Martial Arts: Soft, Hard and Armed Arts

The martial arts originally developed in the East as an ancient form of self-defence, harnessing the forces of both body and mind. Today, the martial arts are increasingly practised as a means of exercising the body while increasing energy levels and promoting spiritual development. Learning a martial art increases flexibility, improves concentration, promotes self-confidence, heightens mental and physical agility, channels aggression in a positive way, promotes awareness of others and develops spiritual awareness.

The term ‘martial arts’ is used to refer to a number of exercise disciplines developed from ancient fighting systems originating in Eastern countries, such as India, China, Japan and Korea. Various influences have affected each of the martial arts, including ancient Japanese and Chinese notions of ethics, honour and energy. Judo, Aikido and Kendo, for example, are founded on Bushido – a code of ethics handed down from the Japanese Samurai warriors. The martial arts continue to influence each other and to evolve.

The various martial arts can be broadly divided into three main groups; these are ‘soft’, ‘hard’ and armed arts. Individual martial arts may also encompass a number of styles or variations.


The ‘soft’ martial arts are generally defensive rather than offensive, focusing on balance and posture. Techniques such as throws, leverage and pushes focus on using the opponent’s own force to overcome him. These arts are also described as being ‘internal’, because the focus is on using intelligence to overcome the opponent; the individual harnesses the power of his own mind to control the body. The soft martial arts include Jujitsu, Judo and Aikido.


The many fighting systems that developed from ancient Japanese techniques are known as Jujitsu. Mental and physical flexibility and adaptability are required to become adept at Jujitsu, which is a martial art that relies on the individual’s skill rather than on brute force.

Jujitsu is thought to be derived from ancient Asian styles of hand-to-hand combat. It became popular among Japanese warriors, who used it for self-defence if they found themselves suddenly unarmed on the battlefield. The fighting techniques became increasingly formalized and gradually Jujitsu schools emerged.

Contemporary Jujitsu, which is now practised all over the world, reflects the influences not only of the techniques of the ancient Japanese battlefield and of other Eastern martial arts, but also, more recently, of ancient Western fighting techniques, such as boxing and wrestling.

There are many different forms of Jujitsu. Some schools concentrate on locking techniques, others on striking and throwing; some are traditional, whereas others have a more modern approach. Some Jujitsu schools use weapons based on those used on the battlefields of ancient Japan. There is a great deal of overlapping of techniques between the different approaches. Many Jujitsu schools now consider diversity and flexibility to be crucial. Because many martial arts, such as Judo and Karate, developed from Jujitsu, people with skills in other martial arts are often able to easily adapt those skills to Jujitsu.

In common with all the martial arts, etiquette and discipline are important aspects of Jujitsu. Anyone practising Jujitsu is expected to show respect for others and a spirit of cooperation at all times.

The clothing worn for Jujitsu consists of loose trousers and a tough jacket. Beginners wear a white belt and work up through various Kyu grades of coloured belts to the first Dan (which is black) and beyond. No special protection is worn for weapon-work.

The main features of Jujitsu classes vary greatly, because there are so many different styles of Jujitsu. Practising any style of Jujitsu can help an individual to build and maintain all-round fitness and strength, learn self-control and boost self-confidence.


A deceptively simple-looking system of overpowering an opponent through throws and grapples, Judo was developed by Dr. Jigoro Kano (1860-1938). He modified and regrouped old forms of Jujitsu and Sumo wrestling to create Judo and opened his own school in Tokyo in I 882.

Specific rules of etiquette and combat must be adhered to in the Dojo (practice hall): the spoken language is Japanese, opponents always bow to each other at the start and finish of a contest and feet must be bare on the mat. The instructor is referred to as Shihan. Clothing consists of a white suit (called a Judogi) of loose trousers and a tough jacket encircled twice by a belt. Beginners wear a white belt and work up through nine grades of coloured belts to reach the first Kyu, which is brown, and then on to the first Dan, which is black. There are 12 Dans, but the highest grade ever awarded by the Kodokan (the school set up by Dr Kano) is the tenth Dan.

A typical Judo session consists of warming-up exercises, new techniques, free moving practice and ground work, which includes arm-locks and chokes, fitness training and cooling down. Students practise exercises in pairs; these include throws, chokes, pins and arm-locks, combined with unbalancing, footwork and timing. Central to Judo is the idea that you can use the force of your opponent to your advantage.

Judo practice provides a good cardio-vascular workout and builds stamina. Heavy falls are a part of Judo, so the art of falling properly is an important skill.


Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), a man of legendary strength who was capable of incredible feats of unarmed combat, was the founder of Aikido. There are many different schools of Aikido, but the central aim of all Aikido practice is self-perfection rather than overcoming an opponent. A relaxed posture, a light and buoyant body, speedy and flexible responses, sensitivity to others and the extension of Ki (Japanese for Qi) with breathing exercises are central to Aikido.

