jujutsu (n.) 

The word 柔術  (jujutsu) is composed of two kanji characters.  柔 (ju) "softness, gentleness" and 術 (jutsu) "art, skill". It was first translated to roman characters around 1875. For phonetic reasons, the romanization of this japanse word was mistakenly done as jiu-jitsu instead of jujutsu. This improper spelling became popular around the world and, with a few exceptions, remains incorrect. 


“As to the origin and native land of Jujutsu, there are several opinions, but they are found to be mere assumptions based on narratives relating to the founding of certain schools, or some incidental records or illustrations found in the ancient manuscripts not only in Japan but in China, Persia, Germany, and Egypt. There is no record by which the origins of Jujutsu can be definitely established. It would, however, be rational to assume that ever since the creation, with the instinct of self-preservation, man has had to fight for existence, and was inspired to develop an art or skill to implement the body mechanism for this purpose. In such efforts, the development may have taken various courses according to the condition of life or tribal circumstance, but the object and mechanics of the body being common, the results could not have been so very different from each other. No doubt this is the reason for finding records relating to the practice of arts similar to Jujutsu in various parts of the world, and also for the lack of records of its origins.”
–Sensei G. Koizumi, Kodokan 7th Dan


Jujutsu (also known as jiu-jitsu, jujitsu) did not evolve from one source or root; instead, it has multiple roots and traveled through many countries before its establishment in Japan.

Even though the true origins of Jujutsu are impossible to accurately be established, elements of the art can be traced back over 5000 years. A Babylonian copper stand (see photo below), dating from the third Millennium BC, shows two men engaged in a grappling technique found in Jujutsu. Both men are trying to unbalance each other by controlling the hip.

Birth of jujutsu (jiu-jitsu).jpg


Buddhist monks in Northern India greatly contributed to the early development of martial arts. Bandits constantly assaulted the monks during their long journeys through the interior of India. Buddhist religious and moral values did not encourage the use of weapons, so they were forced to develop an empty hand system of self-defense.

These monks were men of wisdom who possessed great knowledge of the human body. Consequently, they applied laws of physics such as leverage, momentum, balance, center of gravity, friction, weight transmission, and manipulation of the human anatomy’s vital points in order to create a science of self-defense. 

Even though the techniques practiced in India were quite different from the jujutsu later practiced in Japan, the philosophical principles advocated by the Buddhist monks are believed to have shaped the principles of jujutsu.

Jujutsu IN JAPAN

The ‘Nihon Shoki,’ “The Chronicle of Japan,” a history compiled by the Imperial command in 720 AD, refers to a tournament called ‘Chikura-Kurabe,’ the contest of strength, which was held in the 7th year of the Emperor Suinin, 230 BC. Some historians regard this as the beginning of Sumo or Japanese wrestling, which has something in common with jujutsu.

Chikara Kurabe copy.jpg

From 230 BC onward, many different martial arts schools were established. Empty hand techniques were incorporated as part of the warriors' training during the Heian period (794 - 1185 AD). During this time Buddhism, Taoism and other Chinese influences were at heir height. These belief systems may have formed the philosophical base for the art of jujutsu.

Even though these historical accounts are difficult to be definitively ascertained, it is a fact that the Japanese were responsible for organizing a highly sophisticated martial art called jujutsu, which was developed in Japan during the Feudal period.


The period of Japanese history between the 8th and 16th centuries was one of constant civil war, and many systems of fighting were utilized, practiced, and perfected on the battlefield. Training was mostly focused on overcoming armored and armed opponents.

The history of the art during this time is uncertain because teachers kept everything secret in order not to give their enemies an advantage. However, the evolutionary process of jujutsu at that time was highly realistic since the techniques were constantly tested and perfected in the battlefield. The warrior caste clearly had a need for some empty-hand techniques because there was always the possibility of losing one’s weapon or being caught without one. Thus, even though empty-hand combat was a distinctly secondary skill to an armed warrior, some development of unarmed combative skill occurred in these old martial systems. This was the initial seed from which a complete approach to unarmed combat was born.

In approximately 1603, Japan came to a fairly peaceful period following the formation of the Tokugawa military government by Tokugawa Ieyasu. During this time (1603-1868), the feudal civil wars that had plagued Japan for centuries started to disappear. However, following the adage “living in peace, but remembering war,” the practice of martial arts continued to spread. The traditions of classical budo (martial arts) required that everyone should learn a method of self-defense for those situations where weapons could not be used. Universally, these techniques were known as jujutsu. Forms and techniques displaying weapons skills of fighting began to yield to weaponless styles which incorporated many of the striking and grappling techniques of the older styles. During this time the emphasis in combat instruction changed from battlefield art to personal protection in a civilian setting. Grappling techniques for ground fighting were greatly explored and developed during this period.

