Nunchaku, a unique weapon and its benefits to Karate
The nunchaku (in Japanese and in Chinese) is a traditional weapon of the Kobudo and consists of two sticks connected with a short chain or rope. I do not believe further introduction of Nunchaku is necessary as it became very popular among us by the Kung Fu movies in 70’s stared by Bruce Lee.
Out of a dozen or so different kinds of Okinawan Kobudo weapons such as Nunchaku, Sai and Tonfa, Nunchaku is most popular or known by the public. Less known factor is that Nunchaku can produce the most dynamic and versatile techniques among the Kobudo weapons due to its construction of having two sticks joined by a chain or a rope. The quick swings and striking motions are very sexy and many people remember the fight scenes of Bruce Lee. One can spin Tonfa pretty fast but it cannot beat the speed of Nunchaku. Sai can be a deadly weapon with its sharp end as it can spear through just about any protectors, but the destructive power of Nunchaku at a full impact of said to be over 500kg is far greater than Sai or Tonfa could produce. Not only it is fast and destructive but also it has another very exciting characteristic; flexibility of two sections. I am not saying Nunchaku is a better weapon than Sai, Tonfa or other Kobudo weapons. Just as one cannot say a certain style of karate is better than another, different weapons have their own particular uses and advantages thus cannot be compared by a simple set of observations.
It is very unfortunate that modern day Shotokan (at least from what I know of) has dropped Kobudo from its regular training. I do not know the situation regarding this subject in other karate styles such as Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu and Wado-ryu, so I will discuss this subject only referring to Shotokan style organizations. There was a justifiable reason (at least then) why Kobudo was dropped but I will not go into this historic aspect of karate even though it is a very interesting subject. What I want to mention here today is that karate definitely lost a very effective and useful training tools when the masters decided to drop Kobudo from its regular syllabus. I do not think they were aware at that time of the seriousness and the amount of handicap and disadvantage this omission would bring. Shotokan style now is said to be very linear and lacks circular movements. However, this claim is not true as one can observe the kata like Bassai, Enpi, and Unsu and easily find quite a few round and circular movements and techniques.
So, what has happened to Shotokan in the last 60 years or so?
The weapons are the extension of your arms (and possibly legs). By not having the opportunities to feel and train the “long” or extended arms, the art of circular moves were de-emphasized and became something that are difficult to master by many practitioners.
Some people may say a “handicap” in my previous paragraph may be an exaggeration, but look at Jutte. This kata is designed with the techniques against the opponents with Bo. How many practitioners I wonder have learned this kata using Bo. Some conscientious instructors may bring a stick to teach this particular kata. But if the students are not familiar with the Bo exercises on a regular basis, the learning of this kata will be superficial. Thus, true understanding and the mastery of the techniques in Jutte remain very difficult. As Bo is not the topic of this report, I will not go any further on this subject.
Let us go back to Nunchaku. I have practiced not only Nunchaku but also Sai, Tonfa and three sectional staffs but I cannot get tired of practicing Nunchaku. I have special liking to Nunchaku for its quite unique mechanism. This mechanism enables complex moves and that helps me in my karate training. The uniqueness of Nunchaku is something I would like to discuss further here today.
As I mentioned earlier, the weapons are and must be the extension of your arms. It is easy to see the nunchaku moves and find it moves like an arm; two sections, upper arm and fore arm, connected by an elbow. The nunchaku moves, of course, are more flexible and versatile but the basic concept is very similar to the arm. You can swing your fore arm pivoting at an elbow duplicating the swings of Nunchaku. The dynamic mechanism of hammer fist and back fist strikes is all similar to that of Nunchaku. You start your movement from the shoulder joint and transcend the power down the arm and give the snaps at the elbow and finally at the wrist. I want to emphasize that Nunchaku’s movements are more “natural” or in accord with the body mechanism than an inflexible weapon such as a Sai, Tonfa, Bo, etc.
