Ninja Weapons Training: Enhancing Balance, Coordination And Flexibility

The History of Okinawa – and its culture – are reflective of the archipelago’s unique geographical position in Asia. Located between the waning and waxing fortunes of two great Asian powers – Japan and China – Okinawa has been influenced, and sometimes devastated, by the tide of history and conflict. Having banned weapons themselves two centuries before the Shimazu clan of Satsuma, Japan annexed the islands for the purpose of controlling Okinawa’s lucrative trade with the mainland, the Okinawans, in the centuries under Japanese rule, were faced with deprivation, poverty and the presence of samurai all too eager to test their blades on the bodies of Okinawans.

“Every experiment is like a weapon which must be used in its particular way – a spear to thrust, a club to strike. Experimenting requires a man who knows when to thrust and when to strike, each according to need and fashion.” – Paracelsus

The result was that particular fusion of Okinawan culture with the martial traditions and ways of its neighbor, China. One of the products of this fusion was the art known today as karate. Deprived of natural protection in the form of weapons, the Okinawans forged their hands and feet into weapons of devastating power.

But beyond the emergence of an empty-hand system of self-defense, the Okinawans applied their particular genius to the commonplace items they daily toiled in labor with. A unique weapons system based on agrarian farm implements was developed – the kobudo of Okinawa. Kobudo is more commonly known by its individual weapons: the nunchaku, the sai, the tonfa and their lesser known counterparts such as abumi and techo and manji sai. The list can be added to; suffice it to say that anything that could be used as a weapon was – and the knowledge reaped from fighting empty-handed against a well-armed adversary was extended and applied to weapons use.

While the transformation of karate from an Okinawan art to one with Japanese facets took place in the first half of the 20th century under the guidance of masters such as Gichin Funakoshi, weapons training lagged far behind in Japan. Perhaps, as Hirokazu Kanazawa has suggested in the forward to his recent book, Nunchaku: Dynamic Training, the reason was that the Japanese felt that a martial art form based on weapons other than the traditional Japanese weaponry dating to the feudal era was beneath their consideration. Whatever the ultimate reason may be for why Okinawan weapons failed to gain a wide popularity – at first in Japan – such has not been the case in America.

Indeed, partly spurred by martial art films featuring dynamic use of the nunchaku, weapons training has been highly popular in America – a trend which shows no sign of abating. Weapons forms are an integral part of the American tournament scene. And it is not uncommon to find martial artists from many different styles and traditions undertaking the study of weaponry. Not only are Okinawan weapons here to stay, they are a part of the enduring landscape of American martial art.

Just what is the attraction of a system of weapons fighting over two centuries old? As Sho Kosugi, the noted Los Angeles martial artist, weapons practitioner and instructor – and film star (Enter the Ninja) – points out, weapons training calls for greater total coordination, while enhancing focus. And “with the short range weapons such as tonfa and sai, they provide good exercise by strengthening the wrist joint while increasing its flexibility.”

As Kosugi, who maintained a dojo in San Gabriel, California, (and whose own tutelage in kobudo was conducted by Fumio Demura) adds, “The weapon is really an extension of the body. The striking points are the same as in karate. Many techniques are extensions of karate movement. Many of the strikes and blocks, as well as the actual techniques of using the weapons – using the sai along the forearm in a block – are karate movements.”

But how does weapon training enhance coordination? The answer, according to Kosugi, lies in the process of training itself.

“We say the weapon is an extension of the body. At first, when you start training, you are concerned with how the weapon works – how you grip it and use it. You are always aware of the weapon. When you are studying forms, you have reached the point where the weapon becomes part of body movement. You are still aware of the weapon, but you’re trying to be natural with it. The last level comes when the weapon doesn’t exist. It is not an extension of the body, it is part of the body. I do not strike with a sai; I do not block with a tonfa; I do not attack the stance of an opponent with a bo by attacking the knees. No, I strike with my hand; with my body. The weapon as weapon does not exist in my mind.”

