The weapons of kobudo

When hands and feet are not enough.

Weapons it seems have always been a factor in resolving conflicts between men and nations. It began the first time one of our primitive ancestors first reached out and picked up something with which to strike down his opponent in some long-forgotten argument.

Today for much different reasons, martial artists from around the world regularly study and practice an Okinawan, weapon-based art form known as, Kobudo, or the “ancient martial way". The weapons most commonly associated with Okinawan kobudo are; sai, bo, kama, tonfa, nunchaku, eku and the tekko. Each of these weapons has in turn associated with it one or more kata, some of which have been handed down from master to student for more than 200 years.

The following is a brief summary of some of the terminology associated with each of these weapons. 


Sai: The sai, normally associated with the island of Okinawa, is thought to be of Chinese origin and it is one of the few weapons that it is thought not to have evolved from something else. Popular with many martial artists today the sai is most often used in pairs and therefore it requires a student to be equally proficient with both hands. At a time when citizens of Okinawa were banned from possessing weapons of any kind the sai was easy to conceal, plus, its metal construction made it an excellent defensive weapon against the Japanese samurai sword, or a long-range weapon such as the bo.

The sai is comprised of seven main parts, they are as follows: 1. tsukagashira - the butt end of the handle. 2. tsuka - the actual handle grip. 3. moto - the actual enter point between the two yoko. 4. yoko - the two sideguards. 5. tsume - the tip of each side guard. 6. monouchi - the blade of the sai. 7. saki - the very tip of the sai blade.

The modern sai while made today of lighter metals, has in reality changed very little from its original design. Considered a fairly difficult weapon to truly master the sai katas taught today include; Chatan Yara no Sai Sho, Chatan Yara no Sai Dai, Tawada no Sai, Chikin Shitahaku no Sai, Yakaa no Sai, Hama Higa no Sai, just to name a few.

Bo: The bo is traditionally a wooden staff approximately 6 feet in length. Usually made of a hardwood with a diameter ranging from one to two inches depending on the hand size of the practitioner. The bo itself can either be the same width from tip to tip, or it can be tapered, a style that is popular with many tournament competitors. Since this style of bo tends to be very light which allows for quick hand movements and ease of twirling, always a crowd favourite. It should be noted, however, that when training in the dojo a heavier sturdier bo is best as it will take the impact during striking and blocking practice. It will also help the student to develop strength in their wrists and shoulders. 

When held horizontally in both hands one third of the length of the bo should be between the students grip and one third of its length should be on either side of the grip. When held with the bo tip facing an opponent rear hand should be on your hip with the palm facing inward, while your lead hand should be facing towards you. This allows the forward wrist to twist when thrusting forward, similar to the motion made when punching. When striking downwards with the bo it is important to remember that the pulling hand, or rear hand, generates all of the power, while the leading, or forward hand, is used primarily for guidance and stopping.

The bo is comprised of three main parts, they are as follows: 1. moto - the center, or the balance point of the bo. 2. & 3. saki - the very tip at either end of the bo. It is important when selecting a bo to examine the weapon carefully and to choose a bo that is not curved, or bent out of shape. As this will hinder the quality of your training. The best way to test for this is to put the bo on a flat surface and roll it, if it wobbles, pick another one.

As weapon the bo affords a greater reach than most. Some of the bo kata taught today include: Shushi no Kon Sho, Shushi no Kon Dai, Chatan Yara no Kon, Sakugawa no Kon Sho, Sakugawa no Kon Dai, Chikin Sunakake no Kon, just to name a few.

Kama: The kama as a weapon thought to have been derived from the hand-held sickles that were traditionally used in the harvest of rice. The handle of the kama will be approximately the same length as your forearm and at one end will be a crescent shaped blade. Like the sai, the kama is most often used in pairs and is truly a deadly weapon in the hands of the very skilled.

The kama is comprised of seven main parts, they are as follows 1. soko - the butt end of the handle. 2. moto - the center of the handle. 3. monouchi - the blade of the kama. 4. saki - the very tip of the kama blade. 5. kagashira - the top end of the handle above the blade. 6. kashira - the head of the handle. 7. himo - the rope at the base of the kama.

Used to cut from side to side, from underneath, or from above, the kama is a versatile weapon. Since it's handle is most often made of wood this makes it a much lighter weapon than a sai. There are very few surviving kama kata, those taught today include Kanegawa Nichi no Kama and Toyama Nichi no Kama.

