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Nunchaku today

Traditional nunchaku

Traditional nunchaku is usually practiced in traditional okinawan/japanese martial arts schools, sometimes as a unique discipline, but most often as part of kobudo. Students start by learning the basic techniques (kihon). Then they begin to learn katas. At the same time students develop power in their strikes and accuracy of moves. When a student shows good knowledge of katas (and that may take a few years), he is allowed to start the practice of renzoku-bunkai - a pre-arranged, continuous sequense of blocks & attacks, extracted from kata, but practiced with a real partner who attacks with some weapon, usually a staff (bo). The next step for advanced students is kumite - sparring against an armed apponent. The opponent's weapon may vary from time to time (but, again, usually it's bo). The only students who are allowed to practice kumite are those who have very good control of their weapon, because even a mistake of half an inch can be lethal. In some schools students are also taught how to throw the nunchaku.

In traditional nunchaku training, emphasis is placed on footwork, tai-sabaki (body moves) and blocks. When someone strikes your head with a stick, your expertise in twirling a nunchaku can't help you - you must block your opponent's strike or evade it by moving. Traditional nunchaku techniques are highly effective. They were developed for combat and if they are practiced in realistic manner, these techniques allow the martial artist to resist an assaulter who is armed with a stick or knife. What about any weak points of traditional training? One limitation which exists in some schools is that tradition is adhered to religiously and any attempt to change or to add something is considered heresy. A second weak point is the period of learning - it takes a long time and much study to master nunchaku techniques. During the few first months (or years!), before the student has mastered some combat skills, he is relatively defenseless. That can be very bad for those who need to learn self-defence relatively quickly.


'American ninja' with nunchaku
Modern nunchaku

In addition to traditional kobudo schools, nunchaku is taught in many other modern martial-arts schools - from the Philippine martial arts to "american ninjas". Different "old schools" adapted nunchaku to their style, like Philippine martial arts or some Ju-Jutsu styles. Also, many of the new martial arts which were developed in the 70s-90s, use nunchaku as one of their basic weapons. What is common between all these schools is that they use less-traditional kobudo techniques and training methods, and adapt their school's usual techniques so that they can be used with nunchaku.

Because of large number of such schools, it's impossible to give any common characteristics of the techniques and training methods that are used - they vary from school to school. Some schools are kata-oriented like kobudo, other schools don't use katas at all. Some schools are sports oriented, preparing their students to enter tournaments. Others are oriented toward street self-defence. Some schools uses mainly striking techniques, and students are taught to use whip strikes from long distances. Other schools teach grappling - throws, chokes, pain grabs and join locks etc. etc. It's impossible to evaluate nunchaku techniques taught in this or that school without evaluating the school itself.


OPN in action
Police nunchaku

In the early 80's, Kevin D. Orcutt, an American police sergeant, holder of a black belt in Jukado, developed the OPN (Orcutt Police Nunchaku) system, intended for police needs. It uses specially build plastic nunchaku instead of the usual police baton (nightstick) or the PR-24 (side-handle baton) as a primary control device for situations when the usage of a gun is unjustified. The arguments in the plastic nunchaku's favour are its small size (12 inches), which makes it easier to conceal, and to carry comfortably; its "ease-of-use", and the ability to apply various non-lethal but effective techniques. There had been previous attempts to use nunchaku for police work, but OPN is the first system which is based on control and not on impact techniques. As Kevin Orcutt reports, more than 200 law enforcement agencies in the USA use his system.

The OPN system teaches a limited number of simple techniques which can be learned during a short training period. In this system, nunchaku is mainly used for control during arrest or for self-defence against an empty-hand attacker... a gun is used against an armed attacker. The OPN system include various techniques for arrest and control: pain grabs/joint locks, takedowns, "come-along" techniques, techniques for handcuffing, blocks against punches and kicks (which may become a grab-control technique), and a few strikes (which may be used only as a last resort). Any situation which allows striking with the nunchaku, probably also allows the usage of a gun. From the point of view of the martial artist, those few hours of training (instructors typically receive 32-hour courses, then teach 16-hour courses) would only be the barest beginning, but from the policeman's point of view, 16-hours of training is sufficient to do the job. It's hard to compare OPN with other nunchaku systems because of it's special status, but the fact that OPN has been used in real fights for more than 15 years clearly demonstrates it's effectiveness.

