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The Awesomeness of Okinawan Martial Arts: Using The Sai


The Okinawan martial arts utilize many different weapons ranging from blunt, wooden instruments such as the tonfa to a pronged weapon like the sai. This is in numerous films and shows as weapons for superheroes like Elektra or Raphael of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Outside of the pop culture references of the sai, it has a rich historical background and varies in different types. This blog is going to explore what a sai is, its history, the technique required to wield sai, and how to use them in martial arts.


The History Of The Sai

The sai did not originate in Okinawa, but made its way there via trade routes. It started in other Asian countries such as China, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Each has a different name, which we will discuss later in this blog. The sai are believed to have started in India as the trisula, which can either be a short-handled trident or long-handled. Many also believe that the weapon grew in popularity and moved to places like Okinawa with the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, the sai is an important symbol in both Hinduism and Buddhism. The police used this weapon in Okinawa for crowd control and to help them arrest unruly criminals.


This is yet another weapon that evolved from a farm tool. Not only did rulers restrict weapons being made like samurai swords, but also were used when weapons were only available for the samurai class. Many farmers knew that they would experience problems with raiders and needed protection for themselves and family. This weapon was used as a tool to plant seeds by providing similar helps that we would now use trowels for, which promotes the fact that many Japanese farmers made their weapons from farm equipment. Because of the cloudy historical foundations, it is hard to know for sure when this started happening or how it arrived in Japan. The most common believe is that Okinawa was in a prime trade route, which brought in several different elements of different cultures, including weapons.


Many researchers point out that this weapon is not a knife, dagger, or sword. The points of the sai are not sharp like a bladed weapon is, and are used to bludgeon and strike opponents. This is why it, like the tonfa, was considered optimal for crowd control. However, because it looks similar to a knife or sword, it is not used by many riot police forces as they use the tonfa instead.


What Is A Sai?

The sai is a three-pronged weapon that looks similar to a small trident. As stated, this weapon is not a knife or sword as it does not have a blade. It is used to incapacitate an opponent by bludgeoning him or her, and can also be a defensive weapon to keep attacks away from the person. The sai comes in pairs, as it is a two-handed weapon much like the tonfa. Some of the best weapons the sai can defend against are the bow staff and swords. Because crafters make this weapon from metal, it is not as likely to break when a sword strikes it like a wooden tonfa might break.


Different Types Of Sai

While the sai seems to be more of an Okinawan weapon, there are different types of sai from different countries. Many are very similar to the sai and may have, at one time, held similar purposes of the sai, being farming or agricultural tools. These two different types are as follows:


·       Chabang or Tjabang: Some know this as a tekpi and is found in Southeast Asia. It is like the sai in that it has three prongs and is a truncheon type weapon, without a blade or dagger like qualities. Historians believe that, much like the sai, this weapon evolved from the trisula, which was used predominately in India. It is still unclear which countries received the tjabang or sai first or if they all received it almost simultaneously. People can use this weapon both offensively and defensively. It is more for bludgeoning opponents, which can happen with the prongs or the butt of the weapon. This weapon can also be used to stab people, though it is not a sharp blade. It is best used defensively when fighting an opponent with a bladed weapon such as a sword or dagger.

·       Trisula: This is thought to be the weapon where all others originated. It is from India and can either be a short weapon like the sai or placed on the end of the staff and made into a trident. It is often seen in different forms throughout Indian religion. For example, Shiva the god who represents the multitude of other gods is seen holding the trident in many Hindu statues or artwork. The lore of India even says that this weapon was used to behead Ganesha, and the goddess Durga is oftentimes seen wielding a trisula or trident. The main difference between a trisula and a sai is that the trisula is oftentimes bladed and used as a dagger or knife.


The trisula and sai are oftentimes seen in other cultures and represent different things. For example, in Romani culture “Trishul” refers to the cross and the trsiula is a symbol in Buddhism called the triranta. It is also in Nepal as a symbol for the Communist Party, which is also known as the United Marxist Party. This particular weapon has an incredibly rich history and is something that can be seen in many different cultures, adding to its romance and draw.


Elements Of A Sai

The sai has different elements that will be referred to if you take a martial arts class or when listening to any lecture on Japanese weapons. These parts are as follows:


·       Monouchi: This is the shaft of the sai, and it can either be rounded or faceted.

·       Yoku: These are those prongs that are on either side of the middle prong, which guard it. These are also always symmetrical and shorter than the middle portion.

·       Tsume: This refers to the tip of the yoku.

·       Moto: This is the point that is the actual center of the yoku or side prongs.

·       Tsuka: This is what is normally referred to as the handle, yet this is the traditional and correct term to use when discussing the handle of a sai. This will be wrapped with different materials to promote better gripping. These materials can be twine, leather, or cords made of different materials. In modern usage of the sai, many martial artists will use sports or hockey tape for a better grip and chance of less slipping. Using this type of tape will make sure it stays on the tsuka instead of unraveling or slipping off like other materials might.

·       Tsukagashira: This is the bottom portion of the tsuka or handle.

·       Saki: This is the very tip of the sai, but is always blunt and never pointed or sharpened.

The Technique To Use A Sai

When you purchase the sai, you may want to have them on display, but many long to spar with them. It is wise to find a martial arts studio that trains in the Okinawan Martial Arts to ensure you are learning the proper form and safety measures needed. Before heading to any class, here are a few tips on how to use the sai to prepare yourself:


·       Always make sure you and your sparring partner are wearing proper protective gear and have the right weapons to use. You can either both spar with sai or have on person use a staff or sword type weapon.

·       Grip the sai correctly with your hand around the handle, and your thumb placed at the base of the weapon (under the prongs). This will help make sure the sai stays firmly in your hands. It is also a good idea to make sure your sai have something wrapped around the handle for cushioning and easier grip.

·       When your opponent strikes out at you with their weapon, turn the sai around in your hand so that the prongs run along your forearm. This will help you protect yourself from the blows your opponent is trying to land on you.

·       Hook the prongs of the sai around the staff, effectively trapping the weapon with the sai. This gives you the advantage to disarm your opponent.

·       Remember that while you are practicing with the sai that it will take time to learn the art of attack and defense. Do not give up when you are only just starting. Consider seeking a teacher to help you progress quickly and safely.


In Closing

The sai is an interesting weapon with such an incredible, yet mysterious, origin. Remember always to show respect to this weapon as it carries such an important history that has spanned multiple generations. When you are not sparing with the sai, always make sure they are in a safe location, as well as one that can show off these wonderful weapons.