Traditional Japanese Sports to Watch and Experience in Olympic year

Traditional Japanese sports, particularly martial arts, are an integral part of Japanese culture. People all across the world practice well-known arts such as jujutsu, and lesser known arts such as iaido. Sumo, the national sport of Japan, is wholly unique to Japan and receives a lot of attention every year during tournaments. When visiting Tokyo for the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, you can watch karate or judo, or explore and learn more about the martial art that interests you the most.

BY Richard Milner

Japan has a long, rich history of very distinct sports, particularly martial arts. Known as budo, martial arts involve intense training and repeated practice of specific techniques. Budo always contains some ranking system and method of testing. Some pit person against person, as in judo, while others are more for demonstration purposes, such as iaido. Many arts have spread overseas and found practitioners across the globe, developing into differing schools and styles, such as jujutsu and karate. Other arts such as kyudo (archery) are rarely found outside of Japan.

Most core martial arts developed during Japan’s feudal time, specifically the Edo era (1603 – 1868) or earlier. They developed as methods of combat with swords, unarmed combat, and sometimes bows. Every modern martial art and traditional Japanese sport reflects this heritage. Newer arts, such as aikido or judo, modify original philosophies in some way, which changes techniques and methodologies.

Practitioners of martial arts are often referred to by the -ka suffix attached to the name of an art (kyudoka for kyudo, aikidoka for aikido, etc.). Some of the most advanced practitioners will be competing in the karate and judo events in the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. So come to Tokyo, explore the city, catch some of your favorite events, and learn more about one of Japan’s most essential pieces of culture.




A karate student demonstrates forms for her teacher

Karate is easily one of the most well-known Japanese martial arts, no small thanks in part due to its popularizing in Western media. Karate’s origins most likely stem from Chinese Kung Fu, which spread to mainland Japan through the Ryukyu Kingdom (modern day Okinawa) in the late 1800s. Modern karate was more or less established by Gichin Funakoshi in the early 20th century, who developed an official ranking system. From the 1930s through the 1960s, karate spread to North America and Europe, and continues to spread even to this day.

Karate practice is separated into kata (forms) and kumite (sparring). Typically, new students practice basic body movements (kihon) in preparation for practicing kata, which are groups of sequenced offensive and defensive motions. Students who learn kata implement their routines in sparring practices (kumite), which have a wide variety of difficulties and types (pre-structured, freestyle, full contact, etc.). Even though karate involves sparring, and is practiced as an Olympic Sport, its philosophy (much like other forms of budo) is inherently non-competitive. It focuses on clearing the mind and maintaining an awareness of the body and one’s surroundings.

Karate is one of the 5 sports scheduled to appear only at the Tokyo 2020. The karate venue is the Nippon Budokan, considered the spiritual heart of budo, near Kudanshita Station. People who attend the event can use the opportunity to explore the surrounding area, nearby parks, and restaurants and do some souvenir shopping. If you leave such an event feeling inspired to try karate, be prepared for the type of dedicated, regular practice necessary to learn and progress. If you wish to become a black belt, or shodan, be prepared for years of training.


Jujutsu is a method of unarmed combat involving pins, joint locks, throws, chokes, and whatever else is necessary, to teach practitioners how to defend against weapons and unarmed attacks. It’s considered the parent martial art of numerous other global arts, including judo, Brazilian jujutsu, hapkido, aikido, sambo, and various types of wrestling. The term “jujutsu” is meant to encompass a variety of tactics that form a kind of hybrid martial arts reliant on body dynamics and redirected attacks.

Jujutsu has origins in Japan’s feudal era, and derived from a need for samurai to defend themselves if disarmed. Strikes against armor proved ineffective, and over time jujutsu developed as a standardized form of budo. Even within Japan, there are dozens of different schools of jujutsu, each which share a core principle of discipline and self-improvement true for all budo. Shodan in jujutsu are given hakama, a kind of traditional Japanese pants. Depending on the school or style, students may also receive differently colored belts as they progress.



A judo pin about to happen during a match

Evolved from jujutsu, judo is a fairly modern competitive sport developed during the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912). It focuses on pins, joint locks, and throws, similar to jujutsu and aikido, except that neither competitor is an “attacker” or “defender.” Both sides are unarmed, and both sides attempt to take each other down, similar to wrestling. However, judo adheres to similar kinesthetic principles of its cousin arts, such as evading attacks rather than resisting them, and using opponent’s movements to throw them off-balance.

Judo has become a popular sport worldwide, to the point of being featured in numerous professional competitions. Judo has been an Olympic event since 1964, and in 2020 competitions will be held in the Nippon Budokan. Be sure to check out a match or two, at the very least, while exploring Tokyo this summer.



