kobudo1For me, weapons was not part of karate training. I was always taught that Karate, which translates to Empty Hand, meant NO WEAPONS! I know that other styles did have a weapons component and I didn’t have a problem with this. It was just not our thing. Shotokan Karate did not have a weapons component other than defence against weapons.

A month ago, the International Karate Daigaku introduced weapons. It was in part due to an essay written by a training partner and friend, Nick Quesnel. He questioned why we were not using traditional weapons in our training.

13507272_10157152499990492_2255753341797756557_nNick was the first person in the dojo to pick up the bo and start spinning it around. He studied Kanazawa and Demura’s weapon techniques and tried for figure out where they would fit into kata. On occasion, we would work together on some ideas. Nick moved on from training when he was accepted into the military. The unfortunate part of his acceptance was that the IKD would announce that weapons would be added to the organisation just shortly after he left for his basic training.

Nick argued that Master Funakoshi is shown in several photos using weapons. He also pointed out places in katas were weapons were obviously being used. Now we have added the Sai, Tonfa and Bo to our training. I never thought I would like the tonfa. I purchased a set before IKD World Camp and learned a few techniques while at camp. When I returned, I received my copy of Fumio Demura’s, “Tonfa: Karate Weapon of Self Defence.” I have watched the DVD and taught myself Tonfa Kihon no Kata. I am not perfect at it but I can get through the basic kata.

13450723_10157152491110492_7475558574260179502_nRecently,  I have shown students at the dojo where I train some of the aspects of the tonfa. I understand that the Amherst Shotokan Karate Academy has ordered several tonfa and will be holding classes on the weapon. I can not wait to show the students more about the weapon that I call the poor man’s nunchaku.

My wife and I are also very interested in the bo staff. We hope to improve our skills and be able to perform some demos with weapons for our recruiting day at Mount Allison University in the fall. We hope to gain a few new students with the introduction of traditional weapons.

Karate may translate to Empty Hand but I think the “Empty” part actually points more to emptying your mind that actual empty hand. After learning more about the bo and the tonfa, I can see techniques hidden in the shotokan kata syllabus that are obviously performed with tonfa or bo staff in your hands. It is interesting to discover these and it makes you wonder what were the masters thinking years ago when they developed these kata. Why were the weapons omitted over the decades.

Now my eyes are open and I am looking at everything in a different light. It is great to have a veil lifted and see a whole new world before your eyes. Make sure your karate is not “closed mind hand.”

Empty your mind and open your eyes. Embrace Kobudo and add it to your karate training.

