushi armies who patrolled the provinces became harder and harder over generations of fighting. Different groups came to the same realization at about the same time—because they actually controlled the land (thus all the resources) as well as its fortifications, they were the ones actually in control of the country. Power gradually shifted away from the court nobles to the warrior houses and by the middle 12th century, the entire country was composed of
hundreds of (mostly) self-sustaining clans. This was the period and that the previously mentioned yoroi-kumiuchi as well as other, related types of weapons-based grappling was developed and refined. It’s a romantic and glamorous idea—and a true one—to think about samurai after a battle, sitting by a fire or in a castle doing their own after-action review: studying what they did in certain situations which had proved successful, and noting by either their own wounds or the absence of certain comrades, that which had not proved effective.
In the 14th century, another great war erupted in Japan. The Nanbokucho war (war of the northern & southern courts) was started over a dispute to the imperial succession. Previous to this period, training was done ad-hoc by the bushi whenever and wherever they could and as they saw fit. These locations, often sequestered buildings, or the precincts of various shrines, were referred to as keiko ba (‘training place’). It wasn’t until the late 1400s that formal training academies are actually referenced, and these may actually have been started even later—the Japanese viewed antiquity as having greater validity, and many groups would claim an origin that dated decades or even centuries earlier and attribute that to famous warriors. As they systematized their fighting techniques, they began to refer to them as ryu, a word which in parlance can be used to mean ‘style,’ but literally means (‘flow’[of transmission of techniques]). But it wasn’t just some specific location set aside for training that made a ryuha (‘branch of the flow’). As stated, the bushi trained wherever possible in previous generations, and although no doubt there were buildings set aside for it, each of the various ryuha took on stylistic factors that set each apart from all others. Increasingly, rather than a band-of-brothers exchanging techniques, ryuha would be formally taught by a master of the art, and would typically be practiced at locations and in buildings specifically set aside for training. Thus began the custom of referring to training locales as a dojo, a name taken from the hall in a Buddhist temple used for meditation.
Originally jujutsu was not a separate area of study but was included in the curriculum of broader schools of instruction. For instance, various ryuha would teach sword, spear, glaive and grappling techniques. Or another would teach only long sword, short sword and grappling, it just depended on what the founder of the school focused his attention on. A common method among all the schools was that jujutsu was taught with an armed aspect, typically a knife or short sword. The academies of martial arts in Japan’s feudal era were self-contained little worlds where the social structure was built around the cohesion and solidarity of the group. The interests of the group were paramount, never the individual. They existed to further the philosophy and martial theory of the school. Some schools were purely functional, with hyper aggressive and more offensive-minded technique. These schools produced efficient but extremely violent minded warriors. Others were focused on more spiritual and esoteric aspects of conflict. Naturally, these schools were usually centered around religious institutions. Other schools blended the two styles. As regards to our primary interest here, the first historically verifiable ryuha that included a broad range of jujutsu techniques was the Takenouchi-ryu, founded in 1532 by Takenouchi Nakatsukasadaiyu Hisamori. It is still in existence to this day.
All ryuha in one way or another taught fighting—thus, they were the same. Yet they were different too—every school had a unique philosophy and style behind it. Each ryuha had a different emphasis and take on the use of the weaponry employed. They utilized different training attire, and enforced different training methods and tactics. Some only trained outdoors within a fenced enclosure, rain or shine. Some only indoors on hardwood floors eventually polished over time by generations of feet training on them. Some were extremely formal and followed strict formula when training their technique, others encouraged a “do whatever” attitude, with individual technique being
shown sparingly thus forcing students to either get frustrated and leave, or become more covert and observe, “stealing” nuggets of information from the teacher, and improvising other technique to emerge victorious.
In order to join a specific ryuha, a prospective student had to simply ask to be taught and if the teacher agreed, training could then begin. This was the typical scenario for rural and self-maintained ryuha. But for the other ryuha, particularly those who were employed and sponsored by a clan or a daimyo (‘big name,’ a warlord) one had to be a bushi, employed by the specific clan in order to join these academies. In either case, after being accepted, but before any training, a keppan (‘blood oath,’) was taken. These varied in content and method, but all had the same basic idea: that the student not divulge any of the teachings learned at the school without the head master’s explicit permission. The vengeful wrath of the resident ryuha deity was the punishment for breaking this oath. Keppan were universal, regardless of the rank of the student, from the lowest footman, the higher-ranking samurai, and even the daimyo himself. These schools each taught their unique method for survival on a battlefield or in a duel. Absolute secrecy therefore was essential, for obvious reasons.
