Kobudo Sai Weapon

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Sai (釵) is the Ryukyu name for a traditional Okinawan weapon also used in India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Its basic form is that of a pointed, rod-shaped baton, with two long, unsharpened projections (tsuba) attached to the handle. The very end of the handle is called the knuckle.

Sai are constructed in a variety of forms. Traditional sai are round, while some reproductions have adapted an octagonal middle prong. The tsuba are traditionally symmetrical, however, the Manji design developed by Taira Shinken employs oppositely facing tsuba.

It is believed the sai was always a weapon. Although, some hypothesize it originated as an agricultural tool used to measure stalks, plow fields, plant rice, or to hold cart wheels in place, though the evidence for this is limited.

The sai is known to have been used in other parts of Asia before its arrival on Okinawa. Early evidence points to an Indonesian origin. In Malay the sai is known as a chabang (also spelled cabang/tjabang, meaning branch) and is thought to derive from the Indian trident.

By trade, the chabang spread through the rest of Indo-China and may have reached Okinawa from one or more of these places simultaneously. In China it might have been known as the San-Ku-Chu. It is also of note that the Greek letter psi, is a homonym of sai and that the shape of the letter itself closely resembles the shape of the weapon.

Use: The sai’s utility as a weapon is reflected in its distinctive shape. With skill, it can be used against a long sword by trapping the sword’s blade in the sai’s tsuba. There are several different ways of wielding the sai in the hands, which give it the versatility to be used both lethally and non-lethally. The sai is primarily used as a striking weapon or for short jabs into the solar plexus. The sai also has many defensive uses in blocking other weapons.

One way to hold it is by gripping the handle with all of your fingers and hooking your thumbs into the area between the tsuba and the main shaft. This allows you to change effortlessly between the long projection and the back, blunt side. The change is made by putting pressure on your thumbs and rotating the sai around until it is facing backwards and your index finger is aligned with the handle. The sai is generally easier to handle in this position. The knuckle end is good for concentrating the force of a punch and the long shaft can be wielded to thrust at enemies, to serve as a protection for a blow to the forearm or to stab as one would use a common dagger.

Some keep the index finger extended in alignment with the center shaft regardless of whether the knuckle end or the middle prong is exposed. The finger may be straight or slightly curled. They keep the other fingers on the main shaft and the thumb supports the tsuba.

The above grips leverage the versatility of this implement as both an offensive and defensive weapon. Both grips facilitate flipping between the point and the knuckle being exposed while the sai is held in strong grip positions.

The sai is typically instructed for use in pairs – one in each hand. In the United States a common style is Yamanni Ryu, which is taught by Oshiro-Sensei (8th Dan) in San Francisco. There are five common kata used in instruction, including two kihon kata. The style includes a variety to blocks, parries, strikes, and captures against attackers from all directions and height levels. Use of the point, knuckle and central bar is emphasized, as well as rapid grip changes for multiple strikes/blocks.

The jitte is the one-pronged Japanese equivalent to the (Okinawan) sai, and was used predominantly by the Japanese police during the Edo period. It is a featured weapon in the curriculum of several Japanese Jujutsu and koryu schools.

In Fiction: In Hollywood, sai have been portrayed as being used like a sword, dagger and a throwing dart. Little play is given to striking with the knuckle. Thus, the traditionally rounded weapon is portrayed being bladed. E.g., Jennifer Garner who played Elektra Natchios in Daredevil and its spin-off Elektra and holds them incorrrectly with the index and middle finger straddling the middle prong inside the tsubas. A grip with 2 or 3 fingers inside between the tsuba and the middle shaft facilitates a slightly more flashy array of finger twirls. However, it eliminates certain defensive possibilities and knuckle strikes.

In Pop Culture:

  • Raphael of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles uses twin sai as his weapon of choice
  • Marvel comics superheroine Elektra Natchios, and her film counterpart played by Jennifer Garner in Daredevil and Elektra, use sai as their trademark killing weapons.
  • Mileena from the Mortal Kombat series uses sai as her primary weapons. Li Mei in Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, Sareena in Mortal Kombat: Tournament Edition and Khameleon in Mortal Kombat Trilogy also use sai.
  • Gabrielle (Renee O’Connor) from Xena: Warrior Princess uses a pair of sai as her primary weapons in the later seasons.
  • In The Mummy Returns, the heroine Evie/Nefertiri (Rachel Weisz) and the villainess Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez) do battle with golden sai, referred to as “trident swords” so as to dispel the anachronism of sai as ancient Egyptian weapons.
  • Neo (Keanu Reeves) uses them in The Matrix Reloaded during the Chateau Fight, against the Merovingian’s Exile henchmen.
  • One of the Sentai characters, Battle Cossack from Battle Fever J
  • In the South Park episode “Good Times With Weapons” Eric Cartman purchases a pair of Sai for his alter ego Bulrog.
  • In “24 Declassified:Vanishing Point” the Chinese villainess Yizi wields a pair of modified sai as her weapon of choice.
  • In The Octagon the ninja enforcer ‘Kyo’ uses a pair of sai as his primary weapons.
  • In Tokyo Mew Mew, Kisshu’s weapons are sai.
  • In the Ronin Warriors series the character Lady Kayura uses a modified pair of sai as her weapon of choice.
  • In the Fighting Game Last Bronx, Nagi Hojo uses a pair of sai as her preferred weapon.
  • In the movie Bulletproof Monk the villainess Nina uses a single black sai in her fight with Jade.