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Arizona Hombu Dojo

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

Tonfa - Self-Defense Kobudo Weapon

Tonfa has an enigmatic history. Weapons (tools) similar to tonfa are found in other Asian countries including China, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines. Some suggest 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 that includes a rope to wrap around the elbow. 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 a close martial arts kinship, any connection between China and Okinawa must be considered.

Also referred to as tunfatong 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 and designed to grind grain into flour. In its original form, the handles of tonfa likely were not rounded and possibly looked like wooden hammers. As they evolved, tonfa were modified for combat. 

In combat, 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, and the handle used to hook an opponent's weapon, arm, leg or neck. Traditionally used in pairs, large amounts of energy can be imparted to the shaft of the tonfa when swinging the tool 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) to strike. 

Some suggest 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 20 to 24 inches in length. Three traditional grips of tonfa include: (1) natural (honte mochi), (2) reverse (gyakute mochi), and (3) special grip (tokushu mochi).  

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, merchants & fishermen of Okinawa. It is a common belief that 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 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 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.
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