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Gracie Japan

 

Brazilians Bringing Jiu-Jitsu Back to Japan

By Roberto  Pedreira

   There's something ironic about it, as many people have remarked, the Japanese being taught a Japanese martial art by Brazilians. But then again, not really, when you think about it. Mitsuo Maeda first taught Carlos Gracie the Japanese art of twisting, locking, and throwing, some seventy years ago. Since then, under the nurturance of Carlos, his younger brother Helio, and their ever growing army (as Renzo says) of sons, grandsons, and nephews, jiu-jitsu has developed along distinctly Brazilian lines. 

   Backstage at Pride 2 (March 1998) in Yokohama, I was talking to Rickson, Renzo, and Royler for my Black Belt report on the event. I noticed a young Japanese guy talking to a scary looking Brazilian guy (who turned out to be one of Rolls Gracie's top students, Mauricio Motta Gomes). The Japanese guy was wearing a t-shirt that said "Gracie Japan". I didn't think much of it, because there are Gracie fans everywhere, and plenty in Japan, and a  lot of them have Gracie t-shirts. But what did "Gracie Japan" refer to? As far as I knew, Japan was devoid of Gracie jiu-jitsu. I asked him where he had gotten the shirt. At the Gracie academy in Tokyo, he said. In fact, it was his academy. He invited me to visit. The next day I did. I've been there since.

   The young Japanese guy's name was Takamasa Watanabe (standing in photo on right). A few of his students address him as sensei (teacher).  But most know him as "Taka" (which coincidentally means “hawk” in Japanese). Taka is Brazilian (a carioca to be exact). To be biographically precise, he was born in Japan. His parents immigrated to Brazil before he was one year old--before he had a chance to learn to learn to speak or indeed to be (in the cultural sense) Japanese. He spent 20 of his first 21 years in Rio de Janeiro, doing what kids do in Rio, surfing if possible, but most assuredly, playing futebol (soccer). He also studied karate, kendo, and judo (with Rickson’s judo teacher, George Mehdi) from an early age. He started learning jiu-jitsu from Marcello Behring when he was 13, because "other martial arts are good, but for self-defense, jiu-jitsu is best". He earned his brown belt from Carlos Gracie Jr. at the Barra da Ticuja academy in 1993, the same year he returned to Japan to study business at Sophia University.

   "When I told my friends at the academy in Barra I was going to Japan, they were envious, because they thought I was going to learn the ancient secret techniques and state of the art methods from the Japanese. After all, they were the ones who invented jiu-jitsu and taught it to Carlos Gracie". 

   When he got here, he checked out daitoryu ju-jutsu schools, Tengshin shinryoryu jujutsu, judo, and sambo schools. Taka soon realized that the secrets he had been looking for weren't in Japan. They were back in Brazil. And they weren't secrets. They were just the basic techniques everyone learns in every jiu-jitsu academy in Rio.

    In order to preserve his jiu-jitsu skills, he began teaching a few fellow students at the university. This was in still in 1993, before the UFC and Vale Tudos, long before the days when the names Royce and Rickson had become as familiar as Elvis and Bruce.

   One day, one of his students mentioned that the captain of the university karate team had heard of Taka and wanted to meet him. Thinking that he simply wanted to talk, Taka agreed. But the karate man had other ideas and asked Taka to accompany him to his dojo nearby, where the entire karate team was waiting. The karate man exclaimed his doubts about the effectiveness of what he had heard Taka was teaching and asked for a personal demonstration "just like in that Bruce Lee movie" [the scene on the junk en route to Dr. Han's island where Parsons from New Zealand asks Bruce to "show me some of it" in Enter the Dragon].  Taka had been on his way to class and reasonably enough didn't happen to be carrying his kimono (or dogi, as the Japanese term it). The karate man told him, no problem, the floor is clean, Taka could just wear his street clothes. Taka declined. The karate man found a dirtydogi laying around and he tossed it over to Taka. Taka took this as an insult, and accepted the challenge. What happened next? "Nothing special. Just  the A-B-Cs of jiu-jitsu--clinch, take down, choke. It wasn't difficult; he was clueless." He was also unconscious--Taka had forgotten to remind him to tap if necessary.

   Eventually, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu tidal wave reached Japan and in September of 1997 Taka felt the time had come to establish an official Gracie academy in Japan. With the approval and assistance of his teacher and president of the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Federation, Carlos Gracie Jr., Taka opened the Gracie Japan academy in the Meidaimae area of Tokyo, easily accessible from both Shinjuku (by Keio line) and Shibuya (by Keio Inokashira line). His hunch had been right. Within days, the academy was full of Japanese and foreigners eager to learn this awesomely effective art. They came from the eight corners of the world. In addition to Japan, students hail from America, Austria, Korea, China, Myanmar, Mexico, Australia Canada, Israel, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Russia, Chile, Peru, New Zealand, England, and Poland (including the Polish ambassador, who, besides being a Gracie Jiu-jitsu fan, is a dan ranked aikido expert.) The academy is a magnet for Brazilians living in Tokyo, both those who previously trained in Brazil, and those who had never heard of jiu-jitsu before coming to Japan. Visitors from Jacare's school in Atlanta, Roberto Maia's school in Boston, Ralph's school in Mountain View, Renzo's school in New York, and Rickson's school in Los Angeles regularly show up for longer or shorter stays. Famous jiu-jitsu teachers and fighters regularly make stops at Gracie Japan. Renzo, Ryan, Relson, Rillion, Mario Sperry, Murilo Bustamante, Ricardo Liborio, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Top Team coach Bebeo Duarte, Ricardo Arona, Vitor Belfort, Saulo Ribeiro, Matt Sera, Alexandre Café Dantas, Leka Vieira and Aloisio Silva, Sean Alvarez, Leo Vieira and his younger brother Ricardo Vieira, Ricardo DelaRiva, Pe de Pano, Vitor Shaolin Ribeiro, and many others have stopped in to train, visit with old friends, conduct interviews and photo shoots with the local press, and to make seminars. Several illustrious teachers, including. Mauricio Motta Gomes (4th dan black belt and one of Rolls Gracie's original black belts), and Edson de Silva (6th dan black belt), stopped in and stayed for three months each. 

