A Synthesis of Method - The connection between Karate & Kobujutsu

More times than I care to remember, I have heard people say that they practice "Karate weaponry" as well as a main core martial discipline. (When I talk of "Karate weaponry" I refer to the Kobujutsu weapons of Okinawa of which there are eight main types: Bo, Sai, Tonfa, Nunchaku, Kama, Tekko, Tinbe and Surujin). How many practising Karateka have picked up a pair of Nunchaku or Tonfa and practised various movements with them until such time as they have reached a degree of proficiency where they can be whizzed around the head and body at high speed? In the years that I have been practising and teaching Karate, I have come into contact with more than just a few.

However, the unfortunate part of this kind of weapons practice is that generally speaking, the techniques which are practised are to a varying degree impractical or inaccurate and have been popularised by films, wallcharts showing Nunchaku exercises and some individuals who have taken it upon themselves to "invent" techniques. To condemn people for wanting to explore an area of the Martial Arts which has so much to offer would be wrong. Misguided enthusiasm is still enthusiasm, all it needs to fully benefit the individual is guidance in a bona fide method, and the advantages of weapons study can be realised.

Returning to the title of this article, one might question why studying weapons may indeed be a synthesis of method. Simply put, the study of a traditional weapons system can afford us many insights into our core discipline of Karate, and help us to understand aspects of our practice which we may well have been struggling with for some time. Personally speaking, as someone who has been practising traditional Karate for over twenty years, I have struggled gamely with a number of aspects of my practice. As with most people who study long-term, perseverance usually pays off. Keep picking away at a problem and we generally manage to understand things in the end. However, since I have been studying Kobujutsu, I have found that the fog begins to clear more quickly on problems which may have eluded me for years. This in turn has added value and meaning to my Karate practice, aside from the fact that a vast majority of movement and technique contained in Kobujutsu mirrors that of traditional karate.

This in itself is sufficient to explain the title of this piece and to reinforce the argument that Kobujutsu is indeed a catalyst which can lead to the synthesis of method of both traditional Karate and Kobujutsu. By the same token, one could also expect that this synthesis will work the other way around and this also can be the case. On the one hand we have traditional karate and on the other Kobujutsu. One is an empty hand system and the other a dedicated weapons system. However, both have common roots. This is not surprising really when we think back to a time in Okinawa when the aristocracy were the ones who practised both intrinsic empty hand systems such as Ti and also studied the weapons systems too. Men like Shinken Taira were true exponents of the Okinawan fighting systems. Taira studied Karate under Funakoshi and Kenwa Mabuni and learned Kobujutsu from Moden Yabiki who was also a student of Karate Master Ankoh Itosu and weapons master Sanda Kanagusuku.

So clearly there is a very strong link between weaponry and karate and studying both is beneficial to the study of one or other alone. How then does an understanding of Karate help in the study of Kobujutsu? Put simply, a number of movements are common to both systems. For example, the technique of Sai is a parallel with the Shuto or knifehand movements in Karate, similarly that of the Tonfa can be equated to Karate's Uraken movements. In addition to these fairly obvious examples of commonality, there is the question of the fundamental principles such as distancing, timing, rhythm, tightening etc. The distancing involved in wielding Sai for example is very similar to that of Karate, whereas with the Bo, the distancing is clearly much greater. This gives the student a better understanding of this principle and this can help with Karate practice. There are a whole host of other similarities which can be drawn but to go into each in detail would require a book! Suffice to say that the benefits are there for those who wish to seek them.

Until relatively recently, the opportunity to study a bona fide weapons system was fairly limited. Now however, there are more and more people becoming interested in Kobujutsu. Strangely, it is likely that the heritage of this fascinating system will be preserved by the West as interest is growing, whereas in the Orient, the opposite could be said to be true. In the UK, the most qualified exponent of Ryukyu Kobujutsu is Sensei Julian Mead who studied in Japan for many years and was awarded a 5th Dan in both Yuishinkai Karate Jutsu and Ryukyu Kobujutsu. He studied directly under Motokatsu Inoue Hanshi who was awarded the first Menkyo Kaiden by the aforementioned Shinken Taira.

So back now to the title of this short piece - Kobujutsu and Karate can indeed be said to be a synthesis of method, the study of which helps to give us insights into that which ordinarily may take years to understand, if ever. If you study a traditional Karate system, why not see for yourself how you can synthesise your Karate with Kobujutsu?

Copyright Phil Snewin 1997. All rights reserved.