Visit the Orcutt Police Defensive Systems, Inc. page if you are interested in additional info about this system.

TR-22 in action Another kind of police nunchaku was developed by Bruce A. Hewitt. This tool is called the "Tactical Restraint Baton" or TR-22. Originally, TR-22 was similar to OPN, but Bruce Hewitt developed two improved models. TR-22 O.C. has an O.C. sprayer - a pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum) canister which is built into the nunchaku handle. TR-22 N.S. is a non-striking nunchaku (which also may come with O.C. capability). It's a unique patent-protected solution for areas where striking weapons are illegal. This tool utilizes a retention strap, and because it cannot be used as a striking weapon, the TR-22 N.S. doesn't fall under the nunchaku prohibition, yet keeps it's ability to control. An additional plus-feature of the non-striking nunchaku is that if the opponent takes it away from the policeman, he will unable to use it against the policeman because he won't know how to apply it.

You probably heard about the Rodney King incident. I have no doubt that it would not have happened if the policemen had been armed with police nunchaku (especially with TR-22 N.S.), instead of or in addition to their PR-24. If you are law enforcement officer - think about it.


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Roy Williams performs Lissajous-Do techniques
Scientific nunchaku

There is one modern Martial Art school which deserves special mention. Lissajous-Do was created by master Roy Williams, (who claims he is "the genius of weapons" and the "#1 nunchaku artist in the world"). This style, which uses the nunchaku as its main weapon, is partially based on the science of mathematics. Williams noticed that the patterns, which had been developed empirically by generations of martial artists, matched some kind of mathematical graphs - Lissajous figures. He systemizated the weapon-patterns, and developed a weapons-art based on mathematical and physical principles - Lissajous-Do.

I learned the techniques of the Lissajous-Do system from the "Advanced Nunchaku" instructional tapes produced by master Lee Barden (former student of Roy Williams), who currently heads his own organization "Lissajous Weapons System". I ordered these tapes from "Black & Blue Productions" company - and must say that after almost 10 years of learning nunchaku I found a number of things which were new and helpful.

Here is my opinion about the art as I understand it (mainly from Lee Barden's instructions).

Lissajous-Do mainly teaches non-stop flowing-striking sequences with single and double nunchaku. This system uses special nunchaku ("penchaku" as Williams calls them, or "pro-chux" as Barden calls them) which are adopted for flowing-flailing techniques. The balance has been changed in the nunchaku they use, and a shorter rope is used, which allows faster swinging and better control of the motion, but does not allow some other techniques (e.g. rope block). Techniques of nunchaku-motion-control (which often are not taught in nunchaku classes - which is why students get bruises) are systematized and taught from the basic level, so it's ideal for beginners.

After learning control-techniques, student learn striking-flow patterns, which are based on Lissajous figures. These patterns allow you to move the weapon non-stop - which means that there is no energy loss because of the stopping of the motion. The Lissajous-Do techniques may be used both as offence and defence at the same time. Students also learn techniques which allow them to pass the weapon from hand-to-hand or to change grip dynamicaly (without stopping motion). Some of these techniques have no combat usage, but help to improve coordination and control of the weapon.

On an advanced level student learn non-stop flow-techniques with the double nunchaku. When executed properly, it is like a hurricane rotating around the practitioner! It looks spectacular and may be ideal for kata competitions, but it can also be highly effective as a defence against multiple attackers - unarmed or armed with short weapons. In addition, the drills are very effective for the development of speed, stamina and (especially) coordination. Most of the techniques may be used with other weapons (I adapted them to double knives and double sticks) almost as well as with nunchaku. A weak side of this style is that it doesn't deal at all with some aspects of nunchaku art (e.g. close combat), so if you study Lissajou-Do, you may want to complete your training by learning traditional nunchaku techniques.


