If you go back far enough, you can probably trace all martials arts back to some crazy old monk in ancient China. But if you stick to a more recent timeframe, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has its roots in Japan. So a lot of people wonder what it's like training BJJ in its ancestral homeland.
For the past four years, I've been living and training in Osaka, Japan, so I feel like I'm well placed to answer that question. And as it turns out, BJJ in Japan is pretty different from what you'd imagine. So here are 8 things that you probably didn't know about training here!
(Note: obviously I can only speak from my own experience. If your Japanese BJJ impressions have been different, please let me know in the comments!)
It's More Relaxed
The thing I found most surprising, coming in with all my pre-conceived notions about strict senseis and ironclad discipline, was how relaxed the atmosphere was.
Unlike at a lot of academies abroad, bowing before class or when entering the mat is not required. There are no rules about what color your gi should be, or how many patches you can wear.
And even more surprising to me was that you can pretty much show up at any time you want and join the class in progress without being threatened with extra push-ups or burpees for being late.
Basically, training BJJ here is all about having fun and escaping the pressure of the already-stressful daily life, not being yelled at drill sergeant-style.
Warm-Ups, Techniques, and Drills Are Optional
The other surprising thing was how classes are generally structured.
Unlike a “traditional” class structure, which might include a 30-minute warm-up, 30 minutes of techniques, and finally 30 minutes of sparring, classes here tend to be a lot more segmented.
You'll usually have a pure technique class first (which tends to include only the lightest of warm-ups), followed by a pure sparring class. The consequence of this system is that higher belts (basically, purple and above) often only show up for the sparring class.
This is great if you just want to focus on your rolling and don't want to drill the scissor sweep from guard for the 57th time, but I do miss the lack of drilling with other higher belts.
It's Not That Popular
Another thing that might surprise you is that BJJ isn't that popular here.
Although big agglomerations like Tokyo and Osaka do have their faire share of academies, smaller mid-tier cities like Kyoto or Fukuoka will usually only have one or two gyms. And classes might only have between 10 and 20 students.
A big reason is that BJJ in the U.S. and in Europe has benefited tremendously from the UFC's popularity. But here in Japan, MMA is way past its early-2000s peak.
Sure, most people still know who Rickson Gracie is, but that's about it: ask the random passer-by what BJJ or MMA is, and all you'll get is blank stares.
Gyms Are Very Drop-In Friendly
The silver lining of BJJ's limited popularity is that the BJJ scene here still has that stick-together community mentality.
Inter-academy drop-ins are common even between gyms belonging to different organizations, and in fact most gyms have dedicated open mat days. And what's even nicer, drop-in fees are unheard of.
So if you're visiting from another city or country, dropping in for a quick training session is generally not a problem.
By the way, the Japanese word for “drop-in” is degeiko (出稽古). My dictionary translates it as a Sumo term meaning “going to train in a stable other than your own”. So there you go, now you know how to drop-in at a Sumo stable, too!
The Skill Level Is Very High
BJJ's relative lack of popularity is a shame, because there's certainly a wealth of knowledge stepping on these mats every day.
Every gym will have at least one old guy who's been training since 1995 and will wreck your pitiful berimbolo attempts with his old-school knee cut passes and ezekiel chokes.
It will also have at least one skinny super-flexible young guy who does that afore-mentioned berimbolo much better than you, and somehow always winds up taking your back even though you're the one who initiated the move.
And it will also have a veteran MMA fighter who may not have fancy technique, but will make you pay for every inch of space you give them, and will grind you out until you give them your arm just to make the misery stop. The sheer variety of styles is what makes training here so enjoyable and so special!
People Don't Say “Ossss!”
Osu (押忍) is a Japanese greeting traditionally used in sports like Karate and Judo.
According to the Japanese Wikipedia, it might be a contraction of ohaiyou gozaimasu (お早うございます), meaning “good morning”. Take the first and last syllables, and you get “osu”.
But while osu seems quite popular as a BJJ greeting in Brazil and in the U.S., here in Japan it just feels a bit too macho. Kind of like greeting people with a loud “'sup bro!”. So my advice: stick to konnichiwa (こんにちは, “hello”), unless you get “osss'd” first!
We've all heard stories of BJJ champions who grew up so poor they couldn't afford the gym's tuition, and instead paid for classes by cleaning the mats.
Well these champions would've been out of luck in Japan, because here cleaning the mats is everybody's job! After each class, everybody grabs a broom or a mop and gets to work cleaning and swiping.
Now it did occur to me that a lot of time and effort could be saved by using one guy with a vacuum cleaner instead (or even better, a squad of Roombas!).
But the Japanese method does have the advantage of communicating a simple message: from white to black belt, keeping the gym clean is everybody's responsibility.
People Bring Snacks
I left my absolute favorite part of training in Japan for last: the omiyage (お土産).
Whenever you take a trip, it's a Japanese tradition to bring back souvenir snacks for your friends/neighbors/coworkers/family, which explains why 90% of every Japanese train station's floor space is dedicated to stocking these fancy overpriced gifts.
The cool part is that this tradition also extends to gym mates! Whenever someone comes back from holiday, you can be sure that they'll also bring along a delicacy from wherever they went.
Now to be fair, Japanese omiyage can sometimes be hit or miss. But hey, free food!
Pack Your Gi!
When it comes to BJJ, I don't think any country can compare to Brazil and the U.S. right now in terms of resources, skill level, and overall popularity.
But that being said, training in Japan is still a great experience. As long as you keep an open mind and understand that different places do things differently, I think you'll have a great time.
So if you're ever travelling to Japan, don't forget to pack your gi!