There is no shortage of Martial Arts from across the world that deal with throwing and maneuvering a person. While we will touch upon a variety of arts, we will be focusing on Japanese Grappling Arts in particular (it’s kind of our thing).

The Oldest Form of Combat

The art of grappling as a sport and method of defense goes further back in time than any other existing records of empty hand combat. It can be traced back as far as 3400 BC with the Egyptians. These recorded images of grappling can be seen on the tomb walls of Beni-Hasan Egypt and also in the tomb of Vizier Ptahhotpe in Saqqara. Some of the exact techniques used in today’s many grappling styles are on these walls. These paintings date back as far as 2300 BC. Grappling was also described in bible stories. Prophets & Angels wrestled with beasts. Genesis 32 describes that Jacob was left alone to wrestle beasts or man until the breaking of the day.

It seems that grappling (grabbing an opponent with your hands) maybe the oldest form of combat recorded. It’s also one of the most widely practiced and developed – with numerous arts from every continent.

We’ll go over a few more well known styles before concentrating on those that trace back to Japan.

Greco-Roman Wrestling

Greco Roman Wrestling

Although grappling was done all over the world, the first “famous” styles were introduced to the Greek Olympic Games in 704 BC. Grappling had come to the Roman Empire through the Etruscans and had slowly evolved.

Roman wrestling influenced the rather static Greek form and used military tactics such as upright take-downs. The old Greek style was much like Brazilian Jiu-Jujitsu today, which spends most of the match on the ground.

The word “Roman” in Greco-Roman wrestling, however is a mistranslated of Greek word “romi” referring to  “valor & strength”.

Other Kinds of Grappling

Other ancient forms of European wrestling can be found in the British Isles dating back as far as 1829 BC. Wrestling forms called “Strong Arm Fighting” became famous, and even used specific grappling uniforms with thick collared jackets and waistbands.

Other grappling styles in ancient Europe were GLIMA from the Norse and SCHWINGEN from Switzerland.  

There is also mention of grappling matches among the Scots and Irish.

India had an ancient form of grappling from around 11 AD. Indian wrestling is known as Pahalwani or Mallavidya. Some Indians also practice a lesser known grappling art called Vajra-Musti.

Japan Related Grappling Arts

old scroll of Jujutsu

Jujutsu 柔術 (“Yielding Art”)

Many Jujutsu styles were developed by warrior groups over the centuries.  Most were associated with weaponry, but all had grappling involved.  The grappling ranged from manipulation of the joints, to wrestling on the ground, to stand-up grappling.  The name “Ju” (“to yield”) refers to yielding to an opponent’s strength or speed in order to unbalance him and throw him to the ground. Jujutsu involves understanding the dynamics of your opponent’s motion and force, as well and understanding the physiology of his body. Attacking him at his weakest point, whether of his motion or his body, helps a weaker opponent defeat a stronger one. Jujutsu is the fastest growing martial art in the world, albeit in it’s sporting form.

Judo 柔道 (“Yielding Way”)

In 1882 Kano Jigoro founded a new type of Jujutsu that he called Judo. Kano was a Jujutsu master who had studied several styles of Jujutsu in his lifetime, and took many of the “less deadly” forms of Jujutsu techniques, and changed the approach to training.

Kano emphasized the physical fitness aspects of the art. He altered the techniques to make them appealing to the general public and more viable for sport. While Kano arranged kata (prearranged forms) for the self defense techniques in a manner to ensure safety and enjoyment in learning, he also retained shiai (contest) to test timing and technique in a semi-combat situation.

Invention of Rank

Kano also is responsible for the ranking system that is commonly used today. It consisted of Kyu ranks (trainees) and Dan ranks (graded). Before Kano the ranking system in Japan followed a series of licenses (“Menkyo”) for particular skill level: Beginner (“Shoden”), Intermediate (“Chuden”), Advanced (“Okuden”). He adapted game of Go’s method of grading for skill. He also utilized the color of game pieces to visually signify rank: Kyu ranks wore white belts and Dan ranks wore black belts.

Kano targeted government and military officials as his primary student population. By doing this the popularity of his Judo spread quickly. In 1889, Kano had sent Yamashita Yoshiaki to the U.S. to live and instruct Judo at Harvard University and at the Annapolis Academy. This greatly enhanced the popularity of Judo with the new American audience.

After an illustrious career, Kano died while travelling at sea in 1938. Today Judo is practiced all over the world and is a sport in the Olympics.

