When you ask any person “what is Jiu Jitsu?” chances are no one answer will be the same. Many will tell you it is the Brazilian system developed by the Gracie’s, others that it is the source of Judo and Aikido. Still more may say that it is one of the oldest martial arts in history. In many ways all of these answers are true and show the fragmented history of this art. Japanese Jiu Jitsu was a fighting art developed by the Samurai. It has evolved over centuries into many different schools and styles. Here I will attempt to summarise the history of Jiu Jitsu.

History of Jiu Jitsu: Origins

history of Jiu Jitsu

In order to understand the history of Jiu Jitsu, we first have to go back to its origins. Many argue over the source of Jiu Jitsu. There are legends of two great Japanese warriors grappling until one was killed and the other victorious. It is also argued that Jiu Jitsu had its roots in Chinese Kung Fu. Ultimately the exact origin of this art will continue to remain uncertain. However the beginnings of the art can be seen in Feudal Japan. The rise of the Samurai class is where we first see the use of Jiu Jitsu as a formalised system.

The intense clan warfare of the Sengoku period was a time of constant violence and, young Bushi were trained constantly in the fighting arts. The skills of Jiu Jitsu arose from a need to teach a series of emergency techniques should a Samurai lose his weapons. Due to the battlefield environment, striking was limited as the attacker would be heavily armoured.

Instead, throws, chokes and joint locks were the main priority in immobilizing an opponent. The extra weight of the attacker meant that a throw could be particularly devastating and, joint locks were used to dislocate and break bone. Indeed the term “Jiu Jitsu” can be translated broadly as “the gentle art”. The concept relies on redirecting the opponent’s force in order to defeat them, with leverage and technique over brute force.

History of Jiu Jitsu: Evolution

After the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate the armoured conflict of the past subsided. Jiu Jitsu had to adapt to meet the civilian environment of a Japan at peace. This gave rise to the Ronin; wandering Samurai without masters. With this social change and the lack of armour, striking and weapon retention techniques were added over time. This can be seen in arts such as Daito-ryu Aiki jiu-jitsu, where many responses to grabs stem from the need to free a Samurai’s weapon hand.

With the proliferation of the Samurai class, specific schools or ryu’s began teaching variations on the Jiu Jitsu system. Some emphasised striking and aggressive movement, while others emphasised throwing and balance breaking. This practice continued right through until the 19th Century.

By this point the Samurai class had begun to die out and after the failure of the Satsuma rebellion, were finally removed from Japanese society. As a result Jiu Jitsu had also begun to decline, not least because of its bare knuckle competitions. These sanctioned fights pitted rival practitioners against one another. Very often these fights resulted in serious injury or death as there were no formalised rules.

It was at this time that two men were beginning their practice in Jiu Jitsu. One was Kano Jigoro, the founder of modern Judo. The other was Morihei Ueshiba, the creator of Aikido. Both men had trained in various schools of jiu Jitsu and, both adapted its teachings to their own philosophical ideas. Kano was an exponent of Tenjin Shinyo-Ryu and Kito Ryu while Ueshiba practiced Daito-ryu Aiki Ju-Jitsu.

Both emphasized a marriage of philosophical ideology with the fighting practices of Jiu Jitsu. In fact both chose to remove the striking elements of Jiu Jitsu from standard practice as they were considered either too dangerous or counter to the moral philosophy of the art. This gave rise to safer practice in lieu of the brutal death matches of the past. As a result traditional Jiu Jitsu remained but in a small number of dojo’s, having shrunk into obscurity.

History of Jiu Jitsu: Today

Throughout the 20th Century modern styles known as Gendai Jitsu began to arise. Many of these were western schools or associations founded by students that had practiced in Japan. Among these were styles such as the Hawaiian Small Circle Jujitsu or The Jitsu Foundation based in the UK.  All continue the practice of Jiu Jitsu though many adapt the techniques to fit a modern-day context.

The traditional ryu’s of Japan however have seen a steady rise in popularity, with many exponents of modern styles, looking to practice the roots of their art. Jiu Jitsu is even now still evolving to meet the needs of the modern world and seems to be gaining popularity with the rise of styles such as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This age-old system of self-defence remains in many iterations though it will always be known as the gentle art.

  1. A really enjoyable and informative read. Thank you

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