An Interview With Master Aramaki – Bokken Artisan
Successor of the inventor of the modern Bokken
August 2017, enjoying the quiet summer months, we traveled across Japan to Miyakonojo and the Kirishima Sankei region to visit 3 of Japan’s last Bokken workshops. We’ve conducted 3 interviews, starting with master Aramaki Yasuo. Here’s the transcript with some additional comments and information.
Interview by Jordy Delage, Seido’s Founder.
A Fantastic Encounter
I first visited these craftsmen in 2010, 7 years ago, at a time when Seido was yet a rather insignificantly small company with no need to work with all craftsmen simultaneously and it was a simple visit during which all craftsmen were kind enough to take the time to present their work and show us their workshops. Since that day in 2010, I’ve done my best to one day work with each and one of them, for two reasons. The first is that I love woodwork. I almost decided to become a cabinet maker when I was 16, and I’ve kept that passion for woodwork all my life. And the second reason is that I wanted to work with all the artisans, get to know them and create a workflow, a relation, that no other company has, a connection that is not just based on business concern.
We started off with Horinouchi, and soon after with Nidome in 2010, in 2013 with Matsuzaki and finally Aramaki in 2015, making Seido the only company in and out of Japan working with all craftsmen of wooden weapons simultaneously.
Of that I was proud, and really enjoyed working with all of them. But I didn’t feel like having done enough, so I decided in 2017 that there was a need to better present them to the world. This is when our video project was born, and I’m proud to present you this interview.
And what’s next? What about 2018/19? Well, I still have the hope to get my hands dirty at their workshops, working with them. I’ll let you know when this happens!
Aramaki Budogu Mokojo
Aramaki Budogu Mokojo (荒牧武道具木工所) is the name of the workshop. It simply means: Aramaki Wooden Martial Art Equipment Workshop.
The founder, master Aramaki (1st Gen.), began manufacturing Bokken about a century ago, in 1921.
Like his grandfather and father, the grandson of the founder, master Aramaki, 66 years old, still perpetuates the tradition.
Aramaki Budogu Mokojo is surprisingly small in terms of work force, but still one of the biggest out of those 4 workshops, 2 of them being small companies, the 2 others being small family businesses with only 2~3 craftsmen.
I was also surprised to see how independent each craftsman at the Aramaki workshop is, totally different from what is the norm in Japan.
But, let’s start with the interview itself.
Aramaki Yasuo – 3rd Generation Bokken Artisan (Part 1/2)
Can you tell us about the early days of the Miyakonojo wooden weapon workshop?
Our forefathers were fleeing soldiers of the Taira (Heike) family, who hid in the mountains. And one of their villages was called Aramaki and this was where my grandfather noticed the copious oak trees, decided to manufacture Bokken, and came to Miyakonojo. In Miyakonojo are the most oak trees and so he got to manufacture Bokken, then the war started, which we lost. And after that, Japanese martial arts, the Budo, got prohibited. However, thanks to General MacArthur’s approval of Budo, the ban was lifted and the production of Bokken was relaunched.
But at that time, my grandfather was already sick. My father took over from him and with it, it was the second generation manufacturing Bokken. And with me, it’s the third generation. So, since then, already 100 years have passed. Therefore, the founder of the Bokken of Miyakonojo, that’s us.
Miyakonojo covers over 90% of the Bokken manufacturing in Japan. Now, there are 4 workshops providing the Bokken for the entire Japan, but previously, there were about 36. And those workshops used to make the handles of hoes used in agriculture, hammers, etc.
The wood was used to make those handles. Utilizing that wood, there were many of those workshops for wooden handles.
But they all switched to Bokken as they were selling. So there were 36 workshops.
Because in Kendo it’s mainly the Yudansha using the objects, so if we only were to focus on the shape of the Bokken, but neglect its balance, the Yudansha will of course not buy it. That’s why the business got bad and most companies were forced to quit. And now, only 4 workshops are left. And everyone was doing research, competing to fabricate a sword that is easy to use.
How and when was the Bokken we know today designed?
