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Arizona Hombu Dojo

School of Traditional Okinawan Karate, Kobudo, Self-Defense & Samurai Arts

Nunchaku & Sansetsukon

Nunchaku. Nunchaku, a farmer's tool converted to a self-defense weapon. In the hands of an expert it could be a formable weapon, but in the hands of an amateur, it could provide considerable entertainment.  Nunchaku (also spelled nanchaku or nunchuku) is known to many Westerners as nunchuks or numb-chuks. Did it originate in China (or some other southeast Asian country) and later introduced to Okinawa: or was the weapon indigenous to Okinawa?  Possibilities include: (1) Chinese weapon, (2) Okinawa threshing flail, (3) cart rail, or (4) horse bridle.

Even the word nunchaku rings with controversy. The word may be from the Japanese pronunciation of a two sectional staff, or it may be from the word used for horse bit or bridle. By combining two Japanese words: 'nun' meaning ‘twin’ and 'shaku' the approximate ‘length of bamboo between two nodes’ (about one foot), one ends up with the word 'nunshaku. The word for Okinawan horse bit or bridle is nunchiyaku, also similar to nunchaku. The parts of old nunchaku consist of two short staffs attached by horse hair.

Some suggest the nunchaku was modified from a farmer’s threshing tool. The threshing flail consisted of a long stick attached to a smaller stick by horse hair. Threshing tools were once common agricultural tools in farming communities around the world including Okinawa where it was used to separate grain from husks, or rice from stems. One threshing tool once used in the past, had a 5-foot long handle with a 3 foot striking stick. Although there are only rare references to using a threshing flail as a kobudo weapon, it is not hard to imagine farmers, who used this tool 10 to 12 hours a day during harvest, became adept in using the tool as a weapon. Even so, a flail could not have been used as nunchuku without modification. Imagine the difficulty swinging a flail around like a nunchaku. Thus, if the flail was the origin of nunchaku, it would have to have been modified by cutting one or both sticks to equal length.

A similar tool to nunchaku is a three-sectional staff known as a sansetsukon (or sanchuk). The sanchuk was likely of Chinese origin and introduced to Okinawa. By breaking a link of the sanchuk, one ends up with nunchaku. One tool found on Okinawa that looks like a sanchuk, is a cart rail. This was a removable rail which prevented large stacks of cane from slipping off of a flat-bed hand cart.

Another interesting feature of nunchaku is that this martial arts weapon has no traditional kata like many traditional kobudo kata. The bo has more than a dozen traditional kata named after authors or geographical locations. It is considered that this was due to the lack of popularity of nunchaku in Asian history and seldom used in combat. The weapon became popularized by Bruce Lee and Tadashi Yamashita.

Most techniques for nunchaku include blocks and strikes similar to karate with few release strikes. However, striking an object with nunchaku can be a problem, as the tool rebounds making it difficult to control. Another problem with nunchaku is distance. A samurai sword (katana), halberd (naginata) or spear (yari) easily out-reach nunchaku. On the other hand, a martial artist who was skilled in nunchaku had the edge on multiple unarmed opponents or an opponent armed with knife (tanto).

Sansetsukon. A sansetsukon is a Chinese martial arts weapon adapted on Okinawa for self-defense. In Chinese, sansetsukon is known as sanjiegum (三節棍) and refers to a coiling dragon, probably because it gives the impression of a coiled dragon, and because it bites its user like a coiled dragon until they tame this beast with considerable training. The weapon consists of three sectional staves with a combined length typical for bo. These are attached by rope, chain, horsehair or rings and originally used as a flail by Chinese farmers. In martial arts it is used similar to surujinbo and nunchaku combined. And like the surujin, it causes problems even for the most adept kobudo practitioners. 

In the past, staves were manufactured from bamboo, white oak, wax wood, red maple or metal. Today, most are made of aluminum, bamboo, rattan, foam rubber or a variety of hardwood. It is a brutal weapon particularly to those new to its use, whether you are on the receiving or attacking end. Even so, you will find it is an effective weapon. And just like the nunchaku, it is recommended to learn using foam padded sansetsukon

Some suggest that the sansetsukon was introduced to Okinawa from the Chinese Fuijian province by Soke Shinko Matayoshi (1888-1947) who created two kata for the Matayoshi Shorin-Ryu Kobudo system. The two kata were referred to as sansetsukon dai ichi and sansetsukon dai ni

Soke Shinko was succeeded by his son Shimpo Matayoshi (1921-1997). Following the death of ShimpoMatayoshi Kobudo fragmented into different groups with one headed by Yasushi Matayoshi who operates the Matayoshi hombu dojo in Okinawa known as the KodokanKodokan refers to a place where one can receive “Instruction in the Way”. The best known kodokan is likely the Judo Kodokan (35o42’28”N; 139o45’13”E) founded by Jigiro Kano in Tokyo - an incredible, 8-story dojo. If you use the above coordinates on Google Earth, you can visit the Judo Kodokan on aerial photography.

Tadashi Yamashita is one of the more famous students ofShimpo Matayoshi. If you are into martial arts movies, this weapon was used by Jackie Chan in the 2000 movie Shanghai Noon. It was also seen in the 1980 movie The Victim and the 2006 movie Fearless. More information is available at Arizona Kobudo. Please visit our next page about Sai - no not Uncle Si, but the Okinawan weapon.