Michael O’Connor

7th Dan KUGB Karate / 5th Dan JKA Karate / 1st Dan BJA Judo

There follows my updated version of my 5th Dan thesis which will also help those Reading to “Know where my Karate is coming from”.

It may appear strange for someone who has spent the last 40 years, plus, of his life teaching the art of the empty hand to advocate the filling of that hand with a martial art weapon, but I do.

The more I have learned, especially in the last two decades, the more I truly believe that any student of Karate can gain much understanding of Karate-do through the study of the old Okinawan and Japanese martial arts weapons.

My reasons follow further on. However I think it’s important to say that all Karateka of Black Belt standards should know at least something of these weapons and the part they played in Karate history.

For higher Dan grades it must be surely essential that they have some training in their use. This then would ensure:

  1. The understanding of the distance at which a weapon is effective and consequently the distance at which it is least effective. (Ma-ai)
  2. That the history of the martial arts weapons and how they influenced Karate are understood.
  3. Finally, how even in these modern times we can still take and use those old martial arts weapons as modern training aids, so that their use is not forgotten.

What history: let us go back in time to 1868 to a small town in Okinawa called Shuri. Here the founder of modern day Karate was born – his name Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957). His early childhood was dogged with illness and so in an effort to improve his health his parents encouraged him to commence training in Okinawan Te or Tode – the earliest form of Karate.

By the time he is eleven, he is training with three of the great masters of that time: Yasutsune Azato (1827-1906), Yasutsune “Ankoh” Itosu (1832-1915) and Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1916). (Higaonna was renowned for this study of Chinese weapons).

Okinawa has been subjected to occupation by the armies of both China (1372) and Japan (1609) it was the Satsuma clan of Japan who were given permission to invade Okinawa under the terms of the Tokugawa decree of 1609.

This occupation of the islands gave rise to three very important factors; firstly the restriction of the native Okinawans to carry weapons (The Chinese banned all weapons in 1429), secondly, due to that, the rise in interest in learning Tode or Okinawan Te (very early Karate) and thirdly, the great secrecy surrounding training.

In these ‘secret’ dojos some weapons did appear. They were purchased directly from China purporting to be farm tools but had a dual use –


  • The Bo (6ft staff) – a wading pole doubles as a fighting staff.
  • The Tonfa – a rice de-husker becomes a Baton type weapon
  • The Sai- a rice planter becomes a spun two pronged dagger.
  • The Kama – a cutting sickle, becomes a flailing blade, often used in conjunction with a shield, made from the shell of a turtle.
  • The Nunchaku – a cereal beater a spun Wooden Flail (It is interesting to note that although there are 302 types of weapons in the Chinese Weapons System – nunchaku are not one of them).It was recorded in the life story of Okinawan Karate Master Kenwa Mabuni that he said all the dojos of the early years practised some form of weapons training.What of Grandmaster Funakoshi?In a rare photo taken in Shuri Castle on the 6th March 1921, Gichin Funakoshi can be seen in the centre of his demonstration team, made up of students and guest instructors who performed for the Japanese Crown Prince Hirohito. In the foreground Funakoshi’s students can be clearly seen holding Sai. In the background holding Bo are two invited friends of Funakoshi. They are, on the left, Shinken Taira (1897-1970), on the right, Yabiku Moden (1882-1941).Yabiku Moden was the most famous weapons teacher in Okinawa in the 1920’s, a great friend and respecter of Funakoshi. It was through Funakoshi that Shinken Taira was made a student of Yabiku Moden.

    Shinken Taira was born on the island of Kumejima in 1897 and first learned traditional Okinawan weapons from his grandfather Kanegawa Gimu (1862 – 1921). Taira moved to Tokyo in 1922 and became a deshi (student disciple) of Funakoshi at the Meisei Juku dojo where he learned Karate for a number of years. In 1929 Funakoshi introduced Taira to Yabiku Moden and Yabiku Moden gave him instruction in advanced weapons training. By 1932 Taira established his own dojo at Ikaho teaching Karate Jutsu and Kobudo and a year later was awarded his Menkyo Kaiden (Masters teaching licence) from Yabiku Moden. Though Shinken Taira had separated from Funakoshi they remained good friends and Funakoshi was his guest instructor on the 25th September 1933 at his dojo.

