Warrior Jiujitsu: Brazilian Jiujitsu, Judo, and Japanese History

It’s odd to discover that there are more similarities between the original Gracie Jiu jitsu academy structure and the Japanese Ko Ryu systems than there are differences. Both were developed purely for functionality, not show. They centered around discipline and severe training conditions which, although sometimes harsh, forced the student’s attributes to come to the forefront. The more intelligent and strong a student was, the more successful they would be. Strong familial bonds and strict loyalty to the group were at the core of the systems in the beginning. It could be asked: was all of this coincidence?


The grappling arts were brought to Japan early  in its history. It is thought that they came to the Japanese Islands by way of the Chinese, who in turned learned them from India. The exact origins of grappling in Japan aren’t known, but it is clear it was not the creation of a single person, but the culmination of generations of knowledge. In its earliest form, this fighting art was called called Chikara Kurabe.

One of the earliest stories involving Chikara Kurabe centers around a fight on a beach, 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. The direct precursor of modern day Jiu jitsu could be the Japanese Kumi Uchi. Developed specifically for use on a battlefield, Kumi Uchi taught throws, sweeps, and trips, but without the need to grip tightly. The idea was to close distance, then use the hips and legs, with the hands used in a similar way to Greek wrestling to off balance and throw the enemy. Over time as the armor and fighting styles in Japan continued to evolve, this art was adapted and renamed “Yawara”. Interestingly, one way of reading the first character in the Japanese two pictogram word “jujitsu” is “yawara”.

The first major change to how grappling was applied, and another direct link in the chain to modern Jujitsu, was developed during the late Heian and early Kamakura period. In this period, Yoroi kumi Uchi, heavy armor(yoroi) mutual attack(kumi uchi) was developed specifically for use against a man in Japanese armor. Warriors used the way individual parts were tied, connected and fastened to set up their various technique. Training did involve chokes, joint locks, and throws, but it didn’t have the same emphasis as Jujitsu today. Samurai typically did not want to be on the ground. It wasn’t safe.

Yoroi kumi uchi can be applied in the following scenario:

It is the 1280’s and you are fighting in the Gempei War. You’re rich and so you have a horse. During a battle, an enemy footman cuts one of your horses legs off with a glaive. You fall off the horse and land on your back. The footman jumps on you in an attempt to pin you and cut off your head. Either your Yoroi kumi uchi will save you, and help you to regain the advantage by sweeping him off you, standing up, and stabbing or throwing him down with enough force to break his neck, or his will enable him to stay mounted on top of you, and stab you.

An interesting facet of Japanese grappling, and an aspect that would continue to be a factor in how finishing techniques would be set up and applied its entire history, is its limited but specific use of strikes. Due to the armor covering the abdomen, the groin, and typically the face of a heavily armored enemy, strikes were not an effective way to decisively end the encounter. Knees, elbows, and hammer fists could jostle someone in heavy armor if hit in the right spot, but these were mainly used to get to the end result (e.g. a joint lock, a choke, or a sweep or throw, or to allow one combatant the time to draw his short sword and stab the other).

Samurai Emergence

The Japanese warrior class was formed when the nobles in the capital had begun to employ armies of men to guard their land. They were paid in stipends, and were responsible for purchasing and maintaining their own weaponry and armor, and for training themselves and/or the men they commanded. Training was mainly weapon and cavalry based, and it was constant.

The Japanese countryside at this time was lawless. Raids by bandits and other smaller warrior groups were a constant occurrence and required a high level of readiness and professionalism. The martial arts of Japan, Jujitsu included, were developed originally for warriors, by warriors, to defeat an enemy, not for spiritual development or other philosophical ideals. There were no weight classes, and physical strength was highly respected and regarded. It’s hard to explain Japanese martial art history without deviating into the world of the sword and spear, but grappling played a major role in training. It was, as with every other warrior culture, a popular skill to practice as a pastime amongst the men stationed way out in the periphery.

In time, the nobles became softer and softer from overindulging in alcohol and focusing on vain pursuits like writing poetry and collecting art. The mercenary bands who patrolled their lands became harder and harder over generations of fighting, and the warrior armies all came to the same realization at about the same time. The realization was that because they controlled the land which provided for food, timber, and fortifications, they were actually in control of the country. Power gradually shifted away from the court nobles to the warrior houses. Marriages into warrior families, previously thought of as punishment for some noble women, became common. By the middle 12th century, basically the entire country was made up of hundreds of (mostly) self-sustaining clans. This was the period Yoroi Kumi was developed.