In the karate style we practice, Asai style karate, our limbs (including not only arms and legs but also shoulders and hips) are used and moved like whips. JKS (Japan Karate Shotorenmei) is founded by late Master Asai in 2000. Previously he was the technical director at JKA (Japan Karate Association) for many years but he went beyond the standard JKA techniques. The JKA techniques are said to be linear and straight, similar to Sai and Tonfa. JKS focuses on fluidity and flowing as well as turns & spins of body motions, which remind you of Nunchaku moves.
One can strike with the end (or ends) of Nunchaku (like Oi zuki) and can do the blocking techniques using the sticks as well as the chain (age uke, juji uke, ude uke, etc). However, the major portion of the techniques (both attacks and blocks) comes from the swinging of the sticks. All the moves are in circular movements and they are naturally very fluid and smooth.
There are many moves in Shotokan kata that are circular and swinging moves. Nunchaku practice helps to acquire better understanding of the body moves thus Nunchaku training improves the kata movements. For instance, a popular move of Nunchaku is called an infinite shape swing or a horizontal 8 figure. There are two directions to do this swing. In a normal 8 figure swing, you will swing your arm (say in case of using right arm) starting from the right side high, diagonally down to left side low then swing upward in a circular curve to left side high before it comes down to right side down which will be followed by a swing upward in a circular way to the starting point completing the 8 figure. The reverse way of swinging should be practiced for the comprehensive exercise results.
To illustrate how a Nunchaku exercises can help Shotokan kata, let’s use this horizontal 8 figure exercise and see how it is related to kata moves. Take a look at the #41 move of after the last yamazuki (vertical U punch) in Bassai Dai. You will pivot on your right foot and assume right zenkutsu dachi and execute the right arm down swing motion with a quick rotation of the forearm. The application is a rotation of your body after the last yama zuki to throw the opponent with a body rotation using the right arm to pick up the opponent leg or to grub his belt depending on a situation. A down swing of an arm can be a downward strike to a fallen opponent. There are several different applications for this move. After #41, you will rotate your hips quickly without taking any steps with your feet and switch to left zenkutsu dachi (#42 move) and simultaneously you will execute a left arm swing motion downward. By practicing horizontal 8 figure Nunchaku swing, these moves in Bassai Dai become very familiar. With Nunchaku practice one learns how to move the arms very smoothly and quickly. After repeating Nunchaku swings many times, one can learn how to move the arms very smoothly and quickly, even without Nunchaku after all.
The wrist movement is important in all circular movements of Nunchaku. In addition the key point is the large movements involving not only the arm and elbow but the large movement by the shoulder joint. You must realize that normally a flexible Nunchaku
in two sections will move and behave like a one solid stick (like a baseball bat or a gold club) during its fast swing motion particularly in a straight motion. In order to attain the maximum speed, the whole arm must be relaxed and the down swing motion must be originated from the shoulder and not from the elbow or wrist. Then the arm must be swung down like a whip, which means the arm must be totally relaxed during this action. This exercise can be done using a baseball bat or a golf club but it is difficult to do the circular motion as those sticks are solid thus you need to slow down before the change of the direction from down to up ward. On the other hand, Nunchaku is flexible and it can continue at the same speed or even faster in the turns and an upward or downward motion created by a snap motion of the wrist. Regardless, to benefit in kata practice, the importance of the shoulder use cannot be over emphasized. By practicing Nunchaku, you can have the immediate feedback from the action and check if you are using the arms and other parts of your body correctly. If you are not swinging Nunchaku correctly, the sticks will not behave smoothly and they might end up hitting you on the head.
Another application of Nunchaku move to Shotokan kata would be a regular circular (horizontal) motion over the head. This move can be applied to the knife hand strike in Heian Yondan with the movements of #11 and #12. This snappy striking motion is quite different from a straight punch, nukite or a back fist strike in this kata. This utilizes a large circular motion with the whole right arm ending with a snappy shuto uchi with the arm fully extended. By swinging and striking with Nunchaku in the similar motion (over the head) one can learn how to accelerate the arm and how to extend the arm in a correct timing to generate the maximum power and whipping at the end. This learning process is much easier if one practices with Nunchaku than bear hand.