    During those early years in Tokyo, Taira was helped greatly by Funakoshi, even living at his house for some time. Taira evolved special Shotokan Bo Katas for Funakoshi and also taught his son Yoshitaka Funakoshi, by way of payment. Dr. Yasukiyo Takeda, who trained under Gichin and Yoshitaka Funakoshi for three years in 1930 said, “Sensei often spoke of the value of the old Okinawan weapons in developing muscles and learning to see your opponent. He suggested I learn Bo from Yoshitaka and I learned one basic Bo Kata – there were other students who knew many weapons Katas.”

    Further evidence

    In a rare photo, Grandmaster Funakoshi is seen defending himself with Sai against one of his senior students Isao Obata (Grandson of Takamori Saigo (1828-1877) regarded as the last of the samurai) armed with a six foot Bo. Shinlin Gima remembers being taught Tenryu-No-Kon, Heavenly Dragon Bo Kata, by Grandmaster Funakoshi and in the illustrated publication of Chuo University Karate Club in 1931, photo series show Grandmaster Funakoshi performing Bo and Sai moves and Yoshitaka performing Sai. It does appear that the Shotokan syllabus of this era does include some weapons training in Bo and Sai and according to most sources Grandmaster Funakoshi did appear to have the basic knowledge of all the Okinawan weapons, though the extent of his ability to use them is very uncertain.

    What can undoubtedly be stated is that in the Katas handed down to present day Karateka, are a number of moves which directly relate to those old martial arts weapons therefore, an understanding of them is not an unreasonable aim.

    Personal Learning Experiences

    Like many of my Karate teachers, I too started my martial arts training in Judo. I was aged eleven when I started training with Miriam Thomas 3rd Dan at Deeside, Osaka Sensei at the KNK Manchester, and very briefly with Higgashi Sensei (Higgashi Sensei was quite old even then). Higgashi Sensei taught older Ju-Jitsu type moves and included Atemi Waza (nerve strikes) and Katsu – a form of resuscitation. He also helped me with my later interest in Samurai swords, showing me rare sword drawing techniques. He could remember being told that Funakoshi had been a friend of Jigiro Kano (Judo’s founder) and had influenced Kano in including Karate-like attacks in the Judo katas. Kano in exchange had helped introduce Funakoshi to several influential persons in Japan and even given him the grading structure of Judo. Possibly this is why Funakoshi’s previous demonstrations in Kyoto in 1917 did not amount to anything i.e. he was a foreigner without Japanese backers.

    In 1966 aged 16, and a 1st kyu I was teaching Judo at Chester College of Further Education. I had joined Handbridge Judo Club in 1965- a very strong new club in Chester, where I taught beginners and children. I had gained enough grading points, during this time, to later on pass my 1st Dan in 1970, even though the Handbridge Judo club had by then closed.

    My introduction to Karate was by way of the club giving excess floor space for two Karateka – Mike Cotgreave and Geoff Wilding. In exchange for instruction on Judo sweeps, throws and breakfalls I would get Karate lessons.

    In January 1969, Handbridge Judo club’s founders fell on hard times; they had to sell the Judo mats.
    Initially the Karate was to keep everyone together whilst we saved for new mats but they were, as we found out very expensive – about £400 ,you could buy a car for round £700.
    On the 4th May 1969, the Handbridge Shotokan Karate Club was formally established by Sensei Geoff Wilding then 1st Dan assisted by Mike Cosgrave who soon after went to live in Manchester.
    But at that time no dojo could start up within a 5 mile radius of another so we initially became a satellite club of the Aaisatsu SKC, in order to obtain affiliation to the KUGB. (Handbridge SKC became an independent dojo in 1973 fully affiliated to the KUGB in its own right)
    Jim Smith the Chief instructor of the Aaisatsu was very helpful, generous and did welcome me into his club
    That’s what Aisatsu means; Jim just put an extra A so it would appear first in the yellow pages.
    However He always supported my goal of running my own dojo and we remained friends right up till his untimely early death from oesophageal cancer He was secretary to the KUGB technical committee and a great stalwart of the KUGB, He was a Highly Respected 5th Dan at the time of his passing.
    Though the Judo was excellent in giving you actual practical skill I felt Karate was a more useful art for self-defence against a multi-person attack than Judo I spent a lot of time and effort catching up my Karate skills and to this end I went on many courses and often paid for private training with some of the best known of the Japanese masters. More of that later on.

