Modern History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

From Kanō jūjutsu to Gracie Brazilian jiu-jitsu

Black Diamond Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Professor Olin Coles
Professor Olin Coles

Change is constant, most especially in the martial arts. Take for example jiu-jitsu, formally known as jūjutsu in Japan, which has an interesting story of how it later became overshadowed by Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Although a historically accurate origin story for the martial art we identify as jiu-jitsu has been lost to time, most researchers agree that it was the culmination of influences migrating from Greece and India that would shape the early forms. Utilized by Samurai warriors throughout the Shogun era of Japan’s feudal period, this hand-to-hand fighting style was known by many names, and consisted of armed and unarmed combat techniques utilizing strikes, throws, chokes, and joint locks. The earliest use of the term jūjutsu appeared in 1532, when the Takenouchi-ryū school opened to teach lessons of this art that had existed for hundreds of years.

Some time after the restoration of Emperor Meiji in 1868, blades gave way to bullets, and these lethal battlefield combat techniques were no longer a necessity. Many of the techniques used in warfare had no practical means of being practiced without injury, and so they required adaptation into recreational martial arts training. For the remainder of that century, jūjutsu underwent decades of refinement and transformation by the masters into the martial art we might recognize today. From the mid- to late-1800s, the ‘gentle’ art of jūjutsu would become the foundation for many other specialized forms.

Shihan Jigorō Kanō - Circa 1892
Shihan Jigorō Kanō – Circa 1892

Jigorō Kanō was among the first pioneers of the modern art, and mastered Kitō-ryū jūjutsu during this transitional period. He would modify and adapt techniques learned from other arts into his jūjutsu practice, and ultimately form his own art: jūdō. For many years, there was no discernable difference between jūdō and jūjutsu. Those who trained under Kanō at that time often referred to his art as Kanō’s jūjutsu. After a decade of significant change and refinement, jūdō would grow in popularity to the point it became a national sport that was introduced into Japanese public schools. In 1882, Jigorō Kanō formed the Kodokan Judo Institute, and thus began the development of a prominent modern martial art focused on throws, chokes, joint locks, and ground work, distancing itself from striking and dangerous combat techniques.

Meanwhile, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, an established colony with the second-largest population of Japanese people settled outside of Japan, included masters in jūjutsu. By the early 1900s, Japanese immigrants carried their knowledge of jūjutsu, as well as Kanō’s popular jūdō, to Brazilians, who received training in these foreign martial arts. One such master was Mitsuyo Maeda, who received training by Jigorō Kanō at the Kodokan, and immigrated to Brazil in 1914 to continue his tour of martial arts demonstrations and open challenges on behalf of Jigorō Kanō for Japan. By 1917, Maeda was performing at the Queirolo Brothers Circus, which had financial backing from Gastão Gracie. Whether through convincing performance or fascination in the art, Gastão’s eldest son, Carlos, would take an interest in judo (simultaneously known as Kano jiu-jitsu).

It is said that Mitsuyo Maeda was grateful to the Gracie’s for their assistance with settling into Sao Paulo, taking on Carlos and several other young men of local families as his students. Carlos, aged 15 years, trained under Maeda and his coaches from 1917 to 1921, until the Gracie family again relocated to Rio de Janeiro, where jiu-jitsu was already being practiced. Carlos and his younger brothers Oswaldo, Gastão Jr, George, and Hélio would gain knowledge of the art through many well-known instructors in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil was a hotbed for martial arts during this period, and challenge fights were prevalent in Rio de Janeiro. So when Carlos Gracie (age 23) opened his jiu-jitsu school with brothers George (age 14) and Hélio (age 12) in 1925, he promptly advertised an open challenge against any contender. Drawing lessons from every source they could, adapting their technique, and then challenging others to prove themselves better was the Gracie way. Although Carlos and his brothers were only one of a great many jiu-jitsu schools in Rio de Janeiro at this time, their consistent victories over other jiu-jitsu schools and foreign disciplines quickly earned them respect. Using vale tudo (no rules) fights to prove their techniques superior, these Gracie brothers controlled the momentum in their favor and marketed their name with success.

There were countless martial arts schools teaching some form of Japanese jiu-jitsu in Brazil during the 1930s, but only the Gracie brothers were teaching a style of jiu-jitsu that earned victories against the fighters of their time. They adapted jiu-jitsu to suit their needs, and built it into a ground-fighting system all their own. In Brazil they had created Gracie jiu-jitsu, and their competition was quickly learning the difference. These brothers would in turn teach their children, who would further improve and refine the unique art the Gracie family had created. After decades of alteration through competition, the martial art that Carlos Gracie first learned no longer resembled Japanese jiu-jitsu. Thereafter, it was to be known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu is still very much an evolving martial art, further separating itself from the fight-proven self-defense style of Gracie jiu-jitsu. Now globally practiced, the techniques developed by Carlos and Hélio Gracie have matured over the past one-hundred years into their own sub-disciplines. Today, there are students training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu for sport as much as there are fighters using the art in mixed martial arts competition. Jiu-jitsu has evolved from lethal battlefield techniques of the Shogun era into a recreational activity practiced by all size and manner of student, splitting into separate sport styles such as judo, karate, kendo, aikido, and most recently, Brazilian jiu-jitsu.



  • Kodokan Judo (1993) by Jigorō Kanō
  • My Judo (1985) by Masahiko Kimura
  • Gracie Jiu-Jitsu (2005) by Hélio Gracie
  • Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Self-Defense Techniques (2002) by Royce Gracie, Charles Gracie, Kid Peligro
  • Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: The Master Text (2002) by Gene Simco
  • Jigorō Kanō interview from 1887, as transcribed by the Asiatic Society of Japan
  • Carlson Gracie interview for Tatame Magazine in 1997
  • A personal collection of articles from past and present Gracie interviews and biographies

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