Okinawan kobudō refers to the weapon systems of Okinawan martial arts, included the rokushakubo (six foot staff, known as the “bō”), sai (dagger-shaped truncheon), tonfa (handled club), kama (sickle), and nunchaku (chained sticks), but also the tekko (steelknuckle), tinbe-rochin (shield and spear), and surujin (weighted chain). Less common Okinawan weapons include the tambo (short stick), the hanbō (middle length staff) and the eku (boat oar of traditional Okinawan design).
Okinawan kobudō should not be confused with the term Kobudō, which is described in the article Koryū, because the term Kobudō refers not to a weapon system but refers to a concept of moral from the feudal Japan.
It is a popular story and common belief that Okinawan farming tools evolved into weapons due to restrictions placed upon the peasants by the Satsuma samurai clan when the island was made a part of Japan, which forbade them from carrying arms. As a result, it is said, they were defenseless and developed a fighting system around their traditional farming implements. However, modern martial arts scholars have been unable to find historical backing for this story, and the evidence uncovered by various martial historians points to the Pechin Warrior caste in Okinawa as being those who practiced and studied various martial arts, rather than the Heimin, or commoner. It is true that Okinawans, under the rule of foreign powers, were prohibited from carrying weapons or practicing with them in public. But the weapons-based fighting that they secretly practiced (and the types of weapons they practiced with) had strong Chinese roots, and examples of similar weapons have been found in China, Malaysia and Indonesiapre-dating the Okinawan adaptations.
Okinawan kobudō systems were shaped by indigenous Okinawan techniques that arose within the Aji, or noble class,and by imported methods from China and Southeast Asia. The majority of Okinawan kobudō traditions that survived the difficult times during and following World War II were preserved and handed down by Taira Shinken (Ryūkyū Kobudō Hozon Shinkokai), Chogi Kishaba (Ryuku Bujustsu Kenkyu Doyukai), and Kenwa Mabuni (Shito-ryū). Practical systems were developed by Toshihiro Oshiro and Motokatsu Inoue in conjunction with these masters. Other noted masters who have Okinawan kobudō kata named after them include Chōtoku Kyan, Shigeru Nakamura, Kanga Sakukawa, and Shinko Matayoshi.
Okinawan kobudō arts are thought by some to be the forerunner of the bare hand martial art of karate,and several styles of that art include some degree of Okinawan kobudō training as part of their curriculum. Similarly, it is not uncommon to see an occasional kick or other empty-hand technique in an Okinawan kobudō kata. The techniques of the two arts are closely related in some styles, evidenced by the empty-hand and weapon variants of certain kata: for example, Kankū-dai and Kankū-sai, and Gojūshiho and Gojūshiho-no-sai, although these are examples of Okinawan kobudō kata which have been developed from karate kata and are not traditional Okinawan kobudō forms. Other more authentic Okinawan kobudō kata demonstrate elements of empty hand techniques as is shown in older forms such as Soeishi No Dai, a bo form which is one of the few authentic Okinawan kobudō kata to make use of a kick as the penultimate technique.Some Okinawan kobudō kata have undergone less “modern development” than karate and still retain much more of the original elements, reflections of which can be seen in even more modern karate kata. The connection between empty hand and weapon methods can be directly related in systems such as that formulated in order to preserve both arts such as Inoue/Taira’s Ryūkyū Kobujutsu Hozon Shinko Kai and Motokatsu Inoue’s Yuishinkai Karate Jutsu. M. Inoue draws direct comparisons between the use of certain weapons and various elements of empty hand technique such as sai mirroring haito/shuto waza, tonfa reflecting that of urkaken and hijiate, and kama of kurite and kakete, as examples. The footwork in both methods is interchangeable.
