Told by Kimo Wall, 7th Dan
Assisted by Michael Clayton, 3rd Dan
Many people believe that the weapons bought directly from the shop are fit to use. However, this is not the case and each weapon must be adjusted for the individual. This article goes some way to explaining how you can do this and also explains some of the backgrounds and origins of the Matayoshi Kobudo weapons as told to me by Master Matayoshi himself.
Master Matayoshi was a fantastic teacher!
This article has been created so that I can tell you many things that Master Matayoshi Shinpo told to me during the four decades that I knew him. I am lucky to have been the first western student of Matayoshi Shinpo and I was eventually presented 7th Dan in Kobudo by him.
I trained with him when he was a relatively young man, and then throughout his life until he was an old man, and I can say that he was a dear friend and the greatest martial arts influence on my life. As a martial artist he was peerless and you could see the difference between the way he performed and everybody else. He was special and his legacy is now increasingly in the hands of those who were unable to meet him.
For this reason, I wanted to write this article so that my experience can be shared and enjoyed by all other Matayoshi Kobudo practitioners who may wish to know exactly what he told me.
It is essential that your weapons are ready to use. This means that most weapons must be adjusted and personalised so that they fit the body shape and size of the user.
I often see videos of people using weapons that are too small for them or too big and this is not correct. Most implements you can buy are well made but it is your job once you have purchased them to get them ready for use. You will need some tools like sand paper, saw, file, plane, vice. drill, oil and wire (I use coat hanger wire).
In the olden days Master Matayoshi would use all kinds of improvised things to shape his weapons. I remember him taking old glass Coke bottles and breaking them into small pieces under a cloth. He would then use the thick bottom of the bottle as a plane. The curved shapes of the bottle perfectly complemented the curves of the weapons. Today in more affluent times it will be easier to buy the tools from a hardware store.
I remember when I got my first Sai, Master took me to a farrier who studied me and made several notes. He took measurements of my height and weight and began making the Sai. When I returned a week later with Master to check them out, the farrier was still working the blade as we arrived and he seemed satisfied with what he had done. Attached to the anvil he had a hilt that he used to measure the design that he said was his ancestor’s Sai and was about 150 years old. The farrier was 82 himself and his son was in his 60s. it was a family business. As he tempered the blade he would place it into a bucket of water to cool. He passed it from hand to hand without wearing gloves. As he finished he threw it to me to “catch” but it was really hot and I dropped it. He had been handling it so easily I thought it would be ok to hold I was a young man and they all had a good laugh. The farrier also made me Nunti and Manji Sai. The blades and hilts were made to my size, exactly my grip width and slightly longer than my arm with the points projecting beyond the elbow. I used them for years and then recently a student and good friend got them gold plated for me (see above). Someday they will go to my master’s home dojo.
The Sai have their origin as a police weapon and are one of the most famous weapons in all of Okinawa. To care for the Sai, you must keep them lightly oiled and the handles tightly wrapped. Some people sharpen the Sai but this is incorrect. As police weapons they were not designed to kill and brutalise but instead to manage criminals and were used to push and pull people around. There are like a truncheon with hooks. The Yoko can be used as handcuffs or to catch hold of arms or the neck of someone misbehaving. Stabbing is still possible with a high velocity, but they do not need to be sharpened.
Nunchaku comes from the words ‘nun’ and ‘chiyaku’ which refer to horse and bridle. Not many people know that before WW2 and just after there were not many cars on Okinawa but there were many horses, Matayoshi Sensei was a very good horseman and he knew this weapon well. In fact, he would often say that his stances should be like those used on a horse. Low and wide but with lots of capacity to be manouverable in attack and defence.
The actual horse bridle used on Okinawa that is similar to the weapon is called a Muge. Nunchaku should be just shorter than the length of the forearm and the himo should be the width of your palm. Any wider and you will find it difficult to control.
The weapon should be shaped to have 6 or 8 sides which makes the strikes more powerful and it should be tapered in towards the himo end. Round-handled nunchaku or chain fastened nunchaku are ok for variety, but are less traditional.
Nunti are a combination of weapons comprising the two short metal weapons and the long staff weapon. These are the traditional weapons of the Okinawa mounted police and they are used for both throwing and grabbing hold of troublemakers. The ‘nun’ once again refers to horse whilst the ‘ti’ refers to fighting methods.
The length of the Nunti-Bo should be approximately 1 shaku above your head and this gives you the extra reach whilst on horseback. The end is not sharpened since the application of this weapon is to move people around, however stabbing as with the Sai is possible. The Nunti-Sai are also not sharpened and are intended to be thrown. The length of these weapons should be equal to the length of the forearm.