So when in Japanese Kendo armors were created and worn, one wouldn’t strike the body directly anymore but protected with these armors (allowing to strike harder) the Bokken got bigger (and with it more resistant). In the end, my father (2nd Gen.) received the permission by the Japanese Kendo Federation to create their Bokken type and in the end its shape was determined by that.
So the current Bokken type is already the one that my father (2nd Gen.) made. When I was little, I tinkered with news paper different Bokken shapes and studied various types – I can still remember that.
So this, the current Bokken type the Kendo Federation chose, is the one my father created. Other workshops bought our Bokken to copy its shape so now, it’s the same shape everywhere.
How about Koryu Bokken?
Anyway, I let them send me a sample, of which I manufacture a copy and send it back. Otherwise, it’s impossible because I’m told by everyone that “this is the correct”, or “that is the true one” or “this the original”. No matter the Bokken, I ask for a sample first.
And if they are considering a second purchase in the future, I let them order one for spare that I keep here.
I must confess that it’s one of the most difficult things in my work. I often use the Katori Shinto Ryu Bokken as example because the kissaki (tip) shape varies greatly from one workshop to another. Aramaki only produces the Bokken, but not the Shoto, but on the other hand is the only one who also manufactures the Katori Shinto Ryu Naginata Bokken (on a custom made basis). The Shinbukan dojo seems to use weapons from the Aramaki workshop, but Sugino sensei’s dojo seems to use weapons from Horinouchi or Nidome. “Seems”, because it’s not a rule. I’ve seen Shoto used at the Shinbukan that are obviously not from the Aramaki workshop.
The shape is close enough to not be a big deal in most cases, but I can only advise practitioners with a very specific need to contact us, as we’re the only company able to contact all workshops and compare.
Are you visited by famous Budoka to determine the specifications of their Bokken?
I met the lead teacher of the Jigen Ryu and a Karateka, the one who is said to have fought against a tiger, master Oyama. I even got to meet him. We got a Sai from him, one of those iron Sai: “I’ll leave this here as souvenir” he said. He was a master with a great physique, those kind of teachers we met.
We do not sell directly to private clients but if you’d come all the way to visit us, we’d sell you something. So teachers come to meet us, asking us to change the size, even for Nunchaku, or have it done differently. So, various teachers who want something in particular, those are the ones who’d come to meet us.
When we meet them, we can also explain to them different points about the material: “this here might get difficult”, etc.
That for example the fiber of the timber cannot always be aligned horizontally, and that I cannot sort out all timber to their specific expectations. That’s what I explain while taking the order.
It is possible that master Aramaki confused the names, but it is also possible that he was indeed visited by Oyama sensei and thought it was him who fought against a tiger. The name of the Karateka who actually did the latter is Yamamoto Katsuo, who is from Miyakonojo, not far from Aramaki’s workshop and I personally think that it’s more likely that way.
What differentiates your Bokken from those of other workshops?
We consider the balance, or the curvature as important. These are the points we emphasize.
I mean, you position yourself (Kamae) with the Bokken, and then if the curvature isn’t well crafted, that’s so disturbing.
Just like before, there was one I had to redo. Take off a bit more here and there… Even if it’s just a small thing that you’d barely notice, I’d redo it.
When seeing a Bokken, can you tell who made it?
Even if I were only to see the tip of the Bokken I’d know who’s workshop’s piece it is. And then you have the curvature and the balance – it’s easy to tell. So that’s why, as said before even if we make samples from paper, we have our bad habits, everyone of us, putting more effort into the left, or only the right side. Or the tip lacks polishing, even though the craftsman intended to finish it off nicely – and that’s that person’s habit, overlooking something, etc. And those habits are clearly visible on the Bokken.
So when I see a Bokken, from Tokyo, the Kansai or Kanto region, samples made during the Edo period, I think “wow, how amazing!” What fantastic Bokken these craftsmen made in the past. Well, they also had a lot of time so they could do it. But still, really amazing Bokken with a great balance. So it happens that I get to see one of those samples and I doubt that I could make a copy of it, of a Bokken so beautiful and well-balanced.
