Thursday, March 11, 2010

Where does jiu-jitsu come from?

"Jiu-jitsu is originally from Brazil, right?"

I've been asked this a couple of times lately.  With the rise of mixed martial arts, kicked off by the UFC in the early 1990s, and before that the "Gracie challenge", Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (which we used to call Gracie Jiu-jitsu) is now better known than Japanese jiu-jitsu.
Jiu-jitsu was the unarmed martial art of the Japanese Samurai class, so it's definitely Japanese.  Right?  There were many schools of jiu-jitsu, and some of them had a heavy Chinese influence.  But legendarily,  the martial arts were brought to China from India, by Bodhidarma.  These things go back ...

A similar story pertains to Karate.  Many people think of Karate as Japanese, but it was introduced to Japan from Okinawa in the early 20th century, and before that was adapted from southern Chinese martial arts, and even known as "Chinese hand" in parts of Okinawa.

You have to draw the line somewhere.  So I say:
  1. Kung fu (Chinese boxing) is from China
  2. Jiu-jitsu is Japanese
  3. Karate is Okinawan
Japanese Karate is an offshoot of (Okinawan) Karate.  Brazilian Jiu-jitsu is an offshoot of (Japanese) Judo.  Judo is a daughter art (along with aikido) of Jiu-jitsu, and they are all Japanese.

Both Jiu-jitsu and Karate, although influenced (and maybe derived in large part) from Chinese kung fu styles, have had enough time to become more than offshoots.  Plus: the names were changed.

In the end, the history doesn't necessarily matter as much as the content.  There are only so many ways to move the human body, and most (all?) ancient cultures featured some form of wrestling, boxing, and weapon-use, and must be the forebears of all martial arts.  Today martial arts have significant areas of overlap.

Getting back to the original question, it doesn't bother me.  Such a question is usually evidence of innocent ignorance on the part of the questioner, and nothing malicious.  Most (all?) martial arts practitioners tire of being asked how their "karate" or "taekwondo" (or whatever the flavor-of-the-month style is) is going, by well-meaning but martial arts illiterate family members or friends, who are merely trying to "show an interest" or make small-talk.

Interestingly, now that there are so many schools teaching Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Japanese Jiu-jitsu may be gaining in cachet because of its relative scarcity.  I do get enquiries from people specifically seeking it out, and that's often a good sign.  On the other hand, some people assume that all Jiu-jitsu is Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, but these are quite quickly dispelled.

I wonder how many people think that soccer is originally from Brazil, too.


Anonymous said...

I think people ought to know at least the basic difference in approach between Japanese and Brazilian jiu-jitsu: the Japanese mother art is basically meant for unarmed self-defense (originally warfare) with an emphasis on staying upright. BJJ is a combat or martial sport focused on groundfighting through submissions. Knowing the history isn't necessary in choosing a style that is right for you, knowing the goal & the starting-point (sport vs self-defense) is. People entering a Japanese jj dojo with the intent of doing competition and enjoying lots of sparring will be highly dissapointed, folks enrolling in BJJ for the purpose of street self-defense will find it sorely lacking in basic area's of self-defense.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Japanese JJ out there: people either think JJ is solely about grappling (probably confusing it with BJJ) or they think it's some sort of karate. It's not that easy to explain all this to a novice, let alone the difference between the modern or westernized and the koryu-styles... JJ definately is a complicated art, in more ways than one.

Sue C said...

Hi Dan,

This is a nice summary of where the main arts come from. I'm surprised that so many people confuse Brazilian jujitsu with classical Japanese jujitsu - even I knew they were different!

And what could be more British than football? - okay so the rest of the world prefer to call it soccer. Soccer was considered to be a slang word for football when I was growing up so I can't bring myself to call it that - makes it sound cheap! lol.

Dan Prager said...

Anonymous: Nice summary of the differences in emphasis and content between JJJ & BJJ.

Sue: Your husband practices JJ, right? That's gotta help! Anyone who's looked around at the different martial arts still has a reasonable chance of discerning these differences.

Football: The Brazilians may play it better than the British, but they didn't change the rules. I say "soccer" because in most Oz "football" (or "footy") refers to Australian-rules football. Check out this highlight reel of my all-time favorite footy player, the sublime Peter Daicos.

Sue C said...

Okay - checked it out, but you've got to admit rugby is better ;-)

Dan Prager said...

Hi Sue

I'll admit that Rugby (esp. League) is more violent! ;-)

Littlefair said...

I watched that entire reel. Aussie rules footy is an amazing paradox: brutal, (violent?) but sometimes so beautiful in the movements and plays. Or maybe Daicos just makes it look that way.

Nice post Dan.

Littlefair said...

Just checked out a (fairly random) JJ youtube clip:

..and was surprised to see how much kicking/punching combos the guy was doing. Is this typical? what percentage of the lesson will you spend drilling kicks and punches alone and in combination with other waza?

Dan Prager said...

Hi Chris

Aussie rules: There's been a lot of work to clean up the brutality at the highest level, hopefully percolating down. [The fear is that Mum's will influence their littlies to play soccer in preference.] Hip and shoulder bumps are probably the most violent legitimate part of the game, and these are being curtailed because of the risk of contact to the head. Accidental clashes can be quite unforgiving.

Daicos was one of the most skilful players ever. Youtube hints for more: Gary Ablett (snr) was arguably more amazing. His son (jnr) is currently the leading player, but a bit different. Daniel Motlop is also freaky.

Dan Prager said...

Hi Chris (again)

Bertrand Amoussou in that youtube clip looks to be doing a synthesis of modern judo and some kind of fist and foot -- possibly a karate(?). Not traditional jiu-jitsu atemi waza.

In our jiu-jitsu classes we integrate strikes as distractions and finishes, and also drill them as part of our ukemi exercises, but don't do separate striking drills.

However, within our federation we also have classes in hung kuen chinese boxing within which there are repetitive striking drills, so for those who take both disciplines there's inevitably cross-fertilization.

Littlefair said...

Aussie rules: "rugby with a thong"?