Bugei Jūhappan: The Multifaceted Listings of 18 Weapons

A rather popular list of martial disciplines in Japan is called “Bugei Jūhappan” (武芸十八般). Many martial schools, books, and the like talk about its significance, which has also made its presence to the West. What is the story behind this list? How old is this concept, and how consistent is it? This post will help answer questions like these, as well as provide an overall explanation about certain details that are not readily available in English.

For this post, there’s information both from Japanese sources as well as Chinese sources. A lot of cross-referencing and research was especially done to understand the Chinese information below, and I’m hoping there’s no glaring mistakes, although any corrections are welcomed. Here’s a list of some of the sources used:

ORIGIN AND ROOTS

Bugei Jūhappan loosely translates to “standard 18 martial skills”. Pretty self-explanatory, it is a list of 18 disciplines, primarily weapons, related to martial combat. This is a widely used method for noting what the average martial artists should aim for. However, understand that before this became popular in Japan, this concept was used first in China several centuries prior. 

A portrait of Hua Yue, author of “Cui Wei Bei Zhenglu” (翠微北征録, Northern Expedition of Cui Wei). From zwbk.org.

Within China’s martial and literature culture was the development of a conceptual grouping of 18 skills based on weapons generally called “Shi ba Ban bing qi” (十八般兵器)¹. The 1st source for this was through dramatic performances done from the Song Dynasty to the Yuan dynasty. Here, 18 weapons were mentioned in the lines done by two separate actors, Wang Huan and Jingde. This later would inspire it being used in a 12-volume documentation entitled “Cui Wei Bei Zhenglu” (翠微北征録, Northern Expedition of Cui Wei) by Hua Yue (華岳), which was completed in 1208. Next, several documentations were made during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) which featured their own versions of 18 weapons, which includes:

  • Fictional storybook “Shui hu Zhuan” (水滸傅, The Water Margin), by Shi Naian (施耐庵), sometime in 1300s
  • Illustrated encyclopedia “Sancai Tuhui” (三才圖會, Collected Illustrations of the Three Realms), by Wang Qi (王圻) and his son Wang Siyi (王思義), published in 1609
  • 16-volume “Wu za zu” (五雜俎, Five Miscellaneous Offerings) compiled by Xie Zhao-zhe (謝 肇淛), in 1619
  • 32-volume “Yong-chuang Xiao-pin”  (涌幢小品, Miscellaneous Notes from the Yong-chuang Pavilion) compiled by Zhu Guozhen (朱國禎), in 1621

There are also other sources with their own version of 18 weapons, including the famous Shaolin Temple². Below are examples of the different lists.

Shui hu Zhuan

  • 矛 = mao (spear with snake-like blade)
  • 錘 = chui (hammer)
  • 弓 = gōng (bow & arrow)
  • 弩 = nu (crossbow)
  • 銃 = chong (rifle)
  • 鞭 = bian (iron baton)
  • 鐧 = jian (metal truncheon)
  • 剣 = jian (double-edge sword)
  • 鏈 = lian (three-sectional staff)
  • 撾 = zhua (claw-mounted polearm)
  • 斧 = fu (Battleaxe)
  • 鉞 = yue (crescent moon knives)
  • 戈 = ge (dagger-axe)
  • 戟= ji (spear with 2 crescent blades on the side)
  • 牌 = pai (shield)
  • 棒 = bang (club)
  • 槍 = qiang (Spear)
  • 叉 = cha (Trident)

Wu za zu

  • 弓 = gong (bow & arrow)
  • 弩 = nu (crossbow)
  • 槍 = qiang (spear)
  • 刀 = dao (single-edge broadsword)
  • 剣 = jian (double-edge sword)
  • 矛 = mao (spear with snake-like blade)
  • 盾 = dun (shield)
  • 斧 = fu (battleaxe)
  • 鉞 = yue (crescent moon knives)
  • 戟 = ji (spear with 2 crescent blades on the side)
  • 鞭 = bian (Iron baton)
  • 鐧 = jian (metal truncheon)
  • 撾 = zhua (claw-mounted polearm)
  • 殳 = shu (three-edge spear)
  • 叉 = cha (trident)
  • 耙 = ba (rake)
  • 綿縄套索 = miansheng taosuo (brocade lasso)
  • 白打 = da bai (empty hands)

