Physical Training Dec 2012
Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies

From the Teacher's Corner 26:
A Tool By Any Other Name

copyright © 2012 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

You’ve heard the phrase:

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

So what’s going on with this phrase?

Well, a little background about the story from which this famous phrase comes. As the story goes, there are two lovers: Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. They meet and fall in love. But they are doomed from the start as they are members of two warring families.

She is telling her lover, Romeo, that a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, and that she loves him, the person who is called "(Romeo) Montague", not the Montague name and not the Montague family. Basically Juliet argues that the (artificial) names of things do not matter so much, it is what the things are which is important.

And this famous quote has over the centuries become a common idiom:

A rose by any other name is still a rose…”

Why am I bringing this up? Because a question came up recently in class. A student argued that we need to practice with bokken to replicate the real feel and weight of using a real sword. I however disagreed but at the time, I was not in the mood to give an explanation as to why I disagreed.

This student persisted with his view that using a shinai in practice was hurting our ability to understand how to use a Japanese sword properly because of a few reasons:

  1. there was no blade edge (in other words, the shinai is round)
  2. the shinai is too light (i.e., it doesn’t have the correct weight)
  3. the shinai does not have a curve (i.e., it is straight)
  4. it does not feel like a sword (i.e., the handle is all wrong)

Furthermore, according to him, using a shinai in practice was hurting our development as swordsmen because of the following reasons (which I have heard many times in my career as a sword practitioner):

  1. without a bokken, how can we get a real feeling of trapping the other guy’s sword?
  2. without a bokken, how can we get a real feeling of how it feels to block the other guy’s sword?
  3. without a bokken, how can we get a real feeling of “feeling” the other guy’s sword?
  4. without a bokken, how can we get a real feeling of cutting?
  5. without a bokken, how can we get a real feeling of what it’s like to fight with swords?

I could go on but you get the point.

Yes, I agree that …
  1. the shinai has no blade edge (in other words, the shinai is round)
  2. the shinai is too light (i.e., it doesn’t have the correct weight)
  3. the shinai does not have a curve (i.e., it is straight)
  4. it does not feel like a sword (i.e., the handle is all wrong, the shape is all wrong)

Does it hurt our ability to use a real sword properly? I guess from this perspective (namely, how to swing a sword properly, if your intention is to get the perfect cut), yes, I would in all honesty have to agree. A shinai is not a sword. It doesn’t feel like a sword. It doesn’t weigh as much as a sword. You don’t get the feeling of holding a piece of curved iron with a sharp edge. Yes, all valid points.

So why use shinai anyway? Why not just use the real thing all the time? Can’t get more authentic than using a real blade. Well, here is some food for thought from the history of how the shinai came into being.

Most importantly, Kamiizumi Nobutsuna (the founder of Shinkage Ryu) perfected a new method of teaching to make the study and practice of the Way of the Sword easier. Before Nobutsuna, practice was carried out with either a very hard wooden sword (a bokken) or one with a dulled steel blade. The practitioners had to therefore stop their blows during teaching to avoid hurting themselves or their students. It is claimed that Kamiizumi created the practice sword called the shinai (bamboo sword), which is made of strips of bamboo inside a leather pouch. The shinai allowed striking with quickness, fluidity and potency without causing serious or disabling wounds as one would with the wooden sword, and without having to stop the attacks.

Source: Shinkage Ryu

So, obviously, we don’t use real blades due to the danger inherent. If you kill your training partner, you’re in big trouble. It’s called in technical parlance, criminally negligent manslaughter. It’s the situation where death results from serious negligence, or, in some jurisdictions, serious recklessness. In other words, not a good situation! I know, in some places and even advertised on the Internet, people are having live sword fights with live blades. I can only shake my head in disbelief.

So obviously, we don’t use real blades for partnered practice. So what’s the next best thing? The bokken, many say. It looks like a real sword. It’s got a blade edge. It’s got weight. It’s shaped like a real sword.

But let’s look back for a second at the various arguments put forth for the superiority of using a bokken and my responses to these claims.

