History of Kobudo

This text was researched and written by Dr. Florian Koller (6th Dan Kobudo) in July 2022.

An Extremely Brief History of Kobudo

Okinawa is considered the origin of classical Kobudo from the 15th century. However, the history of Kobudo, particularly before the late 19th century, is not well known in many aspects and is subject to speculations and uncertainties.[1].

 

[1] The following accounts of the history of Kobudo are particularly based on the following works, in order of importance:
Roland Habersetzer, "Kobudo - Volume 1: Bo, Sai", 2nd edition 2020, Palisander-Verlag, pages 9 to 30
Christopher M. Clarke, "Okinawan Kobudo: A History of Weaponry, Styles and Masters", 2013, Clarke’s Canyon Press, pages 13 to 34
Werner Lind, "The Tradition of Karate", 1991, Werner Kristkeitz Verlag, pages 7 to 54
Mark Bishop, "Okinawan Weaponary – Hidden Methods, Ancient Myths of Kobudo & Te", 2009, Way Publications, pages 1 to 20
The representations in these books differ significantly from one another.

 

1.) Okinawa Islands

Okinawa is a long, rugged, and mountainous archipelago in the Pacific, approximately 600 km from Japan, Taiwan, and the Chinese mainland, respectively. Located at approximately the same latitude as Egypt, Okinawa has a total area of about 2,300 km² (for comparison: the district of Rosenheim has an area of about 1,400 km²) and had about 170,000 inhabitants in 1873 (for comparison: the district of Rosenheim had about 260,000 inhabitants in 2020). The archipelago, with its tumultuous history, is considered a melting pot of various cultural influences, particularly from China, Japan, and of course, the indigenous people.

As far as is known, contact between Okinawa and China was established as early as the 6th century. In the 12th century, there was a wave of immigration from refugees from Japan, who brought significant aspects of Japanese culture to Okinawa, including the Japanese martial arts of the time. However, it is assumed that Okinawa was largely isolated from the outside world until the 14th century. In the 14th century, Okinawa became tributary to China, and trade relations between China and Okinawa intensified.

Until the 15th century, Okinawa was mostly divided into several essentially independent kingdoms. It is believed that it was not until 1429 that Okinawa was first unified under a common king. Additionally, during this time, Okinawa became a trading center, leading to the mixing and further development of various cultural influences and knowledge not only from China and Japan, but also from Malaysia, Thailand, and the Arab world in Okinawa.

2.) Origins of Kobudo

Two periods in Okinawa are particularly significant for the development of Kobudo:

  • At the beginning of the 16th century, a weapons ban was issued for the population due to fear of revolts. To avoid being completely defenseless against robbers and even the state, this first weapons ban is believed to have particularly inspired the rural population to seek alternatives to conventional weapons.
    At the beginning of the 17th century, from 1609, Okinawa was conquered by the Japanese Satsuma clan — during this conquest, a second weapons ban was issued. Again, in order to defend themselves against outlaws and the occupiers, improvisation was necessary.
    Over time, sophisticated weaponless fighting systems evolved from the precursors of Karate, and from the precursors of Kobudo, fighting systems specifically using unconventional objects as weapons. It is believed that the development of these precursors, which were purely focused on combat applicability, mostly took place in secrecy, as the open practice of these arts was likely frowned upon by the authorities.

Especially over the course of the 19th century, it is assumed that the character of the precursors to Karate and Kobudo gradually changed, from a purely martial orientation (Bugei) to martial arts (Budo). During this time, originally Japanese trainees were increasingly initiated into the emerging Karate and Kobudo.

Kobudo should not be considered a closed, homogeneous entity, but rather as an umbrella term for a large collection and synthesis of various weapons and applications. Depending on the counting method, Kobudo is sometimes attributed to as many as 50 different weapons or weapon-like objects. However, historical Kobudo masters often focused intensively on only one or a few weapons. Thus, Kobudo rests on the shoulders of many masters who have contributed over a long period of time.

