Brazilian Jiu Jitsu vs. Japanese Jiu Jitsu: What’s the difference?

People practicing Japanese Jiu Jitsu

Thanks to the rise of UFC and The Octagon, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has seen a huge surge in popularity and interest across the world over the past 20 years.

BJJ is pushing closer to becoming a mainstream sport and is also one of the most popular forms of exercise for casual participants looking for a fun, challenging workout in a community setting.

It is also one of the youngest martial arts in the world, only in practice since the mid-1920s.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’s history is very recent, but its origins date all the way back to Japanese samurai who needed a hand-to-hand combat art that could work with their very heavy body armor on the battlefield.

That martial art is still practiced today as well, and is most commonly referred to as judo.

As the popularity of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu continues to skyrocket, the Japanese style has also come back into focus. To avoid confusion, it is important to understand that Brazilian and Japanese Jiu Jitsu will teach you different things.

While there are many similarities between Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the Japanese style, students need to have an understanding of where each type of Jiu Jitsu came from and what it aims to teach.

The History and Origins of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu began to emerge as a martial art of its own in the 1920s as it was spun off from judo ground-fighting techniques.

The evolution from Japanese Jiu Jitsu to judo to what we now know as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu began in the 1880s when Jigoro Kano founded a martial arts school named the Kodokan.

At the Kodokan, Kano broke from traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu by encouraging his students to engage in live sparring sessions called randori. Contemporary Japanese Jiu Jitsu instruction focused more on drilling and compliance over full-contact sparring.

Mitsuo Maeda is the next big name in BJJ history to know. He began training at the Kodokan in 1894 and became a top student. Maeda’s specialty was ground fighting, known as newaza.

The young grappler moved to Brazil in 1914 and became friends with a local named Gastao Gracie. Maeda began teaching Gracie’s son, Carlos, who excelled in the ground-based martial arts.

A younger Gracie son, Helio, also participated in the newaza-styled Judo taught by Maeda, but struggled against bigger, stronger opponents due to his slight build.

Helio Gracie began refining the judo moves Maeda was teaching him to make it easier for students of any size to excel.

The Gracies worked to develop their techniques into a new martial art, but it did not pick up much traction outside of Brazil until Helio’s son, Rorion, moved to the United States in the late 1970s.

Prior to this time, the Gracies had been hosting challenge matches in Brazil. This gave Rorion the idea to create a bigger business out of the small tournaments.

It was out of this desire to take BJJ to the masses that the Ultimate Fighting Championship was born.

Though it hardly resembles the matches of UFC1 that Rorion Gracie organized in 1993, BJJ was finally launched to the whole world and continues to grow.

MMA has brought many styles of fighting together, but can thank the Gracie family and BJJ for its inception.

The History and Origins of Japanese Jiu Jitsu

When it comes to martial arts, BJJ is a newborn baby, especially compared to Japanese Jiu Jitsu, also known as jujitsu or jujutsu, which can trace its origins back more than 2,000 years to the ancient samurai.

Unlike BJJ, which has a very recent history and well-known origins, it is unclear who created Japanese Jiu Jitsu. Every modern style of Jiu Jitsu has its roots in the ancient Japanese fighting arts.

Jujitsu can be formally traced back to the Muromachi period of Japanese history when an older style of martial arts was modified to teach lightly armed warriors techniques that could be used to take on an opponent with more armor and weaponry.

The goal of many of the throws practiced by the samurai was to twist an attacker and throw him down directly on his neck.

The basic premise of developing this new style of fighting was that striking blows would be useless in hand-to-hand combat between armored samurai.

The term jujutsu began to catch on in the 17th Century and was used to describe the grappling martial arts practiced by the ancient samurai. “Jujutsu” translates to “the art of softness” in Japanese, and is a fitting description for the practice.

The goal of jujutsu is to use your attackers momentum and intentions against him.

The fighter channels the attackers momentum back against them. The Japanese style of Jiu Jitsu is very effective at disarming attackers.

The style of Jiu Jitsu currently practiced in Japan is known as Edo jujutsu, and has seen its striking techniques moved away from being geared toward fighting armored attackers.

There are now over 20 substyles, or ryu, of Japanese Jiu Jitsu, but all come from a similar school of thought.

The sport of judo was also spun off from jujutsu, and focuses more on competition, where jujutsu’s primary focus is on self defense and discipline.

What are the differences between BJJ and Japanese Jiu Jitsu?

Modern Japanese Jiu Jitsu and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are both evolved from the ancient Japanese samurai. In many ways, Japanese Jiu Jitsu is the mother of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Over several centuries, the techniques practiced by the samurai were watered down and made safer since students are no longer expecting to use what they learn on a battlefield while wearing heavy body armor and carrying a katana.

Jiu Jitsu gyms also had to get away from practicing throws that were intended to break an opponent’s neck – that’s a bit of a liability issue.

The biggest difference between Brazilian and Japanese Jiu Jitsu is the overall depth of material included in each style.

Japanese Jiu Jitsu encompasses grappling, weapons work and kata, or synchronized movements meant to enforce discipline and technique.

Jiu Jitsu students in Japan practice a lot of different throws and striking techniques that have roots in other martial arts like karate. There is a lot to learn in Japanese Jiu Jitsu.

The Gracie family took everything contained in Japanese Jiu Jitsu and distilled it to a very focused, specialized form of fighting.

BJJ, like judo, which it more closely resembles, is geared towards competition and sport fighting. As the art becomes more focused on sport, it has lost some of its effectiveness as a form of self defense.

The scoring system and rules force the techniques that are most commonly taught and practiced.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu also focuses primarily on ground fighting techniques, which stems from the Gracie family’s desire to develop a form of martial arts that would not be as dependent on physical size and brute force.

BJJ differs from judo in that its focus is on pinning position. Judo focuses on throws and sweeps. Getting an opponent or attacker on the ground greatly diminishes the role that size and strength play in a confrontation.

Smaller people trained in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu have a huge advantage over untrained, bigger attackers – but only if they can get them on the ground. To really eliminate size from the equation, though, you must get to the ground, which can take a while.

Japanese Jiu Jitsu allows students to learn a wider ranging set of techniques and fighting styles, as it is not just focused on ground and pound grappling.

Japanese Jiu Jitsu maintains many of the traditional elements of the sport and is stricter than BJJ. Students of Japanese Jiu Jitsu learn striking, throws and locks and may not engage in as many one-on-one grappling sessions.

The strikes, throws and locks taught in the Japanese form allow for much faster disposal of a threat. Japanese military and law-enforcement officers still practice Jiu Jitsu to this day.

Overall, Japanese Jiu Jitsu remains much more focused on self defense, but does not fully eliminate the impact that pure size plays in a fight.

Culture also plays a role in the differences between the two styles of Jiu Jitsu. Brazil is a fun-loving, laid back country, where Japan remains very strait-laced and traditional.

Because of these differences, BJJ training is much less formal than Japanese Jiu Jitsu.

So which one’s right for you?

Knowing the differences between the styles of Brazilian and Japanese Jiu Jitsu is important for anyone who has an interest in taking up either martial art as a hobby or for sport.

BJJ will open more opportunities for competition, while Japanese will provide greater depth of teaching with a focus on self defense.

If students are interested in the Japanese styles, but wish to compete, judo may be another option worth considering.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu can be very fun and lends itself to large group classes, but Japanese Jiu Jitsu focuses more on personal discipline and precise form, similar to karate.

It’s up to the student to choose the style of teaching that aligns most closely with their interests. 

For more martial arts compassion articles check out our BJJ vs. Everybody Section.


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