Okinawan Kobudo is a system of traditional weapon styles that originates in the Ryuku Islands (especially Okinawa) in the southern part of what is now Japan. The weapons most commonly associated with Okinawan Kobudo are: the Rokushaku Bo Staff, the Nunchaku, the Kama, the Sai, and the Tonfa (or Tunkua). Less common are weapons such as the Nunti (trident), the Tekko (kunckleduster), the Eku (Oar), and the Hanbo (Half-staff). Frequently, Kobudo instructors also incorporate Japanese Swordsmanship from Kenjutsu, but this is not considered part of the Ryukyuan tradition. Kobudo has been popularized in the West by high-profile martial artists such as Bruce Lee and Fumio Demura, and are now considered an indispensable part of traditional eastern martial arts schools throughout the world.
The origins of these weapons and the styles that make use of them are among the most ancient among martial arts systems. Thus much of the history of Kobudo comes to us only in the form of legends. Historical research gives us few satisfying answers. Here we will attempt to provide an overview of what is known and what is believed about the origins of the Okinawan Weapons – both mythical and historic.
Historical and Political Background
Okinawans are culturally, linguistically, and racially distinct from the Japanese. The Ryukyu islands have been inhabited since at least 32,000 BC. The earliest inhabitants probably migrated to Okinawa and the surrounding islands on land bridges from China after the Ice Age. Ethnically, Okinawans are more closely related to the Jomon and Ainu people, who were indigenous to the Japanese islands before the Yamato (Modern Japanese) invasion in the 4th Century BC.
In 1429 AD the three polities in the Ryukyu islands united into a single kingdom with its capital in Okinawa. This monarchical period was marked by prosperous trade and cultural exchange with China, Taiwan, and Korea. Many Chinese immigrated to the Ryukyu Kingdom and found the island nation to be a land of opportunity. Many of these Chinese immigrants rose to become political ministers and important tradesmen, heavily influencing Ryukyuan culture and language. In many ways, this was the cultural and economic golden age of Ryuku.
This period came to an abrupt end when Japanese Samurai from Kyushu under the Satsuma clan invaded in 1609 and subjected the Ryukyu Kingdom to foreign rule. For more than two hundred years, Ryukyuan monarchs were vassals under the Satsuma Lords, paying hefty tribute to their foreign masters. As the Japanese Imperial Government attempted to centralize power, the Edo (Tokyo) dialect of Japanese was enforced as the standardized language throughout the empire. Ironically, it was the Satsuma clan who rebelled against this Imperial power grab, a rebellion fictionalized in the film The Last Samurai. Notwithstanding great resistance to Imperial unification, the culture and language of the Ryukyuans was suppressed and gradually replaced by an ever more “Japanese” system. From the fall of the Ryukyu Kingdom onward, Okinawa would never again enjoy political independence. In 1879, Japan officially annexed the Ryukyu archipelago into the newly-formed “Okinawa Prefecture,” the name by which the islands are known to the present day.
Okinawa had a central role to play in World War II. Its location made it vital to naval and air operations during Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, and in a poetic reversal, to the United States’ counterattack on Japan proper in the closing years of the war. Following the war, the US maintained an extensive military presence in Okinawa – so much so that the entire island was officially United States territory until it was returned to Japan in 1972. Relations between the American Military and the Okinawan people have not always been positive, but it is an undisputed fact that there has been an extensive cultural exchange in Okinawa that is partially responsible for the rise of the popularity of eastern martial arts in The West. Even after Okinawa’s return to Japan, the United States maintained a strong military presence in Okinawa as part of a protection force against mainland Asia’s communist threat. This presence remains in force to this day.
The Agrarian Hypothesis
There is a widely-propagated story that the Okinawan weapons developed from farming instruments. According to one version of this story, after establishing dominion over the Ryukyu Kingdom, the Satsuma Samurai banned weapons and martial arts. Left defenseless, but wishing to form a resistance against their oppressors, the farmers adapted their tools for use in improvised guerrilla warfare.
