by Charles C. Goodin
Karate is an important cultural legacy of Okinawa. Today, "karate" means "empty hand," but this was not always the case. Prior to 1936, "karate," which could also be pronounced "tote," meant "China hand." This older terminology was used in Hawaii even after World War Two. The modern usage of the term "empty hand" has incorrectly led some people to believe that Okinawa lacks a weapons tradition -- after all, by definition how can an empty hand hold a weapon? In fact, Okinawa has a rich kobudo (weapons arts) tradition. Karate and kobudo were often practiced together.
The development of karate in Okinawa is often attributed to a ban on the ownership of weapons in the country by King Shoshin (1477-1526) and later by Lord Shimazu of Satsuma. Stripped of weapons, the civilians were forced to develop unarmed methods of self-defense, literally to turn their hands into swords and their arms into clubs. There is some controversy about the extent of the weapons ban in Okinawa. In any event, the sword and samurai class certainly did not play as central a role in Okinawa as they did in mainland Japan.
Over the centuries, Okinawan martial artists actually used a wide variety of weapons. These weapons originated in places such as China, Japan and in Okinawa itself. Some of the more well-known Okinawan weapons are the bo (6 foot wooden staff), sai (iron truncheon usually used in pairs but sometimes in sets of three), nunchaku (wooden flail), tuifa or tonfa (a section of wood with handles, usually used in pairs), and kama or nichogama (sickles, usually used in pairs and sometimes with a long chain attached). In recent years, the use of the eku (wooden paddle) has also become popular.
Several of these weapons were derived from farming implements. The bo was readily available in the form of long-handled tools. The nunchaku is said to have come from a horse bridal and the tuifa originated as the handle of a grinding stone. The kama (sickle) is little changed from the ones still used in farms and gardens.
There are also variations of these weapons. A short staff is called a jo. While most bo are about 6 feet in length, there are also longer and shorter versions. Bo can be tapered, straight or even octagonal. Most sai are as shown in the accompanying photograph. There is also a type of sai with prongs in opposite directions. This is called a manji sai. When a manji sai is attached to a bo, it becomes a nunti bo.
Other weapons used in Okinawa include the tekko (metal knuckles), tinbei (short sword and shield), and double bladed sword. Many Okinawans were educated in Japan and/or China and thus had opportunities to learn the weapons arts of these countries. Thus, some Okinawans were educated in the use of traditional Japanese weapons such as the long and short swords, yari (spear), naginata (halberd), and bow and arrow. Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura, the bodyguard and karate instructor to the King of Okinawa, for example, was a master of the Jigen-ryu form of swordsmanship. Some Okinawans also mastered one or more of the many forms of Chinese weapons.
The most commonly used weapon in Okinawa was the bo. Bo training in Okinawa is documented as far back as the 14th century. A wooden staff was readily available in farms and villages. In fact, it is sometimes said that karate training was more popular in the cities in towns while bo training was more prevalent in outlying areas. Each village usually had one or more bojutsu masters. A village style was unique to that village and it generally would not be taught to outsiders.
Unlike the sai, nunchaku and tonfa, which are short-range, generally concealed weapons, the bo offers the advantage of length, particularly against a weapon such as a sword. One expert I spoke to said that the bo is the easiest weapon to learn and the most difficult to master. In the hands of an expert, the bo moves almost invisibly and actually cuts through the air (and the opponent) like a sword. Imagine a skilled kendo sensei. His precise movements are literally too quick to see. The same is true of a bo expert. And unlike a swordsman, a bo expert can strike with either end of his weapon!
There have been many kobudo masters in Okinawa this century. Some of the more well-known are Yabiku Moden, Chojo Oshiro, Kenwa Mabuni, Kamiya Jinsei, Shiken Taira, Shinpo Matayoshi, Shinyei Kyan, Jokei Kushi, and Chogi Kishaba. Although he rarely instructed students in their use, Gichin Funakoshi (the founder of the Shotokan form of karate), was also skilled with the bo and sai.
The art of bojutsu, like karate, came to Hawaii with the first Okinawan immigrants in 1900. Demonstrations of bo kata or bo odori were common at festivals and gatherings here in Honolulu and on the neighbor islands. Some experts practiced bojutsu alone, but others also practiced karate. During my research, I have discovered several bo experts, but none who taught the art after they arrived in Hawaii.
Chinese martial artists also used the bo. One of my karate teachers mentioned that one of the experts he knew back in the "old days" was a manapua man who carried his wares hanging on the ends of his bo. When trouble arose, the manapua man was quick to drop his goods and grab his bo. His attackers usually ran for their lives!
Fortunately, Okinawa's weapons arts have experienced a resurgence in Hawaii, due in part to their popularity in tournaments. Ironically, a company I contacted that manufactures bo, reported to me that their most popular model is a "toothpick" bo, one that is extremely thin and light weight. Something I have always found amazing is how a true bo expert can make a heavy, hardwood bo seem weightless. Such an expert would snap such a light weight bo in half.
Weapons arts are also practiced in traditional dojo as an adjunct to empty hand practice. In our dojo, shodan (first degree black belts) are expected to train with at least one weapon. Each person will usually select a primary and secondary weapon. For example, I primarily practice with the bo but also train with the sai. Yudansha (black belts generally) are expected to show proficiency with various weapons as they advance.
Aside from their direct self-defense value, weapons are useful training aids. The heavy metal sai, for example, offer an effective form of weight training. After practicing with sai, the arms are strengthened and the hands feel very light. The same is true of tuifa (or tonfa) practice. The bo is useful to make a student relax. It is impossible to use the bo correctly when the body is tight or stiff. Because the bo is so rigid, the student must learn to relax and harmonize with its weight, speed and momentum.
Kobudo involves much more than merely using weapons in an existing karate kata. Some karate students are known to do just that. For example, the sai can be held along the forearm and used in a conventional jodan uke (upper block). Many modern karate students practice such a movement. In ancient kata, the blade of the sai would usually be flipped out, rather then held against the forearm. This increased the engagement distance (maai) and also deflected the attack rather than transferring the shock directly to the arm. In addition, the sai could be thrown, particularly at the opponent's feet. It was for this reason that a third sai was often carried concealed in the obi (belt). The unique advantages of the sai and other weapons are maintained in the ancient kobudo kata.
By practicing the weapons arts, we are helping to preserve an important aspect of Okinawa's rich cultural heritage. Do you know of a bo or other weapon's expert who practiced or demonstrated in Hawaii before World War Two? If so, please contact me so that I can include the information in my book on the early history of karate in Hawaii.
Charles C. Goodin
98-211 Pali Momi Street, Suite 640C
Aiea, Hawaii 96701
Telephone: (808) 488-5773
Fax: (808) 488-5778
Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.