Kobujutsu: Myth and Fact

By: Sensei Tran

Kobujutsu, or its modern appellation, Kobudo, is used by most martial artists as a synonym for "weapons art". Literally, it means "ancient martial art". Both weaponry and karate qualify as kobujutsu. What do not qualify are modern martial sports. The greatest myth perpetrated on the Western public is the notion that Okinawan weaponry originated with farmers and that the weapons used are farm tools. Somebody went to an Okinawan village at some point in time and saw villagers perform bo katas at a festival and a myth was born. Enough people picked up this myth second-hand, third-hand, and when it was published often enough in books and magazines, it became accepted fact.

The dancing bo form done at a village festival is called bo odori and it originates, accurately enough, with the villagers and farmers who learned it from their fathers and their fathers' fathers. But where did their fathers' fathers learn it from?

In Southeast Asia, farmers didn't own the land they tilled; they leased it. If they owed money to the land owner due to a bad crop, for instance, they would go work (or sent their children to work) for the owner as house servants until the debt was repaid.

The land owner was a member of the gentry or aristocracy, the equivalent of the Japanese samurai class. These were the martial artists who studied and practiced the weapons arts. Sometimes they would show techniques or a kata (albeit incomplete) to their servant/farmer and the latter would take his knowledge home to use for the defense of his village. The incomplete kata would next be modified into a dance routine to be performed at festivals.

Why did the martial artists of Okinawa use the bo, a wooden staff, as a weapon? Because hard wood was an abundant resource on the islands whereas steel was more difficult to manufacture. A versatile weapon, the bo can duplicate techniques of the sword, the spear, and the halberd.

The ancient tradition called Yamanni-Chinen-ryu probably originated with the legendary "Todi" Sakugawa and passed on to three generations of the Chinen family. It was codified by Masami Chinen and named after his grand-father, Sanda "Yamanni" Chinen. Many famous people studied with the Chinen masters, but only one student of Masami Chinen's received the tradition in its entirety and comprehended its principles of dynamic bodywork: Chogi Kishaba.

The style did not die out, as believed by some. Kishaba sensei has two brilliant disciples whom he sent to, and authorized to teach in, the USA. One is Shihan Toshihiro Oshiro, 7th dan, headquartered in Redwood City, CA, and the other is Shihan Kiyoshi Nishime, also 7th dan, headquartered in Cincinnati, OH.

The organization founded by master Kishaba is called the Ryukyu Bujutsu Kenkyu Doyukai (RBKD) and its aim is to disseminate the authentic traditions of Okinawan martial arts, especially Yamanni-ryu. The Asian Arts Center is an accredited member dojo of the RBKD and sensei Dong Tran is a student of Oshiro shihan; his rank is Nidan in Yamanni-ryu.