The Sai is the first metal weapon with which you will train. You may initially practice with a plastic or wood Sai, but you will want to quickly graduate to using a metal weapon so you gain a proper feel for the balance, heft, and robust nature of the weapon. In this belt you will also train in the use of the Nunchaku, which may be wooden, plastic, or metal. But to be proficient at the Sai you will want to utilize a metal weapon.
The Sai is used to block strikes from other weapons (commonly but not exclusively the Jo) or hit using an Uchi, Soto, or Tsuki movement. The structure of the weapon enables it to be used to entrap another weapon, block an incoming strike, or deliver several different types of offensive strikes. It is a very versatile weapon with a multitude of uses.
The first thing you will undoubtedly notice when using Sai for the first time is that they are much denser than earlier weapons you have used. The Sai can start to feel quite heavy after only a few minutes of use. You will probably to notice that your wrist, forearms, upper arms, chest and back all feel tired after using the weapon for a brief period of time. It will take you a few weeks of practice before you start to feel comfortable with this new level of muscle development.
Like all weapons it takes a bit of time before you will feel confident and proficient with the weapon. Take your time and focus on the skills we discuss in other articles. You will soon realize that many of the skills you used with the Tonfa are readily adapted for use with the Sai. But as you will discover, there are many unique characteristics to this weapon as well.
The Sai is a traditional Okinawan weapon. Many people believe the Sai was originally a farming implement but in truth its origins, like many weapons, is uncertain. Some believe the tip of the weapon was used to punch a shallow hole in soil into which individual seeds were dropped. This does not, on the surface, account for the more complex shape of the Sai. Additionally, since iron was quite rare in Okinawa it is unlikely a simple farmer used an implement made of relatively rare local metal for this purpose, but nobody really knows for certain. It is clear that other similar weapons were used throughout Asia before the Sai was adopted for use as a weapon in Okinawa.
The Sai Weapon
At depiction of the Sai weapon detailing its nomenclature is provided below. The Monouchi is typically round or octagonal in shape, but can be square or any other shape. It may be of a uniform diameter or may taper down toward the Saki. The shape of the Monouchi is largely a matter of personal preference.
The Sai is neither a knife nor a sword, so the edges of the Monouchi are not sharpened. When the Sai is used to strike along the shaft of the Monouchi then the weapon is used essentially as a club. The Saki may be sharpened to a point, but this is not necessary. When the Sai is used to deliver a Tsuki strike then all of the force behind the thrust is delivered via the quite small Saki. Even a blunted Saki can deliver a tremendous amount of force that may be penetrative.
The Saki may be blunt (flat), rounded, or pointed. The Saki may be sharpened on a Sai that is used for throwing, though this is a somewhat specialized use of the weapon. Some Saki will have a ball at the end. When you first start practicing with this weapon in the Dojo[/gloss you may want to use a practice weapon, often made of wood or plastic, or one that has a pronounced ball at the Saki. Your head instructor may not appreciate it very much if you punch a new hole in his or her expensive mats or flooring every time you lose your grip on your weapon.
The Yoko (sometimes spelled Yoku) are the two smaller projections that are positioned parallel to the Monouchi. There is one Yoko on either side of the Moto. In many weapons the Yoko is welded to the Monouchi at the Moto. The Yoko may be quite rounded in shape or may be nearly rectangular in appearance (similar to the weapon above). The Tsume or tips of the Yoko may be somewhat rounded or may be sharpened to a point. The Tsume may be directly in line with the Yoko or may flare outward slightly to guide an incoming weapon deeply into the basket or notch created by the Yoko and Monouchi.
The Tsuka Gashira is an impact point for the weapon and may have many different shapes. The most common shape is cylindrical with a flat bottom. Some Tsuka Gashira are cone shaped where the end furthest from the Yoko tapers into a small rounded point. This shape provides a smaller contact area, and therefore more impact force, when the Tsuka Gashira is used in a thrusting strike. Sometimes the Tsuka Gashira is spherical or ball shaped. This again provides a smaller contact surface during a strike. The ball shape can also serve to keep the weapon from slipping forward and out of the hand, though this is not a common problem with Sai in general. If a Sai has a Tsuka Gashira in the shape of a dragon, eagle, or some other carved figure then some functionality of the weapon may be compromised.
The Tsume may be rounded, blunt, or sharpened as well. A primary purpose of the Tsume is to direct an incoming strike from a weapon in and toward the base of the Yoko. This then enables the Sai to be used to entrap another weapon. Another common purpose for the Tsume is to strike a target that is at close range. If the Saki cannot be positioned to strike at a close target then the Tsume might be used for that purpose. The Tsume might also be used in situations where the primary thrust from the Saki has missed and the Tsume is used to strike an auxiliary target. For example, if the Saki missed striking into the torso then the Tsume might make contact with the upper arm. We’ll discuss other situations in which you might strike with the Yoko a bit later.
