The Origins of Hand-to-Hand Combat in Japan

Hand-to-Hand Combat

When two or more people duel each other in a short range, They are more likely to fight with weapons like swords or daggers. In the absence of swords, some warriors use other Japanese weapons.

Many martial arts and techniques have developed in Japan which teach how handle a battle empty-handed. There are various fighting style that are being used with or without weapons in  what we called hand-to-hand combat.

Martial arts is a systematized training usually originating from a particular place. It usually involves a teacher or master training his or her students. Different parts of the world developed their own styles of fighting. Examples are boxing in the USA and Arnis in the Philippines. But, a majority of these countries gained inspiration from the martial arts of Asia and Japan in particular.

Today, we are going to explore some hand-to-hand combat fighting styles that were based in Japan throughout history and until today.

What are the fighting styles of Japan?

Martial arts in Japan often features hand-to-hand combat or closed fighting range. Some of those different types of martial arts have existed earlier than the acknowledgment of the Samurai. The art was first meant for people to fight and defend themselves. But after some years went by, people turned it into something deeper. Martial arts in Japan became a lifestyle, touching into a more spiritual subject and self discipline.

Once made for war, martial arts in the land of Japan became a normal part of everyday life. Hand-to-hand combat practiced in Japan include Sumo, Kenjutsu, Kendo, Karate and many more.


The national sport of Japan is unlike any other martial art men talk about. Usually, the ideal people meant for combat are athletic and fit. But in Sumo, it features the other way around. The fighters known as Sumotori or Rikishi are huge.

They feature their bodies which are out of shape and shows a lot of fats. They weigh around 300 pounds or more yet trained inside a Heya. A Heya is a room meant for training Sumo wrestlers.

Dohyo is the term for the ring where two Rikishi pushes and wrestle one another. Even though they push each other like they’re in bullfights, people still see it like ballet. Strong, yet still graceful.

This martial art originated from many years ago from religious rituals of Shinto. It once went by the name Sumai. Sumo then became an official sport during the Edo Period. It became a part of training for soldiers in the army.

Modern Japan recognizes these fighters as if they were celebrities. Although that’s the case, the Rikishi still practice old rituals to pay respect to the sport.


Karate is another martial art known by many in the world. But like many other practices and tradition, this art basics originated from China as well. Japan more of adapted one of China’s martial art which was Kung Fu. It was then passed along to Japan and then refined in the province of Okinawa.

Karate translates to “empty hands”. This meant that no weapons are in use. Karate features the individual to kick, punch and block with the use of their limbs.

Some teachers teach their students the art of body hardening. By attacking a padded board called a Makiwara, their bones harden. Of course, they must apply the correct striking form while conditioning their body.

Self-discipline is the primary theme of Karate. It takes a lot of practice for a single student to master the moves.  Around 50 million people not only from Japan but from all around the world, practice Karate.

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Jujutsu translates to “peaceful skill”. It is one of Japan’s oldest hand-to-hand fighting methods and even predated by Sumo. The martial art first emerged in the Sengoku Period.

The art of Jujutsu features empty-handed techniques and weapon-involved techniques. This martial art includes locks, throws, chokes, and submissions. Striking attacks were not effective on men who wore big armors. So to be able to be on par with them, they designed this fighting style.

Jujutsu also features counterattacking long weapons like swords. People who practiced this art focused on self-defense. They use this martial so they could only harm or restrain their opponent, not to take away one’s life.



Bojutsu translates as “the art of the staff”. Similar to Jujutsu, this martial art focuses on harming and not killing the enemy. Bojutsu kind of influenced Jujutsu, which is why the two are sometimes incorporated.

The police of the Edo Period adopted this fighting style. Fighting with this technique became a part of training troops back then. Bojutsu is the improvised technique if ever the user lost their bladed weapon.

Bojutsu features to thrust and swing like the staff is an “extension of one’s limbs”.  The art also involves slashing and stabbing, and also as a prop for hand-to-hand duels.


Kenjutsu is the martial arts of Japan that involves a sword. Hence, the name Kenjutsu means “the skill of the sword”.  This martial art emerged back around the 14th century.

The Katana sword has a long curved edge. Practitioners use this samurai sword in Kenjutsu training. During practice sometime they use the Bokken, a wooden version of the Katana. Yet, Kenjutsu doesn’t only associate itself with these two weapons and can be used along with Wakizashi and other bladed weapons.

For better understanding, this martial art is not one-style fighting. It is the general term used in any Japanese sword martial arts designed for killing.

The Samurai first adopted Kenjutsu and perfected it to evolve to its modern form. The art rose during the Edo period but fell during the Meiji Period. It’s a good thing that people passed down its story for centuries and preserved records of it. Currently, Kenjutsu is still practiced, as well as it’s descendant which is known as modern Kendo.


As mentioned above, Kenjutsu influenced Kendo fighting style. Yet many believed that it began with Sirozaemon Kunisato during the 18th century. But unlike Kenjutsu, Kendo relies on the philosophy of Zen.

They based this skill on the belief of having an empty mind known as Mushin. Mushin encourages the practitioner to bypass conscious thoughts and act on instincts.

Unlike Kenjutsu that encourages the use of Katana and Bokken, Kendo uses Shinai. Shinai is another wooden weapon, but the so-called sword looks more of a stick. Also in Kendo, they use heavy padding and helmets.

Kenjutsu is more restrictive and uses weapons that can cause quick bleeding. Meanwhile, in Kendo, it shows itself as a more open and light-hearted sword-fighting art. Kendo also focuses on learning and teaching philosophical lessons.

Today, sword practice has shot out to different styles and techniques. One of which is Iaido that focuses martial arts with the Katana alone. Sometimes, the Wakizashi will do, should no Katana be available.

Japan features plenty of martial arts that involves hand-to-hand combat. With this technique, throughout history, the Samurai were able to be on par with their enemies.

Japan’s history shows that despite what situation their men may be in, they always find a solution. The people from the past were creative and smart enough to figure out an exit door. This resulted in them coming out with techniques that are worth preserving for centuries.

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