The Sai

The Sai

A Classical Approach to Wielding a Classical Weapon

There has been a sea change in thinking among practitioners of the traditional martial arts in the past 30 years. Previously, students faithfully accepted what they were told and furiously practiced those methods — which might be of questionable utility based on the interpretations commonly assigned to the movements within the kata. Then Taika Oyata showed that the common interpretations were not at all what kata were supposed to be about.


Oyata's teachings made only modest inroads into the martial arts community until Black Belt Hall of Famer George Dillman began training with him. Dillman took what Oyata taught and pushed it out to the world. The result: Teachers everywhere are now exploring realistic and practical uses for kata movements. (Such interpretation of kata movement is commonly referred to as bunkai‚ which means "analysis‚" or less frequently as oyo‚ which means "application.")

But while the traditional empty-hand forms of the martial arts increasingly have been the subject of careful and thoughtful reassessment, the same has not been true of the kata of karate weapons, or kobudo. In this area of practice, students and teachers continue the "traditional" practice of clacking weapons against weapons in noisy — although emotionally satisfying — sequences of attack-block-counter. Perhaps it is time to read the kobudo kata anew and reassess the use of these defensive tools.

Two Chinese constables with a condemned prisoner are shown in this photo, taken around 1895. (John Charles Oswald collection at the SOAS University of London)

There has been a sea change in thinking among practitioners of the traditional martial arts in the past 30 years. Previously, students faithfully accepted what they were told and furiously practiced those methods — which might be of questionable utility based on the interpretations commonly assigned to the movements within the kata. Then Taika Oyata showed that the common interpretations were not at all what kata were supposed to be about.Oyata's teachings made only modest inroads into the martial arts community until Black Belt Hall of Famer George Dillman began training with him. Dillman took what Oyata taught and pushed it out to the world. The result: Teachers everywhere are now exploring realistic and practical uses for kata movements. (Such interpretation of kata movement is commonly referred to as bunkai‚ which means "analysis‚" or less frequently as oyo‚ which means "application.")But while the traditional empty-hand forms of the martial arts increasingly have been the subject of careful and thoughtful reassessment, the same has not been true of the kata of karate weapons, or kobudo. In this area of practice, students and teachers continue the "traditional" practice of clacking weapons against weapons in noisy — although emotionally satisfying — sequences of attack-block-counter. Perhaps it is time to read the kobudo kata anew and reassess the use of these defensive tools.

What We Think

It's said that the weapons of karate are simply common implements used for self-defense. But this is not exactly the case. Some weapons do fit into this category, such as the kuwa (field hoe), the kama (hand sickle used for rice harvesting) and the eiku (oar).

Others seem to have started as implements and evolved into weapons, like the nunchaku (which might have evolved from an agricultural flail or a horse bridle) and the tonfa (the side-handle baton, which might have evolved from a grinding-wheel handle). But there are some that are purpose-built as weapons and have no other function. The best example of this is the sai.

The sai was an Okinawan weapon of law enforcement. Like its Japanese counterpart the jutte, the sai functioned as an all-around weapon for subduing and arresting criminals and as a symbol of authority. (Only the local constable carried a pair.) The origin of the sai might lie in China, where it was known as the "iron ruler." Evidence of this comes from a photograph that dates from 1895 and is now part of the John Charles Oswald collection at the SOAS University of London. Taken in Fuzhou province, China, the photo shows two Chinese constables with a condemned prisoner. Each constable is holding a sai, and the sai are of the same design as modern versions.

The conventional use of the sai, as taught in modern kobudo, entails blocking attacks from a sword or staff — and then quickly counterattacking. (The martial artist on the right is the author, and the man on the left is Chris Martingilio, a senior master instructor of Ryukyu kempo.)

What We See

With this understanding as a starting point, a few important conclusions can be made.\

One: The sai is neither a dueling implement nor a battlefield weapon. The image frequently seen in movies of a black-clad ninja who is armed with a sai and taking on an opponent who is armed with some other weapon is a fabrication. The sai is a law-enforcement tool of pre-emption, control and arrest.

Two: The sai, as a weapon of the constabulary, has the capacity for applying varying degrees of force. Many of the techniques of the sai are brutal and even lethal, but the sai also can control, trap and restrain with remarkable effectiveness. (A pair of sai can even be used as handcuffs.)

Three: It's often believed that ancient martial arts masters trained so diligently that they attained levels of skill that are impossible today. This is a myth. The reality is people haven't changed all that much. How many modern police officers train in arnis because they carry a baton as part of their tactical arsenal and want to be highly skilled in its use? Most law-enforcement personnel have limited training in the use of their weapon, which is why police departments require periodic requalification. In general, officers count on the weapon to compensate for any lack in skill and practice.

For this reason, we might reasonably expect that sai techniques would require only a moderate level of skill to perform. Otherwise, they would be useless for an ordinary person to use during a stressful encounter. And so it should be expected that the design of the sai enhances the effectiveness of such techniques.

Four: Blocking is a bad idea. Yes, it's better than getting smashed or slashed, but the concept of blocking as a strategy is naive. If a blow is merely blocked — as most sources on the sai argue — all one can hope for is a do-over. But this is a poor premise to work from because a katana, for example, is a subtle weapon. Yes, it's great for hacking off limbs, but it's far more effective for feinting in hopes of eliciting a block, after which a follow-up cut becomes the killing blow.

Five: Distance is the friend of long weapons, and proximity is the friend of short weapons. In a duel, with opponents meeting on an open field, it's wise to bet on the longer weapon. So for the constable with a sai, it would have been important to crowd a suspect, to charge forward when acting to subdue. The object was not to trade blows with an opponent — block, counter, block, counter. The object was to dominate the encounter in such a way that when the moment to strike arrived, the opponent was helpless to defend. But control had to be total, with the sai itself doing most of the work.

