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Jiu-Jitsu in the Land of the Rising Sun

This week we are introducing Professor Ryo Ominani, a 4th-degree black belt under Master Carlos Gracie Jr and the founder of GB Tokushima, Japan, to our global GB Community.

Professor Ryo shares his story about traveling to Brazil to get Jiu-Jitsu training in the early days of Gracie Barra, the influence of his mentors, the growth of GB Jiu-Jitsu in Japan, the role that Jiu-Jitsu played in overcoming shyness, and how he sees the differences between Jiu-Jitsu in Japan and Brazil.

At the 2022 GB World Summit, Professor Ryo Ominami traveled to Florianopolis, Brazil, and was awarded his 4th degree on his black belt by Master Carlos Gracie Jr.

"I'm very proud to have the 4th degree, but at the same time, I'm still very humble. I was with many GB Professors. Like Professors Marcio, Flavio, Escorrega, and Piu Piu. Now, in front of them, I feel like I'm still a blue belt," Professor Ryo laughs.

Professor Ryo got his start in Jiu-Jitsu around the age of 14 years old. After seeing some videos of the early UFCs at his friend's house (26 years ago at the time of this writing). At the time, there were no Jiu-Jitsu schools in Japan. An internet search revealed that a Gracie Barra Jiu-Jitsu school had recently opened, and young Ryo immediately joined GB Shikoku.

Professor Ryo’s first instructor was Professor Hidenori Hayashi, a purple belt teaching classes at the time. He was Professor Aroldo Kobayashi's - a half-Brazilian Japanese student - under Master Carlos Liberi.

"I kept training until the blue belt. As a blue belt, in 2004, I went to Brazil. I was young and curious. I wanted to learn from the best. Back then, Japanese Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was not as professional as it is today," Professor Ryo explains.

"We would do the armbars on each other and choke each other. It looks like Jiu-Jitsu, but it was not real," he laughs, "So I wanted to learn from the best of the best."

It may be difficult for current students to understand how limited information on Jiu-Jitsu was at that time., The internet BJJ community was not as well developed, and access to technical instruction - like GB Online - was limited. In the early days of Jiu-Jitsu spreading internationally, much of the technical instruction had to come in person at seminars or, as Professor Ryo did, travel to Brazil to learn.

Traveling to train in Brazil

Professor Ryo made a pilgrimage to the original Gracie Barra school in Barra da Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"It was an amazing experience! Until then, I had never seen a black belt. At Gracie Barra headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, there were like 50 black belts on the same day, on the same mats. Master Carlos was there. Professor Marcio Feitosa was there. Professor Fabio and Piu Piu, even Roger Gracie. Everyone was on the same mat training. It was an unbelievable environment," remembers Professor Ryo.

"I felt like a Japanese baseball kid in Yankee stadium!"

Professor Ryo stayed for three months during that initial trip to Brazil before returning to Japan. His appetite whetted for training Jiu-Jitsu at the source; Professor Ryo saved his money from his construction job to return to Brazil the following year in 2005 to stay for ten months and immerse himself in Jiu-Jitsu.

Jiu-Jitsu is not only on the mat - the Jiu-Jitsu lifestyle

When asked how the experience of traveling to the other side of the world (the flight time from Japan to Rio de Janeiro takes close to 24 hours) influenced his philosophy of Jiu-Jitsu, he answered, "What I felt from my experience in Brazil is that Jiu-Jitsu is not only on the mat. Off the mat, people also workout together, hiking, surfing, and eating well. I didn't know that."

Professor Ryo explains, "Before I arrived in Brazil, I thought that Jiu-Jitsu was just about training and techniques. Do the sparring. Competition. But for the Brazilian people at Gracie Barra, Jiu-Jitsu is not only just the martial arts; it's about lifestyle."

Japanese traditional martial arts vs. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Japan is the land of the samurai with a centuries-old martial arts tradition. And the birthplace of the original Jiu-Jitsu. Professor Ryo sees a difference between how their traditional martial arts (judo, karate, kendo) are practiced and the GB approach.