Here’s another, called “Nine Long & Short weapons of the 18 Weapons” (九長九短十八般兵器), starting with the 9 long weapons

  • 槍 = qiang (spear)
  • 戟 = ji (spear with 2 crescent blades on the side)
  • 棍 = gun (staff)
  • 鉞 = yue (crescent moon knives)
  • 叉 = cha (trident)
  • 钂 = tang (spear with two crescent prongs)
  • 鈎 = guo (hooked weapons, such as hook swords)
  • 槊 = shuo (long lance)
  • 鏟 = chan (spade)

Next, the short weapons

  • 刀 = dao (single-edge broadsword)
  • 剣 = jian (double-edge sword)
  • 拐 = guai (tonfa)
  • 斧 = fu (battleaxe)
  • 鞭 = bian (Iron baton)
  • 鐧 = bian (Iron baton)
  • 錘 = chui (hammer)
  • 杵³ = huan (iron rings)
  • 棒 = bang (club)
Snapshot of the 18 weapons normally used in theatrical performances. From Arachina.com .

Differences in the lists are due to various factors, such as which were important depending on the time period, land area, groups that had any affiliations, etc⁴. Due to this, there is no one definitive listing, although there tends to be a consistency on which weapons appear on most of these lists.

18 SKILLS OF JAPAN

The concept of 18 weapons as essential disciplines didn’t arrive to Japan until the late mid-1600s, when Wu za zu was 1st published in Japanese. Later to follow were the other Chinese literature mentioned above, such as Sancai Tuhui and Shui hu Zhuan. Chinese literature still had value during this time, so they continued to have influence in Japanese culture.

Picture of Hirayama Kōzō. From the book “Edo no Kengō: Hirayama Kōzō” (江戸の剣豪 平山行蔵)

In 1806, a renown martial artist by the name of Hirayama Kōzō (平山行蔵) from Edo published a book called “Bugei Jūhappan Ryakusetsu” (武芸十八般略説), which served as an adaption of the 18 weapons from the Shui hu Zhuan, but in a way where it fitted with the Japanese methodology towards combat. More than just focusing on a “weapon” (兵器), Hirayama Kōzō used disciplines or skills (武芸) as a means to identify those areas necessary during warring times while on the battlefield, and during peaceful times while in towns and indoors. The development of such a list comes after Japan’s warring history, and during a more peaceful society where martial skills could be structured and represented in a more systematic format.

Just like in China, the listing of 18 skills in Japan is not an exclusive one. There are also variations, each a reflection on what was deemed important in what time period it was made, who was involved in developing such list, and so on. For example, Maki Bokusen (牧墨僊)⁵, an artist who was once a student of the famous Katsushika Hokusai, made a version represented through his ukiyo-e series entitled “Shashin Gakuhitsu” (写真学筆) in 1815. Below are several examples of the 18 weapons listings in Japan.

