Japanese Martial Arts: History, Styles, and Weapons

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, a robust culture, and a unique way of life from the melting pot of war and uncertain peace. Central to this culture was the concept of martial courage: the ability to fight both aggressively and defensively, both for the very practical purposes of waging war and for strong notions of duty, honor, and personal development. It was because of this militaristic and spiritual foundation that Japanese martial arts styles, which there are many of and which will be talked about in this article, came into being over time.


In general, the history of Japanese martial arts can be divided into two categories: Koryu Bujutsu (bujutsu means the practical application of martial tactics and techniques in actual combat) and Gendai Budo (budo means a way of life that incorporates physical, spiritual, and moral dimensions with a focus on self-improvement, fulfillment, or personal growth).

Koryu Bujutsu encompasses the more ancient, traditional Japanese fighting styles, while Gendai Budo is more modern. The separation between them occurred after the Meiji Restoration (1868), when the emperor was restored to practical political power and Japan hastily embarked on the modernization process. Prior to the Restoration, 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 real combat, for their own honour and the cause of their ruler.

However, with the Meiji Restoration and the modernization of Japan, including the widespread introduction of firearms, the traditional Japanese fighting styles of the samurai became obsolete and no longer useful for their practical purpose of military combat. In their wake, Japanese martial arts styles evolved into what came to be known as Gendai Budo, which focused much less on large-scale military applications and much more on self-improvement and personal growth. When they were used in battle, they were not only a tool for victory, but also an important part of a fulfilling, meaningful, and spiritually connected way of living.

Bujutsu is a word that only refers to war, while budo refers to a lot of different styles that work on improving one’s own skills.


Traditional Japanese Martial Arts (Koryu Bujutsu)

The oldest Japanese martial art style is sumo, named after the emperor who popularised 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, guarded by the emperor and continued 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 across Japan and even being incorporated into military training. From the 17th century, it became a professional sport in every way, open to all classes, samurai and farmers included. The rules of the sport are simple: The first man to touch the ground with a body part other than the bottom of his feet, or touch the ground outside the ring with any body part, loses.

This Japanese martial arts style literally translates to “soft skills” and uses indirect force such as joint locks and throws to defeat an opponent, rather than direct force such as punches and kicks, to force the attackers to use them against them and counterattack where they are weakest. It was initially developed to fight against the samurai, who often terrorised city dwellers, as more direct forms of combat proved ineffective against well-armored enemies. Small arms such as daggers, weighted chains, and helmet crushers (tanto, ryufundo kusari, and jutte, respectively) were also used in jujutsu. Many parts of jujutsu have been used in a wide range of modern Japanese martial arts, such as judo, aikido, and non-Japanese martial arts like karate.

Ninjutsu: Ninjutsu, or the art of the Ninja, has become one of the most well-known styles of Japanese martial arts in modern times. However, when it was developed, ninjas were used as assassins during the turbulent period of warring states. While many martial arts movies have portrayed ninjas as expert fighters, their true purpose has been to avoid combat, or even detection altogether. A skilled ninja would kill his target and be gone before anyone even suspected he was there. Ninjas were trained in the arts of disguise, escape, cloaking, archery, medicine, explosives, and poisons, a skill ideally suited to their particular task.

While there are a number of other Koryu Bujutsu Japanese martial arts styles, they mostly relate to weapons and will be discussed in the Japanese martial arts section.

Modern Japanese Martial Arts (Gendai Budo)

Judo: Literally translated into “the gentle way” or “the way of gentleness”, Judo is an extremely popular Japanese martial art style that was developed from wrestling in the late 1800s and is used for sports as well as for personal and spiritual development. While it contains many jujutsu elements, it mainly includes freestyle practise and is used for competition while removing many of the more harmful jujutsu aspects. Judo became an Olympic sport in 1964 and is currently practised all over the world.

Aikido: Aikido is one of the most complex and nuanced Japanese martial arts styles, and that is reflected in the name, which translates into “the way to harmony with ki,” “ki” meaning life force. Aikido was developed by Morihei Ueshiba in the early 20th century and focuses primarily on hitting, throwing and joint techniques. Aikido is known for its fluid movements as a signature element of its style. The principle involves using the attacker’s own strength against him with minimal effort on the part of the wearer. Aikido was significantly influenced by Kenjutsu, the traditional Japanese martial art of sword fighting, and in many ways, the practitioner acts and moves like an empty-handed swordsman. Aikido also places a strong emphasis on spiritual development.

Japanese Karate: Karate, the “way of the empty hand”, was not originally a Japanese martial art. It was developed in Okinawa and later influenced by the Chinese. However, in the early 20th century, karate found acceptance in Japan, even going as far as being incorporated into the Japanese public school system. Japanese karate involves linear punches and kicks performed from a fixed stance. In that sense, it is very different from the other Japanese martial arts, such as Aikido and Judo, which are more fluid in their movements.

