Evolution of the “Gentle Art,” History as Teacher and Guide
Learn From Our Past to Educate the Future
We all know, or should know, the history of Brazilian jiu jitsu. The pictures on the walls of every Gracie Barra school tell the story from the early twentieth century to today. First in line, Mitsuyo Maeda, the Japanese judōka (judo expert) of unparalleled skill who brought our art to Brazil. Next, Carlos Gracie Sr., Maeda’s first student and creator of Brazilian jiu jitsu. Third, Hélio Gracie, Carlos’ brother and the first Gracie fighter. Fourth, Rolls Gracie, a true jiu jitsu innovator and champion of Brazilian jiu jitsu philosophy. And finally, Carlos Gracie, Jr., the founder of Gracie Barra, and the touchstone of the Gracie family.
What most practitioners may tangentially know is that Brazilian jiu jitsu has deep historical and cultural roots dating back to 9th century Japan.
To understand where we are headed with our Art and our sport, we must know where we originated.
The true origins of jiu jitsu are lost to us. No solid historical records exist proving the starting point, curriculum, teachers or techniques. What we do understand about the beginnings of jujutsu is that during the warring periods of Japan, a fighting style arose in response to the viciousness of the battlefield.
Punching and kicking styles proved ineffective on the battlefield, as the power needed to cause damage to an armored samurai was impossible to produce. Additionally, the notion that one could punch or kick at a fully trained samurai wielding a katana or wakizashi was foolish. Hence, a martial art focused on throwing, joint locks, and strangulation was the answer.
Thus long before Royce Gracie made his mark in the UFC, jiu jitsu began proving itself to be an effective martial art in the most brutal and life threatening situation imaginable: war.
Perhaps understandably, it was the peaceful Edo Period (A.D. 1603-1867) of Japan that saw the greatest growth and innovation of ancient jiu jitsu, and ironically lead to its dismantling. As power was consolidated and peace prevailed across Japan, more thought and study of martial arts became possible. Schools, or ryū began popping up all over Japan and the systemization of martial arts commenced.
As a result of strict laws forbidding the lower class from possessing or using weapons were implemented, for the first time, personal self-defense curriculum was employed, formal teaching was carried out, and a culture and philosophy were developed.
But this period of advancement was unsustainable. Two hundred and fifty years of Japanese isolationist policies and a feudal system of oppression came crumbling down and as Japan rushed to embrace modernization and Westernization, many of the ryū fell, as well. Negative personal politics and infighting among ryū became commonplace. Ryū began competing against each other to prove supremacy. Feuds erupted, bad blood was created and an honorable art became corrupted.
Why is this important? The importance goes far beyond the left over traditions of wearing a gi, or bowing before stepping on a mat. It is important because I believe we are living in the greatest period of evolution in jiu jitsu since the early Edo Period of Japan and we must honor this by acknowledging and learning from our past to educate our future.
There is no room for ego, no room for discord between schools, and no room for bad blood on the mat. We are all part of the jiu jitsu family, linking us back generations and centuries to the great warriors of the past.
While many of the techniques of ancient jujutsu and modern-day Brazilian jiu jitsu are different, it is the fact that we have the ability to constantly evolve that makes our art strong. New techniques are being introduced on a regular basis. Men and women all over the world are discovering jiu jitsu and becoming enamored with its simplicity and yes, its complexity.
Most of all these men and women are discovering and evolving the beauty of jiu jitsu.
Gracie Barra’s “Jiu jitsu for Everyone” isn’t just a marketing slogan. It is a deep philosophical belief. It is a belief that anyone can become part of history, both in ancient traditions and modern-day practice. That you too can aspire, train, and evolve for the better.
So, look to the past, learn from the strengths and weaknesses of our warrior ancestors, and work every day to make a peaceful and productive future.