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.
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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 One of those tools — called regionally a tonfa, tunfa or tuifa — was originally made of wood that came from a native species of tree similar to our white oak.
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)