Japanese Technique Names & BJJ


Brazilian Jiu Jitsu uses a weird hodgepodge of naming conventions. Some are Japanese (ashi garami, kesa gatame). Some are the English translations of Japanese (triangle choke, rear naked choke).  Some are Portuguese (Omoplata). Some are the names as they were when taken from Catch (toe hold, figure-four). Some are named after the people who became famous using them or popularized them (Kimura, Estima Lock). Some are just completely renamed to specific situations (stoner control).

In judo, there are two names – the Japanese name and the rough English translation (or I guess, the rough local translation since I’m sure other countries have non-English names for them). You might see some odd positions that get a term from Catch or somewhere else because they’re introduced (or reintroduced) via another art, but those are pretty rare, and they usually get a Japanese name reverse engineered for them anyway (double-leg became morote gari = “two-handed reap”).

So, without speaking any actual Japanese, let’s look at some component terms used in a technique name:

Size qualifiers

  • O – big, major
  • Ko – small, minor

Location/Direction qualifiers

  • Uchi – inside
  • Soto – outside
  • Mae – front
  • Ushiro – behind
  • Yoko – side
  • Gyaku – backward, reverse

Actions

  • Gari – reap (like a scythe)
  • Gake – hook, clip
  • Barai/harai – sweep
  • Gatame – crush, bar, pin
  • Garami – entangle, wrap
  • Jime/shime – choke, strangle
  • Nage – throw
  • Guruma – wheel

Body parts & Clothing

  • Eri – collar
  • Kata – shoulder (different from when we use it for “forms” like Nage No Kata)
  • Ude – arm
  • Te – hand, arm
  • Sode – sleeve
  • Do – trunk
  • Mune – chest
  • Hara – stomach
  • Koshi/goshi – hips
  • Ashi – leg, foot
  • Hiza – knee

There’s some more, but that covers most of the things you’ll run into well enough for you to figure the rest out. There are some exceptions where metaphors are used (yama arashi – “mountain storm”), but generally it’s just combining those words/terms to describe the action that’s happening.

So, a technique like ude hishigi te gatame, broken down is going to be something like “arm hold hand bar” – cleaned up a bit, “hand-holding arm lock”. Pretty much all straight armbars are going to be named ude gatame with some qualifiers in the middle. Because judo just does elbow locks sometimes the name is parsed down to just a qualifier and an action. A couple examples are ude hishigi juji gatame (cross-body armlock) and ude hishigi hiza gatame (knee armbar) which are generally shortened to juji gatame and hiza gatame respectively. Likewise, ude garami is arm entanglements – so Americana, Kimura, Omoplata are all ude garami with some qualifiers.

This also holds for throws too. Osoto gari – “major outside reap” – often shortened to “Osoto“. O goshi – “major hip [throw]”. Sode tsurikomi goshi – “sleeve lifting, pulling hip [throw]”. All just combining body parts, actions, and directional qualifiers. And pins? Kata gatame – “shoulder hold”. Yoko shiho gatame – “side four-corners pin” (side control). Nifty.

Japanese terms are used sort of loosely in this way – consider the fact that ude gatame means any of a bunch of different arm locks – but in BJJ we tend to use very specific names for very specific situations. When someone says “triangle” they generally mean a very traditional triangle choke from guard, but it’s equally valid for them to use this term to refer to a head-and-arm triangle like a D’Arce/Brabo or Anaconda choke.

So here’s the thing – technique names in judo are universal. If I go to any club in the world and want to show a standard armbar from guard I can say “ude hishigi juji gatame” and everyone in the room who’s familiar with the technique will know what I’m going to show. There are some minor variations, but everyone knows that I’d be showing a cross-body armlock of some kind. I wouldn’t be showing the technique for someone to go “Oh! You mean [y]!”

Technique names in BJJ are not. Even worse, techniques which are being rediscovered from multiple sources are getting a bunch of different names. What Renzo’s team calls a leg position will be different from what a 10th Planet guy will call it and that in turn is different from what someone from a Sambo background will call it. If you came to me and said “I want to learn unfair 50-50” I might know what you’re talking about, but chances are I’d need you to show me what the hell you meant. Grappling is universal, but the language for it is not.

Does this matter? Probably not. I mean, it might. You should definitely have a standard set of terms if you’re talking to someone in your gym, and it helps to have a standard set of terms when discussing with other people in your field so that you can all be on the same page. It’s a bitch and a half to try to find something on the internet if most of the world calls it a fork but you learned it as a “dinglehopper”. But it’s not like we’re building a rocket or anything that’s going to blow up if there’s a misunderstanding about the conversion between “reverse scarf hold” and “twister side control”.

If nothing else, it’s kind of cool to see that the naming differences are pretty telling of when, where, and by whom a given technique was introduced or popularized because the name (and how standard that name is) will reflect those things. Arm locks and chokes have pretty standard names. Uncommon pinning positions have a couple names, but most people know all of them. Leg locks are complete linguistic spaghetti right now.

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