The Guide to Traditional Japanese Sports

Sports is one of the essential aspects of Japanese culture, as the country has produced some of the most well-known sporting events and martial art styles that are organized and utilized in various countries around the world. However, despite creating and developing unique sports, it cannot be argued that the most popular sports in Japan in the later modern era came from the West, namely football and soccer. Despite the relative “Americanization” of modern Japanese culture, there are still many Japanese who are doing their best to preserve their history, and one of those methods of preservation is to play the unique sports that they created. To know more about these original sports that serve a significant impact on Japan’s culture, here is a guide to traditional Japanese sports.


Arguably the most popular traditional sport in the country, sumo, on its core, is wrestling but with a different set of rules. Sumo matches are held inside a drawn ring, and it is the object of one sumo wrestler to topple his opponent, let his opponent’s body parts (except the soles of the feet) touch the ground, or to force his opponent outside the ring. During the struggle between two sumo wrestlers to topple one another, they can grab onto a loincloth wrapped around their waist called a “mawashi,” although there are certain parts of the loincloth that they couldn’t grab.

Despite having a rather peculiar or comical appearance for foreigners, sumo wrestling is actually a highly respected sport in Japan, which is brought about by its links to religion during ancient times. In addition, even though sumo wrestlers may look overweight or obese for some, they follow a strict diet that allows them to gain enough muscle mass to not fall over easily and gain stamina to be at full strength in every round.


Judo match

Judo, a Japanese word meaning “the gentle way,” is also a popular sport in Japan and one of the most highly coveted martial art styles in the world because of its useful fundamentals that teach proper self-defense.  Unlike most martial arts styles, Judo focuses on the principles of self-defense, which means that the moves in the martial art forces you to defend yourself against attacks and counter those attacks using the force applied by your opponent. For example, if an attacker is going for a straight jab, you can dodge the jab and grab onto the opponent’s punching arm and force him down to the ground using a throw.

Because of its defense-focused moves, Judo is considered to be the less dangerous derivative of Jujutsu, which is an iconic martial art that serves as the predecessor for many ground-based styles like sambo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and ARB.


Karate is another martial art that was developed in Japan, specifically during the reign of the Ryukyu Kingdom from 1429 to 1879, but unlike Judo, Karate is an offense-based style that focuses on performing strong moves that can hurt or immobilize an opponent. Karate is influenced by Kung Fu, a collection of Chinese martial art styles, and improved upon it by developing more accurate moves with less movement.

While Karate is not as popular as Judo during ancient times, it only got famous when it was used in Japanese martial arts movies that were produced in the 1960s to 1970s. Furthermore, those martial arts movies also elevated the popularity of other Japanese martial arts like Aikido and Judo.


Aikido is very similar to Judo, but it involves less offensive moves and more defensive techniques that won’t hurt the opponents. Most of the defensive moves found in aikido are throws, although the throws are much slower and produce less impact than judo throws.

This martial art form was developed by MoriheiUeshiba, who aimed to combine what he learned in different styles of martial arts with his philosophy of making self-defense peaceful and harmless. What resulted in Ueshiba’s work was the most non-violent form of martial arts in Japan, and it is regarded as the most favorable martial arts to learn for kids because of its non-destructive and relatively safe fundamentals.


Kendo match

Kendo, which translates to “way of the sword” in English, is one of the most prominent sports in Japan, mainly due to the fact that there are many children and teenagers who choose to learn Kendo than any other traditional sports in the country. Its popularity among the younger generation may be attributed to the sport’s use of wooden swords, which are weapons that are easily appealing to them due to being exposed to fantasy-based manga, animated TV shows, and movies.

While the weapon for Kendo is a wooden sword, most of the basic techniques used in the sport are derived from kenjutsu, the art of fighting with a katana or a metal sword. To protect each kendoka or kenshi (the names for those participating in Kendo matches), they would need to wear protective gear called “hakama” that covers all parts of their body, much like how fencers wear uniforms that cover their body during fencing matches.


Yabusame match demonstrated in front of former US president George W. Bush

Yabusame is a type of archery sport that involves the player riding a moving horse while shooting targets. Because the horse is constantly moving, the archer would have a difficult time aiming at targets since his aim would change direction in just one second, thus forcing him or her to change aim every now and then.

The sport is derived from ancient battles where archers would be on horses while attacking enemies, and because of the difficulty of performing perfect arrow show in those battles, some people during peacetimes would turn it into a competitive sport. In almost all Yabusame games, the horses would need to move forward in a 255-meter-long track, while the archer would have to hit three wooden targets before his or her horse reaches the finish line. Most of the Yabusame games are held in shrines and temples as it was originally developed to entertain or appease certain gods that watch over Japan.

Those are six of the most popular traditional Japanese sports in the land of the rising sun. Although they have a distinctly Japanese style to them, these sports are not exclusively played by the Japanese, as it can be learned and mastered by other ethnicities as well. If you are planning to go to Japan in the future, you might want to attend seminars or lessons on some of these Japanese sports in order to further immerse yourself in the country’s culture.