***With the ongoing discussion of the very serious COVID-19 situation, it is easy to forget that we just released the ninth issue of Martial Arts Studies.  This open issue is packed with an exceptional variety of full length research articles coming from a number of different fields.  Over the next few weeks I intend to feature a few of the papers which might be of special interest to readers of Kung Fu Tea.  Once you have read these papers, be sure to check out the rest of the issue!***


“Nationalism, Immigration and Identity: The Gracies and the Making of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, 1934- 1943”

by José Cairus



This article analyzes the transformation of a modernized Japanese school of martial arts, jujutsu (柔術), also known as jiu-jitsu, jujitsu and/or Kodokan judo, into a Brazilian combat sport. In the 1930s, the Gracies, supported by a nationalist regime, launched a comprehensive process of jiu-jitsu reinvention that evolved into a local combat sport at the same time as the inauguration of the Estado Novo dictatorship in 1937. This study argues that the Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the direct outcome of clashes pitting the Gracies and Japanese immigrants that occurred against a background of radical nationalism, violence and ideological polarization. The creation of a local jiu-jitsu encompassed a wide range of changes in techniques, philosophy and rituals borne from the clash between tradition and modernity.



Around World War I, a branch of a Scottish-cum-Rio de Janeiro family with genteel pretensions, joined a troupe of Japanese martial artists and adopted jujutsu (hereafter, jiu-jitsu) as part of their circus act. The surname of this family was Gracie. After having moderate success in the Amazon, they faced economic hardship in the 1920s upon their return to Rio de Janeiro. In the face of this, the Gracies sought to use their jiu-jitsu skills to meet the challenges posed by their failing social status during the transition from the ‘Old Republic’ to the Getúlio Vargas regime. Their trajectory might be taken to confirm the identification between the new regime and the emergent middle class, as suggested by Michael Conniff [1981]. However, the Gracies were not part of the emergent middle classes. Rather they can be said to fit better into Brian Owensby’s characterization of Brazilian society of the 1930s: this proposed a category of déclassé aristocrats, ‘descendants of traditional families struggling to adjust to the challenges and uncertainties of an increasingly competitive and diversified social order that had eroded the social hierarchy of mid-nineteenth century slave society’ [Owensby 1999: 45–46]. Nonetheless, the Gracies’ trajectory certainly shows that, in modern Brazil, white or light-skinned individuals from the ranks of once elite groups still enjoyed privileges within the new regime.

This context played a crucial role in the creation of what is today widely known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), an internationally successful, rapidly globalizing martial art and combat sport, which was pioneered and promoted by the Gracie family throughout the twentieth century. In the twenty first century, the Gracies are still closely – almost indelibly– associated with BJJ. Yet remarkably little scholarly research has been carried out into the socio-cultural and political context of its historical formation. This article seeks to redress this balance.

In the early 1930s the Gracies used their martial arts skills to replenish their cultural capital and regain social status. They did this by introducing the practice of jiu-jitsu into the newly created paramilitary gendarmerie, known as Polícia Especial (Special Police). The provisory government, headed by Getúlio Vargas, had created the Special Police (Polícia Especial) in 1932 as a branch of Rio’s police department as part of comprehensive reform which restructured the state security apparatus [Vargas 1938: 34-35]. The raison d’être of this Fascist-inspired unit

was ousting Getúlio Vargas’ representative in São Paulo. The casus belli was the new regime’s failure to comply with the demands of São Paulo’s oligarchies for constitutional rule [Burns 1993: 351-352]. Also in 1932, a coalition of landowners and industrialists politically sidelined by the coup d’état in 1930, deposed Varga’s interventor (appointed state governor) and declared war on the authoritarian regime. After nearly three months of military engagements, federal armed forces defeated São Paulo’ troops, which were made up of state militias and volunteers. In order to avoid any repetition of such an event, the new regime organized storm trooper squads, fully devoted to Getúlio Vargas, whose primary mission was to protect the regime [Bonelli 2003: 14]. Physical prowess and martial arts skills were the most important requirements and considerations when it came to drafting new recruits, and the unit worked in combination with the political police (Departamento de Ordem Política e Social –D.O.P.S.). Throughout their existence, both forces were deadly efficient and infamously identified with the more repressive facet of Vargas’ authoritarian regime.1

As a result of their insertion into Getúlio Vargas’ security apparatus, the Gracies enjoyed protection under the new regime. In this article, I analyze how they launched a process of reinventing Japanese jiu-jitsu within a context of growing nationalism and the active construction of national identity, most notably during the implementation of the Estado Novo dictatorship after 1937.

