Japanese Martial Arts
Take all that chop-socky stuff in the movies with a grain of salt: the Japanese martial arts are primarily about balance—mental, spiritual, and physical—and only incidentally about attack and self-defense.
Judo and karate are now as much icons of Japanese culture as anime or consumer electronics, and just as enthusiastically embraced abroad. Judo, karate, and aikido, all essentially 20th-century developments, have gone global; it would be hard to name a country anywhere without a network of dojos (martial arts academies or training halls) and local organizations, affiliates of the governing bodies in Japan, certifying students and holding competitions. Judo has been an Olympic sport for men since the 1964 games in Tokyo, and for women since 1988. An estimated 50 million people worldwide practice karate, in one or another of the eight different forms recognized by the World Union of Karate-do Federations. Aikido was first introduced abroad in the 1950s; the International Aikido Federation now has affiliates in 44 member nations. Korea and Taiwan have instruction programs in kendo (fencing) that begin at the secondary school level.
Levels of certification are as much a part of the martial arts as they are in traditional disciplines like flower arranging or Japanese chess—the difference being that marks of rank are clearly visible. Students progress from the 10th kyu level to the 1st, and then from 1st dan to 8th (or 10th, depending on the system or school). Beginners wear white belts, intermediates wear brown, dan holders wear black or black-and-red.
Kyudo: The Way of the Bow
Archery is the oldest of Japan's traditional martial arts, dating from the 12th century, when archers played an important role in the struggles for power among samurai clans. Today it is practiced as a sport and a spiritual discipline. The object is not just to hit the target (no mean feat), but to do so in proper form, releasing the arrow at the moment the mind is empty of all extraneous thought.
Kendo: The Way of the Sword
Fencing was a mainstay of feudal Japan, but the roots of modern kendo date to the early 18th century, with the introduction of the shinai—a practice sword made of bamboo slats—and the distinctive armor (bogu) still in use to protect the specific target areas the fencer must strike to earn points in competition. Matches are noisy affairs; attacks must be executed with foot stamping and loud spirited shouts called kiai.
Judo: The Gentle Way
Dr. Kano Jigoro (1860–1938) was the proverbial 90-pound weakling as a teenager; to overcome his frailty, he immersed himself at the University of Tokyo in the martial arts, and over a period of years developed a reformed version of jujutsu on "scientific principles," which he finally codified in 1884. Theju of judo means "softness" or "gentleness"—a reference to its techniques of using one's opponent's strength against him—but belying the fact that this really is a rough-and-tumble contact sport.
Karate: The Empty Hand
Odd as it may sound, karate (literally: "the empty hand") doesn't quite qualify as a traditional Japanese martial art. Its origins are Chinese, but it was largely developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa before it was annexed), and didn't come to Japan proper until 1922. It lays stress on self-defense, spiritual and mental balance, andkata—formal, almost ritual sequences of movement. But it is as much about offense as defense: most of the movements end in a punch, a kick, or a strike with the knee or elbow.
Aikido: The Way of Harmony
The youngest of the Japanese martial arts was developed in the 1920s by Ueshiba Morihei (1883-1969), incorporating elements of both jujutsu and kendo, with much bigger doses of philosophy and spirituality. Aikido techniques consist largely of throws; the first thing a student learns is how to fall safely. Partner practice begins with a stylized strike or a punch; the intended receiver counters by getting out of the way, leading the attacker's momentum, pivoting into a throw or an arm/shoulder pin. The essential idea is to do no damage.
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