The 8 Most Famous Japanese Martial Arts Today

Japanese martial arts are practiced and loved by people around the world. They have a history that dates back to the samurai, and include many different styles, from kendo to Okinawan karate. In this article, we dig deeper into eight of the most famous Japanese martial arts. Whether you actually practice Japanese martial arts or simply want to learn more, this article will give you insight into one of Japan's most fascinating cultures.

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The Origin of Japanese Martial Arts

The origins of martial arts in Japan can be traced back to the role of the samurai, the warrior class, in medieval Japanese society. An elite level in the hierarchy, the samurai were highly trained in combat, their most prized possessions being their extremely sharp "katana" (Japanese swords). However, these samurai were not simply handed a sword expecting to know how to use it, but instead had to go through rigorous training in order to be able to wield it properly.

The philosophy these samurai followed was called "bushido," or "way of the warrior." By implementing the principles of bushido (frugal living, honesty, honor, and the mastery of martial arts) into their training and everyday life, they were able to discipline themselves in many aspects. Although the samurai class was abolished during the Meiji period (1868 - 1912), the respect towards the moral code remained, any many people practice martial arts today to train their bodies and minds.

Combat training marks the beginning of martial arts. Prop weapons were used during practice to ensure there were no casualties, and hand-to-hand combat was practiced to learn how to fight without weapons and use the opponent's own body against him. 
"Do," as seen on the end of "bushido," is a common suffix in Japanese that directly translates to "way" or "path." It implies that mental and physical discipline are needed in order to study the activity, which is why many martial arts have it as a suffix at the end of their names. "Do" can also symbolize the "way" in which the martial art should be carried out - for example, judo (the gentle way), and aikido (the way of harmonious spirit). Practices were held at different "dojo," a word which literally translates to "room of the way" and is still used today to refer to most martial arts practice locations.

Modern Japanese martial arts are often described using two terms interchangeably - budo (martial way) and bujutsu (martial technique). They have a subtle difference between them: bujutsu focuses on how to defeat the enemy, while budo is based on the philosophy of self-development.

How Many Types of Japanese Martial Arts Are There?

Today, there are over 180 martial arts in the world. Many have origins in Asian countries like Korea, China, and Japan, though the styles differ between the countries. Similarly, many martial arts do not only have one method of teaching or style, but instead are broken into several schools, each with their own distinctive characteristics. For example, karate has four main styles that are practiced in Japan. Schools will often modify their teaching methods based on their philosophies.

The umbrella term "martial art" is called "bugei" or "budo" in Japanese. Practitioners of martial arts often call themselves the name of the specific martial art plus "ka," a suffix which when placed after a noun denotes someone's occupation or pursuit. For example, a karate practitioner is a "karate-ka," and a judo practitioner is a "judo-ka." Mastering and moving up in the ranks of different martial arts takes years of discipline and focus.

As a result of the number of schools and styles, the number of martial arts in Japan varies depending on who you ask, and they may be further classified based on whether a weapon is used. Each has its own characteristics and techniques and becomes more difficult to master as one advances. When the philosophies of each martial art are applied in practice, they can all become quite dangerous. In his article, we cover the eight most famous martial arts in Japan.

Japanese Martial Art Styles Focusing on Hand-To-Hand Techniques

Some of the most well-known martial arts don't focus on the use of weapons. They may occasionally use weapons in training, but the emphasis is on various philosophical aspects and using techniques such as locks, kicks, punches, or throws to defeat opponents.


Jujutsu: An Ancient Japanese Martial Art

Jujutsu is an ancient form of martial arts that emphasizes combat without weapons. "Ju" means gentle, and "jutsu" means technique. Instead of using solely one's power, jujutsu focuses on manipulating the opponent's power instead.

Although jujutsu has a long, unclear history, often taught and passed down orally with no written instructions, it was formalized during the Edo period (1603 - 1868) and recorded in ways that it could be shared. This particular type of martial art especially came in handy when samurai were too close to their opponents to use their weapons, instead using jujutsu to grappling with their opponent. Jujutsu encompasses a wide range of techniques that follow the same theme of using your opponent's own body against themself, which were used to develop various other modern martial arts like judo and aikido.