“The Times They Are A’changing’”
Most jujutsu was taught within the curriculum of a weapons-based school more or less until relatively modern times. Armed warfare ended in Japan in 1638, but warriors kept up their training. Many shifted to preparing for civil disputes: duels, in particular, and therefore, emphasized the sword, often exclusively. Other kept armored grappling in the curriculum—the Japanese were innately conservative, and many systems tried to practice exactly as their ancestors did (a quick YouTube search will bring up some videos of demonstrations). But after the realization sank in that there would be no more war on the battlefield, some samurai—and also many non-bushi, who were studying martial arts—began to study grappling methods based on the common clothing worn at the time, the kimono. They still practiced grappling with weaponry, but gradually, unarmed grappling began to be developed, and joint locks, strikes and chokes became more prominent. Any conflict now would probably be one-on-one, if it happened at all. Dueling, once a common occurrence in Japan, was restricted—one had to make formal application to the authorities for the right to duel—extra-legal duels could result in a death sentence. Peace, and successful governance now trumped feuds.
Jujutsu began to adapt to the realities of the new world the warrior class found themselves in. This new reality was a life of bureaucracy, centered around administration of castles, towns, and villages. In this period the name of the art was different depending on where and who you learned it from. Other names included taijutsu, kenpo, torite and kogusoku. Techniques that centered around using the casual clothing the samurai wore, rather than heavy armor, were now the backbone of this newer jujutsu. These techniques weren’t “new” in the sense that they had never been discovered, but new in that now much more attention was being paid to the possibilities of using this to your advantage. The amount of techniques taught also varied from school to school. Some schools, had literally hundreds of techniques. Some had just a few dozen. Interestingly, in the mid to later Edo period, some of the jujutsu masters also specialized in bone setting. These were lower class warriors who also acted as the neighborhood healer or doctor if needed. The techniques that they taught weren’t just to break and destroy, but also to mend and heal. Techniques for resuscitation, kappo, were also a fundamental aspect of the teachings of most schools. The techniques of the various ryuha were passed from teacher to student by means of pattern drills done in pairs, known as kata. These movements could be classed as a type of drill meant to instill and develop muscle memory. These were not rote, monotonous movements. As the student progressed, the speed, power and timing of the technique was increased or changed. At high levels, the master would spontaneously remove
certain steps, or add in others, in an attempt to force the student to stop thinking, and just react appropriately. Some schools did incorporate free training, but always as a supplement to kata study.
Ground technique, in the sense that one thinks of judo or bjj, was not typically studied. They did work on the knees—a lot—but again, the focus was on grab, pin and stab, or defend against same. The clothing the samurai wore, the kimono, with a hakama (pleated trousers) worn over it appear to be unsuitable for easy use of the legs, but it’s not as difficult as it appears. The reason ground work didn’t develop was that the conditions in which one likely needed to fight didn’t lend themselves to unarmed wrestling. Therefore, newaza, as is common in judo (particularly kosen judo) and BJJ, would be developed later.
Jigoro Kano and the Birth of Modern Jujitsu
Things stayed relatively the same in jujutsu until the latter part of the 1860s, when Japan began to open to foreigners. It was in this era that jujutsu, as it is now recognized, began to take shape. After the Emperor was restored as the sovereign of the country, swords were prohibited from being worn by government edict, and the samurai class was abolished. The culture disruption was so severe that there followed a period of civil wars that took a decade or so to be suppressed. Japan was now a modern nation. But even still, it was a violent place. Ultranationalists and a myriad of political factions fought frequently in the streets. Despite the violence, however, the martial arts were almost abandoned. No one wanted to learn anything from the old days; they wanted what was Western and new. People didn’t fight with swords, and jujutsu was considered a low-class violent activity. Intellect was modern, and a Westernized conscript army was modern. Paradoxically, at this time, when the martial arts almost died out, that their greatest benefactor would begin his training.
The major player in jujutsu’s change is without doubt Jigoro Kano and his Kodokan Academy; without him, judo, and thus BJJ, would not exist. Kano relegated all his teachings into two distinct methods: 1) kata, the original method of pattern-drill training. Through some kata, he taught essential prinicples, some of them abstruse philosophy, and others which he used to teach techniques that, due to the small joints or bones they attacked, could not be practiced at speed and with full force without the risk of serious injury; and 2) free training/ sparring, called randori in Japanese.
