One of the enduring activities of Western kobudo ka is the quest for the “origins” of the various weapons used in our kobudo. Somehow the simplest answers are not good enough. That they were meant as weapons and probably not developed locally seems somehow too boring, I guess. That identical weapons are documented in China, Japan, or elsewhere (depending on the weapon) before they were documented in Okinawa is not evidence enough. Nor is the clear historical connection between the upper and noble classes, not the peasantry, and the martial arts. Instead elaborate origin stories of local development by the peasantry have been created. Admittedly, there are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which that many of the most prominent kobudo teachers of the mid-late 20th century were fervent nativists, invested in promoting and elevating their native culture, and they promoted unique native origins for virtually everything. Some of these origin stories likely come from a simple historic process- the post Meiji movement of the former landed gentry into the countryside. Without their prior wealth they retained their knowledge but had less access to the tools of their trade, as it were. So more easily available items filled in. And voila, a generation or two later, these items and these “peasants” are the origin of the arts, and the implements used in them. Other origin stories are a bit harder to parse, but that doesn’t make them any more “true”, no matter how appealing they seem, or how invested people are in them. If you want to research the history of our arts you have to look past stories told by your teacher, common knowledge, or, that decidedly dangerous creature “common sense”.
Often, it doesn’t take much looking to debunk some of these myths. I’d like to take a quick look at one here, the tekko.[i] Supposedly they are horse shoes or stirrups that have been weaponized by locals. But if you look a little closer, that simply doesn’t track. Various fist load weapons were common in Japanese koryu and Chinese arts for centuries. It would be surprising indeed for the Okinawan warrior class to have somehow missed out on the idea completely.
And a little non-martial historical knowledge is useful here as well. First, iron horseshoes appear to have been introduced to Japan by Europeans, perhaps as late as the 19th century, and were most likely unknown on Okinawa before that. And second, if you know anything about horses, or have just seen a few westerns or King Arthur movies, you know what a stirrup looks like. The tekko looks pretty similar I have to say. Connecting the two seems logical. Common sense. Except that you might not actually know what a stirrup, or abumi, looks like. Here is a drawing describing an Okinawan tribute trip to Edo in 1790, from the Ryukyujin Gyosoki:
Note the stirrups on the horse. They look like this:
This style of stirrup was standard from the 1200s on, and Western style stirrups were not introduced until the late 19th century.[ii] So, what does this tell us about the origin stories that one hears? Well, it tells us that if the tekko is an old weapon, pre late 19th/early 20th century, it cannot have been developed from a stirrup or horseshoe. And conversely, if it comes from a Western style stirrup or horseshoe it is a 20th century development.
One of the issues with research into folk arts like our kobudo is that it is actually a pretty involved process. Knowledge of history, language, culture, and so on is necessary not to fall into simple “common sense” mistakes like this. It is cool to have a local and “ancient” origin for the things we do. But cool, or supporting the culture our arts developed in, doesn’t make things true. We have clear evidence of similar weapons being used in neighboring cultures for centuries. We have no documented use on Okinawa before the 20th century (that I know of). We have no iron or western style horseshoes or stirrups on Okinawa before the Meiji period. Finally, the kata that are done with them are all mid to late 20th century creations. What does all this say? Well, I have heard a theory that the tekko were developed by practicing martial artists between WWI and WWII, taking things like the trench knife as a model (and the Japanese certainly had exposure to things like this in that period), but interesting though it is there is no conclusive evidence for this either.
Unless new evidence comes to light using actual concrete information seems the best practice, as opposed to taking admittedly appealing legends at face value or making assumptions based on limited understanding. Based on existing information, it is far less romantic, but much more likely that the tekko were either a: imported to Okinawa at some point, not developed locally; b: added to existing arts in the 20th century, inspired by exposure to things like the trench knife; or c: a part of local arts for some amount of time and developed as a weapon, not from a local tool or other implement, by the existing warrior class, not the peasantry. It is highly likely that the current usage is no older than the late 19th or 20th century. That isn’t as satisfying, or as cool, and leaves no answer to the question “where did the tekko come from”, but the problem there might be more with the question than the answer.
[i] In our art they are considered an ancillary weapon. Some lineages don’t have a kata, some do variations on Kakazu no tekko, designed by Matayoshi Shinko’s student Kakazu Mitsuo, and others do dojo kata. Matayoshi sensei, Kimo sensei, and Gakiya sensei taught me techniques for the weapon and suggested Seisan was a good kata for practicing them. I wound up making a dojo kata for them, and later Ishiki sensei taught me Kakazu no tekko. In Ryukyu Kobudo they do Maezato no tekko, designed by Taira Shinken, and there are other kata on Okinawa. All are of recent provenance.
[ii] See Friday, Karl. Samurai Warefare and the State In Early Medieval Japan. Psychology Press, 2004.