Judo: Jujutsu's Popular Modern Descendant

The father of judo was Jigoro Kanno, a pioneer of Japanese martial arts and education. He developed the Japanese martial art in 1882 and helped create the ranking system in judo, which follows a kyu and dan system. As a result of his efforts, judo became the first Japanese martial art to become an official Olympic sport, having its debut in 1964. Kano also facilitated the introduction of judo and kendo as part of the Japanese public school system.

Kano was inspired by the various forms of jujutsu, and incorporated his own techniques and teaching system to create a new system called "judo," meaning "gentle way." Judo was based on the concept that by focusing on the spiritual aspects of the martial art, one could also improve their physical form.

Today, judo is popular and practiced around the world. It focuses on full throws and submissions. Practitioners are taught to use their energy on learning moves that allow them to pin their opponents to the ground without causing injury. This important skill is even used by the police departments in Japan as part of their training programs.



Aikido: The Gentle Martial Art

Aikido is a deeply spiritual martial art, the name roughly translating to "the way of harmonious spirit." It was founded by Morihei Ueshiba, a master of several types of martial arts, in the 1920s. Ueshiba wanted to combine various ideologies and martial arts to create a new, peaceful, but effective martial art.

Aikido is based on utilizing the energy of the opponent to bring them down. The focus is not on defeating the opponent, but instead being gentle and reaching a mutual balance and harmony, prioritizing quick throws and locks. Practitioners, when participating properly, are able to go through the forms without hurting themselves or their opponents.

Like judo, aikido uses a kyu and dan ranking system. Initially, there were only two belts: white (for kyu ranks) and black (for dan ranks), but now more colors have been added. The number of belts and ranks varies by school.

Karate: Okinawa's World-Famous Martial Art

Karate was born in Okinawa, now the southernmost prefecture in Japan, back when it was Ryukyu Kingdom. Over time, it spread throughout Japan and across the world. The name "karate" means "empty hand," an appropriate name for a martial art that doesn't focus on the use of weapons.

There are four main styles practiced in Japan: Shito-ryu, Wado-ryu, Shotokan-ryu, and Goto-ryu. "Ryu" in this sense roughly translates to "style," and each of these four styles differ slightly when it comes to stance and the origin of the power of the movements. Today, karate is practiced in various forms by over 100 million people around the world and continues to gain popularity. It is set to make its Olympic debut during the 2020 Summer Games that will be held in Tokyo in 2021. 

Karate uses a combination of strikes, punches, and kicks. Apart from being a physical sport, it is also deeply rooted in philosophy. A karate-ka is judged not just on their moves, but also the speed, balance, and rhythm of their movements and the clarity of the technique with which they express themselves. When the mind and body are in perfect balance, karate can be an extremely lethal martial art.

Karate borrowed judo's kyu and dan system to rank its practitioners. The belt system is incorporated into the ranking system, starting with white at the lowest level and progressing on to black, the most advanced.

Sumo: Japan's Traditional Martial Art

Sumo is the most ancient martial art in Japan, believed to have originated over 1,500 years ago. With Shinto origins, it is said to have been a form of entertainment for the gods in ancient Japan to pray for a good harvest. It developed since to become a form of entertainment for the nobility, with sumo festivals also hosting dances and music. In medieval Japan, sumo was taught as a form of combat training and was rarely used for entertainment. When Japan entered a relatively peaceful period, the entertainment factor returned, evolving into the beloved sport that we know today, and eventually becoming the country's national sport. Several ancient traditions remain, such as the Shinto practice of throwing salt into the ring to purify it before the wrestlers enter.

