Unveiling The Secret of The Bo

A few days ago, while I was practising Kobudo, I came to think of something that happened in Okinawa 1 ½ years ago (in the summer of 2007).

Let me explain something first: Whenever we are in Okinawa, we like to train as much as possible. So if one dojo has training on for example Mondays and Wednesdays, then we go somewhere else to train on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and maybe to a third dojo on Fridays and Sundays (Saturdays are reserved for the beach!).

That is only logical. Considering the short time we are there, and the money we have spent to get there, we simply want to get the most out of the trip. Not sit and melt in our oven… Sorry I mean hotel room.

Now, over to the real topic.

One evening, training bo-jutsu in a certain Kobudo-dojo (no names), the head sensei asked what the most important finger is, when holding the bo. I’ll repeat the question:

“What is the most important finger, when holding the bo?”

Do you know?

I thought I knew. Until the sensei said the answer:

“The index finger” (the finger you point with).

I was actually surprised to hear this. Why? Because my feeling was that I would say the complete opposite (but of course I just nodded in agreement)!

I think the index finger is maybe the least important finger, when holding the bo. And anyone who has ever trained any form of grappling/seizing/controlling/restraint-techniques should agree with this, because the most important fingers when grappling are the last three fingers (mainly due to the fact that they share the same flexor muscle). We’re not counting the thumb here.

But what has grappling got to do with holding a bo, you may think? Well, since you are holding the bo, I think the same principle would apply, whether it’s a bo, lapel or an arm you are holding! Holding something doesn’t come in that many variations, since the body functions in almost the same way when you hold something, regardless of the objects form, or function.

To prove my point, I will now give you some examples of other martial arts (that specialize in grappling) that consider the index finger almost useless.

1. Gracie Jiu-jitsu. Sure, they can’t spell Ju-jutsu correct, but they can grapple. Who hasn’t heard of the Gracies? And in Gracie Jiu-jitsu the non use of the index finger is a prominent feature.

2. Hakko-ryu Jujutsu. An old Japanese traditional school of Jujutsu. A great style, that lacks something: The use of the index finger. As does most other traditional Jujutsu schools that I know of.

3. Aikido. One of the most widely spread Japanese martial arts. And they always emphasize having the index finger free when holding/throwing. For example in the technique yonkyo (see picture to the right).

4. Judo. Let me just quote a famous Judo-book, that mentions something about gripping with the last three fingers, and what beginners think of it:

Beginners are apt to discard this type of gripping as weak or impossible to perform, but with subsequent practice, it will be proven that this method allows the quickness of movement, fullest flexibility of the wrists, and best control of the opponent essential to sound technique.”

Ishikawa, T. Draeger, D. (1999). Training Advice. Judo Training Methods, 77-78:

This was just some examples, there are many more styles, (Chinese too), that swear by using the last three fingers for gripping. And this is what I myself had discovered, and that’s why I was so surprised when this sensei mentioned the index finger as being the most important.

But maybe he just had a bad day?

So, what have I been trying to say with this post? Let’s sum it up:

1. The index finger is not the most important finger in Aikido, Judo, Jujutsu or other grappling styles. And not in Kobudo either. If you still don’t believe me, then train… and you will see the light too.

2. Just because someone is Japanese, has a high degree and nice lineage, doesn’t necessarily make them right. “Even monkeys fall from trees”. At least if they only use their index finger…

By the way: Before I stop I just wanted to show you this picture of Funakoshi Gichin (founder of Shotokan-ryu), holding a bo. Can you see anything special about his top hand?

I’ll give you an ice cream if you see it.

