Why You Should Learn a Martial Art

Training in martial arts has been one of the most rewarding, meaningful pursuits of my life, and I highly encourage you to give one a try if you’ve yet to don a dougi (道着, “training uniform”) or hit the tatami (畳, “straw mats”).

Martial arts training has numerous benefits:

  • Increased focus, discipline, and self-control.
  • Improved strength, flexibility, agility, and bodily awareness.
  • A better chance of defending oneself from bullies, criminals, rapists, etc.

Why You Should Learn Japanese Through a Martial Art

But learning a martial arts offers another potential advantage that few people talk about: highly contextual Japanese immersion! If you live in Japan or happen to be near a Japanese-speaking Sensei (先生, “teacher”) or Shihan (師範, “master instructor”), learning a Japanese martial art can be a phenomenal way to practice the Japanese language, too. Here are three key reasons to learn Japanese through bujutsu (武術, “martial arts”):

  • It’s extremely context rich: Practicing in a doujou (道場, “a hall used for martial arts training”) and seeing waza (技, ”techniques”) demonstrated in real-time provide a clear, tangible context for the language being used and make it easier to understand and internalize new vocabulary, phrases, and structures.
  • It gets you out of your head and into your body: One common problem that beginner and intermediate language learners face is getting stuck in one’s head, overthinking usage and second-guessing oneself. The immediacy of martial arts gets you out of your own way into the moment.
  • It’s fun and addictive: Learning a martial art can be challenging, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. You will make new friends, push yourself to new limits, and develop a new appreciation for what the body and mind are capable of. And as you start to notice your progress (in both the art and the language), your brain will trigger little doses dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in habit formation and addiction that will keep you coming back for more.

Even if you don’t live in Japan or near a Japanese speaking instructor, you can still learn a fair amount of Japanese through martial arts books, manga, videos, etc.

Popular Japanese Martial Arts

Here are some brief overviews of the most popular Japanese martial arts styles and systems.

Aikido

Formalized by martial arts legend UESHIBA Morihei (植芝盛平, うえしばもりへい) in the aftermath of World War II, aikidou (合気道, あいきどう, “The Way of Unifying Life Energy”) was created as a self-defense system to foster peace and minimize injury to both the practitioner and attacker. Aikidou is largely based on aiki juujutsu (合気柔術, あいきじゅうじゅつ), with both arts focusing on how to subdue attackers using throwing techniques and joint manipulations.

Judo

Literally meaning “The Gentle Way,” juudou (柔道, じゅうどう), involves the skilled use of throws and takedowns.  While it still retains some of its martial efficacy, it is practiced now (at least by most) as a sport, not a martial art.

Jujutsu

Despite using the characters for “gentle art,” juujustu (柔術, じゅうじゅつ) is anything but “soft.” The core techniques of the martial art were developed by samurai for use when they lost their weapon on the battlefield and had to face an armed opponent with nothing but their wits and martial skills. Note that the “jiu-jitsu” spelling refers to the Brazilian form of the art, popularized by the Gracie family.

Karate

Karate (空手, からて, lit. “empty hand”) originated in Okinawa (沖縄, おきなわ), though the martial art is heavily influenced by Chinese fighting arts from across the sea, which is why the word was originally written with the characters 唐手, meaning “Chinese Hand.”

Kendo

Originally designed as a non-lethal way to practice sword-fighting, kendou (剣道, けんどう, “The Way of the Sword”), is now a full-fledged martial art with ranks and competitions. The beauty of Kendo—like many other Japanese martial arts—is that skill beats size. Case in point: when I worked at a high school in rural Japan, I was regularly schooled by kendo students half my size but with many times my ability.

Sumo

Considered by many to be the “national sport” of Japan, sumou (相撲, すもう) is one of the nation’s most iconic traditions. The objective of the sport is simple: either force the opposing rikishi (力士, りきし, “wrestler”) to leave the circular ring called the do-hyou (土俵, どひょう), or force them to touch the ground with any part of their body other than their feet.

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