Don’t get me wrong, I like those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as much as anyone. I do. But if anything bugs me about them it’s the weapons. The number of times I get asked ‘So, you use nunchucks in ninjutsu?’ – it really wears thin after a year or two. As any karate-ka knows nunchucks are an Okinawan weapon of karate, nothing to do with ninjas. No, if I was writing the turtles today I’d be giving Mikey a pair of Kusarifundo to use. What are Kusarifundo? Well….
A Kusarifundo or Manrikigusari was used by both ninja and samurai alike. It was a length of chain with a weight at each end. Kusarifundo almost directly translates to weighted chain, where Kusari means chain, and fundo is the weight. The word Manrikigusari is a bit more complex. It is made up of Man meaning 10,000; riki meaning power or energy; and kusari meaning chain. It was therefore said that with the Manrikigusari one would have the power of 10,000 men such was its effectiveness.
The fundo or weight had many forms depending on the school from iron spheres to square, hexagonal and octagonal bars that were straight or ‘coned’ in shape. The shape was in some ways dictated by the schools individual traditions and by practicality. When the shape is ‘coned’ i.e. wider at the base than at the chain-attached end, it allows for better retention of the weight while in use. With spherical shapes it can be easier to use with smaller hands as opposed to the longer bar type of fundo. The chain itself could be anything from 1 shaku to 3 shaku in length (a Japanese shaku is equivalent to 11.93 inches).
There were many schools on its use in the Edo period. Once the basics were mastered it could be employed in most schools techniques adding weight and impact to many techniques. Within the Bujinkan the chain techniques originate from Masaki Ryu. These techniques are then adapted to the Bujinkan Kihon Happo and Sanshin movements as well as the weapon defence techniques. The stances used are initially the Masaki Ryu stances, but the kusarifundo can be used in the Bujinkan stances very easily as it is a flexible adaptable weapon.
Masaki Ryu originated about 200 years ago in the grounds of Edo Castle (Tokyo), specifically with a samurai guard called Dannoshin Toshimitsu Masaki. He was in charge of security at a the main gate of Edo Castle and felt that due to the significance and importance of the area the use of a sword to defend it would be disrespectful. To this end he set about developing an alternative means of defence, shunning staves as being of too low a station for the imperial guard he came up with the weighted chain. He would then teach its use to the samurai in his command and soon others would come from Japan to be trained in its use. The weapon was given the same respect and deference the sword of the samurai was given as it was recognised as a powerful weapon with many applications. During this period the local clans of ninja would also have learned the weapon not only for their own use but also how to counter it.
With the Masaki Ryu there is a pneumonic to help remember its main principles of use. That pneumonic is SECRETS:
These principles are all tied in to the manner of use of the weighted chain. It takes many hours of practice to achieve these aims, but once mastered the weapon is hard to counter and can be devastating in its application.
The first skill learnt with the chain is called O Same no Kata. This is a way to gather the chain into the hand quickly and efficiently. The chain is held taught between the hands with tension applied in opposite directions, with the elasticity of the movement it is gathered back into the rear hand or forwards into the front hand in one quick smooth motion. When observed it looks like the chain retracts into the receiving palm as if on a reel. This seemingly easy skill takes much practice and bruised thumbs to achieve, but it’s imperative to aid in keeping the chain concealed after each technique. The kata is four movements; left side, right side, forward and backward. This will mean no matter at which point you recover the chain you can quickly conceal it again.
The strikes with the Kusarifundo are, as may be expected, delivered with a circular motion either in a diagonal figure of eight motion, an upwards or downwards vertical circle, or a horizontal figure of eight. The surprising one is the strike where the hand punches forward and releases the top weight to strike in a direct manner at heads, torso, legs, groin, etc.
This enables the user to strike from a relatively safe range and, as long as the weapon is kept concealed up to the point of the strike, it’s hard to counter.
The chain can be used to ward off an attacker by being stretched in front and maintaining a safe distance from the attacker. It can also be used to directly block blows to the side and from overhead. There is a technique which is shown as the chain being held horizontal in front of the defender as a sword is brought down from above. This may well work against overhead blows from fists, but with swords and staves it has a high risk of failure and headaches. A more effective and safe technique is to angle the chain so the weapon slides off to the side, which also enables follow up strikes with the weighted ends. There is also a specific technique called Yadome where the chain is spun directly in front of the defender to block or deflect incoming missiles – specifically arrows (Ya is arrow in Japanese).
The key with this is not to believe the chain will spin fast enough to stop any missile sent at any time. It is in the timing and footwork to deflect the arrow that the technique works. One starts with shuriken, when this is achieved other objects can be thrown and so progress the technique. The author has yet to try arrows!
The chain is also used to entangle limbs and to ‘wrap up’ attackers. The natural feature of chain weapons are that they catch on their own links and lock when wound around objects. This means that when cast over an attacking limb the chain will wrap and lock around the limb and enable the opponent to be thrown.
It can also be used for choking techniques and throwing opponents by the neck. The weights are used for hand held strikes to fists, feet, limbs, the temple area, eye sockets, etc. The chain can be doubled in one hand to hit with both weights simultaneously.
Against weapons the key is timing, distance and correct movement. The chain will just as easily ensnare a blade or staff and give the defender the opportunity to gain the advantage of the attacker. Once a weapon is locked up it is then used to control the balance of the attacker and either turned against them or taken away after they have been defeated.
The reason ninja of the period had such an interest in it is its easy concealment, and the adaptability of its techniques to many different flexible weapons. A rope with knots on both ends could function in a very similar manner to the Kusarifundo. As could belts, sashes, scarves, etc. using anything for weights from stones to wooden carvings to candles wrapped in the cloth ends. Its versatility as a skill set would fit in perfectly with the nature of these intelligence operatives of medieval Japan.