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The Main Japanese Fighting Styles Explained

by Miriam Cihodariu

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Japan is regarded by many to be the place where martial arts originated, even though China and other Asian countries definitely had their own variants of fighting arts.

Since Japanese styles of combat have never ceased to fascinate, but there is still some confusion surrounding them, I decided to walk you through the main types. 

The most important thing to remember about martial arts in Japan is that multiple styles from different historic times have coexisted and developed, influencing each other but remaining separate. If you see fusion martial arts styles being practiced (such as Krav Maga), you can almost be certain that they originated somewhere else; Japanese masters like to keep tradition.

This is why the martial arts most practiced today, the ones which are most effective for self-defense, come from different regions than Japan. Brazil, Cuba and especially Thailand were extremely creative in adapting traditional martial arts into modern kick-ass versions.

This is why there is such intense activity there for the international martial arts community, and why most people want to learn from masters teaching the arts in those regions.

brazilian jiu jitsu

A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighting match.

That being said, it doesn’t mean that Japanese martial arts don’t elicit the same level of interest or that are somehow in the second place after the more modern approaches. After all, it’s the Japanese fighting styles that form the base of the other martial arts styles.

Let’s take a deeper look at the main fighting styles from Japan, and what they transformed into, if they influenced some other martial arts discipline, and so on.

A. Traditional martial arts school (Koryū bujutsu)

historical photo of japanese warriors

Historical photo of Japanese warriors. Source: BushidoAiki. 

These martial arts were developed in Japan since before our era and up until the 19th century, when the modern martial arts era started. Still, in spite of that modernization, the traditional Japanese fighting styles were also preserved and continued to remain popular to this day, both in Japan and abroad.

The most important thing to remember about traditional Japanese martial arts is that in spite of their use today, they were initially designed for military purposes. Any training in those martial arts was done in order to transform the trainee into a better soldier during warfare.

For example, kajutsu is an ancient martial art known to teach its followers arson and demolition skills, whereas bajutsu also taught them to be better horse riders and horse caretakers.

The most famous traditional Japanese fighting styles are these:

  • Sumo: To this day, this type of fighting has remained popular in Japan and is considered by many locals their national sport. Even if today Sumo is practiced only as a sporting competition, for centuries it also held religious value. Sumo games were organized on important occasions such as harvest festivals, and they were sanctioned by the presence of the emperor and a Shinto priest.
  • Jujutsu: Another traditional koryu martial art, the word jujutsu would translate to ‘soft skills’. This is because the main principles of this Japanese fighting style rely on indirect force, grace and balance in order to disarm your opponent. The beauty of jujutsu is that time made it develop into several popular fighting styles. Judo and Aikido are the current Japanese fighting styles that draw upon jujutsu teachings the most; the Chinese karate art is also largely based on it.

kenjutsu women fighting historical photo

Women practicing Kenjutsu.
  • Kenjutsu (Japanese martial art that uses a sword): This type of martial art was developed for the situations where trainees would face an armed opponent, so they needed to rely on more than their own bodies in order to fight. Hence, the martial art with a sword was developed, initially with the purpose of killing opponents most effectively during war. When Japan entered a long period of peace, Kenjutsu began to be perfected as an art in itself, for self-development and prestige.
  • Battōjutsu and Iaijutsu: There are also 2 Japanese martial arts which are both aimed at perfecting the complex art of drawing the sword, using it and then replacing it in its scabbard: Battōjutsu (which literally means the art of drawing the sword), and Iaijutsu (meaning the art of mental presence and quick reaction). Both of these are very niched and require a great deal of focus and attention to details. The 2 arts are considered part of the greater Kenjutsu umbrella.

naginatajutsu martial art seminar

Seminar of Naginatajutsu. Imnage source: IaidoMadridTaiitsukan.
  • Naginatajutsu: This is the Japanese martial art of wielding the naginata, a medieval Japanese weapon similar to a European glaive. This fighting style is remarkable because at some point in the history of Japan, ladies and ladies in waiting also received training in this martial art. This made outsiders think that Naginatajutsu is not a men’s martial art, but this was a wrong impression. In fact, the famous samurai warriors relied on this traditional fighting style quite a lot.

