About Japanese martial arts

What is the origin of the Japanese martial arts tradition ?

These arts have a long history in Japan, and ties to the arts from the asian continent -where they have long evolved, from the early tracks found on Babylonian tablets or the Indian Kalarippayatt- and more recently, ties to the Western world, on top of many local developments.

These arts have ended up replacing local martial arts in many countries.

Around the start of the Common Era, many groups from China and Korea settled in Japan, bringing with them many techniques and ideas. For many centuries, a flow of people kept moving between these countries. Between the 6th and 9th centuries, the introduction of buddhism in the Japanese imperial court brought more changes too (Chinese letters were introduced and used to write down Japanese, creation myths were written down for Japan and the imperial family, Japanese state structure emerged, etc).

The state pushed economic development in the country, which ended up giving more powers to local powers, competing for territories and resources, which in turn pushed for more professional soldiers, better fighting techniques and weapons.

A new society was emerging.

After this period, three martial categories appeared: the martial techniques known as bujutsu (武術), the techniques which have been developed to be taught or transmitted, known as bugei (武芸), and the martial way (art of life, ethics, philosophy) known as budō (武道).

« Bu » (武) stands for the warrior. We can find this character in bushi (武士), or « gentleman warrior » (in charge of protecting the big family clans), from the Chinese « wushi », or in « bushidan » (武士団), these warrior clans who fought for power during Heian era (平安, 794 to 1185).

The bushi, or bujin (武​人), member of the warrior caste appearing at that time, will later take the name of …samurai (侍).

Japanese martial arts first appeared to serve the warriors, and have evolved to fill three different jobs: efficiency (violence, minimum effort for maximum effect) , symbolism (religious, spiritual), and more recently, self-development (philosophy, ethics, social role). Some martial arts kept a religious component, for example sumō (basically a shinto ceremony, celebrating the gods or kami).

Before the Meiji Restoration in 1866 (when imperial rule was restored) and the ban on wearing swords (one of the samurai’s privileges), the martial arts that were practiced by samurai (or the rōnin 浪人, samurai without a master) were called « koryū bujutsu » (traditionnal arts) or « kobudō » (古武道 old budō). They were developed by/for the warrior caste, with a strong master/disciple tradition, non-standard teachings, very strong requirements on the behavior of practitioners, rolls (makimono, 巻物) on secret techniques, oaths, certificates providing the right to teach or stating levels.

The following arts could be found in koryū bujutsu:

  • Bare hand arts : aikijutsu, kiaijutsu, chikarakurabe (competition of strength), chogusoku/genkotsu/hakushi/kogusoku/kumiuchi/ shubaku/wajutsu/torite or jujutsu, karate, kempo, koshi-no-mawari (throwing above hips), shikaku (blind spot attack), sumai (sumo ancester, literally « to struggle »), taido/taidojutsu (attacks after escape)

  • Armed arts:
    • Major :
      • archery: kyujutsu, kyudo, shagei
      • spear: sojutsu, yarijutsu, naginatajutsu, soderagamijutsu, sasumatajutsu
      • sword: tojutsu, kenjutsu, kendo, iaijutsu, iaido, tantajutsu
      • horsemanship and fighting: bajutsu, jobajutsu, suibajutsu
      • swimming and fighting: suieijutsu, oyogijutsu, katchu gozen oyogi)
    • Minor:
      • war fan: tessenjutsu
      • quarterstaff/long stick: jojutsu, jodo, tetsubojutsu
      • short stick art (jitte): juttejutsu
    • Secondary: chain & projectiles: kusarijutsu, kusarigamajutsu, manrikikusari, chigirijutsu, gegikanjutsu, yawara (jujutsu & yawara, a small projectile kept in hand)
    • Esoteric arts: ninjutsu, toiri-no-jutsu, shinobijutsu, chikairi-no-jutsu, yubijutsu, koppo, fukihari, suijohokojutsu

[Some of the names have been re-used through times, more details found here]

Martial arts that appeared afterwards are called « gendai budō » (contemporary martial arts) – Often inspired by the koryū bujutsu (sometimes in the hope of keeping old martial traditions alive, for example with jūdō), they stand out with more open teaching methods, grades (kyu & dan replaced the koryū certificates, no more oaths).

Similar to the education system, completely re-organised, reformed, after the Meiji Restoration, the teaching of martial arts and the underlying pedagogy were completely re-thought during the 19th century and part of the 20th century. « European » physical education was studied, compared, and debates over the pros and cons of traditional martial arts were organised (see « Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan » for more). The state pushed for the creation of national associations overseeing martial arts, such as the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai 大日本武徳会, International Martial Arts federation, the martial arts hall Nippon Budokan, the Nippon Budō Kyōgika, etc.

Gendai budō usually stand for:

  • aikidō (合気道, self-defense & control of opponent),
  • karate (空手, barehand defense, okinawan school),
  • jūdō (柔道, throws and restraint in close combat),
  • kyudō (弓道, archery),
  • kendō (剣道, wooden sword),
  • iaidō (居合道, sword drawing)
  • jūjutsu (古流柔術, restraint techniques at the origin of many Japanese martial arts).

