Japanese Samurai did not use Judo but rather an early form of jujitsu. In fact, modern day martial arts styles like Judo, BJJ, Iaido, and Aikido can all trace their roots back to these ancient Samurai combat techniques.
If you’re anything like me, someone who loves martial arts movies and Japanese culture, you probably wondered at least once, did Japanese Samurai use judo? After reading a little bit on the subject I found out that Samurai never used judo. Not only that, but judo was created hundreds of years after the Samurai way of living was banned in Japan! That’s crazy, right?
That will make you wonder how come judo is so popular in Japan - and, more importantly, what did the Japanese Samurai learn to defend themselves? I find the answers to these questions incredibly interesting and I know you will too!
What did the Japanese Samurai use to defend themselves?
Well, they used swords, duh! All kidding aside, Samurai actually invented a martial art of their own. And believe it or not, it’s a not-so-distant relative of judo! This discipline was called jiu-jitsu, which, roughly translated into English means “the gentle art”. Which is probably ironic, because it is rougher than you could possibly believe.
Japanese Jiu-jitsu is a martial art designed to serve the Samurai on the battlefield. Especially during hand-to-hand combat, when their katanas were no longer available. Even though it’s not really talked about, katanas often broke or were lost during a scramble, leaving Samurai to either use a back-up sword or their own fists to defend themselves.
Jiu-jitsu is a martial art that doesn’t rely on kicks and punches. It’s all about grappling - throws and joint-locks. You might think this wouldn’t put anyone away - especially if they are fighting to the death. But a well-executed throw can actually kill you if you are wearing heavy armor. A joint-lock, such as an armbar or a shoulder-lock, does not kill you but renders you unable to continue fighting for good.
That’s what made jiu-jitsu so effective on the ancient Japanese battlefield - so, don’t try it at home, friend!
When and why was judo created?
Judo was created during the late 19th century. It was way after Samurai ceased to exist. But even though the Samurai way of living was outlawed, a lot of people continued to practice jiu-jitsu, as a way to keep traditions alive. But here’s the thing: jiu-jitsu was created to kill your opponent. It was not a friendly martial art - and it wasn’t something most Japanese men wanted to practice, because it was considered barbaric.
Japanese rejection of jiu-jitsu and their need to keep traditions alive set the stage for something amazing to happen - and that’s judo. During the second part of the 19th century, a truly remarkable man called Jigoro Kano thought jiu-jitsu needed a second chance - because, don’t we all?
By removing the most lethal throws and the life-threatening locks, Mr. Kano designed a new martial art. One that was safe to practice and, most importantly, was not looked down upon as jiu-jitsu was. That’s how judo was born.
And there’s a funny anecdote in all of this. Even though judo was less lethal than its distant relative, judo practitioners defeated most jiu-jitsu practitioners in sanctioned battles. After that, jiu-jitsu became a part of Japanese history, and judo became the new national sport.
What’s the purpose of judo?
Jigoro Kano designed judo as a way to simulate ancient Japanese combat. Even though heavy armor is no longer used, this modern martial art heavily relies on throws and joint-locks. In a judo match, whoever throws its opponent with a clean throw, wins. Sounds easy, right? But you know, you have to try to throw someone who is actively trying to throw you!
By removing its most lethal aspects, Kano managed to create both a martial art and a sport anyone can practice. It has the discipline aspects of most martial arts and the competitive non-deadly characteristics of a sport. Kano, an educator, conceived judo not only as a sport but as a way to teach character to the Japanese youth.
Because of its positive elements, judo was included in the Olympics a few decades after its creation - something Japanese jiu-jitsu would’ve never managed to accomplish. And, truth be told, it’s better that way, isn’t it? My guess is nobody would practice a sport if you might die after the match - especially if you have to wear heavy, uncomfortable armor, no matter how cool it looks.
Do people still learn Samurai martial arts?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is that, of course, it’s more complicated than that. Even though there are people who claim they practice and teach traditional jiu-jitsu, that martial art is dead.
Most people merely practice judo with a couple of forbidden techniques added in and called it Japanese jiu-jitsu. Quite honestly, f you ask me, the forbidden techniques aren’t worth the hassle to learn. But hey, I’m just a dude. You can try them yourself if you want! Or not, because, you know, they are kind of deadly.
Truth be told, if you are interested in practicing jiu-jitsu, you’re better off with judo. Due to jiu-jitsu being long-forgotten, the best teachers dedicate themselves to teach judo instead of learning jiu-jitsu. More importantly, judo is an Olympic sport - the best athletes probably want a gold medal instead of learning some dead martial art.
Is jiu-jitsu still practiced today?
Yes, but not in the way you think! Back in the early judo days, Jigoro Kano sent his best students out to travel the world and teach judo to anyone who would want to learn it. A Japanese fighter called Mitsuyo Maeda arrived in Brazil during the first part of the 20th century and taught it to several people. That’s how Brazilian jiu-jitsu began.
Oh, by the way, in its early days (when Maeda traveled to Brazil), judo was called Kano’s jiu-jitsu, that’s why Brazilian jiu-jitsu isn’t called Brazilian judo!
If you ask me, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the modern’s man Japanese jiu-jitsu. It was designed in a similar way to traditional jiu-jitsu. People actually went out to the street and brawled their way into creating a new martial art, far different from judo. They took what Maeda taught and shaped it to better fit the gritty reality of Brazilian streets. Brazilians, quite literally, punched their way into a new martial art!
So, long story short, judo wasn’t used by Samurai and jiu-jitsu is still practiced today. But it’s not the same jiu-jitsu the Samurai used.
If you want to, you can either learn the Olympic sports variant called judo or the martial art combat-variant called Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I’ve done both, and truth be told, they are both really fun.
If you want to be a complete warrior, you should dedicate your time to learn both - that’s what a true Samurai would’ve done!