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A Brief History
Jiu-jitsu was utilized in many forms and called many other names long before it became a formalized martial art. As far back as humanity goes, someone has been figuring out a way to twist their opponent’s joints or apply chokes in combat. Since we are being brief in this history, let’s jump ahead to the Middle of the Shogun Era in Japan (somewhere in the 17th century) because Samurai are pretty awesome. Also, because it is first time the name Jiu-Jitsu was used to refer to a formalized set of techniques.
Jiu-Jitsu, or is it jujitsu? Or jujutsu? I’m already confused. Originally it was two Japanese words, it spelled phonetically so there is some variance. Let’s just stick with spelling it jiu-jitsu for the sake of continuity. Jiu can be translated as soft, gentle, yielding, pliable, vulnerable or I have even heard “bendy” before. Jitsu can be translated as art, technique, or commonly, martial art. So we are left with the soft, gentle, bendy, yielding, vulnerable, or pliable art. The Gentle Art doesn’t seem to fit, because slamming someone to the ground and choking them doesn’t seem that gentle or soft. Yielding kind of works because we are using our opponent’s force against them sometimes, but an arm bar isn’t exactly yielding…trust me, your opponent’s force will be in direct opposition to yours when their elbow is in danger. I have always liked pliable as the translation, not only because jiu-jitsu is versatile and can be molded to fit any situation, but because it attacks the pliable parts of the body, mainly the neck and joints. If your opponent is wearing armor, what good is a punch or a kick? It is better to go after the articulation points in the armor, the pliable points. So we are left with the pliable martial art.
Jiu-jitsu was a general term for grappling or unarmed combat. Again, since your opponent was most likely wearing armor, punching and kicking were not very effective. Early forms of jiu-jitsu involved many of the throws, joint locks, trips, and unbalancing moves we still utilize today, but also had limited striking to vital areas (eyes, neck, and groin) as well as very efficient and deadly weapons forms with the short sword, dagger, weighted chain, or just about anything smaller than the katana sword. Schools were limited to the ruling class and professional soldiers, Samurai, honing their techniques and practicing early forms of randori, (open practice without the intention of injuring your opponent). These early forms are still practiced to this day, but are often identified as something other than Jiu-Jitsu since that name has grown into something more modern.
Traditional Jiu-Jitsu came about in peacetime. Gone were the days of large pitched battles against armored opponents, but there was still a need to protect yourself from people with bad intentions. Jiu-Jitsu in the 18th century transitioned into something much more familiar to the modern practitioner, throws, trips, joint locks, pins, using the clothing of your opponent to control or choke them. It is, in fact, where the gi became an integral part of Jiu-Jitsu, as it was the common clothing of the time. There were still some forms of striking utilized to the vital areas (atemi-waza), but strikes were not considered effective at ending a confrontation and were more often utilized more to open up other, more efficient techniques. Different schools began to pop up and challenge each other about who had the superior techniques and students and confrontations occur. These confrontations began to become more civil and formalized, and we could even say the first jiu-jitsu tournaments take place. Schools became more popular, the techniques that worked the best became the gospel, and Traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu becomes a formalized martial art. Traditional jiu-jitsu still exists today and was the first martial art I studied heavily.
Fast forward just over a hundred years and jiu-jitsu is falling out of favor with the Japanese public. The fall of the Shogunate rulers and instillation of an Emperor, along with the increased external modern influences (See also: Commodore Perry), made the practice seem to many to be archaic at best, for thugs and criminals at worst. It is basically the plot of The Last Samurai.
A man named Jigoro Kano (Sometimes named as Kano Jigoro, as is the Japanese custom), was in search of a place to learn Jiu-Jitsu to deal with some of the less friendly people at his school. Jiu-Jitsu had fallen so far out of favor that it took him several years to find an instructor. Once he found someone willing to teach him, he quickly became the star pupil. He was even part of a jiu-jitsu demonstration for former President, Ulysses S Grant in 1879.
Established the Kodokan dojo in 1882. His style of jiu-jitsu focused on a principal of Seiryoku Zen’yo, which is maximum efficiency with minimum effort and jita kyoei, mutual benefit and welfare. Where contemporary jiu-jitsu had a reliance on physical strength and many of the moves were difficult to practice at full speed without the significant risk of injury, Kano developed a form that utilized only a selection of techniques that relied on leverage, timing, proper spacing with a heavy emphasis on throwing, tripping, or unbalancing your opponent. He replaced Jiu-Jitsu, with Judo, “do” being a term derived from “Tao” Buddhism and is roughly translated to the way or the path.
Judo gained popularity because of the relatively low risk of injury during an intense randori. As a result, Jiu-jitsu also regained popularity, so much so that Judo and Jujitsu became interchangeable terms as so many people began training in both forms.
A formal set of contest rules for Judo were established in 1899. For competition, strikes were eliminated entirely, as were finger, toe, or ankle locks (small joint manipulation), wrist locks were only for the highest ranks, and the focus of the match was to throw your opponent cleanly onto their back, with speed, efficiency, and proper technique, called Ippon (victory, or literally full point). If a throw was not good enough for ippon, lower grades of waza-arai and yuko were awarded. Once on the ground, pinning your opponent for a sufficient amount of time or a submission hold would also be an ippon victory. Competitions were soon also divided by weight class and by a newly established ranking system…colored belts.
The sport rules of judo became so popular that it was included in the Olympic Games as a demonstration in 1932. Even President Theodore Roosevelt trained in Judo and Jiu-Jitsu and wrote of it in 1905 “The art of Jiu-Jitsu is worth more in every way than all of our athletics combined”
It was during this boom of popularity that Judo and Jiu-Jitsu spread throughout the world. One of Kano’s best students, particularly in ground fighting (ne waza) Mitsuyo Maeda, began traveling the world as a prize fighter in a circus and during a trip to Brazil, impressed a man named Guastao Gracie so much, that he would be asked to stay in Brazil and teach the Gracie children.