What is Nunchaku? ヌンチャクとは何だ
The nunchaku (ヌンチャク), also known as “nunchuks“, “num-chuk“, “chuka sticks” etc., is a traditional Okinawan martial arts weapon consisting of two sticks connected at one end by a short chain or rope. Used by Okinawan nobles, it was not a historically popular weapon because it was ineffective against the most widely used weapons of that time, and because few techniques for its use existed. The two sections of the weapon are commonly made out of wood, while the link is a cord or a metal chain. The nunchaku is most widely used in martial arts such as Okinawa kobudo and karate, and is used as a training weapon, since it allows the development of quicker hand movements and improves posture. Many varieties of nunchaku are available. The most popular ones are either round or octagonal. Modern-day nunchaku can be made from metal, wood, plastic or fiber glass. There is not a standard size for nunchaku but its length is typically between 23 and 45 cm. In the ancient Okinawa time, very short 20 to 30cm nunchaku were used as they were Anki (暗器 hiden weapon). Its thickness is between 24 and 36 mm. For the link of two sticks they used to use the horse tail hair. These days the woven ropes are used as well as the more durable chains. A practitioner can use either one pair or two pairs in both hands.
The origin of the word nunchaku has not been clearly determined or agreed. One theory indicates it was derived from pronunciation of 兩節棍 (two section staff) pronounced as nng-chat-kun in a Southern Fujian dialect of Chinese language.
The origin of the nunchaku is also not clear nor documented. One belief is that nunchaku was originally a short South-East Asian flail used to thresh rice or soybeans. Escrima (AKA Kali and Arnis), Philippino martial art, is known to use nunchaku like weapon called tabak-toyok and its history goes back to the 14th century.
Another theory is that it was originally developed from an Okinawan horse bit (ムーゲー muge two photos below).
The idea is that the government officials and the high rank samurai in the Ryukyu kingdom (ancient Okinawa) used to use the horses for their transportation. These people used to carry the hidden weapons such as a comb or hairpin (jifa 簪, ジーファー) and a folding fan (扇子). Another one was muge (ムーゲー), a wooden bite for the horses. This tool could easily taken off a horse to use as a weapon. It is documented that Motobu Choki (本部朝基) knew how to make a pair of muge nunchaku. Therefore, nunchaku were not for the common people but were used only by the privileged class who could ride a horse.
One more but less popular theory is that it was adapted from a pair of wooden clappers called hyoshigi (拍子木) carried by the night watch men of the old time. They are now used in sumo tournament.
Regardless of its origins, the nunchaku was not a popular weapon until they were popularized by actor, Bruce Lee in his movies. There are several versions of the stories of where he learned about nunchaku. One of the popular one is his friend and the number one student, Dan Inosanto who had been familiar with the Escrima fighting method. Another popular story is that Lee took some nunchaku lessons from a well known Japanese karate instructor in LA, Tak Kubota, the founder of Gosoku-ryu. Another famous sensei, Fumio Demura, the Director of Shito-ryu Karate-do Genbu-kai, also claims that he taught nunchaku to Lee. Regardless of where Lee had picked up the use of nunchaku, here is an ironical thing that Lee himself did not believe in the use of this kobudo weapon. It is said that he used it in the movies just for the theatrical effect. He also used the form rubber nunchaku to avoid any accidents not only to his opponents but to himself.
Another irony is that Lee made nunchaku so popular that many hoodlums used them in their fights. As a consequence (but of course not the Lee’s fault), possession of this weapon became illegal in many countries including Japan and the US where possessing a machine gun is legal. You can own one only for training in professional martial art schools and I personally had so much difficulty getting a replacement when the old ones broke.
I will close this article with a very interesting fact. Did you know that no known traditional kata for nunchaku exist? Some kata have been created only recently by different styles and organizations, and none of the kata have any old history. The exact reason has not been documented or agreed why a formal kata was never created in the ancient Okinawa. It is assumed by some that no kata had been created because it was used so secretly. However, this theory is not too believable as karate and other kobudo (古武道) weapons were also practiced secretly. It is more possible that such a kata had been created by someone but had been forgotten and lost without being documented. So, it remains to be one of the biggest karate mysteries, though nunchaku have become so popular around the world.