Bojutsu Perspectives


Todd Engelman

I’ve been studying Kobudo with the Giyu dojo for about a year and a half.  For almost a year, we covered the entire Kukishin Ryu rokushuku bojutsu form.  This involves the use of a 6’ bo staff  against ukes armed with either a bo staff or bokken. 

I began this portion of our training as a mukyu (white belt), and completed it as a sankyu.  As a new student, I had to overcome a number of personal limitations that initially made progress feel slow.  I was still struggling with basic posture and movements while more advanced students could focus on the nuances of a technique.  This is typical of all martial arts.

We began with basic positions (kamae gata), strikes (kihon happo), and movements (kihon gata).  Making these feel natural would be critical later, since the techniques will employ combinations of these basics. 

20 years ago, I had previous experience with the 4’ jo staff in another martial art.  The basics are similar between the two weapons, but my previous training was incomplete and, as I now know, incorrect.  The GiYu dojo bojutsu training was my first beginning to end course of instruction on a single weapon.  I had to overcome incorrect natural instincts, and my previous training to become better.  What I found hardest in the early phase was keeping my elbows close to my body and utilizing the full length of the weapon.  Instinct made me want to “reach” with the weapon, which is a weak position.  Or I’d fail to grip it close enough to the rear end for fear of losing grip, wasting the reach advantage of the bo staff. I also had to learn to let the staff do the work, rather than muscling through the techniques.  In both armed and unarmed kobudo as well, if you’re using strength, it’s likely you’re doing the technique wrong.    

After learning the basics, we moved to the simplest techniques (shoden gata).  These techniques emphasized simple combinations of strikes, allowing students to focus on distance, timing, spacing.  As we began learning the shoden gata, my basics were still not natural, so I struggled to make them work, though I could feel some progress.

The next scroll, the chuden gata, involved more combination work.  By this time, the basic movements were slowly starting to feel more natural to me, allowing me to focus on the techniques.  Some moves still required more thought or effort than I’d prefer, but over time improvement was notable.

The middle scroll, the sabaki gata, involved yet more complex combinations, but also introduced strategy to the techniques.  Many techniques utilized feigning attacks and retreats, or using a relatively weak strike on side, to move the uke into a better position for a follow up strike.  While the combinations build toward the finishing strike, it remains important to make each strike count since any one of them, if landed, could end the fight… which is your primary goal. 

By this point in training, the original basics felt natural to me.  However, many of the sabaki gata techniques utilized variations of the basics - stepping with a different foot or in a different direction during a strike - than the kihon happo we’d worked on.  This briefly hindered the naturalness I’d been developing, as I now had to relearn basics differently.

Finally, we reached the highest scroll, the okuden gata.  I was expecting extremely difficult combinations.  Instead, the okuden gata utilized techniques that were mechanically much simpler and had less moves than the sabaki gata.  These techniques focused primarily on the strategy of the movements and psychology of the uke. 

We had come full circle from basic movements, to progressively harder movements, back to basics.  But now, they incorporated the most powerful weapon you have… your mind.

By this point in training, I finally felt comfortable with the basics, and was better able to adapt when variations were employed.  This made learning the strategic parts enjoyable. 

My overall impression is that the bo staff, while essentially just a long stick and much less visually intimidating than a sword, can be a brutal tool with a significant reach advantage when wielded by a trained martial artist.