Tonfa - Self-Defense Kobudo Weapon
Similar to some other kobudo weapons, tonfa (also tunfa) has an enigmatic history. Even so, this weapon is an important part of Shorin-Ryu Karate & Kobudo.
Weapons similar to tonfa are found in other Asian countries including China, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Some suggest the tonfa was developed in Southeast Asia and later introduced to Okinawa. Others argue the weapon is indigenous to Okinawa.
A similar weapon was created in Thailand known as Mae Sun Sawk. The Thai weapon includes a rope at the elbow end of the weapon that wraps around the arm. A Chinese version of tonfa, known as guai, roughly translates as crutch (or walking stick). Guai is thought to have originated in China prior to 700 BC. A variation of guai is made from iron and called ma guai (horse crutch). Having such a close martial arts kinship, any connection between China and Okinawa must be considered.
Also referred to as tong fa or tuifa, feudal Okinawans made tonfa from a native tree species similar to white oak. On Okinawa, farmers often had two tonfa used in vertical and horizontal millstones with projecting knobs that inserted into sockets on either side of the stone. The millstone was driven along a trough to grind grain into flour. In its original form, the handles of tonfa most likely were not rounded and many looked like wooden hammers. As they evolved, tonfa were modified for combat.
In combat, a tonfa is gripped by the short perpendicular handle (nigiri) or by the longer main shaft (monouchi) away from the handle. When the handle is grasped, the shaft protects the forearm & hand during blocking, while the knob (tsukagashira) & (tsuka) protects the thumb. If the end of the shaft is held, the shaft can be used to ward off blows & handle used to hook an opponent's weapon, arm, leg or neck. Tonfa are traditionally used in pairs & large amounts of energy can be imparted to the shaft by swinging the tonfa by the handle. The tonfa can also be held by the shaft to strike with the knob similar to a hammer. In some instances, handle knobs were made with points to impart greater damage. One can also thrust either end of the shaft (ushiro atama or zen atama) for striking.
Some suggest that the tonfa shaft should extend about one inch beyond the elbow for combat; however, the weapon need only extend to the tip of the elbow (or slightly less). The shaft is typically 20 to 24 inches in length. The weapon should not be so light that one loses power & focus when striking, & should not be so heavy that it cannot be maneuvered. Three traditional grips of tonfa include: (1) natural (honte mochi), (2) reverse (gyakute mochi), and (3) special grip (tokushu mochi). In combat, a tonfa with rounded handles could be maneuvered easily. Some tonfa also had rounded shafts while others had flat shafts.
The tonfa is just one of many weapons in the arsenal of Okinawan kobudo (古武道). Okinawan kobudo is also referred to as Ryukyu kobujutsu (see koryu). Weapons of kobudo are thought to have connections with farmers & fishermen of Okinawa. Other weapons included nunchuku, sai, kama, hanbo, nitanbo, kuai, bo, kubotan, eku, ra-ke, kuwa, manrikigusari, tanto, hari, nireki, surichin, tetsubo, tekko, tinbe, yawara, suruji, tinbe-rochin, etc.
It is common belief that many tools evolved into self-defense weapons used by peasants because of restrictions ordered by King Sho Shin and later by the Satsuma Samurai. However, modern martial arts scholars have been unable to verify this & some now suggest karate & kobudo were restricted to the Pechin (samurai) caste, rather than the Heimin (commoner). But it is likely there was influence by both groups. The genius of Okinawan kobudo was the addition of kata which became an extension of karate & the same strikes & blocks used in kobudo were used in karate with minor modifications.
After evolving on Okinawa, the tonfa was later introduced to the world & became popular with law enforcement agencies throughout the world until replaced by expandable baton. However, few law enforcement agencies (other than in Japan) trained more than a few hours with tonfa. As a result, such law-enforcement weapons become awkward & under-used. See our Tonfa blogspot for more information.