Nicho Tanbo: Okinawan Weapons Excellent for Self Defense

Dr. William Durbin

There is a legend that goes back many centuries, which tell stories of the Sohei and their incredible capabilities. It is said that some of the Ninja used mechanical devises to reproduce the actual abilities that the warrior monks could do naturally. In example, some of the devises that the Ninja used for climbing trees, castle walls, or mountains, the simply duplicated what the Sohei could do with their bare hands and feet.

The warriors monks at one point in time, realized that their young charges could not perform the incredible feats of skill that the seniors monks had accomplished through many years of training, thus it was that they began to teach their students how to use wooden weapons in place of the hardened weapons and strong minds that they had developed of their bodies.

As they trained for years, soon the junior monks too could use incredible skill, without having to resort to extraneous weapons, but the same could not be said of their charges, the farmers and other peasants in their areas.

Thus the use of wooden weapons were passed on to those who could not develop the incredible skills through long years of training and were forbidden to possess swords or other actual weapons of war. There were many sizes of wooden weapons used by these monks: Kobo, very small sticks ranging from 3 inches to 7 inches; Hanbo or Tanbo, small sticks of around 12 inches to under three feet; Jo, which ranged from three to over four feet; and Bo, which typically were around six feet, but could be seen in some monstrous versions, as long as, nine feet.

It is said that as the Sohei found themselves facing the government troops, during battles over the indignities heaped upon the farmers, they found it necessary to forego their wooden weapons and actually begin using traditional steel weapons of war. The techniques for using the wooden weapons needed little modification to be applied to the Katana-swords, Yari-spears, and Naginata-halberds, of the warrior class.

Thus the use of wooden weapons were passed on to those who could not develop the incredible skills through long years of training and were forbidden to possess swords or other actual weapons of war.
But the wooden weapons were always trained with, for those times of peace, when the monks did not carry the weapons of war, and for teaching those who still could not openly carry weapons. It is said that this idea of training with sticks as weapons was carried to Okinawa by Japanese warrior monks, who traveled with the Minamoto family, during their travail. Religious training, and the advise of the warrior monks, was always sought by the Japanese Samurai. For their part, the Sohei always recognized the genius of individual warriors, who proved themselves great martial artist, and learned from them in turn. The close relationship between the Minamoto and warrior monks is well documented in history.

On Okinawa, the idea of training with wooden weapons became very connected with the common man who were not allowed to possess weapons of war from the time of King Sho Shin, during the fifteenth century. Eventually, the principle of using alternative devises as weapons lead to the development of the Nunchaku, Tonfa, and the other more easily recognized weapons of Okinawan Kobujutsu.

But one of the most effective weapons, which has been many times over looked by modern Okinawan Kobujutsu practitioners, as being of Okinawan descent, are the aforementioned, Nicho Tanbo. Sometimes known as a Hanbo, half stick, the Tanbo, short stick, can range from one to just under three feet long. Usually at three feet the weapon becomes considered a Jo.

The Hanbo or Tanbo can be used by itself, much in the same way that a police billy club is used. It is believed that in ancient times, the weapon was taught and practiced in this singular manner, though this is not definitively true. Generally today, the weapon is used in pairs, hence the referenced term, Nicho Tanbo, literally two short sticks.

Some modern Okinawan Kobujutsu practitioners believe that the modern tendency to use two weapons for training, as in the case of the Sai, Tonfa, and Tanbo, is a modern development of training, possibly originated by Shinken Taira, the great weapons master. Others feel that since ancient times the weapons were trained with in pair, for the sheer development of dexterity and superior coordination.

There are still a few who feel that it is very possible that the weapons were trained with in pairs and actually used in combat that way. This can be a source of endless debate, but in all honesty, need not overly concern us as practitioners of the martial arts. The idea is that we should practice the art and master the skills and the weapons to the best of our abilities.

