Kobudo Training in Karate

- to do or not to do?

by Jason Armstrong, 7th Dan

The author discussing the ins and outs of sai in the karate dojo with Uetake sensei (8th dan) in Japan at a post-training party in the year 2000.

Hanshi Sells demonstrating Sai' in Japan

The author Bo training with one his students (Dave Cohrs) in 1995 at an all weekend camp with Okinawan seminars in Los Angeles.

Will adding in weapons to very young black belts (circa 10yrs old) help them endure karate's repetitive journey to be adult karate-ka?

A young Sarven McLinton sensei (shodan in Iaido)

Hanshi Sells with Sai


I write this article as in all my years of karate training I deliberately took a route of not diluting my karate with regular kobudo. However, I am now acting on my students requests to provide my club the opportunity to gain an elementary exposure to weapons. This comes from both my junior higher rank students (and I will outline while I feel this could be important), but I am also being encouraged by some adult students who are eager to at least dabble in weapons in ways that will re-enforce their karate. Why do this when karate-do is an empty handed art? Why not focus on the Way through just one focused art as the Japanese do so well i.e. be master of one art and not a Jack of All trades i.e. Judo, Karate-do, Kyu-do (archery), Iai-do (sword), Kendo (sword with shinai), Shodo (calligraphy) etc....

Article Body

Weapon’s training is called Kobudo and is not customarily practiced as part of regular Karate-Do. Not surprising given Karate-Do means the Way of the Empty Hand. However, certain styles of many martial arts train it alongside their open handed fighting. It is often a hot debate in regards to "if" or "when" a student should begin the practice of kobudo if karate is their true aim.

Since my teenage years, I personally very deliberately focused my Shito-ryu on the open handed side of budo and have not had a long-term focus on weapons. However, along the way I had numerous fun exposures and in some cases, a few of my karate sensei indicated I should do some kobudo and therefore I had little choice in the matter (e.g. Uetake sensei is a key sensei of mine and his early few years in Shorinji-kenpo in Yokohama in the 1960s, plus his now more than 50 years of Shito-ryu in Himeji Japan which has all resulted in a weapons passion).

The most notable of the weapons typically practiced alongside the Japanese martial arts are the Katana (Samurai Sword), Bo (long staff), Jo (Short staff), Nitanbo (two short sticks), Sai (3 pronged knife like weapon), Tonfa and the Nunchaku.

Examples of some of my adhoc exposure to some of the above listed weapons include Greg Story Shihan (6th Dan) teaching me some bo (staff) when I was at brown belt stage. Uetake sensei exposing me to some sai in my later black belt years. Furthermore, certain events such as the very well known Los Angeles tournament/seminars organized by the famous Shito-ryu & kobudo sensei Fumio Demura, saw more exposure (as a side note, these amazing Demura sensei events of the 1990s in LA are worth an historical note given they were organized alongside a enormous annual Japanese cultural exhibition over a week - some very fond memories). I also attended camps in LA covering further instruction in bo and I was lucky enough to do somewhere between 3-6 months of 2-3 hour sword classes in a version of katori-shinto-ryu under McCarthy Hanshi circa 2007 (they were very interesting classes but apologies for being vague on the timelines but my memory doesn’t let me be precise). To summarize the point of this paragraph, I didn't pass through my karate career completely avoiding kobudo depsite it not being a priority for me at all.

Given some of my students have begun pressuring me to give them weapon exposure (and I will get to why I decided it was a good idea in the next paragraph), I am more recently looking again to Uetake sensei (Himeji, Japan) and have begun discussions with Sells Hanshi (Los Angeles) on sai . I have chosen sai as the introductory weapon for my students. Given I no longer live in Japan or the USA, I am fortunate to be able to poll both these sensei given my trips to both regions of the world still continue due by my work (for the sake of linking some of the past training exposures above, Sells Hanshi is a direct kobudo student of Fumio Demura, and in later years broad had exposure to other key kobudo instructors. Sells Hanshi is ranked as a 6th degree black belt in Okinawan Kobudo and is founder of the United States Kobudo Association).

In listing my dabblings in kobudo, I note that these adhoc exposures certainly do not provide a consistent experience nor depth of experience in any one area, but it has provided thought provocation and awareness about trying to master an extension of one’s body. In order to not dilute my current students journeys towards some mastery of karate, I will be keeping kobudo as an option for only 30 minutes a week, only for those over 6th kyu and it will be an additional class. Here I list some arguments for the installment of this level of kobudo into my karate dojo:

  • thought provocation and awareness about trying to master an extension of one’s body using a weapon, which of course this feeds back into one’e reflections of empty handed fighting in various ways.
  • a good solid understanding of karate basics to generate hip action, striking power connected to stances, distance, are all relevant to the extension of fighting with weapons (a note shared by colleagues of mine who have, for over 40 years, studied karate primarily alongside kobudo see their article...).
  • the learning of various weapons and how they are used, opens up a student’s mind to the use of any object within their immediate surrounds that could be used like a weapon to defend themselves if needed. For some of the traditional oriental weapons, they are derived from everyday farm implements or other village items (including such bizarre choices as boat oars).
  • As a counter to the above, the study of weapons techniques also goes right along with learning empty hand self-defense against armed attackers. However, I will always say that trying to fight off any attacker with a knife if you are empty handed is most likely going to end very badly i.e. run away if possible is always going to be the best answer. Over the years I have done knife demonstrations in public (it seemed like an obligatory thing in the 1980s for karate demos and typically it was done very badly, including by myself) and I did a very good knife ½ day seminar under the AMOK group at the Noosa Budokan in Australia about 15 years ago). Such exposures, especially the AMOK experience, highlighted many good tactics that one could practice for knife defense, however in that workshop, the free kumite with a rubber knife, or a chalk marking approach, said a great deal about just how many times you are likely to get cut with someone truly trying to attack you...). Twice in my life I have had to deal with a confrontation with someone holding a knife (once in 1988 when I was a bouncer and once just this year in 2019; not stories I will write out in any detail in this article).
  • in particular, kobudo may add to younger kid's karate journeys if they have already been training since 4 or 5 years of age and we want to stimulate their young minds so they stay in karate until adulthood given the repetitive rigors of traditional karate . I say this given an 11 year old black belt is still 7 years away from reaching an adult's mental capacity and appreciation of karate's approach to repetitive self-control designed as a path for mastery and a life-long art.
  • place a weapon in the hands of kids and tell them to do step over techniques and miraculously their stances are better than the empty handed work they do day-in and day-out....
  • I was exposed to kobudo off and on at different times in my very traditional karate upbringing, should I not do the same for my students?

So to summarize, my decision to implement some kobudo above certain ranks will be in a:

  • very controlled time format which is additional training time
  • introductory for awareness
  • using approaches that re-enforce karate biomechanics
  • as a possible motivator to keep kids in karate given the long repetitive journeys they must endure if they started at just 4 or 5 years of age, especially considering their non-adult brains probably won't comprehend Do as a life long repetitive/self disciplinary pursuit.

For a deeper source of opinion on weapons training in our Traditional Japanese Karate Network in Australia, I will highlight Dr Sarven McLinton sensei (4th Dan, Shito-ryu) who has also earned a black belt in Iaido (sword) during the years he lived in Japan. For Network members in the USA I will re-highlight Sells Hanshi as a world leading source of knowledge/opinion, and in Japan, Uetake sensei (a video taken in Japan in 2019 of Uetake in his mid-70s using Tonfa is below).