Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Quick: Your Life Is In Danger. What Do You Do?

"Your karate sucks, people!" barked our sensei. I looked around. Less than a dozen people in the class, almost all men, everyone wearing a gi, the traditional martial arts uniform. Everyone but me had a black belt in karate. I was a lowly purple belt, a level below brown belt and black belt. If Sensei thought the black belts were performing poorly, where did that leave me, I wondered.

This was my first class in Okinawan kobudo, the use of weapons as part of the Okinawan martial arts. Weapons kata are built on top of karate techniques, so if your karate "sucks", your kobudo is going to suck too.

I don't know how or why Sensei allowed me to participate in her training, but I was grateful. My karate rank was far above beginner but still far below expert. In the tradition of karate I was trained in, washin-ryu, learning weapons was almost exclusively for brown belts and black belts. The one exception I remember was kumite (fighting) katas using a tanbo (like a short stick). While my greatest interest had always been in sword katas, I felt privileged, and humbled, to take part in Sensei's kobudo classes.

Weapons in kobudo

Kobudo includes techniques involving the bo (staff), sai (a three-pronged truncheon), nunchaku, and tekko, among others. The kata I learned were focused primarily on the bo and sai. In my first class, I had no weapons and had to go through moves using "air weapons" (like playing "air guitar"). For my next class I used a wooden curtain rod that served me until I could purchase a "real" bo. Cheap chrome-plated sais were replaced by hand-forged sais from Okinawa, as soon as I could get my hands on them. Nunchakus were easy enough to obtain, but tekko had to be ordered from someone "who knew someone" who custom-made these, and I was warned that they could be considered illegal because of their resemblance to brass knuckles. (That was fine. It's not like I intended to keep them in the glove compartment of my car.)

When a small group of colleagues from work got together at lunchtime at the work gym to practice, we brought in rubber practice sais for fear that company security personnel might be nervous about us having "weapons" on company premises. It certainly felt silly to wave around rubber sais that flopped right and left and were always crooked.

A proportionate response to a threat

When I was a teenager, I picked up on what sounded like important martial arts advice. In a confrontation with someone, it is better to avoid rather than check, to check rather than hurt, to hurt rather than maim, and to maim rather than kill. Years later I googled where this advice came from. I was chagrined to learn it came from the TV show Kung Fu, starring David Carradine. Nevertheless, this advice made sense to me. A proportionate response was the objective.

So I was shocked when, in one of my weapons classes, Sensei told us if we were in a fight where an opponent had a weapon of any kind, our objective should be to kill.


Her rationale? Your life is in danger. If you don't subdue your opponent in the most decisive, conclusive way, you may die. I was hesitant to accept this philosophy, but who was I to question it? 

Training sadly comes to an end

I enjoyed the kobudo kata. They were long and intricate with precise choreography. And, I got a taste for sword katas when I attended a seminar in iaido, "the art of drawing the sword." I had no iaito (basically a blunt-edge katana) to use, so I used a wooden practice sword known as a bokken. In contrast to lengthy katas using the bo or sais, an iaido form is very short. But there is a high degree of ritual attached to it, from beginning to end, from the time one kneels and bows to the scabbarded sword as it lies crosswise on the floor in front of you, showing respect for it, to the time the sword is drawn, used to strike an imagined opponent, cleaned of the imagined blood, and returned to the scabbard. 

Though I was strongly interested in learning kobudo, in time the classes moved to a location so distant it was no longer practical for me to attend. I hated to give up training, but I had learned great respect for some of the simplest weapons. I still have my bo and my sais. I could no more part with these weapons than I could part with my karate belts, even if I don't engage in martial arts anymore. They are symbols whose meaning I find difficult to explain.

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