    My first encounter with any Sensei who knew weapons was with Sensei Taiji Kase, whilst on Sensei Enoeda’s Summer School at Crystal Palace circa 1972. Whilst explaining the kata ‘Unsu’ he said this could be performed with Sai. Kase Sensei said it would help all students to improve their Keito Uke and Keito Ippon Nukite if they were to practice with Sai.

    The Sai is a long dagger shaped weapon made from one solid forged piece of metal. It has two horn-like prongs at the junction of the blade, to the bound handle, which face towards the tip of the blade. The handle binding terminates at a bulbous end known as the pommel. The Sai is held backwards, i.e. with the pommel facing the front. You hold it by placing your thumb under the left tang (prong) and place your index finger down the handle facing the pommel. The remaining fingers fold over the right tang and hold it onto your palm. The long blade then runs along the arm and usually passes the elbow by half to one inch. The blade can be flicked over to protect the inside of the forearm and also flicked out so the tip can strike at great speed – like an Uraken strike.
    Sensei Kase and I did have one on one, training, but He got side tracked into Dim Mak when He knew I had trained with Sensei Hagashi . (Kase was originally a Judoka like Hagashi) I managed to get Sensei Steve Cattle to show me “his” version of Unsu using Sai and it did give great meaning to a lot of the moves however in the Kawashi Geri (drop kick) and in the spinning Ushiro Mikazuki Tobi Geri , I found the Sai got in the way. (I have since seen a different version where the Sai are thrown at these points in the Kata and that certainly works) Kase Sensei, in our next near private training lesson, told me he started Karate aged 15. Even though he was a 2nd Dan Judo black belt he feared that if the war continued he could not defend himself fully, but he saw the power of Yoshitaka Funakoshi (1906-1945) and felt that with that power, he could. During 1944 Yoshitaka Funakoshi and Motonobu Hironishi (1913-1999) did most of the teaching at the Shotokan Dojo.(Japan) Kase Sensei remembered that Yoshitaka had taken his Father’s place in returning to Okinawa where one of his Father’s friends, a senior Karate master, was dying. He wished to pass on now forgotten katas. At this time Yoshitaka trained under Chojo Oshiro (1889 -1930) who had been a student of masters Itosu and Azato. Oshiro was a Bo Master of the Yamanni Ryu.

    On his return, Yoshitaka did much training of Bo Katas and Free Sparring. At one point, he even did Japanese Sword training using real Katana (live blade samurai swords). When I asked Kase Sensei why the weapons side had been dropped, he said he thought it was a combination of the death of Yoshitaka (through T.B. in 1945) and the destruction and loss of all the dojo weapons when the Shotokan Dojo, built in 1936 for Funakoshi by his followers, was burnt to the ground in an air raid also in 1945. He also said that the economy of post war Japan was at an all time low and Funakoshi had gone to be with his wife who was very ill. (She sadly died in 1947). The above appears to be true. However when I trained with Grandmaster Masatoshi Nakayama, when he was a special guest at one of Sensei Enoeda’s Summer Schools, he told me the following: “After the war, Karate was almost lost due to death of Funakoshi’s son, (His son, Yoshitaka, was to take over from him) and the loss of the dojo. Furthermore the Americans at first would not allow any martial arts practice that appeared to have a military type of use. Therefore, the weapons which we had very few of anyway, had to go and some of the Karate techniques were made to look like breathing exercises, not unlike Tai-Chi, before the American Army would allow practise.” During the lesson Grandmaster Nakayama said he started doing Kendo before he joined Karate, which he did in error by turning up at the Karate class at Takushoku University, thinking it was the Kendo class. However he stayed and was converted to Karate.

