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The Most Famous Traditional Japanese Sports

The Most Famous Traditional Japanese Sports

Sport is a significant part of the Japanese culture. The sporting scenario in Japan dates back to the Pre-Edo period, before the 16th century. The country has a variety of traditional sports such as martial arts and sumo, and the more modern games such as soccer and baseball. Sumo wrestling is Japan’s national sport.

Ancient History

During the pre-Edo period, sumo events were considered a religious occasion as well as a sporting event. Sumo wrestling has had its links to religious beliefs. Many rituals performed in Sumo are associated with the Shinto faith, a religion originating from Japan. Some believe that sumo events in the past were purely a religious ritual and were conducted as an offering to Kami, spirits honored in the religion of Shinto.

Then came the Kamakura period which is considered as the initiating point of martial arts in Japan.Kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery, became famous as Kyujutsu, as a hobby for the Samurais. Yabusame also started as a sport during this period. it is a type of mounted archery where the archer has to sit on a running horse and shoot three arrows successively at three targets.

During the Edo period, sports became the favorite hobby for the people in Japan, however, it became a little tainted with the introduction of gambling. Kyudo got famous among the military and feudal lords, and martial arts like Jujutsu also got famous during this time. This was also the period where many contests were held and records were made for the country.


Sumo is one of the most recognized and well-known sports in Japan. It is a wrestling game but the rules of Sumo are quite different than the western style of wrestling. A ring is drawn around the players which is the arena. The match begins with both the players putting their hands on the ground. The game ends when one player is either pushed out of the ring or any part of their body, except the soles of their feet, touch the ground. The players wear a loincloth around their body known as the Mawashi. The game also ends if one of the players loses the Mawashi. It results in the disqualification of the player.

Sumo is a highly respected and esteemed sport due to its religious links. It is believed that Sumo has its originating elements attached to the Shinto belief. However, the Sumo sport today is not as strongly tied to religion as it was in the past.

It is not commonly known, but Sumo wrestlers have to follow strict regulations even relating to diet and dress code. Sumo wrestling is a sport that has rigid rules and guidelines.

Sumo wrestlers usually have to live in a place called ‘heya’ where they undergo strict training and learn discipline. There is often a hierarchy that is followed in Sumo which decides how each wrestler is treated and what chores they must do. The ones who have the highest ranking are given a celebrity-like status and are treated accordingly.

There are six official Sumo tournaments a year which are often sold as soon as possible since Sumo is a known spectator sport in Japan.

Indeed, the world of Sumo wrestling extends beyond the sacred ring and deep-rooted traditions; it also reaches the sphere of bookmaking, known in Japanese as ブックメーカー相撲. In recent years, this phenomenon has gained popularity, reflecting an increase in international interest in Sumo. Bookmakers offer odds on the various official Sumo tournaments, allowing fans and enthusiasts around the world to place bets on their favourite wrestlers.

Bookmakers assess the wrestlers’ past performances, physical condition, training rigor, and even the hierarchy within their ‘heya’ to predict the outcome of the matches. As in other sports, betting in Sumo adds an extra layer of excitement and engagement for the fans. However, it’s important to note that betting also carries risks and ethical considerations, given the sport’s strong cultural and traditional values. It’s a delicate balance that has to be managed with respect and understanding for the venerable sport of Sumo


Judo, which translates to ‘the gentle way’, was initially originated by Jigoro Kano, a Japanese educator, and athlete. Judo, similar to Sumo, is a form of wrestling but with different principles and rules.

The concept of Judo revolves around the principle of self-defense. In a game of Judo, the force applied by the opponent is used to direct your move. By redirecting the force, their strength is used against them. Some of the moves of Jujutsu are still applied in Judo, but in this game, the focus is more on throwing moves and ground-fighting techniques. One of the objectives of a Judo game is to unbalance the opponent.

Judo is a derivation of Jujutsu and has been modified to make it a little less dangerous. Judo focuses on maximizing efficiency while minimizing efforts. It emphasizes the application of the principles on the self. Character building is also one of the emphases of Judo. A judo practitioner is called a judoka.


