An Alphabet of BJJ · General

J is for Jiu-Jitsu (A History): An Alphabet of BJJ (Part One) 



Reading this title you might be thinking… well, duh, isn’t that what this whole blog is about? And yes, you would be right, but this post isn’t just about jiu-jitsu in general. It’s about the history of jiu-jitsu (in two parts). I’d already done ‘H’ so I had to be shufty about it. If we want to get picky here it should technically be spelt ju-jutsu, but the more modern form “jiu-jitsu” is more commonly recognise, and therefore will be the one which I utilise throughout.

A.N – I am in no way an expert of East Asian religion or history. I have pieced together this information from various sources and apologise if anything is wildly inaccurate!

There are differing starting points when discussing the history of jiu-jitsu, as with most things with continuous development, it is extremely difficult to pin point exactly where jiu-jitsu “started”. Some say Kodokan Judo, other disagree and say that it was when the Gracie family became involved and began to be disseminated through their extended family. These, in the span of human history, are extremely recent. Martial arts, and ideas about martial arts have been around for a lot longer than that.

Tradition dictates that some form of ground grappling that would eventually become jiu-jitsu began in India, where Buddhist monks were concerned with learning about self-defence. Buddhism became a major religion in India in about 260BC, having started in Nepal some four hundred years earlier. The form of jiu-jitsu these monks were practising would have been different to what we recognise today, but it is still linked and based on the same ideas and principals. The monks were especially concerned about negating the use of a persons strength or body mass, and so therefore were interested in techniques that manipulated leverage and balance. This was so a smaller, weaker man might gain advantage of someone twice his size.

Throughout the next eight hundred years or so Buddhism spread across east and south-east Asia, through Burma, Sri Lanka, China before finally arriving in Japan. The official starting date for Buddhism in Japan is 552AD, as listed in the Nihon Shoki, when it was introduced from Baekje, Korea. The relatively rapid and comprehensive spread of Buddhism across these areas was almost certainly due to the development of the Silk Road, which ran from the South China Sea right across to the Mediterranean Sea.

Side note: If you haven’t watched this history of japan video and you’ve got nine minutes to spare, do it. I cried laughing. It’s so funny. Do it. 

In Japan, jiu-jitsu developed in earnest as way of defending against Samurai attacks if one was unarmed, or armed with only a short weapon. Slight side track; the first recorded use of the name Jiu-Jitsu actually appears in 1532, when Hisamori Tenenuchi established the first Jiu-Jitsu school in Japan.

Striking was considered ineffective against an armoured opponent, so a system of throws, locks and pins became more and more developed and utilised (known as Nihon koryū jūjutsu). This tradition differs from Chinese martial arts where a lot of the practice centres around forms of striking. In this sense jiu-jitsu was an art originally developed for deployment on the battlefield, rather than in the dojo.

A Samurai Battle – end of the feudal period

The development of the art continued into the seventeenth century, after the capital had moved from Yamato to Edo (later renamed Tokyo) under the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa shogun had gained power after coming out on top during the civil war which had fractured Japan for many decades previously.

Under this shogunate, strict new laws were imposed, war was reduced, guns were banned (for everyone except the Shogun), and Chinese social philosophy of Neo-Confucianism spread. Under this ideology, weapons were used less and less and became decorative items. This meant that the development of hand-to-hand combat flourished as the art shifted. Previously it had been used to confront and defeat an armed opponent. Now, with the likelihood of an unarmed opponent being the adversary, the art was developed to consider how one might defeat an unarmed opponent.

edo era jujtsu
Edo era Jiu-Jitsu

For a brief period striking was introduced, but it quickly became disfavoured due to the need for immense energy to execute. Instead it was used as a quick set up to a lock, throw or pin. It was in this environment that the tradition of Randori developed – to create spaces and practice where practitioners of the art could challenge each other without breaking the law, and without the intention of killing their opponent.

In this sense there was already a split within jiu-jitsu; the form which was developed to defend against an armed opponent, and one for an unarmed assailant. It was from this split and further developments to make the tradition more appropriate for the practice room that the sports were might today recognise as Judo and Jiu-Jitsu appeared in the late 1800s.

The spread of Jiu-Jitsu to the West and it’s forms in the modern world will be explored in Part Two

Until next time,



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