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The Weapons of Okinawa

Mark W. Swarthout

Shido Kan Kanji

Much of the mystique about the martial arts deals with the strange and unusual weapons that are often used by practitioners. Movies often show the unfamiliar weapons being used with amazing skill in a wide variety of manners, some depictions being more correct than others.

In Okinawa, metals were a highly sought after commodity. Add on top of that the bans on weapons by the conquering warlords. Swords were no longer allowed to be carried by the majority of the nobility. The people had to look for ways of protecting themselves from both armed bandits that didn’t care that they were breaking the law and from the occupying forces that were often not too nice to their new subjects.

The art of weapons, Kobudo, or Kobu Jutsu is closely related to the practice of karate. In some forms it is considered an integral part of the style, in others it is a separate endeavor. The additional weight of the weapons also promotes strength in the hands, arms and shoulders, as well as the rest of the body. There is also a number of training aids, Tanrenho, that will be discussed in a later article.

Okinawa was predominately a trading center, supported by fishing and some agriculture. It was only natural that someone that spent much of their day with an oar in their hand would find it a handy weapon. The Eku is not only used in the martial arts, some of the traditional dances are done with the oar.

The origins of the nunchuka are not as clear. Some contend that they were derived from flails used to clean rice. Others contend that the origin is the horse bridle, with two wooden pieces tired together with leather thongs. But once Bruce Lee made them popular with his use of them in several of his movies, the public has fallen in love with them. So much so that carrying them in public is illegal in some states and communities unless one is in a martial arts school.

The sickle or scythe is a common tool in the rice fields of Asia. Called the Kama, they are a dangerous weapon, having sharp blades and the ability to hook and trap the opponent. The requirement to have them to harvest crops with made it difficult to ban these tools. Today, the flashing blades also make for a showy appearance in weapons kata competitions.

The Tonfa is a weapon similar in many ways to the P38 nightstick often carried by police officers. The tonfa were handles used in the grain milling process, and were readily available to just about anyone. There is some evidence that a similar weapon was introduced from China. The handle provides a method of hooking the opponent, in addition to the increase in power from the whipping motion.

The staff is another easy to find weapon. Poles were commonly used in many ways for both working around boats and for farmers. Poling boats in shallow water, carried across the shoulders to carry heavy loads or buckets of water, to drive pigs or to support sails. The staff has no edge, which means one is not limited to a specific direction of strike, or even end that must be used as the weapon. The distance it provided was an additional factor in making it a useful defense against a knife or unarmed attacker. It could also be applied to the side of a katana, perhaps even shattering the thin blade.

There are two other items often taught in Kubudo classes that are more clearly weapons.

The Tinpe and Rochin were a combination used in the battles between the kingdoms of Okinawa. Consisting of a small shield, the Rochin, and a short spear, the Tinpe, they would have been banned during the occupation because of their obvious use. The katas were preserved through the centuries.

The Sai is a tool that is believed to have originated in the Buddhist temples of India and came to Okinawa through China. A heavy tool, it does not have sharp edges, though the points can be dangerous. The Fork-like shape is designed to subdue and control an opponent rather than kill them. It can be used to hook and trap an opponent or their weapons and is heavy enough to knock them out or break bones if necessary.

The Okinawan Prefecture has recently created a terrific web site complete with brief histories of the weapons and video clips. Okinawan Prefecture Karate History In addition, it contains some good history as well as video of masters doing kata.. I highly recommend spending some time going through the sections of this site!

Any corrections or additions, please contact me!

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A version of this article was originally published on Suite101

Copyright 2006, Marek Swarthout