Is Jiu Jitsu Japanese? (Explained)


I’ve been training Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ), and as part of learning it, I also got interested in the history of jiu jitsu and whether it’s Japanese. So, today I thought I’d explain the origins of jiu jitsu and if it’s from Japan.

Jiu jitsu is Japanese. Jiu jitsu is an unarmed fighting style from Japan that came out of the martial arts of the samurai that was prevalent in Japan in the year 8th Century, and included unarmed and armed combat. Jiu jitsu also called ju-jutsu was later renamed ju-do (judo) in the late 1800’s.

Jiu jitsu has a very interesting history from how it has changed since it was used by the samurai to its prevalence today. Where it has been made very popular by the Gracie family, who invented Brazilian jiu jitsu. 

In this article, I will explain the origins of jiu jitsu and how it came to be what it is today, where many of the techniques are used in judo and Brazilian jiu jitsu most prominently.

Japanese city street

How Jiu Jitsu Came To Be What It Is Today

Jiu jitsu is still practiced today, as well as Brazilian jiu jitsu. Judo also has the same roots as jiu jitsu and Brazilian jiu jitsu, and as you may know, is very popular.

To understand how it all fits together and what means what, it’s important to start at the beginning of jiu jitsu in Japan to see how it all fits together. And why there is a lot of overlap between judo, jiu jitsu, and karate.

It starts in the year 710 in an era known as the Nara and Heian.

Nara and Heian period in Japan – the year 710, no formal jiu jitsu

It’s reported by historians that the Nara and Heian period in Japan was a time when the government wasn’t very large and didn’t have much power and influence over the people. Instead, there were wealthy and powerful families.

These wealthy and powerful families hired private guards – essentially military police to protect them. Much like governments today have the secret service which maintains order and stops presidents and diplomats from being assassinated. 

These private guards were known as the Bushin. During this time these Bushin became renamed and were known as samurai. 

Due to these large wealthy families having a large amount of control due to their employment of the samurai they came into power and looked after the affairs of Japan for around 700 years. 

The leaders of these big families were known as Shogun, who were considered military dictators. However, it was common for these large families to fight each other and vie for power over certain regions.

Although these facts seem slightly irrelevant to the history of jiu jitsu, don’t worry it all ties together.

Year 1467 a period of intense civil war, formal jiu jitsu training began

During this period in the history of Japan there was an intense civil war. But, it also saw the emergence of organized fighting schools. These schools were known as ‘Koryu bu-jutsu’. Here we see the first emergence of the word jutsu which are the origins of jiu jitsu.

The main purpose of these schools was like the military training establishments we see today such as the US Armed Forces, the Navy, and the like.

These schools were established to train soldiers to fight in the intense civil war.

Part of the training involved unarmed combat called ju-jitsu or an alternative spelling jiu-jitsu.

However, the main focus was on armed combat using spears, swords, and also guns. As these are the most effective in a war scenario. But some jiu-jitsu or unarmed combat was taught and trained.

The samurai during this time had many fighting techniques but it wasn’t until this period where it became organized and taught formally in these schools called ‘Koryu bu-jutsu’.

Edo Period (year 1603) peace in Japan, no weapons training allowed

After this intense period of civil war eventually, Japan was unified by Tokugawa Ieyasu, a shogun – military dictator together with a few others. During this time Japan was very peaceful. They also closed their Western harbor so that no outsiders could enter Japan. 

During this time all weapons were banned, and samurai were no longer allowed to carry weapons.

Due to the banning of weapons, martial arts schools opened where formal training was conducted. These schools were called ‘Koryu ju-jutsu’. 

Here we see the appearance of the word ju-jutsu, which is an alternative spelling of jiu jitsu. These schools were incredibly popular throughout Japan, and it’s reported that there were nearly 200 different unarmed combat styles.

1868 the Meiji Period the Westernization of Japan and decline of jiu jitsu

There was a lot of pressure from outside and inside Japan to reopen Japan to the West, and to stop the military dictatorship under the current shogun. This occurred and power came back to the Emperor or king of Japan. 

And the western harbor of Japan reopened and saw the popularity of Western culture. It was seen as new and better, and the old ways of doing things were seen as old and not as desirable.

Including Koryu ju-jutsu schools which because weapons were banned only taught unarmed combat.

However, they did teach weapons defense for common weapons such as household items, and farming weapons. But, didn’t teach sword, spear, and gun techniques.

The Koryu ju-jutsu schools declined in popularity and fewer and fewer people did it. It had a reputation for being barbaric. During this time the ju-jutsu (jiu jitsu) schools that remained challenged other schools in exhibition matches.

These matches were often bloody, and in some cases, people died.

Similar to how some people die in boxing and MMA fights today. This further worsened how people thought of ju-jutsu.

Jigoro Kano changed the name and focus of jiu-jitsu

Jigoro Kano trained ju-jutsu (jiu jitsu) and a Koryo Ju-Jutsu academy and was particularly talented. He became a master of two different styles of ju-jutsu. He went on to start his own school and changed the focus of ju-jutsu as being a martial art for war.

He changed to have more of a focus on personal development, spiritual growth, and also made it into a sport that had rules.

He changed the name from ju-jutsu to ju-do. Or, as it’s known today as judo. The word ‘do’ in this sense means ‘the way’. But it has a meaning that is similar to ‘a spiritual way’. Meaning a practice for personal and spiritual development.

