One of the most important Jiu Jitsu fighters in history was nicknamed the “Master of Groundwork.” His father owned a dojo in Japan. He started training at nine years old. By the time he was 14, he was fighting grown men — and beating them. He said he learned Jiu Jitsu by “practicing catching eels in his bare hands and watching snakes swallow frogs.” If he could not win by skill, he won by grit. He said he “would never give in,” even at the cost of a broken limb or unconsciousness. He gained his stature by proving his art against the rise of Kodokan Judo.
The Rise And Fall Of Jiu Jitsu
Jiu Jitsu started in Japan in the 1400’s, maybe around 1460. The first official school opened in 1532. By the 1700’s, there were as many as 2000 schools. Jiu Jitsu was on the decline in the 1880’s in Japan, as the country looked to modernize and leave behind the warring tumult of the past. The Meiji restoration, also called the Honorable restoration, saw an end to the Samurai era in Japan. Martial arts fell out of favor. (See The Rise of Jiu Jitsu for an in depth timeline.)
A young man, by the name of Jigoro Kano, born in 1860, took an interest in Jiu Jitsu to defend himself from bullies at school. Kano had a hard time finding a school for training. He sought out a bone doctor, who was reputed to know Jiu Jitsu, and started his studies.
He transformed Jiu Jitsu into Judo in 1882. Kano brought a modern take to training and many of his ideas shaped the way martial arts are practiced today. Kano called his art Kodokan Judo and it grew to become the largest martial art in the world, practiced by 40 million people, according to the International Judo Federation
Basically Just Judo
Kano’s most famous student to the history of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was Mitsuyo Maeda.
Maeda traveled the world to help spread Judo. He went to Brazil and taught Carlos Gracie.
If you practice Jiu Jitsu today, your lineage is listed something like Jigoro Kano > Mitsuyo Maeda > Carlos Gracie > Helio Gracie — and then a list of instructors in line down to you today.
The Gracies learned Judo from Maeda. The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu the Gracies practiced is referred to by many in the Judo community as “Basically Just Judo.” But the Jiu Jitsu the Gracies practice and teach looks very little like Kano’s Judo. They are different in style and intent.
As I looked into the history of Judo, I started to see names that didn’t link back to Kano: Yukio Tani, Taro Miyaki, Sadakazu Uyenishi. They were all in London in the early 1900’s. Maeda even traveled to London to train with them. They practiced Jiu Jitsu.
Jiu Jitsu wasn’t dead?
Kano wrote in his book, Mind Over Muscle: “If I were to give an account of the history of Judo since the Meiji Restoration (1868), I would naturally want to describe how much jujutsu has progressed and developed since then. But, in fact, during that time jujutsu was transformed into Kodokan Judo, so it can be asserted that jujutsu has not progressed or developed at all since then.”
Needless to say, that statement, then and now, is far from true. Jiu Jitsu never stopped developing. And one man is proof: Mataemon Tanabe — the man who caught eels, swallowed frogs, and would let his limbs break before losing. The Jiu Jitsu master defeated nearly every opponent he faced from Kano’s formidable Kodokan Judo team.
Rise Of The Ground Master
Tanabe was born in 1869 in Okayama, Japan — nine years after Jigoro Kano. His father ran a dojo. He started training Jiu Jitsu at 9 years old, and at 14, began accompanying his father to competitions and challenges, often fighting grown men and much heavier opponents. He received his teaching certification at 17, and he and his father traveled the country to teach Jiu Jitsu.
Tanabe was technical, cerebral and analytical. He was also reckless, stubborn and unwilling to submit. “When I trained with my father’s other students,” he said, on p.888 of the Kodokan’s Dai Nippon Judoshiin, in a translation by Syd Hoare, an English Judo Olympian in 1964. “I would never give in to a strangle or a lock. When I was fifteen I got caught in an arm-lock and my elbow was dislocated with a loud crack. My tactic was to wait till my opponent got tired and then make a move to free myself. It was the same with strangles. This ability to endure locks and strangles created various strategies for me. I soon came to be called Newaza-Tanabe.”