16 Comments

  • Saxon_Thor
    I too felt the same as you do about the index finger and the bo. Until my instructor criticized me for it just a couple weeks ago. I asked him about it, and referred to how we grip the iai-to when we practice Iaido. He then told me to perform yoko-uke with the bo (Taira Shinken way) with my index finger loose. He popped my bo from underneath and the bo popped out of my hand. He then told me to do it again with the index finger closed around the bo. This time the bo held. He kind of explained that you have to learn to grip the bo with the index finger before you can do it with a more open hand. I found afterwards too that while performing kesa-uchi (Yamane way), the bo felt much stronger in my hand when I closed my index finger around it.No disgrace to Mr. Funakoshi, but I do not ever recall hearing he was a master of Kobudo, only Itosu-kei karate-do. He may have had an agenda for pointing his index finger if having his picture taken in Japan, anticipating other mainland Japanese people would see it, and make a cognitive leap regarding similarities to Japanese "kobudo," (jo, han-bo, jutte, kabuto wari) as I've seen paintings with bushi pointing their index finger while holding weapons.Who knows? Maybe it's just a matter of personal style.
    • Randy Howard
      Somewhere, sometime back in the 70s, and as I remember, *g*, Aikidoist extended the index finger as a way both to extend ki and to avoid ~trapping ki in the continuous circle of a grip.In wrestling and self-defense we were taught not to extend fingers. Extended fingers got broken.In staff and cane fighting we were taught to engage the foe's weapon and slide down it to strike his fingers.
    • jose santiago
      Spot on you must use the index finger, but its about a grip that is like a childs, not easy to break opened but relaxed. Inoue Motokatsu (Yuishikai and Ryu Kyu Kobujutsu Hozon Shinko Kai) taught it. He was as the man who followed Taira Shinken and was appointed by him for this task. He died some 13 years ago and graded San Dan on both, and I attended his 100 year anniversary in Japan in 2016, in Chiba and a ceremony at the family shrine in Tokyo the other at the foot of Mount Fuji. His son Inoue Hanshi teaches in Tokyo with several branches across the country and some 16 in countries around the world, including the USA (Sensei Coleman FInk) and Canada, SA (Shihan Eddie Jardine), FInland (Shihan Ilpo Jalamo) , Sweden (Shihan Matts Andersson) and the UK (Julian Mead with whom I currently train)
  • lionel
    Not to defend this "head kobudo sensei"... (he's probably as confused as you suggest)... BUT... The pinky/3rd finger are hugely important, especially on the back hand. (Note that it is the back hand that is the source of power.) Both forefingers are important in changing hands and nuki-tsuki. The (front hand) forefinger is key to pin-point targeting of strikes and is helpful in maintaining control through impact (fulcrum). The (forward) forefinger(s) may be "active," opening-closing as the bo rotates. Not doing this slows, restricts or perturbs the bo path, so I can see how someone training at this might speak as that sensei spoke... on a given night.
      • Lionel
        I have considered this during my training since writing the above comment, and my position has shifted into even closer agreement with the un-named kobudo sensei. My reasons begin with recognizing the front hand as "control" and the forefinger as the essential control point. (And now my thumb objects.)
  • Lenny
    Just wondering- when do I get my promised ice cream?
    • Umm... ehm... (*okay Jesse, think of something, fast!*)... well... YOU DON'T! I'm keeping them all to myself! Moaahahaha! ;)
  • Dan Smith
    I disagree with the index finger reference to being the method used by Okinawan kobudo bojutsu.Obviously, from the photograph of Funakoshi he has both index fingers not in contact with the bo but thru my years of training in bojutsu on Okinawa in all three of the major bojutsu methods I have not seen or been taught to leave the index finger in this position. In fact I have been taught that the index finger should make a closed circle with the thumb to control the bo.The use of the three other fingers are extremely important to create the wrist snap when pulling the bo. Just as in karate the "hiki" or pulling action coordinated with the hips is the primary source of the whipping action.So, IMHO the index finger extended may work well in aikido but it would be the result of another dynamic.
  • Dan
    in Chinese staff techniques which I have learned, the index finger is the most important finger by far. This allows for more flexible wielding from the antiparallel grip staff favored in kung fu (hands are gripping the staff in opposite directions). I do not know about the karate staff style, but I do know that Musashi Miyamoto favored holding a sword using the index finger as well and not the pinky. "Holding" the opponent is no more similar to holding a weapon, than throwing a shuriken or sai is to throwing the opponent.
    • Hieu Nguyen
      Actually, Miyamoto Musashi wrote in his infamous Go Rin No Sho that the ring finger and the pinky should be tightest when holding a sword.
  • hans
    I recall reading in one of Mas Oyama's books ("This is karate", probably)about enkei gyaku zuki, the leading arm is blocking an incoming punch and covers the wrist of the opponent with a "tensho cover", using only the last three fingers of the tensho hand. In various kata, the tensho blocks are performed with extended index fingers (tensho, seisan/hangetsu etc etc) Notably Yamaghuchi-ha gojukai has pronounced extened index fingers in various kake uke hand forms.
  • Shaun
    I am by no means an expert in the use of the bo, having only started learning Matsukaze No Kon and doing the first 5 shotokan katas with a bo, but I agree with the sensei for different reasons. Having played baseball, hockey and whacked golf balls on a driving range, the index finger is used as a guide and for spreading the force of the grip over the shaft of whatever you are holding. In hockey I used the index finger for better accuracy when shooting especially with wrist shots; in baseball with keeping the bat on a liner plane Terry Francona did that and I took it from him) and in golf to keep the grip aligned. With a bo staff I find the index finger helps with rotation and when doing a "shuto" move as in Heinan Shodan the index finger for me ends on top of the staff pointing to where I want to strike. All the martial arts used in the example are for holding on to a person, but if you are used to holding on to wooden sticks in other sports you do find the index finger serves for stability, accuracy and a guide. Just my two cents, but try it with the index finger out on the staff and see if you have better control. PS love your site :)
  • Jeff
    Most important finger? Is this a koan? Shihan Mikio Nishiuchi assigns the forefinger 10% of the grip. I suppose the answer is a question - what are you trying to hit? Broad side of a barn? Forefinger not so important. Jinchu? Forefinger very important.
  • Anastasios
    I think it's for rotation of weapon,like Kali and Krabi krabon. Lower finger grips (jujutsu,kenjutsu and so on) are for stable rigid movements.

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