Sunday, 15 July 2012

Karate - Empty Hand or Weapons

Training with the Okinawan Sai


n instructor once told me that Karate was a purely empty hand martial art.  By that he meant that the only weapon is the body.

After doing some research, I discovered 2 things -

1. That practitioners of the original Okinawan Karate - like most indigenous martial arts - were first concerned with survival. And like most indigenous forms of survival, their training included both “empty hand” methods and a full armory of weapons.

These weapons consisted of everything from spears used in war time to oars fishermen would use to pull their boats out to sea.

2. That one of the original terms for the Okinawan martial art now referred to as Karate was “China Hand” or “T’ang Hand” named after the T’ang Dynasty (618-907). In the early 20th century, that reference was changed to Kara-te or “empty hand”.

A lot of political changers were afoot in Asia during the early 20th Century. Perhaps these changes precipitated a renaming of the art being practised in Okinawa.

Nevertheless, I understand - and appreciate - what the instructor was trying to tell me. He loved his Karate. To him it was life itself. What he trained in was pure…and direct…and from the heart. And if it was highly skilled Karate, it could be a match for an armed attacker.

Carrying a weapon somehow sullied his image of Karate.


As I’ve said, I understand…but that belief in the purity of the one’s art lies also at core of the Japanese sword…and Japanese archery.

And the Okinawans have dedicated themselves to placing the same mindset in their weapons training as they have in their empty hand training. In fact, to an Okinawan Karate practitioner, the staff, the sai, the tonfa, etc. are extensions of the self. The calm radiating from the centre flows into the weapon.

Great weapons masters don’t just control the weapon; they move in harmony with it. Just as with the Japanese sword, the spirit of the Karate practitioner and the spirit of the weapon merge.

Oh yes, a weapon comes alive in the hands of a well versed practitioner just as a guitar comes alive when touched by a great blues artist. The weapons master allows the weapon to sing. Each weapon has a different personality, a different voice.

B.B.King and his guitar "Lucille"


Once a year, I hold a session with traditional weapons for my children’s classes. The class is more of an information session and we have fun tracing the history of some of these weapons.

At the end, I remind the kids that training with weapons is a serious undertaking. It’s not like a cartoon where after someone is hit he manages to pop up again and keep on running. When someone is hit by a real weapon, he doesn’t get back up.

I tell them that weapons training is about respect - for the serious nature of the weapon and for the life of another.

I close the session by telling them that “we train with a weapon in order to learn not to use that weapon.”

Do we choose between the empty hand or a hand that holds a traditional Okinawan sai? I think both are important, and worthy of training. Each is part of the rich cultural history of martial arts!

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