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Aikido Training With Bokken Swords

Updated on February 5, 2018
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Hello everyone, my name is Hal. A lifelong sports participant and fan, the spiritual aspects of martial arts have always intrigued me.

History and Background of the Bokken Sword

Bokken swords have been in existence for centuries and were traditionally used for training of ninja warriors and samurai. Bokken is synonymous with the term bokuto in Japan, but bokken is more widely used in the West.

In Japan, the sword and its artistry date back before the times of written history. Japanese swords were originally copied from the Chinese, but as Japanese martial arts changed, so did their swords. The Chinese swords were long and straight, used more often for thrusting into an opponent instead of slashing like Japanese swords.

Throughout Japan, some swords began to take a shorter length and had a curve, compared to the longer, two-handed hilt. When Japanese warfare turned to the use of cavalry, these shorter types of swords were better suited for slashing from atop a horse.

Nowadays the bokken is a wooden training tool for martial students wishing to learn the use of a live weapon.

Bokken Sword With Scabbard
Bokken Sword With Scabbard | Source

Basics of the Bokken Sword

Bokkens are a safe way to train in swordsmanship.

A bokken ("bok"-wood and "ken"-sword") is an inexpensive wooden Japanese sword used as a substitute for live blades in the early stages of martial arts training such as Aikido, Kendo, and Kenjutsu.

They usually take the approximate size and shape of a katana, but sometimes they are shaped like other swords, the wakizashi and tanto being the most common. They are also known as bokuto ("wooden sword"), which is the generally-used term in Japan. These should not be confused with shinai, bamboo practice swords used in Kendo.

Practitioners of Aikido use bokkens to learn the importance of timing and distance, to develop confidence, and to grasp a fundamental understanding of movement. Most of the techniques, katas, circular motions and drills in Aikido represent the cut of a sword in one form or other.

Bokkens or bokuto usually look very similar to a live sword (Iaito). However, there are some differences between the weapons, such as the noticeable difference in weight and the width of the wooden sword's handle (Tsuka).

A bokken will handle quite differently than a live katana, which is a weapon where much more force and strength is required to stop or control cuts.

When the student reaches an efficient and safe level of training, they move to using a live blade.

Student Training With Bokken Sword
Student Training With Bokken Sword | Source

Bokken Sword or Katana? – The Choice May Surprise Some of You.

You'll find many Japanese legends that tell of warriors using a bokken against a steel blade-carrying opponent. These legends are just as likely to sing praises of those exact same warriors beating their opponents. Occasionally, these types of victories were because of the talent of the warrior using the bokken. On other occasions, it was because of the fragility of the opponent's katana.

Kenjutsu master Miyamoto Musashi was renowned for fighting fully armed foes with only one or two wooden bokkens. In a famous legend, he defeated Sasaki Kojiro with a bokken he had carved from a nearby oar while traveling to the island for the duel.

The bokken is created from a single piece of wood from handle to end, whereas the katana has its edge connected to the handle by two metal pins. Throughout a fight, there can be tremendous strain placed on the katana and the blades or pins can split. Some common problems that can weaken katanas are pins that may suffer from rust even while using the best of care, and handles made of wood that may rot.

Japan is a small, humid island, and the effects of dampness can impact any sword, armor, or another type of weapon and lay unseen right until the crucial moment of a battle. Damage to the wood of the bokken, on the other hand, is more evident and can be attended to before using in practice or battle situations.

Many ninjas preferred to use the bokken on a mission rather than a regular sword. A bokken is lighter and easier to carry, and there is no risk of cutting oneself when the sword is strapped close to the body.

Bokkens are also very easy to camouflage since they can be stained or painted, and when proper techniques are used, a bokken can easily break bones and damage internal organs.

Warrior With Katana Sword
Warrior With Katana Sword | Source

Happo Giri Is a Popular Style of Bokken Training

The Happo Giri (eight direction cutting style) is used to understand spatial awareness and to learn to use the bokken to defend yourself from attacks coming from different angles. The student will learn correct breathing techniques and good posture from practicing the Happo Giri.

When you raise the sword you breathe in, and then you make a strike when breathing out. This is sometimes considered an exercise for meditation as well as a way to form a spiritual connection with the bokken.

Although the sequence is often practiced at a slow but steady pace, it can take quite a lot of mental and physical effort, so do not underestimate its importance.

Happo Giri Video Demonstrations

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© 2010 Hal Gall

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