5 thoughts on “Kobudo

  • December 22, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    On Including Weapon Training into the Shotokan System
    There have always been fragments of kobudo alongside karate training. These fragments include strikes with staffs, knives, clubs, and other weapons. Typically, these strikes are performed during bunkai with such kata as Jitte, Bassa Sho, Kanku Sho and others. These untrained strikes were not always the norm as a stronger connection between kobudo and karate existed during the early years of the shotokan system. The purpose of this essay is to argue how weapon training should play a minimal role in the shotokan syllabus. There are three supporting arguments dealing with the subject. The first is evidence showing a historical connection between weapon training and karate. The second looks at the number of kata that have movements specifically designed against weapons. Finally, I will argue how training with a weapon improves the knowledge of the karateka.
    The first modern day connection between kobudo and shotokan karate did not begin with Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957). The link originated with his father Gisu Funakoshi (birth and death unknown) who was reported in Gichin’s autobiography to be skilled with the bo. Gichin also reported how other senior karateka had an interest in bojitsu, as he wrote that Sueyoshi (birth and death unknown) was both his senior in karate and an expert in stick fighting. In addition to written documentation revealing a connection between bojitsu and karate, visual evidence from the 1920s and 30s showed further examples of a bo being used in karate. One picture showed Gichin blocking a bo with a pair of sai (figure 1) and two others demonstrated him in weapon kumite and kata (figure 2 and 3). The last picture depicted Gichin with a group of ten other karateka with two bo and one pair of sai (figure 4).
    The historical connection of karate and bojitsu may have had its origins with Gisu; however, his son Gichin placed more emphasis on empty hand training. This became evident as instruction on how to use weapons was absent from any of his published works. The lack of kobudo training was to be challenged with two significant events. The first was the construction of a dojo called the Shotokan, and the second was Gigo Funakoshi (1906-1945) becoming the main instructor under Gichen.
    The first event commenced in 1936 when a nationwide committee raised enough money to build the first karate dojo at Zoshigaya Toshima Ward. This building was called the Shotokan and Gichin’s students labelled the karate style shotokan ryu. The Shotokan produced many promising students such as Takeshi Shimoda (birth and death unknown) Gichen’s assistant instructor. Shimoda continued his teaching until his death sometime in the late 1930s. This loss led to Gichin appointing his third son Gigo as the new assistant instructor.
    The reality of Gigo’s teaching position was that he abstained from emulating his father’s karate teachings. He did this by introducing different types of kumite, as well as a bo kata called Bo No Kata Matsukaze. Unfortunately, Gichin did not include Matsukaze in his works; however, he did support training with weapons as he wrote “[w]hen sufficient skill has been acquired through practice, a sword, dagger, stick and so on should actually be used in practice to learn the techniques against these weapons and to prepare oneself mentally against them” . Teruyuki Okazaki also supported the writings as he recalled how Gichin “never taught us kobudo, but he introduced it to us like history. For him, karate was empty-handed, but I remember him saying, ‘if you ever have to use a weapon, use the best one to fight with!’” . Although no writings of Gichin revealed kobudo training, oral tradition must have occurred as Shigeru Egami (1912-1981) reported that “[i]n the evolution of karate, there was also practise using a pole…” .
    Egami was not the only senior instructor to look at bojitsu as an effective compliment to karate, as Masatoshi Nakayama (1913-1987) wrote that Jitte could be practiced with a bo. Nakayama also treated weapons in his work Practical Karate: Against Armed Assailants. He showed numerous weapon strikes with clubs, knives, and broken bottles although the focus was on open handed defences rather than the weapon strikes. In addition to Nakayama, Hidetaka Nishiyama (1928-2008) devoted two chapters of his work Karate: the Art of Empty-Hand Fighting to the defence against knives, sticks, and clubs.
    One of Nakayama’s students Hirokazu Kanazawa has also looked at bo training as a compliment to karate training. His latest work was a video production showing two bo kata called Kanazawa No Bo Dai, and Kanazawa No Bo Sho. This video also showed how Jitte could be performed while using a staff. Kanazawa has also published a work called Basic Karate Kata that contains a sai kata. Lastly, Hirokazu’s son Nobuaki Kanazawa has begun creating a kata using nunchaku.
    The next section of this essay will focus on shotokan kata that have a direct connection to weapon attacks. The first kata examined is Jitte as this kata shows the strongest connection to bojitsu as Nakayama writes “[f]rom it can be learned techniques for dealing with weapon attacks, particularly stick attacks” . In kata such as Jitte, there exists certain movement designed for blocking overhead strikes while others stop thrusting techniques. For example, a grasping block is effective against thrusting attacks and tiger mouth blocks prove successful against overhead strikes.
    I argue that not all bunkai applications, such as Jitte movement number 15, should be practiced as they were originally intended. My reasons are that prior to the advent of guns the karate practitioners of old conditioned their hands to be effective as Okazaki writes that “[t]he sword hand …[p]roperly conditioned…is extremely strong and is quite popular with those practicing breaking techniques” . A conditioned hand possesses the necessary toughness to block heavy sticks and clubs. However, Okazaki warns that “[a]nyone planning to practice breaking techniques should not only be aware of the possible damage, ranging from a simple bruise to chronic injury to severe crippling” . I make the comparison of breaking techniques to the conditioning against heavy sticks. I also affirm that 21st century karate should not employ the use of conditioning their hands for breaking techniques or direct blocking techniques against heavy weapons.
    Naturally, with bunkai there exist different interpretations as Okazaki reports that “[t]here are no ancient manuals or scrolls detailing movement and application. Therefore, much is open to individual interpretation…” . One such example shows the shuto used to block the hand and not the staff. This can serve two purposes as the shuto arrests the bo without injuring the defender’s hand and the attacker may let go of the bo due to pain. Another interpretation is how the same technique can grasp the pole during a thrusting attack as related in Gichin’s master text Karate do Kyohan. Lastly, movement number 15 can be used to block a short stick as Nishiyama affirms “[w]hen [an] opponent attempts a smashing attack to the top of the head with a club…push strongly against elbow joint of attacking arm…” .