The conventional use of the movement called furi-uke‚ as taught in modern kobudo, is to catch and deflect a sword.

Six: The first strategy in using the sai was to prevent the subject from drawing a weapon. Since the weapon a constable was most likely to face was a sword, the old kata could reasonably be expected to devote a significant amount of practice to methods for stopping the draw. And that is precisely what we see.

What We Do

The traditional sai forms known as chatanyara-no-sai, tawada-no-sai, hamahiga-no-sai and tsukenshitahaku-no-sai are fundamentally the same. With the exception of one or two moves that are unique to each kata, the majority of the motions and sequences are identical. This makes sense because there would be a reliable set of techniques for the weapon that had proved their usefulness and thereby earned a place in every sai kata.

When these movements are examined from a law-enforcement perspective, a majority of them can be seen — as expected — as methods for dealing with a sword as it's being drawn. We will consider three here.

One: When the sai is held with the point forward, the assumption is that it's used as a simple stabbing tool. In reality, the very shape of the sai allows tremendous control as a subject draws a sword. The method is to thrust forward with the point of the sai slightly elevated so the weapon intercepts the sword at the hilt, with the shaft of the sai serving as the contact point. When this is done, the collision of the thrusting sai and the sword-drawing motion forces the sword hilt to slide into the yoke of the tine and pull the tip of the sai down onto the drawing hand. Continued forward movement traps the sword and the hand against the subject's body.

Two: Another common technique in sai kata is a movement performed predominantly with the left side: gedan-uke. Typically, this is interpreted as blocking a low strike. However, a more practical application is to counter the movement one sees when a person is reaching for a sword.

The martial artist holds the sai in the open position with the point angled upward. As he steps forward, he punches the weapon outward, allowing the tip to drop slightly at the end of the movement.

It's often said that "there are no left-handed samurai." That stems from the notion that Japanese culture, like European culture, saw left-handedness as an aberration to be suppressed, which meant that everyone who learned the sword learned the right-hand version. (It's been suggested that the great Miyamoto Musashi may have been left-handed but that because of the cultural stigma, he learned right-handed sword techniques — with the result being that he became ambidextrous. This supposedly led to the development of his famous nito-ryu or "two-sword method.")Because of this cultural element, one could predict that a sword would be drawn with the right hand from a scabbard on the left side. The sai response with gedan-uke is to advance with the left leg while holding the left sai vertically (supposedly a position preparing to block) and smacking the subject's right wrist with the shaft of the sai.

With the draw stopped, the right hand then is used to grasp the sword by the hilt. The downward sweeping movement of the gedan-uke is executed, not as a block but as an action to hook and yank the subject's hand from the sword. At the same time, the constable's right hand moves strongly to the right hip, pulling the sword clear of the scabbard.

Three: Our final example is called furi-uke. In the kata, this technique is performed by swinging the sai in the open position, from low to high diagonally toward the outside. The typical explanation is that the sai is swung up to catch a downward sword cut in the yoke and that this is followed by an outward roll and forward strike, which deflects the sword to the side before the shaft of the sai strikes.

But using the context of pre-emption and control — the agenda of the constable — a more interesting application becomes apparent.

Furi-uke lays the forward-facing shaft of the sai against the blade of the sword as the draw is being executed. The architecture of the sai guides the blade into the yoke, while the swinging movement removes the subject's hand from the sword. The outward rolling movement hurls the blade away, leaving the subject defenseless against the follow-up strike.(Note: This technique is for use in settings in which no unauthorized people are present to pick up the cast-off sword. There are other interesting methods using this same movement that return the sword to its scabbard as a finishing blow is delivered.)

What We Can Conclude

When we speak of Japanese and Okinawan martial arts, we might speak of two approaches. One could be called the traditional approach and the other the classical approach.

The traditional approach — for which the term budo (warrior path) would be apt — asks a question of orthodoxy: What is the correct way to do this?

For this question, there is but one answer, one correct way, one authorized method. The traditional arts do not describe their particular orthodoxy as necessarily the only way. They simply understand that within their own lineage, their own ryuha (style or stream), there is only this particular way. What other ryuha do is their own business.

The classical approach — and here the term bujutsu (warrior method) would apply — asks questions of functionality: How can we effectively use this skill?

This wide-open inquiry is not an appeal to a higher authority or an attempt to follow an unbroken preservation of style. It's a search for practical, efficient and effective solutions to real-world problems. And this means that within the classical ryuha, many possibilities are recognized and accepted and new solutions are not considered challenges to the integrity of the system.

What has been presented here is a classical approach to the use of the sai — aka sai-jutsu — that seeks to place the application of the weapon into its historical setting. And such an approach inevitably yields methods that differ from what one sees in modern, traditional expressions of kobudo.

Chris Thomas is a frequent contributor to Black Belt, a renowned instructor of kyusho-jitsu (pressure-point fighting), the co-author with George Dillman of the definitive books on that subject, and a student of martial arts with more than 50 years of experience. His website is kjk-karate.com.

​APPLICATION OF THE STRAIGHT THRUST:

The opponent begins to draw his sword, and the defender pushes his right sai forward to intercept it at the hilt.

EXECUTION OF GEDAN-UKE

Beginning with the sai in the closed position, the martial artist moves it from an upright orientation

EXECUTION OF FURI-UKE

then flicks it to the outside line, allowing it to circle back until the shaft lightly touches his shoulder.

APPLICATION OF FURI-UKE

The attacker draws his sword, and the defender places the shaft of his right sai against the blade, causing the blade to slide into the yoke of the sai.

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