Kobudo – The Ancient Martial Art

The Karate Tapestry – Part 22
Sensei Robert Hunt

Kobudo – The Ancient Martial Art


The Karate Tapestry – Part 22
Robert Hunt

Empty hand fighting is great, but every once in a while it’s nice to have a stick in your hand.

In its inception, karate was called Unante or Uchinadi and nothing about it implied fighting empty handed. The entire art was a combination of weapons, strikes and kicks intended to injure or kill.

It’s only in modern times in Japan, shortly before the Second World War, that karate became only an empty handed art, with a new name to fit. Most karate in Okinawa has always included the practice of weapons.

The kinds of weapon arts that emanate from Okinawa have existed in every culture from time immemorial – weapons fashioned from available material and in abundant shapes and applications. The same approach can be seen from the Hawaiian Islands to New Zealand’s Maori culture. Robin Hood’s side kick, John Little, carried an oak quarter staff, not all that different from an Okinawan bo.

But, in Okinawa, the use of such weapons developed into a virtual art form, due to the prohibition of bladed weapons, first by Sho Shin, one of Okinawa’s unifying kings and later by the Satsuma occupiers.

In our times, the Japanese word kobujutsu and later, kobudo, has come to describe fighting with weapons. But the words themselves have nothing to do specifically with weapon arts. Kobujutsu means “ancient martial art”; kobudo, means “ancient martial way”. Technically any ancient Okinawan martial art, from empty hand fighting to nunchaku, fits that definition. They are all “ancient martial arts” of Okinawa.

Separating the weapon art of kobudo, from empty handed karate, came about with karate’s emigration to Japan in the 1920’s. The Japanese were interested in Okinawa’s empty handed art but not the rest. Kobudo in the Japanese mind was sword, halberd and bow. Okinawan weapons were low class, plebian. Conflating the tonfa and the sai with the sword, the “spirit of the samurai”, was akin to sacrilege.

Much Okinawan kobudo derives, as we know, from China. Some of it also derives, ironically, from Japan.  Bushi Matsumura traveled to Satsuma on various occasions and studied sword and weapons arts which he mixed in with his Okinawan arts.  We like to think that karate and kobujutsu are uniquely Okinawan, but, it is interesting that the arts that emigrated to Japan from Okinawa may have actually begun in Japan.

Some of the earliest Okinawan names associated with kobudo, some dating to the sixteenth century, were, (among many others): Sakugawa, Chatan Yara, Matsu Higa, Kurogua no Ji, Aburaya, Matsumura, Sueyoshi, Chikin Kraka, Kanegawa Gimu, Aragaki Seisho and Kanagushiku Ufuchikyu. Some we know from history, others mainly from the kata that bear their name. I list the names here for familiarity.  There is much more detailed information in John Sell’s book, Unante.

Other kata bear the names of places in Okinawa, like the islands – Yaeyama, Tsuken, Hama Higa and Kudaka – and come from regional traditions of places like Gushikawa, Nishihara and the Motobu Peninsula.

It is interesting, with such a wide ranging tradition of kobujutsu, and so many practitioners, much broader, throughout history, than the empty handed arts, that weapons arts aren’t more widespread and, in fact, all but disappeared after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Times changed, there was little use for bo and sai with guns around. Additionally, the empty handed arts came to be sponsored by the Okinawan school system as physical education and by people like Itosu for building strong bodies for the Japanese military. No such thing happened with the bo and sai.

A few stalwarts maintained the traditions, however, and today the martial art world is filled with Choun no Kon’s, Matsu Higa tonfa and at least five versions of Tsukenshitahaku no Sai and Chatan Yara no Sai.

Modern Okinawan kobudo boils down to three “major” groups. Style is not really a good choice of words, as there are abundant ways to perform with weapons that do not fit easy categories. The main groups that proliferate in Okinawa and Japan are the lineages of Taira Shinken, Matayoshi Shinpo, and Chinen Sanda, but it’s not difficult to stumble across an Okinawan martial artist, especially in Shorin Ryu schools, who doesn’t fit those categories. There is also a Ryuei Ryu weapons tradition from the Nakaima family.