The Tonfa should be broken down to make them fit correctly. The handle must be the width of the fist and no more, then length of the Tonfa should be beyond the length of your extended fingers towards the front and up to the tip of your elbow at the back.
When I buy Shureido’s Tonfa I find that the adult ladies size is perfect for me without needing any adjustments, however some shaping may be required for others. The handles should be smooth and shaped or straight, it doesn’t matter.
Master designed the weapons for Shureido and he gave Mr. Nakasone (Shureido owner) exact measurements and instructions of how Kobudo weapons should be produced.
Mr. Nakasone of Shureido visiting Master at his dojo
Kama are best bought from a hardware store and sickles are a common tool in Okinawa.
There is a wide selection and you can choose the one that best suits you. The length of the haft should be around that of your forearm for best defence but this is then described as a long handled Kama. Shorter Kama are also ok and are easier to wield, but less effective for defence.
The fastening of a rope to the handle changes the weapon into a Himokama. Unlike the better known Kusarigama of Japan which fastens a chain to the top of the Kama, in Okinawa a rope is fastened to the base of the weapon.
For dojo practice, only wooden Kama should be used because the risks of the blade are too great. Outside, in the fields with Matayoshi Sensei, we would train cutting sugar cane with the Kama and would always carry two, in case one lost its sharpness. A very long handled Kama that is the height of the user is referred to as the ‘papaya kama’ and is used for harvesting fruit, particularly papaya from the tall trees.
The Kuwa was used primarily for digging sweet potatoes and other general domestic duties. It is a very common gardening and farm tool and also makes a very effective weapon.
Master was taught his kuwa techniques by his father whilst they worked on their land before the war. After the war, Master showed me the techniques whilst we worked the ground at his step-fathers farm.
The size of the blade is dependent on what digging you want to do with it. The length of the haft is more important for Kobudo practice and should measure to your hip bone.
The Eku (right) should be almost the same length as a Bo and measures one hand width taller than the height of the person.
The paddle section should comprise approximately 4/10ths of the weapon and should be sharpened a little on the sides. The staff section should be slightly wider at the junction with the paddle to provide balance. Like any paddle one side should be curved and the other side angled for rowing purposes, a point at the end of the eku is good.
The eku should be made from one piece of wood and maintained the same as a bo. The eku is a simple rowing oar and can still be seen used by people today as they race across the harbour in longboats.
Suruchin (not pictured) are also connected with the sea and are used on boats and provide several functions. One is to tie up fishing lines or to assist in casting. Another use is to throw to other boats whilst out at sea, or to throw towards the pier to assist docking.
The suruchin are also used to tie the boat to the harbour in the absence of an anchor. It is not important if the stones are of equal size or measurements, similarly the length of the cord is variable. The throwing cord was traditionally made from animal gut.
Matayoshi Shinpo with an Eku,
a traitional oar used by fisherman
The Sansetsukon has its origins as a rail for a cart. In olden times sugarcane of all different sizes was collected and then transported via cart. Sometimes pineapples too. The Sansetsukon sits around the edge of the cart to prevent the goods falling off.
There is no specific size for a Sansetsukon since they all came from different sizes of carts. As such you should find a size that suits you and you enjoy using. The techniques master taught me originally with the Sansetsukon did not involve much twirling or spinning around. These ‘helicopter’ techniques seemed to arrive later and are part of what master described as ‘Hollywood’ techniques.
The Chisai-Sansetsukon is a small handled weapon that looks to be somewhere between a sansetsukon and nunchaku.
This weapon had its original function used as a brake to be wrapped around the cart wheels. It can be wielded in the same manner as both sansetsukon and nunchaku and is a very versatile weapon. One of the lesser known weapons that master taught.
There are two shapes of Timbe, the round circular form and the turtle shell form. In the Matayoshi style we use circular form. Our techniques are different to those of the fishermen who used the turtle shell, we use the machete in cutting and thrusting actions like a sword. There are lots of hiding techniques behind the shield. The shield itself is the same rattan shield that is used by the historical Chinese army.
Many people are confused by this and think that the steel shield they see in Master’s old dojo is the correct one. Master Matayoshi had these shields made for bunkai practice but there is not a historical precedent for them.
The hats used by farmers to protect their heads from the sun and rain are made of rattan and are remarkably strong, these can easily be transformed into shields in a historical context. Maintenance of these shields is simply a matter of keeping them dry and clean.
