The Origins of Okinawan Kobudo

"Weaponry and empty hand fighting go together. How can you learn about

defending against a weapon unless you are familiar with what the weapon will do?"

- Sokon Hohan (1889-1983)

21 June 2024

Sensei Jon Davis

Gichin Funakoshi posing with his students and some of the traditional weapons of Kobudo

In our dojo, we practice and cherish the traditional art of Kobudo. Training in Kobudo both compliments and enhances our knowledge of Karate overall. Karate and Kobudo should not be seen as separate arts, but rather as a single, inter-related martial method. Understanding the roots of this art can not only deepen our appreciation but also connect us to the spirit and discipline of the people who developed it.


As long as the art of Te has existed, there has also been (interwoven and parallel to it) a weaponry art native to the Ryukyu islands. The ryukyu kingdom is a chain of small islands in the East China Sea. Okinawa, the largest of these islands, was an active trading hub which linked Japan, China, Southeast Asia and beyond. Its central location allowed Okinawa to become a melting pot of cultures, influences, and martial arts traditions.


Many Okinawan martial artists are known to have taken these Chinese fighting techniques and integrated them into their own practice. This blending of the arts combined the finesse of Chinese martial arts with the practicality of Okinawan ingenuity. This shows that the individual weapons themselves are not entirely native to Okinawa, but were adapted from China and elsewhere.


Okinawan weaponry is better known as Kobujutsu (old martial arts) or, even more familiarly, as Kobudo (old martial ways). During the 15th century, a ban on weapons was imposed on the Okinawan people by the imperial government to prevent uprisings and maintain control. This prohibition on bladed weapons led to the creative adaptation of everyday tools for self-defense.


There is a common misconception that all of the Okinawan weapons were created solely by the peasantry class of farmers / fishermen. But, its development came from the combined contributions of police and royal guard defensive instruments, the implements of farmers and fishermen, as well as the undergroung weapons of bandits.


There are eight major weapons of Okinawan Kobudo:

  • Bo (staff): One of the oldest martial arts weapons. The word, "bo" simply refers to a staff. The bo is almost always six feet long and was historically used for carrying buckets or loads across the shoulders. Most of the kata of Okinawan bo-jitsu are named after the person who devised, or popularized them. Others were named by those who created them, after some other person, place, or inspiration.
  • Sai (short metal tridents): Commonly thought to have been used as a farming tool to aid in planting seeds, sai are more likely to have been developed by aristocracy, police, and generally people that could afford a more expensive material, such as metal. Sai are effective weapons for blocking, trapping, striking and poking.
  • Tonfa: Originally handles for a small grist millstone. The handle would fit into the outer circumference of a top circular stone, which sits on another, barrel-like stone. The tonfa itself would not revolve within the stone, but instead moves the entire top-stone around, in a circular, grinding fashion. In application, the tonfa are recognized for their spinning, striking and blocking capabilities, and offer both offensive and defensive advantages.
  • Kama (sickles): A bladed weapon, the kama was a genuine farmer's tool. Their curved blades and sharp edges were ideal for slashing, hooking, blocking and thrusting techniques - executed with two kama or, "nichogama."
  • Nunchaku: A popular notion to the origins of the nunchaku are that they were derived from a rice or grain flail. Another is that they seem to be a wooden horse bridle, which would have been used by some of the wealthier bushi as well as those who tended to horses. The colorful spinning and flipping tricks that are popular today were not used in traditional training. They are used much like a flexible club, with an emphasis on the power being generated through strong, forceful swings, rather then quick, flicking motions of the wrist alone.
  • Eku (oar): The eku was, and is, a genuine tool of Okinawan fishermen. A weapon of convenience for those in fishing areas, like Tomari and some of the outlying islands. The oar is slightly shorter than the bo, and has a long, narrow paddle. Its fighting techniques are closely related to those of the bo, with a few differences to take advantage of the paddle-like shape. There are techniques for scooping and throwing sand into an enemy's face "sunakake", striking with the other end, chopping with the edges, and powerful strikes with the flat side of the paddle.
  • Techu: A large, hand-held wooden or metal rod with pointed tips at each end. The techu is derived from a weaving spindle and was often used by women as an innocuous looking means of self-defense that did not attract much attention. Its use is very similar to the techniques of karate, with an emphasis on punching, poking and raking with the points.
  • Timbe-Rochin: A shield and dagger method, which is unique to Okinawa. The word "timbe" refers to the shield (typically made of wood, leather or tortoise shell). The dagger, known as the "rochin", is a kind of very short spear. It may have evolved from the usage of a common straw hat, paired with a defensive dagger, club or stick. The shield can be used for blocking and striking, combined with the slashes and thrusts of the dagger.
Taira Shinken (1897 - 1970)

The start of the transmission of Kobudo as a systematized art (specific weapons techniques being handed down from teacher to student), can be said to have started with Sakugawa and Chatan Yara, the two of which left behind several kinds of weapons kata for the bo, sai and tonfa. Both the styles of Sakugawa and Yara are upright and powerful, with bold, forceful and precise movements. Some of the kobujutsu groups that formed were from locations like Gushikawa, Nishihara, the Motobu Peninsula, as well as the islands of Kudaka, Hamahiga and Tusken.


One prominent figure in the preservation and transmission of Kobudo is Taira Shinken (1897 - 1970), who is often credited with revitalizing and formalizing Kobudo in the 20th century. Shinken traveled across Okinawa to learn from various masters, compiling techniques and kata to ensure that this martial art would not be lost.


Today, Kobudo is practiced worldwide, treasured for its historical significance and its contribution to the comprehensive training of martial artists. It is often taught alongside Karate, enhancing the practitioner's versatility and understanding of traditional martial arts.


In our dojo, we honor this art's rich legacy. Each time you pick up a bo, sai, or any other traditional weapon, you connect with centuries of history, culture, and martial spirit.

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