Craftsmen of that time were the best. The way the blade’s thickness is adjusted toward the tip, I can still recall its image. These Bokken, there was really great work done by those ancient craftsmen.
Although today the difference is obvious to me (I probably could even tell blindfolded), it’s not for most practitioners.
But the placement of the sori (curvature), shape of the kissaki (tip) or finish of the tsukagashira (butt/pommel) are not enough to have a significant influence when practicing, even at a fairly high level.
(Unfortunately) each workshop has its own production capacity and specialties, hindering us from offering all our models from each workshop. A standard or a deluxe Bokken purchased on SeidoShop is from one of these workshops, but we cannot leave you the choice from which one (we accept requests prior to ordering though) because it’d be impossible to balance the workshop’s production otherwise.
But stay at ease, we never ever had any claim about that. We’ve acquired great experience in selecting what each workshop does best, how they manage their wood supply when what type of wood is available, and at what period of the year they get too busy to produce in large quantities. We juggle with those parameters to always have the offer available throughout the year.
What is your favorite workstep and what is the most difficult one?
I like the Kissaki part (the last 10 cm toward the tip), that’s the most appealing to me.
The most challenging part… probably the Tsuka (handle). The handle is the one that I have to rework a few times. I grasp it like this and think “that’ should be ok” and then I can feel a bump, or that it is a little too small after I finish it. So yeah, it is really the handle that is the most challenging.
And what I like is the Kissaki part. It’s the most satisfying thing to do, shaping the wood with the plane.
We were, of course, talking about Bokken. But off camera we discussed how difficult it is to produce a Jo.
It seems that it’s one of the hardest tests of the industry, passing which, proves that one is a highly skilled artisan: being able to produce a perfectly rounded Jo only using planes.
Do you still craft certain pieces entirely by hand?
So I do them by hand, this is more natural, while checking the balance all along the process.
Loquat is pretty dense as well. The sides are so tough. And when I plane the wood once it’s dry, I just keep thinking “ah, it’s so hard”. The Sunuke is still easier to work, and the wood comes off the planes in big pieces. But loquat is so firm and dense. And one might not guess it, but it’s heavy. So no surprise the loquat was often used in the past to make the Bokken.
People back then really made a discovery using loquat… it’s so dense and hard.
In addition to Ebony and loquat, master Aramaki also handworks most Koryu Bokken.
These are a few Bokken made by craftsmen in France, Portugal and the US. What do you think?
With that kind of machine, it’s almost impossible to work the tip. This 3 Sun tip here. That’s the part you can’t do with the machine. This here is where the art comes in. And you can’t do it unless you’re a craftsman. Yeah, you can immediately tell, checking like this. The thickness is rather well done though. You can more or less make a faithful copy of the curvature and the chamfering if you just buy another Bokken and get the shape from there.
This is pretty nice, right? The finish. We fix the wood with a vise called Manriki (invented by the craftsmen of Miyakono) to work it. But how did they do it? Is the polishing done with some kind of machine? Yeah, that’s a good one. The balance is also good, the weight is there. This timber is also really good.
Isn’t that kind of timber used for Baseball bats? Yeah, there are some peculiarities. The timber also… If only there was abundant material… Up to 10 or 20 pieces, that’s still possible but as soon as 200 pieces are to be put out everyday – the material… Easy to get splinters, that kind of soft wood. Where you strike, Japanese oak doesn’t become like that. The latter absorbs the shock, leaving just a dent. That kind of soft wood has rough fiber, you may get splinters that you feel with your hands. That’s what happens with soft wood, when you strike, well, after striking. All of them did a really good job.
No matter from which country, the craftsmen are pretty talented.
That was one of my favorite sequences in each interview.
I must admit that master Aramaki showed an incredible interest and much respect for all the artisans we presented in this scene. Those Bokken were made by Bernard Saligné in France, Kingfisher Wood in the US and Almarez Buki in Portugal.