    Grandmaster Nakayama taught us* two kakas – Meikyo (his own favourite) and Jitte (Sensei Enoeda’s favourite). In both katas he explained that so many of the moves were defences against the Bo staff. (* Us being the three club instructors from Handbridge at that time)

    In Meikyo, the Morote Ko-Ko Bo Uke was a double handed catch of the Bo, whilst the Bo Dori, twisting turn, was throwing the attacker who was holding the Bo. In the second kata Jitte, Grandmaster Nakayama said the opening moves were deflections of direct Bo thrusts to the face, which the Teisho strikes were to the hand holding the Bo. When explaining the Shuto Uke “block” just after the mid “yama” in the kata – Grandmaster Nakayama was shocked at hearing some students express their view that they could directly block a Bo staff in full swing. He said “It would break your arm” and explained that the real meaning was to simply time the shuto uke so that the Bo is redirected along the arm, then follow it down with that same hand whilst arresting the other end with the opposite arm. The turning around of the hands is again to have a stronger grip than your opponent’s and the foot scooping movement catches the end of the Bo and assists in the taking of it from your opponent.

    Grandmaster Nakayama may not have been able to do anything to promote the reintroduction of Okinawan weapons to Shotokan Karate, but he himself was well versed in their application.

    Use of Okinawan Weapons in Modern Training

    It is 1980 – I have my third Dan in Karate and a need for extra training to keep up my level. To this end I go to the first Lancaster University Summer Karate course. Here for the first time with the approval of Master Sherry (6th Dan then) I start to learn the Shotokan Bo Katas from Ian MacLaren. Because I have done some Katana and have some understanding of weapons, Ian agrees to let me train on every session, that way I get twice the training. Now I start to see many things like the jumps in the katas not being to avoid midsection hits, but rather to avoid atemi waza strikes to the big toe joint nerve / little second toe joint nerve / or diagonal strikes to the lower leg with a Bo Staff. Many of the points which Kase Sensei and Grandmaster Nakayama raised I could now try out because I had a Bo teacher, who was also a Karate teacher, with the understanding of them both.

    The problem with the Lancaster Course was it coincided with our busiest time at work so I was delighted when a similar course was established earlier in the year at Torbay.

    I have attended Torbay every year since the Spring Karate Courses began there and often make it up to Lancaster simply to get more of this combined training.

    In an effort to maintain the training given by Ian, I went on some courses held locally with Julian Mead, an Englishman married into a Kobudo family in Japan with years of intense training in most of the “old” Kobudo weapons.

    The sessions were split into Bo, Sai and Tonfa. With the Bo I was seeing the same moves as with Ian MacLaren, with Sai much of which I had been shown by both Steve Cattle and Frank Johnson came into its’ own. But with the Tonfa, of which I had no real previous experience came such revelations that I saw so many Karate moves that would be improved by a knowledge of this training weapon.

    From my time with Higgashi Sensei, to my time now with Quentin Ball, and instruction between by Soke Fumon Tanaka and Okabashi Shogen Sensei, I have always thought that Karate moves owed much to Katana sword techniques. I have done training in Ona Haro Ito Ryu and Tenjin-Shinyo Ryu. In close quarters you lift both saya and sword to mid chest then performing an Age Uke type move – you pull the saya away, block with the back edge of the blade and make the final cut. The hips must twist if you are to clear the yoke of the saya. So many other sword moves look like Karate moves, but in the Tonfa the moves are exactly alike.

    Scarcely a training session with Grandmaster Enoeda or Master Sherry will ever go by without one of these teachers pulling up someone on the course for not using the elbow enough or failing to clear their head with the blocking arm in age uke.

    Here is where the old weapons can come into their own as special training aids for every student who has ever had a problem:

    If you hold the Tonfa, by the handle and keep its wooden blade on the forearm and receive a strike on that blade by a second Tonfa blade, you will realise immediately if you have failed to keep the Tonfa flat to your arm, because the incoming blow will drive it into your arm with painful results. This flatness of the blade is only achieved when the punching knuckles are straight in line with the wrist. Should you have a bent wrist in the vertical plane and the blade edge has either dropped or raised, you will now receive a direct wood-to-elbow strike, which is exceedingly good at instantly correcting that fault. (i.e. 10 times more painful!). A second easy drill with the Tonfa is to keep the Tonfa blade on the little finger side of the hand. By twisting the fist and keeping the blade in line from fist to elbow you can perform Shuto Uke to Uchi Uke (outer block to inner block). You very quickly realise that the most effective method that still gives the greatest protection is a very late last minute powerful twist of the wrist. Twisting too early means your opponent hits a static blade and you get the “full shock” of the hit. Twisting late means you hit him – the difference has to be felt to be fully appreciated.

