Top 11 Most Popular Martial Arts in Japan

It is well known that Japan is home to some of the best and most popular martial arts in the world.

However, while there are numerous martial arts in Japan, only a few of them are still widely recognized and practiced in the country.

So what are the famous martial arts in Japan?

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 top 11 most popular martial arts in Japan.

Table of Contents

#1. Judo

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This is arguably the most popular martial art in Japan. More popular than Karate.

This is proven by 2014 figures which claimed that there are 28 million judo practitioners worldwide with 8 million in Japan alone.

Judo which literarily means “Gentle way” is a modern Japanese system of unarmed combat with a philosophy of spiritual and personal development.

Judo is also known as the Olympic sport (since 1964).

This art was founded by Kano Jigoro in 1988 as an eclectic martial art, distinguishing itself from its predecessors due to their emphasis on “free sparring” instead of “pre-arranged forms” alongside the removal of striking and weapon training elements.

Essentially, this martial art is based on grappling and controlling your opponent, hence the name “the gentle way”.

The dominance of Judo over the established jujutsu schools in tournaments hosted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department brought the art to prominence.

This resulted in the department adopting it as their main martial art.

Competitive judo aims to throw an opponent, immobilize them with a pin, or force them to submit with a choke or a joint lock.

While strikes and the use of weapons are included in some pre-arranged forms, they are not frequently used and are illegal in judo practice or competition.

The international governing body of Judo is the International Judo Federation, with competitors competing in the international IJF professional circuit.

The philosophy of Judo revolves around two primary principles, which are;

•        Maximum efficient use of energy

•        Mutual welfare and benefit

The philosophy and subsequent pedagogy developed for judo became the model for other modern Japanese martial arts that developed from traditional schools.

Also, Judo spawned several derivative martial arts and combat styles around the world, such as Hapkido, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Sambo, ARB, Mixed martial arts, Close-quarters combat (CQC), Submission wrestling, and Krav Maga.

#2. Karate

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Though not the most popular in Japan, Karate remains the most iconic martial art and one of the most popular martial art in the world.

In Japanese martial arts movies, karate is also a popular discipline.

Karate can be traced to when the island of Okinawa first absorbed the Chinese art of kung fu during the early days of trade.

As these arts evolved, Karate emerged from Okinawa.

In Japanese, karate means “empty hand.”

The technique involves punches, kicks, strikes, and blocks for both offensive and defensive purposes.

Karate focuses on direct and fast movement, as well as the exploitation of weaknesses in opponents.

Karatekas train every part of their bodies as a weapon to deliver powerful blows to their target.

The purpose of this practice is to train the concentration of a strike on a single point of contact.

Karate is governed by the World Karate Federation, which helped make it an Olympic sport.

During the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the Okinawa martial art was included in Olympic participation for the first time in history.

According to the World Karate Federation, there are 100 million practitioners around the world.

This shows how immensely the sport has grown since its inception.

#3. Aikido

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The Aikido martial art, founded by Morihei Ueshiba in the twentieth century is a fighting style that is peaceful in nature.

It is considered the most peaceful martial art in the world.

The founder Ueshiba was quoted saying “To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.”

Aikido is a Japanese martial art whose techniques include throwing, joint locking, striking, and pinning, along with training in traditional Japanese weapons such as the sword, staff, and knife.

In traditional Aikido, promotions aren’t earned by beating an opponent; they are earned through understanding basic exercises and techniques, which become more demanding or difficult as rank increases.

The goal in Aikido is to work in cooperation with their partners (opponents), employing effective techniques against an energetic and realistic attack, yet blending with the attack and redirecting its energy back to the attacker.

Techniques are also practiced against kicks, punches, strikes, single-handed or two-handed grabs from the front or rear, chokes, multiple-person attacks, and weapons attacks.

Each of these methods aims to resolve conflict in a non-lethal, non-disruptive, yet effective manner.

Aikido also has a strong spiritual side based on neo-Shinto philosophy and practice. 

It is one of the world’s most widely practiced martial art.

#4. Kendo

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Kendo is the “Way of the Sword” and it is based on Japanese techniques in swordsmanship.

This is a traditional Japanese form of fencing that uses bamboo swords and protective armor.

The bamboo sword works to give full thrusts, strikes, and responses to attacks.

Kendo dates back to the 13th century and is heavily related to Samurai warfare methods.

After World War II, it was banned for several years but was later resurrected as an educational sport.

In Japan, kendo is one of the most common martial arts taught in public schools.

Kendo is a full-contact sport that coordinates the physical, mental, and emotional dimensions.

Kendo practitioners are ranked through a grading system similar to karate or judo.

There is a reputation that 8th Dan, which is the highest grade, is the most difficult grade to pass.

Usually, less than 1% of applicants pass the Dan exams held twice a year in Japan.

It is for this reason that kendo is considered a lifelong art form.

Kendo training has been acquired by more than 1 million people in Japan, and more than 6 million people worldwide.

Practitioners wear black uniforms and demonstrate martial spirit through yelling.

A distinctive characteristic of Kendo is that it achieves the unity of mind and body through its cultural significance.

#5. Tai Chi

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This is probably the only non-Japanese martial art popular enough to make this list.

This is because most Chinese, Asian, and western martial arts are almost nonexistent in Japan except for maybe wrestling, fencing, and boxing.

This art became popular as a form of health exercise following the watershed of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China in 1972.

Tai Chi (Taijiquan) is a very popular hobby in Japan and is considered the most popular Chinese martial art in Japan.

