History of Jiu-Jitsu Part 1 (Before the Gracies)

For years I had only heard about the history of Jiu-Jitsu from the Gracies. Rorion Gracie said that his father Helio was the driving force behind most of the evolution of Jiu-Jitsu from what they learned from Count Koma.

In the Machado’s  schools (my teachers) and in other circles, there is talk about the older brother Carlos’s influence on the art. I had heard that Rickson  Gracie said Jiu-Jitsu originally came from India. And I have heard rumors from several reputable black belts that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu wasn’t actually anything new- that it was derived from Kosen Judo.

This post will give a brief summary of the history of Jiu-Jitsu in Japan before it came to Brazil.  It is based on a book that I highly recommend: “Mastering JuJitsu” by Renzo Gracie and John Danaher.  The history section of this book is awesome.

I am going to start with the history of Jiu-Jitsu at the point that Jigoro Kano (the founder of Judo) came onto the scene, which was in the 1870’s.

Jigoro Kano

Jigoro Kano: Created Judo from Jiu-Jitsu

Kano had studied Jiu-Jitsu with a few different teachers, and his last teacher’s school- Koryo Jiu-Jitsu, emphasized throwing technique (as opposed to ground work).

Even though Kano had only 4 years experience by the time he opened his school, he felt that there were some flaws in the way that Jiu-Jitsu was practiced and perceived.

The first was that Jiu-Jitsu was perceived as an art practiced by thieves and ruffians.  So he created sanctioned competitions with rules and rituals.  He forbade betting on matches.

He called his art Judo as opposed to Jiu-Jitsu. Do is derived from the Chineses word “Tao,” which means way, as in way of life.  “Jitsu” means technique.  He wanted everyone to see the practice as a way of life, and not just a collection of tricks that you can use to defeat an attacker.

Next he organized the techniques into a curriculum, and he added a ranking system.  For example, he made sure that beginners learned how to fall.  Up to this point, many students would get hurt because they weren’t prepared for falling.

One of the most important things Kano did was to make the practice principle based.  Many treated Jiu-Jitsu as a collection of moves that you could do for victory, without any underlying strategies.  The number one principle he emphasized was seiryoku zenyo, which means maximum efficiency, minimum effort.  The way he applied that was to always practice off balancing (kuzushi) before throwing someone.  If you keep someone off balance, they are unable to throw or strike you and you can throw them much easier with much less effort.

The change that he implemented that increased his fame and influence probably more than anything was his change of how the art was trained.  Up to this point, practice was done in kata format, which was students executing moves without resistance.  The eye pokes, groin grabs, fish hooks, striking techniques, and other dangerous techniques that were part of the art couldn’t be executed full force with resistance.  Kano got rid of these more dangerous techniques and had students practice randori, or free sparring.

He actually did little as far as innovation of techniques.  His syllabus of 1895 actually only had about 45 throws in it, and most of these were part of Koryo Jiu-Jitsu.  What he did was to get students to become more effective at applying what they knew.

Kano opened his Judo school in 1882.  He was only 22 years old.  More and more people joined his school, and Koryo Jiu-Jitsu students would challenge his Kodokan Judo students, and the Judo students would win easily.  He gained a lot of students who changed from Koryo to Judo.

In 1886, the Tokyo police were considering adopting a martial art to train their officers in.  A tournament was held to see which system was the most effective.  The Judo students won 13 of 15 matches, and the other 2 going to a draw.  Most of the wins were by ippon, or a throw where the person lands flat on their back.

By 1887, Kano had over 1,500 students!  As the fame of his system grew, traditional Jiu-Jitsu was pushed into the background.  By 1911, Judo was part of public school education.  He was made a member of the International Olympic committee and sought to make Judo an Olympic sport (which it is today).

Enter Mataemon Tanabe

Everything changed when Mataemon Tanabe entered the scene.  He was a practitioner of Fusen Ryu Jiu-Jitsu, which had a lineage traced back to Takeda Motsuge, who was trained as a Buddhist monk and took the name Fusen.

