Okinawan kobudo (also known as Ryukyu Kobujutsu, Koryu, or just as Kobudo) is a Japanese term that can be translated as “old martial way of Okinawa”. It generally refers to the classical weapon traditions of Okinawan martial arts, most notably the rokushakubo (six-foot staff, known as the “bo”), sai (short unsharpened dagger), tonfa (handled club), kama (sickle), and nunchaku (nunchucks), but also the tekko (knuckledusters), tinbe-rochin (shield and spear), and surujin (weighted chain). Less common Okinawan weapons include the tambo (short staff) and the eku (boat oar of traditional Okinawan design).
Kobudo traditions were shaped by indigenous Okinawan techniques that arose within the Aji, or noble class, and by imported methods from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the other countries that traded with the Ryukyus. Much of modern kobudo traditions that survived the difficult times during and following World War II were preserved and handed down by Taira Shinken and Kenwa Mabuni, and developed into a practical system by Motokatsu Inoue in conjunction with Taira Shinken. Other noted masters who have kobudo kata named after them include Chotoku Kyan, Shigeru Nakamura, and Shinko Matayoshi.
Budo is the term used in Japan to refer to martial arts. Bujutsu means to emphasize a combative technique. And Kobudo term, simple: ancient or old martial way. This term appears more often in the West associated with Okinawa weapons systems. However, in Japan it is equally likely to refer to the classical warrior traditions and they are many. Kobudo, Kobujutsu, Koryu Bujutsu and Koryu Budo, all they are linked together. Koryu refers to classical or traditional school. It used to distinguish modern Gendai system from classical, as Jutsu (how to apply) from Do (way to apply).
Kobudo arts are thought by some to be the forerunner of karate, and several styles of that art include some degree of kobudo training as part of their curriculum. Similarly, it is not uncommon to see an occasional kick or other empty-hand technique in a kobudo kata. The techniques of the two arts are closely related in some styles, evidenced by the empty-hand and weapon variants of certain kata: for example, Kanku-dai and Kanku-sai, and Gojushiho and Gojushiho-no-sai, although these are examples of Kobudo Kata which have been developed from Karate Kata and are not traditional Kobudo forms.
Other more authentic kobudo kata demonstrate elements of empty hand techniques as is shown in older forms such as Soeishi No Dai, a Bo form which is one of the few authentic Kobudo kata to make use of a kick as the penultimate technique. Kobudo and Kobujutsu are older and have undergone less “modern development” than Karate and still retain much more of the original elements, reflections of which can be seen in more modern karate kata.
The connection between empty hand and weapon methods can be directly related in systems such as that formulated to preserve both arts such as Inoue/Kobujutsu Hozon Shinko Kai and Motokatsu Inoue’s Yuishinkai Karate Jutsu. M.Inoue draws direct comparisons between the use of certain weapons and various elements of empty hand technique such as sai mirroring haito/shuto waza, tonfa reflecting that of urkaken and hijiate, and kama of kurite and kakete, as examples. The footwork in both methods is interchangeable.
Strictly translated, the Japanese word kobudo covers all ancient martial traditions, armed or unarmed, of Okinawa or Japan. Today, when specifically referring to Okinawan traditions, the term kobudo is most often used to describe the weapons and traditions of the Ryukyu Islands.
These weapons include:
Okinawan kobudo was at its zenith some 200-400 years ago, and of all the authentic kobudo kata practiced at this time, only relatively few by comparison remain extant. Between the 1700s – early 1900s a decline in the study of Kobujutsu (as it was known then) meant that the future of this martial tradition was in danger. During the Taisho period, some martial arts exponents such as Yabiku Moden made great inroads in securing the future of Kobujutsu.
A large amount of those forms which are still known are due to the efforts of Taira Shinken who travelled around the Ryukyu Islands in the early part of the 20th century and compiled 42 existing kata, covering 8 types of Okinawan weapon. Whilst Taira Shinken may not have been able to collect all extant kobudo kata, those he did manage to preserve are listed here. They do not include all those from the Matayoshi, Uhuchiku and Yamanni streams however.