Many Japanese martial art students follow the Chinese style and practice.

Tai chi being an internal martial art is more concerned with breathing and meditation than with physical fighting.

Today, most students now choose Tai Chi for its health benefits rather than its fighting benefit.

The Tai Chi concept is focused on the idea of balance with an emphasis on slow, graceful movements.

This is done with a high level of precision combined with meditation to ensure the “full presence” of a practitioner during the movements.

Tai Chi is said to provide 2 benefits;

  • Physical
  • Mental

And since Tai Chi does not need to be practiced as a martial art, this makes it easily accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels to partake.

These have made Tai Chi very popular not only in Japan and China but throughout the world.

#6. Sumo

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Sumo which means “striking one another” is competitive full-contact wrestling where a wrestler attempts to force his opponent out of a circular ring or into touching the ground with any of the body parts other than the soles of his feet.

This is usually done by pushing, shoving, or throwing him down.

Sumo is practiced professionally only in Japan where it is considered their national sport.

Although Sumo is seen as a modern Japanese martial art, the sport has a history that spans many centuries.

Even though Sumo is only practiced today as a sport, it has held religious significance for centuries.

On important occasions such as harvest festivals, sumo games were sanctioned by the emperor and a Shinto priest.

The sport also includes ritual elements like the use of salt purification, from Shinto.

A Sumo wrestler’s life is highly regimented by regulatory rules by the Japan Sumo Association.

Most wrestlers are sometimes required to live in heya (which is a communal sumo training stables) where strict tradition dictates most areas of their everyday life.

The Sumo world was hit by many high-profile scandals and controversies between 2008 and 2016.

This consequently affected its ticket sales, reputation, and attraction of recruits to the sport.

However, due to Sumo having multiple grand champions (yokozuna) for the first time in many years and other high-profile wrestlers grabbing the public’s attention, sumo’s general acceptance and popularity were able to bounce back.

#7. Jujutsu

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Jujutsu also known as ju-jitsu and jiu-jitsu is a traditional koryu martial art that translates to ‘soft skills.’

This is because Japanese fighting styles rely on indirect force, grace, and balance to disarm their opponents.

Jujutsu is a Japanese martial arts system of close combat (unarmed or with a minor weapon) that can be used offensively or defensively to subdue or kill one or more armed or weaponless opponents.

This art uses just a few weapons (or no weapons at all) and it involves holds, throws, and attacks that paralyze an enemy.

Jujutsu was developed around the 17th century in Japan by the warrior class, and it was designed to complement a warrior’s use of a sword during combat.

Different techniques from the different styles of jujutsu have over the years been adopted by many combat sports and martial arts such as Aikido, Judo, Sambo, Mixed martial arts, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and ARB.

Chinese karate also draws heavily from it.

#8. Iaido

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In iaido, swordsmanship along with the ability to quickly respond to sudden attacks is emphasized.

There are four main components to iaido:

  • Expertly drawing the sword from its scabbard
  • Cutting or striking an opponent
  • Shaking blood out of the blade
  • Securing the sword in its scabbard.

Although beginning practitioners of iaido may start with a wooden sword, most practitioners use a blunt-edged sword.

Only the more experienced practitioners use a sharp-edged sword.

Iaido Practitioners are called iaidoka.

Due to the injury potential in the art, iaido is usually demonstrated in solo performances.

And just like most Japanese martial arts, iaido is steeped in religious philosophies such as Zen, Confucianism, and Taoism.

This art is sometimes referred to as “Zen in motion.”

#9. Kyudo

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Kyudo which means the ‘way of the bow’ is the Japanese art of archery.

It is an art in which archers use a tall Japanese bow made of bamboo, leather, and wood using techniques which has remained the same for centuries.

The roots of the art lie in ancient Shinto tradition which ritualized the use of bows and arrows for over 2,000 years.

Kyudo incorporates principles and concepts from Japan’s major religious influences and philosophy.  

While some schools teach this art as a sport (local competitions are organized for it), others focus more on it as a spiritual practice.

High-level experts in kyūdō may be referred to as kyūdōka, yumihiki, or ‘bow puller’.

#10. Shorinji Kempo

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Shorinji Kempo which means “Shaolin Temple Boxing” is a Japanese martial art claimed to be a newer version of Shaolin Kung Fu.

Shorinji Kempo was formed by Japanese martial artist and former military intelligence agent Doshin So in 1947.

As a holistic system, Shorinji Kempo training methods are divided into 3 parts:

  • self-defense training
  • health training
  • mental training

This system is based on the belief that “the spirit and body are inseparable” and that it is critical to train both the “mind and body as one”

Shorinji Kempo aims to help practitioners “establish oneself” and promote “mutual comfort”.

#11. Naginata

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Naginatajutsu refers to the art of wielding the naginata (a weapon similar to the medieval European glaive or guisarme).

Modern naginata practice is typically found in a form called “new naginata” which is also characterized by competitions.

Naginatajutsu, however, is still taught in many traditional schools.

During the late Edo period, naginata were used to train women and ladies in waiting.

In Japan, most naginatajutsu styles are led by women, and most naginata practitioners are female.

This has resulted in the impression overseas that naginatajutsu was only used by female warriors.

Naginatajutsu was in fact developed in early medieval Japan and was widely used by samurai for a time.


Okay, these are the 11 most popular martial arts in Japan. Kindly comment below if you feel there is any other martial art worthy of mention.

By the way, check out the TOP 8 MOST POPULAR MARTIAL ARTS IN CHINA.

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