Tanabe challenged the Kodokan Judo school, and a tournament was held.  Instead of standing and engaging the Judokas standing, he would sit down.  The Judokas knew very little ground work, as their focus was throwing, so Tanabe soundly defeated the Judokas.  They were shocked as they had been the dominant force for several years, easily defeating all schools if Jiu-Jitsu up to this point.

Kano, seeing the effectiveness of the submissions on the ground, and Judo’s lack of ground technique, asked Tanabe to teach his curriculum to his Judo students.  Fusen Ryu Jiu-Jitsu was incorporated into the Judo curriculum.

Sadly, little is known about Fusen Ryu and Mataemon Tanabe.  As Kano absorbed the Fusen Ryu techniques into Judo, Fusen Ryu faded into obscurity.  After Tanabe defeated the Judo students, especially up to 1925, there was a huge influence of ground technique (ne waza) to the point that many Judo matches were won and lost on the ground and not standing.

Mataemon Tanabe

Mataemon Tanabe

In the book that I am summarizing here that I mentioned earlier, there is a section about Yukio Tani that is fascinating.  Tani, a Fusen Ryu practitioner, tried to open a Jiu-Jitsu school in England, which soon failed, but then went into a partnership with a British wrestler and showman who arranged that Tani would do challenge matches for the public.  Tani, who was only 5 feet tall and 125 pounds, averaged 40 or 50 challenge matches per week for years.  He made people put on a gi, and then would throw them and submit them on the ground.

Yukio Tani

Yukio Tani

Tani, being smaller than most of the British challengers, would often end up on his back and use the guard.  He was extremely successful, yet he remained even minded and modest throughout his life, claiming that he was of only average ability in Japan.

Tani was trained in Fusen Ryu by Torajiro Tanabe and/or Mataemon Tanabe.  After years of constant fighting and challenge matches, he got tired of this lifestyle and opened a school.  Jigor Kano came to England in an effort to expand Judo, and asked Tani if he would agree to call himself a Judoka and his school a Judo school.  Judo was very organized and had a lot of prestige, so Tani agreed.  Tani was made a 2nd dan black belt in Judo.  His story gives an idea how Fusen Ryu faded into obscurity, swallowed up by the larger and more organized Judo.

Continued in Part 2, History of Jiu-Jitsu, Maeda and the Gracies.

11 Responses to “History of Jiu-Jitsu Part 1 (Before the Gracies)”

  1. Shawn says:

    Nice… Its always been a bit of a blurr about any true longer history (as they say “his-story”) with Jiu-Jitsu.

    What I’ve always heard up to this point was only once Jiu-Jitsu traveled to Brazil and transformed into “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu”.

    I like the Judo transformation… I’ve always been a fan of Judo.

    Cant wait for part 2…

  2. Eric Smith says:

    This is good because it is this type of discussion that is why this information is still with us and didn’t die totally with the end of fedual times and birth of the industrial age. A student of mine was sharing how he re-discovered techniques in a 1410 fencing manual that we have trained. It was in Asia, Europe, etc. Recording history or what we are doing is so important because 100 years from now when the Gracies/Machados are dead, people will be studying where we are at now in the progression of martial arts.

  3. Vince DeLoach says:

    Thanks for clarifying the interrelationship of judo and jiu-jitsu, Ryan. Prior to reading this history, I had the impression that jiu-jitsu was derived from judo, not the other way around.

    I wonder if the 1886 Tokyo Police all martial arts tournament was one of the inspirations for the first UFC?

  4. Ryan says:

    Interesting Vince. I thought the same when I found out about Tani and Maeda doing challenge matches. It’s interesting how history repeats itself.