Brazilian Jiu-jitsu

Gracie Jiu-jitsu was founded by Carlos and Helio Gracie of Brazil. Carlos Gracie, Helio’s brother, had met the leader of a Japanese resettlement colony named Maeda Esai (a.k.a. Count Koma). Maeda taught Helio Gracie the art of Judo and eventually taught four of the Gracie brothers. In 1925 Carlos and his brothers opened the first Judo dojo in Brazil. Helio got involved in this martial art at the age of 16 when he began substitute teaching for his brother Carlos. Helio stood out the most of the brothers and developed the original techniques into what is now called Gracie Jiu-jitsu.  Daring to break away from the traditional Japanese style, they began experimenting, modifying and perfecting simple techniques that would be effective regardless of stature. That is how the Gracie family developed their style of Jiu-Jitsu. The Gracie organization is now headquartered in California, and has worldwide schools. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu provides the basis for most of the ground fighting in MMA.

Aikijutsu 合気柔術 (“Joining Spirit Art”)

About 875-880 A.D. one of the sons of Emperor Siewa met a Chinese man who taught him a few fighting techniques. From these techniques and principles, Teijun Fujiwara developed a fighting art he called Aikijutsu. Teijun Fujiwara taught these techniques exclusively to the royal Minamoto family where it remained a secret style until the early 1100’s. They both worked together to develop their families fighting techniques by dissecting cadavers and studying the working of the muscles and bones.

Aikido 合気道 (“Joining Spirit Way”)

In 1876 Tanomo Saigo, a Daito-Ryu Aikijutsu master, received a new student into his tradition named Takeda Sokaku (1860 – 1943). Sokaku had studied Aikijujutsu with his grandfather and other arts from his father. In 1880 at the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, Tanomo passed on all his knowledge including the secret teachings to Sokaku, and from that day forward, Takeda Sokaku would be headmaster of Daito-Ryu.

For almost 20 years Takeda Sokaku wandered from dojo to dojo, challenging every known martial arts master, and he was never defeated. He took time in his travels to instruct others, often staying with the student for a period of time before moving on. One of those students was Ueshiba Morihei.  

Morihei met Takeda while he lived in Hokkaido.  He was introduced to Takeda by Yoshida Kotaro. For the next 7 years he studied Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu with Takeda. In 1922 at the age of 39 he was granted, along with 20 other students, the teaching license called KYOJU DAIRI.  

In 1936 Ueshiba opened his first school in Tokyo. He finally chose the name Aikido for his new version of Daito-Ryu in 1942.  It was also in that year that Ueshiba moved to Iwama in the Ibaragi Prefecture where he built a dojo and became a farmer. One reason for this change in lifestyle was his involvement in the Omoto Kyo Shinto sect led by Deguchi Onisaburo.

Several other forms of Aikido have developed today. Two are very influential. Those are the Tomiki school and the Yoshinkai. The Tomiki school was founded by one of the top students of Ueshiba; Tomiki Kenji. The Yoshinkai form was developed by Shioda Gozo, another of Ueshiba’s top students. Shioda’s form strives to retain the original Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu methods. Aikido contains a significant amount of standing grappling and joint manipulations.

Japanese Wrestling

Japanese forms of grappling started around 500 B.C. According to the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters, a book of legends from the year 712, which is the oldest extant example of Japanese writing), Takemikazuchi defeats Takeminakata in a grappling match on the shores of Izumo (today’s Shimane Prefecture) for the control over the Izumo territory. According to the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan, a book from the year 720), Emperor Suinin (r. 29BC – AD70) is said to have made a special request for Nomi-no Sukunem to fight Taima-no Kehaya. The two grappled until Sukune finally does kicks to Kehaya’s ribs, and Kehaya is mortally wounded.  Sukune, the winner, has been immortalized ever since as the “father of sumo.” But Japanese Wrestling, although using techniques from Jujutsu and Sumo, developed also as a result of other influences.

Sumo 相撲 (“Struggle”)

sumo ceremony

Originally was known as “sumai”, meaning struggle. Sumo began around 20 B.C. Sumai used most of the modern sumo techniques, plus a variety of strikes. Before the 16th century almost all wrestling was practiced for battle, even though there were strength contests performed in public by Sumo warriors. The water ceremony, the bowing, the costumes, and pageantry are all reminders of the ancient military traditions. Today, the victor is the one who forces his opponent out of the ring or forces his opponent to touch the floor with any body part above the knee. The techniques they employ range from slapping (tsuppari), sweeps (ketaguri), and a variety of sacrifice throws (utchari/sutemi). Sumo is the national sport of Japan.

All Grappling Connects

Grappling progressed from a battlefield art to sport.  With time, different styles came in contact with each other, mixed and matched techniques and spread all over the world.  Even though thousands of techniques exist, there is a finite amount of ways to manipulate the human body.  

Therefore to some degree, all grappling is related.

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