Weapons and Kata
Okinawan kobudō was at its zenith some 100 years ago and of all the authentic Okinawan kobudō kata practiced at this time, only relatively few by comparison remain extant. In the early 20th centuries a decline in the study of Ryūkyū kobujutsu (as it was known then) meant that the future of this martial tradition was in danger. During the Taisho period (1912–1926) some martial arts exponents such as Yabiku Moden made great inroads in securing the future of Ryūkyū kobujutsu. A large amount of those forms which are still known are due to the efforts of Taira Shinken who travelled around the Ryūkyū Islands in the early part of the 20th century and compiled 42 existing kata, covering eight types of Okinawan weapons. Whilst Taira Shinken may not have been able to collect all extant Okinawan kobudō kata, those he did manage to preserve are listed here. They do not include all those from the Matayoshi, Uhuchiku and Yamanni streams however.
The bō is a six-foot long staff, sometimes tapered at either end. It was perhaps developed from a farming tool called a tenbin: a stick placed across the shoulders with baskets or sacks hanging from either end. The bo was also possibly used as the handle to a rake or a shovel. The bo, along with shorter variations such as the jo and hanbo could also have been developed from walking sticks used by travelers, especially monks. The bo is considered the ‘king’ of the Okinawa weapons, as all others exploit its weaknesses in fighting it, whereas when it is fighting them it is using its strengths against them. The bo is the earliest of all Okinawan weapons (and effectively one of the earliest of all weapons in the form of a basic staff), and is traditionally made from red or white oak.
The sai is a three-pronged truncheon sometimes mistakenly believed to be a variation on a tool used to create furrows in the ground. This is highly unlikely as metal on Okinawa was in short supply at this time and a stick would have served this purpose more satisfactorily for a poor commoner, or Heimin. The sai appears similar to a short sword, but is not bladed and the end is traditionally blunt. The weapon is metal and of the truncheon class with its length dependent upon the forearm of the user. The two shorter prongs on either side of the main shaft are used for trapping (and sometimes breaking) other weapons such as a sword or bo. A form known as nunti sai, sometimes called manji sai (due to its appearance resembling the swastika kanji) has the two shorter prongs pointed in opposite directions, with another monouchi instead of a grip.
The tonfa supposedly originated as the handle of a millstone used for grinding grain. It is traditionally made from red oak, and can be gripped by the short perpendicular handle or by the longer main shaft. As with all Okinawan weapons, many of the forms are reflective of “empty hand” techniques. The tonfa is more readily recognized by its modern development in the form of the police nightstick but its usage differs.
A nunchaku is two sections of wood (or metal in modern incarnations) connected by a cord or chain. There is much controversy over its origins: some say it was originally a Chinese weapon, others say it evolved from a threshing flail, while one theory purports that it was developed from a horse’s bit. Chinese nunchaku tend to be rounded, whereas Okinawan ones are octagonal, and they were originally linked by horse hair. There are many variations on the nunchaku, ranging from the three sectional staff (san-setsu-kon, mentioned later in this article), to smaller multi-section nunchaku. The nunchaku was popularized by Bruce Lee in a number of films, made in both Hollywood and Hong Kong. This weapon is illegal in New York State, Canada, and parts of Europe.
The kama is a traditional farming sickle, and considered one of the hardest to learn due to the inherent danger in practicing with such a weapon. The point at which the blade and handle join in the “weapon” model normally has a nook with which a bo can be trapped, although this joint proved to be a weak point in the design, and modern day examples tend to have a shorter handle with a blade that begins following the line of the handle and then bends, though to a lesser degree; this form of the kama is known as the natagama. The edge of a traditional rice sickle, such as one would purchase from a Japanese hardware store, continues to the handle without a notch, as this is not needed for its intended use.
The tekko or tecchu is a form of knuckleduster, and primarily takes its main form of usage from that of empty-hand technique, whilst also introducing slashing movements. The tekko is usually made to the width of the hand with anything between one and three protruding points on the knuckle front with protruding points at the top and the bottom of the knuckle. They can be made of any hard material but are predominantly found in aluminium, iron, steel, or wood.