A Training Program

“Our swords shall play the orators for us.” – Christopher Marlowe

Traditionally, training in kobudo weaponry was undertaken only after the student had reached a level of mastery of empty-hand technique. Partly this applied to the concept that training with weapons required greater coordination, and that a basic understanding of karate movement must exist before the refinements of weapons training. There is another reason for introducing weapons after a basic study of karate. (The level of ability a student must attain in empty-hand arts before kobudo training can commence varies not only from country to country, but from instructor to instructor.)

“Serious training,” Kosugi points out. “Training must always be serious. There must be the total concentration and commitment. This is not fun or a game. Every instructor may teach the same weapons in a different way,” Kosugi adds. “What weapons are introduced when is the instructor’s choice. They may teach this weapon or that weapon, because that was the way they were taught, or because of their style, or their own knowledge and beliefs.”

Kosugi has a standard training procedure. Students are instructed in basic techniques, followed by practice forms. After the weapons have been mastered, sparring on the order of karate’s one-step, limited sparring (ippon kumite) is introduced. This is followed by the “two-step” sparring in which the level of the attack is not specified; only the length of the encounter is regulated. Kosugi generally introduces free sparring, rigidly controlled and supervised, as the last step of weapons training. Protective equipment is worn in all sparring, and as Kosugi notes, “Supervision must be constant. Sparring with weapons is very dangerous.”

“What weapons do I teach first?” Kosugi asks. “I teach the nunchaku first. Do you know why? I teach it first because after the kama (the handled, curved scythe of Okinawa) it is the most dangerous weapon. Since weapon training must be serious, I can see just how serious students are about the training.” Kosugi does not allow students the luxury of using padded nunchaku in beginning training. “This is how I know who is serious. It is easy in training to make a mistake – hit yourself. That hurts! You learn very quickly this is not a game and that training must be serious.”

Instruction in the nunchaku begins with basic grips. It is followed by instruction in the weapon in its close range application. Blocks and strikes are the focus here. The strikes emphasized at this base level of training are executed using the sticks themselves to attack specific targets. Only then does Kosugi come to the application of techniques at long range: using the nunchaku as a flail, swinging the sticks at an opponent to either strike, trap or block. “That must come last; it can be the most difficult aspect of nunchaku to learn properly.”

Kosugi introduces a kihon kata (basic training form) for the nunchaku, “It is called ‘wind’ kata (kaze).” This is where the student begins to merge his knowledge of technique into natural movement. The student is completing the circle: the weapon is becoming part of the martial artist’s body.

Following the nunchaku, Kosugi’s students undertake instruction in the use of the sai and the tonfa – the close-range weapons of kobudo. (The nunchaku, as noted in the November 1982 issue of Kick Illustrated, “Nunchaku: Karate’s Hidden Weapon”, is a “hidding” weapon because it can be used in various ways at close, intermediate and long ranges.)

“Close-range weapons are very good for the wrist joints,” Kosugi repeats his earlier point. “Take the sai and tonfa. You have to be able to flip the weapons from one position to another quickly. This strengthens the wrist. (Joints are anatomically weak). Thus it exercises the wrist – but not only does the strength of the wrist increase, but so does the wrist’s flexibility. You get both from the practice. Very good form of exercise, you know!”

Kosugi concentrates, at first on the proper grips of these weapons. What follows is the arduous task of mastering the basic techniques of flipping the weapons from one position to another. As Kosugi points out, the sai, with its many striking surfaces and types of applications, must be quickly snapped from defensive positions to offensive ones – an ability both sides of the body, right and left, must possess equally. In this sense, weapons training leads to a strengthening of basic empty-hand technique.

The sai offers a variety of applications to the martial artist. It can reinforce outside blocks; its tip can be used to thrust; the shaft of the weapon can be used as a slashing surface; the butt can jab; and the two horn-like projections (yoku) can gouge and trap as well as striking pressure points on an opponent’s body. “Very good weapon, very impressive,” Kosugi smiles.