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. This era is when specially designated schools of technical knowledge began to be formed, the Ryu. Previously, training was done ad-hoc by samurai whenever and wherever they could. These locations, often fields or barns, were referred to as the “Keiko Ba”, training place. It wasn’t until the 1300s that formal training academies are  actually referenced historically.

But it wasn’t just a location that made it a Ryu. As stated, the samurai had trained wherever possible in previous generations, no doubt there were sometimes buildings set aside for it, but each of the the various Ryu took on a stylistic factor that set them all apart from each other. Training now would be formally taught by a master of the art, and would from now on be done in locations and buildings specifically set aside for practice. Thus began the dojo: a name taken from the hall in a Buddhist temple used for meditation.

The Ryu

The original Jujitsu schools were not separate schools of study, but parts of other curriculum in broader schools of instruction (Ryu). For instance, a Ryu would teach sword, spear, glaive and Jujitsu techniques. Or another would teach only long sword, short sword and Jujitsu, it just depended on what the founder of the school focused his attention on. 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 founder of the school. Some schools were purely functional, with hyper aggressive and more offensive-minded technique. These schools produced efficient and extremely violent minded warriors. Others were focused on the spiritual and esoteric aspects. Naturally, these schools were usually centered around religious institutions, being taught by monks, or headmasters of shrines. Still other schools blended the two styles.

All Ryu were the same; they taught fighting. All Ryu were different; every school had a different philosophy behind it.

Each Ryu had a different emphasis and take on the use of various weaponry. They enforced different training attire, and different training methods. Some only trained outdoors within a fenced enclosure. Some only indoors on hardwood floors 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 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. When students wanted to join any of these schools, a letter of recommendation from a trusted and honored colleague would be required. This kept out the idiots and troublemakers. The philosophy at the time was that, if you’re going to teach a person the most efficient ways to kill, you don’t want to teach it to a lunatic.

After being accepted into the academy but before training, a blood oath was taken. These varied in content, 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. Death was the punishment for breaking this oath. These schools each taught their unique method for survival on a battlefield or in a duel. Absolute secrecy was essential, for obvious reasons.

“The times they are a changin’”

Most Jujitsu was centered more or less around the Yoroi kumi uchi art until roughly the 1630s, when it became obvious that the majority of the large scale conflicts were over with. Some schools kept armored grappling in the curriculum, and these techniques are still taught today, albeit for a historical rather than utilitarian purpose. A quick Youtube search will bring up some videos of current demonstrations.

Most jujitsu began to adapt to the realities of the new world the warrior class found themselves in. The new reality was a life of bureaucracy, centered around castles and towns. In this period the name of the art was different depending on where and who you learned it from. Other names included Oshiki Uchi, Taijutsu, Hudaka, Kenpo, and Kogusoku Maru. Techniques that centered around using the casual clothing the samurai wore, rather than heavy armor, were now the backbone of this newer Jujitsu. 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, such as the Daito style had literally hundreds of techniques. Some had just a few dozen. Interestingly, in the mid to later Edo period, a lot of the best Jujitsu masters were also doctors who specialized in Osteopathy. 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 most schools were passed from teacher to student by means of paired choreographed movements, Kata. 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. Other schools did incorporate free training, but as a supplement to Kata study.

Ground technique was not widely studied, and most techniques that there were for ground work were hold overs from the Yoroi Kumiuchi days. There were some ground-specific techniques, but these generally revolved around a devastating standing technique, with the ground work a follow up used to finish the enemy off. The clothing the samurai wore, the kimono, with a hakama being worn over it, wasn’t suited for easy use of the legs to entangle when on the ground. Also, the danger from most altercations involving multiple attackers, rendered ground specific movements rare and not studied in depth by most schools. Ne waza as is common in Judo, and especially Kosen Judo and BJJ would be developed later.

While the ground game dwindled, there were still a plethora of weapons use in jujitsu. The samurai were constantly armed with swords and were fond of ambushing each other, rather than facing off in duels. Many jujitsu schools also were now developed to be specifically used in castles, or in other cramped corridors and small rooms.

