8 Best Japanese Martial Arts

Japan is home to some of the best martial arts in the world. Interestingly, each style has its own unique strength and weakness.

This means, depending on your desired martial arts style, age, and what you plan to achieve (e.g. self-defense, weight loss, spirituality, mental growth, etc.) as a martial artist, one art may be the best for you than the other.

And as someone who lived in Japan for 2 years, note that my pick is based on my personal experience and observation of martial art practice in the country.

So here are the best Japanese martial arts.

Best Japanese Martial Arts

#1. Jujutsu

This is arguably the most effective and practical Japanese martial art for self-defense.

“Jū” can be translated as “gentle, soft, supple, flexible, pliable, or yielding”, and “jutsu” can be translated as “art or technique”.

“Jujutsu” thus has the meaning of “yielding-art”, as its core philosophy is to manipulate the opponent’s force against themself rather than confronting it with one’s own force.

Jujutsu was developed to combat the samurai of feudal Japan as a method for defeating an armed and armored opponent in which one uses no form of weapon or only a short weapon.

It is a grappling martial art style.

Because striking against an armored opponent proved ineffective, practitioners learned that the most efficient methods for neutralizing an enemy took the form of pins, joint locks, and throws.

These techniques were developed around the principle of using an attacker’s energy against them, rather than directly opposing it.

There are many variations of the art, which leads to a diversity of approaches.

Jujutsu schools (ryū) may utilize all forms of grappling techniques to some degree (e.g., throwing, takedowns, leg sweeps, trapping, pins, joint locks, holds, chokeholds, strangulation, gouging, biting, hair pulling, disengagements, and striking).

In addition to jujutsu, many schools teach the use of weapons.

Today, jujutsu is practiced in both traditional self-defense-oriented and modern sports forms.

#2. Judo

judo players competing

Judo is also a grappling martial art system of unarmed combat, now primarily a sport. The rules of the sport of judo are complex.

The objective is to cleanly throw, pin, or master the opponent, the latter being done by applying pressure to arm joints or to the neck to cause the opponent to yield.

Techniques are generally intended to turn an opponent’s force to one’s own advantage rather than to oppose it directly.

A ritual of courtesy in practice is intended to promote an attitude of calm readiness and confidence.

The usual costume, known as jūdōgi, is a loose jacket and trousers of strong white cloth.

White belts are worn by novices and black by masters, with intermediate grades denoted by other colors.

Jūdōka (students of judo) perform the sport with bare feet.

#3. Karate

karate player

Karate, (Japanese: “empty hand”) unarmed martial arts discipline employing kicking, striking, and defensive blocking with arms and legs.

Emphasis is on concentrating as much of the body’s power as possible at the point and instant of impact.

Striking surfaces include the hands (particularly the knuckles and the outer edge), ball of the foot, heel, forearm, knee, and elbow.

All are toughened by practice blows against padded surfaces or wood.

Pine boards up to several inches in thickness can be broken by the bare hand or foot of an expert.

Timing, tactics, and spirit, however, are each considered at least as important as physical toughening.

In sporting karate and sparring (kumite) in training, blows and kicks are stopped short, preferably within an inch of contact.

Sporting matches commonly last about three minutes to a decision if neither contestant has scored a clean “killing” point in the estimation of the judges.

Contests of the form (kata) are also held, in which single competitors perform predetermined series of movements simulating defense and counterattack against several opponents.

Performances are scored by a panel of judges, as in gymnastics.

#4. Aikido

aikido players fighting

Aikido, (Japanese: “way of harmonizing energy”) is a martial art and self-defense system that resembles the fighting methods of jujitsu and judo in its use of twisting and throwing techniques and in its aim of turning an attacker’s strength and momentum against himself.

Pressure on vital nerve centers is also used.

It is a comprehensive system of throwing, joint-locking, striking, and pinning techniques, coupled with training in traditional Japanese weapons such as the sword, staff, and knife.

Aikido practitioners train to subdue, rather than maim or kill, but many of its movements can nevertheless be deadly.

Aikido especially emphasizes the importance of achieving complete mental calm and control of one’s own body to master an opponent’s attack.

Aikido is considered the most peaceful martial art in the world and as in other martial arts, the development of courtesy and respect is an integral part of Aikido training.

#5. Sumo

Sumo is one special style of Japanese wrestling in which your weight, size, and strength are of the greatest importance, though speed and suddenness of attack are also useful.

The object is to propel the opponent out of a ring about 15 feet (4.6 meters) in diameter or to force him to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet.

The wrestlers wear only loincloths and grip each other by the belt.

It originated in ancient times as a performance to entertain the Shinto deities.

Many rituals with religious backgrounds, such as the symbolic purification of the ring with salt, are still followed today.

In line with tradition, only men practice the sport professionally in Japan.

The rules are simple: the wrestler who first exits the ring or touches the ground with any part of his body besides the soles of his feet loses.

Matches take place on an elevated ring (dohyo), which is made of clay and covered in a layer of sand.

A contest usually lasts only a few seconds, but in rare cases can take a minute or more.

There are no weight restrictions or classes in sumo, meaning that wrestlers can easily find themselves matched off against someone many times their size.

As a result, weight gain is an essential part of sumo training.

#6. Kendo

Kendo (Japanese: “way of the sword”) is a traditional Japanese style of fencing with a two-handed wooden sword, derived from the fighting methods of the ancient samurai (warrior class).

Unlike the other styles listed above (which are hand-to-hand techniques), Kendo is a weapon-based style.

So if you enjoy fighting with weapons, kendo might be the best for you.

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.

#7. Naginata

“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 weapons.

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 require a considerable amount of skill to wield effectively and fight opponents.

#8. kyūdō

kyūdō, (Japanese: “way of the bow”, ) formerly Kyūjutsu, (“the technique of the bow”), is a traditional Japanese form of archery, closely associated with Zen Buddhism.

When firearms supplanted the bow and arrow in warfare, the art of archery was retained by Zen monks and some members of the Japanese upper class as a mental and physical discipline.

In kyūdō, the primary aim is not to hit the target, as in Western archery, but to achieve through spiritual and physical training an intense concentration on the act of shooting and a style expressing perfect serenity.

In kyūdō, the kyūjūtsushi (archer) uses a traditional asymmetrical bow about 7.5 feet (2.3 m) long with a grip about one-third of the distance from the bottom.

The bow is composite, made of strips of bamboo and mulberry and strung with hemp.

The archer employs an Oriental, or Mongolian, grip, holding the string with the thumb supported by the fingers, and wears a special glove with a thumb reinforced by bone or wood.

In the apparently continuous movements leading to the release of the arrow, there are eight recognized stages, each of which must be learned and practiced until the archer can move through them smoothly.

There are many kyūdō schools in Japan, and tournaments are held annually in Kyōto and Tokyo.


Okay, these are the best martial arts in Japan. Kindly comment below if you feel there is any other martial art worthy of mention.

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