Japanese Martial Arts
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including the large-scale introduction of firearms, the traditional Japanese fighting styles of the samurai became outdated and no longer useful for their practical purpose of military combat.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 weapon