Feature Article - 2nd Quarter, 1997


By IKKF President C. Bruce Heilman

Today most people involved in the martial arts and even many of the general public have become aware of some of the martial arts weapons. Probably, the most widely known of the Okinawan weapons is the Nunchaku, which received its notoriety in numerous martial arts movies during the 1970's and 80's. Others may to a lesser extent be aware of the Bo, Tunfa and Sai. However, there exist a number of other significant weapons to traditional Okinawan Kobudo that the knowledge of which is limited to the most serious Karate/Kobudo practitioners.


The study of ancient martial arts weapons, and their related techniques, has over the centuries resulted in the development of a variety of schools and systems. These systems can be divided into two basic groups purely for combative purposes: 1) Bugei - martial arts, and 2) Budo - martial arts. The Budo form was developed from the Bugei and Jitsu forms. The Okinawans call these forms "KOBUDO", or ancient weapons arts.

Around 400 years ago, Japan began to assert control over the Island of Okinawa. One of the edicts forced the Okinawan people to turn over their weapons to the Japanese. The move was made by Imperial Japanese leaders with almost no realistic political foresight and very little insight or perception into the Okinawan way of thinking. The ruling classes assumed that to gain political and financial control over this tenacious island race, all that was necessary was to disarm the people. The edict specifically ordered that "all weapons" be turned over to the authorities. Little did the authorities realize that the Okinawan people were such a nationalistic race and so strongly devoted to freedom that they would go to any lengths to deceive and/or hide the weapons they needed to fight their oppressors. Thus, weapons were called "farm implements", but underground the fighting population was training in the use and proficiency of these tools. Soon the weapons masters became a most feared force in the battle for political freedom, feared by the Japanese and idolized by the Okinawan people whose protectorate they were.

Today, much of the Island of Okinawa has undergone its own industrial revolution, and most of these crude farm implements have been replaced by mechanical and power tools. Yet, the history of these weapons is still part of the rich traditional background of Okinawan Martial Arts, and as important physical aspect of the arts.

Kobudo practitioners today, as did their ancient predecessors, perfect weapons techniques by training with kata specifically designed to teach and perfect directional movements, transitional movements, body alignment, balance, grace and coordination between body and weapon.

The practice of Okinawan Kobudo, although not formally part of Karate, is almost inseparable from an historical viewpoint. Okinawan Karate practitioners are generally involved to some extent in the practice of Kobudo. While most are a least proficient with a few weapons, few if any can use a wide range of weapons with a high level of proficiency.

The major difference between Karate and Kobudo practice has been that historically, Kobudo practice has not been as systematized as with Karate. Kobudo practice has tended to be focused upon separate "Kobudo Associations". The very existence of these Kobudo associations has however, over time started a trend towards systematization of the Kobudo training, techniques and katas. Examples of such Kobudo associations include: Shinpo Matayoshi's Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei ; the late Eicho Akamine's Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinko Kai ; Seikichi Uehara's Motobu-ryu Kobujitsu Kyokai ; and Motokatsu Inque's Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinko Kai.

Also, the within the last twenty years we have seen the emmergence ot combined Karate-Kobudo organizations which have furthered the trend toward systematization of the Kobudo training. One of the earliest was Seikichi Odo's Okinawa Kenpo Karate-Kobudo Renmei. Other such combined organizations include: Kenko Nakaima's Ryuei-ryu Karatedo Kobudo Hozon Kai ; Seitoku Higa's Zen Okinawa Karate Kobudo Rengo Kai ; Choboku Takamine's Kokusai Karate Kobudo Tenmei ; Ryusho Sakagami's Itosu Kai, Nihon Karatedo Kanto - Hanbuncho of Hozon Shinko Kai ; Tsueneyosho Ogura's International Karate and Kobudo Propagation ; and Masafumi Suzuki's All Japan Budo Federation.


The major traditional weapons of Okinawan Kobudo include the following:

o Bo
o Sai
o Tunfa
o Kama
o Nunchaku
o Nunte Sai
o Nunte Bo
o Eiku
o Tekkos
o Tinbe & Rochin
o Kuwa
o Yari Bo
o Tanbo
o Kusarigama
o Jo

A brief introduction to each of these weapons of Okinawan Kobudo is presented in the following discussion.


