Global Training Report Archives 1997-2016




What Is Jiu-Jitsu, Really?*

 By Roberto Pedreira

Posted November 3, 2016

There was a brief but frantic "craze" for jiu-jitsu in America and a few European countries during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), stimulated in part by the fact that the most prominent person on the planet, American president Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) happened to have an obsession with the "Japanese game" as he called it. Contrary to myth, his interest was superficial and short-lived (he took five or fewer weeks of lessons in 1902 and seven or fewer weeks in 1904). 

The jiu-jitsu fad was also promoted by Japanese propagandists who coordinated with American and English journalists and other opinion-molders to foster a positive impression of Japan in general. The fad faded away by the end of 1905 for several reasons, one being that fads are always temporary, another being that American wrestlers consistently beat alleged jiu-jitsu masters and champions in contests. 

Jiu-jitsu survived, as a form of entertainment in circuses, on vaudeville stages, and in professional wrestling shows, as a genre of self-defense, and surprisingly, as a scientific educational system created by Jigoro Kano,[1] who originally considered Kodokan Judo as an eclectic style of jiu-jitsu (at least that is how he described it to foreigners, as we will see below, or more exactly, as "jiujutsu"). 

As we know, jiu-jitsu came to the West by way of Japan. But if we ask Japanese people what jiu-jitsu is, they will scratch their heads. Never heard of it, they'll say (あまり聞たことないと思う).

The reason is that jiu-jitsu is not  a word in Japan, or rather it is not a word for a martial art (or budo system). In fact, even if you pronounce the word correctly, as jūjutsu (柔術), ordinary Japanese are unlikely to have any clue.[2] If you explain, "you know, Gracie?" then they will (usually) get it. But they will think it means 総合格闘技 (MMA).

Brazilians knew (i.e., had read) about "jiu-jitsu" even before the first Japanese jiu-jitsu man and jiu-jitsu woman arrived in 1908 and began performing on stages in Rio in 1909, emulating the shows of Yukio Tani, Taro Miyake, Akitaro Ono, and Sadakazu 'Raku' Uyenishi in Europe, who were well-known to wrestling fans in São Paulo and Rio (see Choque vol. 1 for details). The jiu-jitsu fad arrived later, and faded later, in Brazil than elsewhere and quickly became a form of pro wrestling in the 1930's (to be more precise, some jiu-jitsu stylists became pro wrestlers and some pro wrestlers participated in 'jiu-jitsu rules' matches, but in general, fans did not want to watch jiu-jitsu matches). Jiu-jitsu in Brazil eventually shriveled up into an obscure fringe sport practiced by a single family and their friends, until Rorion Gracie moved to Los Angeles and translated it into terms Americans could understand, street punch-outs and (with Art Davie) spectator ring sports. (Most former jiu-jitsu men became judokas and people who in earlier times might have trained jiu-jitsu gravitated to judo instead). 

The Japanese recognize economic opportunity when they see it and quickly jumped on board (pro wrestling was already huge and MMA was just a slightly novel form of pro wrestling, as they saw it). They didn't think it was Japanese jujutsu coming back home. They saw it as a distinctly Brazilian product. And an eminently marketable one. (See interview with Morishita Naoto for perspective).

The Brazilians (the Gracies at least) however, insist on tracing their style back to Japan, but to pre-Kano times. Judo, in their theory, was and is fake jiu-jitsu. The emperor of Japan told a civil servant named Kano to create a phony system of fighting to teach to foreigners so that they wouldn't learn the secrets of real fighting. That is the Gracie theory. 

So what is jiu-jitsu really?

Jiu-jitsu is one of the spellings of the word jūjutsu [柔術] that were current by the beginning of the 20th century. Foreigners found the word, and Japanese in general, baffling. Dictionaries were sold promising to teach buyers how to pronounce even such exotic words as 'jiu-jitsu'.  Other spellings were also used, almost randomly, but in time 'jiu-jitsu' became the standard.

Assuming that jiu-jitsu and jiujutsu are one and the same, as the Brazilians insisted, what then is (or was) jiujutsu (hereafter spelled jiu-jitsu for the sake of simplicity)?

