The Archive Box #2: Japanese Judokas, Brazilian Black Belts

By João Júlio Gomes dos Santos Júnior*, State University of Ceará

The Archive Box is a series featuring global urban historians reflecting on their archival experience, and on the practical and theoretical challenges they faced while working with a variety of archives in different cities across the world.

While chronicling the encounters of Japanese fighters traveling across the urban centers of Latin America at the turn of the twentieth century, João Júlio Gomes dos Santos Júnior discusses the value of a history that does not pay lip service to nationalist narratives, offers advice on doing research in Brazil, and highlights the difficulties historians in the Global South face in accessing putatively global archives

My current research is on the global history of Jiu-Jitsu. After I finished my PhD, which was related to diplomatic history and maritime law, I became more committed to global history as a methodological lens with which to think about Brazil and the Latin American continent. I moved to Fortaleza, on the opposite side of the country from where I come from. I had been training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for a very long time, and thus decided to study the rich history of this martial art and combat sport.

The French fighter “Régnier”, mostly known as “Re-Nié”, teaching the Chef of French Police, M. Lapine, Jiu Jitsu moves like the arm lock (1905). Madrid: Biblioteca Nacional de España.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has a truly global history. It is mostly told as starting with Mitsuyo Maeda, sometimes referred to as “Count Koma” (Conde Koma in Portuguese) in the popular press, a judoka in Japan’s Meiji era who travelled from Yokohama to New York City in 1904, and then to Paris, Havana, Mexico City, San Salvador, amongst other places. He would take part in fighting tournaments and exhibitions with wrestlers and boxers, showcasing the judo techniques learned from Jigoro Kano, judo’s founder. In 1914, he arrived in Brazil, and presented his combat techniques in various theaters.

Advertising for Jiu-Jitsu exhibitions between local champions and Japanese fighters. New York Times, 1911.

The fascinating thing is that in my research I found a large number of Japanese fighters circulating all over Latin America around the same time. They were showcasing judo’s novelty in circuses, theaters, public squares, sports clubs, on the streets, or even inside warships. Looking at archives from the local press is insightful, as one reads a lot of curiosity about these bizarre characters and their unconventional and even incomprehensible type of strength, compared with popular local combat techniques, like boxing in Cuba, or capoeira in Brazil. One starts to realize, reading between the lines, how local urban leaders would draw on the “strangeness” of these judokas to attract the public, and then use such combat sports as a way to produce “strong” and “healthy” citizens.

Illustration of the “capoeirista” Cyriaco defeating the Jiu-Jitsu fithter Sada Miyako, in Rio de Janeiro (1908). Rio de Janeiro, Bibilioteca Nacional do Brasil.

Archival research for this project relies mostly at the moment on local press clippings, in Brazil, of course, but also in Europe, Asia, in Mexican cities and in Cuba—which is perhaps the most interesting place in this story, because of the long tradition of combat sports there. Historical research into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has to deal with a major challenge, which is the almost “proprietary” relationship that a particular Brazilian family—the Gracie—have with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Carlos Gracie was the teenage son of the impresario organizing Maeda’s exhibitions in Belèm. In 1917, he met Maeda and became his student. Along with his brother, Helio Gracie, they went on to popularize Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and then circulated it around the world with their children and grandchildren, most notably in the United States. The Gracie story is not anodyne, and any secondary source purporting their “official” story needs to be read as a primary source into the historical formation of a type of Brazilian masculinity and nationalism. In fact, it has been found that Helio Gracie took part in Integralismo, a 1930s fascist movement in Brazil. It may not be a coincidence that Jair Bolsonaro was conferred an honorary black belt in 2018. Why do martial arts often get glorified by far-right movements in the twentieth century? It is an interesting question, which speaks perhaps to the eugenicist worship of male strength and self-defense, and tradition as virtue. Japan, in that sense, occupies an important position for European and Latin American far-right movements, for its perceived cultural homogeneity and upholding of ancient traditions. All of this is a narrative that does not do justice to the rich, protean history of martial arts.

How one approaches national archives in Brazil is a tricky question. First and foremost, being introduced by someone is crucial. Another very important thing, probably the same around the world, is to keep at all times a good relationship with the archivist. This relationship—which may last a week, a month, or however long one is researching in an archive—is key to the success of one’s research. Just being kind in your interactions will not cut it, in Brazil it is as important to be very deferential. “Puxar o saco” is the colloquial expression we use, which may loosely translate to “suck up to” someone. For my PhD, I was fortunate enough to travel a fair amount, visiting archives in Uruguay, Argentina, and Portugal. In each of these places, you find different institutional cultures that you have to adapt to as well.

For this project, I started from old newspapers in different databases, mostly from the beginning of the twentieth century in Brazil. I went to the University of Illinois in 2018 on a fellowship, and there I was fortunate enough to have access to a rich archive. From Brazil, that would have been impossible. This led me to question the geography of knowledge and the politics of location. Our library in the state university I work in has about 40,000 books—the entire library. The University of Illinois has 40,000 books just for sports history, and perhaps ten million books overall. When such disparity exists, there is nothing one can do about it. It would require an investment in education for decades to even think about bridging such a gap. This is the tragedy of working in the Global South when one is in academia. In my university, we do not even have access to JSTOR—in order to access an article there, I need to email friends.

How does one do global history when the “global” is out of reach? It is almost impossible, unless one can go abroad, and find new materials and articles. This is what I did during my short stint at the University of Illinois—I downloaded everything I could.

*As told to Ayan Meer.

João Júlio Gomes dos Santos Júnior has been Assistant Professor of Brazilian History at the State University of Ceará (UECE) since 2016. His PhD (2014) is from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS) with a doctoral stage at Freie Universität Berlin (FU Berlin). His recently published work focuses on the intersection of global history, sport history, and cultural diplomacy. It includes História Urbana e Global: novas tendências e abordagens (UECE, 2018), an edited book with chapters from distinguished scholars from the United States and Brazil. Since 2020, he has been the head of the new Graduate Studies Program in History at UECE.

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