16. Traditional Weapons

Weapons training at Aoinagi Karate sparked the following questions by Dan Lake from UCSD dojo:

“I noticed that none of the gyo kata listed were weapon kata that I am familiar with, so I am guessing that weapons are considered outside the core of the school. Would weapons be considered as integral to the art or an addition to it (though of value in their own right)? Is this different depending on what school and form? I know that not all martial arts schools teach weapons, and others restrict that training to those of a certain rank. I’m not sure I’m being clear with this question, but what I guess I’m asking is how you see training in the traditional weapons fitting into your philosophy of the martial arts.”

First of all there are thousands of different kinds of weapons. A pencil can be used as a weapon. A book can be used as an armor. A pencil and a book could be studied until a complete form of defense was created (witness the hoplites of ancient Greece. They used a very short sword and a small shield to conquer the Persians. It was how they lined up and protected each other that made the hoplite phalanx so powerful against even mounted cavalry.) I use an ice-axe to lead difficult ice climbs. The use of the ice-axe is natural for me. One day I developed a series of movements and defenses using the ice axe as a practice. Now is the ice-axe part of Aoinagi curriculum? (some who have taken my winter mountaineering course would state “for sure!!!”)

So what constitutes a weapon? If you kick a person with a shoe some states consider this an attack with a deadly weapon. But if you kick a person with a sock on it is not an attack with a deadly weapon. And then, if you kick a person in bare feet? Well, this is not an attack with a deadly weapon. What is the difference? Well, shoes are hard, socks are soft, feet are unarmed.

In reality any tool used to inflict injury is a weapon. The ice axe may become a weapon. The pencil and book may become weapons. The shoe may be used as a weapon. Look around you right now and notice the many objects in your environment which could be used as a tool of defense. Right now I see a mug of coffee, two pens, this laptop computer (a really expensive weapon), a stapler, two pairs of scissors, a telephone book, three syringes with needles (legal in my profession to have in my possession), and a handful of paperclips (these could be thrown into the eyes on an approaching assailant). Oh, yes, then there are two half-dollars given to me by Ceci Cheung on the death of her mother (why not ask her why?). All of these things and others in my or your environment could be used as weapons.

In Okinawa’s history the use of a weapons by martial artists was never limited to swords, knives and military weapons. The peasants had to use what they could find at the time of an attack. It might only be a stick or a stone or a rope or a piece of their own clothing. Chatan Yara once defeated a renegade rapacious sword-bearing samurai with an old oar that he managed to spot in a run-down fishing boat. Itosu once impaled an armed robber thru the windpipe with a Chinese coin used as a shuriken. These are not commonly used weapons. The Okinawan peasantry had to use what was available in the immediate environment at the time of an attack to defend themselves against sword bearing assailants. Hence they had to have a wide experience and adaptability with the use of tools makeshift into weapons.

Mr. Shinkan Taira (1898-1970) took it upon himself to re-introduce the use of traditional weapons in karate. After the fall of feudalism in Okinawa (1867) there was little interest in developing skill with farm implements as weapons. Even when karate was introduced into Japan the weapons that accompanied karate were disregarded by the Japanese who had their own weapons systems. The Japanese believed their weapons systems were superior and ignored the Okinawan weapon artforms. In Okinawa the weapons forms, kumite and disciplines were vanishing.

Shinkan Taira began his martial arts training under Gichen Funakoshi while Funakoshi was teaching yet in Okinawa. Taira was accepted easily into training for he came from a buke family with roots back to the great Kingawa Peichin who was a contemporary of the great Matsumura (1830s). Although Taira trained in karate his curiosity was in ancient Okinawan traditional weapons. He studied with a host of Okinawan masters, delving deeply into what was available in kobudo (small weapon way).

Shinkan Taira re-introduced the use of weapons into karate. He taught anyone who wanted to know about weapons. He travelled extensively throughout Okinawa and Japan teaching anyone. The trouble with Taira was that he was not consistent with how he taught weapons. To a group in Naha he would teach the kata in sanchin dacci and with body dynamics which fit them. Then a day later in Shuri he would teach the same kata in zenkutsu dachi with major hip action. The inconsistency between schools caused inflammation, each school claiming they learned their kata directly from the great Shinkan Taira. Each school was telling the truth; each school had learned it the way it was taught. In addition, Taira was quite creative. He added movements to kata, changed others until the kata was more of his own creation than a “traditional” form. This was not wrong for he was a menkyo sozosha, but it led to a great deal of diversity among the weapons kata. The diversity led to confusion. The confusion led to fractionization and adamant self-proclamation of correctness, and, at the same time, criticism of the kata of other schools.