Chinen Sanda was a major influence on modern kobudo. Born towards the end of the Meiji era and dying in 1920, his life crossed over from ancient to modern times, much like Wyatt Earp’s life spanned everything from the gunfight at the OK Corral to talking pictures. Chinen’s style is fluid and constantly moving, not structured, like other modern styles that use karate stances as a base.

Chinen Sanda is also known as Yamani Chinen. The words “Yama ni” translate as “at the mountain” and designate the place where Chinen Sanda lived (at the foot of a mountain). Sanda’s son, Masami, named the style Yamani ryu after his father and the name literally means “the style at the mountain”.

Yabiku Moden studied from Chinen and established a kobujutsu society in 1911 similar to the karate preservation societies of the day. He was of major importance in preserving Okinawan kobudo. Ironically, though he was a student of Yamani Ryu, one of his own students was Taira Shinken. With that lineage, it is surprising that modern Taira kobudo bears little resemblance to modern Yamani Ryu.

Taira also studied karate from both Funakoshi and Mabuni. He apparently overlaid his kobudo style and technique on a karate-like format. He traveled back and forth between Okinawa and Japan after the war until his death in 1970.

Taira’s mix of karate and weapons has proliferated, taught to and passed on by, among others: Mabuni, Sakagami, Kuniba, Hayashi, Demura, Inoue and Akamine. One complaint was that Taira often changed katas, not surprising since it was such an unorganized art at the time and he knew so much.  Demura Sensei remembered that his teacher, Sakagami, asked Taira to stop teaching in his dojo because Taira was often presenting the same katas done differently.

The third predominant style comes from Matayoshi Shinko (1888–1947). In the first part of the twentieth century he rode with Chinese bandits in Manchuria. There, he learned firsthand how to use an arsenal of weapons, including the tembe (shield), the surujin (rope and weight) and san-shio-pang (three sectional staff), as well as, of course, bo, sai, tonfa and the rest.

Shinko’s son, Shinpo, expanded his father’s legacy.  He also became a Goju student of Higa Seiko and studied White Crane with Gokenki, as well as a wide range of other martial arts. Matayoshi’s unique style pulls the bo back to the outside of the arm, instead of the hip or underarm.

We often think of Okinawan Kobudo mainly in terms of bo, sai, tonfa and nunchaku, but there were a wide variety of weapons that martial artists fashioned.

The Rokushaku Bo (six-foot staff) also called Kon (from the Chinese word Kun), is the standard, honed-down tree limb, similar to the quarter staff of English history. It needs little explanation, but it is interesting that a foot (shaku) was very close in size in ancient Okinawa to the English twelve-inch measurement. Maybe feet aren’t that different the world over.

The Sai, the three-pronged iron fork, apparently originated in China or Southeast Asia, but the origins are foggy. A similar weapon, the Manji Sai, is a metal device with one of the arms bent in the opposite direction.  It was often inserted in the end of a staff and used as a sort of a gaff hook by fishermen and a very deadly weapon.

The Tonfa or Tuifa, a simple wooden handle, may possibly have been the handle of a grind wheel, but such weapons have also turned up in China and Southeast Asia predating the Okinawan version, so it is just as likely that Okinawan martial artists came across its use on their travels.

The Kama is nothing more than a sickle, the kind I used as a kid on the farm to cut weeds.  You can still buy them in hardware stores.

The Nunchaku may have originated as the two sides of a horse bridle or a rice flail, depending on who tells the story.

The Eku is the oar used by Okinawan fishermen. Its diversion to a martial tool is fairly obvious. Many of the bo kata performed today were once performed with the oar.

The Tekko or Techu are similar to “brass knuckles”, made from metal or wood and thought to have originated as a stirrup.

The Surujin is a metal chain or rope with a weight on the end. This weapon was brought to Okinawa from China and is common in many Chinese schools today, but, ironically, not so much in Okinawa.

The truth is that this short discussion of Okinawan kobudo barely scratches the surface. The art is a truly ancient martial art, documented much further back in history than karate and for one simple reason – who would face an opponent barehanded if they could use a weapon.

As the adage goes – If it’s a fair fight, your strategy is wrong.



This article was assembled from personal research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), various works of Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles), Benny Meng (Ving Tsun Museum), Earnest Estrada, Scot Mertz, Andreas Quast, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).

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Contact Robert Hunt directly at steelmoon@hushmail.com
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