Many people claim that the bokken gives a more realistic feel and weight. Actually it does not. It gives weight though; yes, this is true. However, if you do iai with a bokken and then with an iaito, it feels completely different: the weight is different, the weight distribution along the blade is different, the aerodynamic quality is different. But I understand that from a tactile perspective, the bokken “feels” better than, say, a shinai. It feels more authentic. But really, it is no closer to being a real sword than a shinai. It is just a thick piece of wood. That is essentially what it is. A piece of wood.

A rose by any other name is still a rose…”

But they say, a bokken has a blade edge. Yes, it does. A shinai does not. So what?

But they will argue that, hey, I can do things with my blade edge to kill you. Knowing where my blade edge is helps me to know how I can cut you and kill you. There is a way of thinking in some Ryuha which goes something like this:

I turn my blade edge this way and come in and naturally slice your neck artery. Or, I prevent you from cutting me because I can slice the vein underneath your wrist. Or, I stab your leg with the blade edge up, then cut up with my blade edge cutting your wrist off.

Etcetera, etcetera…

My reaction?

Well, let’s hear from someone who has some experience in sword-fighting. Here, let’s refresh our memories:

I think it is held in other schools that there are many methods of using the long sword in order to gain the admiration of beginners. This is selling the Way. It is a vile spirit in strategy.

Anyway, cutting down the enemy is the Way of strategy, and there is no need for many refinements of it… There are five methods in five directions.

Methods apart from these five – hand twisting, body bending, jumping out, and so on, to cut the enemy – are not in the true Way of strategy.”

Miyamoto Musashi

The Wind Book, A Book of Five Rings

One of my students recently remarked that there doesn’t seem to be many different types of cuts in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, like in other styles. I guess it would follow Musashi’s vein of thinking. Those of us who have studied Ono-ha Itto Ryu or kendo see the same thing. And isn’t it a coincidence that these styles which have only one cut or at most, a few types of cuts (e.g., Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, Ono-ha Itto Ryu, Niten Ichi Ryu) all emerged in and around the Edo Period. If I were a researcher, I might speculate that the diversity theory of cutting gradually became obsolete once battlefield fighting became obsolete and, coincidences of coincidences, all this happened around 1600, at the birth of the Edo Period. If I were a researcher, I might ask why that is? I guess one line of thinking might be that without armour, one touch, one hit, or one strike meant game over.

So why do we need 20 different types of cuts (upside, downside, sideways, upside down, reverse, stab up, stab down, stab sideways, etc…) if one touch kills? We don’t. One cut is enough. But, of course, this is only pure speculation on my part. And I am not a researcher. I am just a simple grunt.

Let’s get back to our argument. Blade edge? Do we really need the physical look of it? Or is just knowing where it is enough for us? For example, on a kendo shinai, the string represents the back of the sword so we know where the cutting edge is… yes, the opposite side! On a fukuro shinai, the seam is the cutting edge. Or in some styles of kenjutsu, they release the index finger of the right hand and point it downwards. If you are holding the bokken correctly, the finger points in the same direction as the blade edge. So you would know where the blade edge is. It’s not rocket science…

I don’t know. Maybe it is too abstract? Too conceptual? A higher plane of thinking? Or are humans just visual creatures? If they can’t see it, it doesn’t exist? Like a baby. I’ve had two so I know that in the baby stage, if they don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, as regards those other questions:

  1. without a bokken, how can we get a real feeling of trapping the other guy’s sword?

  2. without a bokken, how can we get a real feeling of how it feels to block the other guy’s sword?

  3. without a bokken, how can we get a real feeling of “feeling” the other guy’s sword?

  4. without a bokken, how can we get a real feeling of cutting?

  5. without a bokken, how can we get a real feeling of what it’s like to fight with swords?

Number One, you’re not going to realistically trap a guy’s sword who is really swinging hard at you. Let’s be serious. Works nice in a kata when both partners are working from a common understanding of how the techniques in that particular style should work. Each person plays their respective part and the kata goes off spectacularly. Real-life is not so nice and clean.

Number Two, blocking a guy’s sword who is trying to bash your brains out is unlikely too. Think about it. If he is hammering you hard, it’s tough to stop his cut. And he’s not going to stop at one bash.

