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Arizona Hombu Karate & Kobudo Dojo

School of Traditional Martial 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 truncheon 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 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, or more likely a tuncheon imported from China. In recent years, the sai has been portrayed as a weapon of ninja, but being of Okinawan origin, it is unlikely it was used by ninja except in the movies.

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. It is unknown how likely this is since metals used to produce steel were rare in Okinawa. Few iron deposits were mined on Okinawa, and those on mainland Japan are primarily low-grade spectite (iron-clays) and uncommon high-grade massive sulfides (iron-sulfide or pyrite). Other metals used in steel toughening such as titanium and tungsten were rare on Okinawa. Thus metals were mostly imported and the majority of weapons on Okinawa would have been made from sticks and stones. So it is likely the sai was introduced from China or India. Some Chinese, Indian and Indonesian weapons have similar appearance to sai. The Chinese Tiger’s Fork used by many 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 is the tsukagushira. The handle is the tsuka. Three-quarters of the way up the shaft are two curved prongs known as the yoku and the tip of these prongs 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 the weapon would have been uncommon. 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. Because of grappling and catching potential of sai the distances between the monouchi and yoku need to be narrow. But more important is balance of the weapon – it needs to be well-balanced 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 all weapons of Okinawa Kobudo. Read more about sai at our blogspot or visit our page about Tonfa.