(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Yesterday was my 18th Jiu-Jitsu class. I choked a few guys, I was squashed by other guys, and I managed surprise a blue belt with the only combination move that I can actually complete without thinking for too long.

What in the world motivated me to start Jiu-Jitsu? Some background:

I’ve been curious about martial arts for a quite a few years now.

I almost started Judo at l’Université when I was living in Strasbourg, France—I filled out the registration forms and paid my sports fee and everything—but unfortunately the school’s beginner class filled up before I had the chance to join. When I was applying for the JET Program a year later, my heart was still set on learning Judo… I hoped there would be a beginner-friendly dojo near my future apartment in Japan.

However, when I found out months later that I was placed in Ibaraki, the home of Aikido, I decided that maybe I would learn Aikido instead. A quick internet search informed me that Aikido was a little less… intense compared to Judo, so it would probably more my speed anyway. (I’m not a badass person, as much as I’d like to be). Then I arrived in Japan to find that Aikido was born in the middle of Ibaraki (that’s where most of the Aikido gyms are) whereas I was living an hour and a half to the west…

Well, all good plans go awry.

So my first year on JET was spent wishing I could start some martial art—any martial art at this point—but doing nothing to accomplish it.

Luckily, back in October (2016), J and I decided to finally do something. One day, after lunch, we poked our heads into the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym near her house and asked a few questions. Basically, it went down like this—“We’ve never done jiu-jitsu before and we are both foreign, so our Japanese isn’t great. Would that cause any issues? Oh, and how expensive is it per month?”

We watched a few classes at the end of October, and by November, we had both bought gi (white judo gi, actually) and had started rolling with all the others.

First impressions:

Honestly, the whole thing was intimidating at first. After watching the first trial class, I was a little freaked out. Jiu-Jitsu looks like a rough sport: during spars, the two opponents perform chokeholds and arm-locks and generally struggle around on the mats trying to trap the other person. I’m not going to lie – in jiu-jitsu, you and your opponent are physically very close to each other, like wrestlers. It looks intimate, although while you’re sparring, it just feels like a fight.

J and I are the only two girls at the gym, so we were pretty novel in the beginning. I think most of the guys wondered if we would stick with the sport until the day we both came to practice wearing gi, at which point, I think they figured out that we weren’t quitting any time soon.

On top of that, we are both foreign (although I’m the only one who looks foreign, since J is Japanese-American). So all the guys were trying to figure out 1) why J doesn’t speak Japanese fluently, and 2) what the heck I was doing in Ibaraki.

I was especially worried that my lack of Japanese would be a hindrance for everyone, but instead, it’s added some hilarity to lessons.

For example, back in December, Sensei was explaining a new technique, and he suddenly paused and asked for an English translation of えび (the name of a hip movement to create space and escape). I think Sensei asked because he thought that knowing the English name of the movement would help J and I remember. Anyways, one of the younger white belts (nicknamed High Schooler) suggested that えび was, “Lobster!” However, it actually translates to “shrimp.”Prankster, an older blue belt, hit High Schooler over the head lightly and joked, “You aren’t listening in your English class!”

Another moment: a 40-year-old guy, nicknamed Firefighter, strolled into the gym last week and said in smooth English, “Good evening, everyone.” He had a little smile on his face. It was so quick, so out-of-the-blue… we were all a little taken aback. Two of the other guys in particular – Hairy Legs and Smiley Guy – seemed to be a mixture of amazed and jealous at Firefighter’s easy use of English.

Written down, the two moments above don’t seem so funny, but in the moment, we were all laughing. Hopefully, you can at least get a mental picture of the guys in the gym from the nicknames we gave them!


The guys at the gym are quite friendly.  Any awkwardness that they felt from sparring with girls has gone away over the past two months.

Most of the higher belts (the blue belts and the purple belts) have become accustomed to rolling with J and I. While sparring, J is super intense, so they let her fight and figure things out for herself. I, on the other hand, am a calmer (and much weaker) opponent, so the higher belts usually transition to patient teachers. During spars with me, they’ll pause and suggest what I can do next, or they’ll demonstrate why my arm-bar isn’t effective at making the opponent tap out.

My best moment so far was on a Monday back in January. I was sparring with Hairy Legs and I had managed to get him on his back. I was desperately trying to choke him, but his neck is really strong or something, because I can never choke him enough so that he taps out. Nevertheless, I was still trying to choke him (I didn’t know what else to do from that position) and our spar caught the attention of Sensei and Super Hero Dad (a purple belt). They were both cheering for me and calling out moves that I should do next, which was useful because Hairy Legs was trying his best to throw me off. With their help, I suddenly switched tactics and tried to arm-lock Hairy Legs, but again, he blocked it. The only other thing to do was try a different chokehold, which I did next… unfortunately, though, the bell rang as soon as I got a good grip, and our 5-minute spar was over. We thanked each other and moved on to our next sparring partner, and I heard Super Hero Dad whisper, “close,” to Sensei in Japanese.

My spars never draw the attention of those who are taking a break – I’m not much competition for anyone yet – so I was really proud when Sensei and Super Hero Dad were cheering for me. It meant that I was finally doing something right.

It’s not all rainbows and sunshine during practice, though. If anything, Jiu-Jitsu has proved to me what I already knew: that I’m physically very weak, even for girls.

Most days, I can accept my weakness and I just focus on learning and getting stronger. That’s how you improve, right? However, once in a while, I have days where my mental strength is lagging, and I end lessons frustrated by how all the guys are only giving 5% effort in their spars with me (in reality, so they don’t hurt me)… angry at myself that I’m not a stronger opponent… and annoyed at my body’s instinctual reaction to cry when a new technique surprises me and cracks my neck a little bit (it didn’t even hurt! But still, I couldn’t stop the tears).

Luckily, these feelings don’t overwhelm me too often. I try to end each practice on a positive note. Jiu-Jitsu is a great exercise in both physical and mental strength!

A Final Note:

This isn’t the end. I’m still very much a beginner in Jiu-Jitsu, and I have a lot yet to learn. As I said earlier, yesterday was only my 18th class!

Currently, I go  to Jiu-Jitsu once or twice a week to train after work, which keeps me pretty busy. Sometimes I wish I could go more often – it’s easy to forget a new technique when you only practice it once a week! – but sometimes I’m perfectly happy with the current schedule haha. It’s certainly not an easy martial art, and I have a lot of bruises from the spars!

Now that I’ve finally talked about Jiu-Jitsu (and now that I’m a few months in… not thinking about quitting in the foreseeable future) I’ll probably talk about it more on this blog. Anecdotes, things I learn… that sort of thing. I really doubt that I’ll compete anytime in the next year, I suck at it so much!

But, then again, who knows? I said the same thing about kimono… and yet, in two months, I’ll be competing in the All-Japan Kimono Competition…

Oops, I haven’t talked about that yet, have I? Well, until next time!



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