Kobudo is a weapons-based form of martial arts originating in the Southern Japanese islands of Okinawa. The term Kobudo itself translates from the Japanese as “the old martial of Okinawa”, although the translation is modern as the people of Okinawa did not give names to their martial arts until after the 19th century.
The popular myth surrounding Okinawan Kobudo is that it was developed from farmers using their farm tools as weapons, as they were forbidden from having actual weapons by the Japanese Samurai class for fear of popular insurrection. This myth has gained traction due to the nature of the martial arts weapons employed in Okinawan Kobudo, all of which are related to common farm implements and will be discussed below. However, there are many links between Okinawan Kobudo and similar Chinese forms of weapons-based martial arts which predate Japanese occupation of the island, casting doubts upon such founding myths. It’s possible that the varying martial arts originated before Japanese occupation, but gained popularity in response to the general ban on weapons.
As Okinawan Kobudo is primarily weapons-based, the specific martial arts weapons involved are outlined below.
Martial Arts Weapons of Kobudo
Kobudo Bo: The most important weapon of Kobudo, the Kobudo Bo is typically a 6 ft long staff (although some Kobudo Bos are longer, and some shorter), made of either hard material like red or white oak, or more flexible material such as bamboo, pine, or rattan, ranging in weight from heavy to light. The Japanese art of using the Kobudo Bo is called Bojutsu. A Kobudo Bo is often tapered, thicker at the center than at the ends. Some Bos are ornately decorated, while others are merely simple staffs. For competition purposes, a Kobudo Bo may have stripes of metal along its sides, or specialized grips in the center.
Combat with the Kobudo Bo involves different thrusting, striking, and swinging techniques, along with a number of blocks, sweeps, and entrapments. Many movements with the Kobudo Bo resemble empty-handed fighting styles like Kobudo Karate, as the philosophy behind the Kobudo Bo holds it as merely an extension of one’s limbs. The back hand is used to generate power, while the forward hand is used to guide the martial arts weapon.
The Kobudo Bo may well have been based off the tenpin, the traditional staff rested on one’s back while carrying buckets during farm work, as well as on the handles of shovels, rakes, and walking sticks, used by monks. It may have been from these practical instruments that the martial art developed, in response to the Japanese ban on weapons in Okinawa in the 17th century. The Japanese could not confiscate simple staffs, and so people may have trained with them in order to defend themselves against the often brutal Samurai.
The Kobudo Bo is the primary weapon in the martial art, but a number of others are employed as well.
Sai: The Sai is three-pronged truncheon with a blunt end. The two short ends are usually used for trapping and breaking other weapons, such as a bo or sword, and they may be wielded two at a time.
Tonfa: The Tonfa is similar to a side-handle baton, and can also be wielded with one in each hand. The style of fighting with a tonfa reflects the empty-handed techniques, and it may have originated from the handle of a millstone.
Nunchaku: The nunchaku are a popular weapon made of two sections of wood connected by a chord. Theories of its origins differ, with some saying it came from a Chinese weapons, others from a horse’s bit, and still others from a threshing flail. The Chinese design is rounded, while the Okinawan is octagonal. It was popularized in Bruce Lee movies, and is now common throughout the world in countless dojos.
Kama: The Kama is a weapon based off the farming sickle, with a relatively short handle and a curved blade at the end. It is difficult to learn due to the inherent dangers associated with its practice, although duller versions have been developed for students. Some versions of the weapon have a nook in the handle to catch a Kobudo bo, but this was a weakpoint in the design, and other models do without it, or with a bend in the handle for that purpose.
Tekko: The tekko resemble a knuckleduster, spanning the entire fist with between 1 and 3 sharp points at the end.
Surujin: The Surujin is a chain with a weight either at both ends or at one end and a blade on the other. It can be easily concealed, making it particularly effective in surprising opponents. Moreover, its unorthodox design and unpredictable nature make it a supremely dangerous weapon in skilled hands.
A number of different schools of Kobudo exist, having survived the Second World War. Two of the most popular are Matayoshi Kobudo and Shorin-Ryu, which will be discussed below.
Matayoshi Kobudo is the style of Okinawan Kobudo developed under Matayoshi Shinpo in the 20th century, influenced by the Japanese, Chinese, and Okinawan martial arts styles. Matayoshi Shinko, his father, demonstrated his style of Kobudo to the Japanese Emperor in the early 20th century, who was so impressed that he awarded the master the Royal Emblem, which was combined with the Okinawan emblem to from the Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei logo. After Matayoshi Shinko’s death in 1947, his son Shinpo opened up a dojo in his father’s honor, teaching traditional Okinawan Kobudo. His style employs all of the martial arts weapons listed above, based on the traditional tools of the peasant class. Due to the efforts of Matayoshi Shinpo and his students, Matayoshi Kobudo has spread throughout the world, with over 2000 dojos worldwide.
Shorin refers to the Shaolin Temple of China, and Ryu means style, although the literal translation of Shorin Ryu is “Pine Tree School”. It was developed by Choshin Chibana in 1933, although the system itself is much older. It was based off the traditional Okinawa fighting style of Shuri-te. Chosin Chibana was a top student of a great master of shuri-te, Anko Itosu, who himself was a student of the great master Matsumura Sokon, bodyguard to three Okinawan kings.
Shorin-Ryu, also known as Shorin-Ryu Karate, is a form of Karate Kobudo characterized by natural breathing, natural stances, and circular rather than direct movements. Crucial to Shorin-Ryu Karate are correct motion, fluid movement to evade attacks, and solid structure for powerful attacking moves. A distinctive feature of Shorin-Ryu Karate is the position of the fist when striking. The fist should not be held horizontally nor vertically, but rather with a slight can’t to the inside, so that the third knuckle of the index finger is in line with the second knuckle of the pinky finger. This allows for more powerful, stable, and faster strikes.
Beginners initiating into Shorin Ryu must first learn balance, stance, and coordination. Only at higher levels are speed and power added.
One final point concerns the relation between Karate and Kobudo. Although many believe these are distinct martial arts styles, they are in-fact closely related. There is strong evidence that Okinawan Kobudo preceded and influenced the development of Karate, as there are strong stylistic links between the martial arts. Weapons-based Kobudo includes kicks similar to those of Karate, and the overall flow of movement is similar as well. Many dojos who primarily teach Karate also teach Kobudo weapons training in conjunction with the traditionally empty-handed martial art.