Until the 19th century, it is assumed that there were primarily two different main developmental strands for Kobudo, which may not necessarily have strongly intersected:
On one hand, from the rural population; this particularly concerns the 'classic' Kobudo weapons, such as the Tonfa, Kama, Eku, Kuwa, or Nunti-Bo.
On the other hand, from the Okinawan nobility, particularly teachers from the upper class of Okinawa, especially from the royal family and the palace guard. Particularly in this developmental strand, there are strong influences from China and Japan. Weapons that are more likely attributed to this strand include the Naginata, Yari, Jo, Jitte, Sai, and also (Ni-)Tanbo.

Whether Kobudo was subject to strict secrecy in Okinawa until the 19th century, and whether there was indeed a strict weapons ban for all locals, is disputed – at least the upper class or palace guard would likely have been allowed to carry swords or the like. Moreover, the relationship between the Japanese-descended Satsuma occupiers and the locals appears to have been relatively good most of the time.

3.) Kobudo became public

After the end of the Samurai rule in Japan in the 1860s, Okinawa transformed from an occupied territory into a regular Japanese province. This change, along with possibly reduced pressure on the population and especially the advent of modern firearms, likely led to Karate and Kobudo becoming public – their practical relevance simply diminished. Thus, around 1900, the first documented public demonstrations of Karate and Kobudo took place in Okinawa. Some time later, in the 1920s, Karate in particular was spread to the Japanese mainland, became popular with the government, and quickly thrived there as a disciplined, useful physical exercise – also due to the militarism prevalent in Japanese society at the time.

After Japan's defeat in World War II, during which many original sources about Karate and Kobudo in Okinawa were irretrievably destroyed, Okinawa was occupied by the USA until the 1970s and hosted (hosts) large US military bases. With the return of US soldiers from Okinawa to the USA from around the 1950s, Karate in particular made its way to the Western Hemisphere and spread from the USA to Europe (for example, starting from the Paris Karate school of Henry Plée). On the other hand, Kobudo remained more obscure and was introduced to a wider audience in Europe only during the Karate World Championships in 1972 in Paris. Throughout much of the 20th century, it is assumed that Kobudo was relatively unknown even in Okinawa; in any case, Kobudo has led a more shadowy existence compared to Karate.

In the 20th century, specifically in the 1950s and 1960s, there was significant debate over the originality of Karate and Kobudo – are Karate and Kobudo primarily 'Okinawan' or are they 'Japanese' arts? Thus, there were masters who saw themselves as originally Japanese and those who saw themselves as originally Okinawan. Since Karate (and, to a lesser extent, Kobudo) was predominantly not systematized and spread directly from Okinawa, but from the Japanese mainland (e.g., Funakoshi Gichin lived in the Japanese mainland from the 1920s and many Karate styles, like Shotokan, began their journey around the world from there), Japanese influences are diverse and extensive. To put it very briefly and simplistically, the more modest, simple Okinawan imprint of Kobudo (at least in terms of the main developmental strand supported by the rural population) was overshadowed by the Japanese Samurai and elite thinking of the first half of the 20th century; put sharply, the Okinawan fisherman and farmer fighting techniques were partly transformed into a Japanese Samurai-Kobudo.

4.) Sôchin ryu Kobudo

In the 1970s and even into the early 1980s, very little was known about Kobudo in Europe – however, there were some who were interested in Kobudo, including our style founder Jim van de Wielle (*1937).

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Jim van de Wielle intensively studied Jiu-Jitsu. In particular, Jim van de Wielle was in frequent contact with the Jiu-Jitsu schools in southern England around Robert Clark (1946-2012), James Blundell, and John Steadman, and regularly trained in Liverpool. There, Bo/Jo/Hanbo, Sai, Tonfa, Kama, and Nunchaku were practiced, which were part of the Jiu-Jitsu examination program from the 3rd Dan. Kobudo was thus a relatively small part of this examination program, with comparatively little scope per weapon and without an overarching system.

The origin of the Kobudo or Kobujutsu practiced by Robert Clark is not entirely clear. It is known that Robert Clark learned, among others, from Jack Britten (ca. 1900-1978), who is believed to have trained with Yukio Tani (1881-1950). According to tradition, Yukio Tani came to England from Japan as a young man and is primarily known for his Jiu-Jitsu. He was, according to further tradition, a student of Mataemon Tanabe (1869-1942) from the Fusen-Ryu, which in turn was founded by Motsugai Takeda (1795–1867), a Japanese monk, and includes both unarmed and weapon-based defense techniques.[2].