These Bokken are from my personal collection. 2 of them are warped but that did not bother master Aramaki at all. As he said, and as I always say: wood is a living material. It warps, naturally, whoever the craftsman and whatever the wood used. What’s important is to use wood that can be bent back/straightened. (We’ll produce a video soon to explain how to take care of and fix warped weapons).
What effect has the shortage of resources on wood availability and wood quality?
I once wanted to test the white oak from abroad, so I bought some, studied it, checked its strength. We still have it at the back.
A company supplying timber from abroad got to visit us once and if one day there’s no more Japanese oak, we start to purchase from them.
That’s how far the discussion went.
But there’s still some left, so we’re not importing it yet. But we are thinking that far now. Because we will be eventually running out of timber.
I’m a bit afraid that the supply from abroad won’t be stable. So you might run out of an imported timber like purple ebony, that cannot be supplied anymore, after you finally got used to work it. And you have to search for another supplier. So if you rely on supply from abroad, you’ll for sure find yourself at a dead end.
This will be the topic of a future article about the future of craftsmanship in Japan.
With the very low birth rate, aging population, and the shortage of resources, it’s not looking good. We hope that with our support, things get better at some point. We’re no magicians, but we’re honestly doing our best.
Aramaki Yasuo – 3rd Generation Bokken Artisan (Part 2/2)
There are very few young craftsmen today, how do you manage to produce such quantities?
Now with the mechanization, one person alone can make 150 pieces [This concerns the main shaping step only]. So because it has all been mechanized, it’s not necessary to be numerous anymore, as it has become much easier. So, because mechanized, the craftsmen became fewer. That’s why…
So we here, in the end, have everything mechanized, like the other workshops, everyone doing it their own way. But before that, we, about 36 people, were all kind of lined up on the workbenches in the factory – this is how we used to carve all day long. But still, as one person couldn’t do more than 20 pieces a day, even with 30 people, we couldn’t get that much done. That’s how it used to be.
This mechanization came with my generation, roughly when I left school, and with it less craftsmen were needed. Examining it like this, and that we could manufacture still that much thanks to the mechanization, that’s why we maybe received the award of “contemporary craftsmen”.
I accept the critic: “too much machines to be considered handmade”.
Well, a fully handmade Bokken would cost 2 to 4 times the current price and most practitioners wouldn’t be willing to pay that. (Especially Kendoka, N°1 users of Bokken in Japan counting more than one million practitioners in Japan alone, who don’t really use Bokken that much except for Kendo no Kata practice.)
I wish the artisans had more time to produce such pieces, even if very expensive.
Are your currently recruiting? Is it difficult?
And that also concerns the salary or something like that. It takes 3 to 5 years until someone becomes an artisan, and I have to pay a salary, but actually don’t get anything that can be used. But in one way or another, that’s how one becomes an artisan, fabricating for the company. And this is also how in return it becomes a revenue for the company. But for 5 years, we get nothing and that’s in the end like giving away money, while teaching. Exactly how it was in the old time.
But like this, there’s no continuation for the company. I’d really like to get plenty of young people, paying them a good salary. But that’d be bankruptcy if we’d do something like that. So, we have no choice but to get the work done with the people we have around.
Do you have children or are there other family members who could be your successor?
But saying this, for Japanese Kendo, you really need those Bokken. After all, it has to be produced. Among these employees, if one gets injured, only by that, the production gets interrupted.
It is really hard, thinking about the future. That’s why we’re doing our very best now. But the future is the future, and it’ll be my son thinking about it.
How do you select the wood?
Before, we would choose only straight wood older than 50 years, etc. Or if the center was black we wouldn’t take it. In the past, we were buying only the best, after much complaint and negotiations. But if we’d work like that today, we wouldn’t have enough timber to work on.
That’s how it is now….
It’s not necessarily a huge issue at the moment. Standard Bokken are made from lower grade wood, and superior Bokken from higher grade wood. There are more “defective” products as before, but we’re doing a great job sorting them out, and because we like wood we don’t mind taking the time to do that task. We have very little quality issues. But we’re afraid that this might change someday.