The Bo is one of the most popular weapons of Okinawan Kobudo. In the hands of Masters such as Seikichi Uehara, Shinpo Matayoshi and Seikichi Odo, it is almost an unbeatable weapon due to its reach and striking power. Formally called the "Rokushakubo", where "roko" means six, "shaku" is a unit of measurement of about a foot in length, and "bo" means staff.

As a art form, it is closely tied to Karate, adopting from the Chinese the basic principles but developing its own Okinawan characteristics. The first of these is the matter of the design of the weapon. The Okinawan Bo is tapered at both ends to provide a more centralized focus for striking the opponent's body.

The use of the Bo relies heavily upon a good knowledge of karate basics. The Bo operates best from outside the opponent's weapons swing zone, and it gives its user a strong advantage over an opponent's shorter weapon. When used at a close range, within the opponents swing zone, the Bo provides a variety of blocking and parrying techniques, but looses some of its distance advantage.

Bo training requires the student to make a lengthy study of the fundamental grips, stances, movements and techniques of striking, blocking, poking, thrusting and disarming. It must be noted that to effectively be able to utilize the Bo to its maximum, the student must be able to use the full range of the weapon.


The Sai is a uniquely designed short metal weapon with a long history. Found in India, china, Indo-China, Malaya and Indonesia, its presence in Okinawa probably derives from migration from one or more of these sources. Prototype designs may be seen in the Trident-shaped weapons of ancient times. The ancient Indonesian civilizations on Sumatra and Java, which had contact with Okinawa used the weapons in their fighting arts.

The Sai is primarily a defensive weapon and is effective against an enemy armed with blade, staff or stick. the length of the Sai varies with the most popular lengths between 15-20 inches. It was generally made from iron or steel and weighed between one to three pounds. The Sai is generally used as a truncheon, although its earlier forms derived from a bladed weapon. The Sai may be used to deflect, block, or parry a cutting or thrusting attack of a bladed or staff weapon.

The Sai were usually carried, one in each hand and one thrust through the belt of the user. The third Sai in the belt was a replacement for one either thrown or lost in combat. The prongs of the Sai were so designed to provide the skilled user with the capability of catching and locking the enemy's weapon. Further, the skilled practitioner would generally utilize the weapons quick striking capabilities to attack an armed opponents hands, thus disabling and/or disarming him prior to moving in for the finishing techniques.


Early Okinawans, at work gathering grain by the millstone, were nonetheless determined to continue their clandestine practice of the arts. The wooden handle normally wedged into a hole in the side of the millstone served their purpose well. This handle, known as the "tunfa or tonfa" was made of a tapered shaft of hardwood attached to a cylindrical grip projecting at a right angle from the shaft.

The handle could easily be dismantled from the millstone and brought into action. It was held by grasping the short grip loosely but firmly so that the weapon could not drop out of the users hand when manipulated. Most commonly, two tunfa were sued, one in each hand. All use of the tunfa depends upon karate movements. The operator can punch or strike with great force, since the hardwood projection acts line an extension of the knuckles. By a quick flick of the wrist and arm, the user can reverse the Tunfa so that the longer end of the shaft will swing forward and strike the opponent with great force.

Good Tunfa techniques make judicious use of blocking and parrying actions. These actions and many of those involving the use of the Tunfa cal be likened to those of the Sai. Today, Tunfa masters are rare in Okinawa, and there may be some chance of this art passing from the modern scene.


The agricultural sickle has been used as long as man has grown rice. Seen in a number of different forms all over southeastern Asia, it has from earliest times served as an effective weapon in emergencies. On Okinawa, the sickle is called "kama", and was probably brought there during the numbered migrations from the Asian continent.

