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A Guide to Japanese Martial Arts: List of Styles & Guide

Girl practising Japanese martial arts


From Koi Carp to Torii Gates and its beautiful traditional clothing, Japan is known for its rich cultural history that is still very much alive to enjoy today. One of the treasured cultural practices that dates back to the 7th century is their wide variety of martial arts. 


We have compiled this ultimate guide to the different styles and history of martial arts and how they evolved to be one of the country’s most popular sports in the present day.


The history of Japanese martial arts


In medieval Japan, there were 18 martial arts. Essentially, they were created with the purpose of honing the skills of warriors to help them win battles. However, they were later adopted by regular civilians to help promote mental alertness and discipline. Two pivotal groups that used martial arts in combat were ninja and samurai.




Earlier on in their history, samurai practised the martial arts of Kyujutsu or kyūdō, which used a longbow


They also practised sojutsu, which involved a spear (yari) or naginata (a single-bladed polearm).


From the Kamakura period, which spanned 1185-1333 CE, the sword became the main weapon for elite samurai soldiers. This was known as iajutsu; the aim of this art was to cut your opponent in a single, graceful and swift movement


Additionally, horsemanship (bajutsu) was a key skill in Japanese warfare from the 5th century CE and onwards. There was even a martial art associated with swimming, which was called suieiijutsu. Essentially, this art was associated with carrying weapons through water as quickly and quietly as possible.




Ninjas were Japanese troops that specialised in espionage, assassination, assaulting castles and sabotage. Their martial art was called ninjutsu; it essentially involved gaining a high level of skill in a wide variety of equipment and weapons. The most notable among them was shuriken (throwing stars)


Additional to their skills with weaponry, ninjas would be taught other skills by a sensei (master). These included:


  • Map-reading 
  • Jumping between rooftops 
  • Camouflage 
  • Tying up prisoners 
  • Using explosives 
  • Mixing poisons


List of Japanese martial arts


How many types of Japanese martial arts are there?


There are 18 classic varieties of martial arts. These are: 


  • Yawara (judo/jujutsu)
  • Archery (kyudo/kyujutsu)
  • Truncheon skills (jitte)
  • Barbed staff skills (mojiri)
  • Chained sickle throwing (kusarigamajutsu)
  • Sword drawing (iaijutsu)
  • Swimming (suieiijutsu)
  • Fencing/swordsmanship (kendo/kenjutsu)
  • Spearmanship (sojutsu)
  • Firearms skills (teppo)
  • Staff skills (bojutsu)
  • Horsemanship (bajutsu)
  • Spying (ninjutsu)
  • Needle spitting (fukumibarijutsu)
  • Short sword skills (tanto)
  • Polearm skills (naginata jutsu)
  • Rope skills (torite)
  • Dagger throwing (shurikenjutsu)


Woman practising karate


Martial Arts in the modern day


What is Japan’s main martial art?


As it is considered to be Japan’s national sport, sumo wrestling could be considered to be Japan’s main martial art. However, there are a number of prominent martial arts. Examples include:


Sumo wrestling match





In Sumo, the objective is to propel your opponent out of the ring (which is about 15 feet in diameter), or force them to touch the ground using any body part other than the soles of their feet.


Sumo wrestling was a popular spectator sport under Imperial patronage between 710 and 1185. It was then banned under the shogun to make way for martial forms of the sport for the samurai. Later, professional wrestling would span from the resurgence of public matches after 1600. It is often called the national sport of Japan. 




Judo became popular within the 19th century; it evolved from jujutsu in the 8th century. It is described as “the way of softness or gentleness”. It is generally used as a form of self-defence, using quick and precise movements and agility.


Girl practising Japanese martial art aikido




As mentioned above, kyūdō is a traditional method of archery; it is associated with Zen Buddhism. This is because when firearms replaced archery in warfare, zen monks and members of the upper class continued the practice. 

Unlike in Western archery, the main aim is not hitting the bullseye. The way of the bow is used to achieve an intense concentration through shooting that creates a spiritual sense of perfect serenity.




Also known as jujutsu, this martial art uses little to no weapons. Instead, the focus is on subduing your opponent through holds, paralysing blows and throws. As mentioned above, it originated in the 17th century and was used within the warrior class of the samurai.


Man practising kendo outdoors




More commonly known as fencing, kendo is “the way of the sword”. However, it is not the same as the fencing that may have come to mind. Instead of a thin metal sword, traditional Japanese fencing uses a two-handed wooden sword. Like jujutsu, this martial art can be traced back to the samurai.


After the unification of Japan, there were not as many opportunities for sword combat, so the samurai began to use it for patience, skill and cultivating discipline. A bamboo sword was introduced to prevent risk of injury but still maintain a realistic fencing match.


Essentially, the matches take place in a square area of 9-11 metres and contestants must wear the traditional clothing:


  • Uwagi (jacket) 
  • Hakama (long divided skirt) 
  • Dō (chest protector) 
  • Tare (waist protector) 
  • Men (mask) 
  • Kote (padded gloves) 


What is the most zen martial art?


Aikido is known as the most zen martial art. This is because it uses a combination of spirituality, philosophy and martial studies to create harmony of body, mind and spirit.


What is Aikido?


Aikido, also known as the “way of harmonising energy”, likely originated in the 14th century. This defensive martial art uses similar fighting methods to judo and jujitsu. The aim of aikido is to turn an attacker’s momentum and strength against them. It also makes use of nerve centres. Even though the purpose is to subdue your opponent, rather than maim or kill them, some of its movements can be deadly.


It is said to “unify life with energy”, in so far as the practitioner can defend themselves by redirecting the attacker’s action in a way that does not hurt either party. 


What is the most effective martial art?


This depends on the purpose for which you are looking to use it. For example, kyūdō could be used to develop discipline and intense physical concentration. Meanwhile, ninjutsu is the most effective in terms of espionage.


What is the most lethal martial art? 


Moves from a variety of martial arts can prove fatal if they are used in a way that is high impact. However, it could be said that Karate is one of the deadliest Japanese martial arts, due to its powerful strike combinations.


What is the Japanese equivalent of Kung Fu?


Karate is the most similar martial art to Kung Fu. However, there are a few notable differences




Karate, or “empty hand” is an unarmed martial art that uses kicking, as well as striking and defensive blocking techniques using your arms and legs. 


When practising the art, emphasis should be placed on concentrating as much of your body’s power as possible on the point and moment at which you make impact.  It evolved in East Asia over a period of centuries, becoming an organised sport in Okinawa in the 17th century. It was then imported into Japan in the 1920s.


  • Uses sharp, linear movements 
  • Does not use shoes 
  • Has a white uniform, also known as a gi
  • Takes place over medium to long-range distances 
  • Generally uses your hands as the weapons (however, it has evolved to sometimes use weapons from a modern perspective).
  • Has only one way (the Karate way) 

Kung Fu:


Meanwhile, Kung Fu originates from China and:


  • Uses mostly circular movements, and often resembles animal fighting styles 
  • Uses shoes
  • Has uniforms in a variety of styles, materials and colours
  • Can be a close combat fight
  • Uses a wide range of weapons
  • Has many schools (it is used as an umbrella term for Chinese martial arts).


Ultimately, Japan has a rich history when it comes to martial arts; we would recommend exploring as many museums as possible to immerse yourself in it during your time there. 


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