The ancient history of Okinawa tells us a turbulent story, with violent political upheavals characterizing a major part of the now-peaceful island’s heritage. It was out of these days of unrest that the art of kobudo (the ancient martial way) was born, due to a necessity for peasants to defend their families or property by turning common, everyday items into weapons that could be used for self defense. In times of political strife, war faring weapons such as swords and spears were forbidden to the general populace, which left farmers and fishermen easy prey for armed bandits and pirates. To counteract the decrees than rendered them weaponless, Okinawans as well as the inhabitants of the other islands within the Ryukyuan chain became highly proficient in the use of implements such as water-bucket carrying poles, boat oars, and grist mill handles as means of self protection. Kata were eventually developed, usually named after a founder or village of origin, and various styles of kobudo came into being. One of these traditional systems is the Matayoshi style of kobudo practiced by Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei (All Okinawan Kobudo Federation), which is now recognized world-wide as a leader in the art that was so desperately needed and so carefully developed to preserve the well-being of the Ryukyuan citizenry.
The Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei has deep roots in the teachings of Shinko Matayoshi (1888-1947), who comes from a family that has one of the oldest lineages on Okinawa, and is distinctive in that every member has been involved in the martial arts to some degree. The unusually wide variety of weapons that are taught within the Matayoshi system evolved from the ability of Shinko Matayoshi to travel and learn all aspects of the art, as he spent a total of thirteen years studying in China, along with making frequent excursions to other areas to experience different cultures and learn about the weapons that were used for self defense. Shinko Matayoshi’s later travels were for the purpose of promoting his system, which became known as Ryukyuan Kobudo throughout Okinawa and mainland Japan. Today, Shinko Matayoshi’s work is upheld by his son, Shinpo Matayoshi (1923- ), who began training under his famous father’s instruction at the age of four. Like his father, Shinpo Matayoshi (as pictured to the right in his Kodokan Dojo in Okinawa training with a sai that is unique to the Matayoshi Kobudo system as it is angled differently from the more common type) travels extensively to promote kobudo, and founded the Ryukyu Kobudo Renmei in 1970, which was reorganized two years later into the Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei. Shinpo Matayoshi’s dojo is named Kodokan (Enlightened Way) in honor of his father, whose first name Shinko means “True Light.”
The differences between Matayoshi Kobudo and other systems result from, a strong Chinese influence, which came about from Shinko Matayoshi’s studies. Overall, the movements in the Matayoshi system are more relaxed and flowing, with both linear and circular strikes forming a smooth, fluid style. While the stepping movements within Matayoshi Kobudo are somewhat similar to those used in Okinawan karate, the stances are designed differently for very quick, light movements. For example, the foot positioning for the sumo stance (shiko dachi) is not as wide, and the front foot positioning of the cat stance (neko ashi dachi) is dissimilar from that used in karate and other kobudo styles. The Chinese influence also becomes apparent in bo (wooden staff) techniques where chambering of the close end of the weapon takes place outside the arm, rather than under the arm. Positioning the bo on the outside of the arm lends greater protection to the inner part of the body, and avoids the injuries that could occur when the bo whips around and snaps up under the user’s arm, striking vulnerable areas in the armpit and side of the torso.
The Matayoshi Kobudo system places great emphasis on the use of the bo, an implement said to be derived from the tenbib, which was a wooden staff that was slung across the shoulders in order to transport buckets of water on each end. The most popular type of bo is the rokushaku, which measures six feet in length and 1 1/4 inches thick at the center, tapering down to 3/4 inch at the ends. Other types of bo range in length from four to nine feet, and can be round (maru-bo), four-sided (kaku-bo), sixsided (rokkaku-bo), or eight-sided (hakkakubo). The most common bo kata are Shushi- No-Kon, Choun-No-Kon, Sakugawa-No-Kon, Tsuken-No-Kon, and Shiishi-No-Kon. Other staff-type weapons include the hanbo (threefoot wooden stick), jo (four-foot wooden stick), tetsubo (Iron staff), sansetsu-kon (three-sectioned staff), and the konsaibo, which is a wooden staff studded with iron nubs.
