Small hand-held weapons

tobacco pipe

Early history single hand held weapons

When we consider the history of the yawara stick, we actually have to broaden our investigations to include the whole range of single hand held weapons to appreciate its origins.  Often this category is simply referred to as "tenouchi" weapons which apparently literally means "inside the hand".

At the heart of the issue was that feudal Japan was not necessarily a safe place and there was a necessity to be prepared to be able to defend yourself at any time.  Ordinary or usual weapon s may not be have been available or been appropriate.  It meant that a competent and well aware person would be able to defend themselves with whatever common items were at hand.

Dual use items

The first aspect is to take something that is actually designed to be used for another purpose and simply apply in a self defence context.

So, for instance, a warrior would carry his tobacco pipe (kiseru).  Usually it would be carried in a case made of leather, wood, bamboo or animal horn.  In essence the pipe was a hard rod with metal ends and certainly capable of being used for impromptu self defence is in an emergency.

Around the beginning of the Edo period it was common for a portable writing set (yatate) to be carried in the belt (obi).  The portable writing set consisted of an ink soaked cloth and writing brush in a hinged case.  The shape would be not dissimilar to a fan.  In an emergency it also could be used as a weapon.

Itinerant preachers, unable to carry swords, used their flutes as both their musical instrument and truncheon when the occasion demanded it as they roamed from village to village playing the flute and accepting alms.

The list of things that could be used would be long and varied from small things such as hairpins to fireman's tools.

Deliberate weapons

Some hand-held weapons were designed as such.  The iron handles (referred to as tekken) were but versions of what we would refer to as brass knuckles or knuckledusters.  In the same vein as you have the iron constructions that reinforce the edge of the hand to reinforce sword hand strikes.  These had no purpose other than as a weapon.

Hidden weapons

Concealment was a further aspect of these small hand-held weapons.  Typically it was about concealing blades in more everyday items.  It seems that it is an aspect that existed in the past and continues today to attract the criminal element.  There is a great deal of concern about things that can be concealed.  You can see that in Western Australia prohibited weapons are "disguised knife or sword".

How much dual use?

In considering dual use when you are suggesting that an item has at least two uses.  Then of course we get very interesting question of how much it is the one thing - perhaps its original purpose that it was designed to fulfil; and how much the something else - like as a weapon.

An example of this is the tobacco pipe mentioned earlier.  Some people took the tobacco pipe and being more concerned about a self defence capacity and less concerned about smoking, gravitated towards stronger smoking pipes.  It happened to a degree that started to be made from cast iron or brass and were referred to as "fighting pipes".  Because they became so widespread their use was incorporated in the curriculum of some martial arts schools in the Edo period.  Of course they may have proliferated as a result of being in such curriculums!

It is interesting question - is a particular tobacco pipe 80% for tobacco and 20% a weapon or 20% for smoking and 80% for combat?  We see this dilemma playing out today with legislation seeking to control the use of weapons, attempting to define what a weapon is - or might be!

Yawara stick kongo

Palm sticks

So where does this leave us with sticks that are held in the palm?  Many jujutsu schools during the Edo period taught the use a short wooden rod which could be held in one hand with the rod extending slightly either side of the clenched fist.

With the introduction of Buddhism to Japan (around the Heian period, 794 to 1185) came all the various aspects of scriptures, ceremonious and associated rites including implements such as the vajra.  In essence, the vajra it was a small hand-held item with a ribbed spherical head.  Whilst it had its place as a symbolic and ritual tool of religion, there is no doubt that it was a weapon.

According to Serge Mol (page 53) [1]-

The dokko … Is a small hand weapon derived from the vajra and resembling the single pronged Vajra … As a weapon it was primarily intended for atemi against weak points, and it was included in the weapons of some jūjutsu schools.

In relation to such wooden rods, Don Cunningham says (at pages 50-51) [2]-

This commonly carried hibuki was called the yawara- bō, sometimes referred to simply as a yawara.  ….  The yawara- bō was also occasionally referred to as tenouchi, which the meaning something "inside the hand."

Then you get the addition of the cord.  The most basic is a short piece of cylindrical hardwood that is approximately the length of the width of the palm.  Two holes drilled on each side of the centre so that a short loop of cord would be passed through.  The circle of cord created has the middle finger inserted.  This ensures that the stick remains in the palm when the hand is open and the stick is concealed when the fist is closed.

The "suntetsu" was a metal version of the wooden rod and cord tenouchi weapon referred to earlier.  It was an iron rod some 15 to 18 cm in length as with a ring attached.  The ring effectively replacing the cord.  The ring was usually in the centre although it could be offset towards one end of the rod.  The rod was free to rotate at the connection point to the ring.  The ring usually went over the middle finger and the hand grasp rod.

So what of a modern yawara stick?

An aspect that emerges from the above discussion of evolution is that at its heart the so-called yawara or jujutsu stick is an object held in the hand that can reinforce the fist.  The materials in dimensions vary considerably.  Many objects will fit this very broad description.  Some of those objects will be everyday items designed to fulfil other uses exclusively.  Some objects will have a dual use in that it can be used as a self defence tool as well is something else.  Some objects will have multiple uses and it will not be easy to find or describe a primary use of that object.  Some objects will be designed as weapons pure and simple.  It does make finding the one true nature of an object a very difficult task - particularly if you are seeking out the nature of a weapon!

I note that in Victoria Australia, the legislation has singled out a "kubotan" as an item that is prohibited in that state.  You simply cannot have one.  I have thought about it, but I struggle to see what qualities this object possesses that it deserves such treatment.  Personally, I think it is a good key chain but just an okay hand-held rod!

Peter Clarke


[1] Classical Weaponry of Japan: special weapons and tactics of the martial arts, Serge Mol, Kodansha  International (2003)

[2] Samurai Weapons: Tools of the Warrior, Don Cunningham, Tuttle Publishing (2008)