Stick to the shadows
Updated: Mar 17
There are many forms of stick fighting, from English quarterstaff, to Shaolin staff, to Bo staff in many Japanese styles, to Filipino and Escrima sticks to name but a few. Within the Bujinkan there is taught the 6 foot Bo staff, the 4 foot Jo staff and the 3 foot Hanbo. These techniques are taken from the Kukishinden Ryu which is one of the nine ryu-ha of the Bujinkan.
The Hanbo is a 3 foot red oak staff. ‘Hanbo’ literally means ‘half Bo’ - it can be seen that if the Bo is 6 foot, then the dimensions of a Hanbo are easy enough to work out. The techniques used are interchangeable with the use of a shikomizue, a staff with a concealed blade inside, reminiscent of the sword sticks of 18th century Europe.
As with all weapons we learn the stances first to form a good foundation to work from. This enables us to develop into a less formal style with a good understanding of the dynamics. We then look at rolling with the Hanbo, as with anything we must be able to take ukemi whether we have hands free or not. This requires a high level of ability as the use of weapons changes peoples ability to move in a natural way as their attention goes into the weapon and not in their own natural movement.
The Hanbo gives us a lever to enable locking of limbs, a bar to choke the body as well as the movement of the opponent, and a sturdy striking weapon. It needs to be able to strike from a natural ‘walking stick’ stance which is shown as either ‘tate’ (shield) or ‘munen muso’ (no thought no intention) in the stances. As with Bujinkan taijutsu, we always move with the Hanbo to maximise our safe distance whilst being able to achieve an effective strike, counter, lock or throw to the opponents technique. This is why a great many of Hatsumi sensei video are entitled Martial Arts of Distance.
Some of the stances are transitionary, we do not assume a static posture but rather move through them as part of our natural movement. The ‘kage’ (shadow) stance is compromised in its effectiveness if you just stand there facing the opponent with it, but if it becomes part of how you move then its true potential can be found.
As the locks are applied we need to be able to maintain our own balance to a degree that we can kick freely at any point in the technique. It is also important that we can adjust and flow with our opponents’ responses so we do not hold onto a technique when it is countered, no longer effective, or appropriate. This flow and open mindset is one to be developed in all aspects of taijutsu and weapon work. By starting with fixed patterns to learn how to achieve techniques, we can then move onto freer practice.
Not only are round Hanbo found but hexagonal cross-section ones are used also. This applies a bit more edge to the technique. The study of this form of stick fighting helps in the use of common everyday objects in self defence. There is no need for any specialised ‘stick’ just an understanding of the principles of leverage, distance and timing.
When we look at the shikomizue, the techniques learned with the Hanbo are key to the use of this weapon. If we can lock up the opponent with the stick and still retain our ability to kick and adapt freely, then we can restrain an opponent with the shikomizue and draw the blade at which ever point it is needed. It gives us the opportunity to restrain one opponent whilst defending against other adversaries with the blade.
The Hanbo is one of the cornerstones of Bujinkan weaponry, bridging the gap between short weapons and medium range weapons. An in-depth understanding of this helps to develop many aspects of taijutsu. Further reading can be found in Hatsumi sensei book ‘Stick Fighting’ an excellent and unique insight into these techniques.