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Pilgrimage To Japan, The Path Of A Warrior

August 30th, 2008 by

When you think of Japan, samurais and ninjas usually come to mind. A lot of tourists come to Japan for the specific purpose of learning the martial arts that were mastered by these iconic figures. But these are just some of the arts that come from the land of the rising sun.

Samurai Fight

Martial arts is a system of practices and traditions of training for combat. While they may be studied for various other reasons, essentially martial arts share a single objective: to defeat one or more people physically and to defend oneself or others from physical threat. In addition to this, some martial arts are linked to spiritual or religious beliefs or philosophies while others have their own spiritual or non-spiritual code of honor. Many arts are also practiced competitively most commonly as combat sports, but may also be in the form of dance. For now, we will focus on martial arts that were founded in Japan.

The origin of Japanese martial arts can be found in the warrior traditions of the samurai and the ancient caste system that restricted the use of weapons by members of the non-warrior classes. Originally, samurai were expected to be proficient in many weapons, as well as unarmed combat, and attain the highest possible mastery of combat skills. All of this is for the purpose of glorifying either themselves or their feudal lord. Over time, this purpose gave way to a philosophy of achieving spiritual goals by striving to perfect their martial skills. The martial arts that were developed or originated in Japan are extraordinarily diverse, with vast differences in training tools, methods, and philosophy across innumerable schools and styles. That said, Japanese martial arts may generally be divided into koryu and  gendo budo, based on whether they are considered traditional or modern. Because gendai budo and koryu often share the same historical origin, one will find numerous martial arts on both sides of the classification.

There exists numerous martial arts that originated in Japan, here are some of the most well-known:


Practice is starting

Kendo is the Japanese equivalent of fencing. It literally means the “way of the sword“. It is a relatively modern evolution of the art of kenjutsu, and its exercises and practice are descended from several particular schools of swordsmanship. The primary technical influence in its development was the kenjutsu school of Itto-ryu, whose core philosophy revolved around the concept that all strikes in swordsmanship revolve around the technique kiri-oroshi (vertical downward cut). The modern form of kendo really began to take shape with the introduction of bamboo swords, called shinai, and the set of lightweight wooden armour, called bogu, by Naganuma Sirozaemon Kunisato, which allowed for the practice of strikes at full speed and power without risk of injury to the competitors.

Today, virtually the entire practice of kendo is governed by the All Japan Kendo Federation, founded in 1951. Competitions are judged by points, with the first competitor to score two points on his opponent declared the winner. One point may be scored with a successful and properly executed strike to any of several targets: a thrust to the throat, or a strike to the top of the head, sides of the head, sides of the body, or forearms. Practitioners also compete in forms competitions, using either wooden or blunted metal swords, according to a set of forms promulgated by the AJKF.


Ninjutsu Exhibition

Ninjutsu, which is sometimes used interchangeably with the term ninpo is the martial art practiced by the shinobi, more commonly known outside of Japan as the ninja. While there are several styles of modern ninjutsu, not all can be related to the historic practice of ninjutsu in Japan so as to be considered a koryu.

Ninjutsu has many schools with some even claiming that their school can be traced back to the Iga and Koga clans that started these ninjutsu arts. In recent times, a resurgence has been experienced by some of these schools due in part to a large interest in Japanese pop culture.


Sumo Circle

Sumo is  considered by many to be Japan’s national sport. It has its origins in the distant past. The earliest written records of Japan which date back from the eighth century A.D., record the first sumo match in 23 B.C., specifically at the request of the emperor and continuing until one man was too wounded to continue. Beginning in 728 A.D., the emperor Shomu Tenno began holding official sumo matches at the annual harvest festivals. This tradition of having matches in the presence of the emperor continued, but gradually spread, with matches also held at Shinto festivals and sumo training was eventually incorporated into military training. By the seventeenth century, sumo was recognized as an organized professional sport, open to the public, enjoyed by both the upper class and commoners.

Today, sumo retains much of its traditional trappings, including a referee dressed as a Shinto priest, and a ritual where the competitors clap hands, stomp their feet, and throw salt in the ring prior to each match. To win a match, competitors employ throwing and grappling techniques to force the other man to the ground; the first man to touch the ground with a part of the body other than the bottom of the feet, or touch the ground outside the ring with any part of the body, loses. Six grand tournaments are held annually in Japan, and each professional fighter’s name and relative ranking is published after each tournament in an official list, called the banzuke, which is followed very religiously by sumo fans in Japan.


Karatekas breaking boards

Karate originated from the island of Okinawa. It literally means “empty hand“. Karate practice is known by its punching and kicking techniques that are executed from a fixed stance. Many styles of karate practiced today incorporate the forms originally developed by Funakoshi ( the father of modern karate and the founder of Shotokan karate), and many different weapons originally used as farm implements by the peasants of Okinawa, such as the sai, sickles and the quarterstaff. Many modern karate practitioners also participate in full, light, and no-contact competitions.

These are just some of the the more well-known martial arts of Japan. Many practitioners come from all over the world to visit Japan just to learn from a true and authentic school of the art. Even if you are not into martial arts, it is still very entertaining to watch. So why don’t you give these a try, you might enjoy it.

3 Responses to “Pilgrimage To Japan, The Path Of A Warrior”

  1. Kitci Wong Says:

    I’ve always wanted to learn some form of martial arts most especially karate :) Interesting article :D

  2. Alex Tan Says:

    I remember the days when Karate and Judo were the only martial arts that Hollywood used.

  3. Jeremy Thomas Says:

    Am Glad to see you covered the main arts studied in Japan (as well as their many branches throught the world), but I’m a little disappointed that some other major arts were left out, such as Iaido, Aikido (Aiki-Jutsu), As well as the “old Weapons Schools” Naginata-jutsu (a halberd style art) So-Jutsu (Art of the spear), and even Shuriken-do (Art of blade throwing). All japanese martial artists should be aware that there empty hand techniques were developed using the movements of the Sword, Tanto (short knife), the yari (spear), and the Stave arts (Jodo, Bo-jutsu).

    For anyone interested in the Martial Arts of Japan, i recommend you keep an open mind. I train in a Koryu-Bujutsu style school that teaches all manner of stick and blade weapons, as well as hand techniques. Remember this (especially those interested in Karate)…Learning weapons will make your empty-hand techniques more fluent, and significantly more effective.

    Jeremy Thomas,
    Hachi Kyu, Aiki-Jutsu

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