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There are some very famous martial arts out there, some of which have dominated the world. These are karate, judo, jiu-jistu, and a couple of others, which can be found in every city all over the world. There are some others, however, which aren’t fortunate enough to be on the list of famous martial arts. One of these is Kobudo. In this article, we will dive into what Kobudo is, what it means, and where it comes from, and ultimately answer the question: what is Kobudo?
Kobudo is a traditional Okinawan weapon martial art, which probably developed somewhere between the 17th and the 19th century, by mostly farmers to defend themselves against Satsuma samurai.
There are some other versions of its history, but this is the most widely known theory. It is a complex martial art that deals with a lot of weapons, like the Sai, Bo, Kama, and a lot of others. Read on to find out more about this forgotten martial art and its teachings!
What Does Kobudo Mean?
We will shortly touch on the origin and the meaning of Kobudo before we start exploring the art itself. When translated, it can mean “old martial way of Okinawa”, though literally it only means something along the lines of “old martial art”. It is considered to be like a sibling to karate, since both have been developed in Okinawa, and they go hand-in-hand due to the fact that one is traditionally an empty hand art (that is what the karate word is usually translated to), while the other is exclusively a weapon art. Some martial arts historians even believe that Kobudo was the forerunner of karate and that it served in many ways as the inspiration for numerous techniques.
What Is Kobudo?
So now that we have covered some basic origins and meaning, we can look into what it actually is. As we have mentioned, it is a weapon-based martial art from Okinawa. It isn’t very famous in the modern world, for reasons we will later look into.
The main weapons Kobudo deals with are Bo, Sai, Kama, Tonfa, Nunchaku, Tenko, Tinbe-Rochin, Surujin, Tambo, and some others. Aside from the fact that it is a weapon martial art in the first place, the variety of weapons also makes it a very interesting and also hard-to-learn art. There are many varieties to the art, all of which deal with different types of weapons, but there are a couple of forms of it that require the mastery of all weapons we listed and more in order for one to master it.
History of Kobudo
There are two main theories about its origins, though as with most of these Eastern martial arts, the true origins will probably remain unknown since the people developing the techniques usually did so under some oppressive tyrant or tyrannical system in which they couldn’t go public about what they were doing without risking their lives.
The first idea is that Okinawan farmers and other poor people were under samurai oppression, and they needed a way to fight back or at least defend themselves. In absence of any sophisticated weapon, they started using whatever they could get their hands on, which were usually farming tools. For example, the Kama is literally a sickle that they used in Okinawa for farming purposes, and the Bo is a long wooden staff, which isn’t hard to come by on any farm. The problem with this theory is that there isn’t much evidence to support it outside of the intuitive connection one makes between farming tools and the actual weapons that the art uses.
The second idea is that this art was developed by a warrior cast, the Pechin people of Okinawa and this idea is one that has been supported a lot more by serious martial arts historians, although the origin of mostly farmer’s tools as weapons remains somewhat unanswered.
Weapons Used In Kobudo
We listed the weapons used, and now we will take a closer look at the weapons which can be found in all variations of Kobudo.
The absolute most widely used weapon in Kobudo, the Bo staff is a long and straight wooden staff, usually around 6 feet long, but can reach lengths of up to 9 feet. The versatility of this weapon, aside from the fact that it is very easy to make and cheap to buy, is what makes it so popular. There is no Kobudo form or style which doesn’t at some point contain techniques with the Bo staff. It was also very effective, since unlike a katana, which only had one attacking side and could break if edge alignment wasn’t executed properly, the Bo staff, like any staff, could be used from all angles and directions. Both ends, sometimes even the middle of the staff is used to strike, even more so to lock weapons, block them, or to throw the opponent to the ground.
Probably the most iconic one of these weapons (in the Japanese context), the Sai is a three-pronged weapon, with one long center prong and two side-prongs which all come from the handle of the weapon, which is also known as the tsuka. The weapon can be used for quick thrusting and highly effective defense as well, and the small size and weight of the weapon make it feel like an extension to the arm of its wielder. The Sai should be as long as to extend between 1-3 inches from your elbow while measuring it to your forearm and hand, making the average Sai size around 20 inches. There are way longer and way shorter variations, however.
The Tonfa also sometimes spelled as Tongfa, also known as T-baton in modern language is a close-range, technical melee weapon best known for its role in the armed component of Okinawan martial arts (or in other words, Kobudo) and its modern use in many police forces worldwide. It consists of a relatively short stick with a perpendicular handle attached at around a third of the way down the length of the stick and is about 15–20 inches long. It was traditionally made from red or white oak and wielded in pairs, even though policemen nowadays only wield one. The tonfa is believed to have originated in either China or Southeast Asia where. It is highly technical and effective, since it acts as an armor to one’s arm in some sense, making blocking strikes very easy and sometimes painful for the opponent, and also rendering punches and strikes exponentially stronger than a simple fist punch. Aside from striking and blocking, the Tonfa can be very effectively be used for engaging in close-quarters combat, since they can provide leverage to subdue an opponent easily. The pressure Tonfas can put on bones in close-range combat is more than enough to break bones if necessary.
The reason we wrote that Sais are the most iconic in a Japanese context is that Nunchaku are definitely the most iconic ones in a general Eastern martial arts context. However, it is a common misconception that Nunchaku are Chinese, they in fact originate from Okinawa, the home of Karate and Kobudo amongst other martial arts-related things. The Nunchaku probably was first a flail used to thresh rice, then it was turned into a weapon. One of the main advantages of Nunchaku over other weapons is that it is relatively small, insanely fast, and very powerful. You don’t even need a strong strike, just a moderate blow can easily break a skull or shatter a collar bone. Martial artists who have mastered the Nunchaku are formidable enemies since the Nunchaku can also be used to grab the enemies’ weapon and twist it out of their hands or to block with extreme speed. It is present in most, if not all Kobudo styles as well.
The last Kobudo weapon we will talk about today is the Kama. Kama means sickle, and there is really not much creativity and imagination required for someone to see where this comes from. The shape and size are virtually the same as any farmer’s sickle since they realized that no modification is needed to a sickle to make it a dangerous weapon. It gave rise to a couple of different weapons like the Kusarigama, which is basically the Kama attached to a string, which is also a very intimidating weapon and one used in Kobudo. The Kama’s L-shape makes the motion and the trajectory of the moving blade really hard to intuitively have a grasp on.
For example, a medieval longsword was simple and straight, and one knew that they just have to stay away from it. However, the Kama doesn’t give you the option of being slightly cut if the weapon grazes you; if the Kama’s blade touches you, you are most likely going to die. This is because if you look at the blade of a Kama in an extended arm, all the power of the blade will be concentrated at the very tip, where the whole blade lies. This makes the Kama all the more vicious of a weapon. Kamas can also be really fast, which combined with the blade angle make it a very effective weapon.