Japanese Martial Arts: How Were They Invented (and Exported)?

The creation and diffusion of Japanese martial arts, from Judo to Karate, are tied to Japan’s late-nineteenth-century modernization, as opposed to “ancient” martial traditions.

Mar 24, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology
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The Meiji Restoration of 1868 swept through Japan, giving rise to rapid industrialization, far-reaching reforms, and the obliteration of traditional lifeworlds. Though the culture of the samurai was effectively destroyed, the old samurai combat techniques, known as Jiujutsu, gained new relevance in modernizing Japan and were adapted for self-defense, fitness, and sport. Today’s most popular Japanese martial arts — Judo and Karate — as well as Korean Taekwondo and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu are far from “ancient” martial traditions. Rather they are rooted in the late nineteenth-century modernization of Japan.

The Modernization of Japan and the Invention of Martial Arts 

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Emperor Meiji and his consort in the Plum Garden, by Kobayashi Kiyochika,1887, note the Emperor is in Western-style military dress, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The long nineteenth century (1776-1914) witnessed a tidal wave of national emulation and a stealthy Europeanization of the world. Against this backdrop, the Edo Period (1603-1867) of Japanese history came to an end; 1868 was the year that the Tokugawa Shogunate was swept away by a coup d’etat, the last Shogun was deposed, and the new Meiji Emperor was installed as the ruler of Imperial Japan.


The Meiji Restoration was an era of great change. Plans for the rapid development of heavy industry were issued. Widespread administrative and political reforms were implemented. Traditional lifeworlds — such as the martial way of life of the samurai —  were effectively destroyed.


Consequently, the entire samurai class was gradually abolished and integrated into the professional, military and business classes. Nevertheless, their expertise in combat found new avenues for expression. This meant that the old samurai military arts of fighting without weapons — collectively known as Jiujutsu — became obsolete. Yet amid the modernization of Japanese society, these techniques were recognized as valuable systems of physical training and adapted accordingly for self-defense, sport, and recreational practice.


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Judo demonstration to the International Olympic Committee, 1935, Tokyo, Japan, Source: Wikimedia Commons


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On the one hand, enterprising young Japanese men, intoxicated by modernity but enchanted by the lost culture of the samurai, sought to express Japanese culture through the invention of martial arts. On the other hand, as Japan was tasked with the creation of a combat-ready national army, the training regimen set in motion by French military missions to Japan between 1867 and 1919 was bolstered and enriched through the incorporation of Karate and Judo techniques.


Karate and Judo’s global diffusion led to their somewhat spurious adaptation as “ancient” martial traditions in the form of Korean Taekwondo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In both cases, nationalist aspirations triggered the cultivation of physical culture in the form of martial arts. However, in a similar way to Japan, the invention of the “ancient” martial arts like Taekwondo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu nonetheless occurred within a distinctly modern framework.


Jigoro Kano’s Scientific Judo

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Jigoro Kano, Founder of Kodokan Judo, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Jigoro Kano (1860-1938) was born in the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate into a wealthy sake-brewing family of the (former samurai) shizoku class in modern-day Kobe, Japan. The revolutionary outcomes of the Meiji restoration offered him great opportunities. Though he experienced strict discipline in the traditional samurai style at home, he also received a fine and varied education, in line with the times for a boy of his class.


Kano’s initial encounter with martial arts came in the wake of a personal experience of severe bullying while at the prestigious Ikuei Gijuku school in Tokyo. The shame of failing to defend himself led to a keen interest in the jujutsu techniques of the samurai.


This early interest escalated rapidly during his studies at Tokyo University. In Tokyo, Kano trained with various jujutsu masters, before ultimately blending elements of his approach to philosophy — a spiritual-physical development — into a new kinetic-educational method: “Jū-Dō” (the gentle way).


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Jigoro Kano (left) and Kyuzo Mifune (right) practice Judo at the Kodokan, Tokyo, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Western scientific thinking Kano encountered at university left a strong impression on him. His Judo emphasized techniques based on a scientific, biomechanical understanding of the human body. He introduced a modern teaching syllabus and graded belt structure and placed emphasis on randoori (free sparing) as opposed to the traditional study of Kata (forms).


Accordingly, the classical jujutsu principle of “defeating strength through flexibility” was transformed into a new technical and theoretical system based on “maximum efficient use of energy.” Above all, Kano aspired to make Judo an education of the body and the mind, as well as an aesthetic pursuit.


Following the conclusion of his studies Kano opened the Kodokan (“place to teach the path”) in Tokyo in 1882. In his professional life, he went on to become his country’s most important educator and a seminal figure in the modernization of Japan. Judo was the first Japanese martial art to gain widespread international recognition, and the first to become an official Olympic sport, in 1964.


The Birth of Karate

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Karate training in front of Shuri Castle, Okinawa, Source: Wikimedia Commons


As the Meiji Restoration continued to reshape the culture of martial arts in Japan the martial arts that originated on the island of Okinawa also began a process of metamorphosis. In Okinawa, the modernizing unifying thrust of the Japanese state left an indelible mark on Ankō Itosu (1831-1915), an educated man of noble birth who is considered by most to be the father of modern Karate.


During his early twenties, Itosu began his journey as a martial artist. Under the instruction of master “Bushi” Matsumura (1809-1901), he studied the art of Tōde (lit. Tang Dynasty Hand, a reference to Chinese martial arts). His training later extended to encompass other Okinawan styles, making him the first (known) master to have learned the arts later named Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te.


