Weapons and Kata

The bō is a six-foot long staff, sometimes tapered at either end. It was perhaps developed from a farming tool called a tenbin: a stick placed across the shoulders with baskets or sacks hanging from either end. The bo was also possibly used as the handle to a rake or a shovel. The bo, along with shorter variations such as the jo and hanbo could also have been developed from walking sticks used by travelers, especially monks. The bo is considered the 'king' of the Okinawa weapons, as all others exploit its weaknesses in fighting it, whereas when it is fighting them it is using its strengths against them. The bo is the earliest of all Okinawan weapons (and effectively one of the earliest of all weapons in the form of a basic staff), and is traditionally made from red or white oak. Also, most of the time they used dark oak for tournaments with the bō.


The sai is a three-pronged truncheon sometimes mistakenly believed to be a variation on a tool used to create furrows in the ground. This is highly unlikely as metal on Okinawa was in short supply at this time and a stick would have served this purpose more satisfactorily for a poor commoner, or Heimin. The sai appears similar to a short sword, but is not bladed and the end is traditionally blunt. The weapon is metal and of the truncheon class with its length dependent upon the forearm of the user. The two shorter prongs on either side of the main shaft are used for trapping (and sometimes breaking) other weapons such as a sword or bo. A form known as nunti sai, sometimes called manji sai (due to its appearance resembling the swastika kanji) has the two shorter prongs pointed in opposite directions.




The tonfa may have originated as the handle of a millstone used for grinding grain. It is traditionally made from red oak, and can be gripped by the short perpendicular handle or by the longer main shaft. As with all Okinawan weapons, many of the forms are reflective of "empty hand" techniques. The tonfa is more readily recognized by its modern development in the form of the police Side-handle baton, but many traditional tonfa techniques differ from side-handle baton techniques. For example, tonfa are often used in pairs, while side-handle batons generally are not.




A nunchaku is two sections of wood (or metal in modern incarnations) connected by a cord or chain. There is much controversy over its origins: some say it was originally a Chinese weapon, others say it evolved from a threshing flail, while one theory purports that it was developed from a horse's bit. Chinese nunchaku tends to be rounded, whereas Okinawan ones are octagonal, and they were originally linked by horse hair. There are many variations on the nunchaku, ranging from the three-sectional staff (san-setsu-kon, mentioned later in this article), to smaller multi-section nunchaku. The nunchaku was popularized by Bruce Lee in several films, made in both Hollywood and Hong Kong. This weapon is illegal in New York State, Canada, and parts of Europe.




The kama is a traditional farming sickle, and considered one of the hardest to learn due to the inherent danger in practicing with such a weapon. The point at which the blade and handle join in the "weapon" model normally has a nook with which a bo can be trapped, although this joint proved to be a weak point in the design, and modern day examples tend to have a shorter handle with a blade that begins following the line of the handle and then bends, though to a lesser degree; this form of the kama is known as the natagama. The edge of a traditional rice sickle, such as one would purchase from a Japanese hardware store, continues to the handle without a notch, as this is not needed for its intended use.




The Okinawan style of oar is called an eku (this refers to the local wood most commonly used for oars), eiku, iyeku, or ieku. Noteworthy hallmarks are the slight point at the tip, curve to one side of the paddle and a roof-like ridge along the other. One of the basic moves for this weapon utilizes the fact that a fisherman fighting on the beach would be able to fling sand at an opponent. While not having the length, and therefore reach, of the bō, the rather sharp edges can inflict more penetrating damage when wielded properly. 

Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu

Okinawan kobudō is a Japanese term that can be translated as "old martial way of Okinawa". It is a generic term coined in the twentieth century.

