Japanese Martial Arts: From spirited Sumo to rhythmic Kyudo

From lively Sumo tournaments rich in Shinto rituals to appease the gods, to rhythmic Japanese martial arts that harmonize body, mind, and soul, they have bene rooted in culture and history.

In fact, the world-famous Sumo wrestling dates back to an ancient era. And although more modern sports are very popular in Japan — baseball being the most viewed sport followed by soccer — traditional Japanese sports are still very much a part of Japan today.

Themes from these sports frequently feature in media like anime and manga. Matches are televised nationally, and a multitude of clubs, including those at universities, persistently instruct and propagate these sports.

In this article, we explore the origins of Sumo wrestling, its history, its rules, and when and where you can buy tickets to see a tournament in Japan.

We will also dive into four Japanese martial arts: Kendo, Aikido, Judo and Karate, their differences, and where you can participate in a class in Tokyo. And finally, we will look at Kyudo, traditional Japanese archery. 

Jump to:

Sumo, the National Sport of Japan 

What is Sumo? 

Sumo (相撲) is an ancient Japanese wrestling sport with roots all the back to the Yayoi period (300 BCE – 300 CE). It is recognized as the national sport of Japan and is still very popular today with top-tier wrestlers regarded as celebrities by the public.

Sumo was originally performed as part of Shinto rituals when either fighting off or summoning kami, gods/ deities. Even now, many Shinto rituals are performed before the ceremony such as the purification of the ring with salt.

Often these rituals can last longer than the matches themselves! 


What Are the Rules of Sumo? 

The first to be pushed outside of the ring (dohyo, 土俵), to lose their loincloth (mawashi, 回 し) or have any part of their body touch the ground except the soles of their feet, loses. Matches tend to only last a few seconds or minutes! 

There are no weight restrictions or groups that the wrestlers are categorized into. Sometimes, wrestlers can find themselves against someone much bigger than them.

As weight is so advantageous in sumo wrestling, wrestlers follow a strict diet and training regime in Sumo Stables where they live with other wrestlers and a Sumo master. 

Where Can I See Sumo in Japan? 

Every year a total of 6 tournaments, that last 15 days each, are organized by the Japan Sumo Association. Three take place in Tokyo at the Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium in January, May and September. The other three are in Osaka in March, Nagoya in July, and Fukuoka in November.

On average, wrestlers will participate in one match a day depending on their rank then, depending on how many losses versus wins they have will determine if they move up or down the ranks.

Unable to attend a tournament? Visit the Japan Sumo Association’s website to access their calendar of sumo tournaments and smaller events. You can also buy tickets through the website.

There are three different types of tickets on offer: ringside which is closest to the action, box seats (a seat on the floor with a cushion) or balcony seats at the very back (western-style seating).

For those itching to know more about Sumo life, there are occasional tours to visit Sumo Stables, where the Sumo wrestlers live in Ryogoku in Tokyo. Tours are available from a few different vendors, like Get Your Guide.

The training of sumo wrestlers is quite strenuous and requires a great deal of discipline. Unfortunately, you may not get a chance to actually speak to the wrestlers directly. However, you can quietly watch and get an inside glimpse of the life of a Sumo wrestler.

In Ryogoku you can also find restaurants offering Chanko nabe, otherwise known as Sumo hot pot which is eaten in vast quantities by Sumo wrestlers to gain weight. 

martial arts in japanese

Japanese Martial Arts 

In Japanese, martial arts is known as budou (武道) but it can also be referred to as bujitsu and bugei. However, the former budou is most commonly used.

Despite martial arts being viewed as a combat sport, its foundations are rooted in harmony and peace, following principles such as “Hit not. Be not hit.

Avoiding conflict is the fundamental principle”. Martial arts foster the body, mind and soul, and in their practice comes teachings of respect, discipline and resilience. Below we will introduce four of these arts, kendo, aikido, judo and karate. 

