When we use the term ‘Jiu Jitsu’ today, it most often refers to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, frequently shortened to BJJ. As its name suggests, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu originated in Brazil. But the ultimate origin of BJJ is Japanese.
The term Jiu Jitsu itself is a slight change from the original Japanese phrase. Originally, the term was ‘Juu Jutsu’, and its meaning can roughly be translated to ‘the gentle art’. The reason it was called ‘gentle’ was a reference to the idea of using the strength of the opponent against themselves for self defense. This term referred to any combat art – or combination of techniques – involving unarmed or lightly armed combat, and it had been around for hundreds of years before coming to Brazil in the early 20th century.
The History of Juu Jutsu
In medieval Japan, the Samurai were both the lowest tier of the nobility and the warrior class. They often dedicated their lives to warfare and the art of fighting.
Samurai most frequently used archery and either spears or swords (depending on the era) as their primary weapons. But they were also interested in all forms of combat, including ones in which an unarmed or lightly armed combatant had to face an armed opponent.
From the study of these combat situations came the schools and arts that would make up Juu Jutsu. And it’s important to understand that there was no single Juu Jutsu. Many schools and arts would emerge over the years in Japan, some emphasizing only unarmed combat, with others incorporating armed combat in with unarmed combat.
In some case, the emphasis was far more on grappling and throws, while others would focus on striking or kata. In all case, the original Juu Jutsu was ruthlessly focused on practical application in warfare. In other words, killing or disabling one’s opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible.
As Juu Jutsu evolved in the 19th century, it began to emerge not only as a lethal warfare-oriented art but more of a sporting one as well. In doing so, some of the techniques changed slightly to reflect this. For example, the classic hip toss throw was once performed back-to-back, with the intent being to throw the opponent onto their neck, breaking the neck and killing them. The revised hip toss is performed neck-to-stomach, and is no longer intended as a lethal move.
As Japan began to Westernize in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Japanese people began to travel more throughout the world, and they brought their Juu Jutsu with them.
The Birth of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
One of the most prominent Japanese combat arts originating from Juu Jutsu is Judo. The art of Judo concerns itself both with throws and grappling, and by the late 1800s had become well-defined as its own school of combat.
Judo become popular in Japan, and by the early 1900s a number of prominent Judo practitioners made their way to Brazil. Here, they set up schools and began to teach a combination of Judo and other Juu Jutsu to Brazilian students, who welcomed the instruction and took to these combat systems quickly.
Over time, a school of combat known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu began to emerge, with three Brazilians generally being credited as the fathers of the artform. Brothers Carlos and Helio Gracie, as well as Luiz Franca, were among the first Brazilians who learned from Japanese Judoka and evolved their teachings into what would become modern BJJ.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu most prominently splits off from Judo by its intense focus on ground-based fighting and grappling. The art of modern Judo is primarily concerned with throws, while BJJ focuses on submissions and ground fighting. Modern schools like Severna Park jiu jitsu teach this form of BJJ.
During the early part of the 20th century the Gracie family and other BJJ practitioners competed in a number of exhibitions and challenges against both fellow BJJ combatants and fighters of other disciplines. BJJ became known as an incredibly effective fighting style, and over time it began to spread outside of Brazil, similarly to how Judo and other Juu Jutsu had migrated from Japan.
Modern Jiu Jitsu
Currently, most people would consider Jiu Jitsu as nearly synonymous with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The vast majority of schools and instructors, like Severna Park BJJ, teaching Jiu Jitsu today are teaching some form of BJJ.
However, it’s possible to find schools and instructors teaching a form of jiu-jitsu originating from Japan and not influenced by BJJ. These two styles of Jiu Jitsu are usually referred to as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Japanese Jiu Jitsu.
There a number of differences between the two arts, some of which have to do with the substance of what they teach and some having to do with how they’re taught.
BJJ is a more sport-oriented fighting style at this point. Because the focus of BJJ is grappling and achieving submission and control, it would be a dangerous fighting style in several real-world applications. For example, a fight in which there are multiple combatants is one where it’s incredibly dangerous to go to the ground. The type of combat a school like Severna Park jiu jitsu teaches is one-vs-one, where grappling techniques are most valuable.
Japanese Jiu Jitsu has more of a focus on certain throws and ways to quickly incapacitate an opponent. As such, Japanese Jiu Jitsu is sometimes regarded as more of a ‘street-style’ artform. One problem, however, with Japanese Jiu Jitsu, is that it’s often impossible or very difficult to train certain techniques. In BJJ, every technique can be practiced at close to full-speed.
BJJ is also a more practical fighting style for those attempting to defeat an opponent stronger than them. In fact, this is the concept at the heart of BJJ – allowing a physically weaker fighter to overcome a more powerful one. Many Japanese Jiu Jitsu techniques can become dramatically less effective when attempted on someone stronger.
Beyond the substance of the two styles, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tends to be taught in a less formal, more exploratory style. Teachers and students will try techniques and learn from their experiences in a more collaborative way. BJJ has also incorporated branches from other fighting styles and tends to be a little bit more expansive in general.
Japanese Jiu Jitsu tends to preserve a more formally rigid student-teacher relationship. The teacher passes down the technique, and the student learns. This mirrors how Juu Jutsu had been taught in Japan for centuries. Also, Japanese Jiu Jitsu is slightly more limited in terms of its range of concepts. BJJ is more reactive to the actions of the opponent, leading to more options in a combat situation.
The term Jiu Jitsu, and the combat art it signifies, has evolved greatly over the years. The original Japanese Juu Jutsu were a loosely collected group of schools and techniques focused on unarmed and lightly armed combat. These combat arts gradually evolved into certain codified schools of combat like Judo.
Jiu Jitsu was born in a new form in Brazil, as Japanese teachers and Brazilian students created a new martial art. Now, we have the option of learning this hybrid martial art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu offered by Severna Park BJJ, or a more tradition-based form of Japanese Jiu Jitsu.