The choice of the Bokken
And how it influences the Aikido practice
A few month ago, I spoke about wooden weapons from the perspective of traditional craftsmanship. The Bokken will still take the center of this article, but this time, I would like to change the angle and talk about how the choice of the Bokken influences the practice itself. However, I do not presume to give any advice whatsoever. I myself am just an ordinary practitioner and made my own choice that I stand by. I simply want to share with you some observations based on experience of practice, but above this, on a large experience regarding the weapons themselves. The advice and choice of your teacher however, are indisputable and my observations reflect only my personal view, based on my personal experience. There is just one thing I would like to clarify: I practiced at least a few hours with all the Bokken that I mention in this article.
Bokken, object of study
Most of you start practicing with a so called “standard” Bokken, that is to say, red or white oak, 101.5 cm of length and about 500-600g. This Bokken is actually a Bokken designed for Kendo Kata. It is intended to be used with a Tsuba (guard), and is standardized so that every practitioners has a sword of the same size (to avoid differences within the distance – Ma-ai – when performing Kata). This model is quite sufficient for the majority of Aikido practitioners. It is solid (if made in Japan), relatively light, and therefore suits both, full contact practice (Uchiai) – as well as practice without contact. However, most of the ancient sword schools, the Koryu / Kobudo, chose Bokken specifically tailored to their practice.
Deluxe red oak Bokken, made at the last four workshops in Japan. Top to bottom: Nidome, Aramaki, Horinouchi and Matsuzaki
In fact, standardization of equipment for practice, including weapons, mainly date from the Meiji era. Meiji was the time that bore the first major army of Japan, formed mainly based on western models (England, France, Germany…). There has been a movement of standardization for a large scale production, and above all, technical harmonization for switching from a “teacher to student” education to mass education. “Standardized” means that the “standard” tool suits the majority of practitioners, but we also understand that choosing suitable weapons if you have a morphology fairly different from the average seems to be a coherent choice, both, from a purely logical/practical point of view as well as from a historical perspective.
Highly preferred by schools focusing on dueling and fighting against multiple types of weapons (Bokken against Naginata, Bokken against Yari etc.). For example the Bokuto Jiki Shinkage Ryu Naginata Yo that is used by the Jiki Shinkage Ryu as part of the Kata against Naginata. Also the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu decided in its last notable reform to focus on the fight in light armor or on duels, requiring to move quickly, sacrificing cutting power (needed to cut/pierce an armor). Another example can be found regarding the Niten Ichi Ryu, the famous school of Miyamoto Musashi, that focuses on the practice with two swords and therefore requires light swords, that can be handled easily with one hand.
Light Bokken are used mainly to work on speed and precision (contrary to what one might think, it is very difficult to be precise with a light Bokken because the slightest unnecessary movement is directly transmitted on the weapon). However, with only little cutting power, it is impossible to do muscular training.
Three Bokken made by the Aramaki workshop, from the top: Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, Jiki Shinkage Ryu Naginata Yo and Yagyu Ryu.
In Aikido, let’s first point out, that the founder (during his last years) was training with a light Bokken. It is difficult to say what model he used, or if it still exists, but it is undoubtedly a light model, only slightly curved. In France, Nobuzoshi Tamura Sensei also used a light Bokken. We can say that this kind of light Bokken underpins the practice of Ki no Nagare (fluid movements, based on the accuracy of motion and timing).
Heavy weight Bokken
Heavy Bokken are generally used by schools focusing their practice on the fight in heavy armor and/or physical education. Schools like the Jiki Shinkage (Kenjutus, not Naginata this time) or the Kashima Shinto Ryu are using Bokken that are very heavy, aiming to train practitioners for the battlefield of the periods Muromachi and Sengoku. Indeed, heavy Bokken are aimed at training the use of a heavy sword, (often without groove), very powerful and able to damage the most solid armor of the time. Although practicing with this type of Bokken helps developing the strengths of the hips, arms, forearms and the grip, and – put aside the danger there may be for the back during sustained practice – , it is not possible to work on speed, accuracy or placement. In Aikido, one could say that working with this type of weapon is the basis for Kotai (practicing techniques statically, strongly grabbing).
Besides Kendo, a modern martial art whose choices are based on educational principles and are not directly related to battlefield imperatives, schools such as Katori Shinto Ryu or Shindo Ryu use relatively standard weight Bokken. This type of Bokken allows technically precise practice.
The Katori Shinto Ryu was founded during the Muromachi period (heavy armor battles), focusing on precise attacks to strike the weak points of the armor. This is an effective tactic, but requires much more training than using simple force, generated by the use of heavier weapons.
