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From way back, the indigenous people of the islands of Okinawa, Japan have adapted accordingly to the influences of various cultures, developing the widely known martial art style of Karate. However, in such development emerged the advent of what has now been coined, Kobudo ‘the old martial way of Okinawa’ – the weapon system of Okinawan martial arts

Beginnings of Okinawan Martial Arts – Kobudo

Okinawan Martial Arts kobudo

There is an air of uncertainty with when exactly Okinawan kobudo originated, but it is believed that some of the weapon-based fighting had its roots in China, where some similar weapons that pre-date those found in Okinawa were discovered there. One belief pertaining to Kobudo is that many of the weapons are based off farming tools and adapted by the commoners.

During a period where many of the farmers were restricted from carrying arms, it is said that they secretly adopted this weapon-based fighting system out of hopes to defend themselves if the time were to ever arise. While there is truth to the fact that Okinawans were prohibited from practicing using weapons, historians note that it was mainly the Pechin Warrior class of the Ryukan Government that studied, and thus helped develop the martial arts.

Kobudo Weapons

Okinawan Martial Arts kobudo

Depending on which dojo you train at, the weapons that are primarily used may differ. But, generally practitioners in Okinawan kobudo is known to use twelve martial art weapons. The following are just a few of the weapons that can be found in Okinawan kobudo:

  • Bo – Usually made of oak and about 6 feet in length, the Bo is a long wooden staff that many practitioners use to train in. Students typically learn how to utilize the top part of the staff to block on oncoming attack, and fluidly use the bottom to counter strike. With enough training and mastery, it is very difficult to defend yourself against an adept Bo user, since the interval between a block and strike can be as fast as a blink of an eye.
  • Eku – A bit lesser known than some of the other weapons used in Okinawan martial arts, the Eku derives from a boat oar. While the techniques to utilize the Eku are essentially like that of the Bo (using the top and bottom end to block and strike), usually higher level practitioners are more commonly known to use this weapon.
  • Kama – Typically used in pairs, the Kama is a small scythe used to fight off opponents that utilize longer weapons such as the Bo or Eku. Originally derived from a farming instrument for cutting rice, the blades of the Kama can be used to trap the end of the staff, where the practitioner would then follow up with a counter attack. For higher level users, a strap can later be attached to the handle so that the scythe can be swung around. This advanced technique has come to be known as ’the Flying Kama.’
  • Nunchaku – Consisting of two batons that are connected by rope or chain, the Nunchaku is one of the more popular weapons of Okinawan kobudo. While there are varying beliefs to its roots, one belief is that the Nunchaku was originally meant for threshing rice. This weapon – when used correctly and proficiently – can be outright deadly to the opponent, as it is mainly used to target the wrist, elbows, knees, etc. When training, students are encouraged to practice with foam Nunchaku, since it is very easy to injure yourself when recklessly swinging around a hard baton. The Nunchaku was made widely popular by martial art legend Bruce Lee and cartoon character Michelangelo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
  • Sai – Uniquely shaped with three prongs, the Sai is a weapon that many practitioners utilize for disarming their opponents. The two shorter prongs (Yoku) that extend from the main handle (Tsuka) are mainly used to guard against and trap the attacker’s sword/staff. Most tips of the Sae (Saki) are not pointed, but rather blunt, which indicates this weapon is not meant for lethal purposes. Instead, proficient practitioners in the Sai or Jutte (another variation of the Sai) are known to be able to trap and snap swords if used correctly. This weapon is most notably popularized from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where Raphael holsters a pair of Sai as his primary weapon.
  • Tinbe Rochin – Consisting of both a shield (Tinbe) and spear (Rochin), this weapon exists in many various Karate styles, however is not as commonly used as some of the weapons. It has often been found that the shield is made of a large turtle shell and is used to defend against attacks, while the spear is then used to attack by thrusting into the opponent.
  • Surujin – One of more lesser known weapons, the Surujin is a chain or rope that consists of two metal balls at each end. Typically ranging anywhere from 150 to 240 cm long, the practitioners deliver strikes by swinging and throwing the weighted ends toward the opponent. There is a level of precision that is required to accurately attack the opposition. Usually, users should place one foot forward, with 70% of their weight on the forward leg and each leg shoulder width apart.

Kobudo in the Modern Day

Okinawan Martial Arts kobudo

Even though Kobudo has been known as the brother/sister to Karate, going together with its teachings, it has unfortunately gained little traction in popularity compared to its counterpart. When looking at why this may be, one of the main reasons that could be is simply due to the impracticality of Kobudo in real life settings. While Karate – hand-to-hand combat – can be utilized anywhere at any time, Kobudo requires practitioners to hold a specified weapon they have obtained training in.

Additionally, since Kobudo revolves around weapons, there is much more difficulty in obtaining mastery in such a specialized martial art, making it potentially less appealing than Karate. While the rewards in learning how to utilize an Okinawan weapon may be fulfilling, it is rarer to find specialists in Kobudo training rather than the more mainstream Karate. Furthermore, the fact that this requires these specific weapons also means higher costs, while Karate merely requires clothes.

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