The historical origin of Japanese martial arts can be found in the warrior traditions of the samurai and the caste system that restricted the use of weapons by members of the non-warrior classes.

Originally, samurai were expected to be proficient in many weapons, as well as unarmed combat, and attain the highest possible mastery of combat skills, for the purpose of glorifying either themselves or their lord. Over time, this purpose gave way to a philosophy of achieving spiritual goals by striving to perfect skill in martial arts disciplines.

Sumo

In this famous Japanese sport, two wrestlers called rikishi compete in a circular ring. The sport is surrounded by ceremony and ritual, deriving from the Shinto religion, such as the use of salt to purify the ring.

Rules

The winner of a sumo bout is mainly determined in two ways. A wrestler loses if he touches the ground with any part of his body other than the soles of his feet, or if he is pushed out of the ring.
After the winner is declared, an off-stage referee (gyoji) determines the winning technique used in the bout, which is then announced to the audience.

The wrestlers themselves are renowned for their great size, as body weight is often a winning factor in sumo, though with skill, smaller wrestlers can topple far larger opponents.

The ring (dohyō)

This is made of a mixture of clay with sand spread over the top. It is between 34 and 60 cm high. It is removed after each sumo tournament. Women are not allowed to enter or touch the sumo wrestling ring, as this is traditionally seen as violating the purity of the dohyō.

The ring is 4.55 meters in diameter and bordered by rice-straw bales, which are buried in the clay. A wrestler may use these to gain leverage in order to push back against the opponent who is trying to force him out.

At the centre are two white lines, behind which the wrestlers must position themselves at the start of the bout. Around the ring is finely brushed sand, which can be used to determine if any part of a wrestler’s body has made contact with the ground outside the ring.

Each match is preceded by elaborate ceremony and rituals. On mounting the dohyō the wrestler performs a number of ritual moves involving leg stomps and clapping whilst facing out towards the audience. He also cleans his mouth out with chikara-mizu (literal translation: power water). He then throws some salt into the ring to purify it. The wrestlers perform another brief ritual when facing each other and then adopt a crouch position to “charge” at each other. The wrestlers do not necessarily charge on the first occasion but can instead stare and return to their corner. Matches often last only a few seconds, as usually one wrestler is quickly pushed out of the circle or thrown to the ground. However they can occasionally last for several minutes.

Professional sumo tournaments

There are six Grand Sumo tournaments (or honbasho) each year:

  • 13–17 Jan, Tokyo
  • 10–24 Mar, Osaka
  • 12–26 May, Tokyo
  • 7–21 Jul, Nagoya
  • 15–29 Sept, Tokyo
  • 10–24 Nov, Fukuoka

Each tournament begins on a Sunday and runs for 15 days.

Judo

Literally meaning “gentle way“, judo is a modern Japanese martial art and combat sport that originated in the late nineteenth century, but is now popular worldwide. Its most prominent form is in competition, where the object is to throw one’s opponent to the ground, immobilize or force a submission by joint locking the elbow or applying a choke.

The softness () element on the sport is characterized by the indirect application of force, or rather the principle of using an opponent’s strength against him. For example, side-stepping and letting the opponent’s momentum to throw him forwards.

Rules

The object in a judo match is to either throw the opponent to the ground on his back, to pin him to the ground on his back, or to force him to submit using a choke or an armlock. Any of these score “ippon” (one point), immediately winning the match. When throwing, anything besides landing the opponent full on his back, such as landing on the hip or shoulder, will score waza-ari (a near-fall), yuko, koka, or no score. On the typical electronic scoreboard, yuko scores 010 and koka scores 001. In the event that the match a draw, the contest is resolved by the Golden Score rule: this is a “sudden death” situation where the first contestant to achieve any score wins.

Judo’s balance between both the standing and ground phases of combat gives practitioners of judo (judoka) the ability to take down opponents who are standing up and then pin them to the ground. This balanced theory of combat has made Judo a popular choice of martial art or combat sport.

JTB UK can arrange trips to Japan for groups such as Judo clubs, tailor-made to specific requirements and budget.

Karate

This martial art, originally developed for self-defence, primarily involves striking: punching, kicking, knee/elbow strikes and open handed techniques. Grappling, joint manipulations, locks, restraints/traps, throws and vital point striking are also used.

Kokoro (attitude, heart or character) is a concept used in karate and shared by other Japanese martial arts. In keeping with the importance given in modern karate to dō (the way or path, spiritual rather than physical), there is a great emphasis on improving oneself. As the skill of karate is for self-defence, it is often considered that not injuring one’s opponent is the highest expression of the art.

Karate competition can be in three disciplines: sparring (kumite), forms kata (empty handed forms), or kobudō kata (weapons forms). Competitors may enter either as individuals or as part of a team. Evaluation for kata and kobudō are done by a panel of judges; sparring is judged by a head referee, usually with assistant referees at the side of the sparring area. Sparring matches are often divided by weight, age, gender, and experience.

Karate does not have Olympic status, although it received more than 50% of the votes to become an official Olympic sport; 75% of the votes are required. The World Karate Federation (WKF) is the recognized International Sport Federation by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for karate. Each country organizes their own karate championships following WKF rules.

JTB UK can arrange trips to Japan for groups such as Karate clubs, tailor-made to specific requirements and budget.

Kendo

Kendō, or the “way of the sword“, is the martial art of Japanese fencing. Kendo developed from traditional techniques of Japanese swordsmanship known as kenjutsu.

From Kenjutsu developed Kendo, using the bamboo sword (‘shinai’) to replace the metal sword, and thus allowing the free practice of swordsmanship. The shinai is made of four splints of bamboo held together at one end, with a tubular leather handle slid over the splints and a leather cup at the other end. The shinai weighs around 500 grams, and various basic cuts and thrusts are made repeatedly to build up speed and stamina.

To focus concentration and to aid correct breathing, a shout, or ‘kiai’, is made on the completion of each strike. When practising Kendo, padded armour (traditionally made of bamboo and cotton) is worn over the customary dress of the samurai. To score, a good cut must be delivered to well-defined targets (the top of the head, right wrist and the breastplate) using the upper third of the shinai. Thrusts to the throat may be made with the point of the shinai. All the targets are well protected by the armour.

First impressions of Kendo are of a noisy, aggressive and violent full-contact martial art. Kendo is certainly dynamic, but there is a high level of skill and concentration, and a dance-like grace and physical agility. Students are from all walks of life and of any age, and women train on equal terms with men.