The Journey of Judo to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: A Modernization Odyssey
By Emily Nagatomo
Walking into a Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym, the air is stale with the vague scent of cleaning products attempting to mask the sweaty mat smell from the previous session. Trophies, flags, and victory photos line the walls and serve as a reminder of the gym’s prominence and the success of its students. Off to the side, punching bags sway slightly in anticipation for the start of class. Students are warming up, practicing drills to prepare their bodies for the rough brutality that is going to come. Students, of their own volition, are subject to rough throws, grapples, and hard pins. For the next hour, a cacophony of slamming bodies, short signals of tapping out, and grunts of struggle fill the gym. It is a hostile, intimidating practice to say the least. Yet despite its domineering nature, people continue to flock to the sport. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is one of the fastest-growing martial arts with people around the world developing techniques and competing internationally. Why has this brutal martial art, developed via cultural contact between Japan and Brazil, become so globally popular? I argue the economic and nationalist implications of modernization efforts led to the creation and later globalization of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Mitsuyo Maeda stood at 5’5’’ and was terrible at sumo wrestling. His small frame and lean body put him at a disadvantage that his limited skill could not make up for. At thirteen, he quit sumo wrestling and, seven years later, would move out of his hometown to attend university in Tokyo. It is here that the story of Brazilian jiu-jitsu begins to take place. In 1986, Maeda joined the Kudokan Judo Institute. Unlike sumo wrestling, Maeda’s small build posed no issue. Maeda enjoyed the freedom proffered by the non-deterministic nature of judo. His skill was a direct reflection of his training, with little importance placed on his physique. He was no longer condemned to a predetermined fate of bad martial arts. Through judo, Maeda gained agency and a sense of free will that would propel his life and the development of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. To start, Maeda’s attitude poised him for greater upwards mobility in martial arts as his training was fundamental to his success. In fact, he quickly showed an aptitude for the sport and quickly rose through the ranks. After just a few years, Maeda would become one of early Kudokan’s most prominent students. It was at this time that growing modernization influences from Europe were being disseminated globally, and would give rise to Maeda’s martial arts journey abroad.
Modernization in the early 1900s in Japan prompted a shift away from feudal society towards industrialization efforts to spur rapid economic growth. This transition was reflected in Japan’s struggling economy that rendered rural farmers impoverished as the economy shifted away from agricultural production. At the same time, Brazil’s booming coffee industry was expanding while its labor force was diminishing. The abolition of slavery a few years prior and the mistreatment of Italian agricultural workers saw a decline in the supply of cheap labor. To provide economic agency for Japanese farmers and to fulfill Brazil’s limited labor supply, Japan and Brazil struck an agreement allowing Japanese migration to Brazil. In pursuit of economic growth, many Japanese turned abroad to seek an opportunity for a better life. One such person was Kudokan judo’s rising star, Mitsuyo Maeda. In line with modernization efforts, Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War demonstrated military strength and prowess, and countries abroad took interest in the judo training of the Japanese military. The amalgam of Maeda’s growing stardom within the judo community, his desire to accumulate wealth, and the growing interest in Japanese martial arts in the West proved the perfect opportunity for Maeda to travel abroad.
In 1905, Maeda was invited to the US to perform judo demonstrations at universities and to some of the military academies. Maeda and other judoka (practitioners of judo), were challenged by wrestling instructors and cadets. Maeda could easily throw his opponents; however, the western rules of wrestling versus Maeda’s familiar rules of judo were often at odds. As a result, Maeda was often pinned and declared the loser. Still struggling to make ends meet and after continual defeats, Maeda began integrating elements of Western combat styles, such as wrestling, into his practices. Maeda realized that with the growing interest in martial arts, he could profit off his public demonstrations by challenging audience members, granted they placed a wage. The performances created a spectacle drawing in crowds and cash. The business model Maeda had created, however, required he defeat opponents of any background, so he implemented different styles to the Kudokan judo with which he had originally trained. This was the first step towards establishing jiu-jitsu as separate from Kudokan judo. Prior, jiu-jitsu was a form of judo. The divergence occurred as Kudokan headquarters condemned Maeda’s profiteering from his fighting challenges, noting that fights of that nature are “ prohibit[ed]… when they are employed for personal monetary gain”. The division between Maeda and Kudokan officials widened and Maeda maintained his form of jiu-jitsu while Kudokan distinguished itself as judo and unaffiliated with jiu-jitsu. Moreover, Maeda’s compromising of the traditional Kudokan judo traditions for monetary gain laid the foundation for the influence of other western combat styles that would become the basis for what would be deemed jiu-jitsu. This advancement in the development of jiu-jitsu was critical because the incorporation of western styles and prized incentives appealed to Western and Brazilian elements of nationalism.