Ueshiba studied all the skills of Jujitsu before learning about Aiki. This is the ability to control an opponent at a glance using mind and body unification, timing, breath control, the use of Ki as a weapon and, above all, the extension of Ki to feel the direction and moment of attack as an invasion of the defendant’s ‘forcefield’.

Most Aikido clubs insist on certain rules of etiquette, which include bowing on entering and leaving the Dojo and addressing the instructor as Sensei. Before practising in pairs, students perform Rei (the ritual bow), saying ‘Onegaishimas’ (’please practise with me’). After practising, they perform Rei saying ‘Domo’ (’thank you’).

Traditional Aikido dress is a white Judo suit worn with a belt that denotes rank. The feet should be bare.

At the beginning of a typical Aikido class the instructor teaches breathing exercises in combination with arm-raising (to mobilize the rib cage and assist lung expansion). Breathing exercises promote the flow of Ki around the body. The instructor then demonstrates basic techniques, which the class practises in pairs. A class usually ends with gentle stretching exercises to help the body to cool down.

Regular Aikido practice increases suppleness, improves posture, brings cardio-vascular and respiratory improvements and promotes relaxation and spiritual wellbeing; it also teaches discipline and self-awareness.


The ‘hard’ martial arts oppose force with force, using offensive and defensive techniques, such as kicks, chops, punches and blocks. They are also referred to as the ‘external’ arts because the force is created using the muscle power of the outer limbs (arms and legs). The hard martial arts include Kung Fu, Karate and Tae Kwon Do.


This ancient group of Chinese martial arts is thought to date back to around 2600 BCE. Kung Fu is one of the more physical forms of Tai Chi. Whereas Tai Chi reflects the calm Yin side of nature, Kung Fu displays the dynamic Yang side.

A correct understanding of Kung Fu requires many years of study and physical training, combined with a wide knowledge of Chinese life, history and customs. Different styles of Kung Fu vary greatly (and some of these are even classed as ‘soft’ styles). Some resemble Karate, which was derived from Kung Fu; others resemble the acrobatic feats of the Chinese gymnasts.

Kung Fu involves a system of physical exercises based on the movements of various animals, including deer, bears, monkeys, tigers and birds. There are several different Kung Fu combat styles. The monkey style, for example, is based on the agility of leaping, bounding, swinging and crouching. Some styles use weapons, such as the classical double-edged sword.

Wing Chun, which was originally devised by a nun as a suitable method of self-defence for women, is the style of Kung Fu popularized in the West by the martial artist and film star, Bruce Lee (1940-74). He adapted Wing Chun and borrowed from other styles to create his own style of fighting called Jeet Kune Do ’the philosophical way of intercepting the fist’.

The Kung Fu uniform (Sam) consists of loose-fitting trousers and a jacket, and is usually black in colour. Black, rubber-soled canvas slippers are the usual footwear. Instead of the tough cotton belts worn in other martial arts, Kung Fu practitioners wear coloured sashes made from silk or satin. The system of grading with coloured sashes varies among different styles of Kung Fu, but is similar to the system used in other martial arts; the black belt means that the student has reached an advanced level, usually requiring years of continuous study.

As in other martial arts, most Kung Fu clubs insist on certain rules of etiquette, which include bowing to the instructor (called Sifu) and other students.

A typical Kung Fu class includes a warm-up, stretch, the practice of drills, including the techniques of kicking, punching, grappling, blocking, locking and the use of weapons and sparring. Students often work in pairs, taking turns to practise techniques on each other.

Regular Kung Fu practice that includes warm-ups and stretches can bring improvements to all-round fitness, strength and flexibility. Sparring with other practitioners teaches the importance of concentration and self-control, and boosts self-confidence.


Bodhidharma, a 5th century Zen priest, developed Karate by combining Kempo (a Chinese fighting technique) with medical techniques and the use of acupuncture points as target areas.

The keys to the power of Karate are physical and mental focus (Kime), breath control (Kokyu), including the spirit shout (Kiai), and the transitory nature of life, oneness and total concentration on the present moment (Zanshin). Karate consists of a controlled system of dramatic strikes and kicks capable of deadly impact.

Karate etiquette includes bowing on entering and leaving the Dojo, addressing the instructor as Sensei, and using the word ‘Oss’ as a mark of respect.

The clothing worn for Karate is usually a white suit, called a Karategi. It consists of loose-fitting trousers that should cover at least two-thirds of the shins, and a jacket that covers the hips and has sleeves that come at least halfway down the forearms; feet are bare. Novices wear a white belt and work up through various grades of coloured Kyu (student grade) belts to the first Dan (senior grade), which is black, and beyond. White padded mitts and gumshields are worn for protection, and a well-fitting jockstrap is recommended for men.

