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Sai – misunderstood ancient Japanese weapon, which is not a dagger

Posted May 24, 2019

You may not know the name of it, but you’ve definitely seen sai – an ancient Japanese weapon, used in Okinawa. You’ve seen it in movies or hanging on a wall in some martial arts gym. It looks like a pair of daggers that can slash enemy’s face in half. However, it is totally not how it works.

Sai is not pointy or sharp – it is definitely not a dagger. Image credit: Samuraiantiqueworld via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Although nowadays it is considered to be a Japanese weapon, it was actually used in other Asian countries before it reached Okinawa. It was used in India, Thailand, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. In fact, it probably originate in India, although we cannot know for sure now. But what we do know is that it is definitely not a dagger.

In Okinawa the Sai was used by domestic police (ufuchiku), but the methods were only developed in 1668, when Moto Chohei, an Okinawan prince, got interested in this weapon. Sai has a long blade and pointed hand guards. However, the “blade” is not really that sharp. In fact, the Sai is a blunt weapon, used to arrest criminals. It is more of a baton than a knife.

Sai is typically made from metal. The main blade usually has a round cross section, but it could also be faceted. The point is normally very blunt. Handle is usually wrapped in cord or leather to provide grip. Traditionally Sai was made by a gunsmith, but it was simple enough for any blacksmith to make. The steel didn’t even have to be that hard as there was no edge to hold.

The Sai is pretty much always used in pairs. All the traditional moves involve a pair of Sai. In fact, using one Sai is more dangerous and not very effective, but even using both required a lot of training. On the other hand, masters could use Sai very efficiently and deliver even lethal blows.

Sai is always used in pairs – it is a great defensive and offensive weapon. Image credit: T4LLBERG via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Sai can be used defensively – swords can be caught between hand guards and the blade and twisted out of hands of the attacker. By pressing the blade against the forearm masters could defend themselves against slashes with swords. Sai is also very effective in offense. Police officers typically beat ribs with them and tried to attack the solar plexus to render the criminal unable to resist. In fact, there were many different ways of using the Sai – different techniques call for different hand positions and motions involving the entire body.

Nowadays Sai is not that useful. Modern weapons can accomplish the same without putting officers in danger of close combat. In fact, it was never that effective and required a considerable amount of skills and training. A simpler police baton is much more effective, but today electric guns and other non-lethal means are prefered. Sai is still a good wall decoration though.

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