Bugei Jūhappan Ryakusetsu

  • 弓 = yumi (bow). One type that is iconic is kiyumi (木弓, wooden bow that was common even in early Japanese history).
  • 李満弓 = rimankyū. This represents short bows, such as kujirahankyū (鯨半弓) and kagoyumi (駕籠弓).
  • 弩 = ishiyumi (crossbow). There were 2 types, shudo (手弩, handheld crossbows) and ōyumi (大弓, siege crossbows).
  • 馬 = uma (horsemanship). Refers to bajutsu (馬術, equestrian).
  • 刀 = katana (sword). Refers to kenjutsu (剣術, sword techniques).
  • 大刀 = ōdachi (long sword). This includes nodachi (野太刀, long battlefield sword), and nagamaki (長巻, long sword with an extended handle).
  • 抽刀 = chūtō (drawing sword for cutting). More fitting label would be battōjutsu (抜刀術) or iaijutsu (居合術) .
  • 眉尖刀 = bisentō. Considered a polearm with a smaller blade, liken to a konaginata (小薙刀, small glaive)
  • 青竜刀 = seiryūtō. Considered a polearm with a larger blade, liken to an ōnaginata (大長刀, large glaive)
  • 槍 = yari. This is the spear, with variations including jumonji yari (十文字槍, crossbar spear) and saburi yari⁶(佐分利槍, a spear with prongs for hooking).
  • 鏢鎗 = hyōsō. This is known as nageyari (投槍, throwing spear) and hiya (火箭, fire arrows)
  • 棍 = kon. Generally called (棒, staff)
  • 鉄鞭 = tetsuben. Japanese equivalent would be tessen (鉄扇, iron fan) or jitte⁷ (十手, straight metal tool with a small prong used for arresting)
  • 飛鑓 = hiken (ひけん). Said to be related to fundō kusari⁸ (分銅鎖, chain with 2 weighted ends), kusarigama (鎖鎌, chain & sickle), and koranjō (虎乱杖, staff with a concealed chain)
  • 拳 = Yawara. Also known as jūjutsu (柔術, hand-to-hand)
  • 銃 = ju. Equivalents are teppō (鉄砲, gunnery) and taihō (大砲, artillery)
Select artwork of different weapons in use from the “Shashin Gakuhitsu”. From “Zuzetsu-Kobudōshi”.

Shashin Gakuhitsu

  • 弓術 = kyūjutsu (archery)
  • 馬術 = bajutsu (equestrian)
  • 水泳術 = suieijutsu (swimming techniques)
  • 槍術 = sōjutsu (spear techniques)
  • 鎖鎌術 = kusarigamajutsu (chain & sickle)
  • 薙刀術 = naginatajutsu (glaive techniques)
  • 剣術 = kenjutsu (sword techniques)
  • 居合 = (sword-drawing)
  • 補縄術 = hōjōjutsu (rope-tying a captured opponent)
  • 鼻ねじ = hananeji (baton with a rope used for arresting)
  • 手裏剣術 = shurikenjutsu (small bladed throwing weapons)
  • 鉄砲 = teppō (gunnery)
  • 石火矢 = ishibiya (cannons)
  • 柔術 = jūjutsu (hand-to-hand)
  • 騎射術 = kibajutsu (fighting while on horseback)
  • 甲冑伝 = kacchūden (understanding how to wear armor)
  • 打毬術 = dakyūjustu (cavalry game using a netted pole and a ball, similar to polo)
  • 水馬術 = suibajutsu (crossing rivers, lakes, etc. while on horseback)
An image of dakyū, as illustrated in the book “The Mikado’s Empire (ミカドの帝国)”. From Wikipedia.

Version from the Japanese Dictionary

  • 弓術 = kyūjutsu (archery)
  • 馬術 = bajutsu (horseback riding)
  • 槍術 = sōjutsu (spear techniques)
  • 剣術 = kenjutsu (sword techniques)
  • 水泳術 = suieijutsu (swimming techniques)
  • 抜刀術 = battōjutsu (sword drawing techniques)
  • 短刀術 = tantōjutsu (knife techniques)
  • 十手術 = jittejutsu (straight metal tool with a small prong used for arresting)
  • 手裏剣術 = shurikenjutsu (small throwing blades)
  • 含針術 = fukumibarijutsu (mouth-activated device that sends forth needles, blinding powder, and other concealed items)
  • 薙刀術 = naginatajutsu (glaive techniques)
  • 砲術 = hōjutsu (artillery)
  • 捕手術 = toritejutsu (restraining techniques through grappling)
  • 柔術 = jūjutsu (hand-to-hand techniques)
  • 棒術 = bōjutsu (staff techniques)
  • 鎖鎌術 = kusarigamajutsu (chain & sickle techniques)
  • 錑 (もじり) 術⁹ = mojirijutsu (techniques for subduing criminals by snagging their clothing with a polearm featuring many barbs on one end)
  • 隠形術 = ongyōjutsu (concealment and protection techniques)