Kano knew the value of free training. He was a big believer that only by training against a fully resisting partner could one progress and learn to properly apply technique. But he also knew that there were techniques and methods which were taught through kata, but that if tweaked just a bit, could be adapted for use in free training. For example, techniques like seoinage are taught now with the uke (or the person having the technique done on them) being thrown over nage’s shoulder with their elbow up, and their palm facing in towards the chest of nage. This arm position is called junte. The traditional method much more devastating. The body movement is the same on nage’s part, but before attempting the throw, nage turns uke’s arm so the thumb is pointing away from nage; uke’s palm is therefore facing up. When nage turns into uke, uke’s elbow is pointed down or pressed against nage’s chest. This arm position is called gyakute. Seoinage as taught now, could concuss or break the opponent’s neck, if they don’t know how to fall properly, but it is a relatively safe technique. The gyakute method, if exerted with full-force and speed, will destroy the shoulder, elbow, and even in some cases the fingers.
Another example of Kano’s changes is the basic idea of throwing itself. Kano taught all his throws for free training with the chest-toback method; like modern seoinage, nage turns into the throw, their back positioned so uke’s chest is against them, and then they throw. What Kano was taught by the masters who had trained him, however, was often a back-to-back way of throwing. For example, nage grips the arm of uke, twists it, forcing it in such a way that uke either turns away to relieve the pressure, or the arm breaks at the elbow or wrist. As uke turns away, he is forced into
exposing his back and nage then rotates as well, so they are now positioned back-to-back. Nage then pulls uke over in the gyakute method mentioned above. This is something that if executed properly at speed, will permanently mangle a person. It is not something suitable for a sport or points oriented grappling art, but rather a means to dispatch an enemy. Truly ‘old school,’ in other words.
Kano also standardized the training uniform and belt system. Traditional ryuha had varied training attire: some had training specific attire such as a type of gi, others trained in everyday clothing. Kano instituted a standardized training gi derived from traditional fire-fighter clothes. Inconvenienced at traveling around the country and not being able to identify what people knew before training with them, Kano then realized he needed another indicator of who knew what. He then initiated a colored belt ranking system. Through this, he and other visiting instructors could look at a student and instantly know what their relative skill level would be based on the belt they wore.
“What Samurai Did With Swords, We Do With Our Hands”
Let’s skip ahead into the late 20th century. The traditional martial arts for years had a monopoly on self-defense. Debates about which was better, which was more effective, which would win in a no-holds-barred fight were constant. Then the UFC occurred, attempting to settle this argument. The jiujitsu taught and disseminated by the Gracie Family changed the martial arts world. But it also had a distinctively samurai-esque attitude to the way it was spread. “You think you’re better? You think you can win the fight? Enter the ring, or come to our academy. Lets see who’s better.” And because, originally, it was brought to Brazil by Mitsuo Maeda and his troupe of other Japanese judoka, who were making a living, in part, through fighting in freestyle matches, they emphasized the free training method rather than kata. This was and still is the main reason for Brazilian Jiujitsu’s effectiveness. It’s not toughness intelligence, aggressiveness or even violence. It’s the aliveness. This training methodology, which emphasizes free training sets BJJ apart from classical judo, allowing it to continually grow, and furthermore, enables its students to be able to apply it in real world scenarios.
With the explosion in popularity of BJJ and grappling in general, it’s history in Japan and various methodologies are also becoming a subject of study. The world has been constantly in a state of war in one place or the other, yet most jiujitsu students haven’t ever been in combat, or even a fight, and most don’t want to, etiher. Self-defense and being able to quickly and efficiently defend yourself may be the foundation of modern BJJ, but after the basics of self-defense are understood and mastered to a good degree, the student can really delve into the training and explore. They can continue to learn, and in some cases, even create their own style. The waters of jiujitsu are very deep. It’s fair to say that it can never truly be mastered. The more one studies, the more one realizes there is to learn. The training of jiujitsu, in the direction it is evolving now, is neither a pure fighting form, nor pure sport. For most practitioners, their training is focused around bettering the mind, soul and body. Instead of a focus on being on a battlefield, and being able to execute a sweep, or a submission to save your life, jiujitsu is now a vehicle for improving the health, and confidence of the student. Warfare is a horrible thing. Maybe jiujitsu’s most important lesson it teaches, is that the more one learns of how to fight, the less most people want to.
This piece is part of a series diving deep into the origins of Jiu Jitsu, click here to look through the rest of the series.