Sticks and Stones Will Break Your Bones: A Look at Jo and Bo

by Meik Skoss

First of all, I've never heard of an art such as ishinagejutsu, the art of throwing stones, at least in terms of an organized system, so that part's easily disposed of. I don't know why it is, but it seems that use of the sling was never widespread in Japan. It certainly was not developed in any sort of organized manner such as one would find in the classical martial arts, or koryu. That leaves sticks. Now we're talking--two or three hundred schools, more or less, that included the bo (staff) or jo (stick) in their training curricula, either as a primary or secondary weapon. Many of these schools are still active.

The stick (or staff) is--what?--the second or third oldest weapon known to man, coming right after the fist and the rock. It is deceptive in its simplicity of construction, but quite sophisticated in its use.

Let's start with a definition of terms. Bo means "staff" and generally refers to a weapon about six shaku in length, or six feet, or thereabouts, and one sun in diameter.1 Jo, meaning "stick" or "cudgel" are shorter weapons and do not have a standard length or diameter, as size depends on the particular ryu. Both the bo and jo lack a cutting edge or sharpened point, so they are classified as impact weapons and derive their effect from the force delivered by accurately hitting or thrusting at a particular target. It is likely that the staff was developed systematically as a weapon before the stick, due to the advantage of longer reach. The stick began to be used in combat as technical sophistication and experience with the weapon increased.

The weapon, whether staff or stick, is made of wood. In prehistoric times, ishibo (a staff made of stone, found in several archeological sites) were used. They were quite heavy, were difficult to make, and would sometimes break at critical moments. Examples of metal bo (usually iron) called tetsubo, did exist, but they were uncommon as they were too heavy for the average warrior. A variant weapon called a konsaibo (a bo made of wood and studded with iron) was a bit lighter, but it was still rather cumbersome. So wood was the best answer. Here the Japanese were fortunate. Kashi (oak) is found throughout the country. It is a type of wood that is well suited for use as a weapon--it is not too heavy and is easily shaped, it is strong and resilient enough to resist breaking after being repeatedly struck, and it doesn't splinter easily.

There are two main types of kashi, most often referred to by their color, white oak (shirogashi) and red oak (akagashi). Which is preferable depends, to some extent, on the people to whom you're speaking and the tradition to which they belong, but shirogashi seems a slight favorite in the eastern part of Japan, Kanto, and akagashi is preferred in western Japan, or Kansai. In any case, a straight, tight grain and wood that has been properly seasoned (to prevent warping) is what one should look for.

One of the nicer things about both the staff or stick, to my way of thinking, is that they are pretty innocuous; i.e., they are not immediately, or invariably, lethal. Most weapons used in the classical Japanese martial arts are meant to kill or to cause serious injury. One can, however, use the bo or jo to subdue an opponent without causing permanent damage, although they are still capable of dealing with more "deadly" weapons, and overcoming them if need be. Lastly, they can, in extreme cases, be used to lethal effect, so there's a great degree of flexibility in response, a better solution both morally and legally.

What can one do with a staff or a stick? It depends on the length, to some extent, but among those actions that come to mind are striking, thrusting, blocking, parrying, covering, pushing, holding or pressing, locking, throwing, and pinning.

Technical content depends on the style one studies. Okinawan bojutsu or Muhi Muteki-ryu jojutsu, for instance, are a bit more plebeian in nature than some of the other schools and their techniques reflect a bit of a "civil" self-defense orientation and commoners' mannerisms (as opposed to those of the warrior class) in the way they use their weapons. They're strong and effective styles, and the training methods and theory are sophisticated enough, but the emphasis is more one of everyday self-defense rather than on battlefield combat or on fighting with another warrior. This is not a criticism, as I don't know how to describe the situation any better, but the techniques, and the general gestalt of these systems, have a different feel to them than one finds in some of the other classical ryu.