Kama tactics are primarily Okinawan, using the principles of Karate stancing and movement. some modifications had to be instituted in order that the operator would not wound himself during manipulations of the weapon. the weapon has a hardwood handle and a blade that is crescent shaped and single-edged. This razor sharp blade can be pointed and hooked for hacking rather that for jabbing or skewering. The Kama is very effective in trained hands, but must be employed close into the opponent. Kama attacks incorporate chopping, hooking, hacking, striking, blocking, deflecting or covering actions against an enemy's weapons or tactics. Kama are generally used in pairs, with a swinging pattern similar to propeller-like cover motions.

Kama techniques are difficult to master and for this reason it soon may become a dying art, remaining in the hands of a few highly experienced masters such as Seike Toma , Seikichi Odo and Shinpo Matayoshi.


The Nunchaku, a harmless-looking object appearing more like a toy than a weapon, is believed to have been first used as a horse bridle. The Nunchaku user can subdue an enemy by making use of ensnaring actions, crushing and holding techniques, poking or jabbing attacks, as well as defensive parrying, blocking and deflection actions.

The Nunchaku is a double-pieced hardwood weapon. The separate pieces of wood are connected by a cord or chain. Each piece is identical in shape being about one foot to fifteen inches in length and of square, hexagonal or octagonal cross section. The Nunchaku is used from Karate stances and attacks are delivered during close in fighting with the enemy. The Nunchaku is especially effective against weak points on the body. Painful ensnaring actions can be applied by catching the opponents fingers, hand or wrist in a "nutcracker grip" and closing the opened ends of the weapon with force. The most potent offensive technique are the powerful full range swings which can generate tremendous striking power at impact.


The Eiku or Eku Bo (oar) is a long shaft with a broad blade at one end used for rowing or steering a boat. The Okinawan Oar is made of wood. The Oar can be attached to oar hooks or oar locks, although it is more commonly held in the hands.

The Oar in the hands of a skilled practitioner becomes an excellent weapon employed somewhat like the Bo staff with the advantage of the broad flat end used for blocking, parrying, cutting and thrusting. Traditional Eiku bo katas employ repetitive "rowing movements" symbolic of their use in a fight while in a boat. Correct use of the Eiku bo is limited to only a handful of the older traditional masters in Okinawa. Old line masters such as Seikichi Odo notes that only one or two orthodox Eiku Bo forms exist, with most of the current katas being modern adaptations of the weapon to regular bo katas. In these modern versions much of the finesse moves with the weapon have been lost, with the emphasis placed on bo-like power strikes.

Nunte and Nunte Bo:

The Nunte is a weapon similar in size and design to the Sai, except that one of the prongs is reversed. The weapon is also sometimes called the Manji-sai. The Nunte cal be utilized by a skilled operator in many of the same ways as the Sai, with the additional advantage of by-directional hooking capabilities, result from the reversed prong. The basic design for this weapon is similar to that of the Sai with the prongs off center, providing for one long and one short blade section.

The Nunte Bo is basically a regular bo with a Nunte tied to one end, serving as a fisherman's gaff. It should be noted that the fighting techniques with the Nunte Bo differ significantly from those of the Bo alone. With the Nunte Bo, the skilled practitioner uses a lot more circular motion and rotation of the weapon in both attack and defensive techniques. The Nunte bo also adds the additional capability to deflect, parry, catch and lock the opponents weapon and to entwine the opponents clothing. The emphasis with the Nunte Bo techniques is with finesse rather than power.

Yari Bo:

The Yari Bo is a spear like weapon. It is used in many ways similar to the use of the bo. The additional advantage of this weapon it in its bladed or pointed end section which permits effective thrusting or slicing techniques. One significant difference between the regular Bo and the Yari Bo is in its length. Generally the Yari Bo length are longer, ranging from seven to ten feet in length.


The Tekkos or Teko (claw) is a weapon originally devised by the Asian countries. The Tekkos are generally used in pairs. Tekkos can be made of wood or metal and may have small protruding points or blades. Use of the Tekkos employs slashing and clawing movements in addition to the normal punching techniques. the points/claws of the Tekkos would always be pointed toward the opponent. The Tekkos is primarily a close-in range weapon.