Number Three, feeling the other guy’s sword, as in controlling it? Won’t work, as he is not going to let you do what you want. It might work in your own style’s perfect world but not when you are up against someone from another style. If you have studied other styles, you’ll know that some styles refuse to touch swords with you. Other styles will just bash your sword away as soon as you touch their sword. In kendo, some high-level practitioners tap your sword constantly and keep their tip in constant flux. It is aggravating because he will not let you control his sword or get a bead on it. And that is his whole point. He will not give you the satisfaction of getting a feel for him. He’s going to keep you uncomfortable and guessing what he’s up to. So that goes out the window.

Number Four, practice tameshigiri if you want to cut real things. Those things (the bamboo) however are stationary and as Bruce Lee said, they don’t hit back.

Number Five, this argument comes from one style which likes close combat with the clashing of swords, deking, evading, counter-attacking, back and forth. I cut you, you evade and cut back, I step aside and counter-attack, and so on and so forth. Nice dance. But not a real swordfight. One style likes to examine what we can do if we turn the blade edge this way or that. They believe that it will affect what they can and cannot do to the opponent and vice versa, what their opponent can and cannot do to them. Granted, it makes sense; but from a static point of view, the petri dish view of the swordfight.

Looking at other schools, we find some that specialize in techniques of strength using extra-long swords. Some schools study the Way of the short sword, known as kodachi. Some schools teach dexterity in large numbers of sword techniques,… That none of these are the true Way I show clearly…”

Miyamoto Musashi

The Wind Book, A Book of Five Rings

About the whole reality thing. Remember from the excerpt about the history of the shinai:

The practitioners had to therefore stop their blows during teaching to avoid hurting themselves or their students.

They had to stop their blows anyway, when using bokken or steel swords. In essence, they had to pull their punches. So it wasn’t totally real, anyways. In practice, it will never be “real”. It will always be a facsimile of some idea of reality of some sort. So we can stop arguing about the whole “reality” issue. Let’s be serious.

Let’s get back to the original question: Do you really need a bokken?

So why is this fellow insisting that we need bokken?

I suspect that it is the danger aspect that is attractive perhaps. The potential for injury; the danger that you could get injured is what makes it attractive and exciting. Living on the edge. Much like sky-diving or bungee-jumping. It’s the thrill. The more removed it is from the danger aspect, the less respect we pay it. People pay attention when an iaito is drawn but little notice when a shinai is waved around. I’ve noticed that too; namely, that when you use shinai, people pay less attention.

What many of these danger-seekers also assume deep-down inside is that they will not get hurt. They will somehow escape injury or are immune. And this is particularly evident in the young adult male population.

But that’s great if you are not the one being hit by the bokken. However, if you have ever been hit hard by a bokken or had fingers broken or bruises from being hit by a bokken, you’ll know why I advocate using shinai, particularly for beginners who lack control and experience.

Here’s a telling story. I had a student once who asked pretty much the same things. He wanted to know what it felt like to fight with real swords. He always asked to use iaito and bokken in practice. He wanted the danger, the thrill, the rush. Well, a couple of years later, he met up with an old associate of mine from my Japan days who was teaching a seminar in karate. And I guess this student wanted to show off his sword fighting technique and his proficiency in the given sword style to my associate who is quite adept at that style of sword fighting and also any kind of fighting for that matter. Well, long story short, this student got his thumb broken doing sword kata with my associate friend when he got hit by the bokken. He came in one day with a cast on his hand. He admits it was his own fault; he didn’t block when he was supposed to or something like that, trying to do kata at super speed but not having the experience behind his bravado. Well, interestingly enough, that student stopped coming immediately after that fateful event. What happened to all that raw enthusiasm and derring-do to want to fight with real swords? As I have said it many times before, it is great if you are the one doing the hitting and getting the glory and the thrill of victory. But when you get hit, it is not fun anymore. It hurts, a lot. Sword-fighting is serious business, not a Hollywood film. Lesson painfully learned in this case.