While it is possible and even plausible that at least some of these weapons were originally adapted from farming instruments, there is little evidence to support the clandestine resistance narrative. It is true that the Satsuma family outlawed weapons during their reign of Southern Japan, but this weapon ban did not inspire the creation of the Okinawan Weapons. In fact, evidence suggests that these weapons were employed centuries before their use by the Okinawans. At best, Satsuma-controlled Ryukyu is the setting wherein these weapons gained popularity, since more conventional weapons such as firearms, swords, lances, halberds, and daggers would have been difficult to come by.
Further, there is little evidence to support the claim of an organized resistance by commoners in Ryukyu. As far as historians can tell, it was primarily the Pechin warrior class (and later the Samurai warrior class) that employed these weapons for use in warfare. Only during the closing century of the Tokugawa Shogunate were martial arts schools opened to the average Joe. If commoners used the Okinawan Weapons during the period of subjugation, there were only isolated incidents of violence (against tax collectors, etc), not an organized rebellion.
We will discuss the “traditional” narrative of the origin of each of the main Okinawan weapons, and analyze these claims against the historical evidence.
The Bo Staff is the simplest and most ancient of all weapons. As early as its use as a tool was first realized, its utility as an instrument of violence became apparent. According to the Agrarian Hypothesis, the Rokushaku Bo was specifically derived from the tenbin staves used to carry water buckets from wells. This origin is entirely plausible, but the Bo’s use as a weapon distantly predates the Satsuma invasion.
Kamas are small, sharp hand sickles useful for slashing, hooking, and minor stabbing techniques. These weapons are identical with the farming instrument of the same name used to cut stocks of rice. These instruments are still in use by modern Japanese farmers. The kama probably represents the most credible evidence for the Agrarian Hypothesis.
The sai was used at least since the middle ages by the Okinawan police force for arresting criminals and crowd control. Similar or identical weapons were in use in other parts of Asia much earlier. The Agrarian Hypothesis often states that this instrument was used in planting rice in Okinawa. However, use of this weapon even inside of Okinawa predates the Satsuma regime by several hundred years. More likely, this weapon is a smaller version of the Indian Trishul (trident), which was used as a tool for spearfishing, as well as a weapon and a prominent religious symbol in Hindu and Buddhism. The weapon was likely brought to Okinawa from China or Korea along with Buddhism.
The Nunchaku is a challenging weapon consisting of two sticks connected by a rope or a chain. Some martial artists have dismissed this weapon as impractical, though there is much anecdotal evidence for its effectiveness in personal defense situations. The Agrarian Hypothesis states that this weapon was originally a type of flail used for the threshing of rice. Historians continue to debate this issue without many satisfying answers. Alternative theories include the theory that the Nunchaku was adapted from a horse’s bit, or hyoshiki boards used in Buddhist blessings.
Popular among modern police forces, the Tonfa is a versatile, T-shaped baton used for blunt-force trauma at point-blank range. The agrarian hypothesis asserts that this weapon was originally a millstone handle. However, use of this weapon has been documented centuries earlier in China, perhaps even originating with the Shaolin monastery. Like many of these Chinese-origin weapons, the Tonfa likely came to Okinawa with Chinese immigrants, or through Korea with Buddhist missionaries.
The traditional narrative of the Okinawan Weapons originating with Okinawan peasants to fight off the Japanese Samurai is suspect. However, it seems clear that these weapons are very much improvised weapons, most of which originally had agricultural purposes. Though their origins are likely much older than the agrarian hypothesis asserts, it is plausible that the Ryukyuans made use of them for self-defense purposes before, during, and after the Satsuma invasion. Whatever the case, these weapons and their ancient styles have fascinated martial arts enthusiasts in every generation. Practitioners of Okinawan Kobudo should be careful to convey their art with precision, with respect for tradition, and with the ethics and discipline expected of martial artists.