There are almost a dozen recognized kickboxing styles in the world. Among the oldest styles is Japanese kickboxing, also known as Kikkubokushingu. The contemporary variants of this type of mixed martial art may make you wonder what is Japanese kickboxing really.

Japanese kickboxing is a hybrid full-contact sport combining the elements of muay thai, kyokushin karate, and boxing. Initially known simply as kickboxing, the Japanese mixed martial art style is the foundation of the popular Glory world championships. 

While many kickboxing styles appear similar, there are significant differences among Japanese, American, Dutch, sanda, kun khmer, etc. Read on as I explain what is Japanese kickboxing and how it has evolved through the decades.

What Is the Japanese Kickboxing Style?

Japanese kickboxing has a unique style that sets it apart from other martial arts. There are certain moves in this style that fighters are not allowed to use, making it distinct from other styles.

The Japanese kickboxing style combines the punches of boxing with kicks of kyokushin karate and knee strikes of muay thai. However, Japanese kickboxing doesn’t permit any pushing, grabbing, holding, elbow strikes, leg sweeps, and attacks on the knees or back.  

Japanese Kickboxing vs. Boxing

Traditional boxing does not involve any attacks below the belt. Also, you cannot strike a boxer using your legs, feet, or knees. You cannot use your elbows, either. The only weapon a boxer has to mount an offense is a variety of punches.

In Japanese kickboxing, you can use punches, kicks, and knee strikes. You can hit a fighter on the torso or below the belt. However, you cannot intentionally strike the groin, at the back, or on the knees. Also, you cannot open your palm and hit a fighter’s head, face, or neck.

Japanese Kickboxing vs. Kyokushin Karate

Compared to boxing, kyokushin karate is a full-contact mixed martial art. Karatekas use hands, elbows, and legs. The respective techniques are thrust, elbow strike, and kick. However, you cannot use the knees to strike, except for a few competitions, like bare knuckle and knockdown.

Japanese kickboxing adopts the kyokushin karate strikes and techniques of using the hands and legs, but not the elbows. Also, you cannot use leg sweeps in Japanese kickboxing, unlike in conventional kyokushin karate. 

The differences aside, Japanese kickboxing and kyokushin karate have many similarities. Both styles demand similar agility and strength. Also, both styles prohibit the fighters from using head thrusts, groin kicks, grabbing, hooking, pushing, and holding. 

Japanese Kickboxing vs. Muay Thai

Muay thai is a more comprehensive mixed martial art style than boxing and kyokushin karate. While the sport is essentially Thai boxing (muay), the style involves punches, kicks, and strikes using elbows and knees. Also, fighters can grab or clinch unless a competition rule prohibits it.  

Japanese kickboxing does not replicate the entirety of any of these three fighting styles. Instead, the hybrid techniques draw heavily from the more traditional styles. Hence, you will find several elements of muay thai in Japanese kickboxing, but not all.

For instance, you can strike with your elbows in muay thai. However, many such practices are subject to the rules of particular competitions. Some modified muay thai versions prohibit all elbow strikes on the head, face, and neck. 

Japanese Kickboxing Rules

The original rules of Japanese kickboxing are no longer applicable to the current championships or world titles, and other tournaments. Most of the changes over the decades have prioritized the safety of kickboxers. 

Here are the legitimate offensive actions in Japanese kickboxing:

  • All punches must strike the padded glove part on a legal target (allowed body part).
  • All types of kicks must use the lower leg or foot to hit a legal target. 
  • All knee strikes should aim for a legal target without violating the clinch restrictions. 

Here are the prohibited offensive actions in Japanese kickboxing:

  • Groin strikes, head thrusts or butts, grabbing, and holding.  
  • Elbow strikes, irrespective of whether the target is legal or not.
  • Striking at the back of a kickboxer’s torso or head.
  • Kicks targeting the knee from any direction. 
  • Biting, jabbing, pushing, shoving, and throwing.
  • Foot or leg sweep and clinching without immediately striking. 

