History shows BJJ has its origins from Mitsuyo Maeda and Judo, but what influenced Judo to focus on its groundwork which eventually led to Maeda and BJJ? Let’s go back in time to 1869 with the birth of Mataemon Tanabe. Tanabe was born in Okayama Japan and started training Fusen-ryū, a form of jujitsu at the age of 9.
Due to fighting grown men and heavier adversaries in other arts such as sumo and various styles of jujitsu through the years, he created a strategy of wearing down opponents with ground control to tire them and applying submissions by choke or joint lock. He was quoted stating, “like the snake that slowly swallows a frog one bite at a time my groundwork overwhelmed my opponents in much the same manner.”
In 1890 Tanabe was appointed as an instructor (shihan) for hand to hand technique at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.
The day that brought his name to fame was in 1891 when a fellow instructor, a 3rd dan Judoka from the Kodokan, Takisaburo Tobari was defeated in a challenge by choke after Tanabe countered a takedown attempt.
In 1900, Tanabe defeated another Kodokan man in front of the crown prince at an exhibition match by leg lock. The highest ranking Kodokan Judokas could not compete against Tanabe and the Fusen-ryū jujitsu due to their lack of ground work. The Kodokan tried to learn and counter Tanabe but failed. This forced Kano to have Tanabe work with his students to improve their grappling. Though Kano incorporated it into his system he still did not like ground work but understood its necessity. He said, “Human beings were made to walk, not crawl.” He also pointed out its lack of versatility to take on multiple opponents and its resemblance to schoolyard wrestling.
After the employment of Tanabe, the Kodokan began to focus and improve their groundwork which became known as newaza. During this time, a young man known by the name of Maeda began training Judo during this era of change and newaza focused Judo. With his travels around the world he would end up in Brazil and teaching his style to those such as Carlos Gracie, Luis Franca and Oswaldo Fadda. Thus, began the era of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
The Way of Judo: A Portrait of Jigoro Kano and His Students by John Stevens
Mastering JuJitsu by Tenzo Gracie and John Danaher
Tanabe Mataemon Talks About His Fusen-Ryu JuJitsu translted from 1170 page Dai-Nippon Judo-Shi (Great Japan Judo History 1939)