The Multi-Weaponed Art of Matayoshi Kobudo
by John Porta and Jack McCabe
Pictures by John Porta
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, warfaring 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.
Matayoshi Kobudo consists of a wide variety of traditional Okinawan weapons, all of which were originally tools or everyday items carried by Okinawa peasants. While these weapons have been modified from the original implements, the purpose and use of each has been forgotten.
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 selfdefense includes the kama, which has a curved blade, and the naginata, a curved blade, sicklelike 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.
This article originally appeared in Karate Profiles (Vol. 6, I. 1, 1996).
The Sai: Matayoshi Style
by Jack McCabe, featuring John Porta
Pictures by John Porta and Richard Strait
One of the most popular weapons that make up the art of kobudo (the ancient martial way) is a three-pronged, metal truncheon that can be a very effective means of self-defense. Known as the sai (pronounced "sigh"), the implement's heritage reflects a period of time on Okinawa when war faring weapons such as spears and swords were forbidden to the general populace. The peasants had to devise methods for defending themselves, their property, or their families from marauding bandits and pirates. In this way, everyday items and tools were used for self-protection, and Kata were eventually developed to define the use of each "weapon." Multi-purpose instruments like the sai became especially useful, since an opponent's weapon could be blocked and/or trapped with one sai with the other could be used to deliver a thrust to a vulnerable area of the body.
Customarily fifteen to twenty-one-and-a-half inches in length, the modern sai consists of an octagonal or round rod leading to a pointed end that is flanked on either side by two shorter tines or forks. The shaft (monouchi) of the sai leads to a pointed tip (saki) at the top and a rounded bottom (tsukagushira) at the handle end. The outer curved prongs (yoku) project from the hilt of the weapon, with the tips (tsume) ending approximately one-quarter of the way up the shaft. While little is known about the exact origin of the sai, one belief exists that traces the weapon back to ancient China and a tool that resembled a common pitchfork, along with an instrument that was used to make furrows in the ground for planting seed. An early version of the sai had only one prong, and consisted of a flat metal handle with a bamboo hilt held together with cord.
The purpose of the sai is to ensnare an opponent's spear, sword, or bo (long staff); disarming the attacker with the option of delivering a thrust with the pointed tip of the main shaft, which is used to puncture a target. Designed to work in pairs, an additional 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. As the weapon evolved into the form that is used today, it became a symbol of authority that was carried by Okinawan police, representing the office of law enforcement much as police in the United States wear a badge and carry a nightstick.
The sai is a major part of Matayoshi Kobudo, which is one of the leading systems on Okinawa that is known world-wide for teaching a great variety of weapons. The founder of this system, Shinko Matayoshi (1888-1947), became famous as one of the world's greatest masters of kobudo. Coming from a family where every member was involved to some extent in the Martial Arts, Matayoshi traveled extensively to learn the weaponry systems of various cultures. He used the knowledge thus gained to incorporate the movements into his style, which he called Ryukyuan Kobudo. Matayoshi spent more than thirteen years studying in China, which accounts for the strong Chinese influence that is so representative of today's Matayoshi Kobudo system. Rather than using short, choppy movements within the numerous Kata, Matayoshi Kobudo relies on a relaxed, flowing style designed for quick, light movements which explode at the point of contact, resulting in powerful techniques and the conservation of energy, which can prove to be of vital importance in a self-defense situation. The Chinese influence also becomes evident in the Kata, where circular blocking techniques are combined with both circular and linear strikes. Specific movements that are contained within all Matayoshi Kobudo sai Kata center around trapping, catching, and hooking techniques, which are a trademark of the weapon.
The teachings of Shinko Matayoshi are carried on today by his son, Shinpo Matayoshi, who like his famous father is known on a world-wide basis as one of the greatest kobudo instructors. Born in 1923, Shinpo Matayoshi began his Martial Arts training at the age of four, and eventually founded the Ryukyu Kobudo Renmei in 1970, which was reorganized into the Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei (All Okinawan Kobudo Federation) in 1972. This organization now has branches in Japan, France, Germany, Spain, Mexico, and in the United States, where Porta's Karate-Do & Kobudo Academy is the American headquarters for Matayoshi Kobudo. John Porta, has been teaching authentic Okinawan karate and kobudo since 1966. He also serves as the International Representative for the prestigious Okinawa Goju-Ryu Shobukan Organization.
Many years ago, the sai was made according to a practitioner's personal standards, and different shapes and styles were produced. One 'offshoot' of the conventional sai is the nunti, which has one of the outer prongs pointing in the opposite direction, toward the handle, and is often attached to the end of a bo. Today's student of kobudo has a wide variety of weapons to choose from, but should be extremely careful when selecting the correct sai. It should be chosen according to arm length. To test the sai, a practitioner assumes a reverse grip (gyaku-mochi) on the weapon and measures the length of extension. A sai is of the proper length for the student if it extends approximately one inch past the elbow. Balance is also an important consideration in choosing or purchasing a weapon, which can be tested by placing the forefinger under the shaft where the two prongs meet. If the sai is properly balanced, the weapon should remain in place and not tilt to either side. The quality of the metal can be discovered by taking a sai in each hand with a natural grip (honte-mochi) and tapping them together. A ringing resonance should be heard, rather than a dull sound.
Chrome plating or raw metal is another consideration when selecting a modern sai, which is blunted at the end to be used in demonstrations and kumite drills. Chrome plating looks impressive in demonstrations with its bright shine, but could prove ineffective in actual use, as the finish may allow a trapped weapon to slip out of the hold. Raw metal is the best choice, as it will not chip or dent, and plant oil can be applied to all parts (except the handle) to prevent rusting. Chrome sai should be rubbed down with a cloth after each training session.
Though the modern sai is blunt rather than pointed at the ends, great care must be taken when training with the instrument. Safety should always be of the utmost importance. Another important aspect concerns the student carefully choosing an instructor who is qualified to teach. One must keep in mind that this system is very popular on Okinawa, there may be those who falsely claim to have studied under Shinpo Matayoshi, but in reality have never been authorized to teach by this master. This is an unfortunate fact with many of the styles in existence. Students who do have the opportunity to train in the authentic, traditional manner will realize the benefits of increased self-development and self-discipline, which are the goals of a system where the head instructor views kobudo as a means of achieving inner peace.
This article originally appeared in Karate International (Vol. 6, No. 9, 1996).