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Bojutsu: The Staff and Stick Arts of Hontai Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu
by Stephen M. Fabian
The author in the standard roku shaku bo ready position. (All photos in this article are printed courtesy of the author.)
ALTHOUGH MANY PRACTIONERS OF MODERN JUJUTSU ASSOCIATE THE HONTAI Yoshin Ryu jujutsu exclusively with weaponless joint locks and throwing maneuvers, an important part of the repertoire of the art, as is commonn among many actual kobudo (older, classical budo), involves the mastery of various traditional weapons.
Most prominent among the weapons trained in the Hontai Yoshin Ryu are the roku shaku bo or cho bo (the six shaku or almost-exactly-six-foot staff, always round and straight-sided) and the three-foot "stick" or han bo (the "half" staff, precisely three shaku in length, which is round, may be straight-sided or slightly tapered at one end, and is thinner than the cho bo). During three regular training sessions a week at the Hombu dojo in Imazu, Nishinomiya, Japan, one is devoted exclusively to training in bojutsu.
According to traditional lore of the Hontai Yoshin Ryu, the bojutsu style it incorporates was originally characteristic of the Kukishin ryu bojutsu. Relatively early in each style's history, a strong bond was forged between their contemporary soke or headmasters. For the Hontai Yoshin Ryu this was the third soke, Takagi Gennoshin Hideshige, and for the Kukishin Ryu this was the fourth soke, Ohkuni Kihei Shigenobu. These masters taught each other their respective arts; Ohkuni then subsequently became the fourth soke of the Hontai Yoshin Ryu. This probably occurred around the end of the 17th century, or in the early years of the 18th century. (Despite this overlap in soke and exchange of techniques, both Hontai Yoshin Ryu and Kukishin Ryu have continued to develop exclusive of each other. The modern hanbo techniques of the Kukishin Ryu are covered in the book Stick Fighting: Techniques of Self-Defense, by Quintin Chambers and Masaaki Hatsumi, published by Kodansha International. The co-author and current soke of Kukishin Ryu, Hatsumi Masaaki, who is featured actually applying the techniques, is better known as a ninjutsu instructor.)
Training With the Roku Shaku Bo
What is impressive in East Asian martial arts is the variety of styles that have developed for the effective use of the simple six foot staff. Although similarities certainly exist, specific stylistic differences in traditional schools are quite diagnostic. This point was emphasized to me on several occasions by sensei of Hontai Yoshin Ryu-Kukishin Ryu bojutsu, especially in comparison with their perception of Okinawan cho bo style. The latter, they claimed, tends to emphasize a hands positioning near the center of the staff, whereas Kukishin Ryu cho bo emphasizes a more ample te sabaki, or active handwork along the entire length of the staff. These differences were even demonstrated to me by using hashi ("chopsticks") at the dinner table, where a sensei's scissors fingers (the index and middle finger holding the wood between them) of both hands would manipulate the chopsticks from their middle for their rendition of the Okinawan style, which created a sort of fluttering of the ends of the hashi. In contrast, they would slide their fingers up and down the length of the hashi for the Kukishin bo, creating more of an end-over-end action, that also varied much more dramatically the effective length of the staff.
This sliding of the hands along the entire length of the cho bo is characteristic of the Kukishin Ryu, and is emphasized in the style's kihon or basics. The first three formal basics, uchi komi, harai, and tsukue, all emphasize this action in movements that are respectively strikes directed from up-down, side-to-side, and from down-up. In addition, a straight-forward thrust (tsuki), and movements that show influences of the halberd-like naginata also tend to emphasize the entire length of the cho bo, and alternate its ends-with the hands located nearer the opposite or "back" end-for striking.
Kihon are generally practiced in a walking format. The student assumes the ready stance, left foot forward and both legs bent with the body slightly crouched, staff held near its front end about waist-high with both hands palm-down (see photo 1). As the right or rear leg slides forward, one of the first three kihon strikes is made, bringing the longer part of the back end of the cho bo forward (again, this can be downwards onto the head, sideways to the temple, or upwards under the chin). In order to return to the (now reversed) ready stance, one needs to slide the cho bo backwards through the hands in an easy, smooth motion. This same stance is used for thrusting, although hands may either be both palm-down, or the front hand can be palm-up.
Nakai (left) and Suhara (right), demonstrate the tsukeiri technique of bo awase.
