Jujutsu, Judo, and Jiu-Jitsu: Who Owns an Idea?

When Kano Jigoro founded judo, he brought together experts from various koryu (classical Japanese traditions) jujutsu schools and asked them to help him put together a system of techniques based around the throws, pins, and submissions that they had found the most success with in randori (freestyle practice) and shiai (competitive bouts). He only wanted the techniques that had been proven to be both safe and effective, intentionally excluding the maiming or killing techniques that were the focal point of the koryu. Kano’s goal was to create a safe, friendly, competitive outlet for not only the extant koryu practitioners to test themselves through, but to revolutionize the physical education system for all of Japan. Judo was, and Kano was, revolutionary.

By giving adults and children alike a way to compete in martial arts safely, Kano’s judo changed Japan and martial arts forever. Judo is now a worldwide martial sport, one of the few to have made it into the Olympics. Judo also led to the creation of Brazilian jiu-jitsu by the famed Gracie family when one of Kano’s students, Maeda Mitsuyo, brought ‘Kano Jujutsu’ (what judo was called at the time) to Brazil. By taking what they learned from Maeda, honing, and crafting it to work for a smaller, weaker person the Gracie family started a martial art revolution of their own through Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, now known more generically as Brazilian jiu-jitsu (or BJJ). This eventually led to the creation of what we now know as mixed martial arts (or MMA) though the Gracie family’s famed Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the stage upon which Royce Gracie showed the world the effectiveness of their family’s system.

In spite of his historical debt, the judo Kano created was really nothing like the koryu jujutsu he sourced his ideas from. Likewise, Olympic judo is quite dissimilar to Kano’s vision for the art and, along these lines, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu we have today looks very little like its judo roots. Modern MMA also looks nothing like the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu used by Royce in the first several UFC tournaments. Even sport BJJ has evolved to the point that it has taken on a life of its own, quite different from either its parent art in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu or its grandparent art in judo. This begs the questions: Once someone creates something and offers it up to the world, who does it belong to? Does a thing, an idea, an art belong to the creator? Does it belong to the creator’s descendants, those who carry on the tradition as closely to the creator’s original vision as possible? Or does it belong to the innovators who make it their own, sometimes at the cost of that which they were given? Is the value of an art, or art in general, found in its lineage or in its aliveness and nowness? As a person who values both tradition and effectiveness, I can honestly say that I find myself conflicted.

Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu

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