During Feudal times, an assortment of names were utilized to describe empty hand combat  systems including Taijutsu, Torite, Kenpo, Yawara, Hakuda, Kogusoko. These styles represented different kinds of jujutsu.. It has been estimated that there were about 725 recorded systems of jujutsu being practiced in Japan during its golden age from 1680 to 1850.

Meiji Restoration

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration of the Emperor replaced the feudal military regime established by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603. During this time the samurai class, which included approximately two million individuals, and its ways were abolished from japanese society.

 Meiji Constitution promulgation on on February 11, 1889

Meiji Constitution promulgation on on February 11, 1889

Jujutsu was originally an art designed for warfare, but after the abolition of the Feudal system in Japan, certain modifications needed to be made to the art in order to make it suitable for modern practice. Even though jujutsu was practiced as a complete method of self-defense, there was a lack of discipline and moral education in the practice of the art. 

During this period the “old ways” were out of fashion and jujutsu was looked down upon. Most instructors were rough men who possessed no formal education. Many of them were participating in public fights for money and engaging in drinking, gambling and uncivil behavior.

With the profound cultural and social transformations of the Meiji era, there was an urgent need for a way to associate the practice of jujutsu with a way of life adapted to modern times, which is why Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), a highly educated man, member of the Japanese Ministry of Culture, and a practitioner of jujutsu, developed his own approach to teaching  jujutsu in the late 1800s, called Kano jujutsu or later, Kodokan Judo.

in addition to a strict code of ethics, Kano's method was based on kata (technical training) and randori (sparring). Kano realized that being able to practice techniques with full resistance, even if the techniques are less deadly, results in a more effective style than practicing super deadly techniques only in pre-arranged forms. Kanos's approach prioritized physical, moral and intellectual education in a safe and positive training environment.

Kano was able to showcase the effectiveness of his training methods during a challenge match-up between older styles of Jujutsu and Kodokan judo at the Tokyo police headquarters. With its unquestionable success in those fights, Kodokan judo was eventually named the national martial art of Japan, thus replacing the old Jujutsu. 

Kano was responsible for jujutsu/judo regaining its prestige in the Japanese society. As an educated man he emphasized etiquette, discipline, respect and morality as part of training.

In 1900 Jigoro Kano’s school was defeated by a relatively unknown system called Fusen Ryu who professed ground fighting as the most efficient way to control and subdue a bigger and stronger adversary. Under the leadership of Mataemon Tanabe, the Fusen Ryu jujutsu fighters were able to submit several kodokan representatives, mostly from the guard position. After this humbling defeat Jigoro kano convinced the leaders of the victorious school to join the Kodokan and incorporate their curriculum into his system. This created a trend towards ground fighting in Japan that lasted several years.

 On July 24, 1905, representatives of the leading jujitsu schools (ryu) of Japan, gathered at the Butokukai Institute in Kyoto to agree upon the forms of Kodokan Judo and to continue the development of the technical forms of  Kodokan Judo .

On July 24, 1905, representatives of the leading jujitsu schools (ryu) of Japan, gathered at the Butokukai Institute in Kyoto to agree upon the forms of Kodokan Judo and to continue the development of the technical forms of Kodokan Judo.

However, in the 1920s, Kano started to de-emphasize groundwork in Judo. His belief was that even though grappling techniques were extremely useful in challenge matches, they were not as relevant for self defense, especially given the possibility of multiple opponents. He believed that throwing and striking techniques should be learned first and foremost. Grappling was to be mastered as well but not exclusively. 

 Jujutsu training at an agricultural school in Japan around 1920.

Jujutsu training at an agricultural school in Japan around 1920.

Some years later, the creation of sportive competitions regulated judo and eventually limited its combat effectiveness. After World War II, many US soldiers, while stationed in Japan, were exposed to the sport of Judo and brought it back to America with them. The sport of judo quickly gained popularity around the globe and consequently the self defense aspect of the art was gradually forgotten.


 Mitsuyo Maeda's first students in Brazil.

Mitsuyo Maeda's first students in Brazil.

Jujutsu was introduced in Brazil around 1914 by Mitsuyo Maeda, who was also known by the ring name Conde Koma. Even though a few other Japanese teachers had taught in Brazil before, Maeda had the greatest impact. Maeda was a student of the Kodokan in Japan. He was born in 1878 and started learning judo in 1897. He trained at the Kodokan during the zenith of its ground fighting days. In the early 1900s after being in the United States as an official representative of the Kodokan, he broke away and traveled the world participating in several no holds barred challenge matches in many countries including England, Spain, United States, Cuba, Mexico and finally Brazil. During this time Maeda stopped representing judo and reverted to the old generic name jujutsu. This occurred because he was fighting for money and even participating in worked matches, which was a serious breach of Jigoro Kano's philosophy. Jigoro Kano believed that challenge matches were only to be performed with the objective of demonstrating the effectiveness of judo and never for monetary gain.