How is the timber cut to feature a certain kind of grain?
It’s because wood is a living material, it warps as it pleases. But it’s also a question of how you store it. If it is properly placed straight on the floor and in the shade there’s no big problem, but if it’s diagonally leaning against a wall, it’ll warp. And that’s everybody’s own responsibility, reflecting your own personality.
I often hear that the grain must be vertical from blade to mine, and not horizontal (when you look at the butt, Bokken in hands ready to strike). This is neither true nor false. I do not know where this statement comes from, but it lacks some key explanations to make sense.
First of all, as master Aramaki says, it’s not possible to have only vertical or horizontal grain. But that’s not a big problem in itself:
– Vertical grain will result in a Bokken that will warp easily towards the right or left. >> Has to be fixed and if bent too strongly it becomes unusable.
– Horizontal grain will make the Bokken warp up or down, which results in changing slightly its curvature. >> Still usable, not sure that any practitioner would notice.
– Vertical grain results in a Bokken that is flexible towards the sides, so if you block with the edge, it absorbs energy well.
– On the opposite, horizontal grain will give more flexibility on the edge, making the weapon stronger when blocking with the edge.
That’s an important thing because Japanese oak is a fairly rigid and hard wood, not that flexible and depending on the type of practice, you might want a Bokken that has more flexibility on the edge to better absorb shocks, and if you practice Kendo and don’t do contact practice, opt for a Bokken that is more stable in time (and won’t warp easily), well, you’d better get one with horizontal grain. On the contrary, if you have very strong Makiotoshi like techniques in your practice… vertical might be the better choice.
This must be really difficult when it comes to Jo, as they are longer and thinner?
No luck for Aikidoists! (And I’m one myself…)
One thing I’d like to mention though: Jo have never necessarily been perfectly straight or rounded, some are, some are not.
Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba did practice with poorly made Jo and Bokken. Most masters from before World War II never experienced the high quality produced in the 60’s (to the 90’s). So yes, I do understand that you all want a perfectly straight Jo, but that’s just not what it is (don’t take me wrong, we’re talking about 1 or 2 mm, not a boomerang!).
This is a traditional industry that needs to be preserved. Do you receive governmental support?
Although I was told many things already, until now, there was nobody who sincerely took action to make things move. – “It’s tough. Let’s see what we can do” – that’s about how far it gets. Because those people, they have to ask their superiors and this is where it doesn’t go further.
I confess that I did troll a little by adding a picture of Miyakonojo’s city office in the video. But let’s be fair, politicians are politicians, everywhere. If they’d care about us, we’d know.
I still do what I can to raise awareness, when for example I did a lecture at a large forum about Japan crafts in 2016, attended by a few officials. I didn’t feel like the penny dropped, but I’ll keep trying!
Is the Tsubaki (camellia) a good alternative to Hon Biwa (loquat)?
But now, there’s almost no loquat left anymore. As you saw before at the workshop, from 3 trees, how many swords could I make again? Now also [a minute ago, we cut the scene] I were brought another 3 planks that are damaged. So from the 3 trees, I could make only 6 Bokken or so. From a core without deficiency. That’s how it has become. So from those 3 logs of loquat that were over 100 years old, I could only make 6 Bokken. Wondering how long it was stocked [dried], almost 10 years or so. Yeah, it dried for close to 10 years.
Attention: some shops are selling Tsubaki (Camellia) instead of Hon Biwa (loquat), selling it at a high price, higher than what Tsubaki is worth. And as master Aramaki says, it’s very hard to tell the difference between the two.
First of all, master Aramaki is the only one producing Hon Biwa Bokken.
Secondly, and unless specified otherwise by the brand (I’ve never heard of that though), master Aramaki makes all Hon Biwa Bokken with the “Kotobuki shape” that is easy to recognize by its flat blade sides and very long tip. Unless specified otherwise, he also signs with his “mei” on the tsuka (handle).
Just make sure all those specifications are checked or that you trust the origin of the item at the shop you buy it from.
Which wood would you recommend for contact practice, as in Aikido?
