Hidden Japan: Modern Bushido

The Art of the Warrior and the art of organizing the largest scale fight events in the world. 


The (very short) story behind this post:

I’ve been a huge fan of martial arts, especially Asian ones and I’ve been a fan of Asia, particularly Japan since my teens. So, I thought why not combine the two this time around and try to create an article that’s both about Japan and fighting? Of course, there is so much more to martial arts than this article. So, if you are interested, I will be more than happy to dig into the world of Japanese and Asian martial arts later on. I also dearly hope, that this article will be interesting and readable also for those, who are not particularly into fighting as such.

Japan the hub of professional fighting

If it hadn’t been for Japan, it’s likely that proper professional mixed martial arts would never have born in any other place.  This may be a lesser-known fact to all those not familiar with the world of professional fighting, but Japan has been the longtime center and for many, the birthplace of professional fighting as such. Today’s largest fight organizations, such as UFC or Bellator would not exist if it wasn’t for japan which obviously gave the very first pro fighting stars to the world.

The beginning: Bushido

The Samurai warrior is still among the most popular figures the epitome of Japanese fighting spirit


Bushido. The way of the warrior. It’s an essential part of the Japanese soul, ever since Japan exists. To live and die like a real warrior or Samurai was the highest level of living. If a Samurai pulls out his sword he has to kill. Should he lose his pride (his face), he has to kill himself in a specific way (by committing Seppuku) by higher obligation.

Fighting for life has been very present in Japan throughout the middle ages until the time the Shogunate was established. Up until then, clans of Japanese elite families have clashed very often to attain power. Bushido was then totally used for all the wrong reasons when Japan has started its express-highway journey towards Western civilization in an attempt to not even get on the same level but to outdo the West after its doors had been forced open to the world. Losing its identity Bushido has turned into needless and mindless massacres from the beginning of the 1900s, flourished in the form of forcing hundreds if not thousands to commit suicide as Kamikaze pilots in the name of the Emperor. This craze has lasted up until the moment of the giant wake-up call: the falling down of the first atomic bomb onto Japan. In many ways, the atomic bombs served as the real wakeup call. To free Japan from wanting to force the Western standards and to give it back its original identity. Bushido was back in a smarter, better way. And Japan bounced back flourishing its own way, on its own terms. There are tons of books written about the Samurai spirit, which are very popular in the West. But in many ways, Bushido is a code that cannot entirely be translated. And all in all, the core of Bushido is to kill anyone that’s in your way and to fight till the death.

To date, Bushido is ever-present in movies, anime and in manga stories too. It’s one of the most commonly used words.

All those who think that all that was left off of the Japanese fighting spirit had been turned into humility and politeness, are very wrong. Japan, all politeness put aside has always been one of the nations which were more than keen to fight and it has remained so, even if this desire has been turned around and has become an active fandom for watching Japanese fighting events. From roughly the beginning of the Nineties, it was Japan who has hosted the largest scale fight events inviting fighters from all around the world. The fighters were all chosen according to their special skills or talent. The majority of them were outstanding in one or more ways. Vale Tudo champions from Brazil, wrestling and pro-wrestling fighters from the US, Muay-Thai fighters from Thailand, the best kickboxers from Europe and of course last but not least the best of Japanese athletes. It was Japan who was the very best in putting up the most spectacular shows and pairing up the best of the best in professional fighting. It was an „Only in Japan” thing for a long while and it is, to date. This is what I would like to share with you, the history of Japanese fighting events the modern Bushido-style entertainment of the Japanese crowd.

Sumo – where it has all started

Sumo is one great example of the Japanese love for combining entertainment and fighting. It’s been among the most popular events in Japan for a very long time.

Japanese people love freakshow fights. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the existence of Sumo, a specific kind of wrestling that involves the clashing of two extremely strong and often fat guys. Sumo is one of the oldest, still living fighting sports in the world. It’s been present as entertainment sports since 794 A.D. Japanese people have always been amazed by huge people. And as such, they have started to create their own huge fighters. Sumo works according to the lines of a very specific ruleset. But the most important part of all Sumo shows is the extra-long introduction, which involves the blessing of the „fighting arena” the blessing of the fighters and the completion of all rituals required. Sumo and its ancient traditions are the staples of all modern Japanese sports events. Sumo is full of rankings and has tons of titles.

In order to grow so large and so strong, Sumo fighters are traditionally chosen as kids out of those who they saw would grow tall and big. They move in a special district. Sumo fighting is not a mere sport, it’s a lifestyle. Sumos have a special diet with a clear aim to make them as strong, big and durable as possible. However, Sumo is not only about size. Sumo fighters live in special camps and they have to go through rigorous wrestling based training every day. Sumo contains elements of grappling, catch wrestling, and even Judo throws.

