Are you someone looking to participate in Japanese martial arts classes? Well, the good news is there’s certainly no shortage of options, both in terms of variety but also — you may be surprised to learn — in terms of availability in the UK. While many people have generally heard of and gravitate towards karate, there are a whole host of others you may be interested in, ones that you may not have heard of until now.
But which one is right for you?
With this question in mind, I want to introduce a number of Japanese martial arts that have a presence in the UK. I’m going to introduce some of the basic concepts and principles of each, as well suggest their suitability depending on their qualities. Along with this, I want to share some links to help get you started should you decide to pick one to try, or find out some more.
Deciding on any single form of martial art is dependent on a number of things; at the forefront being the purpose of wanting to take one up. Why do you want to learn? Is it purely for fun and enjoyment? Or, is it for more practical purposes like self-defence? Your answer to this can help steer you in one particular direction more than another. Other reasons could possibly be for the purpose of sport and competing, or even for historical reasons.
Another question you might want to consider is whether you are more interested in armed or unarmed martial arts. There are options for both of these, however, this then raises the topic of equipment and costs which could be a deciding factor. As you might imagine, some of the armed martial arts are not cheap to get started.
For this article I have found six Japanese martial art disciplines that are the most accessible to us in the UK. These are:
Unarmed martial arts
Armed martial arts
Now we know what choices are open to us, let’s go back to some of the reasons for picking a martial art.
For example, if it’s for self-defence you can automatically discount any armed disciplines (being that it’s illegal to carry weapons outside of authorised clubs and classes etc.) so one of the three unarmed arts may be better, karate may be the best as it has the most practical purposes. For just fun and enjoyment the opposite may be correct; picking an armed style may feel more immersive and theatrical and such.
Lets dive into each discipline individually and learn what they’re all about.
Arguably the poster child of Japanese martial arts, karate is practised by between 50 – 100 million people worldwide depending on who you ask and 160,000 people in the UK alone practised it in 2021 according to statista.
Karate is a discipline that predominantly relies on striking using not just hands, but also feet, elbows, and knees making karate a very combative martial art. It can be used as a very aggressive form of self-defence although the principles of the martial art also include an aspect of self-improvement and character development that is almost meditative.
There are many different styles and forms to karate that have evolved from, and have been integrated from other disciplines, and so; while the core principles will be the same, each karate dojo may focus on and teach different things.
You should consider karate if you are someone who considers ‘The best defence is a good offence’ a good ideology. With the most active members of any Japanese martial art, it’s the easiest to get involved with, but also gives greater potential for continuing development whatever stage you find yourself in.
Get started with karate
Karate classes, clubs, and dojo’s are absolutely everywhere in the UK, so there should be no trouble finding somewhere close to you to begin. There is a British Karate Federation however It doesn’t offer much help in finding classes and clubs to join — likely because there are so many. To that end, it may be better to do a simple ‘karate classes near me’ search on google to find your closest.
Compared to something like karate, judo is a martial art which focuses less on striking and more on throwing. Here, throwing means throwing to the ground rather than the somewhat comical image of distance throwing. This objective is achieved mostly by grabbing opponents and their uniform, which in judo is called judogi, but also through attempts at setting opponents off-balance and destabilising them which makes throws much more likely to succeed.
Judo can prove to be a very practical form of self-defence with techniques that can be applied in real-world situations. As such to highlight this fact, the Japanese police force are often taught judo techniques as part of their training.
It’s also a martial art that also has a highly competitive side with tournaments throughout the year and is even part of the Olympic schedule.
Judo could be the martial art for you if you prefer something that has elements of defence as well as offence, making it a somewhat middle of the road choice. It is also the discipline that has the least amount of meditative elements compared to the rest on this list relying more on practical teachings.
Get started with judo
Judo classes are almost as popular and accessible as karate and are found throughout the country. As such, listing the entirety of locations in the UK is impossible, however the organisation British Judo is an ideal place to start with a full interactive map of the entire country and its classes and clubs.
Out of the three unarmed martial arts, aikido is the least aggressive option whilst also being the most defensive. It relies on letting the opponent make the first move as aikido doesn’t offer any way of initiating combat, it’s very much a martial art focused on countering an opponent instead. In truth, Its principles go as far as avoiding injury entirely — even to an aggressor. However, that’s not to say that serious injury cannot be inflicted — it’s just not at the forefront of what aikido is about.
If you decide to take up aikido you will find a focus on movement and using an opponent’s own strength against them. Pulling and pushing in line with the movements of an attacker form a large part of the technique that avoid attacks altogether. This is then paired with submission tactics like wrist and arm bending that help subdue opponents.
