By Eric Minck
“Kubotan” is a registered trademark that has become a generic term describing a compliance device about the size of a marker pen. It is usually considered as a refinement of the yawara stick, but this is a disservice to both instruments. Although there are similarities, the distinctions are quite pronounced. A yawara stick is primarily an impact enhancer that can also be used to inflict painful pressure. A kubotan is primarily a pressure point tool that can also be used to enhance a strike. The indiscriminate use of both terms and those of other palm sticks from various cultures and times has created a marketing confusion exacerbated by the Web.
Although the yawara stick name is a twentieth century phenomenon coined by designer Frank A. Matsuyama around 1940, it has a tradition extending back to the kongou, a ritual object used by Buddhist monks in feudal Japan, and arguably thousands of years earlier. The kubotan is the modern invention of Takayuki Kubota, who began teaching its use in America in 1964.
Kubota was born in Kumamoto, Japan on September 20, 1934. His father, Denjiro Kubota, was a master of jujitsu and jukendo. Of his four brothers, one became a jujitsu master, one became a kendo master, and one became an Olympic volleyball coach. Takayuki (Tak) became a 10 Dan Grand Master of karate, attaining the title of Soke by founding the Gosoku-ryu (hard-fast) school. He is also the founding president of the International Karate Association.
He began training under his father at age four, practicing judo, bamboo yadi, keibo-jutsu, and makiwara. During WW II, two Okinawa soldiers, Terada and Tokunaga stationed in his village taught him the basics of “te,” to which “kara” had not yet been appended. When he was 13, Kubota defied his father’s wishes and went to Tokyo. While in a food line, he helped a Detective Karino apprehend some suspects. Karino looked after him and brought him to the dojo of Chinese Master Cai. Kubota studied and practiced martial arts at every opportunity.
In 1947, Kubota was 14 and instructing for the Kamata Police, which he continued for a decade. He opened his first karate dojo at 17. From 1950-1964 he was an instructor for the US Army, Air Force, Marines, CIA, etc. throughout Japan. In 1964 he relocated to the USA, instructing at the Los Angele Police Department. The kubotan was developed as a law enforcement equalizer, particularly for female officers.
Kubota’s creativity has a wide embrace. He studies martial art history and meditates extensively. He has written several books and articles. He also has an acting career and has been featured in hundreds of movies, TV shows, and commercials. Quite a few celebrities have studied under him. He has invented another martial arts device for law enforcement. Called the kubotai it is a restraining device with a cord between two small batons.
As mentioned, the yawara stick was developed as a mini-baton from a ritual object origin. The kubotan began as a Cross pen. In the 1960’s plastic ballpoint pens were taking over the market from tortoise shell fountain pens. The status symbol of this transition was the Cross pen – a slim, metal ballpoint that one twisted to write with, which preserved some of the quality features of the fountain pen, but without a cap or cheap, clicking button. Kubota developed a series of “pen techniques” using the sturdy Cross pen as a palm stick of sorts.
These pen techniques consisted of pressure point takedowns, wristlocks, grab-escapes, and a few strikes. Cross pens stood up to the challenging treatment rather well, and they were classy. However, in real circumstances they could bend/twist when used for a single wristlock exposing an assailant to a stabbing point and exposing Kubota’s student to possible arrest for aggravated assault.
To avoid this problem, Kubota designed a 5/8” wide 5.5” long solid plastic cylinder that was virtually indestructible and unable to stab period. To further discourage perception of the device as a weapon, he added a key ring that was originally intended to hold a handcuff key. Interestingly, Monadnock Lifetime Products, which made the first police yawara sticks, also made the plastic Kubotans until about 1980. Thereafter, the material was switched to anodized aluminum with a return to the Cross pen look.
Kubota at first targeted women as the logical market for his palm stick device. The number of policewomen was rising, and they were generally of smaller stature. There were unspoken concerns about this, and the kubotan promised an equalizing solution for a perceived problem that was politically unwise to explicitly address. Women do tend to prefer a kubotan over a yawara stick, because it is smaller, more subtle, and rather elegant. It was even positioned as a fashionable key chain accessory.
However, there were policemen of smaller stature, and even the big bruisers really did not enjoy getting hurt. Also, in the wake of unfortunate social protest incidents, the public trust in law enforcement was impaired. Our society frowned at cops with guns drawn, and Elliot Ness was no longer a popular hero. The kubotan did indeed provide equalizing solutions to perceived problems that were politically unwise to explicitly address. As a result, the kubotan has enjoyed a much wider success than the yawara stick.
Unfortunately, greater success has led to greater imitation. Most of the kubotans sold today have remarkably little to do with Tak Kubota, and he’s not raking in a fortune of royalties. Much of the stuff on the Web is glitzy, sexy, and gleefully evil. You can even get an 18 karat gold Cross pen for $3,000. For a little less money, you can devise a kubotan from a variety of objects available at any hardware store. With very careful material selection due to the thin design, you can also fashion one from plastic or wood.
Official Kubotan Techniques by Takayuki Kubota and John G. Peters, Jr.
Use of the Mini-Baton (Yawara Stick) for Law Enforcement and Security Officers by Joseph J. Truncale