Standard Bokken – the right choice for Aikido?
Well, probably not.
Like any tool we work with for a number of hours per week or month, the Bokken shapes our body and changes our techniques. As a tennis player chooses a suitable racket, or a child a shorter Bokken, on a certain level of practice, it is important to use a tool that supports technical objectives and is adapted to the morphology of the practitioner. So how do we make our choice? It is very difficult to answer this question because Aikido is usually practiced with a partner. Indeed, if you are facing a partner with a Bokken of 400g with a Bokken that weighs 900g, not talking about the risk of destroying his Bokken, you will also totally unbalance the Kata (strong/violent contact but slow movement) and therefore you can not practice the Kata correctly.
It is hence important to maintain a consistency between the technique / the Kata and the weapons used by each practitioner.
Therefore, do not choose a specific weapon according to the recommendations that I will give you to go to the Dojo with. If you are a teacher, you can encourage your students to practice specific aspects with specific weapons. If you are just a practitioner, you can simply seek your teacher’s advice. You also can – whether teacher or not – consider additional practice – alone or with a partner who is working on the same topics – in addition to the usual classes.
The length of a Bokken
As for the Jo, we often hear that a Bokken should be adapted in length and size to the practitioner. This is also true for Iaito (Iaido swords) that have to be adapted to result in maximum length without hindering the Noto (returning of the sword into the scabbard). Unfortunately, the use of weapons of varying length for both, Jo and Bokken, causes problems in the practice of Kata and Maai (distance). The contact point on one hand and the power of the lever arm will unbalance the Kata, and this is also why we see only very few Kenjutsu schools using swords of different length based on the practitioner.
What is more important? The accuracy of the Kata or its effectiveness? If the goal is not to use the weapon on the battlefield, and given the fact that the main purpose in practice of the sword in Aikido is to support the Taijutsu (unarmed practice) it seems somewhat inappropriate to adjust the length of the weapon to the size of the practitioner.
Not to forget that the longer the weapon, the more the tip plunges towards the ground and demands to keep the Tsuka (handle) near the body center to avoid losing control. This is also why most Suburito (heavy sword to work on reinforcement) are longer than traditional Bokken.
The curvature is the direct result of the optimization of the Katana. Besides certain technical requirements for manufacturing, it can significantly improve the cutting angle and strength of the weapon while facilitating to unsheathe the sword. However, the curvature significantly slows down the technique and limits the power of thrusting (Tsuki).
My understanding of the sword in Aikido (this remains a personal opinion) leads me to think that the use of a sword with very light curvature (whether the heavy kind Iwama Bokken, or the lightest Bokken used by the founder during his last years) is due to the fact that sword techniques are not made to cut/kill the opponent. Rather, the goal of the Ueshiba Morihei was, apparently, to “demonstrate the futility of his attack,” and for this, he puts him in a situation of permanent technical failure, but without hurting him. A straight sword used to be much more direct, faster and better positioned. It allows to act and defeat before being in the situation to be forced to cut (e.g. a hand) before being oneself cut in the dynamics of the movement.
A straight sword allows you to work on speed and accuracy, and is clearly advantageous when it comes to stabbing, while a curved sword will put you in a dynamic for cutting with a wider range of motion.
The weight of the Bokken
Slightly adjusting the weight of one’s weapons to one’s morphology, while avoiding excessive differences for the reasons mentioned earlier, is a good option I think. If choosing a Bokken more or less heavy has immediate consequences for practice, the choice of a weapon that is disproportionate completely in weight can block learning qualities that are supposed to be developed by the technique. Measuring 1m90 / 90 kg, using a standard red oak Bokken of 500 or 550g causes less trouble than for a practitioner of 160 cm / 50 kg. But let’s not forget that it is these difficulties that lead to learning.
Without creating a gap that is too large, it seems advisable to choose a heavier weapon if you are rather tall, while retaining the proportions suggested by the type of weapon selected.
That is the whole point of choosing the type of wood, which for the same weapon can be used to vary the weight of 20 to 30%. We therefore suggest a weapon that is not too dense, in red oak or Isu no Ki for someone who is rather small and light, and white oak weapon as dense as possible (possibly also Sunuke, if there is no full contact practice) for heavy and tall practitioners.
Finally, the same logic applies to Suburito, if you want to improve your muscular strength in addition to the practice. If you are small and light you should consider a light and short Suburito (red oak, 106 cm for example), and if you are tall and heavy, the opposite (white oak, 115 cm for example).