In this state of diversity the Second World War came. America had not even heard the word karate yet. But in the hundreds of martial arts schools in Okinawa weapons had been resurrected, mostly due to the efforts of Shinkan Taira. The Second World War ended with General McArthur’s occupation of Japan. He closed the Butokukai for nine years. That closed the central organization which sponsored the various Japanese martial arts. The Japanese then had little to hope for in what they had previously held was superior kobudo. And it was at this time that Shinkan Taira renewed his fervor to teach kobudo to Japanese. He made many tours of Japan and taught literally thousands who wanted to learn. His students included Kenwa Mabuni, Sakagami and even Fumio Demura. Although Mr. Kim does not consider himself a student of Taira, he has also trained with Taira on a number of occasions.

So kobudo came back to life, but not in the same way it was in feudal times.

The difference between the weapons taught 150 years ago and now is immense. The weapons of 150 years ago were the traditional weapons PLUS the makeshift use of any device for protection as I mentioned above. The weapons today are called traditional weapons and little attention is paid to the immediate utilitarian use of general objects in the environment for protection. We seem to play at weaponry; the ancients used environmental objects immediately.

With that in mind I turn to a question by Matt Nilsen. Matt asks, “is there any system of weapon kata like the Gojushiho of open-handed kata?” The answer to this question is distinctly NO. The weapon kata that were salvaged by Shinkan Taira were from a wide geographical area and from many instructors. He taught them at as close to random pattern as anyone can tell. There is no systemization of these kata that is older than Taira himself. Now days one may hear of a system involving beginning kata, intermediate kata and advanced kata, but such as system is school-specific.

There are some weapons which are considered “traditional” but even this varies. In Mr. Kim’s system the traditional weapons are bo, sai, tonfa, nunchaku, escrima, jo, kama, yari, kai (oar) in the kobudo (little-weapons-ways) and to (sword), aginata in the daibudo (great-weapons-ways). Mr. Kim, however, does not teach the naginata directly.

(I wish I could show you all pictures of these weapons but e-mail doesn’t allow it or I just don’t know how to do it so that everybody could read it.)

Other kobudo which the Butokukai does not practice regularly include kusurigama (spike and chain), jitte, iron fan, tekage (a kind of claws in the palms of the hands like a cat’s claws), shuriken (small angular objects thrown at opponents), chigiriki (pole with a chain and cat-of-nine-tails on the end). The list could go on and on especially if we include the Chinese weapons only occasionally taught in Okinawa. At Aoinagi Karate the use of at least one kata from each of the weapons taught by Mr. Kim (bo, sai, tonfa, nunchaku, escrima, jo, kama, sword) is highly recommended.

So back to the question which Dan Lake raised, “I’m not sure I’m being clear with this question, but what I guess I’m asking is how you see training in the traditional weapons fitting into your philosophy of the martial arts.”

I see traditional weapons training as an adjunct to the training of a well-rounded empty-handed martial artist. Weapon training offers much. Let’s take a brief look at a few of the reasons to train in weapons while training in karate. First, weapons are extensions of the body which when learned properly enhance body dynamics. Second, weapons are dangerous and require greater awareness, control and attention to detail in order to prevent injury. The greater awareness, control and attention to detail enhances the practitioner’s practice in empty handed techniques. Third, students who learn to look at any object in the environment as a potential weapon and imagine how they would use it in a desperate battle against armed opponents are much more likely to be able to use an opportune object at the time of a desperate battle. Fourth, weapons are an historical heritage which karate has inherited. Those serious students who want to know where there art came from will learn much about the people who developed weapon kata, places where the kata were first practiced and some very interesting attitudinal devices used by the masters of old if they train in weapons and learn their names and techniques.

Although there may not be any “system” of kobudo kata, the individual weapons and the myriad of kata available make for a seemingly never-ending host of challenges. Certain characteristics appear and reappear in kata. Then certain names appear in a multitude of weapons (Oyadomari no Kon, Oyadomari no Sai, Oyadomari Tonfa).

My advice to you all about weapons is to practice them. Learning one weapon kata well is better than just being able to get thru a host of kata in that weapon. But never forget that weapon training is serious business. Learn the weapon and look around. What could you use right now to defend yourself against an opponent who attacked you with a pitchfork from your back…RIGHT NOW!!!