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Although the popular imagination tends to focus on judo, karate and perhaps sumo as Japan’s key martial arts, the country is home to a staggering variety of these ritualized combat skills. Developed for the battlefield over the centuries by samurai and ninja, these days, Japanese martial arts – known by the umbrella term bujutsu, or “martial way” – have been refined into variations on art and sport that have spread around the world.

Japanese martial arts began as life-or-death skills, employed in battle, and most warriors were expected to have mastered many skills, including kenjutsu (swordsmanship), kyudo (archery) or even just basic survival skills such as swimming, climbing, wrestling…anything one might need to live to fight another day. (Sumo is covered in a separate blog post.)

But with the relative peace of the nearly three centuries of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868), during which the country was cut off from the outside world and united under one ruler, with internecine war largely a thing of the past, many of the martial skills developed as “arts” rather than survival skills. With the Meiji Restoration’s modernization of the country (and the military), other martial arts arose that had never been explicitly studied during times or war. These more modern arts became known as Gendai budo, literally “modern martial arts.” These arts are concerned less with self-defense or use in battle than they are forms of self-improvement and competition. These were distinguished from Ko Budo arts, which were modern evolutions of older skills (archery, swordsmanship) that were once used in war.

There are dozens of forms of bujutsu, but here are six that were considered essential and have been developed over the centuries (including quite recently) into highly stylized and codified arts:

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Kenjutsu, or swordsmanship, can be said to be the quintessential martial art, since swords are one of the oldest and most essential weapons of war, particularly in close quarters. Battle during the Tokugawa Shogunate was often fought less by massed armies (who were as more likely to use archers). To this day, there are many modern martial artists who consider kenjutsu to be paramount, as it is the martial art most closely associated with that romantic national figure, the samurai.

Kendo is the modernized version of kenjutsu, using bamboo “swords” and armors made of metal, bamboo, leather, and fabric so that competitors are able to use full force without hurting – that is to say, killing – their adversaries.

Kyudo, or archery, is still considered a crucial martial art, as it was across all cultures and epochs of world history, from the Trojan War to the Roman Empire to the wars of conquest in the Americas two thousand years later. But as firearms became the dominant long distance weapons starting in the 16th century, the samurai’s “art of the bow,” or kyujutsu, became the basis for a martial art, kyudo, that has increasingly become associated with contemplative practices. The “Zen archer” is by now a familiar figure.

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Karate, literally “the way of the hand,” is an almost balletic martial art that originated in Okinawa and only came to Honshu 100 years ago. Its quick moves of hand and foot, from a standing position, were quickly incorporated into the regimens of public education in the 1920s.

Jujutsu is another grappling art, distinguished by locking one’s opponents joints and throwing him. Judo, developed from jujutsu in the early 20th century, is perhaps the best-known of the Gendai budo arts, so it is ironic that the word translates as the very un-martial phrase, “the gentle way,” or “way of softness.” As its name implies, this is a form of physical challenge that is about self-improvement; it is also thus-named because of the technique of yielding to force in order to manipulate that force to one’s own ends.

Aikido, literally “the way to harmony with ki,” is one of the Gendai budo arts that are practiced without any weapons at all. Like judo, aikido focuses on mental and spiritual preparation, and on learning how to use one’s opponent’s movement and energy to literally throw him off.

Regardless of their differences of form, all of these arts combine “hard” (goho) and “soft” (juho) approaches, depending on the need of the moment. “Hard” thrusts, blocks and other applications of force against force, alternate with “soft” skills of yielding and redirecting force.

Taken together, this balance of soft and hard approaches corresponds with the larger Chinese concept of yin and yang (in Japanese, in and yo), as combatants learn to vary their technique depending on what their opponent is doing. Thus, most distinctions of “hard-style” or “soft-style” techniques are purely conceptual; the best martial artist will understand both himself and his opponent on instinctive, even spiritual levels.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON