Weapons in karate
Karate-do is “the way of the empty hand”, so should weapons training be excluded from karate classes, or are there legitimate reasons to at least look at some weapons as part of the teaching of karate?
The simple answer should be that weapons should be excluded, but this might be a simplistic answer rather than a simple one. Karate-do, like all martial arts, is much too complicated to be giving simplistic answers to philosophical questions.
As an “empty hand” art, it is true to say that in karate-do we learn to fight/defend ourselves without weapons. It is also true to say that the art of training with weapons is a separate and distinct set of arts, called “kobudo”. If it is a separate art, then surely we are back to our starting point of assuming that we should not need weapons training as part of karate training.
Kanazawa Sensei is a man whose opinion is generally well respected. He believes that we should at least study weapons to a certain point. In fact he feels that many weapons are related directly to karate. In an interview conducted with him a few years ago (published in Shotokan Karate Magazine), he stated the following:
“Nowadays, because sport is so popular, people separate weapons training from karate. But my opinion is that karate is still Budo, and that kobudo is an important part of Budo. So I believe that people should train in both kobudo and karate. Many weapons are part of the karate family. In the old days, people studied bo, sai, nunchaku, jo, kama, tonfa and other weapons as part of karate training. Now they are seen as separate, but it should not be like this. I think that karate-ka should be familiar with many weapons. I believe that this is part of karate.”
Kanazawa Sensei has published works which have shown some of his studies in Nunchaku, Sai and Bo, so he obviously has felt that it was important enough to his karate not alone to study it for himself, but to encourage others to do so too. An even stronger argument is that there are many photographs of Funakoshi Sensei training with weapons also, particularly with Bo and Sai. If it was good enough for him, the Founder of Shotokan, who are we to argue?
By training with these weapons as part of karate, students will often gain a greater understanding of the “empty hand” version of a movement when working the movement with a weapon in hand. For example, performing a block with a tonfa in your hand shows just how effective the block can be as a strike! Also, when you swing a Bo with full force and then try to stop it, you know very quickly how good your kime (focus) is. Even the “purest” in empty hand philosophy will agree that if a greater understanding of empty hand karate can be gained by training with weapons, then we should train utilise this as an opportunity to improve our karate. In this case, the weapon becomes a simple training tool like weights, skipping ropes or a makiwara.
To look at it another way, many of the defensive movements in karate were created at a time when it was common for people to carry weapons of various types. There is no doubt that some moves in karate were originally intended as defences against particular weapons. By studying the weapons and how they are used, we also gain a greater understanding of the original intent of the move itself. My sensei used to say that if you want to defend yourself against something, it is best to understand what is attacking you. Although we are not likely to be attacked by someone with a Bo or a Sai, by studying these weapons we gain an understanding of different distances; different angles of attack; different types of threats from blunt weapons versus bladed weapons; and so on. All of this is valuable from a self-defence point of view.
Therefore, although the primary training in karate should be empty-handed, there are many good reasons why we should at least occasionally look at other arts and experiment with some different weapons in order to improve our understanding of the art of the “Empty Hand”.