Sumo is a form of wrestling, with athletes wrestling and slapping each other in order to push the opponent out of the ring or make them fall. The professional athletes, known as "rikishi," have celebrity status in Japan. They are required to live a strict lifestyle, living and training together in sumo "stables," and eat a protein and carb-heavy diet which includes a rich stew called chanko-nabe that is made with fish, meat, and vegetables and is famously associated with sumo wrestlers.

Professional sumo is practiced only in Japan, but that doesn't mean that foreigners can't become wrestlers. There are numerous foreign rikishi that are part of the league, with wrestlers coming from Mongolia, Bulgaria, and other countries to Japan to become sumo wrestlers. Foreign rikishi have also proven to be quite successful, with several becoming "yokozuna," the highest rank in sumo.

Professional sumo remains a male-only sport, with women not being allowed to enter the sumo wrestling ring, but there are smaller female sumo clubs that practice recreationally. There are no weight-related classes in sumo, so many wrestlers gain weight as part of their training. But some of the smaller wrestlers are more agile and use this to their advantage.

Sumo uses a complex ranking system with several different ranks. Wrestlers have “East” and “West” in their titles and East generally means a higher level than West. There are many ways to enjoy a sumo match, so you should check one out if you are interested!

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Japanese Martial Art Styles Focusing on the Use of Weapons

Weapon-based martial arts evolved from the weapons used on the battlefield during the samurai era in Japan. Today, they are practiced as a sport but emphasize the use of specific weapons which are often modified to fit the training needs of students.

Kendo: The Martial Art of the Samurai Sword

Kendo’s roots are in the swords traditionally used by samurai, hence the name "kendo," meaning "the way of the sword." This martial art focuses on the use of bamboo swords called "shinai," and kendo-ka wear protective gear and helmets in order to avoid injury. Athletes aim to make strikes to one of the guarded areas (the head, throat, torso, or wrists) to win points, making this martial art extremely fast-paced and exciting.

Kendo is not only a physical sport, but a mental one as well. Practitioners must be balanced both physically and mentally, and use shouts called "kiai" when making strikes in order to prove their balance of spirit. There are quite a few rules regarding the spiritual philosophies and balance in kendo, including that when making a strike, both hands need to be on the sword, the feet need to be in balance (you cannot be falling or off-balance), and the kiai needs to be properly heard. If these factors are not met, the point is not awarded.

Being a strict and disciplined sport, there are many rules that are applied to every movement in kendo. Even the footwork has specific names for each proper step. Students are expected to carry this discipline and etiquette that is learned when facing an opponent over to their everyday lives as well.

There are no belts in Kendo; kendo-ka are instead ranked with the kyu and dan system that gets harder as they progress, though the higher rankings are called "dan" and are then numbered as the rank increases (for example, 1st dan, 2nd dan, etc.). As the grading system gets more difficult with each level, many kendo-ka spend their lifetimes practicing. Kendo is quite popular in Japan, with not only specific schools dedicated to the martial art, but many everyday schools having clubs for their students as well.



Naginata: A Traditional Japanese Martial Art Popular With Women

"Naginata," the name of both the martial art and the weapon, loosely translates to "sword to mow down the enemy." Matches resemble kendo matches, although the way of wielding the naginata is unique to the weapon and allows strikes to the shins. The naginata sword consists of a blade attached to the end of a long pole, originally allowing long-range blows to warriors in difficult positions such as on horseback.

Although originally used by samurai warriors in battle, the introduction of firearms in the 1500s rendered the naginata unfavored in comparison, and instead was only used as decoration or by warrior families' daughters as self-defense weapon. This created the tradition of women using naginata that continues to this day, women being the main practitioners, although men can and do also partake in this martial art. The naginata used in practice today requires a considerable amount of skill to wield effectively and fight opponents.

Practitioners work on improving their reactions and balance, and similar to kendo, posture and kiai are a major part of the martial art. The naginata weapon is maneuvered to "cut down" the opponent, and certain techniques changed and developed with the different schools that began to be established during the Edo period. Naginata uses the kyu and dan system for ranking, and the examinations conducted to gauge the level of each student differ with each school.