Many traditional Okinawan kobudo weapons were developed to defend against opponents wielding spears or swords. Implements such as the sai, which is a three-pronged metal truncheon, were often used in sets of two or three for the purpose of entrapping an attacker’s weapon and using the pronged ends in a jabbing, puncturing strike. Although the exact origin of the sai is obscure, it closely resembles an instrument that was used in China, and is also believed to have been derived from a farming implement that was used for digging furrows in the ground for planting seeds. A third sai was often carried behind the back in the belt sash (obi) as a replacement for a hand-held sai that was thrown at an opponent. The nunti is a threepronged weapon that is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a manji-sai, with one of the outside prongs facing in the opposite direction, toward the handle, and which often attached to the end of a bo. Other truncheon weapons are the juste and the tokushu-keibo, a collapsible metal instrument.
The nunchaku is a weapon made from a horse bridle strap and a tool that was used to pound grain or rice. In the Matayoshi system, the most common types of nunchaku have octagonal (hakkakukei) or round (maru-gata) wooden handles of equal length connected by a length of rope or chain. A vine (kanda) can also be used as a longer connector, in order to bind an opponent’s head and hands together in an “Okinawan Handcuff.” Matayoshi Kobudo instruction includes nunchaku with one handle half the length of the other, both handles half the normal size, three-sectioned and four-sectioned. The han-kei nunchaku, with the circumference of the handles halved, is designed for easier carrying and concealment, as both handles fit together smoothly.
Sickles that became useful weapons for self defense includes the kama, which has a curved blade, and the naginata, a curved blade, sickle like spear seven feet in length. The nagemaki is a heavier version of the naginata with a larger blade, while the rokushaku-kama is a sickle with a six foot handle.
Wooden implements played an important role in the history of kobudo, and tools such as the tounkwa (tuifa, tonfa), which were used as grist mill handles, served as effective weapons. The eku (boat oar) was a popular item in Okinawan fishing villages, and has a unique feature in allowing the defender to fling sand in an attacker’s face by holding the eku straight up with the paddle end down, and kicking the bottom out in a swift, forward and upward motion. There is also the abumi (wooden saddle stirrup) and the tecchu (“knuckle-duster”) made from yarn spindles.
Chizikanbo, made from wooden fish floats, is another weapon that is attached to the hands to aid punching effectiveness. The bokken, or wooden sword, was employed as a training device, while the kendo practice sword made of bamboo shoots (shinai) served as a conditioning implement.
Knife-like weapons that could be concealed within clothing and easily produced when needed are the kaiken (six- inch knife), juken (bayonet), and the tanto (dagger with a blade measuring eight to sixteen inches in length). Another device is the ninshokudai, or candles on an L-shaped, iron-spiked holder that was said to be carried by Okinawan women.
Chains produced large, heavier weapons such as the surushin (Manriki-gusari), which was weighted at one end, and the gekigan (ball and chain). The chigiriki is a weapon that has a three-to-ten-foot chain attached to an iron ball at one end and a staff at the other end. The nagegama is a retractable walking stick made from chain links.
Other items on the lengthy list taught in the Matayoshi Kobudo system include the halberd, a heavy, axe-like weapon with a coin-shaped blade. The tecchu is another form of “brass knuckles,” as is the tatsuko, which is made of metal and studded. The tinbay (timbei, tembe, timpei), which is a shield made from the shell of a giant sea turtle, proved effective for repelling sword or spear attacks, and was often used with the small dart-like weapon known as rochin.
It must be pointed out that the study of the multitude of weapons in the Matayoshi system takes place on a complete basis, and students are not encouraged to merely dabble in various areas in an attempt to “learn a little bit about each weapon.” The founding master’s principles are based upon thorough knowledge of the purpose and origin of each weapon, and it takes many years of dedicated training to become proficient in the use of a single item.
Matayoshi Kobudo has become very popular among practitioners of the major Okinawan karate styles, as it fits in well with empty-hand arts and rounds out a student’s martial training. One of the traditional Okinawan principles concerns the fact that Shinpo Matayoshi views kobudo as not only an art for self defense, but also serves as a means of obtaining and maintaining inner peace.