Ninjutsu – an introduction to the art of the 3 foot stick (honbo)
Author - Ofer Cohen, 10Dan, M.A.


Sticks and swords are correlated both in practice and in combat. The prime goal of the sword is to be a fighting weapon. It is destined for and forged to cut, stub and in short, to subdue and destroy the enemy. The sword was believed to be the supreme weapon of the true worriers of the past centuries in most of the world countries and especially in Japan. However, monks and other spiritual persons were traveling the roads accompanied with a stick that was handy in many ways, one among them was for self-defense. But they didn't have swords since their prime goal was to do good only and not to be engaged in fighting even if it seemed justified at the time.

The Argentinean writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges writes in his amazing book Ficciones (which is a collection of small masterpieces) a short text titled “the dagger”. His words are “ the dagger is placed in the drawer. It was forged in Toledo, in the end of the ninety-century.... those who see the dagger, pull it out and play with it as if it was lying there just for that purpose…. The dagger wants something else. It is not only metallic structure. Human beings conceived it and designed it with one purpose in mind. In some eternal manner, the dagger that killed a man in Takoarambo and the daggers that killed Julius Caesar are this dagger. The dagger strive to kill, eager to shed sudden blood… In my table drawer, among draft papers and letters, the dagger still dreams its simple tiger dream over and over again …. And the years keep flowing as it does”.

The stick in its various forms doesn't have a unique exclusive purpose, and it is not intended from the start to destroy anything. It is possible of course to use it for attack and defense and it is possible to hit opponents and subdue them and even take their life using a stick. Yet, the stick is, first of all, one of the basic objects that are found in the non-combat, everyday environment of most people. People use it as walking aid, to carry baggage, to scratch their backs, as a tool etc.

Main forms and structures of the short stick:
The length of the short stick is three Shaku (forearm in Japanese). Rokushakubo is the Japanese name for long stick and its length is six-forearms (Roku means six in Japanese). One long stick can be cut in half to form two short sticks. The length of the forearm is different for each person. In the past the custom was to adjust the length of one's personal sticks to the exact size of the worrier, to gain optimal effectiveness and ease of use. The length of the short stick is usually around 92-95 cm. In Ninjutsu the sticks are generally wide and heavy and are very strong yet with a measure of flexibility. These kinds of sticks are made in such ways that it is very difficult to break them with bare hands or by hitting them with another stick or a sword. Its diameter is around 3 cm, and sometimes even a little bit more.

The Boken – a wooden sword, is an interesting breeding between a short stick and a real sword. The meaning of “Bo” in Japanese is a stick; Ken in Japanese means a sword. The boken enables practicing sword fighting without endangering the life of the trainees or causing them severe disability. Practice with Boken also eliminates the risk of damaging the swords. A Boken is much cheaper than a practice-sword, so practicing the art of the sword becomes available for all. When Firearms replaced the swords as the overpowering weapons in the battlefields, the art of the sword remained mainly as a way to preserve ancient traditions and culture, preserving deep and profound combat principals and as a way of self-development. Even so, one should remember that practicing with boken or Shinai (a sword that is made of bamboo) doesn't substitute sword practice, and that although there is considerable resemblance between them; they are actually enhancing two different skills.

Concealed sword within a short stick is a classic ancient weapon in the broad arsenal of the Bujinkan. It enables the worrier to combine the combat qualities of a stick with the devastative power of the sword. This weapon manifests two of the most important combat principles of the Ninjutsu martial art. These are the principals of concealment and camouflage. It is harder to defend against a treat that you are not aware of and appear without giving you enough chance to prepare against it. Conceal weapon enables us to apply the principal of surprise and subdue the opponent in many possible ways and measures, a strategy that especially characterizes the way of the Ju Po Sesho. This strategy is rooted in these three combat principals enables us to end a confrontation not necessarily by inflicting death or disability.

Forms of practice and important aspects that signify the use of the short stick:

  1. Dai-Sho Sabaki
  2. Using the special traits of the stick.
  3. Extension of the body movements.
  4. Applying Tai-jutsu techniques using the stick.
  5. Supplements to the stick.
  6. Using more than one stick at the same time.
  7. Concealing the stick.
  8. Using other weapons such as Kunai or Jute and using them along side the stick in the right time.
  9. Muto-Dori.

