Okinawan kobudo: A rare art

South Vancouver-raised instructor says kobudo is rare and expensive

Sensei William Chung's students working on their technique while using the bo. Photo by Steven Chang.
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Reported by Christopher MacMillan

“Ichi! Block with the rochin,” Sensei William Chung yelled, as his students alternated thrusting forward with their short spears and their tortoise shaped shields.

“Ni! Step forward and block with the tinbe!”

Chung teaches Okinawan kobudo, a rare martial art that uses weapons, to a group of dedicated students at Dunbar Community Centre.

When asked about the sport, Chung agreed that the reason kobudo is still so rare is because of its biggest strength, the weapons.

The sport, practised by few, requires unusually staunch commitment from the toughest of students — from buying incredibly expensive equipment, lugging it to practise, mind-numbing repetitious training exercises and hearing your sensei critique the tiniest of muscle movements.

Sensei Krister Naab, from North Vancouver’s Hinode Karate & Kobudo, said a lot of the weapons people aren’t even familiar with because they’re so old and traditional.

Chung’s kobudo students use a long staff called a “bo,” a small dagger with three-prongs called a “sai,” a wooden baton called a “tonfa,” a nunchuck or as it’s correctly spelled “nunchaku,” a small brass knuckle looking weapon called a “tekko,” and the “tinbe-rochin,” a shield shaped like a tortoise’s shell and a small spear.

Difficult to find an experienced instructor 

Having students practise with these large, expensive weapons means smaller, more expensive classes and fewer instructors to open new classes.

Even for Chung, who grew up in South Vancouver and went to Langara, began studying kobudo in the 80s. He said it was difficult to find someone qualified to teach him.

“I was taking karate at the time. There was an exchange student from Japan who knew a little about the weapons,” Chung said. “That was the first [kobudo teacher he] got exposure to.”

Most kobudo students have extensive experience in other martial arts because of the added difficulty in wielding weapons. Chung is no exception. He was on the Canadian National Kung Fu team in 1986 that competed in Tianjin, China. He came fifth in the competition.

A life-long commitment

Chung said he now enjoys teaching kobudo to his group of committed students every weekend, and has no plans to stop any time soon.

“Every time they learn something new, I see it in their face. I see it in their personality and that’s rewarding to me,” Chung said.

Bob Mooney, one of Chung’s kobudo students said, learning kobudo is about having a physical connection with the weapon and learning how to connect that [weapon’s movement] to the floor.

Mooney first started learning taekwondo and transitioned into studied wado ryu karate under sensei Norma Foster in 2000.

Today, Mooney teaches karate at Simon Fraser University and is also a head instructor at Guseikai Karate in Burnaby.

“When you have one [martial art, you think] ‘how could I augment this?’”

Kobudo origins mysterious

Although kobudo was first practised around the 13th century, there are no evidences of its exact origin of place, according to Sensei William Chung.

Okinawan kobudo, practised with a series of weapons, is distinct from other “open hand” martial arts like karate.

The weapons used in kobudo reflect the austere nature of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan. For instance, the shield used in kobudo is often shaped like the shell of a tortoise, the wooden batons look like simple handles. Students of kobudo tend to own the weapons they practise with, admiring each other’s during the short breaks of the class.

Chung, head of Karate Kobuto, believes that while nothing was documented during the kobudo’s invention, kobudo gained popularity in the early 20th century as a fitness routine to teach Okinawan children, that could also be practised as a martial art for adults.

Chung said kobudo has not been continuously practised throughout its history, and at one time it was becoming a dying form of martial arts.

“The Okinawans preferred the more easily exportable karate and they didn’t find kobudo as interesting. But the foreigners enjoy kobudo more than the locals,” Chung said.

As karate gained popularity around the world, karate students also began exposed to kobudo and fell in love with it.

“Unfortunately, the expensive nature of teaching kobudo means that there’s not a lot of knowledgeable instructors out there,” Chung said.

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