History of the Japanese Staff

Bo and Jo

The staff has been used as a weapon across Asia, and indeed the world, since the beginning of recorded history. The weapon has not always been associated with the warrior class, and has often been used as a tool of self-defence for priests or commoners. In Japanese classical bujutsu ryu the staff used was usually the six foot hardwood Bo. Bo techniques are an integral part of the oldest documented ryu, the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, founded by Choiisai Ienao (1386-1488). Many classical schools included staff techniques as a means of fighting with a broken weapon, for example a naginata (halberd) or spear that had had its blade broken. In Muhen Ryu the naginata and the bo are used interchangeably with the same forms. The hanbojutsu (half bo, or three foot staff, skill) of the Kukamashin Ryu is said to have originated when. In 1575, Kuriyama Ukon Nagafusa was engaged in a battle as a member of the forces of Oda Nobunga. Kuriyama was using a short spear which was cut in half, leaving him with a section of wood around three feet long. During the battle Kuriyama found this length of wood to be a versatile and effective weapon, and created the hanbo syllabus of the school after this event.

In classical martial arts the use of the staff has often been associated with jujutsu. Takenouchi Ryu, the oldest documented jujutsu style, regards bojutsu as an integral and important part of the curriculum, while in Katayama Hoki Ryu, bojutsu techniques are considered to be part of the school's jujutsu syllabus. Another traditional style of stick fighting is the Kukishin Ryu, which uses sticks of various lengths including the full length Bo, a half-length Hanbo and a short one-foot stick. Kukishin Ryu is closely associated with the Hontai Yoshin Ryu jujutsu style.

During the Edo period it was common for the bodyguards of merchants to carry Rokushakubo, the six-foot staff. This was because they wanted an effective weapon that did not necessarily involve the death of an enemy, as this could cause trouble with the authorities. For this reason the Japanese word for bodyguard is yojimbo, Bo-carrier.

Although there are other schools that feature the use of the four foot staff, most to the development of the weapon is attributed to one man - Muso Gonnosuke. There is very little factual knowledge concerning Gonnosuke although there are plenty of stories. Authors writing more than a hundred years after his death have embroidered his life to make it more exciting, and it is from these unreliable accounts that we know what little we do.

In his younger years he was known as Gonbei. A bokuto attributed to Gonnosuke at Chikuwa Shrine is more than four feet long, implying that he was a large and strong man. Gonnosuke studied in the Katori Shinto Ryu as well as the Kashima Jikishinkage Ryu before embarking on a musa shugyu (warrior's journey) to test and sharpen his skills. As he was a contemporary of Miyamoto Musashi, it was inevitable that they would meet and that the story would end up with many variants, each more exciting than the last.

According to the earliest accounts, around 1608 Gonnosuke, accompanied by six retainers, journeyed to find Musashi in Harima province (or in some accounts at Mushashi's dojo in Edo). When he came across Musashi, Musashi was carving a willow branch for a toy. Gonnosuke boasted that he was the finest martial artist in the land and invited Musashi to a match, but Musashi refused saying that his technique was not for display. When pushed Musashi said that he would stop Gonnosuke no matter what he did but that he still would not fight. Without further ceremony Gonnosuke drew a four-foot wooden sword and attacked Musashi. Musashi, using the willow branch beat Gonnosuke back until he reached the wall, and then lightly tapped him on the forehead.

In other accounts Musashi is said to have beaten Gonnosuke by drawing both his swords and trapping Gonnusuke's weapon with Musashi's trademark jujidome (cross block) technique.

Regardless of the method, Gonnosuke left defeated and downcast, and retreated to a shrine on Mount Honan in present day Fukoka prefecture. For 37 days he meditated and performed Shinto rites until at last he had a vision of an angelic child who inspired him to create a new weapon. The new weapon, the jo, was a staff about four feet long: shorter than the traditional six-foot bo, but longer than the sword. One of the principal advantages of a weapon of this length is that it can be swung under the arm while a bo will not fit between the armpit and the ground. This change in length makes double-ended techniques more practical and has a huge impact on the manoeuvrability of the weapon.

Utilising this greater manoeuvrability, Gonnosuke was said to have had a second match that ended in either a draw or a defeat for Musashi. The okuden (secret transmission) level of Gonnosuke's style has techniques to be used against a swordsman using two swords in a cross block, and some suggest that these may have been the actual techniques used to defeat Musashi. However according to Musashi's book Go Rin No Sho he was never defeated, and he does not come across as someone prone to avoiding the truth. An amusing and very readable fictionalised account of the duel can be found in Yoshikawa Eiji's novel 'Miyamoto Musashi'.