The thickness of the Bokken and especially of the Tsuka
The thickness has a direct impact on the weight, of course, but I would like to address the importance of the thickness of the handle.
A thick Tsuka will demand to adjust the grip of the weapon, which leads to a major advantage in Aikido, the Tenouchi or power of the grip.
Although we can have totally opposing views on the need of grabbing strongly or lightly as Uke, it is pretty obvious that a strong grip as Tori is necessary to control your partner during the technique.
The thickness of the Tsuka can help to work on the strength of the grip while forcing to relax the shoulders, as demanded when handling a sword, regardless of the school.
Concerning the Iwama Ryu Bokken
The Iwama Ryu Bokken is well known by practitioners of this school. 103 cm long, relatively thick and heavy, its current shape is rather recent and is the contribution of small changes by Saito Sensei, when these Bokken, initially manufactured in Iwama, had to be manufactured in larger quantities and thus standardized, and therefore entrusted to the workshops in Miyakonojo (and Tsukuba before it disappeared.)
The initial model was 101.5 cm, with a Mine (simple shape of the spine) and was a bit thicker. The origin of the simplicity of this weapon comes from the fact that neither O-Sensei nor Saito Sensei had the skills (nor felt the need, perhaps) to create a more complex Bokken.
I do not know the reason for the lengthening of 1.5 cm, but it does not appear absurd given the increase in the average size of the human being for the last 70 years.
Both models have three important characteristics; they are heavy, have a nearly constant thickness from the handle to the Kissaki and are almost straight.
Heavy, most likely because the research of O-Sensei in Iwama during and immediately after the war, taking into account his age, remained significantly focused on power (although O-Sensei was small, he was very muscular and strong. Saito Sensei also).
Only slightly curved, that might be because none of the practitioners in Iwama had the skills to do a stronger curved Bokken, or by choice, in which case this would correspond to my conclusions on the importance of a weapon that allows a direct movement and fast positioning.
Although the Iwama Bokken clearly underlies the weapon’s practice of this school, is it of use outside of this context?
The answer largely depends on the techniques practiced, and the purpose of research. What is clear though is that Bokken with a light curvature can be found throughout the history of Aikido, that working on the Tenouchi is never useless for Taijutsu, and that exercises for reinforcement are recommended by almost all teachers I know or whose writings I have read (not necessarily for the technique or the Kata, nor throughout the practice, but at least at the beginning.)
When it comes to Suburi, why not do them with a Iwama Bokken rather than a Suburito? My research and advice being correct or not, using a Bokken designed by O-Sensei to practice Suburi, seems to be a relatively safe choice concerning the qualities developed during the Suburi practice. This is by the way the choice I made.
The teacher’s choice – some examples
The weapon’s practice of Christian Tissier is very interesting because it is based on both, studying weapons in Aikido and a personal work based on movements of the Kashima Shin Ryu Kenjutsu, he studied with Inaba Minoru Sensei, at a time when they were training together. It is therefore a personal system, synergetic with his practice of Taijutsu.
Despite a visible influence of the Kashima Shin Ryu on his sword movements, he uses only rarely the heavy Bokken of this school. (In his educational video on the practice of the Bokken, he uses a classic Bokken, as well during the parts “Aiki-ken” and “Kashima Shin Ryu”.)
This choice and the introduction in this video: “[…] intended specifically for students close to my teaching”, suggest that this system Aiki-Ken/Kenjutsu of Christian Tissier is quite specific to his way of teaching Aikido and that the choice of a “standard” weapon is on purpose and underpins the technical content of his practice.
Although you sometimes see him with a thin Bokken of the Yagyu type, he recommends for Tanren the model Keishi Ryu, quite thick, but less massive than the Kashima Shin Ryu.
Christian Tissier Shihan explains where his Bokken techniques come from. (Credit @GuillaumeErard.com)
André Cognard mainly uses a Bokken that was created by his master Hirokazu Kobayashi (Aikidoka and Kendoka). It is relatively close to a light Yagyu Bokken.
For his personal training, André Cognard indicates to use many different weapons depending on the desired practice. He also has a particular interest in long Tanto.
In his school, (in which I myself have practiced for a few years) weapon’s practice has a very important place and starts right from the beginning of learning. However, the Bokken is not used to explain the Taijutsu, and this because the main Taijutsu techniques, based on the Megurei (joint rotations) of the arms and hips, is not suitable for these parallels.
He recommends in his ideal of practice to use his school’s Bokken (close to the Yagyu) and a classic Jodo Jo (of a standard length of 127 cm), that is also the model generally used, regardless the Aikido current.