"I would say that Japanese martial arts are more 'on the mat.' Not off of the mat. People focus more on the martial art itself. Techniques, mechanics, how to beat the opponents," Professor Ryo says, "But Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is much more than that."

Professor Ryo revealed something surprising about what he describes as the different Japanese approaches to training in martial arts.

"With Japanese people, all of the judo guys and karate guys are very strict on the mats. But off of the mats, people drink (alcohol), smoke (cigarettes), they don't work out," Professor Ryo explains, "It's completely different."

During the purple belt portion of his Jiu-Jitsu journey, Professor Ryo focused on being the best competitor he could be. Inspired by several GB instructors that he had met, like Professor Marcio Feitosa, Professor Carlos Lemos Jr., and Professor Nao Takigawa from Japan, Professor Ryo wanted to be a Jiu-Jitsu champion.

Competition experience

Professor Ryo competed in the Adult Featherweight class in Japan, the USA, and Brazil until he reached 30 years of age.

The proudest accomplishment of his professional career was winning the IBJJF Asian Open tournament three times. The Asian Open victories occurred at purple, brown, and finally, black belt.

"At the second Asian Open, that I won as a brown belt, at the podium, Master Carlos Gracie Jr was there. He promoted me to black belt," Professor Ryo remembers. "It was a very special moment."

Mentor Professor Carlos Lemos Jr.

On one of his trips to train in GB Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil, Professor Ryo had the good fortune to meet someone who would later prove to be a pivotal figure in his life, Gracie Barra Professor Carlos Lemos.

"I stayed at Professor Carlos Lemos Jr's house when I was in Brazil," he says, "24-7 I was with him. Together all of the time. He taught me many, many things!" One solid year of living, training, and eating together with Professor Carlos Lemos profoundly affected his involvement in Jiu-Jitsu.

Following Professor Ryo's graduation to a black belt in Japan, Professor Carlos Lemos invited him to come and stay in the United States to be an instructor.

"I helped him to open the new GB Downers Grove school," says Professor Ryo, "He has always been my mentor and my best friend. I'm blessed to have a mentor like him."

When Professor Ryo talks about the most significant influence of Professor Carlos Lemos on his Jiu-Jitsu, he says, "Brotherhood."

"Since day one when I met him, he has always had an open mind. Also, when I'm in a very difficult situation, he has helped me 100%. I had many difficult times in my life, but he helped me every time. 100%." Professor Ryo reveals that experiencing this inspired him to continue his path in Jiu-Jitsu.

"He always gave me motivation. When I'm lazy, he pushes me so hard," Professor Ryo smiles, “I was very shy, a little bit of a closed guy. But he changed me in many ways."

Teaching GB Jiu-Jitu in Fukushima, Japan

In 2006, he moved his training to Professor Nao Takigawa of GB Kobe in Japan and supported him as an assistant instructor for five years. Professor sees this period as an apprenticeship where he felt that he had an opportunity to learn Gracie Barra methodologies from Professor Takigawa.

Professor Ryo moved to the USA to train and work alongside his mentor, Professor Carlos Lemos Jr., and returned to Japan to open a GB school in the city where he was born and raised - Tokushima.

"I wanted to contribute to my community, my city where I grew up," Professor Ryo says. "I got many things from Jiu-Jitsu, so I want to give it to the next generation."

Professor Ryo shares a specific example of something he learned from Jiu-Jitsu that he works to share with his students at GB Tokushima.

"My city is more countryside. A small population. A kind of closed society (culturally speaking)," says Professor Ryo, "For the next generation, I want to open the door for them. Jiu-Jitsu gives so many chances and opportunities, especially for the younger people."

Jiu-Jitsu to overcome shyness

Professor Ryo shares that throughout growing up he was an extremely shy and closed person. Today, he has many friends all over the world, in the United States, Brazil, in Europe."

For Professor Ryo, Jiu-Jitsu proved to be more than just an outlet for his competitive ambitions. He feels that training in Jiu-Jitsu profoundly influenced his personality in terms of helping him develop confidence in interacting with others and overcoming his natural shyness. He points to his time spent training and living with Professor Carlos Lemos as a profound influence in his development as both a Jiu-Jitsu instructor and as a more open personality.

