Japanese martial arts are more straight line fighting styles, than the circular techniques of their Chinese cousins. Commonly call karate by those of us in the West, Japanese arts range from empty hand martial systems to joint locking and throwing systems to styles devoted entirely to weapons’ practice.
The art of karate (kara-te), which means empty hand, is commonly believed to have come to Japan from the island of Okinawa, where fighting with weapons was banned for many years. Ancient Okinawan traders visited China’s Fukien Province and brought back the martial techniques of China’s southern Shaolin temple. The Okinawans developed such an effective self-defense system that many Japanese masters wanted it as their own. It was brought to the Japanese mainland in 1922 and eventually became the best known Japanese martial art. The karate arts of the All-Japan Karate Association – Go-ju, wado and Shito ryus – are among the best known karate systems
Before karate became well known in Japan, the most popular Japanese martial arts were ken-jitsu and ju jitsu. Kendo means the way of the sword, with origins in Japan’s samurai culture and swordsmanship. It covers not only kendo, where heavily protected fighters spar offensively with wooden swords, but also ia-do, defensive sword drawing and cutting from scabbard to the first cut. Japan is famous among Asian martial arts for the skill of its ancient wordsmiths, who forged the finest blades in the Orient.
Ju jitsu is a martial art based on joint locks and throwing techniques that disarm and control an attacker. From the martial art of ju jitsu came the martial sport judo. Judo was first developed in the early 1900s as the competition form of ju jitsu. Judo is mainly a throwing art, similar to swai zhou (Chinese wrestling). An even more recent offshoot of ju jitsu is aikido, a martial art that uses the opponents’ own movements and energy as weapons against them.
One of the most mysterious arts of feudal Japan was ninjutsu, Japan’s early day espionage system. Cloaked in secrecy, the original ninjitsu practitioners were the terrorists of their era. They were families of spies and assassins hired by Japanese warlords to infiltrate and terrorize enemies. Today, ninjutsu is practiced in a far more harmless fashion, minus the deadly overtones that characterized the original ninja warriors.
There are Japanese martial arts that teach archery and special long weapons, such as the naginata, a long handled knife made famous as a women warriors’ weapon. All Japanese martial arts have their roots in the principles of bushido, the way of the warrior.
Japanese martial arts are seeped in tradition and discipline to one’s teacher and to the art itself. Along the same lines, an instructor is obligated to also have a responsibility to the student. The result is an close family-like association between instructor, student and martial art – bushido.