A Style Like No Other
“My jujitsu was not so much the result of my fine teachers (I did learn a lot of wrist releases from my father) but because I always chose to fight strong ones and never give in regardless of injuries or unconsciousness,” Tanabe said in the same translation. “In this way my jujitsu became polished and this made me work out various ways to capitalize on my strengths.
“For example I came up with what I called the Unagi no Osaekata (the Eel restraint). As is well known if you press an eel with your hand it will slide away and escape but if you put your hand on it gently it can be trapped. Later I came up with the snake and frog technique. Like the snake that slowly swallows a frog one bit at a time my groundwork overwhelmed my opponents in much the same manner.”
Fighting The Kodokan: 8 matches, 8 wins
Tanabe moved to Tokyo in January 1891. He was appointed hand-to-hand instructor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, under the recommendation of Senjuro Kanaya of the Takenouchi-ryū school of Jiu Jitsu. Tanabe trained with Kanaya and other Takenouchi-ryū masters like Kotaro Imai and Hikosaburo Oshima.
The legend of Tanabe began with a challenge fight against a fellow police instructor, 3rd dan Kodokan Judoka and former Tenjin Shin’yō-ryū exponent Takisaburo Tobari. The fight occurred at the Hisamatsu police station and was refereed by Kanaya. During the match, Tanabe reversed an osoto makikomi attempt by Tobari, and, after pinning him with kami-shiho-gatame, choked him unconscious by juji-jime choke (cross choke).
Previous matches between the Kodokan and Tokyo police instructors, representing Jiu Jitsu, had taken place around 1886-1888. The Kodokan won the vast majority of the fights, with only a few draws and possibly a pair of losses. The exact number of bouts is unknown, possibly 15.
The Kodokan’s reputation and incredible growth in students sprang from these matches. Judo was quickly becoming to be thought of as an unbeatable martial art — until Tanabe.
In all, Tanabe had eight matches against Kodokan fighters between 1892-1895. He won all eight. It is even reported that he challenged Jigoro Kano to a match.
Tanabe’s Fame Grows
After those fights with the Kodokan, Tanabe’s renown was such that he was one of the twenty representing masters chosen in 1895 to open the jujutsu division at the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, an idea promoted by Kano. Tanabe taught at the Butokukai for a long time, and also competed against martial artists from other styles.
In 1898, Tanabe was involved in an exhibition fight in front of Emperor Taishō in Kyoto, going against 3rd dan judoka Yuji Hirooka in a rematch of a past challenge fight. After half an hour of fighting on their feet and the tatami, Tanabe scored a morote gari and applied an ashi garami (足挫, an ancient name for the ashi hishigi). Although Hirooka surrendered, it was too late, and his leg was broken.
At the next reunion at the Butoku Kai, in 1899, Kano proposed to forbid leglocks from regular Jiu Jitsu/Judo competitions due to the possibility of lasting damage. Tanabe objected, noting that the entire martial art could be considered dangerous as well; however, out of all the masters of traditional Jiu Jitsu gathered, only Kaisuke Masuda from Shinnuki-ryū agreed with Tanabe, and thus the ban was decided by majority.
A Loss, Then Payback
Tanabe continued to train and teach Jiu Jitsu. His favorite place was reported to be the dojo of Yataro Handa (insert pic) in Dojima, Osaka, which he visited for the first time in 1898, a year after it was opened. Handa was a master of Daito-ryū.
Knowing Tanabe’s reputation, Handa introduced him to Soji Kimotsuki, a former student of his who had joined the Kodokan.
Kimotsuki and Tanabe fought a match. Three years after his famous fights with the Kodokan, Tanabe lost for the first time to a representative of the Kodokan.
Kimotsuki threw Tanabe on his head with deashi barai and knocked him out.
Tanabe got his retribution the next day by sitting on the mat and goading Kimotsuki to meet him on the ground, where he choked him out. After those matches, Tanabe and Kimotsuki became friends and training partners.
