Katame Waza vs Newaza • What’s the Difference?

Categories of Technique vs. Domains of Combat

Drawing of jujutsu / judo practice from the early “modern” period.

In the world of Japanese martial arts, particularly judo & jujutsu, one often hears the terms katame-waza (grappling techniques) and newaza (ground fighting) used interchangeably. Even the best teachers do this and for ease of class instruction it is almost always permissible. Because of this, however, occasionally students ask, “What is the difference between katame-waza & newaza? Are they two terms referring to the same thing?”

The easiest way to answer is to understand that Japanese combative techniques can be broken down and organized in several different ways all of which are valid. Each way has its merits and depending on the context, a sensei might use one over another. For the sake of this short essay and answering this particular question, we’ll focus on the two broad ways this organization usually takes place.

One method is to organize combative skills into branches or categories of technique. In pre-World War 2 Judo, this was broken down into:

  1. Atemi-Waza (Striking Technique)
  2. Nage-Waza (Throwing Technique)
  3. Katame-Waza (Grappling Technique)

Notice, there isn’t any Newaza or “ground fighting” technique in there. Or is there?

Katame-Waza refers to grappling techniques. Many grappling techniques take place on the ground. So, in some sense it seems that Katame-waza (grappling) encompasses Newaza (ground fighting). However, not all grappling techniques take place on the ground. Many joint locks and strangulation / choking techniques happen in the standing position, especially when one is thinking about the these arts as true fighting arts as opposed to sporting contests.

So that settles it, right? All newaza is katame-waza but NOT all katame-waza is newaza, right? Well, not exactly…

Juji Gatame • Cross Body Arm Lock

You see, katame-waza simply categorizes specific types of techniques as GRAPPLING. It doesn’t state where the specific grappling technique is taking place. It could be standing, on the ground, or even sitting in a chair. It is a category of technique without reference to WHERE the technique is taking place. Yes, much of grappling happens on the ground but that isn’t always true.

The other way of breaking down combative skills isn’t based on Categories of Technique model but rather based on the specific DOMAINS OF COMBAT. There are more than these two, but broadly speaking we can say they are Tachi-Waza (standing) and Newaza (ground).

Simply stating “ground fighting” doesn’t necessarily mean strictly and exclusively grappling techniques are in use. It is 100% true that newaza or ground-fighting is most dominated by the category of technique broadly known as grappling (katame)…but if someone attempts a kick from the grounded position or performs an elbow strike from top position they are STILL engaged in newaza, they just used a striking technique (atemi) while in the ground phase or domain of combat. Thus, newaza is referring to where the battle is taking place or the domain of combat (most dominated by grappling) and it is not in itself necessarily any one type of fighting technique. You can be striking on the ground (newaza) and grappling on the feet (tachi-waza). You can clearly throw standing but you can also perform throws from the ground. In Japanese these are called hairi-kata or simply positional reversals. In the terminology of the modern sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), these are often referred to as “sweeps.” The fundamental principles are the same even if the domain of combat (standing vs ground) has changed.

As opposed to pre-WW2 judo, the modern version of sport-based Judo has entirely eliminated atemi-waza or striking techniques. As such, katame-waza (the grappling category of technique) and ne-waza (the domain of combat that takes place on the ground) are in all but the most rare of cases referring to grappling on the ground.

Outline of the Branches of Technique of Pre-WW2 Kodokan Judo

Nonetheless, those who preserve the art as a true martial art for self-defense should understand both the categories of technique and the particular domains of combat models for organizing and outlining an understanding of the art. In standing phase of combat (tachi-waza) one can strike, throw, and grapple (joint lock, choke, etc.). In the ground phase of combat (newaza) one can strike, throw, and grapple.

Most frequently, although not always, the various forms of sparring (randori or kumite) sees the domains of combat broken apart to closely correspond with particular branches of technique. Atemi-waza or striking often happens in karate kumite or kickboxing-style sparring with the usual exclusion or minimization of serious attempts to throw the opponent or apply grappling holds. In jujitsu & judo randori or free sparring it is usually throwing on the feet and grappling on the ground. This is where the fuzziness between the terms so often happens. The impression one is left with is that (in this case) katame-waza & newaza are one and the same…practically speaking in some forms of practice they are but they are actually referring to two different models of understanding: domains of combat or categories of technique.