After his revelation and second duel with Musashi, Gonnosuke formalised his style, and named it Shindo Muso Ryu Jojutsu (Divine Dream-Revealed Staff Style). The word Shindo (also Shinto) refers to the Japanese religion, but may also be a reference to Katori Shinto Ryu. Muso (In a Dream) is also Gonnosuke's family name. Gonnosuke later became the martial arts teacher to the Kuroda clan in Kyushu and the style became their exclusive art. The art was not widely known of outside of Kyushu until the twentieth century.

From the time of the third headmaster onwards various other arts have been added to the syllabus, including Ittatsu Ryu Hojo Jutsu (rope binding), Ikkaku Ryu Jutte Jutsu (Metal Truncheon), Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu (Sword), Isshin Ryu Kusarigama (chain and sickle), and Uechida Ryu Tanjo Jutsu (walking cane).

In modern years the most well known Jojutsu expert has been Shimizu Takaji (1898-1978). A native of Kyushu he began training at the age of 17. In 1921 a demonstration of Jojutsu so impressed Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, that he invited Shimizu to move to Tokyo to teach Jo at the Kodokan. In 1927 he and his teacher Takayama Kenichi gave a demonstration for the technical commission of the Japanese police force, who were so impressed that they decided to adopt some of the techniques for police use. Shimizu became resident jojutsu instructor to the Japanese police force in 1931 and a special police unit, 'tokubetsu keibitai,' was formed to be trained by him in the use of the weapon. The use of jo by the police became known as keijo-jutsu. In Tokyo he opened the Mumon (No Gate) Dojo where he taught police and military officers, and soon his student numbers began to grow.

Shimizu was interested in spreading the art of the Jo to a wider population, but the traditional methods of teaching classical bujutsu are oriented around personal instruction and direct transmission from teacher to student. At this time Jigoro Kano had been propagating the new art of Judo, which was oriented towards teaching larger numbers in a class situation. Shimizu, influenced by Kano's success created a new training method for modern Japanese students based on 12 Kihon (basic techniques). Although an exotic art, compared with the sport oriented Judo and Kendo, Jojutsu student numbers continued to rise. In 1940 the name of the style was changed to 'Jodo' and Shimizu became head of the Dai Nihon Jodokai (Greater Japan Jodo Association).

At the end of the war in 1945 the American occupation forces banned all Japanese martial arts, but because of its use by the police force Jodo was exempted from the ban. Shimizu continued to refine and systemise the police form of the jo art.

The mass demonstrations of the 1960s lead to further refinements in the use of the jo for crowd control, providing the nearest equivalent to a pitched battle without firearms since the "Warring States" period. Shimuzu also taught the police other elements of Muso Shindo Ryu including Hojo Jutsu (the art of tying up an opponent). Use of tying prisoners up with rope may seem anachronistic in these days of handcuffs, but the techniques have been useful at mass demonstrations where hundreds of arrests have been made, and handcuffs have been in short supply.

The Japanese Kendo Federation has also adopted and modified a reduced set of katas as a supplementary style for kendoka. This style, Seitei Jodo, is the most widely known form of Jodo in the west. Apart from the great reduction in the numbers of techniques - twelve in the Seitei set, more than a hundred in the Shindo Muso Ryu, the principle difference is in the stance. In the Seitei set the stance is more square on, similar to Kendo stance, than in the Shindo Muso style.

The other main use for the jo in the twentieth century is in Aikido. Ueshiba Morehei studied Shinkage Ryu Sojutsu, and Kashima Shinto Ryu and this may have influenced the development of the Aikido weapon use. The core of Ueshiba's jo style is the Thirty-one step pattern, perhaps the most widely taught one-person jo pattern today. Aikido practitioners, especially those from the Iwama Ryu, also make great use of the jo in unarmed training, using the weapon to further their understanding of harmonising with their opponents.

Concealed and Trick Weapons

There were also a number of staff-like deceptive weapons developed by Samurai which were able to be carried without causing alarm, such as the yagyuzue, shikomibo and shikomi-chigirigi.

The Yagyuzue, or staff of the Yagyu family, is basically an iron rod camouflaged to look like a walking stick. It was been invented by Yagyu Jubei, a member of the prestigious family of sword instructors to the shogun who is rumoured to have been a ninja in the service of the Tokugawa government. This weapon is said to have been carried by him as an unobtrusive weapon when on secret missions.

Shikomibo or shikomizue, (deceptive staff), also known as joto (staff-sword) were sticks that outwardly resembled walking sticks yet had hidden blades. Some concealed full-length swords (as in the Zatoichi movies), while other concealed shorter blades so that the end could be removed to reveal a spear head, turning the stick into a short spear. In others the blade was attached to a shorter handle so the remains of the stick could be held in one hand and the blade used as a knife in the other.

