A peek into the world of Japanese martial arts

The Spirit of Budo: The History of Japan’s Martial Arts’, a travelling exhibition, returns to Malaysian shores from July 20 to Aug 22


Bowstring reel made of cane, with powder case made of stag antler (left) and bowstring reel made of twisted paper string, with powder case made of cow horn

EACH culture around the world has its own form of martial arts. The Thais have kickboxing or Muay Thai, while the Malays and Indonesians share their various versions of silat.

Many around the world are also familiar with Korea’s taekwondo, but the more exposed art of self-defence might be from Japan.

From the most classic of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films to countless Hollywood movies, anime (Japanese animation) and video games, martial arts from the land of the rising sun have touched many in different ways.

For the uninitiated, the martial arts which became popular in feudal Japan were introduced by Buddhist monks who originated from China — without the combat skills, that is.

In the beginning, martial arts were a way for the monks to keep fit as they’d have to sit through hours of meditation. Exercise also helps them enhance their concentration.

These exercises would eventually evolve to skills that involved weapons which later spread throughout Japan.

It was only during the Edo Period that these activities would be formally known as the Japanese martial arts as we know today.

However, martial arts are not just about self-defence. It is also used as a tool of peace which is designed to promote discipline through philosophical and spiritual approaches to life in general.

The Japanese warrior and thunder deity Takemikazuchi-no-kami is the martial arts’ patron. Even today, many training halls or dojos in Japan have a small shrine dedicated to him.

Japanese martial arts indeed have come a long way together with its interesting history.

From Farmers to Covert Agents

The Samurai were warriors from the highest-ranking military caste of the Edo Period and used a wide range of weapons such as arrows

You might have heard about the famous and mysterious ninjas who concealed their identities in black garments.

Many still believe that ninjas have magical and extraordinary abilities. In reality, they are trained in unconventional warfare such as infiltration, sabotage and assassination.

Ninjas are also known as Shinobi which means “those who act in stealth” and they were hired by governments or samurais (to do their dirty work) as assassins or spies.

Some were dishonoured samurai, but most of them are lower-ranking citizens such as farmers and villagers, who learned how to fight for their own self-preservation.

Some weapons used by the ninja such as the Kusari-gama, a combination of a sickle and a long chain with a weight attached at the end of it, were actually modified from farming tools they used.

Shuriken — a weapon in the form of a star with projecting blades or points, used as a missile in some martial arts — is one of the most famous weapons used by ninjas.

Ninjas worked as farmers in the morning and trained their martial arts skills in the afternoon.

As most of the ninjas hail from rural farmlands and quiet villages, the Iga and Koga provinces are the most famous ninja strongholds.

In fact, Mie University in Iga even has a graduate course for ninja studies! Those who want to learn the path of the ninja would need to take an exam on Japanese history and a reading test on historical ninja documents.

A Deadly Work of Art

Some of the ancient weapons on display

The Samurai were warriors from the highest-ranking military caste of the Edo Period and used a wide range of weapons such as arrows, spears and bows.

However, they specialised in sword-fighting and they were also famous for their craftsmanship.

The swords are mainly curved and also flexible with steel blades that have a single, super-sharp cutting edge.

An elite samurai would carry two types of swords which are the long sword (katana) and short sword (wakizashi or tsurugi).

The handles are made of wood and covered in the tough skin of a giant ray. It is then tightly bound in silk braid, which is usually dark blue.

It takes a long time to craft such finely worked swords. As a gift of gratitude, the lords will reward their samurai with these beautiful swords which would later be passed down as family heirlooms.

Budokan Karate — Made in PJ

Tachi sword mounting of black lacquer

It is said that the origins of karate can be traced back to China where Dharma, a monk from India, taught physical training discipline at a Shao Lin monastery there.

Not only does this exercise help the Shao Lin monks protect them from the local bandits, but it also taught them rigid discipline which was part of their discipline.

Over the years, this training would be adapted and become Shao Lin fighting which would be imported into the Japanese island Okinawa. It was then blended with the local fighting techniques of the islands.

To achieve the ultimate unarmed self- defence method, each new master added or refined certain techniques to the art of karate.

The martial art has been trying to secure its place on the Olympic programme since the 1970s. Finally, karate is set to make its first appearance at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. But alas, it has been postponed to next year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Karate also consists of many styles which are “shokotan” (one of the most well-known types), “Gojuryu” (based on the complementary principles of hard and soft), “Shorinryu” (focuses on maintaining physical and mental balance) and “Kyokushin” (utilises aggressive fighting styles).

Now, here’s the clincher. Did you know that another style of karate, the Budokan, actually originated from Malaysia?

The founder of this style is Chew Choo Soot, a man from Alor Setar, Kedah, who was introduced to karate-do at 12 years old during the Japanese occupation of Malaya.

A Japanese army officer wanted Chew to teach him weightlifting but realising the officer was a high-ranking karate expert, Chew requested that the officer taught him the martial art in return.

Chew went to Japan and Okinawa at the end of World War II to further his karate training. He also made several trips to Taiwan to learn kungfu and oriental weapons.

He decided to open the first Malaysian Karate Budokan International at Petaling Jaya (PJ) in 1966 at the request of his friends. It began with only a few students.

Somehow, the classes became overwhelmingly packed as more people took an interest in learning Chew’s karate lessons.

He realised that he needed assistant instructors, so he employed seven Japanese instructors since there were no karate instructors in Malaysia at that time.

Now, there are KBI dojos all over the world.

For the second time, “The Spirit of ‘Budo’: The History of Japan’s Martial Arts”, a travelling exhibition, returns to Malaysian shores from July 20 to Aug 22.

It is organised by the Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur (JFKL) and co-organised by the Terengganu State Museum.

Visitors would enjoy a close-up look at several historical weapons such as bows and arrows, helmets and suits of armour and many more.

The exhibition takes viewers back in time to when battlefield combat techniques (“bujutsu”) has been practised to popular sports or physical exercise tempering body and spirit (“budo”) in current Japanese society.

The exhibition consists of two parts which are the reproductions or originals of historical weapons and the development and changes of Japanese martial arts from the eighth century to the 19th century.

“Many of ancient types of armour and weapons have not survived to the present or are too fragile for international transport.

“That is why we decided to include reproductions, which would give the appearance of suits of armour and helmets at the time of original production even more vividly,” JFKL said in its website.

The second part of the exhibition will explain how the spirit of martial arts is still incorporated in the daily life of Japanese people today.

“We hope that through this exhibition, the viewers will become aware of not only the history of Japanese martial arts, but also of people’s aesthetic awareness and creativity, Japan’s social history and the Japanese way of thinking from a new angle,” it said.

The exhibition is open from Saturday to Thursday from 10am to 5pm. The admission fees for Malaysians are RM5, RM2 and RM1 for adults, children and students wearing school uniforms respectively, while foreigners will be charged RM15 (adults) and RM10 (children).

For more information regarding the exhibition, you can visit jfkl.org.my/ events/the spiritofbudo2020/.