Japanese martial arts are famous all over the world and are both a product and a cause of Japanese culture. Budo, the “martial way”, aims to cultivate the self, working to improve balance, control, and speed, as well as mental and spiritual abilities.
Of the many martial arts, those considered the purest are kendo and kyugo. They have hardly changed over the centuries. While karate originated during the 14th century, other martial arts like judo and aikido are more recent, having been born during the 19th century.
Check out our short article below to learn more about all of them!
- Traditional martial arts were created during war time, but nowadays they are mostly practiced as sport
- Kendo and kyugo are the only two martial arts entirely revolving around weapons: bamboo swords for the former, and Japanese bows for the latter
- Judo, a relatively recent martial art, was created as a way to develop the body and mind
- Karate, probably the most famous martial art, has a long history that traces back to the Ryukyu Kingdom (15th century)
- Martial arts classes are offered by many training halls all over Japan, especially in Tokyo
Martial Arts in Japan
Japan developed an incredible variety of martial arts, most of which were created by the samurai. Nowadays, martial arts can be divided into two groups: koryu (originating before the Meiji era) and gendaibudo (originating after). These arts can be further classified into ‘disciplines using weapons’ (like kendo) and ‘empty-handed disciplines’ (like judo).
Over time, martial arts developed from a pure technical discipline into severe training that aims to develop body and mind, and later into sport. Concepts like harmony, attitude, humility, and perseverance are still pivotal for training fighters.
For martial arts with weapons (like kendo and kyudo), bushido the way of the warrior is still significant. Those following bushido, a concept close to the European “chivalry”, emphasize courage and bravery above everything else.
Kendo is one of the traditional Japanese martial arts, using a bamboo sword (shinai). Kendoka (people who practice kendo) wear armor to protect the head, arms and body. Underneath the armor, they wear a jacket and hakama, a long garment that forms the trousers. Kendoka train and fight barefooted.
Another peculiarity of kendo is the kiai, the shout used by fighters to express their spirit.
Kendoka are classified according to the kuy and dan system. There are ten dan, and six kyu below the first dan. So far, only five kendoka are known to have reached the 10thdan.
During competition, kendoka must hit a certain point in a certain way to win a point. Competitions are judged by 3 referees, each with two flags of different colors corresponding to the ribbons worn by the competitors. To award a point, two referees must agree.
While kendo revolves around swords, bows are the weapons of choice of kyudo. This martial art originated in Japan with the samurai, and also declined along with the samurai. In 1949, however, an official federation was created, and nowadays kyudo is practiced all over the world.
The main purpose of kyudo is to hit the target with a sincere heart and in a correct way. There are many different schools, and some particularly emphasize meditation and beauty. Moral and spiritual development are fundamental to the discipline.
The Japanese bow is called yumi: it is unusually tall (over 2 meters) and is made with wood and leather. The arrows are made of bamboo and are about 6-10 centimeters long. On the right hand, practitioners wear a glove (yugake), made with deerskin and sold in many varieties, such as a single-finger one (for beginners), and three- or four-finger ones.
For those practicing competitively, there are tournaments where the archer has to shoot four arrows in two sets, and the goal is to hit the target with all four of them.
As a martial art, judo is relatively recent. It was founded in 1882 by Jigoro Kano, who opened the famous Kodokan Institute, nowadays considered the best judo school in Japan. The institute organizes monthly tournaments and daily training sessions, which can be watched for free without prior reservation.
Judo was created as pedagogy, and is considered the model for other modern Japanese martial arts. Its practice is based on three techniques (waza): throwing, striking, and grappling. Fall-breaks, called ukemi, are an important part of the training, as they allow judoka to practice the techniques without hurting themselves.
Judogi is the judo clothing: a heavy cotton jacket fastened by a colored belt (to indicate the ranking) and a pair of trousers.
In competitions, judoka must try to get points by throwing their opponent on the back or pinning them for at least 25 seconds. Points are given by the referee with the help of two corner judges. Any behavior against the spirit of judo will result in a penalty.
Karate (“empty hand”) began to develop around the 15th century thanks to Chinese influence. It is predominantly a striking martial art, making use of punches, kicks, and open-hand techniques. From a philosophical standpoint, the practice of karate aims to purge oneself of evil. Humility and peace are two pivotal concepts.
Nowadays, karate is mainly practiced for self-defense or as a combat sport, and emphasis is laid on exercise and competition. We can divide the practice into 3 aspects: kihon, the fundamentals of the discipline; kata, a formalized sequence of movements; and kumite, sparring, with different levels of physical contact.
In 1969, the Japanese Karate-Do Federation was founded in Tokyo to bring all the Japanese karate schools together. The federation works towards standardization of competition rules, and it has put great effort into bringing karate to the Olympics: in 2020, for the first time, karate will be part of the Summer Olympics.
Aikido was conceived during the 19th century as a martial art that could help its practitioners to protect themselves effectively without harming their attacker. Its peculiar movements and techniques try to blend in with movements of the opponent, controlling their actions using little to no strength.
Studying the ki is fundamental in expressing the potential of aikido. The ki can be described as “life energy” that must be trained via physical and mental exercises. Fighters learn how to fall and throw themselves to the ground without hurting themselves, and many of aikido’s techniques are regarded as defensive.
The International Aikido Federation is one of the most important institutes conserving this unique martial art. It is possible to visit it and assist in its training sessions, usually held in the early morning or late afternoon.
Watching a Martial Arts Competition
Tokyo is one of the best places for martial arts lovers. Here, martial arts are practiced everywhere, and some establishments allow tourists to assist in the training sessions. For a complete list of practice halls that admit spectators, consult the website of Tic Tokyo (Tourist Information Center).
One of the most famous martial arts arenas is the Tokyo Budokan in the north of the city. The hall is used for tournaments and training sessions, and it is possible to have a free tour (during competitions, some areas can be restricted, as sometimes practitioners need absolute silence).
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