Based on what he learned in the environment of Robert Clark, Jim van de Wielle developed 'his' Kobudo over the course of the 1980s, utilizing the information from Okinawa and Japan, which was not yet very extensive in Europe during the 1980s. The first 'modern' Sôchin-Ryu Kata that are still practiced today date back to around 1989. In the 1990s, what Jim van de Wielle had collected and developed was systematically combined with Patrick Hesbeens to form Sôchin-Ryu Kobudo. Initially, the first elements of Sôchin-Ryu were practiced loosely within the framework of Kun-Tai-Ko. The actual establishment as an independent style with its own examination program finally took place in 1998.

[2] also see, as of July 2022, the English-language Wikipedia articlesYukio Tani“, „Fusen-ryū“ and „Mataemon Tanabe

5.) modern Kobudo

Unlike other Kobudo styles, such as Matayoshi-Ryu, Sôchin-Ryu is relatively young and is not primarily a strict historical transmission. Sôchin-Ryu is not exactly oriented towards the often only vaguely and inaccurately known historical models, but is largely a re-development and new development by Jim van de Wielle, supported by Patrick Hesbeens, based on the sometimes sparse knowledge available about the original techniques. This entails that Sôchin-Ryu, especially compared to other Kobudo styles with more pronounced historical roots, focuses more on the core techniques of each weapon. Additionally, Sôchin-Ryu offers an insight into the diverse world of Kobudo weapons, so that weapons are taught which are sometimes not covered at all in other Kobudo styles.

Sôchin-Ryu is not a static, strictly historical concept but is open to further development and evolution. Due to its origins also in Jiu-Jitsu, a focus of Sôchin-Ryu lies in the area of self-defense; this applies at least to weapons that are still considered practical for everyday use today, such as Jo, Tanbo, or Yawara, or their modern equivalents like a walking stick, a rolled-up newspaper, or an umbrella. In Sôchin-Ryu, the spirit of old Kobudo, defending oneself in daily life with improvised weapons, is carried into the present day.

6.) Meaning of the word Sôchin ryu Kobudo

Kobudo roughly translates to „old warrior's path“ or „old way of war“. Sôchin-Ryu means approximately „Style of Strength and Tranquility“ or „Style of Quiet Strength"; Sôchin can also be interpreted as „Preserve the Peace". The name Sôchin implies techniques that are calm yet powerful and dynamic. Sôchin is also the name of a Karate kata that originated in Okinawa."

7.) Sôchin-ryu symbol

The emblem for Sôchin-Ryu Kobudo consists of a red circle divided into 16 sectors on a white background. The three inscriptions running vertically within the circle read, from left to right: 'Jim van de Wielle' on the left, in the center „Sôchin-Ryu“ and right „Kobudo“.

Markantes Sochin ryu Kobudo Logo

The red circle against a white background is reminiscent of the national flag of Japan, known as the Hi no Maru, which translates to 'sun disc' or 'sun circle' in German. The design with 16 sectors is reminiscent of a variant of the Japanese flag used from the 16th century until the end of World War II, known as the Kyokujitsuki, or 'Flag of the Rising Sun,' where the 16 sectors represent sun rays. The variant used in the Sôchin-Ryu emblem, known as a Siemens star, was rarely used early on. By using the Siemens star variant, the historically problematic design used particularly during World War II, with a central solid red circle from which 16 rays emanate, is avoided.

Moreover, the Siemens star variant was used on certificates for higher Dan ranks of the World Ju-Jitsu Federation during the 1970s and 1980s, where it appeared in a slightly asymmetrical form. The World Ju-Jitsu Federation was founded by Robert Clark in 1976. In this respect, the Sôchin-Ryu emblem also reflects its early beginnings in the context of Robert Clark's Jiu-Jitsu.

Furthermore, the red circle against a white background also picks up the similar design of the logos of the World Kun-Tai-Ko Budo Association and at least some of its member associations, symbolizing the connection to Kun-Tai-Ko.

Questions about Kobudo or training opportunities

Peter Neuwirth, 5.Dan
Chief Instructor Austria
Kobudo Hotline: +43 650 9258966
office@sochin-ryu-kobudo.com

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