An alternative ready stance is used for the last two formal kihon, a strike to the knee (hiza uchi) and an upward diagonal slice (simply called nagi). These basics are applied from fudo-no-kamae, a stance which takes its form from the powerful image of the Buddhist deity figure Fudo Myoo, who is the fierce protector of law and chastiser of wickedness. Although this figure is most commonly shown with a sword in his right hand and a rope in his left, Miyamoto Musashi, Japan's famed swordsman and artist has left a carving of Fudo Myoo which resembles the Kukishin fudo kamae. (This carving is pictured in the Overlook Press  edition of Musashi's A Book of Five Rings, on page 32.) In this stance, feet are angled at about 90 degrees to each other (front foot pointing forwards), the legs are bent, and the cho bo is held vertically at the rear shoulder. The longer upper end of the staff is swept diagonally downwards towards an exposed knee in hiza uchi, or swept upwards in nagi in a motion that with the naginata would slice open a body from below the rib cage up through the opposite collar bone. Both strikes are performed while stepping (all kihon strikes can be practiced while moving forward or backward).
Kihon training also includes varieties of flourishing the cho bo, called furi-bo. These include circular motions made to either side, to the front, and overhead, and besides being visually impressive-in competent hands the staff becomes a blur-such flourishes are intended to forestall and confuse an enemy.
To help in acquiring proficiency in the kihon, and to prepare for the formal set of kata or forms which pit the cho bo against the sword, one trains in the intermediary practice of bo awase, the "meeting" of two cho bo. In bo awase exercises, students are paired, with one designated as having an offensive role, the other as defensive (see Photo 2). All of the kihon mentioned above are trained in this manner against appropriate defensive motions. In addition there are several more complicated exchanges between the cho bo that train improved control of the weapon, accuracy, and timing. One of these, called funabari, results in non-stop repartee between partners where defensive and offensive roles shift quickly and smoothly, interspersing head strikes and body thrusts with deft blocking actions. Done at full speed-once proficiency allows-this is not only great training, it is great fun!
Roku shaku bo vs. sword kata. Here, Inoue Kyoichi Sensei (sword) demonstrates the kata with his son Hirohide (bo) at a New Year's demonstration.
Both the kihon and bo awase training, though excellent exercises in and of themselves, are used as preparations for the ten bo kata or forms, in which the cho bo is paired against a sword (bokken/bokuto, wooden swords, are always used in bo kata). The set of kata begin with kumi dachi, the formal meeting and bow. The swordsman holds the bokuto at his right side (as if it were a scabbarded katana [actual Japanese sword]), cutting edge down, and the bo wielder, with his right hand midway on the cho bo, holds the staff at his waist, front end angled down. From about two meters distance the two execute a formal standing bow, then both kneel on their right knee, sliding their weapons straight between them until their ends overlap by about 20 centimeters. The right hand is placed fingertips to the ground, and another bow is executed from this position. Then the weapons are retrieved and both stand.
The ten formal bo kata depict brief, rapid encounters between the cho bo and sword (see photo 3), and each is ended with the participants in the state of heightened awareness called zanshin, with the swordsman in the classic chudan no kamae (sword is held in a mid-level position, right leg forward), and the bo wielder in the basic ready position from which most kihon are performed. Most of the kata assume the swordsman as aggressor, striking from a jodan no kamae (sword held over the head) in a forward and downward cut (shomen giri). Bo techniques include a variety of blocks, strikes, and thrusts, which generally result in the bo user's advantage.
In two forms the bo wielder, after a sharp thrust to the swordsman's midsection, actually drops the bo and locks up the swordsman's arms by encircling them at/above the elbows, resulting in an effective double arm/elbow lock, thereby showing some Hontai Yoshin Ryu influence on the bo kata. In the last kata known as tsukeiri, this elbow lock is followed by a near-simultaneous disarming and throwing of the swordsman (kuguri nage is used, which is the first throw in the Hontai Yoshin Ryu nage no kata series). Both of these defensive techniques are also applied by an unarmed defender against sword attacks in Hontai Yoshin Ryu tachi dori, or jujutsu forms against the tachi or katana.
Han bo kata, in which Inoue Kyoichi Sensei (right, with han bo), having evaded Nakai's sword, counters with a tsuki (thrust) to the midsection.
Like all formal kata, the ten bo kata require considerable skill to work smoothly, and emphasize a variety of abilities including control of ma-ai (distance-timing) and specific techniques. When performed well, the forms are characterized by non-stop flow, where space vacated by one weapon is seemingly magically filled by the other. The impression is strongly reminiscent of the same ju or suppleness that characterizes Hontai Yoshin Ryu weaponless kata.
Once the ten bo kata are completed, the participants bow by reversing the kumi dachi procedures described for the opening of the kata.
Although one can practice specific hanbo techniques as basics, the hanbo is most frequently trained directly in kata against a sword. There are ten more commonly practiced kata, although this does not exhaust the full set of hanbo techniques. One has the impression, perhaps because of the hanbo's more practical length and size (it is commonly referred to as a suteki, or "walking stick"), that the hanbo is a more "living" weapon-with direct street-applicability-than the other traditional weapons, and its practice is more typified by innovations. This seems corroborated by the work mentioned earlier (see Stick Fighting) in the Kukishin Ryu itself, and the fact that at least one Hontai Yoshin Ryu sensei-Inoue Kyoichi-actively experiments with hanbo applications.