Tonfa: The tonfa while an ancient weapon has been a popular weapon of choice for many law enforcement agencies both in Asia and in North America due to its versatility. With no sharp edges the tonfa can do double duty for striking and blocking without the fear of cutting and it is effective against both long and short-range weapons. The main body of the tonfa can be either square or round, but the handle must be round in order to facilitate ease of spinning and proper rotation in order to develop proper techniques.

The tonfa is comprised of eight main parts, they are as follows: 1. Gedan tsukagashira - the forward end of the tonfa above the grip. 2. tsuka - the handle grip. 3. tsukagashira - the round top of the grip. 4. tasui - the under side of the tonfa. 5. yoko nage - the upper side of the tonfa. 6. sokumen - the side of the tonfa. 7. Ushiro tsukagashira - the butt end of the tonfa. 8. monouchi - the main body of the tonfa.

In the hands of an expert the many ways in which the tonfa can be utilized seem almost endless. Two of the most popular tonfa katas practiced today are, Hama Higa no Tonfa and Matsu Higa no Tonfa. 

Nunchaku: A weapon constructed of two equal lengths of wood and connected together by a short length of rope or chain the nunchaku can be whipped, or twirled in a manner that can generate great speed and powerful blows. Lacking any sharp edges for cutting, or sharp points for stabbing, the nunchaku like the tonfa is used primarily for striking an opponent. Either held in one hand, or two the nunchaku is effective as an offensive, or defensive weapon.

The nunchaku is comprised of seven main parts, they are as follows: 1. himo - the connecting rope or chain. 2. Gedan tsukagashira - the end of the handle nearest the rope or chain. 3. ana - the opening through which the rope or chain is threaded. 4. jokon bu - upper area of the handle. 5. moto - the center of the handle. 6. kikon bu - lower area of the handle. 7. Ushiro tsukagashira - the end of the handle furthest from the rope or chain.

A true product of Okinawa the nunchaku was easily dismantled and hidden, or disguised as something else at a time when weapons were forbidden. Two examples of nunchaku katas practiced today are, Maezato no Nunchaku and Akamine no Nunchaku.

Ekku: The ekku is in effect an oar. Used by Okinawan fisherman the ekku is shorter in length than a bo and usually made of hard wood and it is used in a similar manner to a bo. Unlike a bo, however, this weapon is not griped in thirds, but instead is held with one hand just back of the blade with the other hand comfortably towards the rear. Because more of its overall weight is located at one end it is a much more difficult weapon to use than a bo. In addition to having a broader surface than a bo, which can be used to scoop material towards an opponent’s eyes, it also has the added benefit of having two edges for striking.

The ekku is comprised of five main parts, they are as follows: 1. ushiro tsukagashira – the butt end of the oar. 2. saki - the tip of the oar blade. 3. moto - the center of the oar. 4. yoko - the side of the oar blade. 5. monouchi - the blade its self.

Today it is probably safe to say that most North American kobudo students have never even seen an Okinawan ekku up close let alone ever practiced a kata with one. It is not surprising then that the ekku kata, Chikin Sunakake no Ekku, or as it is sometimes referred to, Tsuken Sunakake, is most always performed using a bo when practiced outside of Okinawa.

Tekko: It has been said that originally the tekko were made from two metal horseshoes. Easy to conceal they could be carried hidden inside a persons clothing, or carried openly since horseshoes were a common item and above suspicion. Held by the center of the "U" shape with two ends facing outward they could be used to either block or strike. In the Ryukyu Kobudo Tesshinkan the tekko is used in the performance of the kata, Maezato no tekko.

This kata was created by the late master Taira Shinken and named by him to honour of his original family name which was, Maezato. This kata is said to have been influenced by the pattern, or embusen, found in possibly one of two Shotokan katas practiced today, they are Jion and Ji'in. Of the two the pattern Ji'in is the most strikingly similar of the two in many respects. 

So, choose your weapon, practice your basics and learn from an experienced and knowledgeable kobudo sensei. Train diligently and always stay true to the kata for it has come to you over many thousands of miles and down through countless hands. It deserves your respect and should not be undertaken lightly.

My thanks to Lee at for providing some of the drawings used on this page.

Remember: "To learn is a privilege, to pass on what you have learnt is your responsibility".