Brazilians Bringing Jiu-Jitsu Back to Japan
By Roberto Pedreira
There's something ironic about it, as many people have
remarked, the Japanese being taught a Japanese martial art by Brazilians. But
then again, not really, when you think about it. Mitsuyo Maeda first allegedly taught
Carlos Gracie the Japanese art of twisting, locking, and throwing, some seventy years
ago. Since then, under the nurturance of Carlos, his younger brother Helio, and
their ever growing army (as Renzo says) of sons, grandsons, and nephews,
jiu-jitsu has developed along distinctly
Backstage at Pride 2 (March 1998) in Yokohama, I was
talking to Rickson, Renzo, and Royler for my Black Belt report on
the event. I noticed a young Japanese guy talking to a scary looking Brazilian guy
(who turned out to be one of Rolls Gracie's top students, Mauricio Motta Gomes).
The Japanese guy was wearing a
t-shirt that said "Gracie Japan". I didn't think much of it, because there are
Gracie fans everywhere, and plenty in Japan, and a lot of them have Gracie
t-shirts. But what did "Gracie Japan" refer to? As far as I knew,
Japan was devoid of Gracie jiu-jitsu. I asked him where he had gotten the shirt.
At the Gracie academy in Tokyo, he said. In fact, it was his academy. He invited me to visit. The
next day I did. I've been there since.
The young Japanese guy's name was Takamasa
Watanabe (on bottom in above picture).
A few of his students address him as sensei (teacher). But most know him
as "Taka" (which coincidentally
means “hawk” in Japanese). Taka is Brazilian (a Carioca
to be exact). To be biographically precise, he was born in
Japan. His parents immigrated to Brazil before he was one year old--before he
had a chance to learn to learn to speak or indeed to be (in the cultural sense) Japanese. He spent 20 of his first 21 years in Rio de
Janeiro, doing what kids do in Rio, surfing if possible, but most
assuredly, playing futebol (soccer). He also
studied karate, kendo, and judo (with George
an early age. He started learning jiu-jitsu from Marcello Behring when he was
13, because "other martial arts are good, but for self-defense, jiu-jitsu
is best". He earned his brown belt from Carlos Gracie Jr. at the Barra da
Ticuja academy in 1993, the same year he returned to Japan to study business at
"When I told my friends at the academy in Barra I was
going to Japan, they were envious, because they thought I was going to
learn the ancient secret techniques and state of the art methods from the
Japanese. After all, they were the ones who invented jiu-jitsu and taught it to Carlos
When he got here, he checked out daitoryu ju-jutsu schools,
Tenjinshinryo-ryu jujutsu, judo, and sambo schools. Taka soon realized
the secrets he had been looking for weren't in Japan. They were back in Brazil.
And they weren't secrets. They were just the basic
techniques everyone learns in every jiu-jitsu academy in Rio.
to preserve his jiu-jitsu skills, he began teaching a few fellow students at the
was in still in 1993, before the UFC and Vale Tudos, long before the days when
the names Royce and Rickson had become as familiar as Elvis and Bruce.
One day, one of his students mentioned
that the captain of the university karate team had heard of Taka and wanted to
meet him. Thinking that he simply wanted to talk, Taka agreed. But the
karate man had other ideas and asked Taka to accompany him to his dojo nearby,
where the entire karate team was waiting. The karate man exclaimed his doubts
about the effectiveness of what he had heard Taka was teaching and asked for a
personal demonstration "just
like in that Bruce Lee movie" [the scene on the junk en route to Dr. Han's
island where Parsons from New Zealand asks Bruce to "show me some of
it" in Enter the Dragon].
Taka had been on his way to class
and reasonably enough didn't happen to be carrying his kimono (or dogi,
as the Japanese term it). The karate man told him, no problem, the floor is clean, Taka could
just wear his street clothes. Taka declined. The karate man found a dirtydogi
laying around and he tossed it over to Taka. Taka took
this as an insult, and accepted the challenge. What happened next? "Nothing
special. Just the A-B-Cs of jiu-jitsu--clinch, take down, choke. It wasn't difficult; he was clueless."
He was also unconscious--Taka had forgotten to remind him to tap if necessary.
Eventually, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu tidal wave reached Japan
and in September of 1997 Taka felt the time had come to establish an official
Gracie academy in Japan. With the approval and assistance of his teacher and
president of the Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Federation, Carlos Gracie Jr., Taka opened
the Gracie Japan academy in the Meidaimae area of Tokyo, easily accessible from
both Shinjuku （by Keio line) and Shibuya (by Keio Inokashira line).