Other schools include either the staff or stick as a primary or secondary weapon. Shinto Muso-ryu, for example, is a system that was created when its founder, Muso Gonnosuke Katsuyoshi, was unable to defeat Miyamoto Musashi in a training match. (It was not a duel [to the death] and was fought with wooden weapons, for the purpose of learning more about one's art and improving one's skill.)

Muso was a student of the Katori Shinto-ryu and was famous for his staff technique. After losing to Musashi, who used his signature jujidome (x-block) technique, Gonnosuke engaged in further training at a shrine in northern Kyushu. He received an insight in the nature of combat ("from the gods"), cut down his staff from six shaku to a length of four shaku, one sun, one bu, with a diameter of eight bu. He devised and perfected a set of techniques that capitalized on the new weapon's--the jo--shorter length and his subsequent ability to manipulate it more quickly and easily than the longer bo.

The technique Gonnosuke supposedly used to defeat Musashi, suigetsu, is included in the advanced, "inner level" teachings (okuden waza) of the ryu to this day. There is also a set of twelve sword techniques attached to the okuden waza: eight for the long sword, four for the short sword. Several of them are very similar to, and inform, the entire body of jo techniques. Together with the hiden gokui (the highest level teachings, which are shown only to a person who receives a menkyo kaiden, "license of total transmission"), they form the technical base on which the ryu rests. Shinto Muso-ryu is now called a "jo" style, but it was originally referred to as bojutsu. Something to think about...

The Katori Shinto-ryu and Yagyu Shingan-ryu include the bo (and other weapons) in their training, as do the Araki-ryu and Kiraku-ryu. This is on the assumption that, although the sword was the warrior's weapon of choice, he might not always have one available or he might face an enemy who was armed with a bo. Thus it behooved him to learn something of what it did and how it was used. Nowadays we call it cross-training.

Toda-ha Buko-ryu bo and Tendo-ryu jo techniques are based on the idea that one's naginata has broken in the midst of combat on the battlefield, so one must make do with the piece of haft that is left. A battlefield expedient, these techniques reflect the naginata waza, differing only in that one must now strike the enemy rather than cut him or pierce him with the blade. This economy of movement allows trainees to adapt movements they've already practised to fit these conditions. All that remains, then, is for them to learn those applications that are most appropriate for their new circumstances.

Jojutsu includes what I suppose you can call a subset called tanjojutsu (short stick art). Relatively few schools of tanjo have been established as separate entities. Indeed, the only one that I can think of is the Uchida-ryu. It is comprised of twelve techniques and is subsumed within the Shinto Muso-ryu. It is a Meiji period system and is essentially a self-defense art, as opposed to a combat art, that uses a gentleman's cane or walking stick as its primary weapon. Its techniques consist of evasive movements to avoid a sudden attack and a variety of simple counterstrikes, thrusts, pinning or locking techniques to subdue the opponent. All of these techniques are practised against an attacker armed with a sword, but would be equally effective against either a knife or an unarmed assault.

Kukishin-ryu uses both a full-length staff and a shorter one, called a hanbo (lit., half-bo) and is well known for its effective technique. The waza for the short staff (stick) seem to concentrate on defenses against an unarmed attack, though they are equally effective against weapons such as the sword or dagger; long staff techniques generally face a sword.

The Hontai Yoshin-ryu, a jujutsu school now centered in the Kansai area, subsumes one line of Kukishin-ryu bojutsu in its curriculum. The Hontai Yoshin-ryu techniques are interesting for their lightness of movement and a very adroit--and unusual, if I may say so--sort of skipping movement exponents make when they are attacking their opponent with the hanbo.

The other lines of Kukishin-ryu, particularly the techniques for short stick, are notable for their painful effectiveness. The techniques require that one train right to the edge, but too much of that sort of extreme injures both body and spirit. According to one senior teacher, practising for more than a half-hour or so, twice a week, is about as much as one would, or should, want to do.