Professor Ryo sees Jiu-Jitsu as a path for the next generation of young people in Japan to develop their personalities and social skills to navigate through life.

Jiu-Jitsu in Japan and Brazil culturally

Jiu-Jitsu originated in Japan and evolved in Brazil largely through the efforts of the legendary Gracie family. Professor Ryo expressed his perception in Japan of the Brazilian style of Jiu-Jitsu.

Professor Ryo says, "When I opened my school in 2013, not so many years ago, Japanese people already knew about the effectiveness of Jiu-Jitsu. Because of MMA, the UFC," explains Professor Ryo, "People were already educated about what Jiu-Jitsu is. But 20 years ago, it was completely different."

Teachers and practitioners of the traditional Japanese martial arts were initially unsure of this new flavor of Jiu-Jitsu coming out of Brazil. There were skeptics that dismissed it as an inferior expression of the Olympic sport of Judo.

"They thought that Jiu-Jitsu was like nothing. That Judo was real," Professor Ryo grins, "But many Jiu-Jitsu fighters fought in MMA, UFC, and they changed people's perception of Jiu-Jitsu. Today, people understand Jiu-Jitsu. Even the old martial artists, the karate guys, the Judo guys respect Jiu-Jitsu," says Professor Ryo with a knowing smile, "Battle-tested!"

The popularity of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Japan

Professor Ryo sees a decline in the popularity of traditional martial arts among young people in Japan, while Jiu-Jitsu is growing.

"Jiu-Jitsu is growing so fast. All of the traditional Japanese martial arts population is going down a little," he says.

"The federation of Jiu-Jitsu says that today thirty thousand people are training in Jiu-Jitsu in Japan. There are more than three hundred Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu schools in all of Japan. It's growing," says Professor Ryo, "The Judo population in Japan is two hundred thousand. Jiu-Jitsu is growing so fast. I say that one-day Jiu-Jitsu will be bigger than Judo."

There are a few factors that contribute to the decline of Judo. "It's not just because of Jiu-Jitsu. Judo also has many problems. Because if you want to learn Judo in Japan, you can not find a school." Why is this?

Judo is largely supported as part of the Japanese sports programs and is oriented towards producing athletes for the national team. Judo is not oriented as a recreational activity that many different types of people can participate in.

Jiu-Jitsu for everyone

"Because Japanese Judo is for the Olympics. For competitors. For tournaments. If you want to learn Judo, you have to go back to 6 years old. You have to go to a Judo school." says Professor Ryo. "If you have no chance to become a good champion, you have to quit. It's not for normal people."

"You can learn Judo when you go to the Kodokan (the headquarters of Judo in Tokyo), but not everywhere," explains Professor Ryo, "Judo is NOT for everyone. It has a whole different approach. So Jiu-Jitsu will get more people."

Professor Ryo feels that because of the GB philosophy of Jiu-Jitsu For Everyone, it will continue to gain in popularity and eventually overtake the traditional Judo in Japan.

Professor Ryo smiles "Master Carlos' vision is so smart. He has something. He can see the future."

Professor Ryo's Philosophy of Jiu-Jitsu and the Future of GB Jiu-Jitsu in Japan

"My goal is to change people's lives for the better through Jiu-Jitsu," he says, "Today in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the Gracie Barra school, on the mat, technically everyone has a very good level. People have good manners, are disciplined, and have a lot of respect."

"But off of the mat," he laughs, "Japanese Jiu-Jitsu doesn't have the lifestyle. So, I have to become like Professor Carlos, and I have to lead by example. That's what I'm always thinking."

"This way, people can do Jiu-Jitsu 100% Can enjoy 100%," Professor Ryo says, "On the mat is not everything. It's a lifestyle. Japanese Jiu-Jitsu - on the mats - is now very good! It has a good future. Everything is ok. But off of the mat, the lifestyle, we have to improve more. More activity, more workouts"

Professor Ryo teaches eating better, healthy habits, cross training to support your Jiu-Jitsu training as factors outside of the classes at the GB school that form a holistic approach to the healthy Jiu-Jitsu lifestyle.

Blog written by Mark Mullen, a Gracie Barra Black Belt

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