I suspect also that another reason why this student is arguing for bokken is that it may be a bit of the issue of tactile sensation. The bokken feels real. It simulates a real sword. I guess it’s the closest thing to a sword, without being a sword. You feel good holding it. You look good holding it. You feel powerful.

What’s my opinion? Let me re-word that phrase:

A tool by any other name is still a tool…”

For me, and I suspect for any real swordsman/ swordfighting aficionado, it doesn’t matter what tool I use. Bokken, iaito, shinai, stick, fukuro shinai, fan, chopstick, bamboo pole,… because in my mind, it’s just a tool.

It’s a representation, a likeness, a stand-in.

I don’t need the tactile stimulation. I don’t need the weight. I don’t need the visual representation of a cutting edge. Because it is not the tool I am paying attention to. I could use a stick or tree branch or a chopstick, and it wouldn’t make any difference to me. Because for me, the real issue is the tactical situation.

Straight or curved, correctly weighted or not, edge or no edge, really means little in the grand scheme of the sword fight. It’ll likely be one cut that ends it. People forget this. They get caught up with the “I can get you here, like this, and you will do this to counter, and then I will do this…” Sure, in a perfect world. Or, more accurately, in the perfect world envisioned by that Ryuha. Do you really truly need to have that actual curvature, or correct weight, or to see that blade edge?

Here’s an interesting quote:

So-called no-sword is not a trick to take your opponent’s sword, but is meant in order for you to use various instruments at will. If you can adopt as your sword even the one you have taken from your opponent when you do not have one, shouldn’t you be able to make use of whatever else you may have on hand? Even with a fan you should be able to defeat an opponent equipped with a sword. No-sword means the readiness to do this. Suppose you are walking along with a bamboo stick, carrying no sword, when someone draws his long sword and assaults you. If you then parry with your stick, take away his sword, and restrain him without being slashed, you win. Regard such a mind as what no-sword truly means.

Yagyu Munenori

Heiho Kaden Sho

Is the sword fight in the hands (e.g., I need to feel this sword) or in the mind??

Yagyu Munenori actually goes on to say:

No-sword is the exclusive secret of this school. Postures, sword positions, the assessment of the fighting space, distance, movement, mental working, tsuke, assault, double-dealing – all these derive from the learning of no-sword.

Yagyu Munenori

Heiho Kaden Sho

Yes, I know many styles use bokken. It’s their tradition and modus operandi. It is their custom. I have no problem with that. If that is the custom, so be it. It’s like some styles have the custom to wear hakama. That’s fine. Wear the hakama. My problem is with people who argue that you need a bokken to be able to understand how to sword-fight, to understand how to fight with a sword.

What am I getting at? My question is: Are you focused on the tool or the tactics?

And perhaps some are confusing the tool for the tactics. They get too wrapped up in the love of the tool and the trappings of the tool.

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name which is no part of thee

Take all myself.

Like Juliet says, it’s just a tool, an artificial construct.

And maybe this is the best testament of all:

When I do kendo, I use a shinai. When I do Katori Shinto Ryu, I use a bokken. When I do iaido or iaijutsu, I use an iaito. When I do Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, I use a fukuro shinai.

Do I get hung up on “Hey this doesn’t feel right, or this is too light, or we should be using bokken, or I need a blade edge?” Absolutely not. My mind is not on the tool.

Maybe sword-wielding as an art form (i.e., arts focused more on wielding the sword and cutting like tameshigiri or iaido/ iaijutsu) is by necessity focused more on the tool, on the tangible, on the material world of sensation, as Plato postulates. That you have the right feeling for cutting properly, the correct angles, the correct weight, etc... Yes, these things matter in those kinds of sword arts.

But sword-fighting (i.e., arts focused more on fighting and combat with swords) is on another plane of existence altogether. Like Plato’s Theory of Forms, when we are thinking of combat tactics, we are now in the world of the abstract and the conceptual, the realm of Ideas and Ideals.

I know this topic will raise a lot of discussion and opinion but that’s what it’s designed to do. But it was an issue that had been bothering me for a while and I thought it worthwhile to bring up for our readers and teachers.

Bokken, shinai, stick, tree branch? Does it matter?

A tool by any other name is still a tool…”

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies
Physical Training