   Students range from absolute beginners with no martial arts experience, to high ranking masters of other martial arts, such as karate, boxing, aikido, aikijutsu, and jeet kune do. There are plenty of judoka, samboists and wrestlers represented as well. The majority of the students are on the young side, but there are some older "rollers" too. For example, Thomas Foley, who happens also to be the U.S. ambassador to Japan, is over 70 years old but rolls when his busy schedule allows.

   Since the academy is relatively new and the first one in Japan, Taka wanted to keep the standards for belt promotions high. The great majority of students, some after having been training for two years, are still white belts. There are a fair number of blue belts now, although far fewer than in Brazil, in relation to the number of students in the school. There is just one purple belt, and he received his after his impressive performances in many tournaments, including most recently Rickson's in August (in which, though technically a blue belt, he competed as a purple and, according to some observers, narrowly missed the gold medal due to a refereeing oversight). He is Cristiano Alves Kaminishi, who Karate Bushido in France (Octobre 1998, p. 111) called a "nouvelle star" and "semble avoir le potentiel d'un futur très grand champion". In the same vein, one writer for Black Belt magazine in the United States described Cristiano as having "the potential to become a major force on the competition tatami [sic] and possibly in the vale tudo ring as well" (April 1999, p.159) . 

   It's hard to miss Cristiano. He's a big boy. His kimono is covered with sponsors' logos. He's never far from the mat. Not only because he loves jiu-jitsu but also because he lives in the academy. (Click for update on Cristiano). Literally. You tend to get a lot of rolling in, when you live in a jiu-jitsu academy. You also tend to get good.         

   The school is physically small, like most places in Tokyo, but not that much smaller than most academies in Rio. Like any dojo or academy anywhere, it tends to get crowded at peak training times. But with 90-minute classes offered three times a day six days a week and twice on Sunday, there's generally ample room to roll.

   Classes are conducted in Japan the way they are in Brazil, with a few small concessions to the Japanese fondness for formality. Bowing isn't a Brazilian custom. Brazilians hug, kiss, and shake hands--some form of physical contact is required in greetings and leave-takings. The Japanese tend to view this sort of physical contact as uncomfortably intimate and not compatible with the rank and distance relations that pervade every social group. Lining up, kneeling, and bowing before and after a workout is a very Japanese thing. Everything in Japan starts and stops at a precise time. This not only never happens in Brazil, it never could happen (and of course, Brazilian workouts don't really begin and end in the same way they do in Japan). In the spirit of compromise, training at Gracie Japan begins and ends with hand shaking and hugging,  followed by lining up, kneeling, and bowing. The class ends with lining up, kneeling, and bowing, followed by hand shakes and hugs. The Japanese ritual is enclosed within the Brazilian ritual. Everyone seems to like it like that. (There are some Brazilians, such as Sylvio Behring, who believe that more of the Japanese emphasis on self-discipline and respect would not be a bad idea in more jiu-jitsu academies in Rio). 

  Apart from that, and the fact that the classes are conducted in three languages (Japanese, Portuguese, and English) the workout is indistinguishable from one in Rio. In fact, some of the Japanese who have been training for a while seem to have become a bit Brazilianized, becoming more relaxed and demonstrative than most other Japanese. It's the environment. It isn't easy spending any amount of time among Brazilians, especially cariocas, without picking up at least a few of their mannerisms and speech characteristics, my friend. 

   Gracie Japan isn't quite the same as actually being in Rio. (For example, Rio has beaches, samba, sunny weather, and spectacular views, while Tokyo has high prices and earthquakes). But at least within the confines of the academy walls, it's pretty close. 

 

 

Note 1. Since the original pictures are still missing, we substitute one picture of Cristiano Kamanishi, taken about 2003. There are also four nice pictures of Cristiano demonstrating some dumog techniques with Igor in Dumog.

Above Cristiano Kaminish, @ 2003.

 

 

Update January 1, 2003. Cristiano don't live in the Academy no more. He's back in Rio, training with the Top Team, preparing for his debut in the Vale Tudo ring of Japan when the time is right. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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(c) 2000-2003, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.

Revised 1/1/03.

This copyrighted article about Gracie Japan was first published exclusively on Global Training Report (GTR) in 2000. It was believed lost in 2003-04. Recently rediscovered in the GTR vaults on a floppy disk, it is now here presented again (October 11, 2013), absolutely unchanged (except for the pictures which are still missing.)

Reposted August,  October 11, 2013.

Revised June 5, 2015 (picture below of Edson and Taka restored).

 

 

Edson_Taka.jpg (184243 bytes)

Edson de Silva, 6th grau faixa preta, demonstrating a jiu-jitsu technique on brown belt Taka Watanabe. Edson now has his own academy in Hamamatsu, Japan. Below is a more recent picture of Edson, from 2008, in the middle of Vinicius Amarel and Wendell Alexander.

 

 

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