Weaponry in Motobu Udundi

Weapons were banned in Ryukyu. Karate was created as a means of resistance after Satsuma invaded and took the populace’s weapons. One often hears these theories regarding the development of karate, but they have no basis in fact.


For example, Motobu Choki sensei’s book Watashi no karate-jutsu, published in 1932, contradicts such folklore by introducing a number of weaponry masters. These men were all famous practitioners of karate as well. Putting the information in tabular form results in the following:


Masters of weaponry, including horsemanship





kyū-jutsu (archery)

bō-jutsu (staff)


ba-jutsu (horseman-ship)

(Udun, Tunchi)
Gushikawa Uēkata Nishihira Uēkata,
Kanu Sadoyama,
Tomigusuku Uēkata
Tamagusuku Uēkata Ginowan Dunchi
(Morishima Uēkata)

Tomigusuku Uēkata,
Tamagusuku Uēkata
Military class
  Aburaya Yamagusuku
Tokashiki Pechin,
Tsuken Hanta-gaa,
Shichanaka Usume,
Sakiyama of Naha
Chikusaji Gima
Commoner       Itoman Magi    

(From Motou Choki's Watashi no karate-jutsu)

From the table it can be seen that masters of the sword, spear, and archery were concentrated among members of the aristocracy. Even after the invasion of the Shimazu clan from Satsuma, such weapons continued to be bestowed upon members of this class by the Ryukyuan monarchy. In addition, in the waning years of the Ryukyu Kingdom there were members of lower-ranking military families who learned Jigen-ryu ken-jutsu from Satsuma. The famous Matsumura Sokon was one of these people.


Bō-jutsu was more widely practiced, from the aristocracy to commoners. Sai-jutsu was popular with a portion of the lower-ranking military class who carried the weapon in their work as a police force, the chikusaji. Horsemanship, or ba-jutsu, was mainly practiced among the horse-owning aristocracy.


Choki sensei’s work clearly indicates that the people who developed karate were not dispossessed of their weapons, but actually training in karate and weaponry at the same time. Unfortunately, the weapon arts of the aristocracy were mostly lost after the dissolution of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Today, only the weapons system of Motobu udundi as transmitted by Motobu Choyu sensei remains.

Tomigusuku Uēkata Seiko (1829-93) was the 16th head of the Tomigusuku family, the head familiy of the Mo clan, which was one of five prestigious clans in the Ryukyu Kingdom. He was a famous politician in the waning years of the Ryukyu Kingdom and, according to Choki Sensei, was a master of the spear and horsemanship as well as karate.


Ryukyuan sword presented to the Chinese court in 1757, Palace Museum, Beijing
Ryukyuan sword presented to the Chinese court in 1757, Palace Museum, Beijing

The majority of the swords in Ryukyu were imported from the Japanese mainland, but the grips and scabbards on some swords may have been replaced with those made in Ryukyu. There were also swords that are thought to have been introduced from China or Southeast Asia.


In the Ryukyu Kingdom, swords were bestowed by the monarchy upon all ōji and aji of the udun rank. They were also bestowed upon members of the lower tunchi rank upon assuming positions in the sanshikan government ministry.


These swords were almost entirely either destroyed in the Pacific War or confiscated by American troops after the war. There are only a few Ryukyuan swords extant among the former possessions of the Sho royal family. There also still exist swords that were presented to the Chinese court by the Ryukyuan monarchy, and are therefore referred to as "Ryukyuan swords."


In Motobu udundi a style of ken-jutsu particular to Ryukyu called tachi no te (sword hands) is taught. The sheathed sword is not worn at the hip as in Japanese ken-jutsu, but held directly in the hand. It is drawn with the cutting edge facing downwards, like the long sword called tachi.

According to Choyu sensei, the head of the Motobu Udun did not wear his sword, but was handed a sword when necessary from attendants on either his right or left. Accordingly, it seems practice was done in being able to wield a sword with either hand, depending on which side it was received from. In addition, in Motobu udundi techniques called nitō-ryū for using two swords at the same time have been passed down.


In Choyu sensei's time, ken-jutsu was practiced using wooden mock swords made from the branches of hibiscus shrubs or roots of the pandanus tree. These days, practitioners use mostly commercial imitation blades. In Ryukyu there were also swords and short swords whose construction may have been influenced by Chinese models. In place of these today, commercial weapons from China or even replicas made by Uehara sensei himself are used.