Turtle Ninja
Nunchaku in the cinema

At the beginning of the 1970s, the now-legendary Bruce Lee brought nunchaku to the notice of the western world for the first time. Millions of film-goers worldwide saw how Bruce used some sticks (the nunchaku) to defeat opponents who were armed with knives, batons, swords, and even guns! It was then that the myth was born which says that the nunchaku is the most deadly hand-held weapon in the world. The nunchaku immediately became one of the most popular martial arts weapons, and appeared in many films. Both "good guys" and "bad guys" in various films were armed with a nunchaku - even the popular ninja-turtle, Michaelangelo.

The techniques used in the cinema are mainly basic, most primitive, but spectacular, techniques - circular and figure-eight twirlings, whip-strikes and some catches, making the artist look like a helicopter. Real combat techniques are rarely seen on the screen. Blocks are rarely used, and takedowns or joint-locks almost never. The most realistic nunchaku fighting scene which I have seen was the backyard scene from Bruce Lee's "Return of the Dragon" (however the Bruce Lee and Dan Inosanto duel in the "Game of Death" - nunchaku versus nunchaku - was not so good, in my opinion). It's odd, but films almost never show empty-hands-versus-nunchaku techniques. Even actors who empty-handedly take on ten opponents armed with swords, usually use a gun against an attacker armed with a nunchaku.


Nunchaku-Do fight
Nunchaku as sport

At the beginning of the 1990's, a new sport - Nunchaku-Do - was created in the Netherlands. As with many other martial arts which have been converted to a sport (e.g. boxing, fencing or spear-throwing), this art lost most of its "martial" aspect. This sport includes three competition divisions - kata, kumite and free-style. In most of schools, self-defence or nunchaku-jutsu are also taught.

Kata are pre-defined combinations of techniques which have to be done as perfectly as possible. During the learning process, especially-created katas helps students to practise all the techniques required for a particular belt level. Within this discipline there is also a contest regulation. Competitors are judged on speed, technique and style.

Kumite means a single combat fight. This discipline has a lot in common with fencing. Two fighters, armed with safety foam-padded nunchaku and protected by headguards, try to score 6 points by striking the other with a nunchaku. You can only score after you've blocked an attempted score of the other, or after you've made at least two techniques (the nunchaku changed hands two times). Each strike which hits the opponent earns the fighter 1 point. Difficult and effective strikes (e.g. strike to the head) earns the fighter 2 points. Hits are not allowed below the knee, in the groin, on the back and on the throat. Also not allowed are: punches and kicks, grappling, holding both handles of the nunchaku in one hand, and thrusting the opponent with both handles. As you can see, there too many limitations to allow this sport to be an effective martial art.

Free-style - is an exercise performed to music where the competitors are free to use any kind of technique, both with a single nunchaku or two at the same time. This discipline has a lot in common with callisthenics or juggling; that is, virtuoso performances and incredable moves, which may be impractical, but which look good. Within this discipline there is also a contest regulation. Here the competitors are judged on originality, style and technique.

The Self-Defence or Nunchaku-Jutsu is the most "martial" division of Nunchaku-Do. Within this discipline, students learn to defence themself using nunchaku against different kinds of attack - both armed and unarmed. Students are not only required to be able to strike with the nunchaku but also to defend themselves in a controlled way, using blocks, joint locks, takedowns and disarming. There are no competitions in this division, but the test of nunchaku-jutsu techniques is a part of the black belt examination from 1st dan and higher.

You can visit the official page of the World Nunchaku Association for additional information about Nunchaku-Do.


Copyright © Alex Levitas, all rights reserved

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