Kendo (剣道) 

Kendo is a type of martial art that uses a wooden sword called a shinai (竹刀). Like many martial arts, Kendo requires a lot of training and discipline from its students. Kendo originated from the samurai’s practice with nihonto, Japanese swords, in combat.

The samurai were believed to have acquired a distinctive appreciation for how to utilize these swords. The notion persisted that samurai and their swords were inseparable, with the belief that the sword encapsulated their spirit. This perception led to admiration not only for the swords’ potency but also their aesthetic appeal.

During the Edo period, many schools began appearing called Kenjutsu, where Kendo was taught. By the 18th-century protective armor similar to what is used today began to be worn.

Over many years the practice of Kendo that we know today developed where one can learn about the principles and techniques behind Japanese swordsmanship.

As it is closely tied to the history of the samurai, those that practice Kendo also endeavors to understand the samurai and their mindset and so as one can imagine it includes rigorous training. 

Where Can I Take Kendo Classes in Tokyo? 

Whether you are interested in continuing practicing Kendo or trying it for the first time, Tokyo Kyumeikan Kendo Dojo is a dojo in Itabashi, Tokyo that offers classes in English and also to beginners of all ages. 


In comparison to other martial arts, Aikido is relatively new. It has only been developed in the 20th century by Morihei Ueshiba sensei (先生). Aikido doesn’t have tournaments or competitions as it is a non-competitive sport focusing on self-defense.

The principles behind Aikido are to evade, re-direct and neutralize an attack using the opponent’s force against themselves. 

The word Aikido is translated as “way of the harmonious spirit” which is taken from the meanings behind the kanji. Aikido is indeed not just about training the body but also about grounding the spirit.

Aikido is a recommended sport for beginners as it is gentle and closely related to the idiom mind over matter. In other words, it is more about the way you think rather than the actual movement itself. 

An Aikido school is called a dojo and students wear a white gi with a belt and advanced students wear a traditional black hakama, a pants-like garment over their gi. 

Check out: Top 30 Inspiring Japanese Proverbs and Sayings

Where Can I Take Aikido Classes in Tokyo? 

Aikido Pacific offers Aikido classes to beginners of all ages in English across Tokyo and Yokohama. 


Judo is an unarmed form of modern martial arts that was derived from Jujitsu. In the 19th century Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo adapted jujitsu, discarding or adapting techniques that relied on superior strength to moves that redirect the opponent’s force, setting them off balance and making use of superior leverage.

Judo involves throw-like maneuvers. From the very beginning students have to learn the correct way to “fall”. Like other martial arts, Judo involves the training of the mind and spirit, the kanji translates to “gentle way”. 

A Judo player is referred to as a Judo-ka (柔道家) but traditionally this title is reserved for those who reach a high level: 4th dan or higher. The ka () at the end of the word indicates expert. Another example is benkyou-ka (勉強家) which means scholar; benkyou means study and the ka expert (7). 

Now Judo is an Olympic sport and also the most prominent form of jacket wrestling competed internationally. 

Where Can I Take Judo Classes in Tokyo? 

Learn Judo in Bunkyo, Tokyo at the Kodokan International Judo Center. Here they have classes for beginners, for those experiences in Judo, for children and for women’s classes. 


Karate is another unarmed martial art that focuses on kicks, strikes, and defensive blocks with the arms and legs. Japanese karate originated from the southern islands of Japan, in Okinawa, which at the time was their own independent nation called the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The kanji in karate means “empty hand” and during an invasion of the Ryukyu Kingdom by present-day Kagoshima, they were forbidden from carrying weapons and so karate became an essential form of self-defense during these times and in turn a part of the culture.

Since Okinawa integrated into Japan, Karate has been growing in popularity and is now practiced worldwide and is even an Olympic sport. Like many other martial arts, Karate fosters harmony and peace which is reflected in its principles.

Two famous principles from Karate masters are “In Karate, never attack first” and “Never forget Karate begins and ends with respect”. 

Where Can I Take Karate Classes in Tokyo? 

