Please accept my apologies for the voluntarily provocative title but I think that it sums up well what a little research on the word Budo can teach you. The word Budo is now ubiquitous in the popular culture and it is safe to say that along with sushi, karaoke, bonsai and manga, it figures amongst the most successful exports of the Japanese culture. It is however one of the most misunderstood of all. Today I would like to provide some clues on what Budo is really about. I will first try to explain the origins of the word and then, discuss their implications on nowadays practice.
As an Aikido instructor and lifelong martial arts practitioner, I often had to explain what this discipline was about; in particular, what made it different from other arts such as Judo, Karatedo or Kendo. I started realizing that a more productive way to proceed might in fact be to explain what these Budo had in common rather than pointing out what separated them. It is especially important if we want to understand the difference between Budo and Bujutsu (武術).
The word Budo is composed of two kanji, Bu (武) and Do (道). Bu means martial, or war and Do means path or way. If we go back to the origin of the word Do, we can get some more precise and significant information. In Chinese, the character 道 (pronounced "Tao") is a lot less tangible as it does not only mean path. Tao also expresses a holistic vision of the world and an idea of overall unity. The Japanese adapted the word Do to more practical ends. When used as a suffix to an activity, not necessarily a martial one, i.e. Chado (茶道), the way of preparing the tea, Do represents a discrete body of knowledge in a given discipline. As far as human beings are concerned, Do is a way of self-fulfillment and harmonization with the universe. Regarding the prefix Bu, we can therefore assume that this self-fulfillment will be reached through the study and practice of a martial discipline.
The problem for us westerners is that both the terms Budo and Bujutsu are translated as Martial Art. This leads to quite some confusion regarding which type of practice we are actually engaged in. The difference between the two is crucial and it is precisely to move away from Bujutsu that the term Budo was invented.
Before going any further, I would like to define what Budo and Bujutsu are and what differentiates them from one another. Although clearly evolved in order to fit the modern social, political and moral conditions as well as a certain pedagogic approach (although I have my reserves regarding the use of the occidental word "pedagogy" to describe the way Japanese Sensei transmit their knowledge to their students), the Budo (or Gendai Budo; "modern martial path") derive more or less directly from the Bujutsu (or Koryu Bujutsu : traditional martial art), at least on the technical side. Kenjutsu became Kendo, Aikijutsu became Aikido and so on.
We are therefore opposing new and old systems here. The Bujutsu is really the ancestral discipline of combat; purely practical, direct and deadly. It is important however to be aware of the fact that the notion of defense is intrinsic to the Bujutsu. The character Bu is actually composed of two words: spear and stop. Bujutsu is therefore more a way to defend oneself than a mean to attack another. Let us be fair, the Bujutsu practitioners were also exposed to moral teachings but these came from the separate study of Confucianism and other philosophies. Philosophy was not, at the time, part of the martial discipline itself.
I hope that the martial art specialists amongst the readers will forgive me for stating the obvious but the myth of "traditional" Budo has to be deflated. All the Budo were created between the middle of the 19th and 20th century so there is nothing really traditional about practicing a Budo, sorry to all the Samurai wannabes...
The Budo were created out of the realization that the traditional martial disciplines had to mutate in order to subsist. At the time, Bujutsu were not pertinent anymore on a practical sense because of social and technological advances as well as political pressures. From the dismantlement of the warrior class during the Meiji restoration to the post-war years where fighting disciplines were simply forbidden, martial arts had a hard time finding a justification for their existence. Some visionaries however thought that the educative values of a martial practice should not be lost so they created the Budo out of the Bujutsu. Studying the writings of the founders of the main Budo, Jigoro Kano, Morihei Ueshiba and Gichin Funakoshi, it leaves very little doubt regarding the real purpose of the disciplines they created.
Although the term Budo is quite recent, the process of demilitarization of the Japanese society and the watering down of the martial techniques are much more ancient. It all probably started during the 16th century when the iron handed Tokugawa shogunate took over Japan and put an end to centuries of constant civil war. The Bushi (warriors) became Samurai (civil servants) and the techniques that were once used in the battlefield got refined and complexified for a scarcer, mostly urban use. Actually, the "Bushido" (way of the warrior) ideology probably started from the fact that Samurai had very little to do (no more wars to fight) and a lot of time to kill (their rank did not allow them to exercise another profession). As they managed to grow older, not being killed at war in their prime, they probably also grew wiser... As a consequence, they put their efforts into trying to justify their mostly useless skills by labeling them with a philosophy of life and moral attributes. Interestingly, the word Bushido is a very recent invention although the philosophy itself has been developed and glorified for a long time in the writings of authors such as Tsunetomo or Musashi amongst the most influential.
Now that we understand the origins of the Budo, we can really start to grasp what they are nowadays. Contrary to what many people believe, Budo are not self-defense but education systems. Budoka (Budo practitioners) learn the moral values of respect, peace, humility etc. through the perfecting of a martial choreography. Thus, it is very important to understand that efficacy is not the prime objective of the study of a Budo. In fact, in many cases, the efficacy of the techniques has been voluntarily diminished in order to reduce the risk of physical harm during training and to increase the benefit on health and mind. As an example, Budo techniques are often used to develop and "open" the body of the practitioner whereas ancient, more practical approaches lead to more "closed" or compact postures. The advantages of Bujutsu are for survival while the benefits of Budo are for life.
To conclude, I would like to state that of course, the techniques taught in Budo are still martial techniques and they have conserved some degrees of efficacy. Some Budo schools are also more focused on efficacy than others and it would be unreasonable to say that all Budo are not efficient in combat. I hope however that I made clear that by definition, it is useless to compare a Budo to another martial art in terms of martial efficacy. Efficacy is really not the priority of a 30+ years practice of Budo. If one wants to learn something mainly practical, be it an efficient way of fighting or a self-defence system, I would suggest turning towards a Koryu Bujutsu (if one wishes to stick to the Japanese disciplines of course). Note however that although Budo are not fighting techniques they are not sports either. Martial arts never cease to evolve and Budo which are nowadays mutating into competitive (Shiai) disciplines are called the Kakutogi. Unfortunately, the benefits on personal improvement are often lost in the process...