Think you know all there is to know about the tonfa? Think again! Black Belt columnist Dave Lowry is here to explain how the popular karate weapon might have evolved into its current form.

“For me, the tonfa is a symbol of harmony,” Kina-san told me once. A friend of my karate teacher’s, Kina-san used to give some impressive demonstrations with a pair of his favorite weapons. I had seen him spin a tonfa and catch a solid wooden staff that was being swung at him, then hit it with such force that the staff cracked. So I had my doubts about the harmony stuff.


The simple tonfa, originally a handle used to rotate a gristmill, has been overshadowed by some flashier Okinawan weapons, but it’s every bit as effective and deadly as any other component of the makeshift armament of the Ryukyu. I’d been shown graphically how it could generate enough force to smash bones or pulverize organs. I couldn’t begin to guess how it could possibly symbolize harmony.

Subscribe to Black Belt now! Go here to sign up for the paper version.

Kina-san was born in Hawaii, but he spent his high school years living with relatives in Okinawa. He trained extensively in karate there. He returned to Hawaii in 1940, just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Bad timing.

Fearing imprisonment at the hands of U.S. authorities, he spent most of the next four years living in a friend’s hunting cabin in a rural part of Maui, gardening to feed himself and practicing with the tonfa to pass the time. One summer evening, Kina-san told me about those years and the ones before when he was a karate student in Okinawa.

I asked him what he’d meant when he said the tonfa was a symbol of harmony. He explained that while appearing to be of simple construction, it’s actually a complicated tool to manufacture. It must be fashioned carefully and with some precision to withstand the tremendous stress of combat and the abuse of daily training.

The Okinawans discovered that a long time ago when they began adapting various farming and fishing tools for combat. One of those tools — called regionally a tonfa, tunfa or tuifa — was originally made of wood that came from a native species of tree similar to our white oak.

Want to learn the tonfa from a legend? Order Fumio Demura's Karate Weapons of Self-Defense, by Fumio Demura!

These tonfa — the word means “handle” — were used on millstones. The projecting knob was inserted into a hole in the mill’s upper stone, and the longer shaft was used as a handle to rotate it against the lower stone. Used this way, relatively little stress was placed on the tonfa.

When they were adapted as weapons, though, the Okinawans discovered the tonfa often broke where the knob was inserted into the shaft. Several experiments failed to produce a tonfa that could hold up during combat. Eventually — and I hasten to add that Kina-san admitted this was a folk tale, possibly true but not to be considered history — a farmer noticed that fishing boats were patched with wooden plugs similar in circumference to the knob of a tonfa. The plugs, called fundu, were subject to similar stresses.

If the fishermen could craft a plug that was watertight and still flexible enough to withstand the motion of the boat, he reasoned, the same technology could be applied to the tonfa. The flaw in his plan was that a rivalry existed between many farming and fishing communities in Okinawa. People who lived only a mile away were considered “outsiders,” and few would have dreamed of approaching them to ask a favor. Yet that’s exactly what the farmers decided to do.

Two of them volunteered to go to the fishing community and humble themselves by asking for advice on making the tonfa stronger. They learned that the method of wood joinery was known to only a couple of local fishing families. The farmers went to them and were surprised to be met with respect. The fishermen took the farmers down to the beach and shared their knowledge.

One secret of the fundu was that they used a part of the iju, a tropical tree indigenous to Okinawa that’s been employed for making seagoing canoes and boats for centuries. Sections of iju wood were cut across the grain and then soaked in sea water to make them fit tight while remaining flexible. The farmers thanked their unexpected benefactors for revealing the method. Then one of them asked, “Why did you share your secrets with us when there has always been so much distance between farmers and fishermen?”

Members of the two fishing families explained that several generations ago, the fishermen needed a wood that was supple and strong to repair their boats. Frustrated by their lack of success in locating anything suitable, one of them had finally gone to a nearby community and sought out a farmer who was famous for his woodworking skills. It was that man who taught them to use the iju wood for their plugs. By instructing the two farmers, the fishermen said, they were in a sense repaying a favor once done for their ancestors.

Whether that’s true or not is a matter of conjecture, for one frequently hears these sorts of tales about the old days in Okinawa. Even so, I’ve compared some older versions of tonfa made by expert craftsmen with modern factory-produced units. With knobs that are pegged or glued, the newer models will hold up for a while, but sooner or later they’ll crack or loosen. The old ones, however, stay strong and tight no matter how hard they’re used. It makes me wonder if there isn’t some truth after all in Kina-san’s story.

Dave Lowry has written Black Belt’s popular Karate Way column since 1986. Go here to subscribe to the print edition of the magazine.

(Photos by Rick Hustead)

SUBSCRIBE TO BLACKBELT MAGAZINE TODAY!
Don't miss a single issue of the world largest magazine of martial arts.

Talks About Being a Smaller Fighter in a Combat Sport Ruled by Giants

At first glance, most people — most martial artists, even — will zero in on the smaller person in any fight and deem him or her to be at a distinct disadvantage. It's a natural tendency to draw this conclusion based on obvious attributes such as height, weight and reach. However, that tendency does not always lead to accurate conclusions.

Keep Reading Show less
Dana Abbott LIVE Seminar

Black Belt presents this LIVE training seminar with Shihan Dana Abbot 7th degree black belt in Kenjutsu training in Japanese Swordsmanship.

The Chinese Wushu Association, the primary governing body for Chinese-style martial arts in that nation, has released a statement declaring martial arts practitioners should refrain from calling themselves "masters" or the head of a style. The organization also seemed to indicate that practitioners should not participate in staged public fights.

The decrees apparently come in response to a series of public humiliations alleged traditional Chinese martial arts masters have suffered in challenge matches against mixed martial artist Xu Xiaodong and other modern trained combat sports fighters. Xu ignited a firestorm of controversy when video of his 2017 demolition of "thunder style" tai chi exponent Wei Lei in an MMA fight went viral on Youtube.

If you're a Bruce Lee fan and or want to learn about his philosophy and liniage, these 3 books are a must have!

Out of many of Bruce Lee's amazing published books that are out there, we have chosen to narrow it down to these 3.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do Expanded Edition

Compiled from Bruce Lee's notes and essays and originally published in 1975, this iconic volume is one of the seminal martial arts guides of its time. The science and philosophy behind the fighting system Lee pioneered himself—jeet kune do—is explained in detail, depicted through hundreds of Lee's own illustrations. With the collaboration of Lee's daughter, Shannon, and Bruce Lee Enterprises, this new edition is expanded, updated, and remastered, covering topics such as Zen and enlightenment, kicking, striking, grappling, and footwork. Featuring an introduction by Linda Lee, this is essential reading for any practitioner, offering a brief glimpse into the mind of one of the world's greatest martial artists.

Keep Reading Show less
Free Bruce Lee Guide
Have you ever wondered how Bruce Lee’s boxing influenced his jeet kune do techniques? Read all about it in this free guide.
Don’t miss a thing Subscribe to Our Newsletter