Kobudo = Weapons Art
The word Karate in modern terms is defined as "empty hand." This has led some to believe that Karate training lacks the use of traditional weapons. This is an incorrect understanding since traditionally Karate and Kobudo (weapons art) were often practiced together. Over the centuries, Okinawan martial arts utilized a number of weapons, many of them originating in China, Japan and of course Okinawa. The weapons often associated with Karate are the Bo, Sai, Nanchaku, Tonfa and the Kama. There are others but it is these that are usually taught by Karate schools around the world.
Around 1580 in Okinawa came a prohibition of weapons to try to curb the uprisings of peasants and farmers against the government. This left the peasants defenseless against the armor-clad and sword wielding Samurai. Out of need for protection the peasants looked to their farm implements. The tenbin is a stick held across the shoulders so a worker could hang fish or water buckets that needed to be carried. It is believed the Bo originated by using the tenbin as a weapon. The Bo is a long staff about six feet long and of varying diameter. It is made of hard wood or bamboo. The weight and rigidity varies as to the material that is used in the construction of the Bo. It can take the look of an ornately crafted work of art or be as plain as a piece of wood can be. Given the fact that staves were probably used around the world from early man it is no wonder that this fundamental first weapon has been incorporated into the martial arts world. But, more specifically, the Bo's length gives the martial artist an ability for long range attacks. Swinging the Bo can give a devastating crushing blow with the leverage generated. The swinging motion can also take an opponent off their feet. Thrusting can also be used as a strike or a joint-locking technique so as to subdue an attacker without fatality.
The Sai is a three pronged metal weapon similar to the end of a pitchfork though small enough to be wielded in one hand. Its middle tine is longer and all three tines are sharpened to a point. The tines are called tsuba. The Sai is believed to be used as a farm tool for plowing fields, measuring stalks or planting rice. The Sai is another weapon that a peasant would pass as a farm tool in the eyes of the prohibitive government. Traditionally, the Sai was carried in threes. This way a martial artist could have an extra in case they were disarmed, had thrown one, or pinned an opponent with one. Its versatility comes in its unique shape. It can be used to catch an incoming sword blow. It can also be used in an offensive and defensive manner by using different techniques. By utilizing a certain grip the Sai can be used non-lethally by using the blunt handle for strikes while the tsuba guards the forearm. An effortless motion can easily swing the tsuba outwards for a more lethal attack if needed.
The Nunchaku is two pieces of wood that have been tied together by a cord or chain resembling a flail. The prevalent thought of the origin of the Nunchaku is that it was used to thresh rice and soybeans. An alternative theory is that it evolved from a three section staff used by martial artists. Nevertheless it was another farm tool that could be used as a weapon by a peasant. It's popularity exploded when movies with Bruce Lee were being produced. The Nanchaku is one of the most complex and least understood weapons; it has a steep learning curve. Its main advantage is that of speed, confusing motion and great striking force. It is prone to inflicting injury on oneself if one is not trained to use it properly.
The Tonfa looks like a baton that modern police use. Ideally the tonfa would be constructed so that the main board, that lays flat against the forearm, will stick out about 1 inch past the elbow. Originally it was thought to have been used as the handles that fit into millstones. The tonfa was another tool that was used as a weapon during prohibitive times. There are many ways to attack and defend with the tonfa. Traditionally wielded in pairs, the tonfa is used far differently than a policeman's nightstick or baton. Holding the weapon by the handle will protect the forearm and hand from blows. Holding the tonfa by the shaft enables the wielder to catch an opponents weapons strike with the handle. To attack, one swings the tonfa by the handle. This way the momentum propels the shaft into the target with greater force. Holding the shaft of the tonfa allows one to strike with the handle. The wielder can also employ holding and breaking techniques by holding the shaft and handle together.
The Kama was also a traditional farming device utilized by peasants for reaping crops. It is similar to a scythe. It is a very simple, extremely sharp and deadly weapon that often is used in pairs. The Kama can have varying sizes of blade length and shaft size. It is often utilized for hooking and gripping the Bo and other weapons in open hand technique. Most karatekas will begin training with a wooden Kama (for safety reasons) before training with live blades.
Weapons training is usually introduced to Karatekas after they reach Shodan (black belt) Level. One will continue to learn and show proficiency in various weapons as they advance in rank.
Written by: Kevin Hanson (Karateka)