The eku ( also spelled eiku, ueku or ieku) translates to “boat oar” in English and is an Okinawan martial arts weapon that, as the name suggests, developed from a rowing oar used by fishermen. It is considered one of the most sophisticated weapons of Okinawan Kobudo – the art of using Karate’s ancient weapons for self defense.
The island of Okinawa is one of the string of islands that lie to the South West of mainland Japan. It used to be a part of the independent Ryukyu Kingdom and enjoyed close diplomatic and trading relations with nearby China. The Ryukyu Kingdom was formally annexed and dissolved by Japan in 1879.
For much of its history the island of Okinawa had consisted of a number of territories run by chieftains were constantly fueding for supremacy. It was only unified in 1429 and later, the ruling Emperor, Sho Shin, took measures to secure the peace on the island.
One of these measures was a complete ban on conventional weapons, such as swords and spears.
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 and fishing tools that could be used as weapons to defend themselves. This is why so many weapons of Okinawan Kobudo originate from agricultural tools.
The Okinawan islanders faced the threat of attack throughout their daily lives. They needed to be ready to defend themselves with whatever they had to hand at the time. Given that for the majority of the day they were farming, fishing or tending livestock, it was only natural for them to learn how to use the tools they used daily as weapons.
The tools themselves were inconspicuous and were used as part of day-to-day subsistence activities. They therefore did not attract the attention of the authorities.
Fish was, and still is, a large part of the Okinawan diet and to support this demand, a large part of the population were fishermen who would often fish from small wooden boats. It was therefore only a matter of time before the boat oar was enlisted as one of the Kobudo weapons.
It transitioned from being a simple boat oar to a deadly weapon and the typical Okinawan fisherman was also a highly skilled martial artist.
What is an Eku weapon?
The eku is in some ways like the Japanese naginata which consists of a metal or wooden pole with a curved single-edged blade that was used by the Samurai class.
The naginata is used in sweeping, slashing movements in a similar way to the Japanese sword – the katana.
In the case of the Ryukyu oar, there is no metal on it and it is made entirely out of a single piece of wood. The handle is a similar dimension to the bo staff.
About a third of the eku consists of the paddle part of the oar. Whilst it’s still wider than the handle, it’s still narrow compared to modern oars and is a uniform width along its length. One side of the paddle is completely flat whilst the back consists of a thicker central ridge of wood that tapers down on each side. This thickened edge gives the paddle its strength.
How is the Eku used?
The sides of the paddle form a dull wooden blade and are used to strike an opponent. The back of the blade, with it’s heavy wooden ridge, is also used as a club. The handle is used to block and its end used in thrusting attacks.
The eku could be used like a spear and thrust into the sternum, solar plexus, throat or face. It could also be used like a naginata and swung into the temple, neck, the lower ribs or knees. The thickened central ridge on the back of the paddle was used in downward strikes to the top of the head.
Here’s a great clip of the Eku in action:
The karate oar is not evenly weighted, with the paddle end being much heavier than the handle. This makes it quite an awkward weapon to handle. Martial artists would often master the bo before moving on to the eku.
There were three ways to hold the double bladed eku weapon:
Honte Mochi – this is the natural grip where one hand faces upwards on the handle and the other faces down. This allows the wielder to rotate the Eku with ease and is very similar to how a Bo staff is held.
Gyakute Mochi – in this position, both hands grip the handle facing downwards. This is the typical position for blocking downward strikes to the head. The incoming strike is blocked either with the handle or the flat side of the paddle.
Tokushu Mochi – this is a special grip where the Eku is held much further towards the end of the handle. This gives the Eku a much greater range and enables opponents to be kept at a greater distance. It also allows the wielder to wield Eku in a much wider arc enabling large circular attacks to be launched against an opponent.
The Eku was used in one to one skirmishes on the beach – where most of the fishermen were based.
One Japanese Eku technique – Sunakake (sand flick) – involves the paddle being thrust vertically down into the sand. In a rapid flicking motion, the sand is then projected towards the opponent’s face. As the opponents reacts, trying to protect their face, the Eku is thrust forward into the stomach region ot throat.
Another defense against a samurai wielding a katana was to block their sword with the paddle edge. The blade would cut into the wood and be difficult to remove. Once embedded, the sword would be stuck and it wouldn’t take much to disarm the attacking samurai.
Who uses the Eku?
Two different styles of Kobudo that are still practiced today:
Matayoshi Kobudo – this particular branch was developed by the Matayoshi family in Okinawa over nine generations. It is influenced by a number of martial art styles from Japan, China and Okinawa’s own indiginous fighting arts.
Ryukyu Kobudo – this style was founded by Taira Shinken and combines Shorinryu Karate with Kobudo weapons training.
In common with many martial arts of the Far East, Kobudo distills many of its fighting techniques into kata.
These are fixed patterns of movement that incorporate striking and blocking techniques that are performed in a prescribed sequence.
Each attacking and defensive movement has to be performed in a very specific way – there can be no deviation or improvisation.
This method of encoding various techniques into a kata allows it to be easily taught to others and to be passed on down the generations.
There are only a handful of oar katas and two of these can be seen below: