Okinawan Kobudo: The Ancient Way of Peace

Sakugawa Chikudan, Okinawan warrior and martial arts master

Introduction 

Kobudo is an Okinawan traditional weapons martial art.

Okinawan Kobudo is not a solo martial art, learned separately from Karate. A kobudo weapon is considered an extension of the body, and similarly, it is an extension of Karate training.

The weight and feedback you receive when training with weapons can reinforce good Karate technique or exaggerate poor technique.

Recently at the dojo, we have been practicing two katas—Pinan Shodan and Pinan Nidan— with a sai, a three-pronged, metal weapon, held in each hand. We have also been using the sai during warm-ups for added weight.

In a previous article, I wrote about year one of my Karate training which included kobudo training in the latter half of the year.

In this article, I convey my learnings of the Okinawan Kobudo tradition to inspire interest in this underrated martial art, steeped in the culturally rich history of Okinawa and the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Kobudo: The Complement to Karate

In foundational Karate training, we focus on stances and lower body movement and positioning, building strength, and developing flexibility, agility, stability, and balance. 

When you become proficient with the basic stances, strikes, and blocks in Karate, and understand some real-world applications, weapons become relevant and beneficial for your training.

The biomechanics of working with weapons can be illustrative of its empty-handed counterpart. For example, if you understand the real-world application of a low block as a technique to receive a strike, kick, or blow from a weapon, the angle and height of where to position the sai against your arm is self-correcting. 

In other words, if the sai is positioned incorrectly, you’ll know by getting hit. In some sense, it is a higher-stakes way of understanding whether your technique works or fails.

We train with safety in mind, so “higher stakes” do not imply you’ll walk out of the dojo with a broken bone. However, if a stick is about to strike you on the head, even slowly, chances are you will be more serious about defending against it than if it was a bare hand.

The other lesson Kobudo teaches which is difficult to grasp for beginners in Karate, is distancing, the space between you and your attacker.

Nothing teaches good distancing as a knife-wielding assailant barreling towards you. An empty-handed attacker, fully capable of inflicting equal or more damage, does not elicit quite the same response.

Similarly, a bo staff descending on your head will suddenly clarify why a retreat into cat stance, neko dachi, can be relevant and necessary.

The Meaning of Kobudo

Kobudo is a Japanese word meaning “old martial way”.

古武度 Kobudo

This video breaks down kobudo into its radical elements and provides a definition that fittingly captures the true spirit of Karate.

Video: “What Does Kobudo Mean?” by Shihan Nishiuchi

The first character, 古, represents old or ancient. The components of the second character, 武, include 止 which means to stop or discontinue, and 戈, which represents a halberd or spear. This character,戈, is also used in the word for warfare.

Breaking down the word Kobudo from this perspective, Kobudo means “the ancient way of peace”.

For an art to be classified as Kobudo, the school’s lineage must have been established before the Meiji Restoration in Japan in 1868. This marked the end of the samurai-ruling political class.

Martial arts created after this period in the early 20th century such as aikido, kendo, and judo, are considered modern martial arts.

古 – old, ancient

武 – consists of 止, stop, and 戈, shield

度 – destination, way

The ancient way of peace.

Development of Okinawan Kobudo

Kobudo was largely developed during Okinawan’s 270-year military occupation by the Satsuma samurai from the present-day Kagoshima Prefecture of Kyushu.

Weapons Ban

During the period of Japanese occupation from 1609 to 1879, weapons ownership was no longer permitted, even by local law enforcement.

Despite the ban, self-defense was essential to life, including for wealthy property owners, peasants, security, and law enforcement. Common implements and farming tools were used instead of bows and arrows, swords, and spears.

Influences on the Development of Okinawan Kobudo

Some penchin, the feudal warrior class of Okinawa, traveled to Satsuma, and the skills they learned from the Satsuma samurai and brought back with them to Okinawa, combined with the Indigenous Okinawan fighting methods (te or ti), likely played an influential role in the development of Okinawan Kobudo.

Which group of people were most influential in the development of Okinawan Kobudo isn’t certain. Chinese immigrants who imported their style of fighting arts to the Ryukyu Kingdom played a part.

Notably, there is not enough historical evidence pointing to the peasant class as the group to develop and pass on the Kobudo tradition through the generations in any significant way, despite popular lore.

Kobudo: The Lesser Known Martial Art 

Search Karate dojos in Vancouver online and you will see pages upon pages of results. Only a handful of them offer Kobudo classes. 

Whereas traditionally, Karate and Kobudo training happened hand-in-hand, nowadays most people in the West have never even heard of Kobudo.

Lack of Knowledgeable Teachers

The most obvious reason for Kobudo’s lack of popularity is the lack of knowledgeable teachers. It was once common for people to train in Karate and Kobudo. 

As mentioned earlier, for an art to be authentically Kobudo, the lineage of the dojo must predate 1868. Even so, a traditionally trained instructor is difficult to find.

It is not uncommon to find Karate teachers who do not have advanced weapons skills, or who were not trained in the weapons arts.

Practicality of Weapons Training

Training with a six-foot staff is not doable in a typical dojo without causing serious damage. And the amount of space required for every individual in a Karate class to train with weapons is impractical, unless the dojo is extremely spacious or unless the weather permits outdoor training. 

Even with a spacious dojo, if a dojo is a business, training with large weapons puts a lower limit on class capacity, and this is an important consideration for any business owner.

Another factor relates to an inconvenience to students. Carrying a six-foot bo staff or carrying a metal sai is inconvenient by foot or transit, and may have you questioned by the transit police.

Cost Factor

Although inexpensive versions of almost every traditional kobudo weapon are available, weapons are still an added expense. Newer students to Karate may understandably delay weapons training for this reason. 

In many ways, this is a feature and not a bug. Kobudo is not meant for a brand-new Karate student, and by the time you get around to purchasing a Kobudo weapon, you ought to have some level of commitment to training.

Karate Basics: A Prerequisite to Kobudo

Kobudo was designed to advance a Karate practitioner’s training, and not meant as a solo art.

Therefore, a beginner Karate student typically does not begin using weapons for training. Though many observers find traditional martial arts weapons appealing and are eager to train with them, especially children, the usefulness is limited without understanding foundational Karate stances and form.

Many people are turned off by the slow and gradual progression of skills needed to take full advantage of weapons training, and would rather jump into a more modern martial art such as kendo where, presumably, you could get your hands on a weapon without as much delay.

Okinawan Kobudo and Folk Dance

Okinawa has a rich tradition of music, art, and dance. Some folk dances use traditional Okinawan-style weapons.

For example, in Eisaa, a form of Okinawan folk dance, the jo staff is used against a katana or sword, a bo staff against a spear, and sometimes oars and sickles are incorporated.

One explanation for this tradition can be found in Patrick McCarthy’s translation of “Bubishi: The Classic Manual of Combat”. 

Farmers and peasants in Satsuma were taught self-defense tactics in case of an invasion. This enabled weapons training, disguised in folk dances, to turn farmers into undercover warriors.

Video: Eisaa contemporary folk dance using Kobudo-style weapons

Types of Okinawan Kobudo Weapons 

These are some of the main weapons we use as training tools and in Kobudo kata at The Vancouver Dojo.

Alternate names or pronunciations are included in brackets. Measurements are approximations and vary with tradition.

Bo

The bo, or kon, is a wooden staff that is six feet in length, and one inch in diameter.  Bo staffs have varying lengths from two feet, stretching to nine feet.

Jo

A jo is a 3-4 foot stick. 

What differentiates a bo staff from a jo staff? Other than a jo staff being shorter than a bo, the diameter of a bo is typically 1 inch while the diameter of a jo varies. 

Another way of thinking of a jo staff: you can strike with both ends in a single motion. 

Sai

The sai is a u-shaped, 3-pronged weapon made from iron and typically sixteen or so inches long.

Kobudo sai weapon, a metal, 3-pronged weapon used in Okinawan traditional martial arts

A sai is like the police baton of ancient times since it was typically used to subdue criminals and crowds. Originally, the sai was designed to defend against the sword, bo, nunchaku, and tonfa attacks.

The lesser-known cousin of the sai, the manji sai, described below, forms a shape symbolizing Buddhism, and is a common motif seen on Buddhist temples in Japan.

Tonfa (Tuifa)

The tonfa or tuifa is a rectangular object made from two pieces of hardwood, attached in perpendicular orientation, with each piece roughly sixteen inches long. Tonfa is both a defensive and offensive weapon. It is used by swinging, thrusting, or striking the opponent.

Katana

The katana, or sword, can be used in Kobudo as an instructional weapon, applied against other weapons including sai or bo.

This training emphasizes the defensive techniques against weapons and helps the practitioner to understand the underlying meaning of movements in Kobudo kata.

Kama 

A kama is a sickle and is usually used in pairs for training. Kama was also used in traditional Okinawan folk dance.

Two kama on the floor, used in traditional Japanese martial arts training. Kama is similar to a hand-held sickle.

Tanbo (Tonbo)

A tanbo is a short staff of approximately one meter, though the length varies with martial arts tradition. In other traditions, tanbo are used in pairs.

Tanto

Tanto is a wooden knife used for defensive training against a knife-wielding attacker.

Kobudo weapons: Two wooden blades, the tanto and katana

Photo: Tanto (top), katana

List of Kobudo Weapons

This is a non-exhaustive list of other Kobudo weapons.

  • Daijo: Two wooden rods, six inches in length
  • Gekiguan: A 4-foot stick with a weighted chain on one end
  • Goshaku jo: A 5-foot stick
  • Hasshaku bo: An 8-foot staff
  • Kai: A long oar
  • Kusarigama: 2 sickles joined by a long rope or chain
  • Kuwa: A Japanese hoe; equipped with a wide-blade
  • Kyushaku bo: A 9-foot-long staff
  • Manji sai: Similar to sai with one prong pointing in the opposite direction of the other. One meaning of manji is temple and is often used in Japanese maps.
  • Naginata: A halberd or axe blade with a spear on a long shaft
  • Nanashaku bo: A 7-foot long staff
  • Nunchaku: Two long rods connected by a short rope
  • Nuntei: A 7-foot staff with a sai-like attachment on one end
  • Renkuwan: One long rod and one short rod attached by a short rope, used in a flailing motion similar to nunchaku
  • Rokushaku bo: A 6-foot-long staff
  • Rokushaku kama: A 6-foot-long staff with a large sickle blade on one end
  • Sanchaku kun: A 3-section staff of short rods connected by two short ropes or chains.
  • Suruchin: A long rope or chain with metal weights on both ends
  • Tankon: A short stick, 2 feet long
  • Tekko: A metal or wooden knuckle duster
  • Ticchu (tecchu): A 4-inch metal or wooden rod with tapered ends with a ring at the center
  • Tinbei: A small shield used in conjunction with a spear or rochin
  • Yari: A hand spear

Summary

Kobudo was borne out of the human spirit and instinct for survival. Like Karate, Kobudo is not performative and was created for combat, not sport.

Although Karate and Kobudo are both forms of combat training, the next time (or the first time) you have a weapon in hand and are training Kobudo, think of this saying…

“The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.”


Cover photo: Sakugawa Kanga, 1786 – 1867. Martial arts master and a major contributor to Okinawan martial art te or ti, the precursor to Karate.