Japan is widely regarded as the birthplace of martial arts, although other countries such as China and Thailand have long practiced their own combat styles. There are many fighting styles for Japanese martial arts, which can confuse those looking to find the right style.
Over thousands of years, different styles of martial arts have been taught and developed in Japan. The styles have coexisted and influenced each other while maintaining their own distinct personality.
This article will take a brief look at the two main categories of martial arts in Japan and take a more in-depth look into the following six styles of Japanese modern martial arts called “Gendai budo” (現代武道).
The most important thing to remember about the Japanese martial arts is that multiple styles from different historic times have coexisted and developed, influencing each other but remaining separate.
Japanese Martial Arts: Traditional vs. Modern
In Japan, martial arts are broken into two categories, “traditional” and “modern.”
Traditional martial arts is a term used to describe martial arts, which originated before the Meiji Restoration Era from 1866 to 1869. Commonly referred to as “Koryu” (古流), which translates to “old style” or “Kobudo” (古武道), which translates to “ancient arts,” these martial arts are still practiced in Japan today.
The “traditional” Japanese martial arts :
Modern martial arts or “Gendai budo” (現代武道) literally translates to “modern martial arts” and refers to martial arts developed after the Meiji Restoration Era.
Although all developed after the Meiji Era, some styles, such as Iaido, originate from the more traditional techniques.
The “modern” Japanese martial arts :
When translated, the word kendo means “way of the sword.” Kendo descends from the traditional art of Kenjutsu but is considered a modern Japanese martial art.
Using bamboo swords (shinai) and protective armor (bogu), Kendo is widely practiced throughout Japan, and most high schools have after school clubs dedicated to Kendo.
Its an extremely dynamic martial art that combines traditional values with modern-day athleticism. Compared with other martial arts styles, practice is loud due to the “Kiai” or shout used to express the fighting spirit.
The techniques involved in Kendo are strikes and thrusts. Strikes can only be made to specific parts of the body, such as wrists, upper body, and head, all of which are protected. Thrusts are designed to attack the throat, but the move is seen as dangerous and only practiced by experienced dan fighters.
Kendo has seen increasing popularity international thanks to concerted efforts by the International Kendo Federation. In 1970 only 17 national federations were affiliated, but in 2015, the number of affiliated nations had increased to 57.
There are three distinct ways in which Karate can be practice, self-defense, as art, and finally, a combat sport. Karate emphasizes self-development and incorporates moral elements such as leadership, perseverance, virtue, respect, and fearlessness.
When practicing Karate, it’s divided into three categories, “Kihon,” meaning fundamentals, “Kata,” meaning technique, and “Kumite‘ which is sparring.
“Kihon” is generally practiced in small groups with specific drills that have been pre-arranged by the “sensei.” Stances, blocks, kicks, and punches are all types of techniques practiced.
“Kata” is a set of formalized movements designed with offensive and defensive postures in mind. The application of these postures is aimed at combat scenarios, and the player or “karateka” must demonstrate a high level of competency before achieving the next rank.
“Kumite” or sparring literally translates “meeting of hands.” Kumite is practiced in two ways, sport and self-defense. The level of physical contact varies from shadow to full contact, where players wear protective clothing.
Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate, expressed that “karate was a chance to purge oneself from selfish and evil thoughts.” Funakoshi was a highly regarded student of philosophy and believed “one should be inwardly humble and outwardly gentle.”
Worldwide, Karate is incredibly popular and practiced in almost every country in varying styles and forms. Hollywood, through popular culture and films, helped karate gain in popularity.
Stars like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris pushed Karate toward a cult-like status. More recently, movies such as The Karate Kid have continued to help Karate maintain its worldwide popularity.
Judo, or “gentle way,” is classified as a modern martial art but has evolved into a combat sport and is represented at the Olympic level. The art itself was developed in 1882 by Jigoro Kano as a form of physical, mental, and moral practice.
Derived from jujutsu, the objective is to take your opponent down by a throw and pin or immobilize them with various types of holds and locks. Striking is a part of judo, but only high level pre-arranged forms.
Practitioners of judo are referred to as “judoka,” and the clothing or uniform is called a “judogi.”
Tournaments or “Shia” are critically important aspects of judo. In 1899 the first official set of rules were drawn up, and the first association was formed called Dai Nippon Butoka Kai.
Scoring is awarded points; for example, a throw that lands the opponent on their back with forceful power receives an “ippon,” while a throw of lesser power scores a “waza-ari.” Two waza-ari equal an ippon. If scores are level after the contest, the “golden score” rule or “sudden death” is implemented.
The International Judo Federation is the governing body for judo and was founded in 1951. The primary role of the Federation is to organize competitions internationally and act as a rules committee.
There are numerous members of the Federation, including the African Judo Union and the Oceania Judo Union.
Morihei Ueshiba developed the Japanese martial arts of 4Aikido to link his martial arts study, philosophy, and religious beliefs.
Translated the word aikido means “unifying life energy” or “the way of a harmonious spirit.” The primary goal in the practice of aikido is to “overcome oneself instead of cultivating violence or aggressiveness.”
The fundamental principles of aikido include entering, controlling ones breathing, triangular principles, and turning techniques that redirect the attacker’s strike.
There has been some criticism of aikido, with the most common complaint being its lack of realistic training.
Iaido is a martial art emphasizing quick and efficient drawing of the sword to stop an oncoming attacker.
Controlled and smooth movements, along with removing the sword from its “saya” or “scabbard,” are critical technical movements that must be mastered to achieve a high rank.
Beginners start using wooden swords, but blades with blunted edges may also be used depending on the sensei. These blunted edges are referred to as “iaito.”
Only the very skilled high ranked practitioners use the sharp edge the swords referred to as “iaidoka.”
Kyudo’s Japanese martial art is a form of archery, and experts in the discipline are called kyudoka. The art was initially founded by the samurai class but has now grown to an art practiced by thousands worldwide.
The bow or “Yumi” stands over two meters in height, far exceeding the archer’s height. The Yumi is made using traditional techniques and materials such as bamboo, leather, and wood.
In Japan, Kyudo is widely practiced in many forms, including ceremonial, military, and even contemplative. In the contemplative form, the art focuses on meditation, emphasizing the aesthetics of the art while other schools focus on shooting and efficiency.
Kyudo’s primary goal is to find the state of “Shin-Zen-Bi,” which translates as “truth-goodness-beauty.” Shin-Zen-Bi is achieved when the archer hits the target with all their virtues and moral guidance being realized at that very instant.