    When you block in an age uke move using Tonfa to an actual incoming attack by another Tonfa or Bo that same difference can be felt and thus remains as an actual experience, not as a theory. Further if you use Nakayamas’ technique of just redirecting an incoming attack with your reaction arm, the Tonfa helps to develop a far more formidable strike.

    Finally looking at Shuto Uke: Always as a teacher you struggle to correct bent wrists but the drill of blocking with Tonfa means any bend on the wrist makes the elbow vulnerable to attack.

    After only a few hours a month using Tonfa as a training aid, results in correctness of technique can be clearly seen.

    The Bo basics and Bo Kata shown by Ian MacLaren can be safely done in any dojo setting, provided safety in using a weapon is observed at all times. Bo training should greatly aid the understanding of many of the Shotokan Katas.

    The Sai and certainly the Katana must wait until the Karateka is at Black Belt level of Niddan or above, before these weapons can be safely used as training aids.

    My own experience, especially with the Katana, is that the level of concentration required when training in fixed sparring drills, with a top exponent using a live blade, is so great that you become physically exhausted.
    You need to be aware of changes in the law in regard to Samurai Swords- owning one and training are rightly restricted to genuine licensed students with a proven teacher.

    Training with the Katana, can help to develop the type of concentration required for top level competitions and senior black belt grading. Over a very long period I trained with Grandmaster Enoeda -Ned as he was affectionately called, many times on a one to one basis. He was full of surprises. Once when in my home I showed him a painting of a famous Samurai defence of a bridge near Kyoto. Hi Mikesan (yes Mike) that’s my great, great, grandfather He went on to tell me of so many changes and how the family had returned to farming when the sword had to be put away (I think he was referring to the banning of wearing swords) He used to like to take one of my blades out for practice in my back garden his natural Karate speed and training as a youth in Kendo made him dissolve back in time. He was such Good fun always had time for my children. Wow was he quick though.
    He would often talk of changes, like when Masatoshi Nakayama died in 1987; the JKA invited Ned back to head up the JKA and prevent splits in the ranks. He said there were two reasons he did not go. Firstly as he had married Reiko and made his home in the UK he was almost Gigin (foreigner), In his own country as a result. Secondly he and Sensei Sherry had worked so hard to bring the KUGB to the point it was at i.e. “Best in the World” he would have to give all that and his great friends in the KUGB up – that he was not prepared to do. I often feel he is still with me in the Dojo. Shihan Sherry is however the correct choice as his successor as his TRUE deshi Andy continues to teach in a very positive way and he has continually improved himself and “his” KUGB seniors.


    Must knowledge of the old Okinawan and Japanese Martial Arts Weapons be undertaken for any person to successfully learn modern day Karate? In my opinion the answer is simply, NO.

    But if the question is, “would a knowledge of the old Okinawan and Japanese Martial Arts Weapons greatly enhance the understanding and meanings of the Shotokan Katas, and would it make a Karateka more aware of the ma-ai of a weapon used against him”, then the answer in my opinion, is a very definite YES.

    I have always taught my students one thing, entirely based on my own experience: “It’s the one you don’t see that gets you”.

    Sometimes to “see” something you must try it for yourself and only then will you not be caught out by it. There may be a weapon of self defence in an everyday article, a sweeping brush, an umbrella, a glass of water, a pepper pot – only when you really think about things around do you see them. Perhaps this would also explain Grandmaster Funakoshis words to Dr Takeda – “Learn the Bo from my Son, it is helpful in developing your muscles and learning to see your opponent”.

    Michael P. O’Connor
    M.Inst.LM., MII Sec. LCGI Dip.Mgmnt.

    6th Dan KUGB Karate / 5th JKA Karate
    1st Dan BJA Judo

    P.S. After reading this thesis you may have expected to see a Kobudo rank after my name. I was once offered 1st Dan Kenjutsu simply because I could perform the entire sword drawing techniques that were required for that grading, I flatly refused. My Kobudo training has always been to enhance my Karate, My years of on and off training have make me more aware of how various weapons might be used, so that I might better defend myself against them.