The Origin of Japanese Kickboxing

Osamu Noguchi and Tatsuo Yamada developed this mixed martial art in the 1960s. The new full-contact sport was the first appearance of what we know as kickboxing. The subsequent classification or distinction as Japanese kickboxing happened when other styles came about over the years. 

During the 1950s, karate tournaments were major events in Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries. Many karatekas and mixed martial artists participated in these tournaments. But the karate practiced in Japan didn’t permit full contact, whereas muay thai was an all-out attack. 

Now, this was an era when Japan was the only Asian superpower. And they believed their mixed martial arts were superior to Korean and Chinese. The karatekas did not know much about muay thai. Additionally, television was changing how people consumed sports & entertainment. 

Thus, the origin story of Japanese kickboxing is nothing short of a blockbuster screenplay. 

Osamu Noguchi

Osamu Noguchi was the owner of a boxing gym that he inherited from his father. The ambitious man was also an active promoter of boxing. His entrepreneurial spirit nudged him to explore the possibilities of pitting boxing against mixed martial arts for a televised event. 

However, he knew the limitations of boxing against the popular mixed martial art style muay thai. In boxing, you have only two points of contact as your striking force, your hands. Muay thai has eight striking points, a pair each of hands, elbows, knees, and feet. 

Thus, the clever Osamu Noguchi turned to karate. Since karatekas engaged their hands and feet, they had a much better prospect than boxers against muay thai fighters. So, master karateka Tatsuo Yamada comes into the story. 

Tatsuo Yamada

Tatsuo Yamada was one of the strongest advocates of full-contact karate styles. The traditional shotokan karate does not allow strikes at all body parts, and you are restricted in terms of how much force you can use. In contrast to shotokan, kyokushin karate is a full-body contact style and uses more force.

Yamada practiced kyokushin karate and developed a style known as nippon kempo. Yamada took an interest in muay thai because it was fiercer than traditional karate. Thus, Yamada took up Noguchi’s offer to pit kyokushin karatekas against muay thai fighters.

So, Osamu Noguchi started working with the television network and planning the logistics. And Tatsuo Yamada began training selected karatekas for a showdown with muay thai champions. But another tale during the same time made the first kickboxing fight a cultural phenomenon. 

Karate vs. Muay Thai

In 1959, an iconic fight took place at the Asakusa town hall in Tokyo. Multiple black belt holder karateka Tadashi Sawamura fought the top muay thai fighter of the time, Samarn Sor Adisorn. The muay thai champion dominated the fight and defeated the karateka at his home ground.

Samarn Sor Adisorn’s win against Tadashi Sawamura was obviously muay thai triumphing over karate, and that too in Tokyo. Naturally, Sawamura decided to train harder. Eventually, Tatsuo Yamada roped him into the first team of aspiring Japanese kickboxers. 

A few years after Sawamura’s defeat, Noguchi and Yamada organized a tournament. This time, the Japanese kickboxers would fight muay thai champions at the Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Thailand. Noguchi and Yamada took three mixed martial artists along, including Sawamura.

The First Japanese Kickboxing Fights in Thailand

The first Japanese kickboxing fights ended in postponement twice in 1963. Eventually, the fights happened in the spring of 1964 at the Lumpinee Boxing Stadium.

Two of the three Japanese kickboxers won their bouts against their muay thai opponents. Tadashi Sawamura knocked out his opponent, so did Akhio Fujihira.   

Here’s a video of the fight between Akhio Fujihira and Huafai Lukcontai:

Sawamura and Fujihira knew their fighting style in these bouts was not traditional karate. But the event is still remembered as kyokushin karate vs. muay thai. 

Additionally, Tatsuo Yamada had called this style karate boxing at the time. Besides, Osamu Noguchi was yet to come up with the name kickboxing. Nonetheless, Tadashi Sawamura and Akhio Fujihira became icons after their wins. And Noguchi went on to establish Japanese kickboxing. 

You may read about these legendary tales in The 1968 Black Belt Yearbook.

The Evolution of Japanese Kickboxing

In 1966, Osamu Noguchi founded the Kickboxing Association and organized the first official event. Tatsuo Yamada helped formulate the original rules and promoted the sport until he died in 1967. Sawamura, Fujihira, and a few others were the first superstars of Japanese kickboxing. 

