Japanese Martial Arts

japanese martial artists holding swords

Martial Arts in Japan

Japanese martial arts represent the different martial arts native to the country of Japan.

At least three Japanese terms (budō, bugei, and bujutsu) are interchangeably used with the English phrase “Japanese martial arts.”

The usage of the term budō (武道) to mean martial arts is a modern one.

Historically the term meant a way of life encompassing physical, spiritual, and moral dimensions with a focus on self-improvement, fulfillment, or personal growth.

The terms bujutsu (武術) and bugei (武芸) have different meanings from budō, at least historically speaking.

Bujutsu refers specifically to the practical application of martial tactics and techniques in actual combat.

Bugei refers to the adaptation or refinement of those tactics and techniques to facilitate systematic instruction and dissemination within a formal learning environment.

Japanese Martial Arts History

The origins of martial arts in Japan can be traced back to the role of the samurai, the warrior class, in medieval Japanese society.

At 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 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), respect towards the moral code remained.

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 at the end of “bushido,” is a common suffix in Japanese that directly translates to “way” or “path.”

It implies that mental and physical discipline is needed 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.

Japanese Martial Arts Styles

man and woman training aikido
image credit: Shutterstock

Below is a list of Japanese martial arts styles.

  • Aikido – Aikido is a Japanese martial art style focused on redirecting the attack away from you. Aikido concentrates on throwing, joint locks, traditional Japanese weapons, etc.
  • Aikijujitsu – Aikijujitsu is a sub-genre of Jujutsu. In contrast to Jujutsu, Aikijujitsu focuses more heavily on blending with the opponent, moving joint locks, and other esoteric principles.
  • Araki Ryu – Araki Ryu is a martial art focused on traditional Japanese weapons such as the sword (katana), spear (yari), staff (bo), etc. This martial art also practices Torite-Kogusoku (grappling in light Samurai armor).
  • Bajutsu – Bajutsu is a Japanese martial art focused on military equestrianism.
  • Bojutsu – Bojutsu is a style focused on the long staff, Bo.
  • Bujutsu – Bujutsu is the martial art of the Samurai.
  • Byakuren Kaikan – Byakuren Kaikan is a martial art focused on full-contact sparring.
  • Daido Juku Kudo – Daido Juku Kudo is a martial art that practices mixed martial arts techniques while wearing a traditional gi.
  • Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu – Daito-Ryu Aikijujutsu is a traditional Japanese martial art focused on unarmed combat, throws, strikes to vital areas, joint locks, etc.
  • Enshin Kaikan – Enshin Kaikan is a martial art that utilizes the Sabaki method (which seeks to turn an attacker’s power against him). This martial art involves kicks, punches, sweeps, throws, etc.
  • Hanbojutsu – Hanbojutsu is a martial art that utilizes the Hanbo (a 3-foot wooden staff).
  • Hojojutsu – Hojojutsu is a martial art that uses ropes to restrain or disable an opponent.
  • Iaido – Iaido is a martial art focused on the drawing of a sword (bokken, iaito or shinken) from its scabbard. This martial art relies heavily on katas (forms) and does not utilize sparring.
  • Iaijutsu – Iaijutsu is the combat version of Iaido.
  • Itto-Ryu  – Itto-Ryu is a martial art focused on the sword. There are many sub-styles of Itto-Ryu and this martial art had a significant influence on the development of modern Kendo.
  • Jojutsu – Jojutsu (or Jodo) is a Japanese martial art focused on the short staff, Jo.
  • Judo – Judo is a martial art style focused on grappling, joint locks, and throws.
  • Jujutsu – Jujutsu is a martial art style focused on joint locks, holds, and throws. It tries to redirect or manipulate the force of an attack to defeat the attacker.
  • Jukendo – Jukendo is a martial art focused on the bayonet.
  • Juttejutsu – Juttejutsu is a martial art that focuses on the martial arts weapon known as the Jutte (Jitte).
  • Karate – Karate is a Japanese martial art style focused on kata, punches, hand/elbow strikes, knee strikes, and kicks.

Major Karate styles include Ashihara, Budokan, Chito-Ryu, Enshin, Gensei-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, Go Kan Ryu, Gosoku-Ryu, Isshin-Ryu, KishimotoDi, Kyokushin, Matsubayashi-Ryu, Motobu-Ryu, Ryuei-Ryu, Seido Juku, Shindo Jinen-Ryu, Shito-Ryu, Shorei-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu, Shorinji-Ryu Kenkokan, Shotokan, Shudokan, Tenshinkan, Toon-Ryu. Uechi-Ryu, Wado-Ryu, Yoshukai, etc.

The most popular Karate styles include Goju-Ryu, Isshin-Ryu, Kyokushin, Shito-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu, Shotokan, and Wado-Ryu (not in rank order).