 Maeda with his wife and daughter in Brazil.

Maeda with his wife and daughter in Brazil.

In 1914, Maeda traveled to Brazil to teach jujutsu and participate in prize fighting events. In the northern state of Pará, he befriended Gastão Gracie, a local businessman, who helped him get established. After watching one of Maeda's exhibitions, Gastão's oldest son Carlos decided to enroll in Maeda's academy and quickly fell in love with the techniques and philosophy of jujutsu. He remained a student for about 2 1/2  years until eventually moving to the Southeast of Brazil where he taught his brothers and established the first Gracie Academy. In the early days, jujutsu was promoted in Brazil due to the wisdom of Carlos and the genius of Helio Gracie. Even without any formal education, Carlos diligently studied, in addition to jujutsu, many different subjects including nutrition, spirituality, exercise and natural hygiene. A philosopher in nature, Carlos was the “thinker of the clan” as a famous journalist of the time would call him, and would always provide invaluable advice to his brothers on all areas of life. The combination of his research formed the foundation that Helio used to become a legendary jujutsu champion and teacher.


Helio Gracie, the youngest son of Gastão and Cesalina Gracie’s eight children, was an insecure and aggressive child. He dropped out of school in third grade. Even though he became an athletic teenager who excelled in the sport of swimming, he suffered of vertigo. No one could figure out the cause of his condition. 

At age sixteen, Helio moved in with his older brothers who lived and taught Jiu-Jitsu in a house in Flamengo, a borough of Rio de Janeiro. Since the cause of his dizziness was unknown, older brother Carlos decided not to allow him to practice. Helio would mostly watch his brothers teach.

Eventually, without Carlos' knowledge, Helio began to practice with his other brothers and students.  When Carlos discovered Helio's progress in jujutsu, he was surprised that the fainting spells that tormented Helio for most of his life had disappeared. Carlos was happy that moving forward Helio could help him with teaching classes so that he could dedicate himself to the management of his brothers careers and the study of nutrition and other exoteric subjects. However, Carlos could not have imagined the colossal impact that his little brother would have in the martial art’s world.

 Gracie brothers George and Helio grappling in the 1930s in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Gracie brothers George and Helio grappling in the 1930s in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

As he started teaching and training, Helio realized that due to his slim frame and the limited access that he had to Japanese masters, he would have to develop his technique through trial and error. He became a jujutsu fanatic who would spend almost every waking hour working on his technique. Even as an old man, he would not miss an opportunity to get on the mats and train. Helio Gracie's eighty years of uninterrupted dedication to the promotion of jujutsu, his work as a teacher to thousands of students, the notoriety and difficulty of his fights, his strict adherence to a rational nutrition regimen, the teaching method that he developed, and the development of a high level defensive strategy on the ground are unparalleled in the modern history of the art.

In order to prove the effectiveness of the Japanese art of jujutsu, the original Gracie brothers openly challenged all the tough guys and reputable martial artists in Brazil. These challenge fights were often against bigger and stronger opponents in order to prove that it was possible for a small person to defend against any attacker. Using these fights as scientific experiments, Helio Gracie developed a defensive fighting strategy specifically designed to resist stronger and heavier opponents. 

Helio Gracie’s first fight took place in January of 1932, in Rio de Janeiro, against a professional Brazilian boxer named Antonio Portugal. Helio won this match via arm lock in approximately 1m45s. This fight was the first of many victories that Helio would have against opponents from around the world.

Under the management of his brother Carlos, Helio went on to become a famous fighter in Brazil. Some of his astonishing feats include the one hour and forty minute brawl against German American wrestler Fred Ebert, who weighed 192 pounds and had defeated american wrestler Ed “Strangler” Lewis two times, and the epic grappling battle against World Wrestling Champion Wladek Zybsko, who weighed 234 pounds. In 1937 Helio also defeated, in a grappling match, Estonian heavyweight boxer Erwin Klausner who had fought Primo Carnera for the world heavyweight championship two years earlier. Miyaki, a Japanese judo black belt, and Masagoichi, a Japanese Sumo wrestler and Judo black belt also fell prey to Helio’s amazing fighting technique in the 1930s.

In 1938 Helio Gracie decided to retire from the world of professional fighting for not agreeing with the emphasis that promoters were placing on entertainment and money rather than realism. He refused to accept fights that were decided on subjective criteria such as points or judges decisions. He also strongly opposed fake fights with predetermined outcomes.  Staying true to his original principles, he insisted that fights should only be decided by submission or loss of consciousness. 