My understanding of the techniques of this school is limited, given the fact that I did not pursue its study, however, I see a strong coherence between the way of practice of the Aikiken and the Taijutsu, in both, the general attitude as well as the positioning of the body. This coherence seems to me also clearly visible from the outside.
Again, it seems that in the developed system, Kobayashi Hirokazu demonstrated a strong coherence between Taijutsu and Aikiken, and I notice that a specific choice is made on the nature and type of the Bokken used.
Andre Cognard Shihan, Aikido demonstration, 2010.
Guillaume uses the weapons for two main reasons: personal Tanren practice as well as to show similarities between empty handed techniques and weapon’s techniques – as far as existing.
He mainly uses the models Kashima Shin Ryu and Jiki Shinkage Ryu for Tanren, as well as the Jo, of which the length allows to move the center of gravity and virtually increase the weight of the weapon in use. Guillaume also uses extra heavy Suburito (hammer type or long and heavy paddle type), so as to vary the tools to vary the constraints of the practice and avoid the automatic practice of the movement, aiming for correct posture, coordination and relaxation.
Regarding the technical aspect, Guillaume tries to give the weapon a place that is consistent on a technical but also a historical level. Traditional arts, the Koryu, often have a curriculum that includes empty handed but also weapon techniques, which sometimes allow parallels, but not automatically.
For him, the body is not used in the same way depending on the tool that we hold in our hands. He emphasizes the significant differences in how to use the body within the same school, practicing Kenjutsu or Taijutsu. This especially in the case of the Daito Ryu, whose empty handed techniques – according to his research – are not derived from previous weapon techniques. Guillauem insists therefore on how important it is to be careful not to “contaminate” the empty handed techniques with random weapon’s movements and vice versa. However, in his teaching, he uses the study of the weapons when relevant for the explanation of Taijutsu movements: It is either to explain the origin of an attack or a starting position, or to illustrate a phase in a specific movement (e.g. a Kesagiri with the back leg moving to illustrate the end of Kotegaeshi Ura).
Guillaume also believes that, like the strikes, it is important to know how to handle a weapon to work on concrete attacks, hence the importance of weapon’s practice beside Aikido (while being careful not to contaminate one’s Aikido). For teaching, he uses mainly light and only slightly curved weapons like the Bokken Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, but also Shinai, Jo and Tanto.
Léo started Aikido, like most of us, with a standard Bokken. He then naturally turned towards a Yagyu Shinkage Ryu model, thinner and tapered and finally, he now uses a Bokken he greatly helped popularize: the model Jiki Shinkage Ryu Naginata Yo, even thinner and straighter than the Yagyu Shinkage.
On the occasion of offering a present to the late Tamaura Sensei, the latter informed him of his affection for this type of Bokken and mentioned the fact, that O-Sensei also had a model close to it (which confirms my feeling explained at the beginning of this article).
Today, Léo also uses for personal training classic and heavy Iaito (Dotanuki) Shinai and Fukuroshinai Yagyu (pretty light). Léo also told me, that during a certain time, he used Suburito and other heavy iron bars to practice Tanren, but had stopped using these kind of tools, because they do not match with the use of the body that he wants to develop. Léo strongly recommends to all his students to use the same Jiki Shinkage Ryu Bokken. Again, it comes back to the importance of the tool and the technical and physical development of the practitioner.
Weapon demonstration by Leo Tamaki, NAMT 2014.
My personal choice:
I will conclude by showing you my choice to underline the advice given here.
For Kata practice, I chose a Yagyu Ryu Bokken made from Sunuke (the oak models are a bit light for my taste). Quite similar, although slightly more curved than the model Jiki Shinkage Ryu Naginata Yo, I use it because it was a gift of a craftsman and I appreciate its balance.
I practice Suburi with an Iwama Ryu Bokken made from Sunuke as well. After I have used an oak model, I switched to the heavier, the Sunuke one (unfortunately not manufactured anymore).
For Kata with contact, I use a classic white oak Bokken, relatively dense to be certain that it will not break.
I do not use a big Suburito, long sword or thick Jo, because I look for endurance rather than power and I think that in my Aikido practice, the accuracy of the movement is more relevant than its power.
I want to say again, that I give you in this article the result of my personal research from the perspective of the object and not from the perspective of the technique. The same research starting from the technical point of view can lead to different results, and if this is your or your teacher’s case, I can only urge you to follow his advice and forget mine.
Good practice to everybody!
This article has been translated from an article written by Jordy Delage, published in 2016 in Dragon Magazine Special Aikido HS No. 3 (France)
– Photos and text : Jordy Delage
– Translation : Rahel Bünzli