An aikido student takes a fall during practice

Aikido is one of the newest Japanese martial arts, developed in post-World War II Japan by its founder, Morihei Ueshiba. Ueshiba was a soldier during the war, and through that experience took his practice of jujutsu and developed it into aikido and energy (ki). Aikido is unique among martial arts because its forms contain no techniques meant to harm an attacker (although advanced practitioners can build feints into such techniques). Similar to jujutsu, aikido relies on throws, pins, and joint locks that utilize the momentum and energy of an attacker to subdue them. Many of aikido’s forms are also derived from sword-against-sword combat, hence the term tegatana (hand blade) used by practitioners to teach how to shape one’s techniques.

Aikido, much like Japan’s other martial arts, has spread across the world and is now practiced in many countries. Like other martial arts, it takes the form of the culture it’s practiced within, and can differ greatly from place to place. Aikido has ranks, but no belts, and shodan are conferred by hakama, like jujutsu.



A kendo practice session between students

Kendo is a form of kenjutsu, or swordsmanship, that developed from sword techniques formalized during Japan’s Warring States era (1467 – 1603) and Edo era (1603 – 1868). Kendo, similar to other budo, focuses on embodying the discipline and mindfulness of its art form. Practitioners do not use actual swords, but rather use wooden swords called shinai. They also wear protective body gear and face masks.

Kendo is practiced in pairs, hence the protective gear, and uses a point system against specific body parts to determine who wins a contest. Only specific sword strikes are allowed, and combatants must follow guidelines to not only score valid points, but avoid injuring opponents (jabs to the throat, for instance, are not allowed). In Japan, kendo is one of the compulsory subjects in junior high school .



Iaido practitioners draw their swords

Like kendo, iaido is a form of kenjutsu, but differs dramatically. Most importantly, it involves the usage of actual, albeit blunt, swords. Each technique incorporates unsheathing, attacking, removing blood, and re-sheathing in a highly stylized fashion. Even though practitioners employ techniques meant to simulate combat, the purpose of the art is to confer a sense of duty and samurai spirit. Movements are supposed to exemplify fluidity and precision.

Specific Japanese sword techniques can be dated back at least to the 1500s, although the modern, systematized art form of iaido originated in the 1920s. Because iaido involves the usage of actual weapons, there are no opponents to practice against. Practitioners usually showcase their abilities in demonstration-style formats.



A kyudoka takes aim against straw targets

Kyudo is a unique entry in this list because it is not a person-on-person martial art all, but rather the practice of traditional Japanese archery. During the Edo period, samurai were renowned for their archery abilities, including those who shot arrows while on horseback (yabusame). The very particular method of holding a bow higher than the head, and using a thin longbow (yumi), makes Japanese archery stand out amongst historical peers. Kyudo stayed in fashion during Japan’s feudal years because the range, accuracy, and firing speed of bows outclassed the firearms of the time.

In order to strike targets correctly, there must be a sense of emptiness in the mind, and a lack of distance between yourself and the target. These precepts, similar to other forms of budo, resemble tenets of Zen Buddhism.




Two sumo wrestlers test their skill and strength against each other

Sumo is the national sport of Japan and completely unique to the nation. Sumo is basically a form of wrestling where two opponents attempt to push each other out of a ring. It’s a highly ritualistic sport, with an extremely limited number of professional athletes. These athletes are known for not only their enormous size, but subjecting themselves so extremely intense training regiments and diets.

Sumo is conducted in tournaments according to divisions and a ranking hierarchy (banzuke), much like other professional sports. Tournaments take place at specific times of the year, and tickets are more expensive than the other sports and difficult to get. Nagoya hosts a tournament during summertime, in July, so if you’re heading out of Tokyo during the Olympics, you just might have a chance to catch a match.

In Tokyo one of the main venues for sumo tournaments is Ryogoku Kokugikan in Taito-ku. The original building was erected in 1909 in response to growing interest in sumo through the Meiji era, and the current building has been in use since 1985. Even if you can’t attend a match during your stay, you can visit nearby museums, eat at sumo-themed restaurants, and maybe even catch sight of a sumo wrestler walking down the street.

Richard Milner
USA Resident of Japan for over 5 years. Lived in Nagoya, Sendai, and Tokyo.

I am a writer, teacher, and speaker currently working and living in Tokyo. I have an MA in Digital Creative Media and a BA in Psychology, and I have worked as a narrative designer in the video game industry and also as a mental health care professional in New York. In my spare time I love to travel, read, and practice yoga.

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