    Jitte is not the only kata that deals with staff attacks as Bassai Sho uses empty hand defence against sticks. This is seen during movement number 1 when a pole is blocked from directly behind the defender. In moves 2A/2B of Bassai Sho, the blocks are tiger mouths that are for defending against a stick coming down towards the top of the head. Kanku Sho movements 28 and 29, as well as Meikyo movements 7-8, use the tiger mouths to block overhead strikes. Kanku Sho movement 29 uses the tiger mouths to thrust a stick downward to throw the opponent. In addition to tiger mouths, Jion movements 23-25 use palm heel blocks to capture a staff and strike the attacker on top of the head. The kata Gojushiho Dai is unique as I argue movements 26-29 are to grasp a thrusting stick from above the defender. The karateka then pulls the attacker from their location. Gojushiho Sho movements 27 and 30 are for grasping and pulling to disarm an attacker.
    There are also some kata that use ducking, jumping and side stepping to avoid weapon attacks. In Kanku Dai, movement numbers 43 sees the defender duck a horizontal stick attack and take a position on the ground. The principle of avoidance is also seen in Kanku Sho movement number 29 when the defender jumps in the same spot to avoid being struck by a stick on the legs. In Chinte movement 18, the karateka shifts to one leg while performing a double downward block. This avoidance technique reduces the impact from the bo. Unfortunately, there are situations when more than one assailant attacks the karateka and it will prove beneficial to capture the weapon. For example, Heian Godan uses movement numbers 20-23 to steal a sword from the sabbath. Lastly, Heian Shodan movement number 9 is used to break an arm wielding a club or sword.
    The traditional bunkai in the above kata explanations should be practiced as close as possible to the actual kata. However, there are times when the exact traditional application may not always be appropriate or desired as Yutaka Yaguchi reports that “[t]rying to defend yourself by doing the kata techniques exactly the way they are made during kata is unrealistic. You must differentiate the kata from the real life application” .
    In respects to a training schedule, that encompasses the above applications, most students will only have two to three training times per week. This will only give the student between two and four hours of training. Moreover, these classes must cover kata, kihon, kumite, and bunkai. This presents a logistical challenge to include weapon training. Therefore, teaching must be creative such as performing basic kata with single wielded weapons. If the student desires to practice traditional weapon kata there are three bo kata that I am aware of: Gigo Funakoshi’s Matsukaze, and Hirokazu Kanazawa’s two bo kata called Kanazawa No Bo Dai and Kanazawa No Bo Sho. I have not been able to acquire Kanazawa`s sai or nunchaku kata. (Note: since the time of this writing, Frank Woon-A-Tai now promotes a sai kata and a tonfa kata in his training syllabus (http://internationalkaratedaigaku.com).
    The appropriate age and level that a student should begin weapon training varies. According to Fumio Demura, a student should not begin practicing with the sai until the rank of brown belt. This position could be said of all weapons as there are dangers to one and others. In the shotokan system the rank of brown belt occurs around two years of training. The IKD faction of the shotokan world uses a syllabus that requires a brown belt training for a shodan exam to know the five Heian Kata, Tekki Shodan, Tekki Nidan, Bassai Dai, Kanku Dai, and Jion. This level does not presently have any requirements to have any knowledge of weapons. The knowledge of weapons may not occur until the self-defence portion of the Yondan and Godan exam and this is only if the examinee chooses not to free spar. The current challenge with the syllabus is that a karateka can reach the rank of 8th dan and never practice any sort of bunkai dealing with weapons.
    I argue that weapon training should commence when it is relevant to kata bunkai. This translates into only learning the weapon strikes that are appropriate to the kata being studied. For example, Heian Shodan movement number 9 is used to strike the sword arm of an overhead strike. The student should learn how to deliver an overhead strike with either a bokken or club. Heian Nidan movement number 7 shows how a shift could be used to avoid a thrust from a pole. The student would learn proper thrusting techniques with the staff. During the study of Heian Godan, a jump is used to avoid a horizontal strike from a staff. To ensure strong application students would learn how to deliver strong horizontal strikes with the staff. I argue that once first dan is attained the student should begin to learn either Kanazawa No Bo Dai or Kanazawa No Bo Sho, as these are not as long as Matsukaze and are more current in the shotokan world. These two kata also teach all the necessary strikes that can be used in kata bunkai.
    In conclusion, I have shown a variety of evidence proving the existence of weapons in the karate system with written documentation and pictures of Gichin Funakoshi using weapons. I have also reported on the various kata that have specific applications against weapons. Lastly, I have shown the benefits of weapon training in bunkai performance and a training timeline that best allows progression in weapon training. I believe that the shotokan system will be stronger with kobudo training.


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  • December 22, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    Please forgive me as the footnotes did not appear in the text.

  • December 22, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Thanks, Nick, for sharing this essay.

  • February 27, 2017 at 3:03 pm

    My wife and I are always looking for activities to improve our health. I have been interested in martial arts because I want her to have some self-defense training as well. I didn’t realize that kobudo is able to offer self-defense training as well as weapons training that can help keep my wife safe. I’ll definitely talk to my wife about this great option.

  • September 24, 2018 at 11:03 pm

    That’s interesting that you have been able to notice that some moves in the shotokan kata syllabus are meant to be performed with a tonfa or bo staff. My son has been getting really interested in martial arts so I’m looking into different kinds to see which would be good for him. I’ll have to see if I can find a kobudo class since if he learned with weapons he could translate those techniques to when he doesn’t have a weapon which would be helpful and he would learn more.


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