In 1951 Helio Gracie made an amazing come back when a Japanese delegation of Judo masters arrived in Brazil. This delegation included Heavyweight world champion Masahiko Kimura, The Gracies felt at the time that the sport of Judo was developed with the purpose of hiding the realistic effectiveness of jujutsu from the western world. According to their theory, the increased immigration of westerners into Japan during the Meiji period would have caused nationalistic jujutsu masters, who were very secretive with regard to their techniques, to worry about the possibility of westerners, generally bigger and stronger than the Japanese, learning jujutsu. However, the drastic mutation of judo into a pure sport rather than a complete self defense system most likely occurred as a natural consequence of practitioners exclusively focusing on the rules of the sport in order to excel in tournaments. Ironically, the same thing happened in Brazil after the creation of the sport jujutsu federation.

At 39 years old, Helio had one of his most brilliant performances against Yukio Kato, a fifth degree Judo black belt from the Kodokan. This match was held at the Ibirapuera Arena in São Paulo. Helio defeated Kato with a chokehold from the guard position. 

Upon defeating Kato, a challenge match was set between Helio and the  former All Japan champion, Masahiko Kimura, probably the best fighter that Japan has ever produced.

This historical match took place in 1951 and was held at Maracanã Stadium, which at the time sat 200,000 people. Helio was 39 years old and weighed 141 pounds while Kimura was 35 years old and weighed 207 pounds.

Kimura boldly stated that if Helio could last more than 3 minutes, he should consider himself the winner. Helio fought Kimura for 15 minutes before being caught in a shoulder lock. Even though Helio never surrendered, his brother and corner man Carlos decided to step in and interrupt the fight.

 Helio and Carlos Gracie demonstrating the art of jujutsu.

Helio and Carlos Gracie demonstrating the art of jujutsu.

At 43 years of age, Helio and former student, Waldemar Santana, set the world record for the longest uninterrupted no-holds-barred fight in history when they fought for an incredible 3 hours and 40 minutes! Waldemar won the fight by kick to the head while Helio attempted to get up after suffering a ferocious slam.

Helio also challenged heavyweight boxing world champions Primo Carnera, Ezzard Charles, and Joe Louis to matches to compare styles. They all declined. Throughout his career, Helio defeated fighters from several different styles in order to prove that a small person can neutralize superior strength and athleticism through the knowledge of Jiu-Jitsu. Throughout his life Helio Gracie always repeated that he did not consider himself a professional fighter since he never fought with the objective of making money. His greatest mission was to raise his students' confidence through the art of jujutsu. For this purpose, he perfected an innovative teaching method, which allowed for any person, even those not athletically gifted, to learn the fundamentals of jujutsu in 40 private lessons. 

However, his most heroic act was carried out outside of the ring. When traveling southbound towards Rio de Janeiro onboard a big cruise ship called Itanajé, Helio Gracie and his brother Carlos couldn’t see shore. As they enjoyed the sight of the big waves crashing against the side of the ship, they sensed a storm approaching on that gloomy afternoon in mid November 1946. Suddenly, the screams of “Man overboard!” brought panic throughout the ship. A passenger had jumped overboard in an attempt to commit suicide. A boat with five sailors was immediately put into the water to rescue the drowning man. The big waves made it difficult for the sailors to reach the man who was approximately 700 feet away. When the boat finally reached him, they tried pulling the drowning man onboard. Again the big waves would get in their way by lifting the boat up and bringing the man down, preventing the rescue from happening. After trying to save the man for 20 dramatic minutes, the captain ordered them back, giving up on the rescue. The man was left to die. Watching all of this from the ship, Helio asked his brother “Why they didn’t jump in the water and pull him into the boat.” From behind a sailor warned: “This is Abrolhos.” Without getting an explanation and without realizing that what he meant was that the Abrolhos area holds the highest concentration of sharks in the Atlantic Ocean, Helio asked his brother if he didn’t feel like saving the man. Carlos replied, “Yes, but I don’t think I can get there”. Without hesitation Helio said, “I think I can” and immediately stripped to his shorts. As he swam towards the man, he ordered the sailors in the rescue boat to turn around. From the water Helio was able to get a good enough grip on the dying man, and with the help of the sailors, he put him into the boat, saving the man’s life. Besides the big celebration on the ship, he was awarded a Medal of Honor for his act of bravery.

An example of courage and determination, Helio became an international hero. A dedicated family man who exemplified a healthy life-style, he was the epitome of bravery, discipline, willpower, and he was an inspiration to people everywhere. A modern-day legend, Helio Gracie gained international acclaim for his dedication to the dissemination and development of jujutsu.