Sunday, August 23, 2020

Soke Hausel's Guide to Sai - A Traditional Okinawan Farming Tool

The sai, a common kobudo tool used in most Okinawa Shorin-Ryu karate dojo, is a close-combat weapon. Although in can be thrown to assist in social distancing. The art of sai is known as sai-jutsu, and considered a branch of Shorin-Ryu karate and kobudoSai are held by grips or handles (tsuka) in order to extend the reach of the weapon to enable a defender to thrust the point (saki). But, it is also commonly held in reverse grip for blocking, punching, hooking and trapping. The saki (point) is dull for training in dojo: in actual combat, it is sharpened.

Kobudo practitioners often carried additional sai in a belt (obi) for throwing, and indeed, some sai kata (forms) emphasize technique (waza) for throwing sai. When, training in a dojo, a thick target board is sometimes placed on the dojo floor to practice throwing technique. If one trains outside, the ground is used as a target. Likewise, a human-shaped target can be placed nearby for throwing sai at a torso.

The distinct, 3-pronged trident, is designed with a pointed shaft surrounded by two curved prongs (yoku) for blocking and hooking. The source of the metal to manufacture such tools did not exist on Okinawa, and likely sai were imported from China. In the historical past of Okinawa, there was no known iron resources on the Okinawa islands, and today, there is only one known forger on the tiny islands. 

The Ryukyu Islands have a long history without mining, and the small island chain lacks metallic resources other than a couple of tiny historical copper and antimony mines. Even so, there are metallic resources on the adjacent seabed associated with Okinawa. Such resources; however, were out-of-reach of past technology and were only discovered as late as 1977. These sea floor deposits are volcanogenic massive sulfides found near black and white smokers (hot spring vents), similar to the now, high-and-dry, Ferris-Haggarty (Wyoming) and United Verde (Arizona) massive sulfides deposited in similar marine environments in the earth's geological past.

Okinawa nunteibo (also nunte, or nunti)
Even so, a true sword of Okinawa existed! This is known as shinken, and is in reference to the intensity of Okinawa budo: basically to practice Okinawa budo, one must use serious effort (Durbin, undated). Few are as serious about training as Okinawa karate masters. 

So, where did the sai come from?. According to some writers, the sai may have been broken from tridents made in China. Apparently, Okinawans liked smaller tools for self-defense and may have traded for tridents and then removed the three-pronged blades from the shaft (bo) for sai.

Thus, the sai may have originally have been used by Okinawa farmers like a pitchfork or a seed-furrowing tool. Another very likely source was a Okinawa fisherman harpoon-like tool known as nuntei-bo. Although iron was smelted on mainland Japan, it is unknown is iron was smelted on Okinawa, it is likely the weapon was imported from China by a member of the Okinawan royal family or bodyguard. It is also possible that the sai originated by breaking the trident off nuntei-bo.

The sai, like many Okinawa kobudo tools, has different kata (forms) as well as bunkai (self-defense applications).  When you investigate classes at your local Okinawa karate dojo, be sure to find out if your future sensei (teacher) is certified to teach sai, and find out if they charge additional fees to learn kobudo. Many do charge extra.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Guide to Okinawan Sai (Sai-jutsu)

It was in the late 1960s when Soke Hausel was introduced to the sai while attending college at the University of Utah. Earlier, he had been introduced to nunchaku and kyokushin kai karate - later he was introduced to other systems of karate, kobudo, kobujutsu, karatejutsu, jujutsu, ninjutsu, iaido, sojutsu, naginatajutsu, hanbojutsu and self-defense including Shorin-Ryu karate and kobudo. Soke Hausel taught martial arts and self-defense at the University of Wyoming for 3 decades prior to moving to Arizona where he teaches a minimum of 6 martial arts classes each week along with periodic clinics in kobudo and other arts.

The sai is one of many Okinawa kobudo weapons taught at the Arizona Hombu Karate dojo in Mesa, Arizona. The 3-pronged trident has a pointed shaft surrounded by two curved prongs and may have originally have been used by Okinawan farmers similar to a pitchfork, seed-furrowing tool, or a harpoon tool in fishing. But since iron was uncommon on Okinawa, more likely, the weapon was originally imported from China by a member of the Okinawan royal bodyguard. Typically, two zai are used in combat, but 3 or 4 can be employed with two in hand and the others placed in the obi (belt) to access for throwing. So, this weapon may have been a trident weapon imported from China or some other southeastern Asian country. 

As a farming implement, sai would have been mounted on a stick to produce a deep central furrow (seed trench) with parallel shallow guide furrows designed to line up the next seed trench. Metals used for steel were uncommon on Okinawa, but iron deposits were known on mainland Japan [primarily low-grade spectite (iron-clays) and high-grade massive sulfides (iron-sulfide or pyrite)]. Other metals used in steel toughening such as titanium and tungsten were also uncommon on Okinawa. Thus, most metallic weapons had to be imported. So the weapon (tool) was likely introduced from China, India, mainland Japan, or some other southeast Asian country. 