During the modernization era, Brazilian nationalism was pivotal in the popularization of Maeda’s jiu-jitsu. This was largely because “[t]he image of Japan as an emerging power certainly helped to arouse the interest of Latin Americans in jiu-jitsu… there was a close association linking sports with modernization and emerging nationalism”. The Brazilian military in particular had begun to implement martial arts as the practice embodied the ideals of modernization. The emphasis on efficacy of technique, the importance of brain and strategy over brawn, and its versatility aligned well with the efficiency and maximization of inputs with industrialization. The steam engine train that was jiu-jitsu powered its way across the Americas with Maeda conducting the way. Despite Maeda’s power and efficient technique, his steam-powered prowess was not enough to charge through the increasing nationalism in Brazil. Maeda settled in Brazil in the early 1920s right as anti-Japanese rhetoric was at its peak. The Japanese immigrants were extremely segregated from the larger Brazilian society and were often referred to as “cyst” communities by Brazilians. In addition, the perfect foil to Japanese jiu-jitsu came to fruition through the rise of capoeira. The Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira was the embodiment of Brazilian nationalism that had risen to become Maeda’s and jiu-jitsu’s most fearsome opponent. In the context of modernization, nationalism both as a function of popularizing jiu-jitsu and acting as a barrier is encapsulated by the:
“Nationalistic anxieties [that] compelled modernist intellectuals… to see sport and immigration as means to promote individual initiative, competition, and progress. Besides, sports, including martial arts, became surrogate for warfare where nations could prove their superiority over the others.”
Additionally, the prohibition of capoeira had just ended, and street gangs utilized capoeira techniques, making the martial art popular among the favelas. Capoeira’s popularity grew in tandem with anti-Japanese sentiments. Capoeira was thus transformed into the Brazilian martial art. This combination set the stage for Brazilian vs. Japanese fighting acts.
The crowd was teeming with anticipation in Rio de Janeiro. Mitsuyo Maeda had just arrived in Brazil and was set to spar some of Rio de Janeiro’s finest street fighters. Eager Brazilian fans filled the stands. Nationalists and racist chants filled the air in support of local Brazilian capoeiristas. Local newspapers documented the event as a spectacle that would bring “Asia to its knees”. Prior to Maeda’s exhibition tour, capoeiristas such as Francisco Cyríaco and Pé de Bola had dominated their Japanese opponents. The matches against Maeda were marketed as the ultimate test of Brazil’s superiority over Japan and its combat styles. Maeda’s innovative and highly efficient techniques continued to prove effective in the fighting ring. His defeats of Brazilian capoeiristas were often swift; however, Maeda’s victories were not enough to win the favor of Brazilian society and he continued to lose battles to nationalism. Thus, some argue that nationalism inhibited the spread of jiu-jitsu as the growing popularity of seeing jiu-jitsu defeated by capoeira was not a sufficient catalyst for Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s eventual globalization. The proponents of this viewpoint argue that Maeda faced trouble on two fronts: 1) he was no longer affiliated with Kudokan judo, and 2) he was unable to grow the popularity of jiu-jitsu in Brazil. Mitsuyo Maeda could not transform jiu-jitsu into what is now Brazilian jiu-jitsu because he could not align the Japanese-based martial art with the larger Brazilian national identity. Thus, many argue nationalism was a deterrent to the growth of jiu-jitsu in Brazil. While true initially, Maeda and jiu-jitsu were eventually able to align themselves with nationalist movements via efforts of assimilation and affiliation with the Gracie family.