Other variants of standard staff or stick arts include chigirikijutsu (a weighted chain, attached to a haft some four shaku in length, which is used as a flail) and the shikomizue (a walking stick containing a concealed sword blade, rather like a sword cane). Chigirikijutsu was more widely practised in the past, but presently only the Araki-ryu and Kiraku-ryu seem to have preserved the art. Interestingly, both of these ryu are centered in Gumma Prefecture.

These ryu display obvious signs of influencing each other's techniques and training methods in a number of ways, but why they are the only ones still training with a flail is rather puzzling. The chigiriki kata (pre-arranged forms) of the Araki-ryu and Kiraku-ryu make great use of both trapping the opponent's weapons as he strikes and of wrapping the chain around his foot and throwing him down on the ground so he can be more easily dispatched. The operator (in the kata) stays more or less in one place. However, to really be effective with this weapon depends on the ability to keep moving, disrupting the opponent's maai, and using suki (momentary openings in the opponent's defense) to attack him with either the flail or the haft. The weighted chain is ver-r-ry effective. (I've done a bit of free practice with a friend who does Araki-ryu and it was like facing a food processor. Ugly...)

The shikomizue is sort of an oddball weapon. There has been some noise about it from the ninjacompoop crowd (sorry, but I simply fail to see why anybody would want to learn how to be a sub-human assassin), but I have yet to find much evidence of it having been studied in any organized manner in any of the koryu. My guess is that, aside from "legitimate" historical use of the weapon by ninja, it was an idiosyncratic weapon or, possibly, a relatively modern one dating from sometime in the late Edo or early Meiji periods. I believe its use is much the same as tanjojutsu--for self-defense rather than for combat per se. During the Edo period (and before), a warrior would've carried his long and short swords, as was his right and obligation, while carrying weapons by commoners was very strictly regulated and their indiscriminate use brought swift, severe punishment.2

The Japanese police also make use of the stick. Keijojutsu (lit., police stick art, or riot baton) and keibojutsu (lit., police baton art) are combative systems that are not available to members of the general populace. The techniques in keijojutsu have been adapted from the Shinto Muso-ryu for use in riot control and modified--made less lethal--to meet the conditions of modern society. Though they are still very effective, the targets and applications have been changed to enable officers to control a suspect and keep him alive and in relatively good health, rather than to put him down by any means possible. The keibojutsu techniques are from Ikkaku-ryu juttejutsu (truncheon art) and have been similarly altered for use in a modern social climate. There have been some changes in both the weapons and the training curriculum in recent years and it remains to be seen if these arts will continue in their present forms.

Because these are "real" weapons and very dangerous if used improperly, neither the staff nor the stick have a training method or competitive aspect where one uses protective equipment and engages in freestyle sparring with a mock weapon as in kendo and naginata. One trains only through the use of kata (pre-arranged formal training exercises). This may sound a bit dull to people who feel that freestyle bouts offer one the best means to gain experience in combat, but it is certainly an effective method for learning the essential elements of distance, timing, trajectory, and awareness.

Many people seem to undervalue kata training as a means of developing effective technique, perhaps due to a misunderstanding of what the method really entails, or because they have not ever seen a really effective perfomance of classical kata. I hope that, in future, people will gain a more accurate insight into how one can and (dare I say it?) ought to train. The stick and staff offer one a great place to start.

1A shaku is the traditional Japanese unit of length, about one foot [30.5 cm.] long, and is still used to calculate the length of weapons. A shaku is divided into ten sun, which are further divided into ten bu.

2This carries over to the present day, in that access to weapons in Japan is tightly controlled and most modern Japanese cannot conceive of carrying or using them in a "real" sense. Even some senior exponents of classical martial arts, who are skilled with traditional weapons and perhaps the closest to being "20th-century samurai," have a difficult time seeing how people might use a firearm, for example, in self-defense. It's an interesting dichotomy...

Copyright ©1996 Meik Skoss. All rights reserved.

Classical Japanese Martial Arts
Last modified on November 14, 2008
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Classical Japanese Martial Arts