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Arizona Hombu Dojo

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

Sai - A Traditional Okinawa Kobudo Weapon

It is tradition that students of Shorin-Ryu Karate and Isshin-Ryu Karate learn kobudo while learning karateIn recent years, some Asian and American hybrid systems elected to remove kobudo from their curriculum, even though original forms of karate included kobudo. Many Japanese karate styles eliminated kobudo after karate was introduced to Japan in the 20th century, likely because kobudo was seen as a peasant art to the Japanese; whereas karate was both a peasant art as well as taught to Okinawan samurai class.

The sai is just one of many kobudo weapons taught at the Arizona Hombu dojo. These are three-pronged tridents with a pointed shaft surrounded by two curved prongs known as yoku that project from the handle. Most sai have parallel yoku, although others exhibit opposing, or just one yoku. Typically two zai (plural for sai) are used, but three are also employed with two held in hand and a third in the obi (belt) typically used for throwing. The weapon is thought to have been a farming implement,  a trident imported from China, or imported as is from other southeast Asian countries. 

As a farming implement, a sai mounted on a stick could have been used to produce a central deep furrow (seed trench) with two parallel shallow guide furrows used to line up the next seed trench. Or it could have been used similar to a pitchfork. Metals used to produce steel were rare in Okinawa, but iron deposits were found on mainland Japan [primarily low-grade spectite (iron-clays) and high-grade massive sulfides (iron-sulfide or pyrite)]. Other metals used in steel toughening such as titanium and tungsten were also uncommon on Okinawa. Thus most metallic weapons were imported to Okinawa. So the weapon was likely introduced from China, India, or some other southeast Asian country, or from several of these sources

Some Chinese, Indian and Indonesian weapons have similar appearance to sai. The Chinese Tiger’s Fork used by Southern Chinese Kung Fu arts such as Hung Gar is similar to a Hindu weapon known as the Trishula and the southeastern Asian weapon known as the tjabang. Certain varieties of these have truncheon-like sai mounted on wood staffs. Possibly, Okinawan peasants removed the truncheon from these staffs to produce a weapon of greater mobility.

The shaft of sai is referred to as the monouchi, the pointed tip is the saki, and the bottom rounded knuckle at the opposite end on the handle (pommel) is the tsukagushira. The handle is known as tsuka. Three-quarters of the way up the shaft are two curved prongs known as the yoku and the pointed tip of these are tsume. The yoku are considered wings that extend from the shaft from the moto (base of the wings) perpendicular to the shaft.

In the past, Okinawans didn’t care about the length of sai, as their was a poor selection of the weapon. Today, when held in a gyaku-mochi (reverse) grip, the monouchi of the sai is often selected to cover the forearm of the individual with the saki extending to the elbow; a length of 18 to 23 inches (nearly 2 shaku). This allows one to strike with an outward elbow strike (soto hiji uchi) projecting the saki into an attacker. The pommel is round, square, or multi-angled. It is important to find sai with good balance so that it can easily be rotated from normal to reverse grips.

There are three general types of sai: (1) Tsuujo-sai which is the more traditional sai with parallel yoku that project in the direction of saki; (2) the Manji (nunti)-sai is a three-pronged weapon with one yoku facing in an opposing direction, and the (3) Jutte-sai (aka jitte) which has only one yoku. The jutte became a popular weapon with the Japanese and Okinawan police as it is easily carried on the utility belt and can be used for blocking, striking and activating pressure points.

Sai waza mimic techniques in karate, thus a practitioner can quickly learn this weapon. And just like karate, the sai will be more effective using powerful koshi no chikara (hip power) and suri ashi (sliding movement). At the Seiyo Hombu in Arizona (Arizona School of Traditional Karate), members train with most weapons of Okinawa Kobudo. Read more about sai at our blogspot or visit our page about Tonfa.