The Origin of Tonfa 2

Nishiuchi Sensei demonstrating tonfa

Most karateka practice at least a little bit of kobudo, or they have seen it done by their sensei or dojo-mates. I will admit that I am far from an expert on kobudo–years ago, I passed a proficiency test with the bo, and nearly passed a proficiency test for sai (failed the “impractical weapon manipulation” requirement), so I’m pretty familiar with those, and have learned kata for them. More recently, I learned basics and a kata for kama (Okinawan sickles). I have also picked up the basics of tonfa, nunchaku, and nuntebo, but no kata for them. This article is based on my own research, tempered by a practical approach to karate, but I have not focused on kobudo in quite some time. With all that in mind, I still feel the need to discuss one weapon, in particular. One of the weapons of kobudo is the tonfa/tunfa/tuifa–a side-handle baton that is usually used in pairs. When the subject of tonfa comes up, students are most often given the explanation that they were originally the handle to a grindstone, used for milling grain and fruit. This sometimes causes looks of confusion, because they do not know what an Okinawan grindstone looks like, and they can’t figure out how a tonfa could be a handle for one.

In the photo, above, you can see an Okinawan woman using a traditional grindstone. As you can see, the handle she is using to turn the stone is made of a long wooden slat, inserted into a slot in the stone, with a round handle on the end. It isn’t an unreasonable assumption to say that this handle could have evolved into the tonfa we know, today. That said, most handles used in a cranking manner resemble tonfa, and that doesn’t mean that they all evolved into tonfa. I actually accepted this explanation until I saw pictures like the one, above, which show that the wooden slat is quite thin, and would be likely to break easily if struck, or used to strike. Then, I came across a karateka’s home video of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and in the corner of the screen, for about one second, I noticed a pair of tonfa with two handles on them. This intrigued me, so I sought out more information.

Thai/Siamese mae sun sawk at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum

As it turns out, we actually have historical evidence that tonfa were purpose-built weapons when they were introduced to Okinawa. George H. Kerr wrote in his book, Okinawa: The History of an Island People, that the fighting arts of Okinawa came from/were heavily influenced by the fighting arts of Indochina–Siam, in particular. For those who don’t know, the Kingdom of Siam is known as Thailand, today. Patrick McCarthy Sensei has actually written about this influence on his blog, but doesn’t discuss weapons in that article. Jesse Enkamp Sensei, writer of the KaratebyJESSE blog, actually does mention it in this article, though.

A reproduction of an old Thai/Siamese statue of a fighter wearing mae sun sawk

As you can see, the native Thai/Siamese art of krabi krabong teaches the use of a weapon that is virtually identical to the Okinawan tonfa. There are actually many varieties of this weapon, found all across the Indochinese region. Some are round, like the ones above, while others are large and flat, and some are flat where they contact the arm and round on the bottom. Some have one handle, just like tonfa, while others have two, or even three. My favorite is actually the Cambodian version, on which the front end tapers to a large spike. All of them have one distinct difference from tonfa, though–the lashing around the forearm.

In the video, above, you can see a demonstration of krabi krabong, featuring the use of mae sun sawk (also called mai sawk, mae sun sauk, etc.) in use against a staff. You can see how they manipulate them in the traditional kata-like dancing and posturing they do in the beginning, as well as some of the fighting techniques in use against the stick. These weapons are excellent for blocking, of course, but also feature locking techniques (shown against the staff, but easily applicable against a joint), and strikes that use the front (punching), the back (elbowing), and the middle (forearm striking). Very formidable, indeed!

If you compare the krabi krabong demonstration to this video of the most commonly practiced tonfa kata, Hamahiga no Tonfa, you will actually see many similar movements. A big difference that you will notice is that there are many techniques in the Okinawan kata where the back end of the tonfa is swung outward so that it extends in front of the hand. This cannot be done with a Thai/Siamese mae sun sawk, because it is lashed to the forearm. Some may see this as a limitation of the Thai/Siamese weapon, but I would disagree. Watch closely as just about anyone performs a punching motion with a tonfa, and you will see the back end wiggle. This wiggle occurs because the weapon is only being controlled at a single point along its length, and it is very difficult to keep stable. This means that energy is lost when striking this way. Similarly, you couldn’t perform any of the techniques using the back end of the weapon seen in the krabi krabong video, because the tonfa would pull away from your arm.

Kobudo practitioners demonstrating an extended-tonfa block against a bo

Personally, I prefer the stability of having the weapon lashed to the arm, giving you the ability to block and strike with more power. The swinging of the tonfa is typically shown as having two applications–blocking and striking. I can see the argument for swinging the tonfa out to extend your strike, because it increases your reach, although it also decreases the power of the strike. As I’ve mentioned before with unarmed strikes, this isn’t necessarily a problem, provided you use it as a distraction or set-up to move on to other techniques from there. Blocking with an extended tonfa, on the other hand, is just foolish. Unless you have an incredibly strong grip, you simply do not have enough mechanical advantage to stop another weapon (particularly one as heavy and long as a bo) from striking you while holding the long body of the tonfa out in front of your hand.

The real advantage that I see that the tonfa has over the mae sun sawk, due to its lack of lashing to the forearm, is the ability to apply leverage to an opponent. Because you can extend the body of the tonfa, you can use it as a lever for joint locks and takedowns. This isn’t something that is commonly taught, but some traditional kobudo systems do include these techniques in their curriculum. They have also made their way into a lot of police training, due to the adoption of the side handle baton by many police departments in the past. You can see several examples in the video, above, of the tonfa being used to apply joint locks, controlling holds, and takedowns. While you can still do some simple joint locks and takedowns with mae sun sawk, you simply have a wider variety of techniques available to you with the tonfa. If you favor a striking-centric approach, then I would suggest you study the krabi krabong approach to using mae sun sawk. On the other hand, if you favor a control-centric approach, then the tonfa is probably a better choice.

Special thanks to my friend, Matt Perlingiero, for inspiring me to write this article.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.

2 thoughts on “The Origin of Tonfa

  • Matt Perlingiero

    Well, I’m flattered!

    Although I don’t disagree with your analysis about the stronger ability for locking/controlling, it’s odd to me that the Okinawans didn’t seem to structure their usage of the tool around that ability. I see it used this way a lot nowadays, particularly in systems like Ryute, but one element that is required to be used that way is one hand needs to be free, and the necessary movements are never mimicked in any capacity in any kata I’ve seen (the closest would be when the weapon is totally flipped to resemble a kama). Compare this to bo kata, where there’s almost always at least one movement has the capacity to do type of application as is (usually the kamae that looks like the hanging guard whose name I don’t know).

    Maybe the idea was that the trade-off with abandoning the strap and sacrificing the stability (a great observation btw) was the ease of deployment and ability to extend reach without really changing the general idea of how the weapon was used. Though not necessarily “powerful,” the speed of the tip whipping around would definitely be something to fear, especially when coupled with the potential unorthodox angles that it could come from.

    In this capacity, the second handle would appear to just get in the way, but that’s assuming assumptions while implying implications.

    Cool article, but I expect my inspirations to be no less.

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