Professor of Budo, Soke Hausel,
teaching sai clinic at University of
Wyoming's Corbett Gym
Amira blocks bo attack by Taylor during bunkai training
Some Chinese, Indian and Indonesian weapons have similar appearance. The Chinese Tiger’s Fork from Southern Chinese Kung Fu arts such as Hung Gar is similar to a Hindu weapon known as the Trishula and the southeast Asian weapon known as the tjabang. Certain varieties have truncheon-like sai mounted on wooden staffs. Possibly, Okinawan peasants, or royal body guard members, removed the truncheon from imported staffs to produce a stealth weapon with greater mobility.

The shaft of 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 (pommel) is the tsukagushira. The handle is known as tsuka. Three-quarters of the way up the shaft are two curved prongs known as the yoku and the pointed tip of these are tsume. Yoku are considered wings extending from the shaft from the moto (base of the wings) perpendicular to the shaft.

Kobudo class at the Arizona Hombu Karate dojo
train in kata.
Unlike modern martial artists, Okinawans didn’t care about length of sai, because the weapon was not common. When held in a gyaku-mochi (reverse) grip, the monouchi of the sai is often selected to cover the forearm with saki extending to the elbow; a length of 18 to 23 inches (nearly 2 shaku). This allows one to strike with an outward elbow strike (soto hiji uchi) projecting the saki into an attacker. The pommel is round, square, or multi-angled. It is important to find sai with good balance so that it can easily be rotated from normal to reverse grips.

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

Sai waza (techniques) mimic techniques in karate; thus a practitioner can quickly learn this weapon. However, it is very awkward at first, with sleeves of the karate gi often catching on yoku of the sai. And like karate, the sai will be more effective with powerful koshi no chikara (hip power) and suri ashi (sliding movement).
O'Sensei Bill Borea (RIP) blocks bo attack by Dr. Adam with sai during bunkai training in kobudo class at the Arizona Hombu Karate dojo.
In Soke Hausel's clinics and classes at the Arizona Hombu Karate dojo in Mesa, Arizona, members train in a variety of kobudo and samurai weapons along with karate and jujutsu. For example, when karate or weapons like the sai are taught, members of the Hombu learn all about the basics (kihon) and history of the weapon. They learn to manipulate the weapon by learning muscle memory through training in a group of forms known as kata. And to be sure they can use the weapon in combat, they also learn many bunkai (pragmatic applications).

Nancy and Suzette train in bunkai during kobudo class at the Arizona Hombu

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Kata (Forms) for Seiyo Shorin-Ryu Sai

Adam (left) trains with Sensei Patrick using sai during kobudo classes in the East Valley of
Phoenix, Arizona. 
The Seiyo No Shorin-Ryu Karate Renmei (西洋少林流空手古武) system incorporates many Okinawan and Modern weapons into its kobudo (古武道) system. The sai () is an example of one ancient weapon that has some modern equivalents found in many garden shops.  The sai is considered to be an Okinawan weapon and in Seiyo Martial Arts we have a group of six kata (). These kata all employ a variety of blocking, striking, hooking, choking, capturing and throwing techniques and assist the Shorin-Ryu martial artist with proper application, stances and ma (timing).

Thus after one learns to use the sai, they must learn the bunkai (分解) of all techniques in the kata and learn them with full power and focus. This requires considerable expertise as it is easy to hurt one's knuckles during bunkai because of the nature of the weapon. But after considerable training, one tends to block out the pain of being struck on the knuckles. Our kata are simply numbered as Sai Shodan (初段), Sai Nidan (二段), Sai Sandan (三段), Sai Yondan (四段), Sai Godan (五段) and Sai Rokudan (六段).

The Sai - sketch by Soke Hausel
Dr. Adam  trains with Sensei Borea (retired air force pilot) during kobudo class.
Eric Hausel, trains with sai at the University of Wyoming Campus
Shorin-Ryu Karate and Kobudo Club in Laramie.

Friday, June 4, 2010


"In Kobudo, to defend with sai, one becomes sai"

In Arizona, both mudansha and yudansha (lower rank belts and black belts) at the Arizona Hombu Karate and Kobudo Dojo in Mesa, Gilbert, 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 ancient Okinawan farming implements, fishing and merchant tools used as 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, i.e., the bladed samurai weapons). By learning kobudo and kobujutsu, it becomes apparent that a belt, pen, baton, car keys, cell phone, book, magazine, stick and most any tool can be used as a weapon of self-defense at the spur of the moment.

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 apparently a non-violent Buddhist who felt all Okinawans should share his beliefs, but others believe it was done to keep the Okinawan peasants from rising up against the Okinawan government. 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 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.

The sai is a three-pronged trident with a pointed shaft surrounded by two curved prongs that project from the handle. The most common sai have parallel prongs, although others exhibit opposing prongs or just one. Typically two zai (plural for sai) are used, but three may be employed with two held by 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 trident imported from China.

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.

Another concept is that the sai was introduced from China, India, or some southeast Asian country. There are ancient Chinese, Indian and Indonesian weapons that have 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 trident-like sai mounted on long wooded staffs.

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 reverse grip, the long blade of the sai is often measured to cover the forearm of the individual so that it extends to the tip of the elbow, or about one inch past the elbow (typically 18 to 23 inches). This will allow one to strike with an outward elbow strike (soto hiji uchi) and projecting the point of the blade into an attacker. The pommel is often round, square or multi-angled.

I usually tell students that the best measurement would be a shaft 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 normal to reverse grips.

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 the art. 

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.