Sumo fighter

The core of Sumo is to move the opponent out of the „ring” that’s a traditional circular fight area covered with sand. Sumo, as all things Japanese if full of codes and symbolism. I could write a whole book if I would want to detail them all. The key element of the show is the intro that includes all the elements written above. The fights or clashes barely last more than a few seconds. Sumo clashes are short and brutal. Sumo fighters train to be able to grab and push their opponents as fast and aggressive as humanly possible, as this is their key task. Even if it’s at the cost of lifting their opponents. Sumo tournaments last several hours and they feature a lots of fighters of differing rankings compete in tournament format.

To date, Sumo is the one and only fighting-related sport which has really succeeded in becoming and staying mainstream and it’s the key national sport of Japan. The highest-ranking Sumo champions the Yokozunas are real stars in Japan. Sumo camps have become to accept non-Japanese trainees from all over the world but managed to keep everything as traditional as it had been back in the day.

The start of Japanese professional Fighting events

Japanese poster of a fighting event

The distinguishing qualities of Japanese Fight events

Japanese fight events are huge. And what’s even more special about them is, that they do not want these events to look international. Not a word of English is spoken. The shows are strictly broadcasted in Japanese and on Japanese streams. It’s something, that’s entirely Japanese. Japanese fight events have tons of elements that come from the old times, such as from Sumo, another traditional fighting sport that is the most popular fighting sport in Japan to this day.

Japanese fighters who make it big in Japan become extremely popular and highly respected. One of the finest examples of this includes Masato a fighter who retired early in his career and Norifumi Kid Yamamoto (RIP).

Masato, one of the most popular Japanese kickboxers of all time
  • Silence – the crowd sits in silence during the fights. No clapping, shouting or any loud actions are accepted crowd –wise.Clapping, cheering, shouting only starts during breaks and when a fight ends. The sole exception of this rule is the Sumo event.
  • Long events – Japanese fight events are over 3-4 hours long.
  • Beautiful and spectacular intros with lots of shouting – Japanese events are extremely popular for being artistic, long. All respect and visibility are given to all the participants.
  • Long entrances – just like the introductions entrances also serve as an essential element of the fight.
  • Fight events are very Japanese but are not mainstream. People, therefore, do not talk about these, it’s not a touristic event ( unlike Thai boxing in Thailand) so you as a tourist in Japan will not be able to discuss fighting with people normally.
  • This may have to do with the fact, that although appearing looking legal, there is not much denying of Yakuza (Japanese crime organization) involvement in the pro-fighting scene. And Japanese won’t discuss any such thing unless being in the company of close friends.
  • Despite the lack of lots of rules, the Japanese do not like too much blood or injuries. This is why a very keen judge was/is in the cage ready to stop fight the moment it becomes apparent that one fighter has an injury.
  • There is no clear indication of worked fights in Japanese MMA.
  • Japanese are great fans because they do not put winning as the key expectation from the fighters they are fans of.


PRIDE poster

Pancrase (1993) the Japanese style Lucha libre

It has all started with Pancrase. The organization was the very first one, which started to invite pro-wrestlers, wrestlers and all sorts of fighters from Judo to Jiu-Jitsu from all across the globe to make them clash in the form of freestyle fighting. Besides that Pancrase worked with a stricter set of rules than it’s successor Pride. Pancrase was the first show which combined the elements of Pro wrestling and amateur fighting. The one disturbing thing to me with Pancrase is the fighters’ gear. The fighters wore wrestling pants and knee-high boots! While the rules were mainly geared toward wrestling, it also allows striking. Although Pancrase has events to this day, their key period was in the Nineties. This organization marked the birth of JMMA. With Pride becoming mainstream from roughly 2000 the international importance of Pancrase has started to fade. Subsequently, it has changed its image and updated its ruleset. Today it functions as a normal Japanese sports organization without much international coverage.

Pancrase fight back in the day

Pride FC (1997-2007) the birth of full-blown JMMA

Pride was the highest quality large-scale fighting entertainment for a decade. Pride was the very best example of making fighters from all around the world become huge stars. The events of Pride has become so big and so large scale and the whole world was watching their events. Pride has turned the likes of Mirko CroCop Filipovic (one of the best kickboxers of all time from Croatia), the Nogueira brothers, the Gracie brothers ( the very best champions of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) or one of the most famous Japanese wrestlers Kazushi Sakuraba. Last but not least, it was Pride which has produced arguably the best champions of the world of mixed martial arts. And the very best one of them the Russian Fedor Emelianenko (champion of Sambo wrestling) also called the Last Emperor. Despite him not being the largest, he has become notorious to defeat just everyone in the heavyweight divisions. He was also featured against giants oftentimes. Fedor has become so highly respected by president Putin that for a while he has also had a high post in the Russian Ministry of Sports. Fedor is often regarded as the best mixed martial artist of all time (aka GOAT).

