Types of Japanese Martial Arts

7 Types of Japanese Martial Arts

Japan is known for its variety of unique martial arts that are practiced and enjoyed worldwide. Most Japanese martial arts are modern variations of more traditional forms that date back hundreds or thousands of years.

Throughout history, Japanese martial arts were primarily used for defense or attack when needed. In today’s day and age, it is taught and practiced for its educational purposes. Martial arts cover a wide range of value, including:

  • Physical
  • Cultural
  • Spiritual
  • Aesthetic
  • Moral

Whether you actively practice or are curious to learn more, this article will provide you with a brief overview of 7 types of Japanese martial arts.

1. Jujutsu

Types of Japanese Martial Arts - Jujutsu

Jujutsu, also more commonly referred to as jiu-jitsu or ju-jitsu, is an ancient form of Japanese martial arts that dates back to the Nara period in 710-794. Jujutsu traditionally combined the earlier forms of Sumo, and other martial arts once used during close combat. While there are many different styles of Jujutsu today, the oldest known forms are:

  • Shinden Fudo-ryu
  • Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu
  • Takenouchi-ryu

The word itself can be broken down to translation for a better understanding of the art form. Jujutsu means yielding-art as “Ju” directly translates to gentle or soft, and “Jutsu” directly translates to art or technique.

The form of combat involved in Jujutsu is close and usually unarmed, although sometimes a minor weapon may be used. Jujutsu was intended to be used either defensively or offensively and to kill or subdue opponents with or without weapons.

Many modern forms of martial arts and combat sports borrow techniques from traditional Jujutsu, including:

  • Judo
  • Sambo
  • ARB
  • Brazilian jiu-jitsu
  • Mixed martial arts (MMA)

There are many techniques involved in Jujutsu, including using your opponent’s body against itself.

2. Judo

Types of Japanese Martial Arts - Judo

Judo is a more modern martial art of Japanese culture and has become wildly popular since its origins in 1882. Initially created by Jigoro Kano, Judo was intended to be physical, mental, and moral teaching in Japan. Today, it is an Olympic sport and is even integrated into Japanese police training programs. 

There are three basic techniques used in Judo, known as Judo waza:

  • Nage-waza: throwing
  • Katame-waza: grappling
  • Atemi-waza: striking

Despite the sound of the offensive techniques of Judo, it is intended to be so aggressive. The word itself Judo can be directly translated to mean gentle way. Strikes and thrusts are a realm of Judo but can only be used in pre-arranged forms.

Several modern forms of martial arts and combat styles have since emerged based on techniques from traditional Judo, including:

  • Brazilian jiu-jitsu
  • Krav Maga
  • Sambo
  • ARB
  • Close-quarters combat (CQC)
  • Mixed martial arts (MMA)
  • Shoot wrestling
  • Submission wrestling

Judo is primarily focused on full throws and submissions, in which your energy is focused on learning moves allowing you to pin your opponents to the ground without injury.

3. Karate

Types of Japanese Martial Arts - Karate

Karate was born in present-day Okinawa, known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, and originated as a blend of the indigenous martial arts and Chinese Kung Fu, specifically the Fujian White Crane. Today, Karate continues to gain popularity as it was scheduled to debut in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games held in Tokyo in 2021.

The practice of Karate can be done in many forms, including as:

  • Art (budo)
  • Self-defense
  • Combat sport

Historically the word Karate was written but was later changed in 1935 to mean empty hand, referencing the lack of weaponry used in this martial art form.

Training for Karate is generally broken down into three different sectors, including:

  • Kihon (basics / fundamentals)
  • Kata (forms)
  • Kumite (sparring)

Karate using a mixed combination of strikes, punches, and kicks. While being highly physical, martial art is also a mental juggle judged by speed, balance, rhythm, and clarity of technique.

4. Aikido

Types of Japanese Martial Arts - Aikido

Aikido, a more gentle form of Japanese martial arts, was created by Morihei Ueshiba during the 1920s. Ueshiba blended his study in martial arts, philosophy, and religion to create this gentle modern Japanese martial arts form.

Ueshiba is known for studying a variety of core martial arts, for which Aikido is derived, including:

  • Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu
  • Tenjin Shin yo-ryu
  • Gotoha Yagyu Shingan-ryu
  • Judo

The word Aikido can be directly translated to mean either the way of unifying with life energy or the way of harmonious spirit. It can be broken down more simply with Ai meaning harmony or unifying, Ki meaning energy or spirit, and Do meaning way or path.

Unlike other modern forms of Japanese martial arts, Aikido is not primarily focused on defeating your opponent. In Aikido, your focus is on utilizing your opponent’s energy to bring them down with minimal hurt to you and your opponent.

5. Sumo

Types of Japanese Martial Arts - Sumo

Sumo is the national sport of Japan today but has a history that dates back several centuries. It is believed that Sumo originated as far back as 712 as a ritual dance performed in hopes of a good harvest.

Through the centuries, Sumo has evolved. Once originally a ritual dance, it later became a form of entertainment for the Japanese nobles. During medieval Japan, Sumo seized the entertainment aspect as it started to be taught as combat training. Later in history, the entertainment aspect of Sumo returned during a relatively peaceful time during Japan’s history.

The word Sumo has roots in the word sumau, which translates to compete or fight.

Today, there are six divisions in professional Sumo, ranked from highest to lowest they are:

  • Makuuchi (maximum of 42 wrestlers)
  • Juryo (fixed at 28 wrestlers)
  • Makushita (fixed at 120 wrestlers)
  • Sandanme (fixed at 200 wrestlers)
  • Jonidan (nearly 200 wrestlers)
  • Jonokuchi (nearly 50 wrestlers)

Sumo is a full-contact form of wrestling in which the wrestlers slap each other, trying to push each other out of the ring.

6. Kendo

Types of Japanese Martial Arts - Kendo

Kendo is a modern Japanese martial art that focuses heavily on using a bamboo sword and originates from swordsmanship (kenjutsu). Early swordsmen of Japan started schools for kenjutsu, which later emerged to practicing with bamboo swords during the Shotoku Era in the early 1700s.

The word Kendo directly translates to mean sword way, sword path, or way of the sword. Eventually, due to increasing popularity, the All Japan Kendo Federation was born and later created “The Concept and Purpose of Kendo,” which directly integrates its meaning.  The Concept of Kendo is “to discipline the human character by applying the principles of the katana (sword).”

The techniques used in Kendo are generally broken down into two categories:

  • Shikake-waza (to initiate a strike)
  • Oji-waza (a response to an attempted strike)

Not surprisingly, Kendo is both a physical and mental sport, requiring those who practice to call out “kiai” when making strikes to prove their balance of spirit.

7. Kyudo

Types of Japanese Martial Arts - Kyudo

Kyudo is the ancient Japanese martial art form involving archery that originated during the Yayoi period somewhere around 500 BC. Kyudo is based on practices from the samurai class of kyujutsu.

Kyudo directly translates to mean the way of the bow, giving a name to the level of sophistication and discipline needed to master this art.

There are three different levels of skills used in Kyudo:

  • Toteki (arrow hits the target)
  • Kanteki (arrow pierces target)
  • Ziteki (arrow exists in target)

With the introduction of guns in modern Japan, archery was used less like combat and more for spiritual training.