Japan is a country synonymous with grappling, striking, and self-defense martial arts. This country has a long history and tradition of martial arts practice in the name of honor, respect, personal growth, and self-defense. But what are the different Japanese martial arts? How many styles, actually?
Japanese martial arts include dozens of different combat systems that differ in various aspects, notably emphasis, philosophy, and orientation. These arts are also practiced for different purposes, such as sports, personal growth, self-defense, or fitness. Some of the most popular ones are striking arts such as karate and grappling systems like Judo and Jujutsu.
Let’s dive deeper into the world of Japanese martial arts and explore its history, styles, and many other aspects.
The Evolution of Japanese Martial Arts
The country of Japan has a long history of martial arts practice. But when did it all begin, and how did this specific country become home to some of the most famous combat systems in the world?
The history and development of Japanese martial arts are closely associated with the different periods, social shifts, and political changes this country has undergone.
According to historical evidence, the earliest records of Japanese martial arts date all the way back to ancient times. But the majority of advanced systems originated from the feudal period and Samurai warriors who used them for warfare. They designed these hand-to-hand fighting techniques to be practical on the battlefield and combined with weapons. This includes various types of swords, knives, bo staff, etc.
The learning syllabus included both offensive and defensive tactics. The main goal was to learn how to neutralize the enemy in the fastest way possible. If that meant breaking their neck, that’s what a samurai was supposed to do.
During the feudal period in Japan, there were thousands of schools teaching martial arts. All of these schools had their own tools, training methods, and they emphasized different aspects of combat and weapons. But one of the most popular was Jujutsu, which was a precursor to Judo and later BJJ. Some of the other systems were:
- “Kenjutsu”- swordsmanship schools
- “Kyujutsu”- the art of archery
- “Sojutsu” – the art of spear
During this period, the Japanese practiced martial arts solely for self-defense. The training was brutal, dangerous, and designed to prepare Samurai for war. There was no competition, and no one outside of the military trained in these schools. But this started to change in the late 19th century with the Meiji Restoration. The biggest change was the abolition of the Samurai class and the fact that the Japanese culture became more westernized.
And with that, the brutal practice of combat systems was no longer fitting within the social context. And it was at this moment when martial arts shifted from Bujutsu to Budo. Simply put, martial art practice became more “civilized,” and schools started teaching regular citizens.
These new schools and techniques remained self-defense oriented. However, the practice became much safer, emphasizing personal development, discipline, and character building. This was when martial arts such as Judo and Aikido emerged.
And the popularity of martial arts practice in Japan exploded in the 20th century. The Japanese annexation of Okinawan islands triggered a migration of people to the main islands, including skilled martial artists. One of them, Gichin Funakoshi, introduced Karate from Okinawa to mainland Japan in the early 20th century. Karate, on its own, played a significant role in Japan becoming the home of martial arts.
Today, Japanese martial arts include a wide range of disciplines, including Aikido, Karate, Judo, Kyudo, and more. All these arts are spread worldwide, and they promote Japanese culture and history apart from fighting techniques.
Koryu Bujutsu vs. Gendai Budo: What’s the Difference?
All Japanese combat systems are divided into two groups. The first one is “Koryu Bujutsu,” which includes military fighting systems used by the Samurai warriors, mostly weapon-based.
The second is “Gendai Budo,” which includes modern martial arts practices for self-defense, fitness, personal development, etc. These martial arts started in Japan following the Meiji Restoration (1866–1869).
Here’s a list of notable martial arts from both groups:
|Koryu Bujutsu||Gendai Budo (modern combat systems)|
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What Are the Different Styles of Japanese Martial Arts?
The Japanese martial arts can be categorized into four main styles based on their emphasis:
- Striking arts: primarily focusing on striking their opponents with their limbs
- Grappling arts: primarily non-striking arts that are based on throws, takedowns, and ground fighting.
- Weapon arts: primarily focused on using objects to fight their opponents, such as swords or sticks.
- Hybrid arts: a combination of two or more of the above arts put together.
The following illustrates some of the different Japanese martial arts styles that have had a significant impact on the martial arts world.
Japanese Striking Arts
Japanese striking arts began to emerge in the 20th century. This was a time when skilled martial artists migrated from the Okinawa islands to the main islands of Japan. One of the systems they brought was Karate, arguably the most popular combat system worldwide.
Karate emerged in the Okinawa Islands as a self-defense method. However, it became popular on the main islands in the 20th century. As a system, karate is primarily based on quick striking with direct punches and advanced kicking techniques. These strikes are mixed together with fast footwork, and the focus is on overwhelming the attacker with technique rather than sheer force.
However, over time, the emphasis of training has switched to sports competition and point fighting rules, which have had a big impact on the overall effectiveness of the system.
There are four original karate styles that developed in the Okinawa Islands.
- Shotokan-Ryu (the most popular)
Later on, these four main styles would influence the birth of dozens more karate variations, such as:
- Kyokushin (mix of Shotokan and Goju-Ryu)
- Shukokai (mix of Shito-Ryu and Goju-Ryu)
- Shorin-Ryu (combination of Shuri-te and Tomari-te styles)
- Gosok-Ryu (mix of Shotokan and Goju-Ryu)
Japanese kickboxing, or “modern kickboxing,” as people call it, emerged in the 1950s. At the time, there was a big rivalry between Kyokushin and Muay Thai fighters. Kickboxing, as a concept, emerged as a bridge between these two combat systems. On one side, most of the techniques come from Kyokushin, while the rule set is from Muay Thai.