If you are someone who innately doesn’t like aggression but still wants to learn some personal defence, aikido could be for you. It may also appeal to those who want to steer more towards Japanese values and teachings of which aikido covers more than other unarmed disciplines.
Get started with aikido
Aikido clubs are gaining popularity in the UK and are now found in large parts of the country, however, there are some areas that are sparse in terms of opportunities. Much like some of the other disciplines, the UK does have its own unifying board and federation which is a great sign. For those that are interested in aikido, The British Aikido Board is the place to go which has its own club and class finder covering the entire country, as well as other useful information.
The first of the armed martial arts of this list is also the most popular choice among them. Utilising bamboo swords and full protective gear, you may be forgiven for thinking that kendo equals sword fighting. Let’s clear this up from the beginning – it’s not. In truth, it bears more resemblance to aspects of fencing which emphasises speed and precision, with the aim of landing single blows to designated areas of an opponent.
While you won’t be swinging wildly at each other, kendo does have its roots in the swordsmanship of old and is an evolution of a sparring and practice activity used by samurai. This can be evident in the way that movement and discipline are also a major part of this martial art, as well as how you will be taught to respect opponents, customs, managing your own equipment etc.
Kendo is the discipline that gravitates towards being the most fun. While fun is certainly subjective, there is less emphasis on it being useful and eliminates the stress or worry of real-world purposes. It’s also hard to practise outside of a dojo and so it starts to feel more like a martial arts club that is it’s own self-contained element.
Get started with kendo
Kendo is the most popular armed Japanese martial arts discipline in the UK with lots of places to get involved. Most of the classes and clubs are found in the midlands and below, with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland only seeing a handful in its major cities. The British Kendo Association is the major player in the UK and it too has a map showing all the locations of its member clubs.
Here we have another Japanese martial art that uses a sword in its application — however the intent and execution is vastly different. Iaido is a solely individual martial art, meaning you will never face-off or use its techniques on anyone else. This is because instead of bamboo swords like in Kendo, you will be using real swords.
At its heart, iaido is the art of drawing a sword and performing striking motions. It’s all about movement, posture, fluidity, precision, and confidence to name a few things, and are directly associated with qualities found in Japanese swordsmanship. Because of this, there is a sense of roleplaying to iaido that isn’t found in any of the other disciplines; you almost have to embody the samurai spirit and code yourself in order to understand, appreciate, and succeed in this martial art.
Iaido is somewhat a bit more niche than the others on this list but it may appeal to those looking for the most authentic ‘Japanese’ experience. Those that enjoy Japanese history, re-enactments, role playing (as mentioned previously) will find a home here, but also to those who are looking for self-improvement through discipline and dedication.
Get started with iaido
Being that iaido is a bit more niche, there isn’t as much of a presence as some of the major martial arts disciplines, there’s also no dedicated governing body in the UK. That being said, The British Kendo Association also covers some aspects of iaido and even covers club locations on its interactive map. In truth, the amount of iaido clubs is quite surprising.
The last Japanese martial art on this list differs again to any of the others previously, in that it’s not a close-quarters discipline — kyudo is performed with a bow.
In essence, kyudo is the Japanese version of archery but with a number of differences. Firstly, the bow that is used is larger — much larger — consisting of an average size of 2 metres or 6 and half feet tall. The second difference is that whilst there are targets, hitting them is not a primary goal.
Now, I can almost hear the confusion through the screen, however, much like many of the other disciplines there is a great meditative emphasis on kyudo. Clearing the mind of distractions and being present in the moment is what this ranged martial art is really about — even in competitions it is form, posture, and calmness that awards points.
Kyudo can be similar to Iaido in some respects apart from the tool in hand, however, kyudo would be perfect for those who want a slower, more reflective experience — not for those wanting to learn useful martial skills and techniques.
Get started with kyudo
Kyudo by far has the least amount of opportunities available in the UK, maybe due to the preference of archery, yet it is still possible to take up Kyudo — depending on where you are. There is a United Kingdom Kyudo Association that can help you get started, however there seems to be only 10 official clubs that offer the experience.
There is a whole host of Japanese martial arts classes available to undertake throughout the UK, certainly some more than others, but it’s not limited to perhaps just one or two as you might have expected.
While there may also be more variations of Japanese martial arts across the country that are not on this list, I feel these are the set of core disciplines that have the biggest presence. As part of introducing these six, hopefully I’ve at least highlighted a number of options available, as well as set you on course to find your own martial arts class that appeals to you.