DUBAI: Japanese martial arts are proving to be a big hit with Arabs with more fans than ever before taking up combat sports.
According to an Arab News-YouGov survey, 86 percent of Arabs of all ages share an interest in at least one form of martial arts, out of which 37 percent believe that karate is the “most interesting.”
The study, which questioned 3,033 people from the GCC, Levant and North Africa regions, showed that both men and women also enjoyed watching or taking part in judo, sumo and jiu-jitsu.
The trend is in line with recent hype surrounding mixed martial arts (MMA), a full-contact combat sport that allows almost all forms of striking and grappling.
The largest MMA-promoting company, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), hosts fighters from various MMA backgrounds who have battled in the “Octagon” in more than 20 countries, with the UAE being a recent destination.
The UFC held one of its largest fighting cards in Abu Dhabi last September, hosting undefeated MMA fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov. Supported by a large Arab fanbase, the Russian fighter has a background in combat sambo and judo.
However, the strong interest in martial arts among Arabs has not only expanded due to UFC viewings, but has also seen a rise in the number of martial arts centers opening up across the region.
With 20 years of training under his belt, Dubai-based jiu-jitsu instructor Amin Touati, told Arab News that more people were showing an interest in taking up a form of the sport and learning the skills to master it.
Touati, who heads and teaches at the Royce Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Dubai, said he had found jiu-jitsu to be the fastest-growing martial art in the Middle East and, possibly, in the world.
“I have personally witnessed the growth of jiu-jitsu in the UAE, from only three people carrying black belts when I first arrived in early 2006 to having over 700 black-belt holders today,” he said.
Most forms of martial arts root back to times of war and are found in the warrior traditions of the samurai.
Jiu-jitsu, for instance, originated in the 16th century in Japan and was taught to warriors as a method of fighting both with and without weapons.
“While other Asian martial arts were focusing on strikes, the Japanese arts were focusing more on throws and joint manipulation. Similarly, Arabs have also had a history of great warriors, one that is respected in the Middle East.”
Associating today’s hype of martial arts to combat sport promotions such as the UFC, Touati said he believed learning the art went way beyond self-defence.
“It is a complete package. From building physical strength to building mental strength. Martial arts have always been a tool to instill discipline and strong character, which is why most parents believe it can help their children become strong mentally and physically,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fahad M., an MMA enthusiast from Dubai, said the rise in martial arts interest was also due to its legacy in the region.
“We have to consider jiu-jitsu’s rich history in the GCC and especially in Abu Dhabi, where the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-jitsu Championships have been held for around 20 years. Bahrain is also home to the Brave Combat Federation, the largest MMA promotion in the Middle East,” he said.
The YouGov survey found that among Arabs planning to visit Japan, 33 percent of men considered martial arts such as sumo and judo to be a top attraction, compared to 19 percent of Arab women.
While only 4 percent of Arabs have visited Japan, 87 percent would like to travel there in the future, listing its food options, heritage sites and traditional arts as some of its unique attractions.
With the 2020 Summer Olympics due to take place in Tokyo, the Japanese government is setting a target of between 30 and 40 million foreign tourists to visit the country next year, reported the Japan Times.
Popular tourist destinations in Japan include Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, with 2018 marking a record high of 31.19 million foreign visitors, an 8.7 percent increase on the previous year.