Here’s a short video of Jigoro Kano showing some basic principles of balance, weight distribution, and how to perform a hip throw, also called a hip toss:

Other martial artists that had jutsu on the end such as ken-jutsu which was the sword fighting aspect of the original Koryu Bu-jutsu schools in the samurai times in the earlier history of Japan were also renamed with ‘do’ on the end. 

For example, in the case of Ken-jutsu, it was renamed to Kendo, which is still practiced today.

Others include karate-do or karate, aiki-do or aikido. 

During this time when Jigoro Kano established his own school and named it judo. He also developed a code of ethics.

He banned fights for money – like MMA today, and implemented the colored belt ranking system.

For example, white belt, blue belt, purple belt. As well as, the ‘dan’ system. Which are the stripes used on belts for degrees beyond a black belt.

Many people wonder how good a blue belt in jiu jitsu or Brazilian jiu jitsu is. I explained the answer to this question in this article about how good a BJJ blue belt is against an untrained opponent.

At that time, stripes were not awarded for lower colored belts, and students went straight from one belt to the next. Only after a practitioner received their black belt and continued to train were stripes awarded for continued progress.

Before the implementation of the belt system, a student would train at a school and after they had mastered it they would be awarded a certificate to say that they were proficient enough to open their own school and teach the techniques of that school. 

The wearing of gi’s or the martial arts uniform used in jiu jitsu and judo was the common dress for Japanese people. And the belt was used simply to tie the jacket together.

Jiu jitsu renamed to ju-do (judo) becomes very popular in Japan again due to performance in competitions

Other jiu jitsu schools were also prevalent at the time.

But, Jigoro Kano changed his training method to include a lot more realistic sparring. Known in Japanese as handori. At that time most of the schools had more of a focus on kata.

As you may know, kata is where a sequence of moves are performed with an opponent who doesn’t resist.

They also did some sparring (handori), however, it wasn’t the main focus. During this time many of the schools had sports events against each other.

These matches were essentially sparring matches where punches and kicks weren’t allowed.

A person could win a match by performing the first perfect throw, pinning their opponent, and also submitting their opponent. Because of Jigoro Kano’s emphasis on sparring in his schools, he vastly outperformed all of the other schools.

Then the police held a special competition, where it was proposed that the martial arts school that won would be the martial arts that the police used and trained.

Jigoro Kano’s schools won 13 of 15 matches, and of the 2 they didn’t win the matches were a draw.

It was overwhelmingly clear that Jigoro Kano’s martial art was the best, and due to their victory judo became incredibly popular.

Mitsuyo Mayeda travels to Brazil and teaches jiu jitsu to Gracie family

Mitsuyo Maedo trained in judo – which as was learned earlier is a renaming of jiu jitsu – and was particularly talented.

He traveled around the world, and did many martial arts fights. During this time he traveled to Brazil, and did many fights against the various martial arts styles in Brazil such as Capoeira.

It was during this time that he taught jiu jitsu (judo) to Carlos Gracie Snr, who taught Helio Gracie. These two people are responsible for starting Brazilian jiu jitsu. One of Helio Gracie’s sons Rorion Gracie later travelled to America, where he started the first UFC.

Some historians have proposed that the techniques that Mitsuyo Maeda taught Carlos Gracie Snr. were not the entire jiu jitsu curriculum.

This has led to some contention as Helio Gracie has claimed to have invented many techniques. But, others have said that these techniques already existed in judo, which from history we know is jiu jitsu.

It appears that Helio Gracie discovered techniques that were ‘new to him’ but also further perfected the techniques. Therefore, in reality, he did invent them as he was unaware of the entire jiu jitsu curriculum.

But, some of these techniques have been known before in the old jiu jitsu curriculum as is evidenced in old pictures of jiu jitsu in Japan.

It remains true, however, that the Gracie family had a huge influence on spreading jiu jitsu – which is the ground aspect of judo – called ne-waza. And is responsible for making it as hugely popular as it is today. Where it is primarily called Brazilian jiu jitsu.

 And have added a huge amount to martial arts, and further perfected and improved grappling techniques that are common to a lot of different martial arts such as sambo, and wrestling.

Is Jiu Jitsu Japanese or Brazilian?

There is Brazilian jiu jitsu which means that it comes from Brazil. But, is jiu jitsu Japanese or Brazilian?

Jiu jitsu originated in Japan, but was taken to Brazil by Mitsuyo Maeda and taught to the Gracie family. Jiu-jitsu (also spelled ju-jutsu, ju-jitsu) was renamed ju-do (judo) by Jigoro Kano. Mitsuyo Maeda was a student of the judo (formerly jiu jitsu) formalized and codified by Jigoro Kano.

Ju-jitsu was the name of the unarmed fighting techniques practiced by the samurai during a long and interesting history in Japan. It fell out of favor but was revived by Jigoro Kano who renamed it from ju-jitsu to ju-do.

That is known today as judo. But, its origins were still known, and so the word jiu-jitsu was also used to describe the martial art.

Here’s a very good video from well known MMA fighter Demian Maia who explains how jiu jitsu arrived in Brazil and was taught to Carlos Gracie Snr. by Mitsuyo Maeda:

He also has a very good series where he explains the origins of jiu jitsu in Japan.

Jacob Wilson

Jacob loves sports. He did karate for 3 years in elementary school, and played volleyball and basketball in high school. He has also been training Brazilian Jiu-jitsu for a year, and is a 2 stripe white belt. You can find out more about Jacob at https://sportscentaur.com/about-jacob-wilson/

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