What is Bunbu Ryodo? 文武両道とは何ぞや?


bunburyodo-3This term is a very popular term to the Japanese but it may be foreign to most of the western readers. When we talk about martial arts and martial artists we use this term often. I would like to explain what this term means so that you may want to add this concept to your martial art life.

The first kanji , bun literally means letter or writing. In this term it means 文事 or学芸 which means “arts and science” or “liberal arts” including the Japanese arts of shodo (brush writing), kado (flower arrangement) and sado (tea ceremony). In other words, it represents the mastery of the general education and the cultural studies.The second kanji , bu should be more familiar to the karate-ka. Of course it means military. In this term it means 武事 or 武芸 meaning military affairs or martial arts. The third kanji , ryo means both. I am sure you know the last kanji, 道 do that means road or path. Now you can easily guess what the term means. Yes, it means the ability of being excelled in both education and also in martial arts. It also refers to someone who possesses such an ability.

This term can be found to be as old as the famous literary Heike Story of the 13th century. We do not know exactly when this term was invented but the combination of two kanjis and was popular in ancient Japan. We find the combination of 武 was used for the 42nd emperor 武天皇 in the 7th century. Though the pronunciation of those kanjis was “Monmu” the meaning remained the same and it represented the meaning that this emperor was to excel in both higher education and military affairs.

SamuraiDuring the samurai time, especially in the age of civil war in the 15th and 16th centuries, bunbu ryodo became more like a requirement for any samurai to be a leader or even to be recognized. As you can easily suspect that most of the samurais paid more attention to the attainment of the high skills in the martial arts such as kenjutsu (sword), sojutsu (spear) and kyujutsu (archery). An uneducated samurai with a sword could turn into a dangerous hoodlum.

SadoSo, in addition to the martial arts training they spent much of their time learning poems, tea ceremony, history, strategies and other subjects. All the politicians were required to have the knowledge of 武 bu. Of course, during these periods almost all the politicians came from the samurai clans. They needed this as they were in the civil war age; but at the same time, they needed it to segregate other powerful groups such as the educated monks, merchants and the aristocrats who would seek a governing position.

Some of the scholars in that era stated that and are the two sides of the same coin and they must not be divided. In others words without means an imperfect martial art and it cannot create a respectable samurai.

For thousands of years Japan was almost totally isolated due to its geographical characteristic of being an island off in the Pacific. In 1868, Japan graduated from the feudal age and that of isolationism to join the western civilizations. The samurai class was dismantled but until the end of the WWII (1945) Japan’s military and the soldiers were respected just as the samurais were. Thus, it was an easy transition and the term was used for the soldiers and the military men. The swordsmanship was replaced by the guns, fighter planes and the war ships. The kamikaze pilots were called the samurais in the sky.

After the WWII it changed again as the new Japanese Constitution prohibited Japan from having a military. We have a Self Defense army but they lost the reputation and the respect the samurai used to have. We no longer have the samurai class and the military does not receive much respect. In fact, its existence is supposedly illegitimate according to the constitution but we will not go into that subject. Regardless, the term of 文武両道 bunbu ryodo is still frequently used in Japan. Nowadays bu is no longer martial art or military affairs and it has been replaced by sport. Even judo, kendo and karate are now generally considered as sport and not bujutsu, martial art. A slight legacy of a martial art still remains, however, that they consider only the tough and “manly” sport as 武 bu. Since the end of WWII baseball and football (soccer) have become very popular in Japan (much more than karate and judo) so those sports are considered as 武 bu. On the other hand, a gentle or leisurely activity such as music and dancing are not included in bu. They were, in fact, originally included in the 文 bun category.

Then how about the bun category? Its meaning also changed since the samurai time and it no longer refers to the cultural education such as poetry and tea ceremony. Now it refers to the graduate work and the higher education. In other words, to have 文 bun, you need to attain a PhD for example.

Even though and are supposedly equally important in 文武両道. Not surprisingly, the side of 武 seems to receive more credit these days. For instance, in a job search a college graduate who was a member of a soccer club would receive preferential treatment for hiring by a company than a candidate who was not involved in any sport club activities even if he was a Cum Laude student.