We have an excellent source, namely none other than Jigoro Kano. On April 18, 1888, Kano gave a lecture in Tokyo, in English, titled "Jiujutsu: The Old Samurai Art of Fighting without Weapons" (translated by Reverend Thomas Lindsay). It was published in 1889 in Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan.  Essentially, everyone read it, and most writers cited it, some cribbed liberally from it, a few ignored it (because didn't meet their marketing objectives). A few examples: Lafcadio Hearn mentioned it in Out of the East (a popular 1895 book); Inazo Nitobe certainly read it but if (implausibly) not, he definitely read Hearn. Nitobe's 1900 book, Bushido: The Soul of Japan was even more influential, with numerous reprintings and translations in European and other languages. F. J. Norman, and E. J. Harrison who both wrote widely-read books, borrowed from it. So did 10-dan Kyuzo Mifune in his Canon of Judo. More recent books include Yokoyama Kendō's 1991日本武道史, among numerous others in Japan.

Unfortunately, most writers, H. Irving Hancock being the most prolific offender among them, simply "made [up their own] history to suit their own purposes" (as Kano said). Rorion Gracie was merely the most recent in a long line of marketers who made history to suit their own purposes.[3] As a historical note, the Gracie version of jiu-jitsu history derives in at least part from Hancock, as demonstrated in Choque Vol. 1.


The article (first page) that started it all: "Jiujutsu: The Old Samurai Art of Fighting without Weapons" (lecture given April 18, 1888, published 1889).

Kano was well qualified to write on the topic because he was around at a time when there were over 80 schools of jiujutsu in Tokyo alone. Kano studied two styles in depth, Tenjinshinyō-ryū [天神真楊流] and Kitō-ryū [起倒流] and researched others. The Tenjinshinyō and Kitō styles are the technical foundations of Kano's original 1882 Kodokan Judo. In short, Kano knew what he was talking about

As explained by Kano, jiu-jutsu was one of several names for the art of "fighting without weapons" or in some cases, with short weapons against long weapons (pp. 192-193). Other names for jiujutsu were Yawara, Taijutsu, Kogusoku, Kempo, and Hakuda. Jiudō was also used (Kano did not claim to invent the word; he chose it primarily because jiujutsu had acquired a negative connotation and had always been the least prestigious of the martial arts).

As mentioned above, Kano remarked that "The originators of new schools [new styles or ryū] seem oftentimes to have made history to suit their own purposes." He also noted that "Printed books on the subject are scarce...[many] manuscripts belonging to various schools of the art...are contradictory and unsatisfactory" (p. 193). He was alerting the listener-reader that the sources he was about to cite were not necessarily reliable. Take it for what it's worth, he was sayingGood advice, then and now.

He first described the history of jiujutsu, or rather the history according to various sources, none of which could be taken as definitive. The stories are probably familiar to most readers today. Virtually every account of jiujutsu history written in English since 1889 essentially derives from the same sources, via Kano's article.

Kano then introduced several of the main jiujutsu styles, of which he says there are "hundreds, because almost all the teachers who have attained some eminence in the art have originated their own schools" (p. 198). The schools Kano selected to mention were those that best exemplified the principles of jiujutsu, and also had many students. These styles were Kitō ryū, Kiushin ryū, Sekiguchi ryū, Yoshin ryū, and Tenjinshinyō ryū. Tenjinshinyō and Kitō ryū, as we have noted, contributed most of the technical resources of early Kodokan judo. Representatives of Kiushin ryū and Sekiguchi ryū, among other ryū, joined the Kodokan in due course. In the process, and over time, Kodokan judo adopted techniques from these styles, and the styles adopted techniques from other styles, via the Kodokan curriculum and through contact with individual instructors, some of whom taught at the Butokukai training facilities in Kyoto after 1895. That was an inevitable result of contact but it was also Kano's explicit policy to scientifically improve judo through research and practice.

He then described the various ways of gaining victory "by pliancy" such as throwing, choking, holding, twisting and bending arms and legs. Some schools also specialized in atemi (striking and kicking) and kuatsu (resuscitation). Then he recounted several stories about famous/legendary teachers. These stories were recycled in articles by Shidachi, Burgin, and E. J. Harrison, among many others.  

The conclusion describes Kano's judo as an eclectic style of jiujutsu, but unlike the old forms of jiujutsu from the feudal period, which were "mainly used for fighting purposes" Kano's jiujutsu system, which he named judo, was a "system of athletics and mental and moral training". Here we can see where Mr. Helio Gracie and his sons got their ideas. The problem is that what the Gracies were doing was not old feudal jiujutsu, but rather Kano judo without the mental and moral training, and as some have commented, without good throws.[4] Kano did not endorse either professional wrestling or street fighting, needless to say, but he was sympathetic to judoka who needed to make a living, and he always intended that judo have applicability for self defense.