Kempo: Kempo is a system of self-defense and self-improvement developed after World War II, based on a modified version of Shaolin Kung-Fu. It includes a combination of punches, kicks, and blocks as well as pins, joint locks, and dodges, making it a middle ground between the “hard” styles like Japanese karate and the more “soft” styles like Judo and Aikido. It was originally introduced to Japan after the war to help rebuild Japanese morale and spirits. It was first adopted by big companies for their employees before spreading into the culture of Japan and the larger martial arts world. Kempo is practised by more than 1.5 million people in more than 33 countries.

Japanese Martial Arts Weapons

Weapons played a key role in Japanese martial arts, especially during the Koryu Bujutsu phase when they were practically used in combat. Here we will run through some of the Japanese martial arts weapons as well as the martial arts styles associated with each one.

Sword (Katana): Undisputed among the hierarchy of Japanese martial arts weapons is the Katana, or the traditional curved sword. The first katana, with its famous reinforcing folding process, was forged by the legendary swordsmith Amakuni Yasutsuna in AD 700, with subsequent developments occurring between AD 987 and AD 1597. In times of peace, artistry was emphasized, and in times of war, such as the 12th-century Civil War and the 13th-century Mongol invasion, durability, effectiveness, and mass production were more important. Swordsmanship evolved in a cyclical fashion, with peaceful times used to invent new techniques and wartimes used to put them to the test.What worked, survived; what didn’t, didn’t. During the more than 200-year peaceful period of the Tokugawa dynasty,

weapon techniques for Japanese martial arts (Katana):

Kenjutsu: the “art of the sword”. This technique is the oldest and is used to refer to one-on-one sword training with partners.

Battojutsu: This is the art of sword-drawing, where you quickly approach your opponent, draw your blade, knock them down with one or two blows, and re-shroud the blade. The fact that it has a category in its own right speaks volumes about the philosophy behind Japanese martial arts weapon styles. Battojutso is associated with Iaijutso, or the art of mental presence and instant response, which must be perfected for battojutso to be effective.

Kendo, which translates into the “way of the sword”, is a modern, gendai budo Japanese martial arts style. With the sword no longer a combat weapon, Kendo has reinvented Japanese sword fighting into a competitive sport. Kendo really took off when the bamboo sword and lightweight wooden armour were introduced, as they could strike at full speed without the risk of injury. Now, almost all competitive kendo is governed by the All Japan Kendo Federation, founded in 1951.

Other Japanese martial arts weapons and martial arts styles

Naginata and NaginatajutsuThe naginata was a wooden pole with a curved blade with a single cutting edge at the end. It was used by the samurai but also by ordinary foot soldiers. Naginatajutsua was the art of the naginata, which was widely used in traditional Japanese battles. Interestingly, during the Edo period, the Naginata was traditionally a weapon of high-born women, and many of its practitioners and teachers are women to this day. Many people in Japan and around the world practise naginata-do, which is the form of naginatajutso that is done in a way that is both competitive and ritualistic.

Spear & Sojutso: This is the art of spear fighting. It used to be very common and a very important skill for soldiers to learn in times of war, but it has since lost a lot of popularity for obvious reasons.

Bow & Kyudo: Kyudo is the “way of the bow”, with the Koryu name being Kyujutsu, or the art of the bow. In traditional Japanese martial arts, the bow and its art were a staple of the samurai discipline as it was a powerful military weapon. When used on horseback, it was even more devastating. However, when Japan adopted firearms, the bow was displaced as a practical instrument of war. So, in modern times, Kyudo is practised for sports and contemplation rather than for warfare.

Other Japanese martial arts weapons existed, such as the tanto (dagger), ryufundo kusari (weighted chain), and jutte (helmet breaker), but the katana, naginata, spear, and bow were the mainstays of the warrior class.

List of martial arts

If the above was a bit too long to read, here is a brief list of the main different Japanese martial arts styles:

Traditional Japanese martial arts styles

Sumo: The earliest style, where a single opponent is pushed or knocked out of the ring.

Jujutsu: an early style used against samurai and armoured opponents, involves the use of throws and joint locks to use the enemy’s own power against them.

Kenjutsu: The sword art of fighting one opponent one-on-one with a Katana.

It is the art of the ninja to use stealth and long-range methods of assassination in their work.

Modern Japanese Martial Arts Styles

Judo: “The Gentle Way,” based on grappling, is used for sports as well as spiritual and personal development. Judo was accepted as an Olympic sport in 1964.

Aikido: “The Way of Harmony with Ki”. Aikido involves flowing movements and turning the attacker’s own power against him. It is also used for spiritual and personal development.

An “imported” martial art to Japan, Japanese karate is more linear than the other arts, involving direct punches and kicks from a fixed position.

Based on Shaolin Kung-Fu, Kempo features direct strikes, kicks, and blocks, as well as indirect pins, joint locks, and dodges. Introduced after World War II, it is incredibly popular in Japan and around the world.

Kendo (the “way of the sword”) uses bamboo swords and lightweight wooden armour to enable full-speed attacks and has reinvented Japanese sword fighting into a competitive sport rather than an art of war.