Okinawan kobudo (also known as Ryukyu Kobujutsu, Koryu, or just as Kobudo) is a Japanese term that can be translated as “old martial way of Okinawa”. It generally refers to the classical weapon traditions of Okinawan martial arts, most notably the rokushakubo (six-foot staff, known as the “bo”), sai (short unsharpened dagger), tonfa (handled club), kama (sickle), and nunchaku (nunchucks), but also the tekko (knuckledusters), tinbe-rochin (shield and spear), and surujin (weighted chain). Less common Okinawan weapons include the tambo (short staff) and the eku (boat oar of traditional Okinawan design).

Kobudo traditions were shaped by indigenous Okinawan techniques that arose within the Aji, or noble class, and by imported methods from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the other countries that traded with the Ryukyus. Much of modern kobudo traditions that survived the difficult times during and following World War II were preserved and handed down by Taira Shinken and Kenwa Mabuni, and developed into a practical system by Motokatsu Inoue in conjunction with Taira Shinken. Other noted masters who have kobudo kata named after them include Chotoku Kyan, Shigeru Nakamura, and Shinko Matayoshi.

Budo is the term used in Japan to refer to martial arts. Bujutsu means to emphasize a combative technique. And Kobudo term, simple: ancient or old martial way. This term appears more often in the West associated with Okinawa weapons systems. However, in Japan it is equally likely to refer to the classical warrior traditions and they are many. Kobudo, Kobujutsu, Koryu Bujutsu and Koryu Budo, all they are linked together. Koryu refers to classical or traditional school. It used to distinguish modern Gendai system from classical, as Jutsu (how to apply) from Do (way to apply).

Kobudo arts are thought by some to be the forerunner of karate, and several styles of that art include some degree of kobudo training as part of their curriculum. Similarly, it is not uncommon to see an occasional kick or other empty-hand technique in a kobudo kata. The techniques of the two arts are closely related in some styles, evidenced by the empty-hand and weapon variants of certain kata: for example, Kanku-dai and Kanku-sai, and Gojushiho and Gojushiho-no-sai, although these are examples of Kobudo Kata which have been developed from Karate Kata and are not traditional Kobudo forms.

Other more authentic kobudo kata demonstrate elements of empty hand techniques as is shown in older forms such as Soeishi No Dai, a Bo form which is one of the few authentic Kobudo kata to make use of a kick as the penultimate technique. Kobudo and Kobujutsu are older and have undergone less “modern development” than Karate and still retain much more of the original elements, reflections of which can be seen in more modern karate kata.

The connection between empty hand and weapon methods can be directly related in systems such as that formulated to preserve both arts such as Inoue/Kobujutsu Hozon Shinko Kai and Motokatsu Inoue’s Yuishinkai Karate Jutsu. M.Inoue draws direct comparisons between the use of certain weapons and various elements of empty hand technique such as sai mirroring haito/shuto waza, tonfa reflecting that of urkaken and hijiate, and kama of kurite and kakete, as examples. The footwork in both methods is interchangeable.

Strictly translated, the Japanese word kobudo covers all ancient martial traditions, armed or unarmed, of Okinawa or Japan. Today, when specifically referring to Okinawan traditions, the term kobudo is most often used to describe the weapons and traditions of the Ryukyu Islands.

These weapons include:

  • sai (iron truncheon)
  • nunchaku (horse bridle)
  • kama (sickle)
  • tonfa (millstone handle)
  • eku (oar)
  • bo

Okinawan kobudo was at its zenith some 200-400 years ago, and of all the authentic kobudo kata practiced at this time, only relatively few by comparison remain extant. Between the 1700s – early 1900s a decline in the study of Kobujutsu (as it was known then) meant that the future of this martial tradition was in danger. During the Taisho period, some martial arts exponents such as Yabiku Moden made great inroads in securing the future of Kobujutsu.

A large amount of those forms which are still known are due to the efforts of Taira Shinken who travelled around the Ryukyu Islands in the early part of the 20th century and compiled 42 existing kata, covering 8 types of Okinawan weapon. Whilst Taira Shinken may not have been able to collect all extant kobudo kata, those he did manage to preserve are listed here. They do not include all those from the Matayoshi, Uhuchiku and Yamanni streams however.