Friday, June 4, 2010


"In Kobudo, one does not defend with sai, one becomes the sai"

In Arizona, students at the Arizona School of Traditional Karate in Gilbert, Mesa, Chandler and Tempe forcus on karate as well as martial arts weapons. It is traditional that students of the Shorin-Ryu karate systems learn kobudo along with karate. Kobudo is primarily the art of using ancient Okinawan farming implements and fishing tools for weapons – basically the tools of trade for peasants. Some students may also elect to train with bladed weapons of the Japanese kobujutsu styles (such as kenjutsu). By learning kobudo and kobujutsu, it becomes apparent that a belt, pen, baton, car keys, cell phone, book and most any tool can be used as a weapon of self-defense at the spur of the moment.

Kobudo is a martial art that blended with karate in the Okinawan martial arts systems. It is thought that the practice of kobudo began in earnest sometime after Okinawan King Shoshin issued a proclamation (1480 AD) requiring all peasants of the kingdom surrender their bladed weapons. This was done because King Shoshin was a non-violent Buddhist who felt all Okinawans should share his beliefs. As a result, Okinawa was later invaded by Japanese samurai and since there was no Okinawan army, there was little to no resistance to the invasion. The Okinawan trade industry then became the possession of the Satsuma clan of Japan and the Okinawans became subjects of the samurai.

In recent years, many Asian and American hybrid systems of karate elected to remove kobudo from their curriculum for unknown reasons, even though original forms of karate included kobudo. Even many of the Japanese karate styles eliminated kobudo after karate was introduced to Japan in the 20th century. This likely was because kobudo was seen as a peasant martial art to the Japanese, whereas karate was both a peasant art and art taught to royalty.

Okinawan kobudo includes weapons such as the sai, nunchuku, tonfa, kama, nitanbo, tsue, bo, kobutan, eku, ra-ke, kuwa, manrikigusari, hari, nireki, surichin, tetsubo, tekko, tinbe, yawara, suruji, tanto and more. We’ll examine one of these in this newsletter – the sai.

The sai is a three-pronged truncheon with a pointed shaft surrounded by two curved prongs known as yoku that project from the handle. The most common sai have parallel yoku, although others exhibit opposing yoku or just one yoku. Typically two zai (plural for sai) are used, but three may be employed with two held in the hands and a third in the obi (belt) available for throwing. The origin of the weapon is thought to either have been as a farming implement, or more likely to have been a tuncheon imported from China. In recent years, the sai has been portrayed as a weapon of ninja, but being of Okinawan origin, it is unlikely that it was ever used by ninja except in the movies.

Some people suggest that the sai was originally a farming implement. In other words, the weapon could have been some a kind of hoe used to dig furrows. As such, a sai mounted on a stick would have produced a central deep furrow (seed trench) surrounded by two outside shallow guide furrows used to line up the next seed trench.
This is unlikely since metals used to produce steel were rare to unknown on Okinawa. Few iron deposits are found in the Japanese Islands, let alone Okinawa, and these are formed primarily of very low-grade spectite (iron-clays) and higher grade massive sulfides (iron-sulfide or pyrite), but these are of very limited in extent. Other metals used in steel toughening such as titanium and tungsten are rare to unknown on Okinawa. Thus metals would have to have been imported and the great majority of weapons on Okinawa would have been made from sticks and stones other than those that would have been imported. Thus it is more likely that the sai was introduced from China or India and picked up by Okinawans who trained in Kung Fu while in China. There are ancient Chinese, Indian and Indonesian weapons that have a similar appearance to sai. The Chinese Tiger’s Fork used by many Southern Chinese Kung Fu arts such as Hung Gar is similar to a Hindu weapon known as the Trishula and the southeastern Asian weapon known as the tjabang. These have truncheon-like sai mounted on long wooded staffs. Thus, it is likely that some peasants broke the truncheon from these staffs to develop a weapon of greater mobility.

The shaft of a sai is referred to as the monouchi, the pointed tip is the saki, and the bottom rounded knuckle at the opposite end on the handle is the tsukagushira. The handle is the tsuka. Three-quarters of the way up the shaft are two curved prongs known as the yoku and the tip of these prongs are tsume. The yoku are considered as wings that extend from the shaft from the moto (base of the wings) perpendicular to the shaft.

In the past, Okinawans didn’t care about the length of the sai, as the weapon would have been uncommon with few choices. Today, when held in a gyaku-mochi (reverse) grip, the monouchi of the sai is often measured to cover the forearm of the individual with the saki extending about one inch past the elbow; the length is typically 18 to 23 inches. This will allow one to strike with an outward elbow strike (soto hiji uchi) projecting the saki into an attacker. The pommel is often round, square or multi-angled. Because of the grappling and catching abilities of the sai the distances between the monouchi and yoku need to be narrow.
I usually tell students that the best measurement would be a monouchi that extends just short of the elbow. But more important is the balance of the weapon – be sure it is well balanced so that it can easily be rotated from the normal to reverse positions.

There are three general types of sai: (1) Tsuujo-sai which is the more traditional sai with parallel yoku that project in the direction of the saki; (2) the Manji (nunti)-sai is a three-pronged weapon with one yoku facing in an opposing direction, and the (3) Jutte-sai which has only one yoku. The jutte became a popular weapon of Japanese and Okinawan police as it is easily carried on the utility belt and then is used for blocking, striking and activating pressure points.

Soke Hausel teaching Sai-jutsu at the University of Wyoming.

Sai techniques parallel techniques and movements in karate, thus a karate-ka can quickly learn to use this weapon. And just like in karate, the sai will be more effective using effective koshi no chikara (hip power) and suri ashi (sliding movement). Training in sai kata and bunkai is part of a self-discovery. The sai can be a tool for one to perfect oneself physically as well as spiritually.

At the Seiyo Hombu in Mesa, Arizona (Arizona School of Traditional Karate), members train in all weapons of Okinawa Kobudo.

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Our training center is open to the public - we focus on Adults and Families. Come learn the traditions of Okinawan Karate & Kobudo. Much of the class is conducted in both Japanese and English to help students learn Japanese. We also teach meditation, philosophy and martial arts history interjected in karate classes.
Ryan Harden shows his power in blocks at the
Arizona School of Traditional Karate in Mesa,
Gilbert and Chandler in the East Valley of Phoenix