It is one of the most effective full-contact martial arts, known as a mix of Western boxing and karate kicks. The emphasis is on power and damage, making it very useful in real-life self-defense situations. Soon after, Japanese kickboxing started to spread like wildfire all across the world and influenced the birth of many other styles, such as Dutch, American (a.k.a. full-contact kickboxing), and K-1.
Japanese Grappling Arts
Many Japanese combat systems teach grappling skills. However, there are three main martial arts that focus solely on standup grappling and ground fighting: Sumo, Judo, and Aikido
Sumo is considered a “Gendai Budo,” or modern martial art, and it is a national sport. However, ancient writings indicate that this martial art has existed since ancient times. One of the ancient Japanese books written in 712 AD, Kojiki, implies that sumo was originally a ritual dance and prayer for a good harvest.
Sumo wrestlers compete on a raised, circular platform where the main goal is to throw the opponent down or outside the pit area.
Each Sumo athlete dedicates their life to martial art practice and must follow a strict training and diet regimen. From the rules and meals they eat to the way they dress, the Sumo lifestyle embraces tradition in every way. Although it is less popular outside of the country than other martial arts on this list, Sumo athletes are superstars in Japan.
Judo is a grappling-based martial art developed in 1882 by the legendary martial artist Kano Jigoro. Judo has evolved from and is rooted in Jujutsu, a martial art system that the Samurai warriors used. And in some way, Judo emerged as the “safer” and “sports” variations. Kano got rid of all the dangerous elements, including punches, to create a system that entirely focuses on grappling.
The main goal in Judo is to take the opponent down from a standing position using powerful throws, trips, and sweeps. The emphasis is on leverage, technique, and manipulating the opponents’ balance and weight distribution to take them down. Once the exchange goes to the ground, the goal is to subdue them with pins, holds, chokes, or joint locks.
Along with karate, Judo is one of the most popular sports spread all around the world and has been an Olympic sport since 1964.
Aikido is a grappling martial art developed by Morihei Ueshiba. The main focus of Aikido as a combat system is on intercepting and redirecting an opponent’s attack and momentum and using it against them rather than meeting force with force.
It emphasizes fast and fluid movements, circular motions, wrist locks, and throws, and students are taught to execute all the techniques in a light and gentle way. It also emphasizes the mental aspect and reaching a state of mind-body unity so that you can respond to aggression with calmness and control.
Although Aikido is a versatile system, hard to learn, and even rooted in self-defense, it is not considered practical in real life. The majority of its techniques are almost impossible to apply against fully resisting opponents. On top of that, teaching methods clearly lack realism, as there is no sparring, for example.
Japanese Weapon Arts
There are dozens of different Japanese weapon-based martial arts, with each one focusing on different types of weapons:
- Araki Ryu — is a hybrid weapon-based system that focuses on multiple weapons such as the sword (katana), spear (yari), staff (bo), and many others. The system also includes grappling while wearing light Samurai armor.
- Bojutsu — a system that emphasizes long-staff (bo), one of the best weapons for countering Samurai’s katana sword.
- Jukendo — teaches how to use a bayonet weapon. The Japanese military uses its techniques and principles and is part of its education regime. Teaching methods include offensive and defensive katas as well as competitive sparring (kumite).
- Kendo — is a popular martial art that focuses on sword fighting techniques like Bokken and Katana. While doing katas, students use hard wooden swords (bokken) and “Bogu” gear when sparring.
Japanese Hybrid Martial Arts
Japanese martial arts also include combat systems that incorporate different fighting elements like striking and grappling together, such as:
Japanese Jujutsu is one of the most influential martial arts and a precursor to many other systems, such as Judo and different styles of Jiu-Jitsu. It was practiced by the Samurai warriors who used the art of Jujutsu on the battlefield during the feudal period.
The system was designed to cover all the elements of fighting and teach you how to neutralize the enemy in the most efficient way possible. It teaches you how to deal with both armed and unarmed opponents using punches, kicks, clinch fighting, takedowns, as well as painful chokes, and joint locks.
Apart from conventional techniques, Samurai also learned how to break bones and necks or use other dirty methods to cause as much pain and damage as possible.
Although jujutsu is a versatile system, Samurai often rely more on aggressive grappling techniques to gain a dominant position over their opponent and then use any brutal means necessary, such as weapons, biting, or eye gouging, to terminate their enemy quickly.
At the time, grappling was considered more effective than striking because the samurai’s body armor limited their movement to strike, while the enemy’s body armor could absorb the impact of strikes.
Shooto is a hybrid martial art developed by Satoru Sayama back in 1985, and it is a system based on Shoot wrestling that resembles modern MMA fighting. The majority of striking techniques come from the arts, such as Karate and Muay Thai. This includes punches, kicks, and knee strikes. On the other hand, the grappling techniques come from wrestling, Russian Sambo, and Judo.
Shooto events are considered to be one of the first mixed martial arts competitions. Fighters competed inside the squared ring wearing specialized open-fingered gloves, and they could win by knocking their opponent out, submitting, or by a decision.
All other promotions that emerged later, such as UFC or Pancrase, were based on the Shooto hybrid concept, and the rules are very much the same.
Nippon Kempo is a Japanese hybrid martial art system that teaches a person how to apply punches, kicks, joint locks, and throwing techniques in self-defense. The majority of techniques come from martial arts such as karate, boxing, judo, and jujutsu. It falls into the category of modern martial arts as it was developed in 1932 by Muneomi Sawayama.
Nippon is popular outside Japan, too, notably in countries like the US, England, and France. It is characterized by the unique protective gear all students must wear during sparring, called “Bogu.” It includes padded boxing gloves, a chest protector, a facemask, a groin protector, and a GI uniform.