Pride poster featuring another extra famous fighter Takanori Gomi

Before we dig deeper in the topic, there is one essential part of pro-fighting readers need to know about. Fighting in Europe and in the US is often burdened with tons of rules, referring to illegal tactics and the taking of illegal substances. It also makes weight classes to make fights all the less dangerous. MMA is considered so dangerous to this day, that it’s banned in many countries ( E.g: France). Now, none of these rules existed in the world of Japanese Fighting. In the beginning, not even rounds existed. Fighters were fighting without most of the rules imposed in modern pro-fighting today. Head kicks (soccer kicks), fishhooks, long rounds, elbows, kicking an opponent on the ground, kicking the back of the head, using banned substances, and other sorts of normally illegal tactics were not even talked about. There were tons of circus fights, David vs. Goliath fights and other freakshow fights for the sake of entertainment. There were even Sumo fighters invited to fight! As a result, fighting fans were crazy about Pride FC and most of the fight fans are crazy about it even to this day.

The founder of Pride FC is called Nobuyuki Sakakibara. He also was the founder of other co-organizations some of which also grew huge. I will discuss these later. Pride has died with the UFC purchasing the organization to basically kill it off. But there is a new root, that has flourished into a new large fight organization following the footsteps of Pride, established by Pride’s owner Mr. Sakakibara. There was never an organization before Pride which gave fighters the chance to become really rich and highly respected from fighting. Pride fights were often extremely brutal. That’s why Pride FC’s events were not broadcasted by the mainstream sports TV stations. Many Pride fighters have continued their careers in UFC but due to the length of time and injuries, the majority of them are retired today.

K-1 (1993-2011) the best standup fighting event of all time

K-1 poster from the time K-1 was worldwide watched and broadcasted

K-1 was the single largest organization that hosted kickboxing events. Founded by Kazuyoshi Ishii a Kyokushin Karate practitioner himself K-1 was destined to promote standup fighting which means all martial arts which don’t deal with ground techniques. To date, there has never been a larger-scale platform for standup fighters anywhere in the world. K-1 championships have become so huge and popular that they were broadcasted all around the world. Due to its nature being closer to the mainstream, K-1 has made stars from such fighting talents such as Peter Aerts, Ernesto Hoost, Badr Hari, Jerome LeBanner, Semmy Schilt. K-1 was more international than Pride in nature. K-1 events were held worldwide and they were huge shows, with a large audience while keeping the great show elements that were similar to the one of Pride FCs. K-1 has faced severe financial problems from roughly 2009 and when it was bought by a Hong Kong organization, it has failed to continue the way it did. Although K-1 still exists today, it is far from being the same as it was before. Lots of K-1 champions have therefore migrated in the world of MMA and have continued in other large organizations such as UFC. Good examples for that are Mark Hunt, Alistair Overeem and Mirko CroCop (retired).

GANRYUJIMA aka Moat fighting- (also called hybrid MMA) (2015-

Ganryujima features a totally unique way of fighting entertainment

Japanese love extreme and weird stuff. And Ganryujima is all that. If you are looking for a real-life Bloodsport sort of a fight event, somewhat combined with the ruleset of Sumo look no further. Ganryujima is all about mixing up styles of people coming from all sorts of martial arts and nonmartial arts backgrounds. named after a Japanese island that’s very famous for being the plot where the fight between Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro took place, the ring of moat fight events resembles a circular island surrounded by water. It has a distinct ruleset and it favors standup fighting.

In case you are wondering why it’s called moat fighting and how it includes Sumo there you go:

The competition area will be 8-meter diameter and 60 cm high circle stage with no ropes or cage, with a possible moat of water surrounding it. There will be 3 rounds of 3 minutes each, with 1 round extension, 1 minute between each round. if one opponent falls off the stage 3 times in one round. In scoring, a fighter loses points for receiving damage or falling/being thrown and subsequently off the stage.

While moat fighting is not really mainstream ( being too weird for that) it’s getting pretty popular in Japan. Also, it’s definitely watched internationally by fight fans. It’s definitely worth checking out if only for its uniqueness. In looks Ganryujima combines the traditional elements of Sumo, with elements of Shinto with the elements of ultramodern fighting scene. That’s so Japanese!

the ring of Ganryujima which combines traditional with modern

Rizin (2015 – )

When Rizin has appeared the international fighting it was welcomed with a standing ovation by the fight fans from all over the world. So much so, that it has all the best qualities of Japanese Fighting Show which everybody kept missing for quite a long time. This was due to the fact, that there was a good 6-7 year gap when there were simply no large Japanese fight events held. Pride was bought and was finished and this was the time it’s former owner took to stand back on his feet and make a fresh start-over. Rizin continues from where Pride has left off. But this time around it combines all the best elements from Pride and K1. It invites great fighters from all over the world, while also keeping it totally Japanese, knowingly making Japanese stars out of the new generation Japanese fighters. This is a fantastic thing and I as a fight fan am extremely happy for Rizin which totally lacks the money-hungry American approach which dooms American MMA. While nobody was sure whether the first Rizin was only a one-time show or not, luckily it’s very successful. Rizin is preparing to hold its 21st event on February 22 in 2020.

Rizin has done many great things for Japanese fighting.

Of course, there are many more events and many more fighters in Japan who would need to be introduced. But this is the list of some of the largest scale fight events held in Japan, which are fun to check out even for those, who are not particularly into fighting, martial arts of MMA.

I hope you liked this post, please make sure to check out my other posts about Japan, social media and more!