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Kobudo & Kobujutsu

by Meik Skoss

Aiki News #99 (1994)

The Ryukyu kobudo (or sometimes kobujutsu) are the traditional weapons arts of Okinawa and the other islands of the Ryukyu archipelago. Beyond this simple definition it is very difficult to gain a clear, accurate understanding of the historical and technical development, or even the very composition. of these fighting arts. Much of what has been written in Japanese and English is misleading. Perhaps the writers were poorly informed, or wished to advance a particular point of view or agenda, or engaged in unfounded speculation. In any event, after some fifteen years of investigating Ryukyu kobudo, the only thing I can say with certainty is that the reality is a great deal more complex than I had imagined and that a great deal more remains to be uncovered.

Very little about Ryukyu kobudo is uniform among the groups practicing these arts; not even the names and number of the weapons constituting the syllabus, the names of the kata, training methods, or historical traditions are the same. “Right” appears to depend on the system and teacher with whom one studies, the organization to which one belongs, the local dialect, or some combination of these factors. In Japan, classical Okinawan weapons arts are best known through Motokatsu (Gansho) lnoue of the Ryukyu Kobujutsu (formerly Kobudo) Hozon Shinkokai (Society for the Preservation and Promotion of Ryukyuan Classical Martial Arts—R.K.H.S.), Temo Hayashi of the Shitokai and Ryusho Sakagami of the Itosukai. There has been a resurgence of interest in the Okinawan weapons in Okinawa itself in the past few years and there are any number of organizations and styles there as well. The Okinawa branch of the R.K.H.S. was headed, until his recent death, by Eisuke Akamine. Also prominent in Okinawa are the Ryuei-ryu, Kingai-ryu, and Motobu-ryu.

Although the concept of ryugi (style, or “school” of a traditional art) does not seem to have been followed in Okinawa before the Meiji Restoration, several kobudo ryuha (schools, styles; ha connotes faction) have been founded this century. They appear to have taken on some of the characteristics of mainland Japanese martial traditions, such as established headmasters, and ranking systems. Prior to the consolidation of Japanese political authority in Okinawa during the early Meiji period, most instruction was on a personal basis, often in strict privacy, and “schools” of karate and kobudo did not exist. One studied with particular teachers and learned specific kata (formal training exercises) and applications. There were a few family traditions, such as those now known as Kojo-ryu, Ryuei-ryu, and Motobu Udonte, where instruction was limited to members of the family. Some of these have opened themselves to outsiders—often with great reluctance—only in recent years.

A commonly stated theory about the Ryukyu kobudo is that they were developed after the subjugation of the kingdom by warriors from Satsuma (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture) in 1609 and a rigorous enforcement of a ban on weapons that had been issued more than a hundred years earlier by the King of Ryukyu. Supposedly, this led to the adoption of a number of tools and everyday objects as weapons of personal defense. Some popular sources suggest that this was done to protect against the depredations of the Japanese occupiers, but current researchers dismiss most of these stories as romantic, with little or no basis in historical fact.

The R.K.H.S. includes eight different weapons arts in its training syllabus, most of which are indeed adaptations of common tools. They are: bo or kon (wooden staff, generally six feet long), also including use of the kai or eku (paddle or oar); kama (agricultural sickle); sai (double-tined metal truncheon); tonfa or tuifa (millstone handle, the basis for the modem police side-handle baton); nunchaku (agricultural flail, comprised of two or more wooden handles connected by a cord); surujin (weighted chain or, probably originally rope, of various lengths); tekko or teko (knuckledusters of varying types); and tinbe (small shield made of woven cane or tortoise shell), used in conjunction with the rochin (short-handled spear or machete). Of these, only the sai and tekko appear to be specifically intended as weapons and these were certainly never meant for battlefield or military application. The palace guards at Shuri, the old capital, were equipped with sai and bo, as were the town constables there and in the port of Naha. Variants of the tinbe may well have been constructed with combat in mind, but they, and their accompanying rochin, are most likely to have been “weapons-usable objects” which would serve the user in an emergency if need be.

Other groups practicing Ryukyu kobudo use the weapons listed above, but also study a considerable number more, some of which would appear to have been banned, first by the Sho Dynasty, then later by the Japanese warriors from Satsuma. Though recent research has shown that the prohibition on the possession and practice of weapons was less than total, it still is not clear which weapons were retained, by whom, on what authority, where, and how they were studied. The Ryuei-ryu, in addition to its empty-hand training. includes a large number of “true” weapons in its curriculum, among them the bisento (Chinese glaive, resembling a naginata, but with a much heavier blade) and the yari (spear). The Motobu-ryu. besides the customary Okinawan tool-derived weapons, trains with the naginata, yari, ken or katana (sword), tsu or jo (stick), ryoha no ken (double-edged sword, similar to a Chinese sword), ryoha no tanken (double-edged short-sword) and bo of varying lengths. Motobu-ryu is supposed to have been the secret fighting art of the Ryukyuan royal family and its guards, and this perhaps explains row this particular tradition was able to continue practicing with contraband arms. Kingai-ryu, or Matayoshi kobudo, includes the sansetsukon (three-section staff) along with the other weapons in its curriculum. The Matayoshi version of tinbejutsu uses a machete or field knife instead of the tanso (short spear) favored by the Ryukyu Kobujutsu Hozon Shinkokai. There are undoubtedly other weapons, or variants, used by different groups and local traditions, but so far little has been done to accurately map the distribution of Okinawan weapon,. or the differences in terminology or training methods.

The basis of Ryukyu kobudo training is kata training. Okinawa weapons have not yet been adapted and altered as have other modem arts, such as kendo or atarashii naginata, to allow for freestyle competitive sport, so the techniques and forms are much the same as they’ve always been. The number of kata,. many of which have several personal variations, is quite large. A particular kata may be the creation of an individual, such as Soeishi no kon (the staff form of Soeishi), or a form associated with a Iocality, like Hamahiga no sai (the truncheon form of Hamahiga [Island]). Several of the staff, kama, and nunchaku forms are also classified into dai, chu, and sho versions (lit big. regular, and little), referring to the length of the kata and the number of techniques they contain. Again. the kata may simply be named for the weapon itself, as with tan surujin (short weighted-chain). There may be considerable variation in the pronunciation of the names of the kata or how they are written in Chinese or phonetic characters, or in the names of particular weapon, depending on the local dialect and tradition. Tonfa or tuifa, the milIstone handles used in pairs, are also known as tunfa, taofua, tuiha, tunfua, tonua, toifua, tonkua, and tunkkua. Shujin no kon may also be Shushi, even Suji, no kon, or kun. Although it is a bit confusing trying to keep all these names straight, it is also somehow refreshing to see so many different ways of doing the same thing.

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