When it comes to camellia, there are some deficiencies, talking about the quality of the timber. It warps a bit… Like the Bokken [from the US, made of Hickory] you brought. And really, the deficiencies are quite frequent. If you let it dry too much, it gets very light, the camellia. To use as Bokken. But for decoration purpose, as gift or such, or to do some Kata, then it’s fine, I’d recommend it.
If you really want to practice with full contact, I wouldn’t recommend camellia. Its surface, it’s aesthetic is really beautiful and the wood grain, too. Well, that’s personal though. But camellia is often bought by those who like nice timber.
[Jordy says he loves camellia wood]
Yeah, indeed, those who like wooden products appreciate camellia wood. Yeah, especially when you opt for an oil polish finish instead of varnish. Then, the camellia becomes really pretty. I really like it.
Although white oak is, and that’s confirmed by all craftsmen, what’s best for contact practice, I may also recommend red oak (and master Nidome and Matsuzaki do as well). The difference is not significant, so if you don’t do really hard contact practice, red oak might be just enough. And yes, the reddish oak is a beautiful wood, reacting different to varnish or oil polish… if you like wood, consider it!
Is there still enough timber of outstanding quality available in this region?
But they answered “Ah, we’re sorry, but that’s within the preservation district, there can’t be any timber cut down.”
So we replied: “But there’s plenty, it should be fine to clear a bit. It’ll just get in the way anyways.”
“No, no, you can’t” they said.
But yes, there is plenty. It would be great if we could use that. But… well, if the trees get too big the wood quality gets bad. So now, those trees are perfect for use. And there’s plenty in the Kirishima region.
Since you plan to go [right after this meeting], please bring a chain saw along and bring me some logs [big laught].
Well, we went to the Kirishima forest and even did a little trekking there to get a real impression.
Hard to say if it should be cut or preserved, we don’t have enough information to make up our mind, but at least, we’d appreciate if the issue would be addressed and analyzed properly by governmental agencies.
And what about Hon Biwa (loquat)?
The loquat is not available anymore on our wood markets. So if we don’t find it and cut it ourselves… And that’s why not all of us still offer it.
Hmm… How many loquat Bokken do we send out a month? Well, about 5 to 6 I’d say.
If we have to make too many, I have to spend another day to go search for loquat. So the balance is just fine now.
In the course of a year, I have to find about 10, 12, 13 trees, wandering around.
Sometimes, the people cutting timber in the mountains, they know about us and give us a call:
– “We just cut some loquat, do you want it?”
– “Yes, sure, please!” and then they even bring it.
But only the core, the best part. When it comes to loquat, it has branches already at the bottom of the trunk. And they cause these knotholes that cut through the wood grain pattern. For a Bokken, we need 1 m of straight wood. If from 1.10 m a branch grows, we can use those 1.10 m. But if at the very bottom of the tree branches are growing, no matter how big the tree itself is, we couldn’t make Bokken from it. Because those knotholes cut through the wood grain. It seems that there’s plenty of loquat, but there are no usable ones.
That’s the difficulty, finding those.
What a dedication to the art.
This made me realize that almost all loquat and ebony Bokken are actually sent to Seido…
Good news is: it doesn’t have to come from the Kirishima forest itself to be good, so, by searching the area a bit outside of the city, extending to the whole Kyushu region, it should be possible to source small quantities. I hope.
We have to plant them now to ensure the future!
There are many. And we’re lucky that the loquat at the corner of our house, makes many offshoots.
So we plant them in different places.
It’s not going to be in time for me though.
I’m now used to visit craftsmen and talk with them. While most of them are very friendly and open minded, not all of them accept to be in front of the camera. So, I wish to express may deepest gratitude to master Aramaki for accepting this interview, but also for taking care of us during our stay in Miyakonojo. It has been a lot more than just an interview, with all craftsmen actually. Their openness, their kindness, and the time they shared with us have motivated us even more to support them, not as part of an industry but as individual human beings.
Article by Jordy Delage, founder @ Seido Co., Ltd.