In central Tokyo, you can try karate classes run by Daikanyama Karate School and they also offer private one-on-one lessons. 

Kyudo, the Art of the Bow, Japanese Archery

As opposed to western archery, Kyudo like martial arts involves a particular way of thinking which is considered just as important as the technique itself.

Unlike Western bows, the yumi used in Kyudo is longer, asymmetrical, and requires pulling the string beyond the ear.

And although it is not as strong as the western bow, it is said that when the yumi string is pulled back, the semi-circle sphere encases the mind and spirit to which there is a certain artistry and beauty.

There was a time when the yumi was even used in religious rituals but now it is practiced in clubs and in Kyudo competitions. 

While Kyudo lacks widespread global recognition compared to other Japanese sports, it remains popular within Japan. Despite limited English-language classes, practicing Kyudo provides a valuable chance to engage with the Japanese language and culture.

Where Can I Practice Traditional Japanese Sports? 

In addition to pricy gyms in Tokyo, there are numerous alternative venues for engaging in sports across Japan. Utilize the term “shimin” (市民), denoting citizen, to locate more budget-friendly options like your city or ward’s sports center, known as “shimin supotsu senta,” and swimming pool, referred to as “shimin pouru.” This approach leads to significantly more affordable rates.

It depends on your city but sports centers often have places where you can practice tennis, baseball and other sports at a fraction of the price of a private gym. Public swimming pools can also be under 3 USD for an hour! 

For a taste of various sports such as archery, badminton, and bowling, consider visiting the “Round 1” entertainment center. This nationwide chain has numerous branches in major cities, offering a diverse range of sports and an abundance of games.


Traditional Japanese sports offer a fascinating glimpse into Japan’s culture and history. Whether you are interested in the ancient rituals of Sumo, the artistry of Kendo or Kyudo, or the grace of Aikido and Judo, there is something for everyone in the world of Japanese sports.

And if you are interested in learning more about Japanese culture, including its language, Coto Academy is an excellent place to start! In fact, we hosted an event with our students to watch a Grand Sumo Tournament together!

With flexible courses available online or in-person in Tokyo or Yokohama, Coto Academy can help you deepen your understanding of Japanese culture, language, and traditions. So why not explore the world of Japanese sports and language with Coto Academy today?

What are Japanese sports?

Traditional Japanese sports include Sumo wrestling, Japan’s national sport, martial arts such as Judo and Aikido and Japanese archery, Kyudo. Japan also has western sports such as baseball, soccer, tennis and golf. 

What sport is Japan known for?

Japan is the birthplace of many traditional sports, and there are plenty of places throughout the country where you can practice and experience these ancient arts. Here are a few options to consider:

  1. Sumo Wrestling: You can watch Sumo tournaments in Tokyo, Osaka, and other major cities throughout the year. If you want to try your hand at Sumo, there are several Sumo stables in Tokyo that offer training sessions for tourists.
  2. Kendo: Kendo is a Japanese martial art that uses bamboo swords and protective gear. Many schools and sports clubs throughout Japan offer Kendo classes for all skill levels.
  3. Judo: Judo is another popular Japanese martial art that focuses on throws and grappling techniques. You can find Judo schools throughout Japan, including the Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo.
  4. Kyudo: Kyudo is the Japanese art of archery, which has a strong spiritual component. There are several Kyudo schools throughout Japan, and many of them offer introductory classes for beginners.
  5. Aikido: Aikido is a martial art that emphasizes blending with an opponent’s movements and redirecting their energy. There are Aikido dojos (training halls) all over Japan, especially in major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.

Sport in Japanese is pronounced as supotsu (スポーツ).

Sport in Japanese is pronounced as supotsu (スポーツ). 

When is Japanese sports day?

Japanese sports day is a national holiday celebrated on the second Monday of every October. Schools also have a sports day called undoukai (運動会) which is usually held around May or June but can vary depending on the school. 

Test your Japanese level!

Do a self-test to see which course fits you.

Check your level