B. Modern martial arts school (Gendai budō)

All modern Japanese martial arts were founded after the historical moment of the Meji Restoration, which took place in 1868. The chief difference between the old traditional Japanese fighting styles and the new ones is that modern fighting styles are not designed for use in warfare, but mostly for self-defense and self-improvement.

If the traditional Japanese fighting styles most often included skills related to being an efficient soldier (like arson and demolition or horse riding and swimming), the modern Japanese martial arts often include a sporting element. They are designed not only for making you good at self-defense and a better and stronger person, but also for competition and displays of performance in front of an audience.

Here are the most known modern Japanese martial arts and what they are all about.

kendo sword fighting

  • Kendo: Kendo is another martial art with a sword, which also evolved from the more traditional Kenjutsu. If the traditional sword fighting style was designed mainly for use during war, the modern version (Kendo) focuses more on the development of superior skill, balance, grace, movement complexity and so on. Today, all Kendo training and practice is overseen by the All Japan Kendo Federation, but there are also international events and competitions taking place.
  • Iaidō: In traditional Japanese fighting styles, Iaijutsu is a more focused version of Kenjutsu, which places more emphasis on quickness of hand and the art of drawing the sword. Just as Kendo evolved as the modern version of Kenjutsu, so has Iaidō developed as the modern version of Iaijutsu. Masters of this fighting style value a strong presence of mind, as well as a skilled command of various sharp weapons (not only the sword).
  • Judo: Perhaps the most popular modern Japanese fighting style, Judo has an entire philosophy of spiritual and personal development behind it. The name of this martial art would roughly translate to ‘the soft way’, and the style of fighting is based on grappling and controlling your opponent. There are numerous Judo competitions taking place each year, both in Japan and all over the world. Judo has even become an official Olympic sport, starting in 1964.
  • Aikido: Another fascinating modern Japanese fighting style, Aikido is very effective, but graceful. Its principles do not focus on meeting force with force, but rather on fluid movements and blending with your attacker, so you can use their own force against them with minimal effort on your behalf. This art was developed by a legendary martial arts master, Morihei Ueshiba, who derived it from Kenjutsu. This is why it is said that an Aikido initiate moves like an empty-handed swords master.

first kyudo world congress paris

Image from the Second Kyudo World Congress in Paris (2014).
  • Kyūdō evolved from traditional warfare fighting styles (especially Yabusame, or Japanese archery), as a martial art which specializes on using the bow. It incorporates also concepts and principles from Japan’s major religious influences and philosophy. Some schools teach this art as a sport (and there are also local competitions organized for it), while others teach it mostly as a very contemplative spiritual practice.
  • Shorinji Kempo: perhaps the most modern Japanese martial art, this fighting style was established after World War II by a veteran of it, Doshin So. This fighting style is both offensive and defensive, and widely popular throughout Japan.

karate world championship photo

  • Karate: Alongside Judo, Karate is one of the best-known Japanese martial arts in the world. Even though there is also Chinese Karate nowadays, the art originated in Japan and its name can be translated as ‘the way of the empty hand’. This fighting style was developed at the beginning of the 20th century and quickly incorporated in the entire Japanese school system, making it among the most popular martial arts in the country. Not long after, the fame and popularity of Karate extended abroad, where it remains among the best martial arts to this day and age. There is also some talk of including Karate as an official Olympic sport starting with 2020, just as Judo already is.

How can you experience and learn modern and traditional Japanese martial arts today?

karate kid learning from his master

Screen capture from the 1984 Karate Kid Movie.

The best way is, of course, by receiving training directly from a master of these schools. Let’s see which martial arts are still being taught and where.

