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Jiu Jitsu History: From Samurai to Gracie


Jiu Jitsu history is as fascinating as it is complex. Practically every civilization in the world has developed its own unique style of fighting and self-defense.

Jiu-jitsu, also known as Jujutsu, has an especially colourful history, with origin points across cultures and time periods. What is the purpose of Jiu-jitsu? Is it a fighting style? A sport? A movement? A philosophy? 

The answer can be one of those or all, depending on who you ask. Let’s explore the history of Jiu-jitsu, including its philosophy, significance and enduring legacy.

Jiu-jitsu Philosophy and Meaning

One of the most common questions surrounding the martial art is, what does Jiu-jitsu mean in Japanese? The word Jiu-jitsu translates from Japanese as “gentle art,” and is predominantly based in ground-fighting. It distinguishes itself from other martial arts such as Karate or Kung Fu by focusing on grapples, choke-holds, and joint-locks rather than submissions, takedowns, or striking.

Jiu-jitsu transcends a mere self-defense practice, fighting style or sport. Over the centuries it has evolved into a way of life that emphasizes cooperation, brotherhood and self-improvement.

The spirit of Jiu-jitsu requires yielding to your opponent’s force, rather confronting it. Instead of striking outward to your opponent, you leverage their own weight against them, controlling the force and direction of their attacks and throwing them off balance.

Who Invented Jiu Jitsu?

While there is much debate over the individual who invented the martial art, the Gracie family of Brazil, who helped to popularize Jiu-jitsu in the 21st century, further personalized it to include their ideas of patience, efficiency and control.

Jigoro Kano himself, the martial arts pioneer who developed Jiu-jitsu into Judo, contributed much to its overall philosophy. He believed that it represents embracing change, seeing failures as opportunities and working with resistance, not against it. It’s hardly a coincidence that these same traits are commonly found in highly successful people.

From the Beginning: A Few Theories and Jiu-jitsu History Facts

Asking how Jiu-jitsu came to be is a loaded question. Even simply asking when did Jiu Jitsu originate is a tricky question to answer.

Depictions of grappling and wrestling can be found in temples from ancient Greece and Egypt. Pankration, a sport which mixed boxing with wrestling, was a feature in the earliest Olympic games.

One theory claims that when Alexander the Great’s empire expanded to modern-day India, he encouraged Greek culture and art forms including hand-to-hand combat, which led to the creation of Jiu-jitsu.

Most historians agree that Eastern martial arts, including Jiu-jitsu, are rooted in spiritual teachings and philosophies hailing from India, especially Buddhism. Buddhist teachings discouraged the use of weapons and violence, so traveling monks had to develop self-defense techniques to protect them from bandits and thieves.

Some hold fast to the idea that these practices made their way to China, then Korea and Japan, and then the rest of the world.

Regardless of what theory you subscribe to, it’s indisputable that Jiu-jitsu is a distinctly Japanese art form that can be traced back to the samurai class of its feudal period.

Japanese Jiu-jitsu History

Japanese Jiu-jitsu history begins early, with the earliest recorded use of the word “Jiu-jitsu” appearing in 1532. It was coined by Hisamori Tenenuchi, who founded the first Jiu-Jitsu dojo in Japan. This is one of the best answers to the question, when did Jiu-jitsu originate?

At the time, Japan was a loose confederation of kingdoms loosely held together by changing alliances and warring factions, similar to medieval Europe.

Back then, Jiu-jitsu was intended as a way for samurai, the noble warrior caste of society, to defend themselves if they were dismounted and unable to use their weapons. Over the centuries, various schools of Jiu-jitsu developed their own styles and techniques, known as ryū.

Martial arts fell out of favor after the Commodore Perry Expedition arrived in Japan in the year 1853, ending Japan’s policy of isolationism and hailing the beginning of the Meiji era.

Jiu-jitsu may have died out completely were it not for Master Jigoro Kano, who developed a style that focused on throwing your opponents to the ground from a standing position, rather than grappling on the ground as in traditional Jiu-jitsu.

In 1882, Kano established the Kodokan school of Jiu-jitsu in Tokyo, which helped preserve it for posterity. It is because of him that it lives on.

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu: From Japan to Brazil, and From Brazil to the World

Brazil and Japan established their first diplomatic and economic ties in the late 19th century, not long after Jigoro Kano established the Kodokan school, and their close relationship continues to this day.

It’s no surprise, then, that the origins of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu derive from the Japanese tradition. In fact, Brazil was one of the first countries where Jiu-jitsu took hold outside of Japan.

The popular story goes that Kano asked his top students and instructors to travel the world to prove the efficacy of Jiu-jitsu compared to other fighting styles. One of them, Mitsuyo Maeda, traveled to the United States in 1904. He continued on to various countries in the Western hemisphere including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama, until finally settling in Belém, Brazil.

At the time, wrestlers and boxers were popular acts in traveling circuses in Brazil. Performers would challenge the audience to overpower them in return for a cash reward. Maeda was known in one of these circuses toppling opponents who towered over him in size.

It was through that circus that he became friends with Gastao Gracie, a prominent Brazilian businessman. Gracie agreed to help Maeda earn Brazilian citizenship in return for teaching his sons self-defense. One of them, Carlos Gracie, was inspired to learn after watching one of Maeda’s judo demonstrations.

Maeda soon taught other Gracie sons, including Helio Gracie, who adapted what he learned to better accommodate his smaller size and stature. Thus began what we know today as Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.

The Gracies and their descendents challenged fighters from different disciplines including boxing, wrestling and capoeira, and took down their much taller opponents. As word spread, their bouts became spectacles that attracted crowds, earned headlines in community newspapers and turned them into local legends.

Still, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu didn’t gain an international audience until Royce Gracie established the Ultimate Fighting Championship - a martial arts competition that pitted fighters from different martial arts against each other - in 1993. With the UFC, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu exploded into popular culture.

What is the Difference Between Jiu-Jitsu and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?

Because Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is massively popular all around the world, it is commonly confused with the more traditional Japanese Jiu-jitsu. Although they share a lineage and history, they also have several important differences.

Jiu-jitsu was originally developed for use in close-quarters combat during warfare, so it has many applications as a self-defense technique. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is primarily done for sport with a focus on grappling. Each is very different in practice and application.

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu was designed so people with smaller body types can fight off larger opponents, utilizing your leverage against your opponent’s center of gravity to throw them off-balance.


 From the Greek Olympics, to wandering monks in India, to Samurai in Japan, to spectator fights on the streets of Brazil, Jiu-jitsu history dates back hundreds or perhaps thousands of years.

Originally developed for use by Samurai, it made its way to Brazil, then America, then across the world. More than a fighting style, Jiu-jitsu is a philosophy that embodies the well-being of the mind, body and spirit; its central tenants can be applied to everyday life. Of course, which style you choose all depends on what’s right for you as an individual.

If you want to start down the road of Jiu-jitsu mastery, you’ll find a lot of motivation in a legitimate Brazilian Jiu-jitsu gi kimono. Your journey as a Jiu-jitsu student begins today!