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The Origins of Jiu-Jitsu - the History Behind the Art

As you don your Jiu-Jitsu Gi and sip on your Acai pre-workout, what do you reflect on? If you’re like many Jiu-Jitsu practitioners, you look forward to your rolls, drilling moves, and positions in your head. But do you ever stop to think about how the “gentle art” came to be?

Or have you wondered about the evolution of Jiu-Jitsu? Of course, there is a well-known answer to this question: Mitsuyu Maeda came to Brazil and captured the attention of the then-14-year-old Carlos Gracie. Carlos quickly fell in love with the sport; the rest is history, as they say.

That story is told often and is well understood and accepted by the Global Jiu-Jitsu community. But have you ever considered what led to that meeting? What were the events that brought Mitsuyu Maeda to Brazil in the first place? How did he come to meet Carlos Gracie? If you have, then this is the article for you.

The very early years

It is difficult to be precise when and at what point or where exactly Jiu-Jitsu originated. Despite many historians and evidence pointing to Buddhist monks in India, basic grappling elements can be traced back to places like Greece, India, China, Rome, and even the Native Americans.

When trying to understand the origins of Jiu-Jitsu, we must avoid simplifying its creation to a person, a group, or a period. Jiu-Jitsu, as we know it today, is a natural intuitive way of fighting that had rudimentary manifestations in various cultures in different historical moments.

But a martial art consists not only of techniques or fighting strategies. The philosophy that defines the purpose of practice, and the moral code of the practitioners, is a powerful element that determines the direction of technical development and the survival or death of the art itself.

Jiu-Jitsu in India

When we consider the philosophical framework of Jiu-Jitsu, it is reasonable to associate Buddhist monks in India around 2,000 B.C. with the origins of our sport.

The Buddhist value system of non-violence and deep respect for all forms of life led to the development of a self-defense system that aimed to neutralize an aggressor without harming the aggressor.

Wrapped by important Buddhist principles like acting in a non-harmful way or pursuing self-mastering and enlightenment, Jiu-Jitsu served well the self-defense needs of monks. With the expansion of Buddhism throughout the region, Jiu-Jitsu reached China and later Japan.

Jiu-Jitsu in Japan - Golden Age and Decline of the Gentle Art

While it is safe to assume that rudimentary versions of Jiu-Jitsu appeared in many cultures at different times, the feudal Japan of the second millennia offered a fertile environment for it to flourish.

In a country fragmented by the feudal system, with each feud having its own set of warriors (the Samurai), Jiu-Jitsu became a necessary fighting skill for combat survival. But Jiu-Jitsu did not earn this name until the 17th century. After that time, it became a blanket term for a wide variety of grappling-related disciplines.

Jiu-Jitsu evolved among the Samurai as a method for defeating an armed and armored opponent without weapons. Because striking against an armored opponent proved ineffective, practitioners used their attackers’ energy against them rather than working to oppose that energy directly. The Samurai worked to develop efficient methods for neutralizing an enemy with techniques that took advantage of this energy.

However, with the Meiji Restoration, a political movement that ended the Japanese feudal system and triggered the modernization of that country, the Samurai's prestigious class lost its primary importance.

The radical political, cultural, and social transformations in Japan in the 19th century made Jiu-Jitsu gravitate from a reputable art of combat to an illegal practice. In a few decades, modern Japan went from adoring the warrior class to reprimanding bloody combats that were taking place from the jobless former Samurais and their disciples.

Kano Jiu-Jitsu

Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), a member of the Japanese Ministry of Culture and Martial Artists, played an essential role in rescuing Jiu-Jitsu's reputation in peaceful times.

Kano understood how Jiu-Jitsu could serve as a combat tool and as an effective way to educate the individual and allow everyone to embrace a more balanced lifestyle by developing their potential.

Kano also realized Jiu-Jitsu could be used as a powerful educational tool that could support any human being's development. He envisioned it supporting the Japanese goals for social and economic development.

Complementing his updated training philosophy, Kano made an effort to adopt new training methods and remove dangerous techniques. These changes allowed practitioners to engage in safe, but intense, training drills with full resistance – what we know as sparring or live training today.

This new philosophical and methodological approach to the practice of Jiu-Jitsu had a significant positive impact on Japanese society. It helped Jiu-Jitsu regain its social status that had been declining since the Meiji Restoration. The new approach became famous back then as Kano Jiu-Jitsu and later as Judo.