Kyudo: The Archery Martial Art

Kyudo is Japanese archery, the name translating to "the way of the bow." It is a highly sophisticated martial art and requires maturity and discipline to master, and has a long history that dates back to the Yayoi period (approx. 300 BCE - 300 AD). Kyudo was a major part of samurai culture, with Yoritomo no Minamoto (a famous Japanese shogun) stating that samurai should be expected to excel in horseback archery (yabusame) in order to heighten spiritual discipline in addition to the other martial arts they practiced. Archery allowed long-range attacks and also allowed attacks while in motion without opponents retaliating immediately.

Again, with the introduction of guns in Japan, archery was used less for combat but rather for spiritual training and discipline, working on dexterity, focus, and the harmony between the two. Although now separated into several schools, Japan's Kyudo Federation states the overarching goal of kyudo as "shin-zen-bi" (truth-goodness-beauty), archers thus aspiring to shoot truthfully with goodness in their spirit. When they do this, they can shoot beautifully. Students practice kyudo using targets placed at a distance of 28 meters away from the shooting range. 

The bow used for kyudo practice is itself a work of art. Its asymmetrical design is different from the Western bow and allows people of varying physical strengths to compete fairly. Kyudo demonstrations are still being held today, including yabusame performances held at certain festivals.

Students gain ranks at a kyu or dan level. Tests for kyudo are very elaborate with many ceremonies, and sometimes can be up to eight hours long! They are notoriously difficult to pass.

Ranking System in Martial Arts

Many people may assume that all martial arts use belts of different colors, starting with white for basic and black for advanced, as this is a common way to rank in several different martial arts and is an easy way to keep track.  However, this isn't true for all martial arts. Some martial arts like aikido even modify their ranking systems depending on the school.

Generally, most of the martial arts we discussed use a ranking/grading system called "kyu" (grade) and "dan" (degree). The beginner ranks are called kyu and are often awarded in descending order (6th kyu - basic, 5th kyu - lower intermediate and so on). Once a practitioner obtains all the kyus, they can progress on to the dan levels. The dan ranks are advanced and may be awarded in ascending order (1st dan - advanced, 2nd dan - more advanced etc). Depending on the school or martial art, the ranking may be displayed in different ways, such as with colored belts, additional stripes, or other ways.

Women in Japanese Martial Arts

In Japan’s history, women played an important role in warfare. There are records of many great female warriors (onna-bugeisha) who would have needed to practice martial arts in their training, but their role changed over time, and societal norms required them to stay home. Even so, women warriors continued to use their combat skills to protect their homes and villages, especially during the Sengoku period (1467 - 1615).

Martial arts have been thought of as male-dominated, and while some martial arts like sumo do restrict women from participation, there are now numerous female practitioners who compete professionally in several Japanese martial arts such as judo and karate. Meanwhile, naginata is considered to be a female-dominated martial art. Nowadays, gender does not matter when practicing most types of martial arts. Except for sumo, men and women learn in tandem and practice alongside each other, many schools also having women instructors. However, in professional martial arts competitions, most martial arts will separate the men and women in their own gender classes.

Japanese Martial Arts: An Eternal Tradition

Martial arts continue to hold an important place in Japan. Although they were historically used in warfare, they are now practiced with the intent of education, self-defense, or self-improvement. Several organizations work on preserving the traditions and legacies of specific martial arts, even having branches across the globe. Many schools also offer them as subjects to their students so they can practice martial arts as club/extra-curricular activities. 

Practitioners attempt to gain a deep understanding of the martial art they practice and focus on developing themselves not just physically, but also spiritually and mentally, just like the samurai! This dedication to the betterment of the mind and spirit has allowed the practice of martial arts to span centuries, and will continue to draw practitioners to the sport. Japan still holds many martial arts tournaments, so check one out whenever you have the chance!

Title image credit (clockwise from top left): Dr. Gilad Fiskus /, DONGSEUN YANG /, Koki Yamada /, Josiah_S /

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Sneha Nagesh
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