Nunchucks are an intriguing weapon with a distinctly unclear heritage. The story of Okinawan peasant farmers secretly training to use 'rice flails' as weapons in order to defend themselves against their many foes during the occupation of their island by the Japanese Satsuma clan in the 17th century is probably just that - a story!
A more likely scenario is that the weapon was 'purpose built' by the Okinawans, based on a similar Chinese weapon that may have been imported to Okinawa by Chinese immigrants. Apparently nunchaku is a Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese term meaning 'two section staff'. Alternatively, nun means 'twin' and shaku (a traditional unit of measure used throughout Asia with a length of approximately 1 foot), is the length of each arm of the nunchucks.
Traditionally the nunchuck is made from hardwood such as oak, which would have been hardened by soaking it in mud for several years, where the optimal acidity and lack of oxygen prevented it from rotting. The wood was then sanded and oiled to preserve it. Horse hair was traditionally used to secure the two arms of the nunchuck together.
Though my husband owns a pair of wooden nunchucks, I was advised by my sensei to use foam practice ones. I am glad that he advised this (as is my husband, who is my training partner) because otherwise we would both be covered in more bruises than we already are. Like I said before - nunchucks are tricky!
Is there any point in training with nunchucks? After all, they are illegal to carry around with you in the street in most countries. In the UK, they can legally be used in martial arts training and carried to and from the dojo but would be considered an offensive weapon in virtually every other situation. And lets face it, I'm not likely to suddenly spot a discarded rice flail in the street if I get attacked!
Despite legality issues there is value in training with the nunchucks and this value is two-fold. Firstly, it preserves a traditional martial art form and so it has cultural and historical value. The same is obviously true for many other martial arts weapons. Secondly, it has value in improving eye-hand coordination; quickening reflexes; increasing hand strength, control,speed and accuracy; and can help teach and improve correct posture. These are valuable training aims for many martial artists.
In Okinawan based martial arts the nunchucks are primarily used to grip and lock an opponent with striking used to subdue or finish off the opponent. This is the way that I am learning to use the nunchucks. So far I have learnt various blocks, a wrist lock, a wrist throw, an arm lock, a head and hip throw and a couple of strangles. One of the advantages I am finding is that the bio-mechanics of locks and throws are more apparent when I have to apply the weapon to make them work. If I don't position the nunchuck at the correct angle over the back of my opponents hand so that it bends AND rotates the wrist correctly the wrist throw will not work and the opponent can slip his hand out. This also makes me think more carefully about how I apply a wrist lock without a weapon.
There are disadvantages, of course, to using foam nunchucks. They are very light, are probably not balanced as well as wooden ones, they require your opponent to simulate the effects of some techniques and they are liable to break. I have been warned that I may get through several pairs of foam nunchucks! When I have gained some proficiency with this weapon then I would like to progress to wooden ones but for the time being I am happy (and safer) with my foam ones! Not to mention my son bought them for me for my birthday - what else do you buy the woman who has everything?
Here's a video of an elementary nunchuck lesson:
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