Sometimes samurai on secret intelligence ('ninja') missions would pose as yamabushi, or mountain priests or pilgrims. And since yamabushi often carried a walking staff versions were made of these that concealed blades or iron reinforcing.

Shikomi-chigirigi was a weapon that appeared to be an ordinary bo, but concealed in one end was a chamber that held a weighted chain. A switch on the side could release the chain, which could then be used as a flail attached to the end of the staff. Although some believe the purpose was to deceive the enemy into thinking they were facing a shorter weapon, and then to suddenly release the chain, Ellis Amdur has argued that this was not an efficient combat method and that the chain was simply hidden for ease of transport.

Tessan and Tanbo

It is a common misconception that traditional or koryu jujutsu was an unarmed art. In fact, much of early jujutsu frequently depended on the use of minor weapons such as the tessan (iron fan), tanbo (short stick) and tansaibo (short thin stick). The tessan was used by samurai in situations where it was not considered polite to wear a sword, such as the tea ceremony. Also drawing blood in castle grounds could be punished by seppuku, so it was wise to have a non-lethal weapon available. Tanbo techniques are essentially identical to those of the tessan, and also to related weapons such as the naeshi and jutte. There were also techniques developed to enable a wide variety of other everyday implements to be used in a similar manner such as kiseru (smoking pipes) and shakuhachi (bamboo flutes).

The use of the short tanbo, a twelve to eighteen inch truncheon, may have come from the tessan, or war fan. Usually when a samurai was inside he might remove his katana, but would still wear his short sword. However, in some situations he might be obliged to remove even this. In these situations he could always carry a fan. The tessan, iron fan, was intended to look like an ordinary fan, but was edged with iron and could be used as a weapon. Some examples that survive today are completely solid lumps of iron, painted to look like innocent fans. Although limited in range, these are truly ferocious weapons, easily capable of shattering bone. Techniques for the use of the tessan survive in several ryu, and the techniques taught at Seishinkan are derived from the Daito Ryu tanbo / tessan method.

Today there are just as many objects that can be found in any situation that can be used as a short stick. In feudal times, skills acquired by training with traditional weapons such as tanbo and tansaibo (short, thin stick) could be transferred to everyday objects, and today the same transference is available. Contemporary objects such as newspapers and felt tip markers can be pressed into service as weapons when needed. Mizukoshi, for example, explicitly connects the use of everyday objects to Daito Ryu Tessan Jutsu. This makes the use of short weapons such as these especially relevant to contemporary use.

The advantage of the tanbo is that, being shorter than a normal cudgel the use of the weapon is not obvious, and getting the necessary wrist snap requires some training and practice. Therefore, since presumably your opponent is not familiar with the technique, the weapon does not present as great a threat as, for example, a knife, should you be disarmed. Furthermore, with related weapons, such as the newspaper and the felt tip marker pen, if the opponent manages to take the weapon away from you we might assume that you have not succeeded in using it well. Therefore the opponent will not realise that the weapon can be dangerous, and they are likely to discard it.

Another advantage of training with tanbo is that the weapon promotes wrist strength and an 'explosive' punching technique skills that can transfer to other areas of training. The tenarishi tessan, a solid metal 'fan', for example is used by kendo practitioners to develop wrist strength and fluency.

The reasons that the staff arts developed in feudal Japan were principally that either the weapon was chosen because it offered the possibility of subduing an opponent without necessarily killing them, or that a stck was picked up in an emergency (such as the breaking of a bladed weapon) and the stick was used as a staff. These circumstances still exist today. Just as a Samurai on a battlefield might use the shaft of a broken weapon, it is possible that we might be forced into fighting with a found object a length of pipe or a fence paling for example. In contemporary society killing an opponent will result in a prison term, and I know that even though I own a lethal Japanese sword, should I ever need to defend my family against an intruder I would choose a staff in preference. If I use the sword, the consequences are serious, and the best possible result might involve serious legal problems for me. If I pick up a staff I have more flexibility in my response to a threat of violence, and the act of not choosing the more lethal weapon will stand me in good stead should I end up in court.

Principle sources:

  • Amudur, Ellis, Koryu: Essays on Japanese Martial Traditions, Edgework, 2002.
  • Mol, Serge, Classical Fighting Arts of Japan, Kodansha, 2001
  • Mol, Serge, Classical Weaponry of Japan, Kodansha, 2003
  • Mizukoshi, Hiro, Aiki Tessan Jutsu
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