It is a shame that the original meaning for 文武両道 has changed. I am afraid it has gotten watered down. One is called 文武両道 because he has an MBA and played baseball in his college days. Being involved with an athletic club certainly brings some benefits including good health but it will not guarantee the superior quality such as total dedication, perseverance and honor that came with the samurai. doujoukunIn addition, the institutional education we have in the universities does not necessarily teach us the wisdom, gentleman-ship, leadership, diplomacy or even common sense. I met a few “stupid” and ignorant PhDs in my life so I know this. I would rather respect a person who is excelled in the music or the art of poetry or any artistry even if they are not a college graduates.


If you are a serious karate practitioner you can really develop the true spirit of 文武両道. Of course you devote yourself in the karate training but It is possible to develop bu by not only the karate training but also byfollowing and exercising what is written in the dojo kun (photo above, beautifully written by Tetsuhiko Asai) and Niju kun. Then to develop 文 bun, you must study to train not only your head but also your character. The study includes reading a lot of books on history, kinesiology, philosophy, strategy and even science and religion.

Musashi painting 2 You also need to be able to write. How many senior karate instructors have written the books? The books do not include the “how to” books with a lot of photos but I am talking about a book with the theories, concepts, methodology, history and philosophy. I cannot think of too many other than Master Funakoshi. In addition, you may need to expose yourself to painting, poetry and music to deepen your character. Look at Musashi who wrote the famous book of Five Rings. He is also well known for his excellent paintings and carvings. Some of them, in fact, became national treasures (an example, photo right).

I hope this short article provided you some idea of 文武両道. The ancient Japanese expected a lot from a samurai and many of them fulfilled the requirements. It will take a strong determination and a commitment by a practitioner to follow the path but it can be done. It is entirely up to you.


2 Responses to What is Bunbu Ryodo? 文武両道とは何ぞや?

  • Dear Yokota Sensei, a great little article, not to complicated easy to relate, something which should be digested and thought about by any Karate-ka, young or old, but sadly is missed and ignored, or just never given a second thought. The thing which grabbed my most attention of this article was not the information it contained as I always hope and try to promote (simply put in layman’s terms) good behaviour and understanding, which can be challenging in modern day life, but your very last line caught my attention immediately …..”It is entirely up to you.” It is very often not noticed that just maybe the smallest change in character can bring the greatest results and the responsibility in the end will always fall upon the individual, but often gets directed elsewhere.

    We all possess the ability to apply ourselves or to follow a particular path or direction regarding what we do in life and enjoy what it brings, but few often lack the ability to change or adjust because it can be looked upon as a weakness in some way. The term Bunbu Ryodo (文武両道とは何ぞや) maybe foreign to most (me included until I read your article) but the actual concept of it is seated in all cultures and societies in one way or another especially regarding correctness of behaviour, self-improvement, respect and courtesy etc. Teaching the link between in and out of the dojo is often difficult and people seem to require more and more gratification and appraisal for just being there rather than applying themselves wholly to what they are doing in order to gain this ability through diligent practice.

    The understanding of ones or another’s achievements and skills in their dedicated pursuits should never be watered down to suit but should always be looked upon as their own worth in their own right at that time, if we don’t, how can we continue to respect what we have or have not got or have things to which we can aspire to.

    To be better or continue to make improvements should always be important in whatever you do. The dojo seems to be one of the few places left to develop the concepts of true genuine spirit covering and strengthening character through the determination of “applying yourself correctly” in whatever you do in life. Hopefully this will remain so!

    I would like to finish exactly where I started – it really, really is….”Entirely up to You” …

    With respect always

    Mr Andrew JM Nightingale

    • Dear Sensei Nightingale,

      Thank you very much for your in depth comment and for sharing your thoughts.
      As a karate instructor, I always realize that teaching a technique is not hard.
      However, transmitting the motivation, honor, respect, attitude, etc. is much more challenging.
      We, the karate instructors, must try to conduct and behave as a model both inside and outside the dojo.
      We must be able to show how a sensei acts and what he is made of. The words are almost always cheap.
      The words must be backed up by our actions and behavior of 24 x 7. This is hard but we must try.
      Understanding budo karate is like climbing a high mountain. We may never reach the top but the joy is taking another step forward.
      I am very happy and honored that you and I are walking together in this karate journey.

      K. Yokota

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