Weapons of Okinawa
Even though karate by definition means "empty hands", certain weapons were developed in parallel with open hand techniques. Even though the study of weapons can be classified as a separate martial art, the practice of weapons is closely linked with karate. Techniques done with weapons are simply extensions of empty hand techniques; their mirrors. Thus, for all practical purposes the two can be viewed as one in the same.
Weapons were developed for the same reason that karate was developed, the Okinawa’s needed to defend them-selves. Around the year 1480, King Sho Shin prohibited ownership of all weapons, confiscating them. Potential adversaries included local ruffians and bandits as well as the Japanese samurai who invaded Okinawa in 1609, who reinforced this ban on weapons. These bans served to increase the development of the martial arts in Okinawa, albeit in great secrecy.
The weapons the Okinawa’s used however were not weapons in the traditional sense. Each weapon was derived from common ordinary tools that the local farmer or fisherman would have readily available. This had the additional advantage of not appearing threatened, even though in the hands of a master, these tools could be deadly. Mastery of these weapons could prove to be difficult. Thus an opponent not skilled in the use of the weapon would not be able to use it against its owner.
The main reason the Okinawa’s needed to utilize ordinary tools as weapons is because traditional weapons like swords were banned first by the native Okinawa rulers, and then by the invading Japanese. Yet the samurai were armed with their very sharp samurai swords. Thus, necessity called for a little ingenious invention. Without traditional weapons, the Okinawa’s were left either with their hands or the implements of their livelihood. Thus the Okinawa weapons were born.
Why Do We Study Okinawa Weapons
In today's modern society with the availability of powerful hand guns, the practicality of using Okinawa weapons for self defense is somewhat limited. They can be very effective against an assailant that does not have a gun, but of little to no value against a gun assault.
Yet there are real benefits to the practice of Okinawa weapons.
1. Okinawa weapons have links to karate's past. Preserving this link retains the essence of the development of karate.
2. Even though quite a few of the Okinawa weapons techniques have reflections that are similar to open hand karate, there are numerous techniques that build flexibility and strength in ways that karate can not.
3. Okinawa weapons are much more fluid in its movements. Karate techniques are executed, and then a pause may occur. You do not have this when you have a weapon that may be in constant motion.
4. Okinawa weapons increases coordination, especially hand eye coordination. It also teaches you to trust your body, allowing it to do what it has been trained.
5. Okinawa weapons can be used in self defense. You may not use the exact weapon, but the training learned can be transformed into use with modern "weapons". A golf club or baseball bat can be used instead of a Bo. A hose can simulate Nunchaku swings.
There are five basic Okinawa weapons: Sai, Nunchaku, Bo, Tonfa, and Kama. Each will now be briefly discussed. Later, a brief discussion of the samurai sword will be presented.
The Sai consists of a metal shaft with a wrapped handle. The normal length of a Sai is 18 to 21½ inches in overall length. They look like a miniature trident. To properly size the Sai, the blade should extend one inch past your elbow so that the Sai can fully protected your forearm. One third of the way from the bottom of the shaft, two prongs protrude upward, acting as a hand guard. The shaft tapers slightly toward the tip. At the bottom of the handle is a butt end that can be used for striking techniques similar to a karate punch. Current Sai are normally chrome plated with the blade (part above handle guard) normally in either an octagon shape or round. The round blades resist chipping better than the octagon one. However, the octagon blade does more damage on impact because the striking area is more concentrated.
Sai usually come in pairs. However, some practitioners were believed to carry three, with the third one being using as a throwing implement. The goal was to knock a rider off their horse, not by stabbing them, more by the sheer weight of the Sai. Or, the practitioner had a third one if they dropped or lost one Sai.
Like all the traditional Okinawa weapons, the exact original of the Sai is not known. A few theories exist though.
One theory is that the Sai was derived from a type of hoe. This hoe was used to dig a furrow in the ground. At selected points within the furrow, deeper holes were made with the point of the hoe in which seeds were planted. Later, the hand guards were added.
A second theory is that the Sai was a direct import from China or Indonesia. This theory states that there was no Okinawa tool upon which it was based. The rational for this theory is that there is little iron on Okinawa which would be needed to make the Sai. Thus the case for the Sai being an import.
Even though the Sai are sometimes called "short swords", they were not used as a traditional sword would be. Sai were primarily a defensive weapon. They were used more as a club would be. Some of the major techniques with the Sai are:
With the blade retracted, the Sai would cover the forearm to augment blocking techniques. Also the butt end could be used as an effective punching implement.
Flipping the long end out, you effectively have a whipping, striking tool. The long end could also be used for poking and blocking techniques.
The hand guards were effective to catch a strike from a weapon like a Bo. These guards would protect the hand from damage.
The prongs of the Sai are good for blocking, catching and trapping Bo or sword strikes. Once the prongs complete the trap, the defender can use the Sai to twist the attacker's weapon from their grasp or even breaking the opponent’s weapon.
Because of the flipping techniques employed in use of the Sai, strong and limber wrists need to be developed if one is going to master their use. For this reason, the Sai has been a sought out addition to many karate-kas supplementary training.
The Nunchaku is the weapon immortalized by Bruce Lee in many of his movies. It is a member of the flail family. It is made by attaching two sticks of approximately 12 inches in length, together with a rope or chain. Of course, in Okinawa in the 1600s chain was not used to join the shafts. Rope was the primary method.
