The Prehistory Of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

by Tony D’Andrea PhD

The story of how jiu-jitsu was brought to the West from Japan during the early 1900s is well documented. The new Meiji government was desperately trying to modernize Japan, and in the process it nearly banned jiu-jitsu. Unregulated and dangerous, it was seen by the Japanese elite as an embarrassing legacy from a barbarian past. It would have gone fully underground, if it were not for travel opportunities that Japanese masters took to teach jiu-jitsu to the U.S. military, followed by demo workshops across Western Europe and Latin America. It’s in this context that Mitsuyo Maeda arrives in Brazil in 1914, soon to teach “Kano Jiu Jitsu” to the sons of Gastao Gracie, a businessman who helped him obtain a residence visa.

In tracing the prehistory of BJJ, a common mistake is to look for techniques that look alike across schools. A safer approach is genealogical: follow the master’s master. In Asia, traditional knowledge is transmitted through the relationship between master and disciple, based on reverence, discipline, and loyalty. And yet, the transmission of traditional knowledge is not immutable. It absorbs, changes, and adapts according to the historical moment.

The jiu-jitsu learned by the Gracies derived from a new type of ground fighting (newaza) known as Kodokan Judo, founded by Jigoro Kano in Tokyo in 1882. Against the advice given by his wealthy parents, Kano studied a popular form of jujutsu throughout the 1870s. It was taught at “The Divine True Willow” (Tenjin Shinyo) school, which enjoyed its apex from 1848 to 1864. But as the last samurai (Tokugawa) government gave place to the modernist revolution, jiu-jitsu went in decline. This is how “judo” came about in the 1890s, as an effort by Kano to introduce a safer, cleaner, and more civilized martial art to the Japanese elite.

Founded in the 1830s, Tenjin Shinyo was, in turn, the fusion of two older jiu-jitsu schools. One influence was the Yoshin ryu born in 1632, after centuries of civil war in Japan. While keeping joint locks and choke points from samurai-style training, it incorporated philosophical and anatomical concepts from Traditional Chinese Medicine (China was highly influential on Japan over millennia). The focus on vital-point striking (kyusho atemi) sought to increase balance, leverage, and efficiency.

The other major influence on Tenjin Shinyo school was the Shin no Shinto ryu. It was originally developed by the Osaka police force in the 1790s. As the heavy samurai armor became a thing of the past, they sought to increase the speed of strikes (atemi-waza). Over the centuries, different police forces honed the “arresting art” (taiho-jutsu) as sets of bare-hand techniques to neutralize opposition in densely populated areas.

The samurai stand at the core of this BJJ prehistory. Rudimentary forms of jiu-jitsu were catalogued in the 1600s. Low and behold, contemporary BJJ emphasis on leveraged sweeps, joint locks, and chokes fully emulates attacks on weak spots of the armored samurai: limbs, joints, and neck. However, historical evidence indicates that hand-to-hand battlefield combat between samurai was quite rare. When falling from horses, they were immediately rushed to a safer location. From afar, the gory exchanges of spears, swords, and muskets was to be carried out by foot soldiers. As the samurai were pacified in the 1600s onward, jujitsu became a common man’s practice, until the modernist Meiji government discouraged it during the late nineteenth century.

Against the modernist will of the elite, American military, Japanese policemen and Brazilian businessmen inadvertently kept jiu-jitsu alive. From the samurai, to medieval police, to Kodokan Judo, to the Gracies and the UFC, jiu-jitsu has more recently entered a global phase. But it has been evolving for over four centuries, oscillating between discipline and innovation. Both poles are crucial to maintain its identity and relevance.


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