Along with hurling rocks and stones, the stick is perhaps one of mankind’s earliest known weapons.
During Japan’s feudal past, the use of this simple wooden weapon was refined and honed to a highly technical skill and developed into a number of Japanese martial arts.
Two of these wooden weapons were the bo and jo staff.
The Bo Staff
The Japanese word bo translates to mean “staff”. They are typically around six feet in length, just over an inch thick and made from oak wood. It even has its own fighting style, Bōjutsu, meaning “staff technique”, which developed on the island of Okinawa, one of the islands on the tail of Japan.
Simple weapons like the bo increased in popularity in 1477 when Emperor Sho Shin, in an effort to avoid civil war, banned all weapons on the island. A further weapons ban was put in place in 1609 when a Samurai clan invaded and took over the island.
The banning of weapons encouraged the islanders to look at farming tools that could be used as weapons to defend themselves.
One such tool was the tenbin – a long pole used by farmers to carry grain, water, fish etc. The middle of the pole would be lie on the farmer’s shoulder and a bucket or basket would be carried at each end.
Fighting with a Bo Staff
Experts at Bōjutsu use the bo merely as an “extension of one’s limbs”. It is held rather like a canoe paddle with each hand positioned approximately a third away from the end of the pole.
One hand is faced down (pronated) and the other faces upwards (supinated). With one hand facing upwards, the bo can be rotated but it also stops the stick from being knocked out of the hands by a strong downward strike by an opponent’s stick to the middle of the bo.
Spinning the bo prevents attackers from getting too close, as well as building up momentum for striking techniques.
A number of attacking movements can be performed with the bo: it can be rotated downwards for strikes to the head, upwards for strikes to the groin and lower body, and sideways for attacks to the sides of the opponent.
Thrusting movements can also be performed with the bo and can be brutally effective if they’re directed to the head or body like a spear.
For the people of Okinawa, the bo was seen as effective weapon against the marading samurai and with its longer range was able to defend against the katana – the samurai sword.
The use of the traditional bo staff was incorporated into Karate and there are even a number of katas performed with the bo by karate practitioners (karateka).
The Jo Staff
The word Jo simply translates into the word “stick”. It’s a short staff, much shorter that the Bo, usually measuring around 4 feet long and weighs about 1.1 lbs. They are usually just under an inch in diameter. Typically made from Japanese white oak.
The martial art that specialises in using the Jo is Shintō Musō-ryū. The aim of the martial art is to enable to the jo wielder to defeat a swordsman in combat. Founding principe was never to kill or maim but to disable or disarm the attacker and force them to surrender.
It was founded by the masterless samurai Musō Gonnosuke Katsuyoshi in the early Edo period (1603-1868). This was Japan’s feudal period where the samurai gained notoriety for their fighting skills.
Musō Gonnosuke was an expert swordsman and travelled the country refining his skills in duels often using wooden swords, which were considerably safer.
He came across the path of another Ronin, Miyamoto Musashi – an expert in fighting with two swords. Miyamoto had an undefeated fighting record.
According to legend when Musō Gonnosuke came across Miyamoto Musashi and they fought, Musō Gonnosuke was easily overwhelmed.
Defeated, Musō Gonnosuke withdrew to a Shinto shrine at Mount Hōman. He retreated to a cave near the peak of the mountain where he meditated.
After 37 days, he received divine inspiration in a dream. In the dream a deity spoke the words:
“holding a round stick, know the solar plexus”.
Having had this vision, Musō Gonnosuke, started to develop a fighting style based on using a short wooden staff that targeted the vital points on the body.
When Musō Gonnosuke next met Miyamoto Musashi, it is said that he easily defeated him with his new fighting style, becoming the only man ever to beat him.
In more modern times, Shintō Musō-ryū has splintered into a number of related groups who practice Jodo – the way of the staff.
Jodo has been taught to the Japanese police force, although it has been translated into a less lethal fighting style – keibojutsu (police baton art) – with more emphasis on restraining an aggressor rather than inflicting permanent damage.
An expert in wiedling the Jo is referred to as a jojutsu or jodo master.
The fighting style melds the thrusting power of the spear, the sweeping attacks of the naginata (a long bladed pole), and the cutting motions of the sword.
In Jodo there a total of 12 kata, each performed with a sword wielding partner. The kata simulates a range of fighting scenarios and include blocking and striking techniques. Strikes target at total of 18 vital points on the body. The most effective of these lie on the centre line of the body: the top of the head (Tento), between the eyes (Uto), the solar plexus (Suigetsu) and the groin (Kinteki).
In Jodo competitions, participants are judged on the performance of 6 out of the 12 possible kata. The kata are chosen according to the practitioner’s rank.
The katas are always performed in pairs: one person attacks with a wooden sword, the other defends with the Jo and then counterattacks. After the third kata, the participants swap weapons before continuing. Once the demonstration is over, the three judges make will make their decision.
Competitions centre around kara and there is no sparring involved.
Here you can see the first six kata in Jodo:
The jo is also used in Aikido as a training aid to practice against an armed opponent. The techniques form a subset with Aikido called aiki-jō.
Both the Bo and Jo staff are simple wooden weapons that can be carried in public and be less conspicuous than a bladed weapon. During the Japanese weapons ban, their use became widespread and became effective weapons against invading Samuari warriors.