The takeoff of jiu-jitsu in Rio de Janeiro failed; however, Maeda continued on his exhibition tour despite the anti-jiu-jitsu and anti-Japanese sentiments. He would eventually travel to Belém where his carefully executed techniques against larger opponents caught the eye of Gastão Gracie. Maeda’s small stature and effective techniques excited Gracie, who had been a wrestler, and he encouraged his eldest son, Carlos, to be mentored by Maeda. This would be the impetus necessary for jiu-jitsu to take on a Brazilian identity. The Gracie influence created “a local jiu-jitsu culture by refusing to abide by the philosophical and cultural aspects of the Japanese matrix”. The power of nationalism during this time was so influential that Maeda also felt pressure to assimilate to a greater Brazilian identity. Mitsuyo Maeda changed his name to Otávio Maeda after becoming a naturalized Brazilian. The stronghold of nationalism to force assimilation by minimizing the traditional Japanese identities of both Maeda and jiu-jitsu was fundamental in the creation of a Westernized jiu-jitsu.
The acculturation of jiu-jitsu was solidified through affiliation with the Gracie family. After a few years under the instruction of Maeda, Carlos Gracie ventured out on his own and began teaching his younger brother Hélio Gracie the techniques of Maeda. The Gracie brothers competed in matches all over Brazil. Nationally, these matches were seen as Brazilians beating the Japanese at their own game. Brazilian nationalists took a liking and followed the Gracies’ competitions, and eventually, the Gracie brothers opened their first jiu-jitsu academy in the late 1920s. Around the same time, the rise of the Brazilian Integralism movement and the populist regime of Getúlio Vargas was beginning to take place. Hélio and Carlos were supporters of the fascist Brazilian Integralism Action, supporting the belief that nationalism was the uniting force for Brazilians. Getúlio Vargas’s right-wing government co-opted support from the Integralists, forging a connection between the Vargas rule and the Gracie family. This connection led to the Gracies teaching Vargas’ Secret Police jiu-jitsu techniques. For the Gracie family, this “association helped to protect them against occasional vicissitudes and enhanced their social standard, which was instrumental to jiu-jitsu’s early acceptance by the establishment”. Moreover, nationalism prompted the dissemination of the Gracies’ jiu-jitsu within Vargas’ supporters and his military police. Further, the Gracies’ fierce nationalism became synonymous with a Brazilian identity, allowing jiu-jitsu to assimilate into Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The elite status enjoyed by the Gracies in Vargas’ Estado Novo dictatorship would allow the next generations of the Gracies to popularize the sport in the U.S. and create the epitome of globalized Brazilian jiu-jitsu via the creation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
The globalization of the UFC itself is an extension of the modernist ideals that developed Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The UFC aims to pit different combat styles against one another in search of the ultimate martial art. The inclination towards dominance and superiority has roots in modernization ideals of competitive progress. More traditional styles that do not incorporate a mixture of martial arts influences are often portrayed as arcane, unable to suit the needs of modern-day combat. Thus, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, also known as Gracie jiu-jitsu, was so successful in propelling the UFC to global renown. Today, the UFC is the most popular mixed martial arts (MMA) promoter, having amassed millions of spectators and fans. Overall, modernization ideals were pivotal in the shaping and globalization of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
In sum, Mitsuyo Maeda was the perfect modernized, steam-powered, industrial engine for the development of jiu-jitsu. Like the modernization movement, Maeda’s industrious drive for economic advancement and individual recognition prompted his travels to the West. It was through this experience that he was able to capitalize on the emerging market of mixed martial arts; however, to make a profit, his style had to incorporate elements that could defeat the western styles. Additionally, this severed relations between the traditional Kudokan philosophies which led to the distinguishing of Maeda’s practice as jiu-jitsu instead of judo. This alone was not enough to popularize the sport. Jiu-jitsu and Maeda both were missing the elements of Brazilian identity to grow the popularity of the sport. Thus, the elements of nationalism that grew the market for jiu-jitsu, coupled with the affiliation of the Gracie family, were pivotal in the jiu-jitsu adopting a local, Brazilian identity. The creation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu was then globalized by the Gracies as a result of their elite status garnered by their fierce nationalism. Moreover, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a product of assimilation that, in turn, allowed it to become a globalized sport. This then begs the question of what gets left behind during the process of globalization. How does the unevenness of cultural contact determine what aspects of acculturation become popularized?
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