Sai are normally sold as a pair. Most martial arts stores and websites will carry a modest selection of these weapons. Some websites specialize in the production of high quality Sai. These weapons will be well-balanced, wrapped with quality materials, and professionally designed. Less expensive weapons will have fewer of these attributes.
One major quality difference between high end and run of the mill Sai is the shape of the Moto. In inexpensive Sai the Yoko are welded to the Monouchi at the Moto such that the weld is left largely intact, producing a pronounced bulge or raised surface at the Moto. This can be an inch or more in diameter and a quarter of an inch high. High quality Sai will usually have a flat Moto with little or no bulge or raised section. Advanced skills benefit from having a flat Moto.
The Yoko may be somewhat boxy in appearance or may have a more rounded profile. Well rounded corners often suggest a more professional weapon, but this is not the only way by which you can judge the quality of a weapon. Weapons can range from quite flimsy to overly stout. In general the better weapons are more expensive. You do not need an expensive Sai to begin training. Even plastic Sai can work well when you first begin (but cannot be used for any contact work). Resist purchasing an expensive pair of weapons until you are confident that you can handle the weapons well, know how to care for them, and are unlikely to damage the weapon accidentally.
Some weapons have a hollow Monouchi. This is generally not ideal as the Monouchi is more likely to bend if the weapon is used to block a strike from a weapon such as a Jo. A Sai with a thin but not hollow Monouchi may also be readily bent when blocking a strike from another weapon. But these lighter weapons are often preferred for solo tournament or demonstration purposes because they enable the practitioner to move the weapon more briskly. These weapons are not, however, suitable for contact work. You will get the longest life from your weapon if it has a solid and substantial Monouchi, but your intended usage may dictate a different choice.
If the weapon you are considering has a plethora of fancy additions such as a dragon-head Tsuka Gashira or detailed engravings on the Monouchi you might wish to consider how you intend or expect to use the weapon Such weapons are great for display purposes, but may not hold up well in contact. They may or may not be useful for use in tournaments or demonstrations. It is probably wise to hold off purchase of more elaborate weapons until you fully appreciate how you will likely use the weapon in the future. For your initial training a sound and well-constructed weapon is probably your best choice. Please ensure your weapon is inspected by the appropriate person in your Dojo prior to any usage.
You can find Sai made from a great variety of different metals. Steel, iron (not highly recommended for contact work due to potential shattering problems), stainless steel, and aluminum are often used to produce these weapons. In addition the outer coating on the metal can vary greatly as well. Some weapons have a chrome coating while others have various electroplating or other treatments applied to them. Coatings such as paint or chrome will eventually begin to chip off if you use the weapon for any form of contact work. These weapons are fine for independent work where you are simply practicing skills or Kata without any significant contact. Weapons made of stainless steel generally do not have an outer coating (though this is not always true).
You will also find weapons made of plastic, rubber, wood, or other materials. These weapons are used either for children, those first learning to use the weapon, or in special purpose situations where contact from a real weapon is being simulated. None of these weapons is suitable for any form of contact work.
Weapons made of aluminum are often used for tournament completions or demonstrations. The lighter metal allows the weapon to be moved more quickly and briskly providing a more invigorated performance. Aluminum Sai are not as robust for contact work and should be reserved for Kata, demonstrations, and tournaments where contact is not required.
The Tsuka is frequently wrapped with cord, leather, imitation leather, or a thick cloth material. Other wrappings or coatings can be readily found as well. Cordage is the traditional wrapping material, but it is not a requirement. The vast majority of weapons come with an imitation leather wrapping of some type. Expensive weapons will normally have cordage or leather wrappings, but this can vary greatly from one manufacturer to another.
Below is another commonly found Sai weapon. This particular weapon has an imitation leather wrapping, a blunt Tsuka Gashira, a black anodized surface, and a slightly protruding Moto. The article continues following the image.
Many inexpensive weapons are wrapped such that one or more loops of the wrapping material loops over the Yoko and covers both the Tsuka and the Moto. This type of wrapping (shown in the black Sai image above) is not ideal. The reason is that one use of the Sai is to provide protection from a sword cut. While this is arguably not the primary use for a Sai, it is a commonly cited and practiced usage (though protection from a Jo is a more likely usage). If the weapon were used to protect against a sword cut, then the first thing that would be cut is the Tsuka wrapping, which would begin to unravel. Suddenly the Tsuka is less useful than before – not a situation you would want when confronted by a sword-wielding maniac. [Let me say emphatically that we do not suggest, encourage, nor condone using a sword to strike into a Sai during practice or in earnest. That behavior could have fatal consequences. Use a [glossary]Bokken for such practice. If you use a Sai to block a sword strike then something terrible is going to happen to the Sai, the sword, and most regrettably yourself.]