At JKS we practice whip motions by swinging the arms in circular motions which include not only to simple circles in both horizontal and vertical directions but also infinite shape
(horizontal 8 figure). We also do the leg whipping exercises with the similar concept and methods but we will not go into these particular exercises in this report. I will focus on the whip motion with the arms. In the circular arm motions, we start with slow and even paced movements. Eventually, you will feel that your fists are acting as the weights to the whips (2 arms of yours) and be able to swing them like whips. The key point, once again, is that your arms must be completely relaxed so that they would be behaving like wet towel or leather whip.
Other than the circular motions, we also throw our arms sharply to ups & down and left & right to increase the mobility and speed. The must point of these exercises is that we do them with both arms simultaneously rather than just one arm. We do them with our fists open and also closed to get different tension levels to the fore arms. Regardless of the directions of the arm motions, it is also important to gain the full range of movements to get the maximum result. These exercises involve rather simple movements but they are not easy if you do them correctly. For instance, cross your arms in front of your check with your fists open and palms facing up (you can do this with the palms facing down or the hands to be held vertically). From this position, you will expand your arms widely but quickly to the horizontal directions (keep the palms facing up and the motions to be level). At the full expansion with your arms fully stretched out, you will pull back the arms quickly to the original position. When your arms are fully extended, the angle between your arms must be 180 degrees or more. It is better if you are capable of expanding wider without lowering your arms. One extension and pull back action must be done in less than a second. You repeat this exercise at least 20 times as a set. Then you will do the same exercise with the palms facing down or held vertically or with your fists closed to train different muscle groups of your arms and shoulder regions. In these exercises the quick snap back is required. In order to attain the best snap back, your arms and the wrists must be totally relaxed and so are your shoulder muscles. If any of those parts and muscles is too tensed your motions will never be fluid and as a result you will not be able to obtain the maximum snap back.
There is another point about karate training I would like to bring to your attention. This is a big subject and I could easily spend 10 pages to discuss this matter. The subject is the use of two arms or fists simultaneously in karate techniques. Unfortunately, this concept has been over looked in modern Shotokan karate. Take a look at Heian kata. Only in the most elementary kata, Shodan, double hand techniques are omitted. In Shodan, each step has only one arm technique such as gedan barai, chudan oi zuki, age uke, etc. Starting with Nidan you will see many two hand techniques (examples: #1 and #2 moves in Nidan, #2 and #3 moves in Sandan, #1 and #2 in Yondan and many moves in Godan). In kumite, the junior students (yellow belt, blue belt, etc) learn to block first then after the completion of the block they are taught to deliver a counter attack. This is a necessary step for the junior level students from an educational process (master only one thing at a time). But the timing or two steps, a block then a counter attack, is too time consuming in a real fight. A counter attack must be delivered at the time of blocking which means either a blocking hand delivers a counter attack simultaneously (like genbarai which extends to deliver a gedand/chudan punch) or to execute double hand technique. Nunchaku, Sai and Tonfa are typically trained with two pieces in both hands to improve the coordination between the arms. Training with a pair of Nunchaku is much riskier than practicing with two Sai or Tonfa. A slight mistake, a hit on your head can easily knock you out or gives you an unforgettable pain.
For the Nunchaku exercises I mentioned in this report covering both circular and linear movements, I stated that it is possible for the student to exercise and train with bear hands. However, it will take them many years of the diligent and correct practice to achieve the desired whip like arm techniques. On the other hand, by exercising with Nunchaku the process can be shortened thus require less time to achieve such techniques. I would estimate that training with Nunchaku would cut the achievement time in half.
By Kousaku Yokota
JKS 6 Dan, Shihan
Chairman, JKS Americas