The history of the island nation of Japan paints a clear picture of a proud and powerful people forging a national identity, robust culture, and unique way of life from the crucible of war and uncertain peace. Central to this culture was the concept of martial valor, of being able to fight aggressively as well as defensively, both for the very practical purposes of waging war along with strong notions of duty, honor, and personal development. It was from this militaristic and spiritual foundation that the Japanese martial arts styles, of which there are legion and which will be discussed throughout this article, developed.
Broadly speaking, the history of Japanese martial arts can be broken down into two categories: Koryu Bujutsu (bujutsu meaning the practical application of martial tactics and techniques in actual combat) and Gendai Budo (budo meaning a way of life encompassing physical, spiritual, and moral dimensions with a focus of self-improvement, fulfillment, or personal growth).
Koryu Bujutsu encompasses the more ancient, traditional Japanese fighting styles, while Gendai Budo is more modern. The division between them occurred after the Meiji Restoration (1868), when the Emperor was restored to practical political power and Japan began the process of modernization in haste. Prior to the Restoration, the Koryu styles focused extensively, if not exclusively, on practical warfare. The Samurai, or warrior caste were expected to be masters of all forms of combat, armed and otherwise. Their martial arts evolved as weapons and technology did, but the focus always remained the same: victory in actual combat, for their own honor and for the cause of their ruler.
However, with the Meiji Restoration and the modernization of Japan, including the large-scale introduction of firearms, the traditional Japanese fighting styles of the samurai became outdated and no longer useful for their practical purpose of military combat. In their wake, the Japanese martial arts styles evolved into what came to be known as Gendai Budo, which focused far less on broad-scale military application and far more on self-improvement and personal growth. They became not just a tool for military victory, but a vital component of a fulfilling, meaningful, and spiritually connected way of life.
Interestingly, this distinction can be noted in the differing terminology: the traditional techniques were referred to as bujutsu, which specifically relates to waging war, while the modern styles are collectively known as budo, which are far more involved with personal betterment.
Traditional Japanese Martial Arts (Koryu Bujutsu)
Sumo: The oldest of Japanese martial arts styles is sumo, named after the emperor who popularized it (Shumo Tenno) in 728 AD. However, the origins of the fighting style go back long before him, to 23 AD, when the first sumo battle was fought, watched over by the emperor and continuing until one of the fighters was too wounded to continue. After Emperor Shumo reintroduced the sport, it became a staple of the annual harvest festival, spreading throughout Japan and even incorporated into military training. From the 17th century onward, it became a professional sport in every regard, open to all classes, samurai and peasants alike. The rules of the sport are simple: The first man to touch the ground with a part of the body other than the bottom of the feet, or touch the ground outside the ring with any part of the body, loses. It is still an incredibly popular sport in Japan to this day, followed religiously be legions of fervent fans.
Jujutsu: This Japanese martial arts style literally translates into “soft skills”, and uses indirect force such as joint locks and throws to defeat an opponent, rather than direct force like punches and kicks, to use the attackers force against them and counterattack where they are weakest. It was initially developed to fight against the samurai, who often terrorized townspeople, as more direct forms of combat proved ineffective against well-armored foes. Small weapons such as daggers, weighed chains, and helmet smashers (tanto, ryufundo kusari, and jutte, respectively) were used as well in jujutsu. Many elements of jujutsu have been incorporated into a wide variety of more modern Japanese martial arts, including judo, aikido, and non-Japanese martial arts styles like karate.
Ninjutsu: Ninjutsu, or the art of the Ninja, has in the modern period grown to become one of the best known styles of Japanese martial arts. However, when it was developed, Ninjas were used as assassins during the turbulent Warring States Period. Although many a martial arts movie has portrayed ninjas as expert combatants, their true purpose was to avoid combat, or even detection altogether. A skilled ninja would kill his mark and be gone before anyone even suspected he was there. Ninjas were trained in the arts of disguise, escape, concealment, archery, medicine, explosives, and poisons, a skillset uniquely suited to their particular task.
Although there are a number of other Koryu Bujutsu Japanese martial arts styles, they mostly involve weapons, and will be discussed in the Japanese Martial Arts Weapons section.
Modern Japanese Martial Arts (Gendai Budo)
Judo: Literally translated into “the gentle way” or “the way of softness”, Judo is an extremely popular Japanese martial art style developed in the late 19th century based on grappling, and used for sport as well as personal and spiritual development. While incorporating many jujutsu elements, it mainly involves freestyle practice and is used for competition, while removing many of the more harmful jujutsu aspects. In 1964, Judo became an Olympic sport and is currently practiced the world over.
Aikido: Aikido is one of the most complex and nuanced of the Japanese martial arts styles, and that is reflected in its name, which translates into “the way to harmony with ki”, “ki” meaning life force. Aikido was developed by Morihei Ueshiba in the early-mid 20th century, and focuses primarily on striking, throwing, and joint-locking techniques. Aikido is well known for its fluidity of motion as a signature element of its style. Its principle involves the use of the attacker’s own force against him, with minimal exertion on the part of the wielder. Aikido was influenced significantly by Kenjutsu, the traditional Japanese martial art of sword combat, and in many respects practitioner is acts and moves as an empty-handed swordsman. Aikido also places a strong emphasis on spiritual development, reflecting the importance of spirituality to its founder, and the resultant influence on the martial arts style.
Japanese Karate: Karate, the “way of the empty hand”, was actually not originally a Japanese martial art, having been developed in Okinawa and later influenced by the Chinese. However, early in the 20th century Karate found acceptance in Japan, going so far as to be incorporated into the Japanese public school system. Japanese Karate involves linear punching and kicking, executed from a fixed stance. In this sense, it is very different from the other Japanese martial arts such as Aikido and Judo, which are more fluid in their motions.
