Bo (Staff)

Bo (boh) Jap. “staff”, “stave”, or “stick”

A wooden staff five to six feet long (in practice, “one fist width” taller than the student). It is one of the five weapons systemized by the early Okinawan developers of te (hand), and may have originated with the poles used by farmers to balance heavy loads across the shoulders.

The bo, or staff, is probably one of the first weapons that mankind used to defend himself. The history of the bo dates back millennia, and is thought to be used first in China. It could easily be found, was easy to handle, and could be used for multiple purposes. The bo staff itself is believed to have been developed from the tenbin, a pole balanced on the shoulders, used to carry buckets hanging from each end with water or grain. The bo, or staff, is one of the earliest tools to be used by man. Initially it may have been merely a sapling or a long, straight branch which was used for hunting animals for sources of food or fur hides. The wooden staff also facilitated passage over rugged and mountainous terrain. In an agrarian setting it served as a multi-purpose tool for planting crops, carrying supplies, and transporting buckets of water for the irrigation of crops.

The bo is a well known weapon used in many styles of martial arts practiced around the world. It is one of the five weapons included into a style by the early Okinawan founders of karate. In feudal Japan, it was part of the bugei – early Japanese martial arts. Nobles and peasants used it in a similar way.\nAlthough the bo varies in size and length, all staffs are long pieces of well polished wood, best described as a pole. Thickness of the bo varies depending on the particular martial art one trains in. Though, it must be made so that the fighter can comfortably make a tight fist around it in order to block and counter an attack. The length of the bo also depends on the style of the martial art, however the most common length is a few inches taller than the practitioner. Its length makes it an excellent weapon against swordsmen, allowing the user to strike from a safe distance.

In a fight, the bo staff acts as an extension of ones limbs. All techniques are executed as one would without the weapon in your hands. An accurate jab to an enemys vulnerable areas could easily disable them without requiring too much effort from the person using the staff. The bo is also able to block and parry an opponent who may be fighting with the same weapon. Other tricks that one can use this weapon for include sweeping the legs out from underneath an opponent, breaking the knees, and sweeping dust into the opponents eyes.

It is easy to find a good staff in a time of need. A good stick can be found almost anywhere at nearly all times. Now part of budo (martial way), the bo is often used in kata training and competition. Physical conditioning with the staff improves one’s balance, coordination, and upper body strength, among other benefits.


In the ancient records of Chinese martial arts, the bo is discussed as the first weapon taught to the Zen Buddhist disciples who studied at the Shaolin Temple. There are literary and pictorial references to Bodhidharma carrying a bo on his journeys as he taught Zen Buddhism in the regions near the Shaolin Temple. One account from a biography on Bodhidharma tells of his death in 528 AD from the poison of a jealous monk. It is told that three years later his body was exhumed due to rumors he had been seen travelling in the mountains of Central Asia. Bodhidharma was said to carry a staff from which hung a single sandal. He had stated he was on his way back to India. When the curious monks opened his tomb, all they found inside was a single sandal. Ever since then Bodhidharma has been pictured carrying a staff from which hangs the missing sandal.

Another historical reference is made to the Zen Buddhist priest who ordered the disciples of the Shorin-je Temple to perfect and master bo techniques to help protect their temple. This occurred at a time of much lawlessness brought about by roving groups of bandits. This took place while Bodhidharma was the spiritual force for Zen Buddhism in China. However, no early records mention his actual teaching of weaponry to his disciples.

Miyamato Mushashi, the great samurai warrior (1584-1645), was defeated only once and that at the hands of Muso Gonosuke. Gonosuke had earlier been defeated by Musashi who told the young warrior to go off and master his long stick techniques before trying again. Gonosukes return years later gained Musashis great respect. Musashi is said to have then gone intensively into staff, stick, and kendo training in the later years of his life.

As in any martial arts training, respect and responsibility are of utmost importance while inside the training hall and in daily life. Extension tools are to be treated with the same spirit and discipline as are the techniques learned in the dojangs regular workout. The humility and control one exhibits in the martial arts speak clearly about the lessons a karateka is learning.