A History of Japanese Martial Arts

OKINAWA KARATE2

It goes without saying that martial arts had military origins. Many of the styles, techniques and philosophies associated with Japanese martial arts are hangovers from the days of the samurai and the rigid caste system of feudal Japan.
When in English we say ‘Japanese martial arts’ we are being a little too broad as in Japanese there are actually three words for martial arts: budo, bujutsu, bugei. Budo, related to the word bushido, essentially refers to a martial way. Bujutsu is what we might call in the West military science, with an emphasis on technique. And lastly bugei refers to the actually martial art. These three terms all have very different connotations in Japan and have a rich and diverse history with specific focuses. In the West it’s more common to pay attention to the physical element, in effect the fighting aspect of martial arts, but in Japan there are also cultural, ritual, and in some cases even religious associations with martial arts (in the same that in yoga was born of Hindu religious practices).
During the days of the caste system in Japan and throughout all of the samurai period(s) within Japanese history certain weapons were exclusive to certain castes within Japanese society. Owing partly to the fact that Japan is a series of islands, much of Japanese history was focus on being inward-looking, as can be the case with island nations. This meant that Japanese warfare evolved at a slower pace than much of the rest of the world. It’s often believed that this allowed for greater study of instruments or war and allowed for the culture to perfect the various tools used in fighting.
In the early samurai period the bow and spear were the most common used weapons in combat because of large-scale battles that took place all over what was then small, independent kingdoms. Martial arts from that time valued highly proficiency in those disciplines. Over time, when battles were mostly a thing of the past and when duals became more prominent the sword became the favoured weapon of the samurai and the study of swordsmanship became the highest martial art for the samurai.
Now, of course, the martial arts are used more as a means of keeping in shape than they are for preparation for war. That’s not to say that they have lost their competitive spirit. There are a great many (non-military) event in which practitioners come together in order to best one another. A quick look at best sportsbooks sites will also show how many people are willing to put money on those events.
We can be thankful that martial arts are no longer seen as violent training for deadly conflict, but rather we can embrace these as part of our shared history as humans and learn from the philosophies and beliefs that developed, alongside martial arts, in more violent times of our history.