In 1987, the All Japan Kickboxing Federation became the supreme promoting and sanctioning body. The organization promoted the sport with numerous events, including world titles. Some of the popular Japanese kickboxing events over the years include K-1, It’s Showtime, and Glory. 

Today, the leading global promoter of Japanese kickboxing is the Singaporean company Glory Sports International Pte Ltd. Currently owned by Gsukco Limited, the brand operates all the licensed Glory kickboxing events throughout the world. 

The Glory World Titles

K-1 and It’s Showtime were the two most popular brands promoting kickboxing in Japan and worldwide. However, K-1 is defunct now, and It’s Showtime, Golden Glory, and United Glory are a part of the Glory brand. Also, the erstwhile Glory World Series isn’t around anymore.  

The present Glory world titles are in the following divisions:

  • Women’s Super Bantamweight
  • Featherweight
  • Lightweight
  • Welterweight
  • Middleweight
  • Light Heavyweight
  • Heavyweight

Additionally, Glory hosts several competitions and tournaments, and number or brand most of these events chronologically or per the location. The other events include Road To Glory, Rivals, and Collision. 

Glory has featured many leading kickboxers, like Peter Aerts, Semmy Schilt, Remy Bonjasky, Gokhan Saki, Albert Kraus, and Daniel Ghita.

The current Glory world champions in their respective weight classes or divisions are:

  • Tiffany Van Soest
  • Petch
  • Tyjani Beztati
  • Donovan Wisse
  • Artem Vakhitov
  • Rico Verhoeven

Japanese Kickboxing vs. American Kickboxing

All kickboxing styles are a hybrid sport, which is why they are known as mixed martial arts. Every prominent kickboxing variant is a freestyle contact sport limited by the competition rules. So, kickboxers can develop and adapt their techniques unless the strikes are fouls. 

Therefore, Japanese kickboxing has similarities and dissimilarities with American, Dutch, and other variants. Many fans find the Dutch style as predominantly boxing with bits of karate and muay thai. American kickboxing has more karate elements than boxing or muay thai. 

In contrast to both, Japanese kickboxing has abundant elements of boxing, karate, and muay thai. Of course, the kickboxers have different fighting styles, including offense, defense, and movements. 

Similarities Between American and Japanese Kickboxing

Both American and Japanese kickboxing require fighters to wear a mouthguard, pelvic or groin protector, and gloves. Kickboxers can thrust or punch and kick the opponent above their waist. However, there are differences in the parts you can engage and target in the two styles. 

The competition rules can vary for American and Japanese kickboxing styles for amateurs and professionals. Furthermore, the event organizers or promoters of a particular tournament can change the conventional rules and scoring system. 

The other similarities between these two styles include physical and mental training. Neither is easier for the uninitiated, but both fitness regimens have tremendous health benefits if practiced safely. 

Differences Between American and Japanese Kickboxing

In American kickboxing, you cannot kick a fighter below the waist. In addition, you cannot use your elbows or knees to strike the opponent. Punches and kicks above the waist are fair. In contrast, Japanese kickboxers can strike both upper and lower parts of the body.

Clinching is a foul in American kickboxing. Japanese kickboxers can clinch if they follow the act up immediately with a knee strike or other attacks. On the flip side, the Japanese style prohibits sweeping, whereas American kickboxers can do a foot-to-foot sweep, except for spin sweeps. 

Furthermore, Japanese kickboxing allows shin strikes, which is kicking with the lower leg but not the foot. Some American kickboxing competitions do not allow the use of the shin while kicking. 

These differences necessitate varying defensive maneuvers across all kickboxing styles. The American and Japanese kickboxing styles continue to evolve, including their rules.

Final Thoughts

Japanese kickboxing is the oldest form of this type of mixed martial art. The scope of Japanese kickboxing is broader than the American style due to the legal targets fighters can hit, and the Japanese style combines more elements than most of the other approaches to kickboxing. 

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