Tanabe was reported to be a regular teacher in Handa’s dojo
The Importance of Handa
In The Rise Of Jiu Jitsu post on the Zenyo Blog, I chronicled that Tani, Uyenishi and Seizo Yamamoto were the first martial artists to leave Japan for the West. The year was 1900 and they traveled to London.
E.W. Barton Wright, an English engineer, was responsible for bringing the Jiu Jitsu fighters to England. Between the years 1895-1898, Barton Wright had studied Jiu Jitsu and Kodokan Judo in Tokyo. He is reported to have asked Kano to send instructors to England. Kano recommended the Jiu Jitsu men.
In 1904, Taro Miyake, reported to be a student of Tanabe at Handa dojo, traveled to London to join Tani and the others after getting fired from his police job for getting in a fight.
Years later (1916), Miyake conducted an interview with the Racine (Wisconsin) Journal-News and said, “All, or practically all, of the Japanese jiu-jitsu experts who have exhibited in this country [e.g., the USA], have been exponents of the Kodokan style, which has its headquarters in Tokyo. Kodokan jiu-jitsu became popular here because it is the style brought into play when two men are standing and it is spectacular. Therefore, it was the most suitable method to furnish Americans and Europeans with an illustration of how to repel attacks in ordinary assaults.
“The other school of jiu-jitsu is called Handa, and its great teachers are at Osaka, where I learned. Handa is more particularly the kind of jiu-jitsu used when two men are on the mat, as in catch-as-catch-can. The jiu-jitsu tricks of the tiny Japanese policemen, which have been written about so much by travelers, embody the elementary principles of the Kodokan method, and some of the policemen are quite good at them. As I have said, there is little stand-up work in catch-as-catch can and Handa experts are the ones to offer a comparison between the Japanese and American methods.”
Also in 1904, Kodokan Judoka Mitsuyo Maeda left Japan for New York. Three years later, Maeda traveled to London to train, compete, entertain and travel with the Jiu Jitsu fighters.
Maeda’s style is speculated to have been heavily influenced by the Jiu Jitsu fighters. The Gracie family even said that Maeda referred to his method as Jiu Jitsu, not Judo.
Carrying The Jiu Jitsu Flag
Tanabe carried the Jiu Jitsu flag for his whole life. Reports claim that Kano tried to hire Tanabe as an instructor at the Kodokan. Some claim that he taught at the Kodokan and his style influenced Maeda. None of this has been documented.
Kano’s goal was to make Judo the largest martial art in the world. He brought in many Jiu Jitsu fighters to represent the Kodokan. Yukio Tani joined the Kodokan in 1920. The Valente Brothers, students of the Gracie family, claim that Helio Gracie turned down an invitation to join the Kodokan. Tanabe’s style is much closer to the style of Helio Gracie, and the Gracie family, than it was to the style of Kano’s Judo.
Tanabe also refused to join the Kodokan. (Tanabe’s son, Teruo, later joined the Kodokan.) Years after his death, Tanabe’s career was praised by judo historian Takeshi Kuroda, who called him “the last great jujutsuka.”
Instead of being the last, Tanabe is most likely a link from the way Jiu Jitsu was practiced in Japan to the way it continues around the world.
Author’ note: The information in this article is researched to the best of my ability. The history of Jiu Jitsu and Judo from this time period was not thoroughly documented.
- “Tanabe Mataemon talks about his Fusen-Ryu Jiujutsu” (PDF). Syd Hoare. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
- Takeshi Kuroda, Mei Senshu Monogatari #8: Tanabe Mataemon, Modern Judo magazine, 20 June 1980
- Kainan Shimomura, Henri Plée’s Revue Judo Kodokan, September 1952
- Christian Quidet, La fabuleuse histoire des Arts Martiaux
- Cesare Barioli, L’Avventure del Judo, Corpo Mente Cuore
- Relation between Daito and Sekiguchi
- Yukimitsu Kano, Judo Daijiten, 1984
- Raisuke Kudo, Isogai Hajime no Maki: Mataemon no Gajo ni Kirikon da Isogai, Tokyo Sports, 25 May 1973
- Tsunetane Oda, Judo Manabu Hito no Tame ni, 1950
- Judo History 8