There are numerous views on the evolution of Japanese “martial arts” into “martial ways.” Furthermore, the fact that Japanese today often use the various terms interchangeably to describe these skills and systems does not help clear up the issue. We tend to agree with the analytical process of martial historian Donn F. Draeger in evaluating combative systems. That said, however, Draeger’s restrictive definitions of the terms bujutsu (martial technique), bugei (martial art), and budo (martial/ spiritual way) are simply not observed by the Japanese.

Historically these terms can be assigned to various periods in which they describe the type of martial activity being carried out by the warrior class (and others). For example, although bujutsu (lit. “martial technique”) has always had a spiritual element, its primary purpose was success in battle or dueling. Its historical context (though not the actual use of the term) dates from the tenth century, when the warrior class began to assert its political independence. It continued through the sixteenth century, when during the late Warring States period (Sengoku Jidai) the country became unified politically. During this period, the intense warfare drove some warriors to achieve extremely high levels of combative skill, as well as the psychological development needed to survive the stress of protracted combat. The psycho-physical element both harkened back to and reinforced the spiritual element innate in bujutsu.

At the beginning of the Edo period (1603- 1867), the Tokugawa shogunate was faced with the problem of thousands of underemployed armed men, a cessation of general warfare, and a number of feudal domains which were only somewhat loyal to the central government. The military government consequently promoted a policy of bunbu ryodo, which encouraged the warrior class to practice civilian “arts” (literature, calligraphy, etc.) on a par with martial “arts.” In this process, the psychological/ spiritual achievements of famous warriors of the recent past were looked upon as ideals toward which the peacetime warrior should advance. This, along with other Tokugawa policies and restrictions, generally redirected the warrior class toward reforming bujutsu into bugei (martial art). Thus, martial training itself became a peacetime art aimed at both preserving martial skills and funneling warrior practitioners toward a more peaceful goal of self-development. The political intent, of course, was to prevent rebellion, vendetta, and any type of unregulated combat that might disturb the political balance.

By the late seventeenth century (c. 1668) systems such as the Abe Ryu were shifting their training even further toward spiritual (in contrast to purely combative) goals with the introduction of the term Kendo. Consequently, the earliest budo (martial/ spiritual way) began to appear. This trend has continued to the modern day.

Not all schools followed this trend. Some rejected it entirely, some accepted it partially, and others embraced it fully. By the late seventeenth century, some competent swordsman were decrying the fact that many schools had drifted so far toward non-combative goals that they had lost touch with combative reality. Their severe training in prearranged combative forms (kata) had degenerated into an artistic dance referred to with the pejorative term kaho kempo (lit. “flowery sword methods”), and their martial élan had evaporated. This motivated swordsmen of the times such as Yamada Ippisai, headmaster of the Jiki Shinkage Ryu, to institute severe training with bamboo swords (shinai) and the use of protective armor (bogu) in a practice called uchikomigeiko. In some systems, this became a primary method of training, supplementing older kata. In other systems, training had begun to drift into sportive competition by the late eighteenth century. Thus a new element –sport-like completion- also became part and parcel of the budo. However, the Japanese have never used a standardized naming convention –whether bujutsu, bugei, budo, or some other term- to categorize these combative systems.

Source: Hall, D. A. (2012). Encyclopedia of Japanese Martial Arts. New York: Kodansha USA.

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