The pattern of mastering basic techniques followed by basic forms continues through the tonfa to the bo. With this transition the student has moved from close-range weapons to a long-range weapon. The bo provides good, overall exercise. Try stepping about the dojo floor in a practice form that combines the many uses of the weapon. It can be used to slash almost like a Japanese sword. It trusts, it sweeps, it may in the course of exercise, attack or block from the high section to the low. “It is very effective to the knees,” Kosugi points out. “You use it against the knees like a sweep to attack the joints and the stance.”

The last major weapon that Kosugi introduces is the kama. Originally used to harvest rice, the kama is a sickle attached to a two to three-foot long handle. “It is the most deadly weapon” in training, Kosugi notes. “With the kama, you use basic empty-hand technique. The blades are extensions of the hands. You block, and the attacking limb is cut by the blades through the motion of the block itself.” Needless to say the weapon is devastating in terms of striking and opponent.

Kosugi sounds a cautious note about sparring. While he feels that sparring is necessary to gain a full understanding of a weapon’s application, sparring “must be controlled. We use kendo equipment as protection.” As mentioned above, Kosugi begins with a form of ippon kumite. “One partner defends, the other attacks. The attack is specified in advance. This allows for safety while allowing the student to come to grips with blocking and countering. After that sparring may consist of two offensive techniques and two defensive techniques – with the level and focus of the attacks not announced in advance to add realism to the sparring session.”

“Free sparring is done in our dojo, but only on occasion. Do you know why?” Kosugi grins. “Too dangerous. Even with protective equipment. You must have very good control and focus. There is no room for error. This is the result of serious training. But no matter how serious the training, it can be done only on occasion and must be carefully supervised.”

In sparring, Kosugi mixes weapons encounters. While one may commonly begin sparring practice by defending against a bo attack, other weapons combinations are soon added. This serves to enhance one’s knowledge. Not only does application deepen, but the advantages and disadvantages of each weapon are seen first hand. This leads to a deeper understanding of tactics when facing a number of weapons ranging from the nunchaku to the bokken, the wooden training sword of kenjutsu.

The end result of weapons training is not only mastery of a beautiful form of martial art, but enhanced coordination, flexibility – and a deepening of mental awareness. But how applicable is that in an America where, outside of tournament competition, the question of martial art as effective self-defense seems always present? What practical advantage, other than improved health and deeper understanding, can arise from the study of archaic weapons in an age of automatic firepower? And what of the legal restrictions – which are legion – concerning even the possession of a kobudo weapon such as the nunchaku? (It is a felony in many states to merely possess the nunchaku outside of a dojo or dojang.)

It is a question Kosugi is familiar with. “Of course people will point out that these weapons are illegal. Why should one want to train with a weapon that is old, and also cannot be used for self-defense on the street?” It is a pointless question to Kosugi – and probably to most dedicated martial artists. One studies kobudo for the beauty of it, as well as for its physical benefits.

Kosugi, however, makes one other point in response to the question of viable self-defense. After all, he points out, the weapons of kobudo were not originally designed as weapons. They were common, everyday tools adapted for self-defense. “Just because you do not have a nunchaku does not mean training is meaningless. Use the principle. You have a rope? You have a belt? Is there a stick or something similar nearby? Objects around you can be used in self-defense by following the principles of your training. Different weapon perhaps; same principle and technique. And besides,” Kosugi wonders, “even if these weapons were legal, are you going to walk around the street with nunchaku? Are you going to be always carrying a bo staff – or a sword?” Kosugi shakes his head, smiling, as he poses these questions.

Weapons training – it enhances coordination, flexibility and strength in the wrist joints – and deepens awareness. In the course of a photo session, Kosugi demonstrates his point about the circular nature of training, how one reaches the point where a weapon is not a weapon but a part of the body. He sidesteps a thrust from a bo staff, parrying the thrust with his kama. Kosugi does not counterattack with the dark, oiled blades with their sinister curved smile. He slams a side kick to the sternum, a kick which, if real, would send an opponent flying. “You see,” he smiles, “the weapon is part of my body. It is not a weapon. I strike with my hands or my feet – regardless if I hold a weapon or not.”