Gendai budō (現代武道) were developed to be taught in Japanese schools. Their efficiency became secondary, before the physical, mental and spiritual development of the student. They appeared at a time when Japan was opening to the world, developing its industry, changing state structure & castes, where old and new ideas clashed in all domains.

Before the (forced) opening of Japanese ports in 1854, Japanese people had started integrating some western ideas and techniques, spread by the rare dutch merchants allowed to trade in Japan. The « rampo » medecine was developed for example, based on popular european ideas (at the end of the 18th and start of 19th century) and had enabled the introduction of smallpox vaccination (which had been killing or disabling people for centuries, with no remedies).

50 years later, ideas from American, English, French pedagogues were read and discussed, and some ideas integrated into Japanese culture. Swedish physical education (calisthenics) and the ideas from the international scientific community brought changes to the education curriculum & nutrition standards.

A century ago, the government created morning exercises and started broadcasting them in all towns (often from shinto temples, later by radio, today on national tv and youtube too, when starting the day in Japanese companies, etc).

These morning stretching exercises also inspired some of the warm-up exercises used by modern martial arts.

In education, sport, pedagogy, many concepts were born from these meetings between Japan and the West, before giving birth to the »gendai budō« , with new roles for the teacher/student, self-development, martial valor/virtue, the role of competition and new ideas on training, fitness, thoughts on how to keep the core of japanese values while integrating ideas from contemporary sciences, etc.

India and its yoga, the old ancester for martial arts in Asia, influenced the modern martial arts too, with the work of Tempu Nakamura in 20th century Japan. He practiced a few Japanese martial arts as a kid and put them to use as a spy (during the Japan-Russia war), or Chiang Kai-shek‘s bodyguard, before turning businessman for a while, before deciding to use his money and connections to teach « Japanese yoga » and a few principles linked to relaxation, coordination of mind and body, harmony, art of joy.

Trained in India, after years of studying western medecine to try to heal the tuberculosis he caught during his spying career, he created « shin shin toitsu dou » or the Way of Mind and Body unification, in Japan, to share what he learnt and his insights on how to live peacefully.

His ideas were shared largely among teachers, martial artists and military men, from the 30s to the 60s – Some of the groups -without his ties to the military or the Black Dragon society- advocating the same ideas, were banned or repressed during the 20s and 30s, such as the Ōmoto-kyō sect (advocating old shinto ideas of peace for all), before blooming in post-war Japan.

There were continuous debates on the role of martial arts and peace. Practical consequences can be seen in Judo, where chokes (shimewaza) usage was reduced (new black belts had to be rendered unconscious at least once before obtaining their belt, according to martial arts historian and practitioner Henry Plee).

One of Tempu Nakamura’s disciples, Tohei Koichi, taught Aikido for many years as technical director, using his understanding of mind and body coordination (and principles, ki development exercises, ki tests) before starting Ki Aikido independantly.

Each of the « gendai budō » had multiple variations, with loans from other arts (in Aikido, some styles were created by disciples highly proficient in judo, or karate, or kendo, or yoga, or swedish calisthenics, … ).

The word « budō » was used by the Japanese government to showcase the teaching of multiple martial arts, as taught by the Nippon Budokan association. It stands for:

  • the gendai budō arts
  • sumō (相撲, meaning « to hit mutually » and originally « to struggle », this comes from a ritual match where you try to eject your opponent from the ground or a circle, using shoves, pushs, projections, hits),
  • shorinji kempo (Japanese version of shaolin kungfu),
  • naginata (long spear, most practiced today by women)
  • jukendō (bayonet fight, inspired by portuguese weapons imported in 17th century as well as french missions after the Meiji Restoration).

Introduced in the Western world 150 years ago, Japanese martial arts have transformed martial practice and inspired new local martial arts too (brasilian jiu-jitsu, russian sambo, krav maga, etc).

Their pedagogy, rank systems, teachers’ charisma and all the symbolism, at a time when some martial traditions were disappearing, enabled these arts to take on many new practitioners in the West.

And…at the same time, Japanese martial arts have been transformed by all the interactions with the westerners: in Aikido for example, Tohei Sensei dropped 30% of the techniques in the 50s and 60s, from the feedback he got from his time setting up Aikido clubs in Hawai and the USA.

In the 50s, many Japanese martial arts were introduced in Europe, especially in France and England. Some sensei would come to teach Judo, Karate, Aikido and their pedagogy, their martial arts, would evolve: new ranking system, color belts, techniques more in sync with western bodies, showcasing of techniques with the locals, …

It’s near London that Sensei Ken Williams started his Aikido career in the 50’s (after a career in Judo), under Sensei Abbe, who came to teach Japanese budo in England. Ken Williams was the first non-Japanese assistant of a Japanese sensei, and the youngest non-Japanese 3rd dan at that time, before becoming National Coach, in the British Aikido Council.

After years of developing Aikido in England and Wales, he went to Japan to meet and practice with Tohei Sensei. He founded the Ki Federation of Great Britain at the end of the 70’s and left Tohei Sensei to teach Ki Aikido with his own pedagogy, made for the western mind.

20 years later, some of his students created the « Association Française de Ki Aikido », which is hosting this website and welcoming you on our mats in Paris.

Please come and practice with us on the mats, it will be better than any other introduction !!