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Origins of the Tuifa (Tonfa)

One of the more popular weapons of Ryukyu Kobudo is the Tonfa, which is also known as the Tuifa and Tonkwa, etc. It can arguably be described as the origin of the PR-24 police baton used in the USA and other countries. However, its origin is obscure, but there are many theories. This short article will describe each theory, as put forth by Okinawan researchers.

The Meaning of the Word.

The late Nagamine Shoshin, founder of Matsubayashiryu Karatedo, puts forth an interesting theory as to the etymology of the term, in the original Japanese language version of his classic The Essence of Okinawan Karatedo. Nagamine states:

“Presently, the terminology for the ‘Tuifa’ is not unified. Some people call it ‘Tunfa’ whereas others call it ‘Tungwa.’ Unfortunately none of the variations can be verified through written records. This is nothing but speculation, but I believe that Tuifa is the correct term. I believe that the term Tuifa came from the term ‘Torite-ha’ meaning handle. In Okinawa, the handle (Tori-te) of a Jinrikisha or baggage is called ‘Tuite.’ By the same token, the Japanese term Torite-ha would be pronounced Tuifa in the Okinawan dialect. Therefore, I believe that the word Tuifa is a dialectical pronunciation of the term Torite-ha. (Nagamine, 1975; pp.367-368).

The Everyday Implement Theories

There are several theories as to the Tuifa being taken from everyday implements in Okinawa. The more popular theories include the following:

It was taken from the handle of a grinding stone (Hokama, et al, 1989; Matsuo, 1990; Miyagi, 1987).
It was formed by cutting off the handle of a boat oar (Nakamoto, 1983; Taira, 1968).
It came from an old tool used in tilling rice paddies (Hokama, et al, 1989; Miyagi, 1987).
It was the handle of a crop harvesting tool (Hokama, et al, 1989).
The Thailand Theory

However, there is another theory worth consideration and further research. That is, that the Tuifa was actually imported from Thailand (Hokama, et al, 1989; Miyagi, 1987). There appears a weapon in Thailand that is uncomfortably similar to the Okinawa Tuifa. The differences are that the Thai version of the Tuifa has two handles and is attached to the practitioner’s arm via a string near the elbow. In other words, the weapon cannot be twirled like the Okinawan version.

The Thai weapon is held by one handle, and the other handle serves as a kind of guard to protect the user’s hand from strikes by the opponent’s weapon. However, the Okinawan Tuifa, which only has one handle and is not attached to the wielder’s arm, can be twirled and manipulated in a plethora of ways. This alone warrants many Okinawans to believe that their version is superior to the Thai version.

Although none of these theories have been proven solidly enough to gain universal acceptance, they are nonetheless interesting to speculate on. However, no amount of historical speculation can replace detailed hands-on instruction by a qualified instructor.