His hunch had been right. Within days, the academy
was full of Japanese and foreigners eager to learn this awesomely effective art. They
came from the eight corners of the world. In addition to Japan, students hail
from America, Austria, Korea, China, Myanmar, Mexico, Australia Canada, Israel, Germany,
Spain, Belgium, Holland, Russia, Chile, Peru, New Zealand, England, and Poland (including the Polish
ambassador, who, besides being a Gracie Jiu-jitsu fan, is a dan ranked
aikido expert.) The academy is a magnet for Brazilians living in Tokyo, both
those who previously trained in Brazil, and those who had never heard of
jiu-jitsu before coming to Japan. Visitors from Jacare's school in Atlanta,
Roberto Maia's school in Boston, Ralph's school in Mountain View, Renzo's school in New York, and Rickson's school in Los Angeles regularly show up for longer or
Famous jiu-jitsu teachers and fighters regularly make stops at
Gracie Japan. Renzo, Ryan, Relson, Rillion, Mario Sperry, Murilo Bustamante,
Ricardo Liborio, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Top Team coach Bebeo Duarte, Ricardo
Arona, Vitor Belfort, Saulo Ribeiro, Matt Sera, Alexandre
Café Dantas, Leka Vieira
and Aloisio Silva, Sean Alvarez, Leo Vieira and his younger brother Ricardo
Ricardo DelaRiva, Pe de Pano, Vitor Shaolin Ribeiro, and many others have stopped in to
train, visit with old friends, conduct interviews and photo shoots with the
local press, and to make seminars. Several illustrious
teachers, including. Mauricio Motta Gomes (4th dan black belt
and one of Rolls Gracie's original black belts), and Edson de Silva (6th dan black
belt), stopped in and stayed for three months each.
Students range from absolute beginners with no martial arts
experience, to high ranking masters of other martial arts, such as karate,
boxing, aikido, aikijutsu, and jeet kune do. There are plenty of judoka, samboists and
wrestlers represented as well. The majority of the students are on the young
side, but there are some older "rollers" too. For example, Thomas
Foley, who happens also to be the U.S. ambassador to Japan, is over 70 years old
but rolls when his busy schedule allows.
Since the academy is relatively new and the
first one in Japan, Taka wanted to keep the standards for belt promotions high.
The great majority of students, some after having been training for two years,
are still white belts. There are a fair number of blue belts now, although far
fewer than in Brazil, in relation to the number of students in the school. There
is just one purple belt, and he received his after his impressive performances
in many tournaments, including most recently Rickson's in August (in which,
though technically a blue belt, he competed as a purple and, according to some
observers, narrowly missed the gold medal due to a refereeing oversight).
Cristiano Alves Kaminishi, who Karate Bushido in France (Octobre 1998, p.
111) called a "nouvelle star" and "semble avoir
le potentiel d'un futur très grand champion".
the same vein, one writer for Black Belt magazine in the United States
described Cristiano as having "the potential to become a major force on
the competition tatami [sic] and possibly in the vale tudo ring as
well" (April 1999, p.159) .
It's hard to miss Cristiano. He's a big boy.
His kimono is covered with sponsors' logos. He's never far from the mat. Not
only because he loves jiu-jitsu but also because he lives in the academy. (Click
for update on Cristiano). Literally. You tend to get a lot of rolling in, when you live in a jiu-jitsu
academy. You also tend to get good.
The school is physically small, like most places in Tokyo,
but not that much smaller than most academies in Rio. Like any dojo or academy
anywhere, it tends to get crowded at peak training times. But with 90-minute
classes offered three times a day six days a week and twice on Sunday, there's
generally ample room to roll.
Classes are conducted in Japan the way they are in Brazil,
with a few small concessions to the Japanese fondness for formality. Bowing
isn't a Brazilian custom. Brazilians hug, kiss, and shake hands--some form of
physical contact is required in greetings and leave-takings. The Japanese tend to view this sort of
physical contact as uncomfortably intimate and not compatible with the rank and
distance relations that pervade every social group. Lining up, kneeling, and
bowing before and after a workout is a very Japanese thing. Everything in Japan
starts and stops at a precise time. This not only never happens in Brazil, it
never could happen (and of course, Brazilian workouts don't really begin and end
in the same way they do in Japan).
In the spirit of compromise, training at
Gracie Japan begins and ends with hand shaking and hugging, followed by lining up, kneeling, and bowing. The class ends with lining
up, kneeling, and bowing, followed by hand shakes and hugs. The Japanese ritual is enclosed
within the Brazilian ritual. Everyone seems to like it like that. (There are
some Brazilians, such as Sylvio Behring, who believe that more of the Japanese
emphasis on self-discipline and respect would not be a bad idea in more jiu-jitsu
academies in Rio).
Apart from that, and the fact that the classes are
conducted in three languages (Japanese, Portuguese, and English) the workout is indistinguishable from one in Rio. In
fact, some of the Japanese who have been training for a while seem to have
become a bit Brazilianized, becoming more relaxed and demonstrative than most
other Japanese. It's the environment. It isn't easy spending any amount of time
among Brazilians, especially cariocas, without picking up at least a few of
their mannerisms and speech characteristics, my friend.
Gracie Japan isn't quite the same as actually
being in Rio. (For example, Rio has beaches, samba, sunny weather, and
spectacular views, while Tokyo has high prices and earthquakes). But at least within
the confines of the academy walls, it's pretty close.