Chisai-Sansetsukon with Timbe in the background
The Tekko (not pictured) is a strong metal weapon that resembles a knuckle duster and was used in the butcher’s shops in Okinawa to tenderize the meat and they are remarkably effective at this task.
It is little wonder martial artists saw the possibility of using these tools to tenderize the meat of a villain. The name literally means iron fist and it is a very intimidating yet discreet weapon. Since metal was often scarce, wooden varieties also existed.
Master’s Kingai-Ryu was particularly well suited to using the Tekko due to the angle of the strikes and the positioning of the hands.
The Tekko would be a preferred weapon for fighting against other weapons due to its strong construction, whereas the chizikun-bo is a similar weapon that gives an advantage over an unarmed opponent.
The Chizikun-Bo (pictured above) are held in the palm of the hand. These were used on very long fishing nets and still are to this day. They serve to help manipulate the fishing nets and also fasten them to the sides of boats. They are made of plastic and wood and are sometimes described as Tetchu. Both the Tekko and the Chizikun-Bo do not have their own specific kata, but instead can be used whilst performing kata from different ryu.
In the olden days there were many different makiwara for Kobudo. A car tyre fastened to the floor or suspended by ropes makes an excellent target. This was usually done outside so that you could keep the dojo space for karate. Master was very keen on training outside and we would train amongst the pine trees in northern Okinawa with all weapons. By striking the trees you learned how to move your body, arms and legs. Sometimes the trees would win and I would be covered with bruises. The trees moved when you hit them and master would laugh at me when I made a mistake, he would tell me I looked like him, but when he was a kid.
The very essence of Kobudo is little understood outside of the context of the olden days. Anything that looked like a weapon was frowned upon in days gone by and so Kobudo could only survive by utilising domestic implements. Also farmers had no time to develop or invent weapons.
The art itself is secretive and mysterious and in particular the Kobudo Master Matayoshi taught me is full of secrets. It is only when you know the secrets that you see just how great the art is. I only share these secrets with those I know to be worthy of them. Master told me that it should be this way.
Master trained and taught in diverse ways throughout his lifetime and I saw him do katas differently from one decade to the next. He would also teach techniques differently, sometimes very differently depending on who he was teaching and where he was teaching. He would sometimes teach the correct way, sometimes in the ‘Hollywood’ way and sometimes he would demonstrate kata incorrectly so that no one could learn just by watching him. He particularly disliked video cameras and would rarely show more than just the rudimentary techniques in front of one.
As he got older his methods changed a lot but I would not say too much. He often reminded me that he had always taught me the way his father taught him and I am grateful for that, he would take me into the mountains and the valleys and to his father in law’s farm in Ginoza where we would use all the weapons as tools. This was the best training and there was never a boring moment with Master.
In later years he made the Kobudo he taught more ‘dojo friendly’ and easier to learn without any extreme learning methods such as those we did outside in the mountains, forests and beaches. It became more like a system that
was easy to teach and learn and one which even children and inexperienced martial artists could enjoy, so techniques were simplified. Some people who teach the simplified way as the only way are not doing things quite right. It should be up to everybody to keep learning, always keep your mind, your eyes and your ears open! Gambatte!
With Master at the Butokukai in Kyoto
Editor’s Note: Kimo Wall was the first westerner to train in Kobudo with Matayoshi Shinpo. He first met Master Matayoshi in the famous dojo of Seiko Higa in 1962. In this legendary environment Kimo Wall trained alongside many great masters, but none were more special than Master Shinpo. The two developed a lifelong friendship and Kimo Sensei gained the highest rank of any Westerner (7th Dan) from his Master.
The information above is based upon the three and a half decades they trained together. It is not intended to disregard or contradict what some other students of Matayoshi Shinpo have written about weapons, it is simply an article to share what Kimo Sensei was personally told. It has been my deepest privilege to hear his stories, not all of which could be shared here and this article is only intended as a point of reference, hopefully in the right direction for those with a keen interest. It may be that Kimo Wall was the first ever person to coin the term ‘Matayoshi Kobudo’ as he shared his knowledge with other westerners. In this way and in others, he can be considered the Godfather of us all in the west and certainly the first pioneer of the art that is increasingly becoming known as Matayoshi Kobudo.
All photographs are courtesy of Sensei Kimo Wall’s private collection.
We will start with the Bo (staff) which should measure one fist higher than the length of your body. If you are taller than rokkushaku then you will need to purchase or make a longer weapon. If you are shorter you will need to make your staff shorter and rework the taper. If you are not a good wood worker or iron worker, then you must find a person who is. To maintain the Bo you must sand it and oil it. The best oil comes from your palms during repeated use.