When selecting Sai you will want a weapon in which the length from the Moto to the Saki is an inch or so longer than the distance from your wrist to your elbow. The weapon is commonly held by the Tsuka such that the Monouchi covers and protects the forearm from a weapon strike. You will want to ensure any weapon you purchase can readily cover your entire forearm when holding the Tsuka in the palm of your hand. For an adult this usually represents a weapon length of from eighteen to twenty-one inches, though some people require weapons outside this range. The best method for determining weapon length is to explore other weapons in your Dojo (with permission of the weapon owner) to see what fits you the best. You can also measure the distance from the tip of your index finger to the tip of your elbow. Add another one to two inches to this measurement to achieve a viable weapons length. Some custom makers often ask you to provide measurements of your arm and hand to more accurately fit you with a weapon.
A weapon related to the Sai and often characterized as a Sai is the Manji Sai (also called Nunti Sai). This weapon is of very similar construction to the Sai but the Yoko are configured differently. In a Manji Sai one Yoko curves forward along the Monouchi similar to the Sai. The other Yoko curves back along the Tsuka. This might be thought of as a hand guard.
A Jutte is again a similar weapon but it usually has only a single Yoko. This Yoko is generally a bit smaller and positioned closer to the Monouchi than what is commonly found on a Sai. The Yoko may also be thicker than the Yoko on a Sai.
Traditionally the Jutte is used as a single weapon and not in pairs. It was used by police in Japan to entrap a suspect’s hands or clothing or simply bludgeon them into submission. With sufficient skill the weapon might also be used to entrap or even break a Katana blade. This is often cited as the use for the Jutte, but this would likely be a quite rare usage. Only Samurai could carry Katana and as a whole Samurai were law abiding citizens. So blocking and breaking a sword attack from an angry Samurai, who is accustomed to people trying to block his strikes, is not likely to have been common nor successful for the average citizen.
In other parts of Asia a shorter weapon called a Tekpi or Chabang is commonly used. These weapons look nearly identical to a Sai but the Monouchi can be a few inches shorter. In India a weapon called the Trishula has a shape quite similar to a Sai, but the Monouchi and Yoko are formed as sharpened blades. Their use is therefore quite different than that of the Sai.
You may practice with a related weapon at any time (please don’t start swinging a Trishula around indiscriminately), but you should primarily be focused on skills using the Sai. Other weapons may be quite similar to a Sai, but their usage can be quite different.
After some extended use you may find that the wrapping on the Tsuka has stretched, wrinkled, torn, or started to unravel. You will want to apply a new wrapping to your Tsuka to return it to sound condition. Fortunately this is not difficult. People often use bicycle handlebar wrap for this purpose, though you can wrap the Tsuka with almost any other material. Just ensure it will not stretch out of shape too quickly and cannot be easily torn or worn from frequent usage.
Before you tear the old wrapping off of your Tsuka spend some time to understand how the old wrapping was applied. Pay particular attention to both how and where the wrapping starts, how and where it ends, and how adjacent wraps overlap or rest against prior wraps. These will all be important features to know before you remove the old wrapping and no longer have a model to follow.
You will also find numerous quality videos on apply new wrappings to the Sai. If you find one that provides the type of wrapping you prefer then study it carefully to fully understand all aspects of the wrapping effort before you begin. Also make sure you have all of the requisite materials (tools, wrapping materials, glues, etc.) before you begin. Wrapping the Tsuka is not difficult, but you will want to be adequately prepared with both knowledge and materials before you begin.
The metal parts of many Sai usually do not require much maintenance. An occasional cleaning with a soft cloth may be all that is required. Most weapons have a coating of some type (chrome is common), are made of stainless steel, or have been treated to prevent the weapon from rusting. Some weapons do not have a coating or treatment process applied and can begin to rust from exposure to the salts and moisture from your hand perspiration or atmospheric moisture. These weapons can be protected with a very light coat of oil. Be quite frugal with the application of oil or the weapon may become too slippery to handle confidently. Your best option is to purchase a weapon that is not likely to rust.
One of the best things you can do to ensure the ongoing integrity of your weapons is to purchase a case for them. The case will reduce the likelihood that the weapons will collide with some other object that can chip any metal coatings or slice the Tsuka wrapping. When you buy a weapon spend a few extra dollars and buy a compatible case at the same time. Transporting the weapons in a case will also raise fewer questions from a police officer who has pulled you over for some reason.