A typical Karate class consists of the repetition of basic drills, sequences of defensive and offensive movements practised as solo exercises and a progression from pre-arranged partner drills to sparring. Karate demands great flexibility, so there is usually a session of solo stretching before the class. Many people who take up Karate find that it improves their physical strength and flexibility and helps them to focus their mind.

Tae Kwon Do

A spectacular Korean martial art, Tae Kwon Do includes leaping and flying kicks and techniques in which hands and feet are able to pass through wood or bricks. The practice dates back to an ancient form of unarmed combat called Soo Bahk, which used punching and butting and was taught to Korean army officers during the Koryo Dynasty (953-1392), long before the Buddhist monks arrived with their martial arts. The name Tae Kwon Do was not introduced (in the East or West) until 1955.

Tae Kwon Do includes the practice of basic techniques (various kicks, strikes and punches) and regular performance of forms or patterns (blocks and counter attacks in sequence). It also includes ferocious sparring, both prearranged and free-style.

The five tenets of Tae Kwon Do are courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. Courtesy includes respect, which is manifested by bowing to opponents before and after sparring and when entering and leaving the training hall. Integrity means commitment to effort in all areas of life. Perseverance is needed for long-term strenuous practice. Self-control is necessary to avoid injury and indomitable spirit means never giving in to defeat.

In addition to the practice suit or Dobok (which is similar to the one worn for Judo), competitors should wear shin guards, forearm pads, a gumshield and, for males, a box (of the type worn by boxers) to protect the genitals. The grading system is denoted by belt colour – from the nine coloured belts of the Kups (student) grades through to the nine Dan (senior) grades, which are all denoted by a black belt.

A typical Tae Kwon Do class includes a warm up and stretching exercises, followed by practice of the basic techniques performed by the class in unison to the instructor’s count and, finally, both pre-arranged and free sparring with a partner.

Stamina, strength and flexibility are all important features of Tae Kwon Do. The discipline also includes learning to empty the mind during quiet meditation to balance the opposing energies, symbolized by the Yin and Yang sign on the Korean flag, which is always hung in the Dojang (training hall).


The armed styles of martial arts developed from the weapons techniques used in ancient warfare. As modern methods of warfare, such as firearms, came to the fore, modified versions of these techniques were devised for physical and spiritual development.


A Japanese bow and arrow art, Kyudo developed from Kyujutu, the art of archery which dates from the 5th century AD and was used by Samurai warriors. The development of firearms in the 16th century meant that the bow and arrow was no longer used in battle. Kyudo was therefore developed as a form of physical and mental training.

Kyudo practice centres around the stages involved in shooting an arrow. These include positioning the feet, holding, steadying and raising the bow, and a stage called Kai – the union of the archer with the bow. Kyudo emphasizes the spiritual aspect of unity between mind, body and bow – shooting the arrow can enable the archer to achieve a state of Zen enlightenment.

Kyudo practitioners wear a long shirt (called a Monpoku) tucked into Hakama pants. A buckskin glove (called a Yugake) is worn on the shooting hand. Although there is a system of grading that includes two non-black belt (Kyu) levels and ten black belt (Dan) levels, practitioners do not usually wear an indication of their rank. Kyudo etiquette includes bowing at various points during practice and showing respect for the instructor and fellow students.


A Japanese sword-art or type of fencing, Kendo was developed from Kenjutsu, the ancient art of sword-fighting which dates back to the 9th century AD and was used by the Samurai warriors. When sword-bearing and the practice of Kenjutsu were outlawed in the 1870s, Kendo was developed as a highly stylized sport.

Practitioners use a number of swords, including one made from bamboo and another made from wood, to target blows and thrusts at permitted areas of their opponent’s body; these include the head, throat, sides of the chest and forearms. Kendo emphasizes skill and technique rather than strength and size, so men and women compete against each other.

Kendo practice includes stretching and strengthening exercises. Technique is improved by the repetition of basic techniques and set forms (such as correct stance, how to grip the sword, and the use of the sword to block or strike) in sitting, standing and moving positions. Sparring in the form of prearranged patterns of offensive and defensive moves increases skill, speed and efficiency. Eye contact and the shout (called the Kiai) are other important skills.

The Kendo uniform is based on traditional Samurai warrior dress and includes Hakama pants worn with an apron and a jacket (called a Kendogi) worn tucked into the Hakama. Grade is denoted by the colour of the uniform rather than a coloured belt-beginners wear a white cotton jacket which may have black stitching, and instructors (known as Sensei) wear a heavier quilted uniform, which is usually black or dark blue in colour.

Protective equipment is worn throughout Kendo practice. This includes a steel mask (with a mesh for the face area); a cushioned pad to cover the torso; an apron to protect the abdomen and hips; and long, padded gloves to cover the hands and arms.

Bowing is an important part of Kendo etiquette; the student bows to his teacher, as well as before entering the training floor and before and after sparring.