  • Keijojutsu – Keijojutsu is a martial art focused on police stick fighting (batons).
  • Kendo – Kendo is a martial art style focused on sword fighting (i.e. Bokken and Katana).
  • Kenjutsu – Kenjutsu is a style focused on sword techniques. In contrast to Kendo, Kenjutsu is less focused on sparring.
  • Kobudo – A Japanese (Okinawan) martial art focused on weapons training. Weapons used include the bo staff, sai, tonfa, and nunchaku.
  • Kokondo – Kokondo is a style that combines techniques from Karate and Jujutsu.
  • Kyudo – Kyudo is a style focused on archery.
  • Naginatajutsu – Naginatajutsu is a martial arts style focused on the long pole weapon known as the Naginata.
  • Ninjutsu – Ninjutsu is a style developed from the techniques used by ninjas (Japanese spies and assassins).
  • Nippon Kempo – Nippon Kempo is a martial art that uses punches, kicks, joint locks, and grappling techniques.
  • Niten Ichi-Ryu – Niten Ichi-Ryu is a two-sword style created by the famous Japanese samurai, Miyamoto Musashi.
  • Shindo Jinen-Ryu – Shindo Jinen-Ryu is a martial art that combines elements of Karate, Aikido & Jujutsu. It focuses on strikes, kicks, grappling, and Kobudo (weapons training).
  • Shooto – Shooto is a martial art similar to mixed martial arts and it was created by Satoru Sayama.
  • Shorinji Kempo – This martial art combines personal growth, health, and spirituality with self-defense techniques such as punches, kicks, escapes, throws, etc.
  • Sojutsu is a martial art that focuses on spear fighting. This martial art is also known as Yari Jutsu.
  • Spochan – Spochan is a martial art that uses “air soft” weapons to practice various sword, staff & stick-based fighting techniques.
  • Sumo – Sumo is a martial art focused on wrestling.
  • Taido – Taido is a martial art that combines elements of Karate with gymnastic maneuvers & dynamic movement.
  • Taiho Jutsu – Taiho Jutsu is a martial art that was originally designed to help feudal police arrest armed criminals.
  • Tessenjutsu – Tessenjutsu is a martial art based on the use of Tessen (war fans).
  • Yabusame – Yabusame is a martial art focused on archery while mounted on horseback.
  • Yamanni-Ryu – Yamanni-Ryu is a martial art that focuses on training with Okinawan weapons (Kobudo).
  • Yoseikan Budo – Yoseikan Budo is a martial art system that combines several different martial arts including Aikido, Jujutsu, Judo, Karate, Kobudo, and Boxing.

Japanese Martial Arts Weapons

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So, what are the unique and indigenous weapons used in the Japanese Martial Arts?

  • The Katana: Japan’s Famous Blades
  • Tekkan and Hachiwari: Japan’s Not-So-Famous Blades
  • Gunsen, Tessen, and Gunbai: Fans of War
  • Kiseru Battle Pipes: Smoke Your Enemies
  • Kama: The Sickle
  • Manriki-Kusari: The Ten-Thousand Power Chain
  • Kusarigama: The Best of Both Worlds
  • Chigiriki: The Japanese Mace
  • Yumi: Death From Afar
  • Fukiya: Death From Not-So-Afar
  • Fire Arrows and Bohiya
  • Horokubiya: Bombs Away
  • Hiya Taihou: Samurai Rocket Launchers
  • Tanegashima (Japanese Matchlock): Firearms
  • Shuriken: Throwing Death
  • Kunai: Can You Dig It?
  • Testubishi or Makibishi: Watch Your Step
  • Yawara: Death in the Palm of Your Hand
  • Ono: Not Just for Falling Trees
  • Tobiguchi: Not Just for Fighting Fires
  • Bo and Jo: The Long and Short of It
  • Kanabo
  • Otsuchi: Not Just for Nails
  • Kyoketsu-Shoge: Rise to New Heights
  • Jutte: Disarmament
  • Sasumata: Restraint
  • Torinawa: Rope-A-Dope Edo Style
  • Naginata: The Ladies’ Choice
  • Shukou & Ashikou: Climbing Claws
  • Tekko-Kagi: Claws of Death
  • Kakute: Death Rings
  • Nekote: Cat Scratch Fever

Okinawa’s Weapons:

  • Tinbe Rochin
  • Nunchaku: Danger Sticks
  • Sai: Three-Pronged Attack
  • Tonfa: Side-Handle Baton
  • Eku Bo: Paddle Your Foes
  • Tekki and Tekko: Knuckle Dusters
  • Kuwa: Death by Hoe

Japanese Martial Artists

It is almost impossible to list out names of all Japanese martial artists both dead and alive.

However, some of them have been able to stand tall among others and are worthy of mention for their exceptional contribution to the growth of Japanese martial arts.

Below are memorable martial artists born in present-day Japan between 3501 BC – 2023.

  • Kanō Jigorō (1860 – 1938)
  • Sonny Chiba (1939- 2021)
  • Gichin Funakoshi (1868 – 1957)
  • Morihei Ueshiba (1883 – 1969)
  • Mas Oyama (1923 – 1994)
  • Ankō Itosu (1831 – 1915)
  • Masatoshi Nakayama (1913 – 1987)
  • Kenwa Mabuni (1889 – 1952)
  • Sasaki Kojirō (1575 AD – 1612)
  • Katsuyori Shibata (born 1979)
  • Sho Kosugi (born 1948)
  • Masakatsu Funaki (born 1969)
  • Masaaki Hatsumi (born 1931)
  • Yasuaki Kurata (born 1946)
  • Chōjun Miyagi (1888 – 1953)
  • Motobu Chōki (1870 – 1944)
  • Higaonna Kanryō (1853 – 1916)
  • Matsumura Sōkon (1809 – 1899)
  • Hironori Ōtsuka (1892 – 1982)
  • Morihiro Saito (1928 – 2002)
  • Koichi Tohei (1920 – 2011)
  • Shoji Nishio (1927 – 2005)
  • Hidetaka Nishiyama (1928 – 2008)
  • Gozo Shioda (1915 – 1994)
  • Takayuki Kubota (born 1934)
  • Toyokazu Nomura (born 1949)
  • Takao Kawaguchi (born 1950)
  • Kazuhiro Ninomiya (born 1946)
  • Shinya Aoki (born 1983)
  • Riki Nakaya (born 1989)

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