Kendo is also one of the prominent traditional sports in Japan. The word Kendo means ‘the way of the sword’. It came from Kenjutsu, which is a sword-based training and fighting adopted from the Samurais.

Kendo is a Japanese martial art form that uses bamboo/wooden swords for fighting and not the real metal swords. Swordsmen in Japan set-up schools of Kenjutsu which continued for centuries. The formal kendo practices today were formed several centuries ago as part of the Kenjutsu practice for warriors. Practitioners of Kendo are called Kendoka, or occasionally Kenshi, meaning ‘swordsman’.

Kendo aims to discipline the human personality through the application of the principles of the Katana, a type of a Japanese sword. Katanas are the traditional sword of the samurai. The purpose behind Kendo is to structure the mind and body, cultivate a vigorous spirit and through correct training, strive for improvement in the art of Kendo. The principles behind the art of Kendo encourage the focus on self.

Kendo in comparison to other martial arts and sports is quite noisy since it requires making a shout when striking to show the fighting spirit or vigor. Like some other martial arts, Kendoka train and fight barefoot. the opponents wear armors and black ‘hakama’ for the duel. When an opponent hits the other player with the sword at specific targets, a point is scored.


Developed in Ryukyu Kingdom, Karate is a type of martial arts that is known to have taken influence from Kung Fu, the umbrella term for Chinese Martial Arts. The Ryukyu Kingdom was captured and formed a part of Japan in 1879.

In the early 20th century, Karate was brought into Japan by the Ryukyuns, who were migrating into the country in search of work. In 1922, the Japanese Ministry of Education formally invited Gichin Funakoshi, known as the father of modern karate, to Tokyo to give a karate demonstration. In 1924, Keio university formed the first-ever karate club and by 1932, major Japanese universities had karate clubs.

Several martial art movies were made in the early 1960s and 1970s. These movies became responsible for the sudden fame of Judo, Karate, and other martial arts.

Karate is now primarily a striking game that uses kicking, punching. Elbow strikes, knee strikes and open-hand techniques such as spear-hands, palm-heel strike, and knife-handsfor the sport.


Yabusame is a form of mounted archery. It is done while riding the back of a horse. Shooting a target while horse-riding was considered a glorifying skill to have. It was widely used in Samurai battles.

The archer has to control the horse with their knees since both hands are needed to shoot an arrow. The archer speeds up a 255-meter-long track and then aims to hit three wooden targets consecutively with a ‘turnip-headed’ arrow. The arrow is shaped round and blunt to made a thudding sound when it hits the target.

Yabusame was developed to please and entertain several gods that take care of Japan, thus encouraging their blessings and the prosperity of the country and its people.

During battles, samurais would aim to make a hit at their target while going at full speed on their horse. Today, Yabusame is played almost exactly in a similar way. However, Yabusame is seen as more of a religious ritual rather than a sport because of its sacred elements. It is often performed for special occasions and ceremonies such as foreign officials or heads of state. In the past, Yabusame demonstrations have been performed for some US Presidents and also in UK for Prince Charles, who was very fascinated by the performance.


Aikido, unlike other martial art forms, is purely defensive and does not have any attack moves. It is a type of modern Japanese martial art form developed by MoriheiUeshiba, in the early 19th century.

Ueshiba aimed at combining his martial art studies with his philosophy of universal peace and reconciliation. His objective was to create an art that the practitioners could use to defend themselves while also making sure no injury was caused to the opponent. Aikido is often translated as ‘the way of unifying life energy’.

It is the most non-violent form of martial arts in Japan. Aikido also has its origins in Jujutsu but the aim, when practicing Aikido, is more towards a peaceful and harmless self-defense approach.

The traditional sporting situation in Japan majorly revolves around martial arts and its different modified versions. Martial arts have been a deep-rooted sport in Japanese history. However, there a few other sports such as Sumo that are quite famous in the country. In the modern scenario, baseball, football, and a few other sports have become noticeably famous in the country giving its people a variety of sports to play and enjoy.

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