This new system of grappling could be used as follows:

You are a swordsman on retainer for your superior and are a member of his security detail when he travels, while he is entertaining, or meeting dignitaries at his estate. You are sitting in a room with him while he and some other higher ranking warriors have a conversation. At a certain point, the other samurai in the room who are the security retinue of one of the guests in the meeting, suddenly draw their short swords and attack you and your party. You are able to close distance with an enemy, stop his over head cut, and draw your own weapon, and stab him. This sounds cliché, but in reality these types of scenarios happened quite a lot.

Birth of modern Jujitsu

Things again stayed relatively the same in jujitsu until the latter part of the 1860s, when Japan began to open to foreigners. Its at this era that jujitsu, as it is now known, began to take shape. Swords were prohibited from being worn by government edict. But even still, Japan was a violent place.

Ultranationalists, and various political factions fought constantly with each other in the streets. The need for a way to defend oneself was still practical, and Jujitsu was still the main source of training. A major player in Jujitsu’s change is without doubt Jigoro Kano and his Kodokan Academy. Kano relegated his teachings into two distinct methods: 1) the Kata, or formal choreographed movements, the original method of teaching, 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 in free training or sparring without the risk of serious injury; and 2) free training/ sparring.

Kano knew the value of free training. He was a big believer that only by training against a full 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 still be relegated for use in free training. Techniques like Seoi Nage 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 Jun te. The traditional method is similar, but much more devastating. Its the same in body movement on Nages part, but before attempting the throw, Nage turns Ukes arm so the thumb is pointing away from Nage, Ukes palm is then facing up, so when Nage turns into Uke, Ukes elbow is pointed down or pressed against Nages chest. This is called Gyaku Te. Seoi Nage as taught now, if used for self defense, is designed to either concuss or break the neck. But, traditionally executed, the Gyaku Te method will destroy the shoulder, elbow, and even in some cases the fingers.

Another example of the slowing down of techniques is just the basic idea of throwing itself. Kano taught all his throws for free training in the chest to back method, again like modern Seoi Nage. Nage turns into the throw, their back positioned so Ukes chest is against it, then they throw. What Kano was taught by the samurai masters who had trained him, however, was a back to back way of throwing. I.e. Nage grips the arm of Uke, twists it, forcing it in such a way that Uke either turns away to relieve pressure, or the arm breaks at the elbow or wrist. As Uke turns away to relieve the pressure, he is forced into exposing his back slightly, Nage then turns as well, so they are now positioned back to back, Nage then pulls Uke over in the Gyaku Te method mentioned above. This is something that if done at speed, and properly, 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. “Old school” in other words.

“What samurai did with swords, we do with our hands”

Jump 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 happened, attempting to settle this argument. The Jujitsu taught and disseminated by the Gracie Family changed the martial arts world, and in effect, one could say ended the arguments. But it also had a distinctively samurai-esque attitude to the way it 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.”

Because of the stage in Judo’s development that it was brought to Brazil by Mitsuo Maeda, it was similar in scope and style to the original Jujitsu taught by Kano. Instead of paired forms of archaic attacks, the free training method was emphasized. This was and still is the main reason for Brazilian Jujitsu’s effectiveness. The same techniques can typically be found in all the old Japanese Jujitsu schools, but the aliveness which judo and BJJ are taught sets them apart, and allows its students to be able to apply it in real world scenarios.

With the explosion in popularity of BJJ, its history 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 Jujitsu students now haven’t ever been in combat, and most don’t want to. Self defense and being able to quickly and efficiently defend yourself may be the foundation of modern jujitsu, but after the basics of self defense are understood and mastered to a good degree, the student can really delve into the training.

The waters of Jujitsu 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 Jujitsu, in the direction it is evolving now, is neither a pure fighting form, or a 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, Jujitsu is now a vehicle for improving the health, and confidence of the student.

Warfare is a horrible thing. Maybe Jujitsu’s most important lesson it teaches, is that the more one learns of how to fight, the less most people want to.

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Giles Alexander

Giles Alexander is a purple belt residing in Seattle and representing Kindred Jiu-Jitsu.

Giles Alexander has 13 posts and counting. See all posts by Giles Alexander