  5. james says:

    Anyone that is a real study of the marital arts could tell you wihtout any history lesson that the gracies didn’t orginate anything. They did what most advanced martial artists do and that is keep what THEY feel is useful and discard what THEY felt was useless. But to mt BJJ in it’s current form is lacking greatly. Everyone starts training on the ground all the schools and instructors want to start someone on the ground bu they are forgetting a huge component that I feel should be focused on even more so and mastered to a state of high skill and that is getting someone on the ground. What good is all the ground stuff if most students don’t even know how to enter someone’s space while standing and effectively and efficiently take someone to the ground and be able to apply a technique within seconds of getting the person there. Which is why i feel judo itself is a superior art to BJJ because it teaches a person especially in training for competition where it is the most realistic arena that a lot of people can get short of a real fight to take someone down and apply a technigue quickly or risk being stood back up by the ref which is is also good because it teaches a person not to linger on the ground trying all these complicated drawn out moves and positions that BJJ training and competition are making a huge mistake in and habit of teching people and shows and trains them instead to get back up asap and get away.I think people involved in BJJ need to start taking a good long hard look a BJJ and start getting back to making it realistic when it comes to self defense because the path it’s on now is going to get someone killed.

  6. james says:

    And I also feel that one of the reasons why BJJ takes a person such a long time to learn is because it’s made to be too complicated. Spending minutes on the ground trying to gift wrap someone up like a pretzel is both impractical but also an extremely dangerous habit to develope which is basically the poor habit that people seem to fail to realize that “rolling” promotes. No true martial art that evolves to a state of being street effective and street practical if a person really looks at it is overly complex. In fact it’s overly simple and in it’s purist most practical form relies on gross motor movements. I think BJJ had become a bloated cash cow for black belt instructors to use to keep students paying forever while they wait to receive stripe after ridiculous stripe. While learning what is in effect bloated and complicated techniques that take too long to pull off in a realistic life threatening situation.That’s why you are only seeing certain techniques being used over and over in mma. You are seeing things that a person can apply within seconds of taking someone to the ground techniques that can be forcibly and grossly applied quickly. Why do you think Erik Paulson was talking about catch wrestling and how it trains a person to take something. BJJ is training people to be too patient. Patience is for competition, where you have time and can afford to be patient and it pays off. There is no room for patience on the street when a persons life is on the line. It’s either take and break or wait and suffocate, in the coffin you just nailed for yourself.

  7. Milan Spire says:

    Howdy just happened upon your blog via Bing after I typed in, “History of Jiu-Jitsu Part 1 (Before the Gracies) | The BJJ Way” or something similar (can’t quite remember exactly). In any case, I’m relieved I found it because your content is exactly what I’m searching for (writing a college paper) and I hope you don’t mind if I collect some material from here and I will of course credit you as the source. Many thanks.

  8. Ryan says:

    No problem!

  9. Enver says:

    Here is the mention of the Sanskrit version of the word jiu-jitsu ( desiring or ready to fight) found in Bhagavad Gita As It is by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami .

    Chapter 1. Observing the Armies on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra
    TEXT 1

    dhrtarastra uvaca
    dharma-ksetre kuru-ksetre
    samaveta yuyutsavah
    mamakah pandavas caiva
    kim akurvata sanjaya


    dhrtarastrah–King Dhrtarastra; uvaca–said; dharma-ksetre–in the place of pilgrimage; kuru-ksetre–in the place named Kuruksetra; samavetah–assembled; yuyutsavah–desiring to fight; mamakah–my party (sons); pandavah–the sons of Pandu; ca–and; eva–certainly; kim–what; akurvata–did they do; sanjaya–O Sanjaya.

    Dhrtarastra said: O Sanjaya, after assembling in the place of pilgrimage at Kuruksetra, what did my sons and the sons of Pandu do, being desirous to fight?

  10. Enver says:

    Mind you , Bhagavad Gita’s origins are in India 5000 years ago. I am surprised that most martial artists are not aware of this fact. Also , in Krsna Book by the same author you will find descriptions of leg locks and arm locks and other wrestling techniques. I highly encourage you to look into this for the oldest source there is. In it , you’ll find so much more on original philosophy that was part of the Vedic kshatriya/warrior cast which is now completely forgotten. I hope this helps.

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