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Facts of Japan - Martial Arts Part I

Updated on May 27, 2011

The martial arts in Japan are extremely diverse. While some were imported from other countries, many are developed in Japan. And each martial art has developed different style and many schools based on those evolved as well.

But generally Japanese martial arts are divided into two sections called Koryu and Gendai Budo. The broad idea is whether these martial arts existed before Meiji restoration, Koryu, or after Meiji restoration, Gendai Budo.

The Koryu class of Martial Arts

Koryu means traditional or old school. The term symbolically refers that the specified art is traditional and not modern. The main purpose of these Koryu martial art is for use in a war. The following forms of martial arts fall under these Koryu class.


Sumo is a sport where a wrestler forces the competitor out of a ring or brings the other one down to touch the ground with any part other than his soles. Sumo has its origins in the distant past. It is also considered as Japan’s national sport. Japan is the only country that practices sumo quite professionally.

Sumo has many traditions from the past and ritual elements in Sumo are considered to be originated from the Shinto religion. For example the salt purification is an element of Shinto religion only. In fact, in Shinto ritual, a ritual dance is performed in which the dancer, is supposed to be wrestling with the evil spirit, called Kami.

During the Edo Period only Sumo has become a professional sporting event.

Competition in the "Ryogoku Sumo" hall in Tokyo, 22 May 2001
Competition in the "Ryogoku Sumo" hall in Tokyo, 22 May 2001
This is a Dohyo = Sumo ring.
This is a Dohyo = Sumo ring.

Sumo rank (from highest to lowest): 

  • Yokozuna 
  • Ōzeki
  • Sekiwake
  • Komosubi 
  • Maegashira 
  • Jūryō 
  • Makushita
  • Sandanme
  • Jonidan 
  • Jonokuchi 
  • Banzuke-gai 
  • Shin-deshi

Some interesting points of Sumo:

Even though one of the wrestler need to be thrown out of ring or forced to touch the ground other than his soles, on rare occasions the wrestler who touches the ground first can be declared a winner if both the competitors are touching the ground almost at the same time. It is because the wrestler who touches the ground secondly has really no chance of winning due to the superior position of his opponent. The looser is called Shin Tai, which means a dead body, in this case.

If someone uses illegal techniques, he loses as well.

If a wrestler’s Mawashi, or the belt, becomes totally undone, he loses.

Once the winner is announced, the off stage referee explains to the audience the winning technique.

The sumo ring has a ring. The diameter of this ring is 4.55 meters. The area is 16.25 square meters. Platforms made of clay and mixed with sand are used. At the center are two white lines and the wrestlers are supposed to take their position behind those lines. Sometimes, a roof that resembles a Shinto shrine is also suspended from above. The referee wears the traditional Shinto clothing.

The wrestling usually lasts few seconds only. Sometimes it stretches for few minutes. In Sumo, six divisions are available. They are makuuchi, juryo, makushita, sandanme, jonidan, and jonokuchi. The new entrants of Sumo have to enter in jonokuchi and work up towards the top division. Yokozuna is the one who tops the ranking in in the top division. He is the grand champion.

Each year, six grand Sumo tournaments are conducted in Japan. Each of these tournaments begins on a Sunday and stretches for 15 days and ends again on a Sunday. Each top player has one match per day while the low ranked wrestlers have almost 7 matches each day. Every two days this continues.

At the end of the tournament the referee immediately points out who is the winner. But this decision can be disputed as well by the judges, numbering five, who sit around the ring.

Sumo wrestlers have a very strict regimented life. The only negative aspect of this art is that the wrestler’s life expectancy is 60 to 65, almost 10 years less than ay average Japanese life expectancy.

Sumo wrestlers in the figure from 1860.
Sumo wrestlers in the figure from 1860.

Ninjutsu training


The Japanese swordsmanship, the art of swords, takes many forms with a little shift in the basic concept of using the swords. With different types of swords and the techniques of using them effectively during combats, this art is quite mythological in nature and assumes extreme proportions.

After the original art of horse riding and archery or shooting the bow, swords wielding took its place firmly in Japanese culture. And swords are developed according to the methods of using them. During the period of Meiji restoration only the swords, as a form of violent killing, has transformed into a more matured form of spiritual perfection and personal development philosophy.

Kenjutsu means the science or art of sword. It actually means the swordsmanship in totality. It simply concentrates on two men with their swords drawn, combating for supremacy.

Battojutsu means the science or art of drawing a sword. It emphasizes mainly on the effective drawing of the sword, cutting the enemy and putting the sword back in the scabbard.

Iaijutsu or Iaido means the science or art of mental presence and instant reaction. This is basically the art of drawing the sword only but with more complex nuances.

Iaido is the modernized form of Iaijutsu.

Naginatajutsu is another art wherein wielding the naginata is emphasized. It is a style used by the Japanese women during the Edo period.

Sojutsu is fighting with a spear. It was popular during the war times. But it is losing its value now.

Ninjutsu was mainly used by the Nijas during the war times. It was mainly used for survival and spying. They consist of all the survival techniques.

Sogo bujutsu ws the original martial art school in Japan. These schools teach many other arts of wielding all the other armors. Along with them, swimming, equestrian, arson and demolition etc. are also taught with the main component being that all of them retained the traditional values in some form.


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    • loonyBG profile image

      loonyBG 6 years ago

      Thanks Scarface1300, Japan is one of my favourite topic :)

    • Scarface1300 profile image

      Scarface1300 6 years ago

      Very interesting and informative hub.I have a keen interest in Martial Arts and Japanese Culture. You're knowledge is very intense.

      I will follow you closely from now on.

    • dialogue profile image

      dialogue 6 years ago

      wow this is interesting hub... very informative