The proper length of the Nunchaku should normally equal the distance from the middle of your hand to your elbow. Having the proper length Nunchaku will allow the karate to hold the Nunchaku together at the top of the shaft, using each shaft as a protection or guard for the forearm. The shaft of each stick can be either round or octagonal. Different woods will give the Nunchaku different weights. The shaft of the Nunchaku has three areas, mainly defined by where you would grip or catch the Nunchaku: the upper area, the area closest to the rope or chain; the middle area; and the lower area.
The Nunchaku was believed to be used by the rice farmer in assisting with the harvesting of the crop. The farmer would be in their boat and swing the Nunchaku in a long arcing motion to gather as much rice as possible. Grabbing the Nunchaku on its return, the farmer would pull into the boat the entire crop that was encircled by the arc of the Nunchaku.
A second theory says that the Nunchaku was derived from the Chinese three sectional staff. This weapon proved too large for easy concealment by the Okinawa’s. Thus they modified it, down-sizing it and eliminating one section of the staff.
Nunchakus are glamorized by their swinging ability. A swinging Nunchaku can reach in excess of 85 miles per hour. Swinging techniques are grouped by the direction of the swing. Examples are: up strike, down strike, horizontal strike, and the figure eight motion. Swinging techniques can also be used defensively where the karate-ka swings the Nunchaku to deflect or otherwise stop a strike (i.e. in defense of a low kick). Truly, tremendous forces can be created via swinging the Nunchaku. But, they can also be as an effective defensive/control tool.
Defensive techniques include: using the shafts of the Nunchaku held together as an augmented block along the forearm; using the rope or chain to catch and control strikes and grabs; and using both shafts separated as a cross block technique for overhead and low strikes.
Finally, the Nunchaku can also be used in a punching or clubbing motion. It can virtually imitate most karate hand strikes. For example, it pan be used in an augmented punch or chop. However you use the Nunchaku, it compliments empty hand karate training immensely. It also develops good hand-eye coordination and a "feel" for body position and technique.
The Bo staff is nothing more than long stick. Traditionally it measured six feet in length, but both shorter and longer versions were used depending on the situation and practitioner. It normally has a diameter of 1 ¼ inches at the center, tapering out to a diameter of ¾ inch at the ends. This tapering is done to concentrate and centralize the force focused in striking the opponent. However, the Bo could have a constant diameter throughout its length. The Bo usually is made of hard wood that would not easily split, however bamboo or rattan can be used when flexibility and weight is an issue.
The Bo staff is probably one of mankind's oldest weapons. They belong to the same family as spears. The Bo was commonly used to carry buckets of grain or water, one on each end of the staff for balance purposes. When attacked, the defender could easily slip the buckets off each end and have a very handy weapon.
Or staffs would be used as a walking implement. When attacked, what seemed a harmless tool became a deadly weapon.
The Bo staff, because of its length, was not a weapon for close in fighting. Rather it was used to defend one's self from a distance. The Bo operates best from outside your opponent's attack zone. It is also most useful in relatively open spaces. The Bo is best used when both hands manipulate its use.
Striking techniques include switching the weapon from side-to-side. This involves switching the places of the lead and end of the staff. The quicker this switch is made, the greater the potential energy of the strike.
The karate-ka can also twirl the Bo either overhead, of in front of them, causing confusion in any attacker. The attacker never knows exactly from where the Bo strike is coming.
Blocking techniques are also very effective with the Bo. This is because the Bo can cover such a large defensive area. Blocks can be made against head, side and low strikes. Holding the Bo above one's head will be an effective block against overhead strikes. Likewise, holding the Bo vertically to the karate-kas side will protect the sides of the karate-ka.
The Tonfa consist of a wooden shaft approximately 17 inches in length, with a handle protruding 90 degrees out of it about one fourth of the distance along the shaft. Tonfa normally are used in pairs.
The Tonfa is believed to have originated as a handle on a grinding wheel. The handle was wedged into a hole in the side of the millstone grinder. The handle then could be easily removed when needed for self defense.
Today, an adaptation of the Tonfa, called the PR-24, is used by many police departments. However, the PR-24 is made out of hardened plastic instead of wood. The PR-24 has replaced traditional police night stick. However, the police only use one instead of two like traditional martial artists.
The Tonfa has several offensive and defensive possibilities. Offensively, by twisting and pivoting at the handle, you can swing the Tonfa in an arcing motion to strike the long end. Swinging the Tonfa in this manner require a snap of the wrist. This wrist snap is similar to the snap employed at the last second in a karate punch. Either end can be used in a punching/clubbing/chopping motion. Defensively, the long end of the Tonfa can be used to guard the forearm as an augmented block. The use of the Tonfa demand strong wrists and good hand control.
The Kamas are better known as sickles. They consist of wooden shafts with a metal blade set at the top. The inside edge of the blade is sharp while the outside edge is blunt. Kamas are used in pairs. Some practitioners have a rope or leather cord strung through the base of the handle. This cord wraps around the wrist, allowing the Kamas to be twirled in motions similar to Nunchaku. Because of the deadliness of the sharp blades, practice Kamas for the beginning karate-ka is usually made all of wood, including the blade.
The Kama tends to be employed close to your opponent. Kamas use much more sweeping motions then other weapons. These motions include: hooking, hacking, and chopping. Not all of these slashing motions have direct counterparts in karate. The blades add an extra deadly feature to this weapon. The practitioner may block a technique with the wooden shaft, only to shift the Kama, pulling the sharp blade across the opponent's arm or leg. What's more, one Kama could be executing a block, while the second Kama is slashing at the opponent. Finally, both Kamas could be swung simultaneously, creating a sort of propeller effect.