Kano as a young jiujutsu student.

It is ironic that while the Gracies did actually succeed, for a while, in preserving the older form of Kodokan judo (despite calling it jiu-jitsu and minus the throws) the IBJJF is following the example of the International Judo Federation in (trying) to make judo/jiu-jitsu a TV and spectator-friendly sport, essentially destroying it in the process. (See Negative Judo for perspective).

Executive Summary: The word 'jiu-jitsu' was originally, from approximately 1900, used by different people to mean different things, including but not limited to Kodokan judo and slightly variant forms of judo as practiced by the Kyoto based Butokukai (est. 1895). According to the best informed authority on the subject in 1888, jiu-jitsu (more correctly written as 'jiujutsu') referred to techniques for fighting without weapons, or with short weapons against long weapons. The specific techniques varied, and depended on the particular ryū (style, school, tradition). Jiu-jitsu (under any spelling) never meant a style or art.[5] It was simply a cover term for techniques not already classified as "major" and more militarily relevant than individual unarmed or small weapons fighting. What the Gracie family described as jiu-jitsu (and still do) is judo. However, exactly like judo, jiu-jitsu was and still is eclectic and dynamic, changing over time in ways that are both better and worse, depending on one's preferences. And like judo, jiu-jitsu (the Brazilian form of it), is in peril of being destroyed by those who want to exploit it economically.


Books and articles mentioned above include:

Burgin, George Brown. (1892). Japanese Fighting: Self-Defence by Sleight of Body. The Idler, 2 (London: October, 1892), 281-286. Reprinted in Journal of Combative Sport, December 2000,

Hearn, Lafcadio. (1895). "Jiujutsu" in Out of the East. MA: Houghton Mifflin.  

Lindsay, Thomas & Kano Jigoro. (1889). The Old Samurai Art of Fighting without Weapons. Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, 16(2), 192-205.

Mifune Kyuzo. (1960/2004). The Canon of Judo (translated by Françoise White). Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Nitobe Inazo, (1900). Bushido: The Soul of Japan. Tokyo: Shōkwabō.  [The book was copyrighted in 1899 but first published in 1900].

Norman, F. J. (1905). The Fighting Man of Japan London: Archebald Constable & Co. Ltd.

Shidachi, Tetsujiro. (1892). “Jujitsu”, The Ancient Art of Self-Defence by Sleight of Body. Proceedings of the Japan Society, 4-21.

横山建動 [Yokoyama, Kendō]. (1991). 日本武道史. 東京: 島津書房.  



1. Properly written and romanized, Jigoro Kano would be Kanou Jigorou (family name first). In Japanese, 嘉納治五郎. For the sake of simplicity, we will use the conventional spelling.

2. Assuming you pronounced the first syllable correctly (long) it would be 充実, which means "fullness", "replenishment", "substantiality", "repletion" (i.e., nothing to do with martial arts). The first syllable in jiu-jutsu is long; the letter 'i' was used to suggest length; likewise the letter 'y'. More typically a long 'u' is written with a macron [ū] or circumflex [û].

3. By Brazilians we mean primarily Carlos Gracie, Helio Gracie, Carlson Gracie, Reylson Gracie, and Rorion Gracie, as discussed in Choque Vols. 1-3). 

4. For some expert evaluations about the Gracie's (especially Helio's) throwing skills see Masahiko Kimura in Choque 2, chp. 2, and George Mehdi in Jiu-Jitsu in the South Zone, chp. 14, and chps. 12-16 in Choque 1).

5. Now out-of-print, Serge Mol's  Classical Fighting Arts of Japan, (2001) Tokyo : Kodansha International, is worth consulting.


Gracie Theory of Jiu-Jitsu History

Here is an alternative theory, written by a friend of the Gracie family named Helcio Leal Binda and revised by Reyson Gracie. Note that neither Helcio Leal Binda nor Reyson are (or were) historians, and both were writing to promote Gracie academies: Origins of Jiu-Jitsu

(c) 2016, Roberto Pedreira. All rights reserved.

Slightly revised November 5, 2016.




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