Dai-Sho Sabaki
Dai in Japanese means big; Sho means small and Sabaki means body movement. This is the art of fighting with two swords, big and small, against one or more opponents that are also armed with swords or other classical weapons. When it comes to fighting with the short stick, we adopt the fighting methods and practices of the Dai-Sho Sabaki art.

Using the special traits of the stick.
The stick basically has a symmetric form. Its shape enables us to slide the stick from side to side in our hands or on our body and hold its edges without injuring ourselves. These traits allow us maximal freedom in manipulating the stick and optimal movements while holding it. There are three essential ways of attack or defense with the stick. One is with the body of the stick, the second is with one of the flat edges of the stick and the third is with the meeting line between the body and the flat edge. This small area creates a ninety-degree angle that enables us to use it effectively for both attack and defense.

Extension of the body movements.
In Ninjutsu, one of the most important facets of the system is working with the body. We can generalize that there is no movement that is not a body movement, no matter if it is a tiny almost unseen movement or a large movement. Practicing with a stick is not different in any way. The stick is regarded as an integral part of the body and as an extension of it. Our power and energy pass through our body and through the stick until they meet the opponent body or weapons.

Applying Tai-jutsu techniques while using the stick.
Another central way to work with the short stick is to practice the techniques that we do using only our bare hands with the stick. Sometimes we will need to adjust the technique to make it work effectively, but this is really an excellent way to deepen our study and a very important and integral part of the Kihon in its broadest sense.

Supplements to the stick.
In Ninjutsu it is not an uncommon practice to add to the sticks some metal hoops, curved or flattened bars or a chain with or without an iron ball. These supplements are used for strengthening the stick, for climbing and/or as additional attacking means in the hands of an expert.

Using more than one stick at the same time.
This kind of practice has a clear affinity to fighting with two swords, but also for taking advantage of the special traits of the stick that enable us to hold two sticks together and then change and hold each of them in a different hand. This kind of practice is especially relevant when we face multiple attackers. It signifies a higher level of fighting competence that will produce a coordinate and integrate movements that would be also effective in real combat.

Concealing the stick.
In physical confrontations as well as in social ones, it seems a common practice that each of the opponents will approach the confrontation by magnifying and/or using his best and strong sides. A big man will try to threat and win with his weight, muscles and size. A quick man, with his fast moves; a skillful speaker with his sharp tongue. Yet, in Ninjutsu we usually try to conceal our power, quickness and skill as well as our weapons. This strategy is closely related to another essential principal that is one of the core essences of Ninjutsu: not to be enslaved or captured by the forms, structures, actions, thoughts, believes and the energy of the opponents; but to act unstrained in total freedom in the combat scene. A lot of attention is dedicated in practice for achieving this kind of inner state and spirit. One of the ways to ascend to this level is to apply the stick from the starting point of it being concealed. The exposure of the stick on the right moment using the principal of surprise is a very important combat strategy to verify that we will be victorious in a real engagement.

Using other weapons such as Kunai or Jute and using them along side the stick at the right time.
This aspect is closely related to the previous ones. I will stress here one important point only. The stick by itself can conceal another weapon. An example to such combat maneuver is a situation when we conceal our stick, and then expose it. Our opponent has overcome his initial surprise and rush in full speed towards us just to find himself facing a kunai that was concealed beyond that stick.

When Muto-Dori in applied in stick fighting practice it relates to all the combat principles and practices that enable us to face with our bare hands against an opponent that is armed with a stick. To achieve this high level of proficiency it is recommended in Ninjutsu to start training in Muto-Dori soon after the basic moves of the stick were studied. This kind of practice enables the dedicated student to reach and apply a dimension that is beyond technique or the Kihon.

The following things should be considered while practicing with a short stick:

  1. Basic practice with the stick makes the stick an integral part of our body in relatively static as well as dynamic situations. We need to learn how to slide, roll and turn it around in many ways.
  2. The myth of the one strike. Even an expert fighter armed with a sharp sword would generally not be able to kill or subdue an opponent with one strike, let alone with a stick.
  3. We should adjust the power and the pattern of our attack and defense to the strength of the stick. The stick can be cracked or be broken and lose its effectiveness as a weapon.
  4. When we work with a stick we should pay attention not to turn it from a point of advantage to a disadvantage.

Best wishes
Ofer Cohen 10Dan, Israel
Student of Shihan Danny Waxman (15Dan) and Doron Navon.

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