Strongly supported by the regime, the Gracies ran their jiu-jitsu operations in Rio de Janeiro only a few blocks from the presidential palace. By contrast, rival martial artists settled in the epicenter of Japanese immigration, 400 kilometers away, in São Paulo. The rivalry between the Gracies and the Japanese martial artists reflected the existence of two competing projects for modern Brazil. The Gracies came to represent the nationalist alliance between Rio’s old elite and the new power holders hailing from oligarchies established in peripheral Brazil – an alliance that was not without xenophobic overtones. Conversely, the Japanese martial artists symbolized São Paulo’s agro- industrial elite option for immigration and multiculturalism.

The dynamic of the rivalry between the Gracies and the Japanese fighters reveals the ambiguities within in the discourses just mentioned. The Navy was the branch of the military that had pioneered the practice of jiu-jitsu, and it sponsored some of the best Japanese
martial artists in Brazil during the 1930s. At the same time, the Navy traditionally recruited officers of genteel background. In this context, their antagonism toward the Gracies reveals an inter-elite dispute within the bureaucratic apparatus created by the new regime [Beattie 2004: 91]. Accordingly, in this article, I analyze the genesis of Brazilian jiu-jitsu using two conceptual frameworks. For, the creation of a Brazilian national identity took place, on the one hand, in a context of growing foreign immigration and, on the other, in terms of a nationalist influence [Lesser 1999]. During the 1930s, the Gracies found themselves in a quasi-Hobbesian state of war against all challengers. When fighting Brazilian wrestlers, the Gracies were simply seeking to enhance their status and prestige within the new political establishment. But when fighting the Japanese, they were in a more complicated way becoming figures of national identity and simultaneously representatives a distinct local fighting style.

The Gracies created a local jiu-jitsu culture by self-consciously refusing to abide by the technical, philosophical and cultural aspects of the Japanese matrix. As a result, they laid the foundations of the future hybrid that would come to be known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu. The transformation of Japanese jiu-jitsu encompassed a wide range of changes concerning techniques, philosophy, and rituals. To approach these, I employ Arjun Appadurai’s approach to understanding the acculturation of British cricket in India. Appadurai argued that through a binary transformation involving ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ forms, British cricket underwent a process of indigenization in colonial India. Appadurai writes:

Hard cultural forms are those that come with a set of links between value, meaning, and embodied practice that are difficult to break and hard to transform. Soft cultural forms, by contrast, permit relatively easy separation of embodied performance from meaning and value, and relatively successful transformation at each level

[Appadurai 1996: 90]

To grasp what is meant by the ‘hard’ forms of embodied practice, a brief explanation of technical aspects is necessary. Japanese immigration had direct influence on jiu-jitsu style as reinvented by the Gracies. Since the initial bouts in 1930 between Carlos Gracie and Geo Omori in São Paulo, what became clear was the Japanese martial artists’ technical superiority in standing techniques (Nage-Waza).2 Yet their very specialization in standing techniques led the Japanese fighters to gradually neglect ground combat (Ne-Waza). The Gracies then filled
the technical gap by focusing their jiu-jitsu practice almost exclusively on ground combat. Ultimately, while keeping the techniques in their original form, they worked out a ground combat style based on a defensive strategy. Simultaneously, the Gracies sought to transform jiu-jitsu’s ‘soft’ forms by rapidly abolishing Japanese bowing (rei-ho), ignoring Kodokan judo’s belt rankings and Japanese rules governing the fights.3


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1 In 1924, the Brazilian government created the ‘D.O.P.S’. (Departamento de Ordem Política e Social) Department of Political and Social Order.

2 ‘Jiu-Jitsu: Um Verdadeiro Luctador Brasileiro Enfrentara O Famoso Geo Omori’. Folha da Manhã, São Paulo, 1930, 8; ‘Domingo Haverá o Grande Encontro Entre Grace
e Omori’. Folha da Manhã, São Paulo, January 3 1930, 9; ‘Jiu-Jitsu: Ainda O Encontro De Domingo: Teremos Uma Revanche?’ Folha da Manhã, São Paulo, January 7 1930, 10; ‘Omori Foi Completamente Dominado Pelo Luctador Brasileiro’. Folha da Manhã, São Paulo, January 20 1930, 3.

3 Replacing the Japanese bowing by the Westernized ‘handshake’ seems to be an attempt to introduce horizontal ethics or egalitarian ideas that came along with modernization [Matta 1991: 148–9]. The Gracies also created a new ranking system in which the highest level was the blue belt.


About the Author

Born and raised in Rio de Janeiro within a family of Lebanese-Brazilian Kodokan judo martial artists, José Cairus has a master’s degree in the African Diaspora from Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and a PhD in Modern Latin American History from York University, Toronto, Canada. He has conducted research in Brazil, the United States, Canada, Europe, and Africa, with emergent research projects in South America and the Middle East. He has participated in a wide range of collaborative international projects and taught at York University, University of Toronto, University of Guelph and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Currently, he is teaching in Brazil.



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