To bring more notoriety and recognition to Kano Jiu-Jitsu, Jigoro Kano and the Japanese government began working towards adding it to the Olympic Games. As Kano Jiu-Jitsu evolved into the sport of Judo, many rules were introduced to redefine the focus of practice and make the sport more appealing to spectators. In this process, ground fighting was minimized through a bias toward take-down techniques.

While the reforms of Jigoro Kano contributed tremendously to the survival of a millenary martial art tradition, the emphasis on take-downs created a fragmented martial art. The result was a style less connected with the essence of Jiu-Jitsu and the reality of real combat.

In parallel to the regained reputation of Jiu-Jitsu in Japanese society came a decline of ground fighting, the most powerful set of combat skills Jiu-Jitsu had to offer.

Among Kano's remarkable students, though, was Mitsuyu Maeda. Maeda was a fighter who benefited from Kano's innovations, but also had roots in other Jiu-Jitsu schools that emphasized ground fighting and self-defense skills under real combat situations.

Maeda, who later became famous as Count Koma, had above-average skills and was sent overseas to help spread Jiu-Jitsu to different cultures and countries.

After traveling to many countries, including the US, Central America, and Europe, Maeda landed in Brazil in 1914. There he would meet a young boy named Carlos Gracie and plant the seed that would keep the essence of Jiu-Jitsu alive.

Maeda Meets Gracie

In 1914 Maeda landed in the northern state of Para, Brazil, to help establish the Japanese colony in that region. Settling down in Belem do Para, it was common for Maeda to make use of his outstanding fighting skills in demonstrations.

The first time Carlos Gracie met Count Koma was one of these demonstrations. Carlos was amazed by Maeda's ability to defeat other opponents that were much bigger and stronger than he.

Carlos Gracie was a wild kid that was slipping out of control of his father, Gastão, and mother, Cesalina. Energetic and rebellious, Carlos was proving to be a lot of work to his parents. Knowing that Maeda just started a Jiu-Jitsu program in town, Gastão decided to take Carlos to learn from the Japanese to calm down and discipline his son.

Carlos Gracie

Carlos was introduced to Jiu-Jitsu at the age of 14. He became an avid student for a few years. The training under Maeda had a profound impact on him. He had never before sensed that level of self-control and self-confidence that Jiu-Jitsu practice gave him.

The connection with his body he could feel during each training session allowed Carlos to understand his nature, limitations, and strengths and brought a sense of peace that he never felt before in his life.

The times with Maeda lasted for a short time, though. Less than five years from the day he started, Carlos moved to Rio de Janeiro with his parents and siblings, ending his time with Maeda.

Arriving in Rio de Janeiro at 20, Carlos Gracie had difficulties adapting to everyday life and working a regular job. Carlos's wild spirit would not allow him to settle down. He missed Jiu-Jitsu and developed a strong desire to share it by becoming a Jiu-Jitsu instructor.

At the beginning of the 20th century in Brazil, the martial arts instructor's profession was not exactly promising. People's awareness about it was practically nonexistent, making it extremely difficult to find students willing to pay tuition in exchange for instruction.

The passion for Jiu-Jitsu, and Koma’s earlier dedication to making him a champion, allowed Carlos to discover a new meaning to his life. Carlos perceived Jiu-Jitsu as not just a self-defense system but as a tool to help him find his way through the world.

The First Gracie School Founded - The Gracie Clan

The first Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu School was founded by Carlos Gracie in 1925 at Rua Marquês de Abrantes 106, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

At 23, Carlos Gracie understood well the excellent benefits Jiu-Jitsu could bring to one's life. The Marquês de Abrantes school was not exactly what one would expect as the pioneering powerhouse of Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. With limited resources and concerns for his younger brothers' well-being, all Carlos could afford was a small house and turn the living room into a training area.

Carlos knew it would be impossible to accomplish such a gigantic task alone. With that house, however, Carlos united his brothers and engaged them in his life project. The first generation of Gracie brothers living and working in that same house forged the family spirit we still feel today. Such spirit flowed down through generations and was crucial for the Gracie Family's extraordinary success over the years.

Blog Written by Flavio Almeida, a Gracie Barra Black Belt 5th degree

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