The origin of jiu-jitsu is unknown to many modern day practitioners. From being a peaceful art to a savage sport, jiu-jitsu has evolved in many ways with new moves being added and old techniques being ineffective. The transition from traditional Gi to Nogi competition has opened the door for even more opportunity to be creative and improve the already deadly art. It has now been widely accepted as an intelligent self-defense and effective style thanks to the exposure from MMA. Today we are going to look at where it all started. The Samurai Code of Jiu Jitsu and what it means to be a modern day warrior.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in history that jiu-jitsu was invented. Many believe it’s something that is natural and humans were born with the need/want to learn how to better defend themselves. Fighting is in human nature when we are provoked so it’s natural to want to evolve at this skill and get better at. The earliest accounts and most believed by historians of the first evolution of this art is in feudal Japan between the 8th and 16th century. Japan at this time was in civil war and a need for a hand to hand combat system was needed to win battles between clans. The samurai’s armor was so thick that even weapons could not penetrate it. This started the development of grappling in Japan.
This is where the competitive drive to perfect the art and improve on it began. This can be seen in modern-day jiu-jitsu where the best schools in the world perfect their art and make it their own with unique moves/styles. The tournaments are the battlegrounds where teams/clans would battle in a beautiful war to prove their samurai spirit, technical improvements, athleticism, durability, heart, and intelligence. Samurais would fight to the death with these techniques but now it is regulated with fair rules and proper referees to prevent loss of life.
Thankfully we live in an era where war is no longer necessary and sportsmanship, friendship, and love has entered into the art making it a great experience for all ages and all genders. The earliest records of the term “Jiu-Jitsu” is described by Hisamori Tenenuchi when he officially opened the first school of jiu-jitsu in Japan in 1532. For the next few decades, the history of jiu-jitsu would remain a mystery because schools would change the history to suit their own needs and to create a sense of importance in the art. 71 years later, Japan came to a period of peace when the Tokugawa Ieyasu formed the Tokugawa military government.
During this time, (1603-1868) the savage civil wars have started to disappear but the traditional theory of Budo (Martial Arts) required everyone to learn how to defend themselves. The martial arts code was born: Living in peace but remembering the war. That philosophy lives on in modern day martial artist like myself. Since it’s been generations since my ancestors have been in war and I’m too young to remember any, my philosophy has been: Always ready for war, but never looking to start one.
Kimonos are the inspiration for the classic jiu-jitsu Gi. Once armor was no longer needed and the art of battle became an art of self-defense. The need to cripple enemies was no longer needed and a training method that prevented injuries was required. Jigoro Kano who was a member of the Cultural Department and a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner developed his own version of Jiu-Jitsu in the late 1800s and called it Judo. Judo was helpful because it enabled martial artist the ability to practice the art safely and realistically in a controlled environment.
After a debate at the Tokyo police headquarters, judo was named the national sport over jiu-jitsu and it remains popular to this day. The typical difference between judo and jiu-jitsu is the emphasis judo has towards throws and takedowns but there is a theory that Japan kept it’s real potential a secret by not showing the ground game to western visitors after world war 2 and only showing half of the complete art of jiu-jitsu in the takedowns and throws. If this theory holds, Japan would have effectively hidden the secret weapons that allowed them to win battles for centuries.
Jigoro Kano (December 10, 1860 - May 4, 1938)
Although Japan holds the most common and research-based origins of jiu-jitsu, there are other accounts of the art being practiced in many eras of time and different countries as well. The Olympic Games was a Greek tradition and pankration was one of their most popular sports. Alexander the Great’s conquest from 356 - 323 B.C. allowed him to share his Greek culture with different parts of the world.
It is also believed that India took the wrestling influence of pankration and developed a similar style to jiu-jitsu. Historians generally believe that bandits were terrorizing Buddhist monks in northern India but due to their moral standards, defending themselves with deadly weapons was prohibited so a hand to hand combat system was developed. These monks were wise and ahead of their time and they applied their knowledge of leverage, balance, momentum, center of gravity, weight distribution and manipulation of the human body to achieve the first advances in the what’s known today as self-defense.
Another similar origin story is one of the Chinese monk named Chin Gen Pinh. After the fall of the Ming dynasty, it is said that he traveled to Japan and brought his knowledge of Chikura Karube, a wrestling sport developed around 200 BC. It is believed that chikura karube become the earliest versions of jiu-jitsu in Japan. The Buddhist traditions are also believed to be a significant influence on the respect and moral standards placed in many jiu-jitsu schools today.
The origin of jiu-jitsu is still widely known to have started in Japan. However, historians still have troubles pinpointing the exact beginning of the art. I believe that there is no exact moment jiu-jitsu/martial arts was born. I believe martial arts is in our human nature. From the cradle to the grave it is essential for humans to move to maintain health and balance and the need to know how to defend ourselves is a primal need to avoid life-threatening situations.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where and when it all started because jiu-jitsu and martial arts transcends time and culture. From the judo backgrounds of Japan to the Brazilian jiu-jitsu from the Gracies’ and even the Eddie Bravo rubber guard style in California to the John Danaher leg lock system in New York, this art cannot be contained because the passion the practitioners have for it will force it to spread all over the world. Perhaps the question of where jiu-jitsu came from isn’t as important as where jiu-jitsu is going.
In this article, I briefly explained the evolution and origin of the art of jiu-jitsu but that doesn’t mean the evolution is over. Every year new moves are being invented and different styles becoming more effective than previous before. Although jiu-jitsu has been around for centuries and perhaps even longer, I believe this is still just the beginning of a martial arts revolution.