Martial Arts in Japan

Martial arts in Japan have a distinguished and ancient heritage. The feudal nature of medieval Japan, the rule of Shoguns (war lords) and the emergence of the samurai provided the perfect environment for developing effective fighting systems.

In Japan the various disciplines often have the suffix “do” meaning “way of”. This philosophical approach blends, combat with Zen wisdom.

Other familiar terms are “Budo” and Ryu meaning style or school e.g. there are many different sword schools and these could be considered to be different ryu’s

To list all martial arts in Japan, styles and sub groups would take forever so I have created the following simple list in the hope that if you are undecided about what art to try then this information may help. Let’s start with my own passion, karate.


Without boring you with a long history essentially karate originated on the island of Okinawa situated between Southern JApan and Taiwan. It was first introduced to mainland Japan by a man called Gichin Funakoshi.

The system itself was mainly a self defence against strikes and blows but incorporated other aspects such as throws, ground fighting and locks.

It’s fair to say that karate became extremely popular. Today there are many different styles of karate each offering something a little different. There remain major philosophical differences between karate styles that do believe in sport and competition and those who do not. Personally I subscribe to the latter.


Aikido is a self defence system that relies heavily on a practitioner using the movement and power of their opponent against them. The father of modern aikido Morihei Ueshiba created this style as a means to encourage peace and harmony.

Aikido is practised on a matted floor and students learn throwing or deflection techniques, joint locks and holds. One important element is the ability for a defender to blend with their attacker in perfect harmony thus neutralising the attackers energy and redirecting it. Often weapons are used eg tanto (wooden knife) or jo (wooden stick). Students are also encouraged to learn break falling.


In feudal Japan, Samurai developed a reflex action to draw their sword and strike first when ambushed. This important and life saving skill has been developed and today forms the basis of Iaido. Emphasis is placed on a calm mine and swift accurate sword (katana) skills including test cutting of straw bales.


In contrast to Iaido, kendo (way of the sword) is the traditional form of fighting with swords. Students practice their art dressed in protective armour including head guards and bamboo swords (shinai) used.


JuJitsu sometimes spelt Jiu-Jitsu is widely regarded as being one of the oldest forms of martial arts in Japan. It is believed that the samurai developed the unarmed combat technique so they were able to defend themselves even without their swords.

Jujitsu today contains a range of techniques mainly focused on ground work, grappling, joint locks and takedowns. Many of the popular martial arts in Japan are said to have evolved from JuJitsu e.g. Judo.

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