  • Sumo is still being taught at reclusive schools in Japan, but the opportunity to enroll as a foreigner is pretty slim. Still, you can check out the listings for Sumo wrestling retreats and maybe at some point a narrow window of opportunity will present itself.
  • Jujutsu can be experienced today in its more modern forms, mainly. The Brazilians adapted this ancient Japanese fighting style beautifully, into Jiujitsu or Gracie. The Brazilian Jiujitsu schools that teach it are making their attendees some of the most fearsome fighters in the world.
  • Judo is another famous derivative of Jujutsu, and you can learn it best by studying it in Judo camps, most of which are in Thailand.
  • Aikido is another successful off-shoot of Jujutsu, and the best Aikido training camps in the world (open to foreigners) are also in Thailand for the most part.
  • Kenjutsu and Naginatajutsu are pretty hard to learn nowadays, unless you are a native Japanese and get accepted by a master. But their modern counterpart is Kendo and occasionally you can find a dedicated Kendo training retreat where you can learn the art from the best.
  • Kyūdō, or the art of using a bow, for the most part, is only taught in Japan, but very rarely you may find Kyūdō training camps open to the public.
  • Karate is one of the most popular Japanese fighting styles in the world. As a consequence, you can learn it directly in Karate training camps specially designed to give the best practice to non-Japanese participants.

Other common questions about Japanese martial arts

bushido virtues

Image source: UpwardsLeader.

1) What is Bushido?

Bushido is the name for the entire collection of principles and honor codes that dictated the traditional samurai way of life. This honor code was the warrior code in feudal Japan and it consists of values to follow, but is not a martial art in itself. The main samurai values that formed the Bushido are loyalty, courage, compassion and honor, but you can read about them all in the illustration above.

2) Is Kung Fu from Japan?

Even though this is a common misconception for foreigners, Kung fu is not a Japanese fighting style, even though it may be practiced in Japan, or in conjunction with other Japanese arts. Kung fu is a traditional Chinese martial art, developed in Shaolin temples from the Henan province of China.

If a secondary cultural origin must be attributed for the Kung fu fighting style, it would be Indian rather than Japanese. This is because the founder of the art was an Indian monk, and Shaolin temples (which consolidated and adopted the practice throughout China) were Buddhist, and therefore influenced by Indian principles and values.

3) Is Karate from Japan or from China?

Another common confusion made is between Japan and China as the originating place for Karate. As mentioned above, Karate is a traditional Japanese fighting style, but it was adopted by the Chinese early on, so it is fair to speak of a Chinese Karate art as well. To complicate matters, even if the discipline is originally from Japan, it was developed under the influence of Kung fu (which is Chinese).

Still, the differences between Japanese karate and Chinese karate are not that great for people who are only starting to learn the basics, so you can feel free to practice either one.

4) What Japanese martial art is the one that uses a sword?

As described in the sections above, the traditional Japanese martial art that uses a sword was Kenjutsu (still practiced today in some traditional koryu schools). However, the practice evolved into a modern martial art with a sword, also based in Japan, which is called Kendo.

Even before Kendo was developed, the evolution of Kenjutsu over the centuries saw it transform from a killing-oriented technique workshop towards a grander philosophy of self-development and spiritual enlightenment. Today, both versions of the martial art are practiced for sportsmanship, especially Kendo, and there are also competitions taking place internationally.

5) What martial art discipline is the most popular in Japan?

It’s difficult to answer this question objectively since there are many aspects to popularity to be considered and it all depends on whom you ask. Also, there are no wide-scale studies made on the matter, so there is no scientific reference to fall back on.

In terms of general perception, one could argue that Judo is the most popular martial art in Japan due to its long history of being included in schools and its large number of scholars and masters.

group of modern ninjas dressed in black, posing

6) Did ninjas really exist?

Not only did ninjas exist, but they were actually a key component of Japanese warfare, serving as something similar to special agents from modern Western times. They were like the James Bond of Japan (of course, such a comparison is trivial, but this class of assassins was really amazing). You can read more about the most common myths surrounding ninjas in order to learn more about the historical reality of these fighters.

7) What is the best Japanese fighting style for self-defense?

Without question, Jujutsu is the most effective martial art for self-defense of all Japanese fighting styles. It incorporates the most defensive elements and makes the practitioner ready to take on even surprise attacks or street fighting incidents.

Some martial arts experts rate Krav maga as more effective when it comes to self-defense, but since that particular discipline is not Japanese, Jujutsu still remains the best Japanese martial art for self-defense. Shorinji Kempo would probably come in second place, but this style is far less popular worldwide than Jujutsu.

Looking to learn Japanese martial arts from the best teachers available? Going on a Jiu-jitsu training camp is one of the best ways to start.

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