Kempo: Kempo is a system of self-defense and self-improvement developed after WWII, based on a modified version of Shaolin Kung-Fu. It involves a combination of strikes, kicks and blocks, as well as pins, joint locks and dodges, making it a middle way between the “hard” styles like Japanese Karate and the more “soft” styles like Judo and Aikido. It was originally introduced into Japan after the war in order to rebuild Japanese morale and spirits, first adopted by large scale corporations for their employees before spreading into the culture of Japan and the larger martial arts world. Now, Kempo is practiced by over 1.5 million people in over 33 countries.
Japanese Martial Arts Weapons
Weapons played a key role in the Japanese Martial Arts, especially during the Koryu Bujutsu phase when they were practically used in combat. Here we will go through a number of Japanese martial arts weapons, as well as the martial arts styles associated with each.
Sword (Katana): Undisputed amongst the hierarchy of Japanese martial arts weapons is the Katana, or the traditional curved sword. The first Katana, with its famous strengthening folding process was forged by legendary swordsmith Amakuni Yasutsuna in 700 AD, with subsequent developments occurring between 987 and 1597 AD. During times of peace, artistry was emphasized, and during times of war, like the 12th century civil war and the 13th century Mongolian invasion, durability, effectiveness, and mass production were more important. The evolution of Swordsmanship was cyclical, with peaceful times being used to invent new techniques, and war times being used to test them. What worked survived, what didn’t, didn’t. During the more than 200 year peaceful period of the Tokugawa Dynasty, the art of swordsmanship changed from one focused on combat and killing to one of personal development and spiritual perfection.
Japanese Martial Arts Weapons Techniques (Katana):
Kenjutsu: the “art of the sword”, this technique is the oldest and used to refer to partnered, one-on-one sword training.
Battojutsu: This is the Art of Drawing a Sword, and involves quickly stepping up to your opponent, drawing your blade, cutting them down in one or two strokes, and re-sheathing the blade. The fact that it has a category onto itself speaks volumes for the philosophy behind Japanese martial arts weapons styles. Battojutso is connected with Iaijutso, or the art of mental presence and immediate reaction, which needs to be perfected if battojutu is to be effective.
Kendo: Kendo, which translates into the “way of the sword”, is a modern, gendai budo Japanese martial arts style. As the sword is no longer a combat weapon, Kendo has reinvented Japanese swordsmanship into a competitive sport. Kendo really took off once the bamboo sword and lightweight wooden armor were introduced, as they allowed for full-speed strikes without the risk of injury. Now, almost all of competitive Kendo is governed by the All Japan Kendo Federation, established in 1951.
Other Japanese Martial Arts Weapons and Martial Arts Styles
Naginata & Naginatajutsu: The naginata was a wooden pole with a curved, single-edged blade at the end. It was used by the samurai, as well as by regular footsoldiers. Naginatajutsua was the art of the naginata, used extensively in traditional Japanese combat. Interestingly, during the Edo period, the Naginata was traditionally a weapon of high-born women, and many practitioners and teachers to this day are women. In the modern world, naginata-do is the ritualistic and competitive form of naginatajutso, practiced by many in Japan and beyond.
Spear & Sojutso: this is the art of fighting with a spear. Although it used to be practiced extensively, and was a primary skill of average soldiers during times of war, it has since declined significantly in popularity, for obvious reasons.
Bow & Kyudo: Kyudo is the “way of the bow”, with the Koryu name being Kyujutsu, or the art of the bow. In traditional Japanese martial arts, the bow and its art was a staple of Samurai discipline, as it was a potent military weapon. When used on horseback, it was even more devastating. However, as Japan adopted firearms, the bow was displaced as a practical instrument of war. Thus, in modern times, Kyudo is practiced for sport and contemplation rather than for warfare.
Other Japanese martial arts weapons exist, such as the tanto (dagger), ryufundo kusari (weighed chain), and jutte (helmet smasher), but the Katana, naginata, spearm and bow were the mainstays of the warrior class.
Japanese Martial Arts List
If the above was a bit too long to read, here is a concise list of the major differing Japanese martial arts styles:
Traditional Japanese Martial Arts Styles
Sumo: earliest style, involves pushing a single opponent over or knocking them from the ring.
Jujutsu: An early style used against samurai and armored opponents, it involves using throws and joint locks to use the enemies own force against them.
Kenjutsu: The art of the sword, involves fighting a single opponent one-on-one with a Katana.
Ninjutsu: The art of the ninja, involves using stealth and indirect or long-range methods of assassination.
Modern Japanese Martial Arts Styles
Judo: “The Gentle Way”, based on grappling, used for sport as well as spiritual and personal development. Judo was accepted as an Olympic sport in 1964.
Aikido: “The Way of Harmony with Ki”, Aikido involves fluid motion and turning the attacker’s own force against him. It is also used for spiritual and personal development.
Japanese Karate: An “imported” martial art to Japan, Japanese Karate is more linear than the other arts, involving direct punches and kicks from a fixed position.
Kempo: Based on Shaolin Kung-Fu, Kempo incorporates direct strikes, kicks, and blocks, as well as indirect pins, joint locks, and dodges. Having been introduced after WWII, is incredibly popular in Japan and throughout the world.
Kendo: The “way of the sword”, Kendo uses bamboo swords and lightweight wooden armor to allow full-speed strikes and has reinvented Japanese sword fighting into a competitive sport rather than an art of war.