Tinbe and Rochin:

The Tinbe or Timbei is a shield and the Rochin is a short spear. The concept of the use of a shield and short or long spear is common to almost all fighting cultures around the world. The unique aspect associated with the Okinawan version is that the Tinbe (shield) made use of the shell of a turtle (large sea turtle) with a handle or straps fastened to the back to provide a hand grip on the shell. Other versions made use of a shield constructed of cane. Modern Tinbe are generally made of metal or fiberglass.

The Rochin was a short wooden shaft with a spear point or blade attached. Two renowned masters of the Tinbe and Rochin include Shinpo Matayoshi in Okinawa and Motokatsu Inoue in Japan. this art is not very widespread even in Okinawa today with its practice limited primarily to the major Kobudo organizations.


The Kusarigama is basically an agricultural sickle, called Kama in Okinawa, with a cord attached to the end of the handle. There are a number of versions of the Kusarigama, with the biggest variation in the length of the handle and the size of the blade. Also in the larger versions, a weighted object is secured at the other end of the cord which permits the weighted end to be thrown at the opponent in an attempt to entangle him and then be able to move in for the finish. In Japan, the larger versions of the Kusarigama is the most popular, while in Okinawa the smaller versions are preferred. A noted practitioner of the "flying kama" techniques in Seike Toma in Okinawa.


The Jo or Hanbo (half-bo) were 4' and 3' variations of the Bo staff. They were often carried by the Okinawan royal court guards as it gave them an excellent weapon to use within cramped confines. A very practical weapon with a lot of modern day potential. Only a handful of kata exist which primarily come from the Taira or royal court guard traditions.


The Tanbo or Nitanbo were short wooden sticks most often used in pairs, measuring anywhere from 24" to almost 3 feet. The highly effective techniques, reminiscent of the Philippine arts, but simpler, see limited practice even in traditional Kobudo circles.


The Kuwa or wooden hoe is another minor weapon which is not often seen even in the most traditional of the kobudo schools. Probably the most noted practitioner of this weapon keeping the tradition alive is Shinpo Matayoshi.


It is not the purpose of this article to present one or more traditional weapons kata for the reader, as it is the authors strong opinion that kata can not be correctly learned via a set of photographs. For a student to really "learn" the kata, direct instruction by a teacher is required. However, an article such as this can be an excellent vehicle to present an overview of the historical and technical principles involved with the weapons of Okinawan Kobudo.

One of the most important technical principles involved in the practice of Okinawan Kobudo is the "removal of target". By this we mean that the defender uses body positioning to cut an angle either defensively or offensively to the opponent, thus minimizing their vulnerability and maxamizine their offensive capability. In order to accomplish this, the defender must be able to adjust his stancing and movements to reflect and enhance the technical capabilities unique to each weapon. A second important principle deals with the "control of centerline". Just as with the open hand arts, the individual who effectively controls the centerline has the greatest chance for success. Here again, stance adjustment is critical for the defender to maintain his/her control of the centerline - which leads one noted Kobudo Master (Seikichi Odo) to state that ..."there are no stances in kobudo". Thus, while many martial artists commonly refer to Kobudo as ..."being an extension of your Karate technique", it must be recognized that the "extension" is not one of basic Karate technique, but according to the author ..."rather the enhancement of the underlying principles".

The viewpoints and techniques expressed herein come from the teachings of Hanshi Heilman and his teacher Master Seikichi Odo and the Okinawa Kenpo Karate-Kobudo system. Master Odo, a practitioner of the arts since age 13 (now 73), was one of the first of the Okinawan masters to formally incorporate a complete system of weapons into a traditional karate system. The "Odo Lineage Kobudo" continues the teachings of some of the top current and past kobudo practitioners including: Kakazu, Matayoshi, Toma, Meazato, Kinjo, Kyan, Kuniyoshi and Sakiyama.

Hanshi Heilman, through his International Karate Kobudo Federation (IKKF) is dedicated to the propagation of traditional Karate and Kobudo in order that the old ways will not be lost to the future generations of students. This article is just another step in the process of getting the history, techniques and principles of the "old ways" out to the serious martial arts public.

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