By Marian K. Stricker, published in Black Belt Magazine,
Karate means "empty hand," so karate weapons may seem like a contradiction
in terms. But though weapons are not obligatory in this martial art, their use
can double your strength, enhance your coordination, and make you a superior
"Okinawan karate and weapons are like brother and sister," explains karate
and kobudo (Okinawan weapons) expert Tadashi Yamashita. "They
complement each other."
The physical conditioning that weapons offer karate stylists has increased
their popularity in recent years, and people are eager to learn more about
their history and current applications. "You try different foods," says
Yamashita, "you must also try different weapons to see which are best for you.
If you don't try, how do you know?"
Following is a list of some of the more common weapons of karate training,
including their histories and current and traditional uses. You're sure to
find the one that suits you.
History: In 1470, when traditional weapons were confiscated by the
Japanese military, Okinawan commoners utilised the kama as a fighting blade,
often attaching a chain to the base for greater reach. This longer weapon was
known as a kusarigama.
Traditional use: The kama was originally used for cutting grass. In
close range fighting, the sickle could be used to trap an opponent's weapon,
or for striking.
Current use: The kama is most commonly used in kata (forms)
competition and demonstrations. The forms include circular movements which
improve blocking and countering techniques.
History: Developed by Okinawan farmers, the multi-pronged nunte was
usually placed on the end of a staff to form a spear, but it could also be
thrown, or handled as a dagger or mace.
Traditional use: In its most basic form, the nunte was a fishing
tool. As a dagger or part of a spear, the nunte's center prong was used for
striking, while its arms could also catch and hold an opponent's weapon.
Current use: The nunte is now found most often in kata competitions
and demonstrations, either in the hand or at the end of a staff.
History: The bo is one of the five weapons systematised by the
early Okinawan developers of the style known as te (hand). In feudal Japan it
was part of the bugei (early Japanese martial arts) and was used by samurai,
priests, and commoners alike. Its six-foot length made it an apt weapon against
swordsmen, disarming the opponent while allowing the user to remain at a safe
Traditional use: The bo evolved from poles balanced across the
shoulders to carry water or other loads. As a fighting instrument, it allowed
blocking and striking against a range of weapons.
Current use: Now part of the budo (martial ways), the bo is still
used in kata performance. Physical conditioning with the bo improves balance
and upper-body strength.
History: Present in Okinawan and other Asian weapon arsenals, the
sai (pronged truncheon) was used to stab, block, trap and punch. Practitioners
often carried a sai in each hand, and a "spare" at the belt. The weapon could
also be thrown.
Traditional use: The sai is believed to have originated with the
pitchfork. As a weapon, it was used in conjunction with various karate stances
and techniques, and in defence against sword attacks.
Current use: With dulled points, the sai is now a karate training
weapon. It tests accuracy in striking and quick block-and-counter techniques.
Naginata (reaping sword)
History: During the Edo period (1600-1808), women of the samurai
class were the primary wielders of the naginata for self-protection. It could
be used on horseback or on foot, and was part of the bujutsu (Japanese
Traditional use: The naginata probably originated as a weapon. The
blade was used to slash with wide, circular movements, and the butt could
block or knock opponents off balance.
Current use: Naginata-do (the way of the naginata) is still popular
with Japanese women and is part of many academic athletic programs in Japan.
National competitions are still held, and women often compete with naginata
against men armed with bokken (wooden swords). Extremely strong wrists and
forearms are necessary for this sport.
History: The tonfa (side-handle baton) was developed as a weapon by
the Okinawans, specifically for use in conjunction with karate. Two tonfa
were often used simultaneously, and were very efficient against armed
Traditional use: Originally a bean or rice grinder, the tonfa's
circular movements as a farm implement evolved into its rotating strikes as a
weapon. The side of the tonfa was used for blocking, and the ends for direct
Current use: Now an advanced karate training aid, the tonfa aids
development of block-and-strike strategies and upper-body strength.
History: Used by men and women of the samurai class on foot
and horseback, the yari has been part of Oriental weaponry for
thousands of years. Many schools of sojutsu (the art of the
spear) were formed throughout history, each teaching different
methods of yari fighting.
Traditional use: Primarily a thrusting weapon, the yari existed in
several forms and styles, including the pipe spear and three-bladed spear.
Current use: No competitive form of sojutsu has developed.
Training extends only to yari kata, and these are not widely studied.
Jo (short staff)
History: Noted swordsman Gonnosuke Muso developed the jo for
competition against Musashi Miyamoto, Japan's greatest swordsman, in the late
16th century. Garnering victory only after cutting his bo to the length of a
jo (three to four feet), Muso founded the shindo muso-ryu to train others in
Traditional use: Less awkward than the bo, the jo focused on basic
blocking and striking maneuvers.
Current use: Jodo (the way of the jo) is currently practised in
Japan and the United States. Competitions, including free sparring and kata
demonstrations with the jo, exist within the study.
History: Developed after the bokken, the katana was the favoured
weapon of the samurai warriors and the most widely used Japanese sword. Drawn
in a "sky-to-ground" manner, it was worn in the belt on the left side, edge
Traditional use: Employed on foot or horseback as a thrusting
weapon the katana was used in battle, competition and in ritual deaths.
Current use: The katana is now primarily a popular weapon
for kata competition and demonstrations.
(Article: (A Short History of the Japanese
Bokken (wooden sword)
History: The bokken was a popular samurai training sword because it
was safer and less expensive than a "live" blade. When used in competition it
could be fatal, and samurai would often keep a bokken nearby while they slept,
so intruders could be captured without spilling blood within the house.
Traditional use: The bokken was primarily used to practice blocking and
Current use: The bokken is still used in place of the katana
(sword) for training, competition, and demonstrations.
History: The samurai wore the tanto either alone, or with the tachi
Traditional use: The tanto was used as a thrusting weapon in close
combat, although it could also be thrown.
Current use: While tanto-jutsu (art of the dagger) is not widely
practised, the weapon can be used in kata demonstrations and competitions.
History: Developed in the 17th century by Okinawans after the
Japanese gained occupation of their land, the nunchaku (flail) was one of many
harmless looking weapons implemented at the time. The two equal sections were
originally held together by horsehair and could be used against armed or
Traditional use: The nunchaku was originally an agricultural tool
used for threshing grain. As a weapon, it was used in conjunction with various
stances and techniques. The sticks could be used for spearing or striking, and
the chain could choke, block, or trap.
Current use: The nunchaku is a popular weapon for demonstrations.
It is also used as a weapon of self-defence by karate stylists and some law