Itosu worked to fuse the various Okinawan combat styles that would later become Karate. And above all, created the basic Katas (forms) of Karate called pinnans (the quiet way). However, in conjunction with Ankō Itosu a second pivotal figure in the story of modern Karate emerged: a young student of Itosu named Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957).


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Masters of Karate, Tokyo, 1930s, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Funakoshi’s contributions to the evolution of Karate are manifold. Firstly, he introduced Karate to mainland Japan, through a demonstration of Kata and the philosophical and transcendental elements of Karate at the Kodokan in 1922, at the invitation of Jigoro Kano. Secondly, Funakoshi modified Itosu’s teachings into his famous five maxims to transform the essence of Karate-do, from a way of martial combat to encompass values of respect, sincerity, and refinement of character. He further introduced the “Twenty Principles” of Karate-do (Shotokan Niju Kun), to augment the ethical dimension of Karate.


The third aspect of Funakoshi’s legacy came in 1949 when he established the Japan Karate Association (JKA), bringing university clubs and schools under one umbrella, all aligned with his teachings.  As of today, the Shotokan style created by Funakoshi is the most widely practised form of Japanese Karate in the world.


Taekwondo: from Japan to Korea 

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General Choi Hong-Hi “principal founder” of Taekwon-do, Source: Wikimedia Commons


While official histories of Taekwondo delineate the formation of an indigenous martial art with a direct lineage to the ancient Korean art of Taekkyon, the actual history of Taekwondo reveals a more surprising reality. Taekwondo is less connected with Korea’s martial heritage and more closely linked to Japanese Karate.


The official account of Taekwondo’s origins revolves around Choi Hong-Hi, a Korean War veteran, South Korean military General, and later defector to North Korea.


Born in 1918 in Hwa Dae (now North Korea) during the “dark period” of Korean occupation by Japan (1910-1945), Choi made his way into the South Korean military and served as an officer during the Korean War (1950-1955).


By his own account, he taught his fellow soldiers how to fight in a style that mixed Taekkyon with elements of Shotokan Karate that he had learned during his time living in Japan. Following the war, Choi is reputed to have continued refining and promoting his martial system and in 1955, he officially named it “Taekwon-do.” Nevertheless, the martial techniques that gradually evolved into modern Taekwondo bear no real resemblance to Taekkyon.


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Painting of Taekkyon players, by Hyesan Yu Suk, 1846, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Instead, following the Korean War, Korean Karateka who had previously lived in Japan returned home to open their own training schools. The majority of these martial artists proudly highlighted their lineage and used Korean translations of Karate (gongsu / dangsu) to describe their art. In contrast, Choi was almost alone in asserting a background that was anything other than Japanese to what he was teaching.


As Ugo Moening (2013) puts it aptly, the “Taekwondo” that was practiced in the 1950s and 1960s in Korea was no different in its technical content from the Karate being practiced in Japan (from where it originated). Even so, in contemporary times, Taekwondo’s emphasis on dynamic footwork, powerful strikes, and pragmatic, self-defense techniques has proven popular among millions of practitioners across the world. It became an Olympic sport at the 2000 Sydney Games. Choi, regardless of the accuracy of his claims, has maintained significant stature in his capacity as the “principal founder” of the art.


From Judo in Brazil to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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Judo Journal: an article on Maeda and the origins of Gracie/Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In the case of Taekwondo, the introduction of Japanese Karate to Korea was pivotal. A similar trajectory occurred when Mitsuyo Maeda, a Japanese student of Jigoro Kano, brought Judo to Brazil. Yet somewhere along the way, came a significant twist. Under the tutelage of a prominent Brazilian family — the Gracies — and closely aligned with the fortunes of the proto-fascist Brazilian Integralist movement, the Judo that arrived in Brazil became Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).


Around 1917 — so the story goes — a young man named Carlos Gracie bore witness to a Judo demonstration by Maeda (under the name “Count Koma”) at Belém’s Theatro De Paz. Enthralled by the enigmatic Judoka’s prowess, Carlos is said to have promptly signed up to learn directly from Maeda, and quickly become his most prized student.


By 1925 Carlos took the step of founding the first school of “Gracie” Jiu-Jitsu in Rio de Janeiro. Yet, it was his younger brother Helio who would eventually become celebrated as the founder of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. According to Gracie legend, it was Helio who “transformed” and improved “Jiu-Jitsu” by introducing “leverage” to make it more efficient. Yet the intriguing question of precisely how Helio transformed Maeda’s Judo into BJJ persists.


The straightforward answer, surprisingly, is that he did not. The “Jiu-Jitsu” that the Gracies encountered was Judo. Thus if anything, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is more accurately, Brazilian Judo.


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The founder of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Helio Gracie, 1952, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Nevertheless, the Gracie family set off on a remarkable journey of their own. Helio and Carlos henceforth became famous for their open invitation Gracie Challenge matches to other martial artists in order to prove the supremacy of their Jiu-jitsu. These matches greatly enhanced Gracies’ reputation. They also helped inaugurate the founding myth of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: that through the mastery of force, leverage, and positioning, a smaller, physically weaker individual — Helio Gracie — could triumph over a larger, stronger adversary (a myth also taken from Judo).


The impact of this notion turned out to be nothing short of revolutionary. At the inaugural event of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993 (a modern televised version of the Gracie Challenge) Helio’s son, Royce Gracie, proved beyond doubt that BJJ  stood as the world’s most effective martial art. Today, BJJ is one of the fastest-growing combat sports in the world and remains the primary grappling art in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competition. Much like Judo, Karate, and indeed, Taekwondo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu owes its roots to the late nineteenth-century modernization of Japan.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.