Hanbo kata are also begun with formal kumi dachi, although here the swordsman and hanbo wielder, after facing off about two meters from each other, draw their weapons and, holding them at a chudan or middle position, squat on the balls of the feet, knees splayed outwards, and bow from this posture, afterwards assuming a formal chudan no kamae. At this stage the hanbo is held exactly as if it were a katana. For the first five kata, this soon changes: once the swordsman reverts into a jodan no kamae with sword held overhead, the hanbo wielder slowly sinks both stick and body into a crouching gedan or low position. Apparently opening the bo wielder's head and upper torso to the swordsman's cutting edge, this lowered position is intended to lure the swordsman into an attack.
Responses to the swordsman's forward-stepping down cut are quick, effective, and deceptively simple. In ipponme--the first form--for example, the down cut is narrowly evaded by a slight movement to the right by the hanbo wielder, who virtually simultaneously brings the hanbo up executing a sharp strike with its point directly to the swordsman's left temple. Though apparently simple, this small movement requires superb timing and control of the hanbo, especially in kata, since the strike is to be made with full force and focus (and without residual motion), but stopped abruptly at about a hair's breadth from the actual temple (in fact, the blow is so sharply focused by a hanbo expert that it will literally stir the hair at the swordsman's temple, much like a well-focused punch by a skilled karateka can blow out a candle by being focused-and abruptly stopped-immediately in front of the flame).
Characteristic of the hanbo kata is evasion of the sword blow, and sharp strikes to head or sword, and thrusts to the attacker's body (see photo 4). Not meeting the sword attack directly is quite characteristic of Hontai Yoshin Ryu response to attack, and perhaps further influence of this jujutsu style is seen in especially kata five and six. The former ends with the hanbo being used to lever the attacker's right arm with an immobilizing elbow lock (see photo 5), and the latter, once the hanbo is used to trap the sword hand from actually drawing the blade, has the hanbo wielder close in behind the swordsman with a partial choke hold. All the kata end in formalized zanshin, in which both participants draw back from each other, weapons held in more neutral positions in right hands to the side (for the swordsman, this is essentially a chiburi -"blood cleansing"-motion and posture).
Han bo kata, in which Inoue Kyoichi Sensei applies an arm lock with the han bo to Nakai's (with sword) right arm.
The first five hanbo kata are extremely similar to Hontai Yoshin Ryu kodachi (short sword) kata in both structure (stance and positioning) and actual movements. This is important to recognize in understanding Kukishin Ryu bojutsu as actively incorporated in the Hontai Yoshin Ryu. Nearly identical techniques can be traced from the weaponless jujutsu forms-the core of the system, at least as it is practiced today-to weaponless defenses against both long and short swords (tachi and kodachi), and to bo and hanbo kata. For nearly three hundred years the master instructors of the Hontai Yoshin Ryu have integrated techniques from both jujutsu and bojutsu styles in a harmonious system of coordinated effort, expressive of an underlying philosophy, theory, and aesthetic of appropriate action.
Although Hontai Yoshin Ryu training is most characterized by formal practice of kata, both the weaponless and armed systems are occasionally applied in randori or matches. For both staff and stick this involves the use of kendo-like safety equipment and special padded weapons (for example, bamboo poles with thickly-wrapped ends). Practitioners will pair up and bow, then spar, actively attempting to strike-or defend against incoming strikes from-the "opponent." Occasionally such matches will take the form of actual competitions with scoring and winner-loser results, but more frequently such bouts are open and flowing without such point tallying. Such sessions are great refiners of applicable techniques, and excellent training for coordination, speed, timing, and cardio-vascular fitness. Soke Inoue, the current head of the Hontai Yoshin Ryu, is incredibly strong and effective in these bouts despite being in his sixties, reminiscent of his competitive form in twice winning gold medals in all-Japan jukendo (the bayonet art trained with a rubber-tipped wooden gun) tournaments.
As with other components of the Hontai Yoshin Ryu, there are various levels of proficiency and competence in the use of staff and stick that help in one's understanding of the techniques and in their application from form or kata to actual encounters. There are also nuances based on individual practitioner, and even continuing evolution in the ways both weapons are used. What matters most in the use of both weapons is the development of a smooth naturalness, the spontaneity and accuracy of action that denotes mastery. Although some specific techniques may be easily acquired, the path to true mastery of staff and stick lies in years of dedicated and applied training, during the course of which the student should also be learning mastery over the self.
Stephen Fabian is a professor in the Sociology/Amthropology dept. at Hanover College, Hanover IN, 47243. Interested readers may contact him at that address concerning the Hontai Yoshin Ryu. Fabian spent several years in Japan as a student of the current soke of the Hontai Yoshin Ryu, Inoue Tsuyoshi Masatoshi.
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