This next one is considered a popular version at some point

  • 弓術 = kyūjutsu (archery)
  • 馬術 = bajutsu (equestrian)
  • 剣術 = kenjutsu (swordsmanship)
  • 短刀術 = tantōjutsu (knife techniques)
  • 居合術 = iaijutsu (sword-drawing)
  • 槍術 = sōjutsu (spear techniques)
  • 薙刀術 = naginatatjutsu (glaive techniques)
  • 棒術 = bōjutsu (staff techniques)
  • 杖術 = jōjutsu (short staff techniques)
  • 柔術 = jūjutsu (hand-to-hand)
  • 捕縄術 = hōjōjutsu (rope-tying a captured opponent)
  • 三つ道具 = mittsu dōgu (three arresting tools, which consists of sasumata [刺股], tsukubō [突棒], and sodegarami [袖絡み])
  • 手裏剣術 = shurikenjutsu (small throwing blades)
  • 十手術 = jittejutsu (straight metal tool with a small prong used for arresting)
  • 鎖鎌術 = kusarigamajutsu (chain and sickle)
  • 忍術 = ninjutsu (espionage and sabotage)
  • 水泳術 = suieijutsu (swimming)
  • 砲術 = hōjutsu (artillery)

SIGNIFICANCE IN THE NUMBER “18”

When reviewing these lists, or on a larger scale, how skills are categorized in Japanese martial systems, you’ll notice that there tends to be extra skillsets that are grouped in with others, either as a sub-skillset or a paired one. In reality, there was a much greater number of skills that were essential for warring times, as well as peaceful times. Looking at Hirayama’s list, there are extra weapons based on design, which affect their usage. Also, some categories are broad, and can incorporate more weapons. For starters, teppō is a general term for gunnery, which includes various types of firearms such as rifles, pistols, and the like.

What is the significance of the number ’18’? As far as it can be told, nothing has been discovered. Just how old is this concept when it was first becoming publicly known in China is uncertain; if it goes much further back before 18 weapons was mentioned in those performances, then it’s possible the the meaning has been lost. As it became a standard term among martial artists both in China and Japan, its usage was certainly to outline what a person should strive to be verse in if they wanted to become a complete warrior. Mastery of all 18 skills, along with others not mentioned on those lists, was not expected, since each culture held certain weapons with higher regard than others.

ENDING

This concludes our discussion on the origin of the Bugei Jūhappan, along with its numerous interpretations both in China and Japan. As a concept, it works as a reference to which weapons and skills were deemed important based on the time period. Even today, many martial schools not only reference the Bugei Jūhappan, but also build off of it to express to their students what martial skills are connected to what they are studying.


1) Also written as “Shi ba ban wu yi” (十八般武芸, the 18 skills or martial arts). There is another labeling in the form of “武芸十八事”, but this may be a generic, modernized label.

2) From what I can tell, the “18 weapons” of the Shaolin Temple is more figurative. In reality, the weapons focused on exceed 18.

3) Traditionally written as “環”

4) These weapons, while having historical ties with Chinese culture as a whole, have unique backgrounds for being dotted upon. For example, many of the longer weapons came from dealings with the Mongols, while the shorter weapons were designed for use in local areas like towns. Most of weapons that appear in the Chinese version of 18 weapons are pretty old, and may have been associated to specific families for many generations.

5) Also goes by the name “Gekkōtei Bokusen” (月光亭墨僊)

6) Actually, the proper name for this is kagiyari (鍵槍, hook spear). On the other hand, “saburi” is from the name of a style that specializes in the use of kagiyari, Saburi ryū sōjutsu (佐分利流槍術).

7) also can be pronounced as “jutte”

8) also called kusari fundō (鎖分銅) and manriki kusari (萬力鎖)

9) To speak a little further on this, the word mojiri means to “twist” or “wrench” something using some force. As a hobakugu (捕縛具, arresting tool), one can imagine using this in such manner to control someone if it snags firmly onto their clothing. Another name for sode garami (袖絡み), which has a similar meaning.