Arts & Culture 
 Business 
 Environment 
 Government 
 Health 
 Human Rights 
 Military 
 Philosophy 
 Science 
 U.S. Asian Policy 


Home > East Asia > 

Martial arts and Japanese culture
Jigme Daniels
11/27/2005

Japanese martial arts, particularly those descended from classical-era ones, are a distinctive combination of art and science. Borne of hundreds of years of internecine warfare, there were (at conservative estimates) over 1000 different systems of combative technique, each with their own peculiarities. What survives of these are fascinating artifacts of the time and place of their development that offer modern students a unique opportunity to practice an ancient form.

According to a myth, the islands of Japan were formed by the two deities Izanagi and Izanami. They dipped their spear into the ocean, churned it, and created the first island, Onogoro, from the drops of salty water which fell from the spear. In those early myths, gods are described as partaking in ritual combat (wrestling, probably a very ancient forerunner to modern Sumo) and using weapons as tools for creation as well as destruction.

From 1200-1600, Japan was at war with herself, and large-scale armored combat flourished. Martial arts of this period all featured effective use of pole arms (spears, glaives and the like), some sword, and general rudimentary grappling. By the time of the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu moved into the final stage of unifying a large number of independent fiefs under a central, consolidated power. He established a new capital, Tokyoto (or Edo), and contrived ways to keep the local rulers unable to mount challenges to his authority.

As the relative peace and isolation of the Tokugawa era took hold (trade was shut-down with outside countries except through two very tightly controlled ports), the warrior class had less to do. Individuals began to develop combative skills that were less applicable to battlefield-use and more geared toward defending one's employer and duelling. Warriors traveled from province to province and challenged the best instructors; this was known as Musha Shugyo (warrior's austerities). If the shugyosha (person undergoing the training) lost, then he would become a student of the victor. Thus famous systems were modified to suit specific needs for this type of encounter. Arts also specialized in only a few weapons.

This was a contrast to the preceding warring-states period, where Bushi (martial experts) of higher class were expected to be familiar with everything from archery to dressage, and spears to dirks.

For the next two centuries, the role of the warrior caste changed, which was reflected in the arts that they practiced and taught. In the mid 1800's, Japan was reopened to the rest of the world. By the late 1800's many members of the recently-abolished Samurai class suddenly found themselves without stipends, so began teaching commoners (which was previously considered in poor taste). It bears mention that what was taught publicly was the Omote (outside, front-face) of an art; the Ura (rear, what is not immediately apparent) was still held in reserve for a select few.

While more comprehensive arts were still being taught, Kano Jigoro founded the Kodokan (house for study of the way) in 1882. Kano adapted the dangerous techniques of classical jujutsu into the sport of Judo (a kind of jacket wrestling). By doing so, Kano contributed a critical element of bringing obscure war arts to the general populace. Japanese combative disciplines were also taken abroad (U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was an active student of Judo).

In the late teens, the arts of Okinawa (tode, te or karate- originally meaning China hand, now empty hand) were imported to the main islands of Japan. These civilian boxing systems became popular in Okinawa in primary and secondary schools (as Judo had done in Japan). Note that karate is really outside of the purview of 'Japanese fighting disciplines', but has become strongly identified with Japan.

Other popular Japanese arts that emerged during the last century include Shorinji Kempo (founded by a Japanese monk who combined Chinese and Japanese methods), Aikido (based on classical jujutsu) and Kendo (way of the sword, based on classical swordsmanship; kendo has been in existence for 200 years but was standardized in the early 1900's). Though none of these arts have the depth or complexity of their forbears, they still manage to provide a glimpse into the ancient Japanese fighting arts and are accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.

Jigme Daniels has been training in traditional Japanese martial arts for over 20 years, and teaching for more than 10.

© Copyright 2002-2007 AFAR