Treasure of the Ryukyuan royal house: the sword known as Chiyoganemaru. It is a different-looking weapon consisting of a Japanese-made blade altered to be wielded with one hand by the addition of a grip resembling that of Chinese swords. Such swords are unusual, as most Japanese blades have longer grips for two-handed use. National Treasure, Naha City Museum of History.


Uehara sensei demonstrating use of the spear. On the right, various Ryukyuan spears from the record Chūzan heishiryaku, 1832.
Uehara sensei demonstrating use of the spear. On the right, various Ryukyuan spears from the record Chūzan heishiryaku, 1832.

The spears in Ryukyu were a mix of those imported from both Japan and China. The spears used by the Motobu Udun resembled the one on the far right of the illustration--a kind of spear called katakama yari.


When the head of the Motobu Udun would make an appearance at Shuri Castle, his armed guard would include two men carrying spears. Among this guard, the distribution of weapons was strictly determined by rank.


In the sō-jutsu of udundi, the spear is used in unison with the body. Instead of just using the arms, strikes are made using the forward momentum of the body while walking in a fluid manner. In fact, the entire spear--not just the blade end--is used as a weapon, for example, by using the butt end to strike opponents coming from behind.


Left, a naginata made by Uehara sensei. Right, Ryukyuan ryūtō, from Chūzan heishiryaku, 1832.
Left, a naginata made by Uehara sensei. Right, Ryukyuan ryūtō, from Chūzan heishiryaku, 1832.

Japanese naginata and the naginata used by the Motobu Udun were differently shaped. The Motobu Udun version had a small blade attached to the back of the large blade like the weapon called ryūtō, as seen on the right side of the illustration. Because of this shape, it is believed that the naginata used were either imported from China or replicas of Chinese weapons made in Ryukyu.


The naginata-jutsu of udundi is basically the same as its sō-jutsu. However, there is a special technique used when surrounded by a number of opponents. The shaft of the naginata is held fast to the body with the blade facing downwards. The user spins his or her body like a top, gouging the opponents on all sides.


Sai were carried by the police chiefs called ufuchiku and members of the police force called chikusaji for use in apprehending criminals and controlling crowds.


Sai are used in udundi with the same principles behind the use of other weapons. Striking, stabbing, and trapping the weapons of opponents are done while walking in a fluid manner. One peculiarity is that the sai are not thrown at opponents, because of the belief that a weapon should be held on to until the very last.


Nūchiku are said to have originated from horse tack.
Nūchiku are said to have originated from horse tack.

In udundi, nunchaku are called nūchiku. Although the reason for this difference is not clear, it may be due to differences between Naha dialect and Shuri dialect, or it might even be a term that was used only among the udun class.


In udundi, nūchiku are not wielded with just the arms. As with the other weapons, the entire body is employed to swing them. Interestingly, when making a return strike after the initial swing, the movement strongly resembles that used in mai no te.

Yamanaji short swords

Yamanaji made by Uehara sensei
Yamanaji made by Uehara sensei

In Motobu udundi, ken-jutsu is also practiced using a special kind of short sword, typically in nitō-ryū fashion. According to Uehara sensei, Choyu sensei's weapons were different than the Japanese short sword known as wakizashi. Apparently, they were a type particular to Ryukyu and the ends of the grips were decorated with tassels. Because they were similar in length and shape to the blade used in Ryukyu for cutting brush and tree branches, Uehara sensei used the term for that implement, yamanaji. However, Choyu sensei's swords were most likely closer in form to weapons that originally came from China or their replicas made in Ryukyu. Also according to Uehara sensei, Choyu sensei would carry these swords along with other ornament on the occasion of the Bon festival, so they seem also to have had ceremonial significance.


The principles of Motobu udundi can be seen most clearly in its bō-jutsu. As in tuiti, the main goal is to subdue an opponent without causing injury. The basics of thrusting and striking are learned, but the aim is not to beat an opponent down, rather to disarm him and render him nonresistant.


In addition, kumi-bō, or deflecting and defending with one's against an opponent's, is not part of these principles. This is consistent with the bare-hand practice of Motobu udundi, where blocks such as age-uke, yoko-uke, and gedan-barai are not used. Thus, hitting at an opponent's weapon to deflect or defend is avoided. Instead, against an attack, tai-sabaki is used to execute a combined counter and attack to gain control of an opponent. This idea of "offense and defense as one" lies at the basis of both Motobu udundi's bare-hand and weapons practice, including bō-jutsu. In this way, Motobu udundi's bō-jutsu is unique and distinct from that of other ryū-ha.