Tuesday, January 22, 2019

TONFA, Weapon of Self-Defense

Tonfa has an enigmatic history. Tools similar to the Okinawan tonfa are found in other Asian countries including China, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines. Some suggest tonfa was developed in southeastern Asia and later introduced to Okinawa. Others argue the weapon is indigenous to Okinawa. 

Mae Sun Sawk is a similar weapon developed in Thailand, and has a rope to wrap around the elbow. A Chinese version of tonfa, known as guai, roughly translates as crutch (or walking stick). Guai is thought to have originated in China prior to 700 BC. A variation of guai is made from iron and called ma guai (horse crutch). Having a close martial arts kinship, any connection between China and Okinawa must be considered.

Dr. Teule from France trains with tonfa at the Arizona Hombu
dojo in Mesa, Arizona.
Also referred to as tunfa, tong fa or tuifa, feudal Okinawans often made tonfa from a native tree species similar to white oak. On Okinawa, farmers had two tonfa used in vertical and horizontal millstones with projecting knobs that inserted into sockets on either side of the stone. The millstone was driven along a trough and designed to grind grain into flour. In its original form, the handles of tonfa likely were not rounded and possibly looked like wooden hammers. As they evolved, tonfa were modified for combat.

In combat, tonfa is gripped by the short perpendicular handle (nigiri) or by the longer main shaft (monouchi) away from the handle. When the handle is grasped, the shaft protects the forearm & hand during blocking, while the knob (tsukagashira) & (tsuka) protects the thumb. If the end of the shaft is held, the shaft can be used to ward off blows, and the handle used to hook an opponent's weapon, arm, leg or neck. Traditionally used in pairs, large amounts of energy can be imparted to the shaft of the tonfa when swinging the tool by the handle. The tonfa can also be held by the shaft to strike with the knob similar to a hammer. In some instances, handle knobs were made with points to impart greater damage. One can also thrust either end of the shaft (ushiro atama or zen atama) to strike.

Amira, a high-school biology teacher, trains with Suzette at the
Arizona Hombu Dojo in Mesa
Some suggest the tonfa shaft should extend about one inch beyond the elbow for combat; however, the weapon need only extend to the tip of the elbow (or slightly less). The shaft is 20 to 24 inches in length. Three traditional grips of tonfa include: (1) natural (honte mochi), (2) reverse (gyakute mochi), and (3) special grip (tokushu mochi).

The tonfa is just one of many weapons in the arsenal of Okinawan kobudo (古武道). Okinawan kobudo is also referred to as Ryukyu kobujutsu (see koryu). Weapons of kobudo are thought to have connections with farmers, merchants & fishermen of Okinawa. It is a common belief that tools evolved into self-defense weapons used by peasants because of restrictions ordered by King Sho Shin and later by the Satsuma Samurai. However, modern martial arts scholars have been unable to verify this & some suggest karate & kobudo were restricted to the Pechin (samurai) caste, rather than the Heimin (commoner). But it is likely there was influence by both groups. The genius of Okinawan kobudo was the addition of kata which became an extension of karate & the same strikes & blocks used in kobudo were used in karate with minor modifications.

After evolving on Okinawa, the tonfa was later introduced to the world & became popular with law enforcement throughout the world until replaced by expandable baton. However, few law enforcement agencies (other than in Japan) trained more than a few hours with tonfa. As a result, such law-enforcement weapons become awkward & under-used.

For members of Seiyo no Shorin-Ryu Karate Kobudo Kai, learning tonfa is important and is considered to be an extension of our martial arts system. Members train in three tonfa kata and must learn all of the bunkai (applications in the kata) along with kumite. The kumite typically matches tonfa against other kobudo weapons such as bo, kama, tanto, etc.

Hall-of-Fame martial arts instructor and former professor of budo at the University
of Wyoming, teaching karate & kobudo classes at the Arizona Hombu Karate Dojo
in Mesa, Arizona.


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