The Keibo, police stick, and the individual Hanbo and Tanbo, are practiced extensively in the United States, but the Nicho Tanbo is little known outside of Okinawa. As in the development of all true Okinawan Kobujutsu training, the practice of the art is primarily broken down into three divisions.

First of all, there are the Kihon, the basics. In this division, the Kobujutsuka, weapons practitioner, holds the two weapons in their hands and practice the many different individual moves which can be executed with the weapon. This includes, Tsuki no Sandan, the three levels of thrusts and, Uchi no Hakkaku, the eight angles of striking.

Once the moves are mastered then the practical application of the weapon is developed through Kihon Kumite. This is where the Kobujutsuka defend themselves from specific attacks by other martial artists. It can be performed against empty hand partners, as well as, weapon wielding ones. Many Okinawan styles like to practice their moves against the longest typical Okinawan weapon, this being the Bo. Others refer to the old days, when the most dangerous opponent an Okinawan warrior would have to face was a Samurai, and so practice against a sword.

In the use of the Tanbo, the practitioner practices three basic methods. They will block with one stick and then strike with the other, in a one - two manner. Or they might block and strike simultaneously, an idea that is believed to have been absorbed into the Okinawan martial arts from Chinese Kempo systems. Finally, both weapons can be used to execute the blocks, with strikes from the weapons following in succession. The power behind the weapons comes from coordinated body movement, so that the weapon is not just swung by the arm, but empowered by the whole body. Note is the accompanying photographs, how the hips of the defender turns into the movements directing the Tanbo.

After a weapons practitioner has mastered the Nicho Tanbo Kihon and Kihon Kumite, they then practice Kata. There are those who claim that some Okinawan weapon Kata date back into antiquity, but those more informed, typically believe that Shinken Taira was the actual creator of the modern Okinawan weapon forms, and that prior to his time, the weapon Kata were free style.

In either case, the practitioner of a Nicho Tanbo Kata perform the moves they execute against imaginary opponents, either in a free style manner or in a prearranged from, according to their personal school of thought. While the moves, basically speaking, are those of the Tsuki no Sandan and the Uchi no Hakkaku, they are applied according to the practical applications mastered in the Kihon Kumite.

Whether called a Tanbo, Hanbo, or even Keibo, the short stick is an excellent weapon of self defense. Many police officers still prefer the basic billy club to all the modern auxiliary weapons being promoted by the different training agencies. Total effectiveness and versatility are generally quoted as reasons for the favorite status of this simple weapon. There have been several officers who have even tried to promote the plain billy club over the side handled baton, also called the PR-24. However, many Okinawan stylist say that the main problem with the PR-24 is that those who build the training programs for the weapon have been those not fully skilled in the traditional Okinawan art of the Tonfa and thus had no idea how to actually teach the weapon.

All in all, the Tanbo is an excellent training weapon, especially when used in Nicho style, for developing dexterity, coordination, and agility.
Regardless, the techniques of the Tanbo can be used with many everyday items, such as a rolled up newspaper or magazine, an umbrella, a hammer, as well as, many other things. Some instructors have advocated that students of self defense, should take old broom or mop handles and cut them off a Tanbo sized weapon, to keep by their front door, by their beds, and in their cars, just in case of emergencies.

It should be pointed out that in some states, while any item used in a fight or self defense situations, is regarded as a deadly instrument, an actual tooled billy club is considered a deadly weapon, and can have much graver repercussions than a simple stick.

All in all, the Tanbo is an excellent training weapon, especially when used in Nicho style, for developing dexterity, coordination, and agility. As a self defense weapon, it is excellent, and as in the old days of the Sohei, can give beginning students an added advantage when attacked. It is also excellent for overcoming the length of such normal street weapons as push knives, switchblades, or razors, even for experienced martial artists. Practitioners of the traditional Kobujutsu and Kobudo systems, should explore the unique Nicho Tanbo for the benefits the training might add to their knowledge.

Dr. William Durbin is the founder of Kiyojute Ryu Kempo Bugei. He teaches at the Hombu dojo in Frankfurt, Kentucky.